BMCR 2004.09.02

Handbook of Classical Mythology

, Handbook of classical mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004. xiv, 394 pages : illustrations. ISBN 9781576072264

William Hansen, professor of Classical Studies and Folklore at Indiana University, has produced the latest contribution to ABC-CLIO’s Handbooks of World Mythology series, which serves to provide introductory materials in the mythology of various cultures (from Native American to Hindu and Japanese), for high school and college students. Hansen’s volume covers Classical mythology, focusing primarily on the Greek myths, yet still incorporating Rome’s connection to them. Hansen’s introductory preface emphasizes the importance of not merely treating the myths as various stories, but relating them to the Greeks’ view of their own geography and history. Understanding this self-contained nature of the Greek worldview simplifies the systemization of Greek mythology and enables the student of mythology to have a broader grasp of the subject. The work is divided into four chapters: an introduction, a chronological overview of the mythic “history,” the entries, and finally a detailed list of reference materials.

In the introductory chapter, the basic concepts of the subject are established. Hansen succinctly gives the reader the perspective of the early Greeks’ view of their mythology. Greeks in their myths kept gods and heroes distinct from themselves but treated the divine as real personalities involved in actual events. Thus, details such as genealogy and the description of specific sites emerged to crystallize into the larger worldview of the Greeks. Hansen further emphasizes the perceived reality by distinguishing between the traditional nature of the myths and folklore. The former allowed for specifics that essentially remained the same, despite shifts caused by a narrator’s focus or intention, whereas folklore exists as generic tales that can be associated with anyone or anyplace. Further, a distinction is drawn between the mythic tradition and religion. The former is distinct, but overlaps in that it might provide reasons for particular customs, but the latter focuses on expressing a belief system or service to the various deities.

The introductory chapter continues by explaining the evolution of classical mythology. Hansen briefly explains the origins of the mythology as a mix of early Indo-European traditions with the tales of the local inhabitants of the “Greek” mainland. Later, the myths grew to incorporate Near Eastern and Asian elements. As the Dark Ages of Greece ended and a new “Greek” unity incorporated an idealized view of Mycenaean civilization, a pan-Hellenistic uniformity occurred and transformed local traditions into broad ones. Eventually the poets and writers of the classical period collected and crystallized these traditions. Hansen recognizes the skeptical element that accompanied this process, when philosophers treated the myths as allegories. The Hellenistic period saw a collection of the myths according to themes, which paved the way for Rome’s adoption and assimilation. Even into the Christian period, despite challenging the myths as useless pagan stories, certain scholars preserved the rich Classical tradition.

The Introduction further expounds on the mythical world itself with a discussion and description of the four regions: sky, earth, death realm, and Tartaros (with the last sometimes being collapsed into the death realm). This section is followed be a discussion of the principal gods and their provinces. Hansen expounds on the immortal nature of the gods as distinct from men, and how interaction with humanity is conducted, including sacrifices and sexual relations. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how myths differ from folktales and fictional accounts: supernatural elements are treated as normal; abstract or nonphysical concepts are given material form (such as the “life” in the soil removed by Zeus as punishment or “hope” seen as an object hiding in Pandora’s box); some gods such as Gaia, being both divinity and the earth, are binatural; and finally gods cause abrupt changes, which become the unalterable principle or precedent in tradition or nature.

The second chapter, entitled “Time,” briefly comments on the immortals’ fluid grasp of time as opposed to the brief and restricted perspective of humanity. What follows, however, is not really a discussion of time, but a “chronology” of mythic history, beginning with chaos and the emergence of the first gods. The evolution of the cosmos follows, proceeding through the succession of divine rulers and the introduction of humanity and its initial survival by gaining meat, fire, and women. Next is the formation of the divine cults and then the Heroic Age, which culminates with the Trojan War. Although the chapter heading is somewhat confusing (perhaps it should have been entitled “Chronology” or something that better explained the subsequent subject matter), the contents themselves provide an excellent synthesis of the various myths. By sifting through the traditions scattered throughout the primary sources, Hansen brings them together into a coherent narrative, which sets the context for the entries that follow in the next chapter. Where the traditions differ or conflict such as the origins of humanity, he delineates the various origins (whether from Prometheus, the Athenian self-birth, or the ants transformed into the Myrmidons). The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of what the myths are trying to communicate about the nature of the universe, the gods, and humanity. This section seems almost tacked on and oddly drops into the first person, waxing poetic by saying “we” lived in a community that included gods, and that “we” offended them with “our” greed.

Chapter three, “Deities, Themes, and Concepts,” is a dictionary compendium of those elements listed in the title. Each of the Olympian deities is described, giving provinces, “biographical” details found in the mythology, epithets and iconic representation. Not only the main gods, but also the lesser deities and other supernatural creatures are included such as the Titans, the giants, nymphs and satyrs. Umbrella terms, such as the nymphs, are further subdivided (in the case of the nymphs, one can find boldface entries for the Naiads, Oreads, Nereids, and Okeanids). The Heroes, such as the Argonauts, Bellerophon, Heracles, and Odysseus, given their divine ancestry, find a place. Hansen also traces prominent themes found in mythology such as the role of mountains, waters, and wind, and also themes dealing with combat, romantic legends, sexual myths, and the place of wondrous animals and objects. Concepts such as Anthropogony, Catasterism, honor, hubris, and translation are explained and illustrated.

In all, Hansen gives 99 entries, which provide an excellent reference source. The Latin forms always accompany the Greek names (Pegasos and Pegasus) , or, in cases where the Latinized form is more common, he gives the Greek (such as Cyclopes and Kyklopes). The traditions are followed by parenthetical references to the primary sources allowing the student to locate the myths scattered from Homer and Hesiod to Pindar and Ovid, as well as a few fragments from the poets. Many of the entries are also illustrated with drawings taken from classical art. Each of the articles thoroughly covers the subject. If one simply reads the chapter straight through, it is repetitive in many places. But the work is meant as a reference tool, and the repetition should not be considered a problem but a demonstration that each entry is treated methodically. Each article closes with cross-references to other entries, as well as a bibliography of suggested articles and books.

Finally, chapter four provides a large list of resources, dividing them into print and non-print entries. Hansen supplies a detailed list of not only the primary sources but also modern reference works on mythology. Further, given the role of mythology in the arts, he lists works relating to myths not only in the visual arts but also in opera and motion pictures. Other print resources include specialized works on various subjects covered by the entries of chapter three. The non-print resources list scholarly databases and websites available to students and scholars. Under all of the resources listed, Hansen has also provided a brief description of the subject matter covered by the work. The book is rounded off with a glossary of terms as well as a detailed index, which helps cover subjects that do not have their own entry.

Overall, Hansen’s work is excellently constructed and fulfils its role as an introduction to the subject. The work is readable, and the introductory chapters utilize examples from the myths to demonstrate the basic concepts. Even in the entries on themes and concepts, the author draws from the pool of myths to illustrate the subject. Also, the work can be utilized as a supplement to research by providing a convenient reference that ties together diverse myths and traditions and allows advanced students to get quickly to the primary sources. Instead of creating another dry dictionary, the author succeeds in bringing these myths to life in their original mythical context and provides a tool that the student of Classics can begin with, and continue to use over time.