BMCR 2004.02.04

World of Myths. The Legendary Past

, , World of myths. The legendary past. London and Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003-2004. volumes 1-2 : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0292702043. $35.00.

Myth. Mythology. Mythography. Mythical. Mytheme. All these terms have taken on a new resonance of late: audiences worldwide are discovering again the value, significance and fascination of ancient stories as revealed popularly in the Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings books and films, among many others. A rebirth of interest may be measured by the sheer number of new works on the subject published in 2003: a quick search at brought up well over 2,000 hits, Google yielded over 2 million for “mythology 2003” (accessed 29 December 2003). One wonders if we are living in a mythical era of epic struggles, or if escapism into heroic adventure reigns at an all time high. The jaded cynic might answer that the most atavistic human tendencies are shining forth as a result of 9/11.

This volume, co-published by the British Museum and the University of Texas Press, represents a compilation of five shorter pamphlets, each about 80 pages in length, from a successful series named The Legendary Past. The five titles to hand — Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian and Celtic Myths (in that most curious order) — have cousins in Aztec and Mayan, Chinese, Inca, Mesopotamian, Persian and Russian Myths. The originals are sold in chain bookstores and museum gift shops, by which observation I mean high-level critical scholarship is nearly absent.

Introduced by M. Warner, this tome is essentially five books in one: Greek Myths by L. Burn, Roman Myths by J. F. Gardner, Norse Myths by R. I. Page, Egyptian Myths by G. Hart, and Celtic Myths by M. Green. The volume concludes with a detailed 14-page glossary compiled by R. Kerven, as well as a 7-page index. Though not listed as such anywhere, some 180 maps, schematic archeological sketches and black-and-white illustrations enhance the similarly-formatted textual accumulation of cultural information, history, theology, and the abiding legacy of the major myths from each tradition. Each chapter retells major myths and is followed by a page of suggestions for further reading.

Since the contributors are described only on the dust jacket (i.e., an item usually removed by acquisition librarians), and not within the pages of the text, one wonders what a typical sophomore might make of the collection. The “scholarly authority” we insist on in the classroom will be as difficult to control here as the countless odd and inscrutable WWW sites devoted to ancient mythological themes.

Warner’s brief introduction defines myths as stories about divinities, beginnings, “deep time past” and timeless situations of human puzzlement. “Myths,” she writes, “form a deep substratum to knowledge held in common… [and] encipher the story of the past for a certain group” (vi-vii). She refers to the political and priestly power of myth, as well as to the sphere of fertility, linked anthropologically to the incest taboo, though the five authors who follow fail to address that particular subject directly.

Nevertheless, Burn’s focus on just seven segments or sub-sections and on well-known heroes provides a lively and straightforward survey, from the Demeter-Persephone and Theseus tales down to the Trojan War story, the adventures of Jason, Perseus, Oedipus, and then ends with reference to Herakles reborn as Superman and Odysseus as Captain Kirk.

“Aeneas and the Destiny of Rome”; “Founding fathers: Romulus and the Kings of Rome”; the Hero and the State”; “Legendary Ladies”; “Some Gods Old and New”; “Cults and Festivals.” These six sub-sections allow Gardner to elaborate the essentials of Roman myth and legend, with an emphasis on the “historical,” scil. Livy, Virgil, Ovid and Plutarch, among others. Particularly interesting here is the extended explication of the Aeneid in light of the allusions and references to historical or pseudo-historical characters, usages or events. Beside the compelling descriptions of Etruscan elements in Roman myth, Gardner studies briefly but appropriately a number of important female exempla such as Tarpeia, Cloelia, Postumia, Aemilia, Tuccia, Claudia, Verginia and Lucretia, drawing from their tales typically Roman lessons in decency, filial and spousal devotion, self-control and self-discipline. With the robust tale of Lucretia (for Gardner), Livy has purloined an unmistakably Herodotean tone stressing ideal female sexual morality.

The chapter by Page, while the critical evidence for factual reporting (as opposed to pure myth) is occasionally eclipsed, evokes all the splendor and iridescence of timeless stories about Aesir, Vanir, and various kings; larger-than-life deities like Odin and Thor; and Baldr and Loki. Here we find the “cursed ring” of saga fame (p. 223), muscular Viking/Eddic poetry, and frightening visions of the struggles and afterlife of heroic warriors.

Myths of Egypt now follow, although the seven sub-sections (on creation, kingship, Isis, the myth of cataclysm, the underworld voyage of the sun god, tales of history, legend and fantasy), because of the often-confusing elaboration, repeat elements and motifs. Hart handily divides the material into two broad categories, magico-heroic literary escapist legends, and the “myths of the higher consciousness.” These, he writes,

formed an active, integral element in ancient Egyptian government and society; they are far from being a series of fossilised mémoires on gods and goddesses. Those concerning the origins of the cosmos, the concept of lawful succession to the throne and the vision of a regenerative journey made by the sun at night, stand out as the projections of the ancient Egyptians’ thoughts, hopes and fears about the human condition and the troubles experienced in the course of one lifetime” (p. 239).

Some 2,500 years of sacred Egyptian civilizing myths are captioned in these pages, and their confusing and illogical accounts, genealogical theogonies (with celebrated names like Osiris, Seth, Horus, Thoth), and truly fantastic and symbolic litanies all find elaborate description.

Ten sub-sections in the “Celtic Myths” chapter permit Green to cover, in the first four, epistemological issues, Irish pseudo-history, the Ulster Cycle, and Welsh myths; then she explores certain thematic topics, such as “The Divine Lovers (and couples),” “Sky and Sun Myths,” “Fertility, Land and Water,” “Animals in Cult and Myth,” “Druids, Sacrifice and Ritual,” an “Death, Rebirth and the Otherworld.” The author reveals her impressive expertise in the field of archeology on nearly every page, but the often-jarring segues from summaries of certain “myths,” as she calls them, to presumably-related archeological evidence strain credulity. Vague dating to possibly generic Iron Age (early or late) vs. specifically Celtic practices (baths, e.g.) distract, as do tiny details in spelling which escape her attention (Morrígan and Lír, not Morrigán and Lir).

Such slips may stand as metonymy for a much greater concern — highly speculative excursus on the “semi-divine” or “mythical” qualities of merely superhuman and aristocratic epic or saga heroes. A single, isolated textual episode with (apparently) magical properties does not allow us to treat all the literary characters as gods and goddesses. Green’s previous publications, especially those focusing on excavations of Celtic sites, have been well received by reviewers, especially on the uncritical, commodity-driven Internet. Careful and thoughtful inquiry into her crossover methodology here (and by other like-minded and, I would add, idiosyncratic scholars) may appear fatuous, but some specialists in Celtic studies would certainly demur on the subject and with grave reservations.

In spite of drawing on MacCana’s brilliant but cautious Celtic Mythology (1970, 1983), the author has availed herself of three other suspect sources: N. Chadwick’s The Celts (1970, still uncorrected), M.-L. Sjoestedt, Gods and Heroes of the Celts (1940, trans. by M. Dillon , 1949), and A. and B. Rees, Celtic Heritage (1961) — each of which is filled with unsupported and risky conjectures. Green’s sub-section on “sky and sun myths” pushes us backward over one hundred years, when the solar myth idea of Celtic Europe was demolished. She sees solar symbols every time a wheel shape is identified by archeologists. Such shiny imagery perhaps belongs already to the Paleolithic era. The absence of a concluding paragraph also leaves the reader of this section unsatisfied.

In all honesty, I cannot generally recommend this book for the Longwood University library collection. The audience of the work remains uncertain, and much of the material may be found in other reference works. But, I think the useful arrangement of the Greek section and the interesting extrapolations in the Roman section will save the volume from oblivion.