BMCR 2004.11.29

The Complete World of Greek Mythology

, The complete world of Greek mythology. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004. 256 pages : color illustrations, maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 0500251215 $39.95.

This book, which is intended for a non-academic readership, is an excellent introduction to Greek mythology. It is a contribution to a Thames and Hudson’s series The Complete World of and Buxton is under no illusions about the problem posed by the presence of ‘complete’ in the title. In the introduction he says that his objective is to “to offer a comprehensive picture of the world of Greek mythology” [Buxton’s italics], a world which he describes as “the imaginative contours and horizons, the motifs and recurrent concerns, which lent meaning to the stories” (p. 11). Although there are moments when this book can read like another dictionary or handbook on Greek myth(s), it usually rises above such fare with observations which offer the general reader a more sophisticated engagement than usual with Greek mythology.

A brief introductory chapter outlines clearly the scope and content of the book which is dealt with in seven chapters: “Contexts, Sources, Meanings”, “Myths of Origin”, “The Olympians: Power, Honour, Sexuality”, “Heroic Exploits”, “Family Sagas”, “A Landscape of Myths” and “Greek Myths after the Greeks”.

The first chapter is called “Contexts, Sources, Meanings” and it outlines, as the title suggests, some general aspects about Greek myth(s). In one of two boxed features in this chapter, Buxton offers a useful definition of a myth as “a socially powerful traditional story” (p. 18). The origins of Greek myth are considered initially in relation to Minoan and Mycenaean civilization, but Buxton also mentions scholarly theories such as Max Müller’s comparativist theory about Indo-European origins and those of Walter Burkert and Martin West, who argue for Near Eastern influences.1 Buxton also notes the wide Mediterranean embrace of Greece, both geographically and temporally, and its implications for the notion of ‘Greek myth’. Other sections outline the sources of evidence, both material and literary, for Greek myth and the contexts for the telling of myths such as social and performance settings.

About half of the second chapter — Myths of Origin — is given over to the origins of the universe and the gods, but Buxton has also considered aspects of myth related to human society. The text on cosmogony is based mainly on Hesiod’s Theogony, supplemented with Homeric Hymns, and a judicious box feature mentions the Orphic alternative (p. 52). The highlight of the chapter is the later sections which address human society and myths of beginnings. Although general readers may be familiar with some myths, such as the Five Races of Man and Pandora’s box, the sections called ‘Local Origins’, ‘Bringers of Culture’ and ‘Colonies’ will open up new vistas on Greek mythology for them. As Buxton notes, “more interest was expressed in the origins of individual communities than in those of the entire human race” (p. 60). In ‘Local Origins’ and ‘Colonies’, he explains the important connection between myth and land. The former often shows a community overcoming some bestial adversary. In the latter, myth offered stories of explanation which, in turn, legitimised occupation/settlement.

The greater part of the third chapter — The Olympians: Power, Honour, Sexuality — is about the Olympian deities, their powers and spheres of influence. Buxton does not, however, explain the gods’ home as an imaginative construction. (Nor does he do so explicitly in chapter seven, where it would also have been appropriate.) And some divinities discussed, such as The Muses, The Fates and The Furies, are not, in fact, “Olympian”.2 Nonetheless, the text is very good, especially some of the thematic sections. One outlines some myths which illustrate the division between divine and mortal spheres: the immortals assert power in the area of influence by punishing mortals who wrong them in some way. And the chapter ends with a look at divine sexuality, particularly their liaisons with mortals.

The fourth chapter is “Heroic Exploits” and considers some myths — Perseus; Meleager, Atalanta and the Kalydonian Boar; Jason, the Argonauts and Medea; Herakles; Theseus and the Heroic Athenian Past; The Trojan War — which, Buxton says, are characterised by story-patterns of quest and combat. The discussion is edified by illuminating observations throughout. In respect of Atalanta, Buxton notes how the myth is informed by a gender ideology indicating the incompatibility of wife-mother roles with the male activities of hunting and warfare. The discussion of Herakles concludes with a brief, though enlightening, look at the political significance of the Heraklean myth in antiquity. This political interest is quite prominent in the section on Theseus. Noting the scholarly association made between increased appearance of Theseus in visual art from the end of the sixth century BCE and contemporaneous early democratic reforms, Buxton observes that “Greek myths are only ostensibly about the past: they are much more revealing about the changing present” (p.129).

The sixth chapter, which is entitled “Family Sagas”, considers some myths built around several interwoven themes such as honour, sexual jealousy and power. The myths are examined under the following headings: The House of Pelops; Tereus, Prokne and Philomela; Antiope and her sons; Danaos and his kin; Proitos, Stheneboia and Bellerophon; The House of Laios; Strong Bonds — Love between spouses; Same-sex eroticism. As with the previous chapter, a potentially monotonous retelling of myths is elevated by interesting observations, though in this chapter, they sometimes appeared to have been tacked on as a concluding thought. The exception is the final section on ‘Same-sex eroticism’. Buxton spends quite some time outlining the social history of same-sex relations in ancient Greece and finds that myth reflected the accepted the relationship pattern of older man/adolescent youth.

The penultimate chapter — A Landscape of Myths — approaches its subject matter, the relationship between myths and the landscapes in which they are set, in a more explicitly thematic way than most earlier chapters. The first four sections consider the significance of several physical aspects of the landscape: Mountains; Caves, Rivers and Springs; and The Sea. The text successfully draws attention to the significance of these topographical features and how associated myths relate to cult and religion. The next two sections cover places which have been touched on in passing in earlier parts of the book. In ‘Crete’, Buxton offers a consideration of the island’s significance in the Greek imagination. Then in ‘Troy’, he examines the city of the archetypal war in Greek myth, and changing interpretations of it in both antiquity and modernity. The chapter closes with a discussion of ‘The Underworld’ in which Buxton examines aspects of the Underworld, as found in myth, and Greek attitudes to the afterlife.

The final chapter — Greek Myths after the Greeks — considers the influence of Greek myths on subsequent western culture. In ‘How Rome Re-imagined Greece’, Buxton examines the influences and correspondences between ancient Greece and Rome concentrating mainly on four poets. A boxed feature looks at the impact of Christianity and provides an appropriate transition from the late Roman Empire into the section on ‘The Middle Ages’. The longest, and the most interesting, part of the chapter is the section called ‘From the Renaissance to the 20th Century’. Buxton takes the reader through a whirlwind discussion of Greek myth in various countries, in various periods, and in various art forms. It is both concise and enthralling. This chapter, and indeed the book, ends with a brief section in which Buxton notes quite positively the enduring popularity of Greek myths in contemporary society in both ‘high’ and popular culture.3

The final chapter is followed by a very useful bibliography, or “Further Reading”, which covers each of the book’s seven chapters. It provides an excellent platform for readers to explore Greek mythology more deeply. The presentation throughout the book is generally excellent. As is usual for Thames and Hudson publications, this book is well illustrated. The illustrations cover a range of items from all eras, not only the classical period, and are closely linked to the text. There are some wonderful maps, e.g. the labours of Herakles and the exploits of Theseus, and genealogical tables of gods and heroes too. Overall, the book is, as far as I could tell, free from error.4 Most importantly, the text itself is engaging. As noted on several occasions already, this book eschews banal narrative to provide a retelling of myths and the significance within their cultural context. Buxton has done an admirable job in bringing his scholarly learning to bear on Greek mythology, in treating the subject matter seriously, and yet producing a book which is eminently digestible for its intended audience.


1. At this point, Buxton also mentions Martin Bernal’s ‘Black Athena’ theory, handling it concisely and objectively (p. 19).

2. Buxton recognises this. Each chapter is prefaced by a wonderfully succinct synopsis, and the heading accompanying this particular chapter’s synopsis is an appropriate “Divinities of Myth and Cult”.

3. The book was obviously completed before the release of Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy because this film, whatever its shortcomings, would have merited mention here.

4. Given the format of the series and the intended readership, there is the occasional generalisation or passing reference with which I cannot fully agree. Given some of my own research interests (cf. “Sophocles’ Tereus“, Classical Quarterly 51 [2001] 90-101), I found the retelling of Tereus-Prokne-Philomela myth, and particularly the text describing the Attic cup reproduced therein, to be problematic (pp. 154-5).