BMCR 2005.07.51

Anthology of Classical Myth. Primary Sources in Translation. With an Appendix on Linear B Sources by Thomas G. Palaima

, , , , Anthology of classical myth : primary sources in translation. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co, 2004. lvii, 517 pages : maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 0872207226 $14.95 (pb).

The Anthology of Classical Myth (henceforth ACM) is a book created for elementary courses in Classical Mythology for students who are largely unfamiliar with classical culture and who have no knowledge of Latin and Greek; such courses are offered today by numerous classics departments in universities of Europe and North America (and, for all I know, elsewhere, too). The three editors of the book are teaching at the University of New Hampshire and have a thorough experience of such courses. At least in my own university, the need for adequate textbooks and other teaching tools for those courses is strongly felt by both teachers and students, and ACM is likely to be appreciated as a most useful addition to already existing didactic aids.

The bulk of the book is a compilation of extracts from a little more than fifty Greek and Latin writers or text corpora in translation; two texts are reproduced in full, Hesiod’s Theogony and the Homeric Hymns. In addition to these literary texts, the book also contains three appendices with Linear B texts, inscriptions and papyri, respectively. The three editors are responsible for most of the translations, but in the case of a few, mostly shorter, texts they have relied on already existing translations, sometimes modifying or adapting them to their own particular objectives.

A separate section on Linear B texts is, to my knowledge, a novelty in this context. It has been entrusted to a specialist in the field, Thomas G. Palaima. Apart from the texts themselves, it contains a short presentation of the material and the difficulties of interpretation connected with it. The contents of the tablets offer little “mythology”, if by that word we understand narratives of the sort that is normal in classical literature. What they offer are early attestations of heroic and divine names (including that of Dionysus, who, before the decipherment of the Mycenaean texts, was thought to be a late immigrant in Greece), and they demonstrate clearly that the origins of Greek myths can be traced back at least to the Mycenaean age. That makes them relevant in the context of classical mythology as well.

The editors have, in my opinion, made a sensible selection of texts. Obviously, they aim at including a great variety of material, thus creating a teaching tool from which teachers (and students) can make their own choices according to individual preferences. Whether you prefer great classical poets who exploit the myths for literary purposes, narrow-minded compilers of handbooks like pseudo-Apollodorus, philosophers’ analyses and speculations, or dry, euhemeristic rationalizations, you will find it in ACM. However, certain text corpora of major importance for classical mythology are entirely missing, viz., the Homeric epics (not the Hymns), the Greek tragedies (some fragments of lost tragedies are included), Apollonius’ Argonautica, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (but there are portions from the Heroides). The editors (cf. p. xxiv) have deliberately made those omissions since the texts are too bulky for the present compilation (and, one may add, no two classicists would agree on what portions of them should be excluded if they could not be cited in full) and since good, inexpensive translations of them are readily available.

In the book the translated texts appear in alphabetical order, from Acusilaus and Aelian to Xenophanes and Xenophon. That is a practical arrangement, since the reader will be able to retrieve a certain text without consulting an index. It also makes the book suitable for different teaching styles, for an individual teacher can plan his course without being governed or hampered by the editors’ ideas about how texts should be categorized. A detailed table of contents provides a good overview of the book.

The texts include not only the central works but also such rarely quoted items as the Andron fragment on cremation, Cleanthes’ hymn to Zeus, Conon’s Stories, and the existing extracts from Herodorus. Their dates range from Hesiod to Fulgentius (5th or 6th cent. AD). Every writer (or anonymous text corpus) is provided with a short introduction (never more than a page), which defines its approximate date, general character and the mode in which it has been preserved. When reading those introductions, students probably will observe that the phrase “primary sources” on the title page is appropriate only if it refers to ancient texts written in Greek or Latin as opposed to later transformations and re-interpretations of the ancient myths. This is how a classicist will understand the phrase, but such traditional stories as an anthropologist of our time would classify as primary source material—retold orally and unaltered by literary ambition and intellectual reflection—are mostly out of reach to the student of classical mythology. The sources at hand are typically several steps remote from their supposed originals. Glimpses of genuine “folk myth” are exceptional in the ancient source material as a whole and appear only occasionally in the material presented by ACM, as in some magical papyri (pp. 472-478) or in Pausanias’ report on how the Arcadians explain lycanthropy (p. 350). The observant student will also notice that “classical mythology” actually stands for “Greek mythology” for, although a number of Latin texts appear in the collection, they are almost exclusively about Greek myths. This is of course a result of the dominant position that Greek culture obtained in the Roman Empire and its continuation into the western world which arose from the remnants of ancient civilization. But a recent study has pointed out the importance of epichoric Roman myths,1 and future textbooks on classical mythology will perhaps account for them, too (or define their subject more cautiously as “Greek mythology”).

Textbooks on classical mythology normally include lists of books and articles that are recommended for further study (and which the students tend to take little notice of). Such bibliographical information is practically absent from ACM; the editors provide only a list of the text editions on which their translations have been based (pp. 479-482). Being a mere collection of source material, ACM cannot stand alone in a mythology course but must be combined with one or more works that treat general themes (mythological theory, methods for analyzing the myths, comparative mythology, etc.) and preferably also with presentations of archaeological material, but the editors of ACM even refrain from indicating what books they think suitable for using in company with ACM, and so the future users of the book are given full freedom of choice.

Seen from the instructor’s point of view, ACM certainly is a most versatile collection, easily adaptable to different situations and preferences, but the editors also have the needs of the students in mind, especially those students for whom the mythology class provides their first introduction to classical civilization. The introductory chapter includes “A note to students” (pp. xvi-xxiii) where basic concepts are explained (as when papyrus is said to be “an ancient form of paper”) and the means for obtaining knowledge on antiquity are surveyed (and the students are urged to learn Greek and Latin!). In the introduction the student will also find a series of maps of the Mediterranean, in particular the Greek-speaking areas (plus one of Vergil’s Nether World, more detailed than the others), genealogical charts of gods and their descendants from Chaos down the generations immediately preceding the Trojan War (Aineias seems to be the most recent addition), and a survey of the chronology of Greek history. Towards the end of the book the editors devote a section to the transliteration of Greek names and to explaining the sometimes bewildering practice of naming ancient characters. The concluding 32-page index contributes to the usefulness of the book. It includes the names of all characters appearing in the texts, plus a number of frequently occurring terms. Greek names are listed there both in transliteration and with Greek characters, and Latin forms, if existing, are added. Cross-references are provided whenever needed (e.g., from Creusa to Creousa or from Mercury to Hermes). The editors follow (without pedantry) the principle of transliterating Greek and Latin originals differently. Thus they have Medeia, Meleagros and Oidipous in translations of Greek texts but Medea, Meleager and Oedipus in the Latin ones. This may seem confusing at first to a trained classicist but is unlikely to be an obstacle to the freshmen.

To conclude: ACM is a useful and serviceable supplement to the existing textbooks for mythology classes. Its primary merits are the great number of texts included, their variety, the adaptability of contents and structure to different pedagogical situations, the support it offers to the inexperienced student, and a remarkably low price.


1. T.P. Wiseman, The Myths of Rome. Exeter: Univ. of Exeter Press, 2004. ISBN 0-85989-703-6.