BMCR 2021.01.34

Classical mythology: a guide to the mythical world of the Greeks and Romans

, Classical mythology: a guide to the mythical world of the Greeks and Romans (2nd edition). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 432. ISBN 9780197506646 $19.99.

This is an updated edition of William Hansen’s paperback edition of the same title published by Oxford University Press in 2005. The work was originally published under the title Handbook of Classical Mythology in 2004 by ABC-CLIO in their Handbooks of World Mythology series. A thorough description and assessment of the ABC-CLIO edition was published by Todd Ewing in BMCR 2004.09.02, and Hansen has adopted some of Ewing’s suggestions in the paperback. The Guide is intended primarily for students at school and university, and I wish that something similar had been available when I was an undergraduate. It will help to orient those studying Classics and other courses on the ancient world, especially mythology, but students of English and other European literatures will also find assistance here. Hansen explains Classical mythology as a self-contained system with its own geography, history, narrative rules, and conventions, an approach which will appeal to beginners, but also to more experienced scholars. He covers the period from the beginning of the cosmos to the end of the heroic age.

The new edition retains the division into four sections: Introduction; an account of What Happens in Classical Mythology (previously entitled ‘Time’); the Lexicon of Characters, Themes, and Concepts (previously ‘Deities, Themes, and Concepts’); and a reference section, Annotated Resources (previously ‘Annotated Print and Nonprint Resources’). The reference section has been updated to take account of recent scholarship and slightly reorganised, and it now has an additional subsection on ‘The Reception of Classical Mythology’. Helpful suggestions for further reading are provided throughout. Oddly, the new edition still refers to the 1957 edition of Kirk and Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers, although a second edition by Kirk, Raven, and Schofield has been available since 1983. The notes previously appended to chapters 1 and 2 now appear at the end of the volume (pp. 359-66).

Occasional errors have crept into the new edition: e.g. ‘diety’ for ‘deity’ (p. 262); ‘Hermaphoditos’ for ‘Hermaphroditos’ (p. 293); ‘cuning’ for ‘cunning’ (p. 250). ‘She overcome the hero’ (2004 edition, p. 209) is not corrected (p. 213). Readers who look up ‘Aithiopians’ in the index are directed only to p. 19: the index does not mention the much more informative entry under ‘Fabulous Peoples and Places’ (pp. 169-70). The following appears (p. 322) under the entry for ‘Trickster’: ‘…some authors call Ulixes a son of Sisyphus and account thereby for his shrewdness (Fabulous Stories 201)’. The author of Fabulous Stories is not specified. Although Hyginus, Fabulous Stories is listed (p. 374) under ‘Ancient Texts’ in the reference section, the reader will not be able to identify the source without the author’s name. Fortunately, this last problem is an isolated occurrence, and minor flaws such as these do not detract from the book’s overall value.

The beauty of the Guide is that its author is not only a classicist, but also a folklorist, able to position the Greek and Roman stories in the context of internationally occurring oral traditional tales. References appear throughout not only to ancient sources, but also to Hans-Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography (Helsinki: Academia Scientarum Fennica 2004) and to Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1955-8). In the section on Basic Concepts Hansen explains (pp. 2-4) in accessible terms the idea of traditional story, and the important difference between folktales (fictional accounts) and mythological narratives (represented by their narrators as having actually happened). He explains how Classical mythology came into being from a mixture of borrowings from local pre-Hellenic peoples such as the Pelasgians and the Minoans; reworking of Indo-European traditions; and further borrowings from the peoples of Asia Minor and the Near East (p. 6). He reminds us (p. 55) that there is no single authoritative account of classical mythology, because the nature of traditional story means that every narration is merely a version of the tale. Hansen is himself an expert storyteller, and his accounts of individual myths are always a pleasure to read. Particularly valuable are the entries which pursue an idea across a broad range of myths, revealing the structuring devices of story composition, e.g. ‘Tasks’ and ‘Special Rules and Properties’. Entries such as that on ‘Triads’ (and multiples thereof) illuminate underlying cultural predispositions and patterns of thought. Satyrs, centaurs, and the various types of nymphs are clearly explained. Hansen emphasises that the world is alive and divine, and so are most other cosmic elements of the universe (26, 56, 84). The Guide provides a carefully sequenced account of the mythological concept of the world and how it is laid out, its mythical history, and the situation of human beings in the whole.

The book is copiously illustrated with well-chosen line drawings in black-and-white. The images (all originally drawn from ancient art) are taken from Thomas Hope, Costumes of the Greeks and Romans (New York: Dover Publications, 1962), first published as Costumes of the Ancients (Albermarle Street, London: William Miller, 1809), Wiener Vorlegeblätter  für archaeologische Übungen, 1889; and W. H. Röscher (ed.), Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie (Leipzig: Teubner, 1884-1937). They help the reader to form a mental picture of the book’s huge range of characters, mortal and divine.

The publishers have taken care to produce a reliable and accessible Guide at a price within the reach of virtually every undergraduate. This is no mean feat.