BMCR 2023.11.19

The Oxford handbook of Greek and Roman mythography

, , The Oxford handbook of Greek and Roman mythography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. 648. ISBN 9780190648312


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review]


One of the many merits of the handbook under review – and arguably the most important – is its complex effort to define ‘mythography’, a documentary text category that was not acknowledged as a genre in antiquity, and the identification and study of which has been considerably further developed in the past decades.[1] In their introduction, the editors define mythography as ‘ancient writings about myth or the recounting of myth in prose with no pretensions to artistry’ (p. 1), and are quoted to have defined mythography elsewhere as ‘concerned with the systematization or interpretation of mythological narrative’ (p. 477). Various contributors provide variations and additions: ‘literature that tells, collects, and interprets myths, independently from their original literary and religious contexts, so that the mythological knowledge becomes available without the restrictions of time and place’ (Harder quoting Heinze and Fornaro,[2] p. 226), ‘the narration of myth’ (Topper quoting Meliadò,[3] p. 477), ‘the collection and organization of myths into coherent accounts (systematic mythography) and their interpretation by rationalizing or reading myths as allegories of philosophical or ethical truths’ (Newby, p. 508), ‘to explain the mythological allusions and the stray references to the characters and events of myth that peppered any literary work’ (Garstad, p. 563), ‘a rendition of classical mythology’ (Garstad, p. 574), ‘guides to poets, artists, clergy, and scholars’ (Solomon, p. 579), among others. The larger part of the volume reads as a coherent discussion focusing on the attempts and the caveats pertaining to this definition.

Following a list of contributors and a short but informative introduction by the editors, The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Mythography consists of five parts, the first three of which together constitute the debate on the definition and its background. Part I, ‘Mythography from Archaic Greece to the Empire’, sketches, in five contributions, the origins and development of the ‘mythographical impulse’ into a separate text type. Chronology is observed in contributions on early Greek poetry (Nieto Hernández) and prose (Pàmias), the Hellenistic period (Smith and Trzaskoma) and the imperial period (Delattre). In a concluding contribution on surviving mythographical texts in Latin, Smith explores the possibility that, e.g., Hyginus’ Fabulae testifies to ‘a transition in a Roman world in the west that was decreasingly connected to Greek literature’ (p. 111).

The eighteen essays of Part II, ‘Mythographers’, provide an overview of the authors and texts that are the main sources for mythography. Next to chapters on comprehensive overviews and collections, like those of Apollodorus (Trzaskoma), Antonius Liberalis (Delattre), Parthenius (Francese), Conon (Sanz Morales), and Hyginus (Fletcher), literary production in which ‘the mythographical mindset is clearly at work’ is discussed, despite the inherent contradiction of such a ‘mindset’ with the definition supplied by the editors: Alexandrian verse (Sistakou), Ovid (Farrell), Diodorus Siculus (Sulimani), Pausanias (Hutton). Farrell adequately justifies the inclusion of an author like Ovid by pointing at his classical and late-antique noncanonical status as a poet, whereas his Metamorphoses were primarily mined by commentators and ancient mythographers as a mythological encyclopedia (p. 269). Chapters on paraliterary sources such as scholia (Pagès, Villagra) and papyri (Harder, Meccariello) round out Part II.

Part III, ‘Interpretations and Intersections’, offers ten essays on the various interpretative approaches, prominent among which rationalizing,[4] including Euhemerism (Hawes), allegorizing (Ramelli), etymologizing (Pellizer), catasterisms (Zucker), and paradoxography (Pajón Leyra). In an especially appropriate conclusion to Part III, and as such to Parts I-III as a whole, Calame, again, questions and examines the ‘terms and indigenous categories corresponding to what we too quickly identify as mythographer and mythography’: in a careful discussion of syngrapheis, historia, mythos, and logos, Calame argues that ‘hypothesizing the existence of a Greek mythography in the classical period ignores the relationship of […] historical inquiry and composition’ (like the archaiologia of Thucydides) ‘with the various forms of poetic history; it ignores their strong relationships with the present context of their composition and performance, with the pragmatics it implies.’ In the absence of any description of a mythographer’s intentions until the preface of Parthenius of Nicaea’s Erotika Pathemata (Parthenius hopes that the work will aid his addressee Gallus in both reading and writing poetry), the ‘just-the-facts style’ is insufficient ground to label this ‘mindset’ a genre, rather than a descriptive category – albeit, as the editors thus make clear, a contested category. Their hypothetical claim, made elsewhere and repeated here (p. 409) in addition to the Introduction (‘all ancient students were taught – not exclusively, of course – through mythographically derived materials, coached to “have a worldview shaped by mythographical texts” [Trzaskoma 2017: 473], and trained to a greater or lesser extent, depending on what age a student stopped his schooling, to be practitioners of mythographical methods’) is successfully illustrated through the content and organization of the first three Parts.

The essays of Parts I-III thus display a clear coherence, while individually meeting the requirements of a handbook: the surveys are up-to-date, the descriptions comprehensive and authoritative, and there are many suggestions for future research based on the critical examination of the direction of debate and the availability and accessibility of primary and secondary sources. Every chapter ends with a heading ‘Further Reading’ that serves as both a summary of the chapter’s foundations as well as a critical bibliography. A separate, full list of references concludes each chapter. Some of the bibliographies inevitably reflect the leadership role of the author in the field (e.g. Ramelli), all are wide and up-to-date; especially rewarding is the list of references to chapter 18 (Villagra, ‘Greek Mythography and Scholia’).

Parts IV and V both serve as handbooks within a handbook, and each introduces topics that may well require a separate handbook in the foreseeable future. Part IV, ‘Mythography and the Visual Arts’, consists of three essays that serve as a ‘first sustained attempt to view art – composition, organization, symbolism – from a mythographical point of view’ (p. 9). The contributions (Topper on Greek vase paintings, Winsor Leach on Roman wall painting, and Newby on Roman sarcophagi) offer interesting insights and examples, but grapple with methodology and the definition of mythography: their greatest value lies in the many useful suggestions for future exploration of the intersection between the visual arts and textual or literary genres. This journey, however, has only just begun: the rich Further Reading sections (especially Topper’s) invite scholars and students to co-explore, and provide valuable advice on the accessibility and user-(un)friendliness of the various databases. Illustrations in Part IV are few and only in black and white; the essay on wall paintings unfortunately goes without any at all.

The four essays of Part V on ‘Christian Mythography’ take a different approach, providing chronological surveys of the Christian authors that engaged with pagan myth (Nimmo Smith) and investigating the roles of mythography in Byzantium and the Latin west (both by Garstad). Rounding out this Part, and the volume as a whole, Solomon blends Renaissance mythography with reception: mythographical synthesizing to serve as guide to poets, artists, clergy, and scholars. Thus Solomon completes the step preceding chapters had already initiated, towards the study of the reception of Greek and Roman mythology, dealing with the rendition rather than the documentation and interpretation of classical mythology. The contributions in Part V reflect their acknowledgement of the blurring of the line between mythography and reception through their structure that deviates from that of the essays in the preceding Parts: in Part V, contributions read like extended Further Reading sections. Bibliographies are organized accordingly: Nimmo Smith differentiates between primary and secondary sources, Garstad groups references, including editions, per author/text in the same order he presents them in the chapter discussion. The handbook closes with a general index (pp. 593-602).

The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Mythography thus offers a good starting point for those interested in the various sources and authors deemed ‘mythographical’, including the lesser known and studied like Palaephatus’ Unbelievable Tales (Koning) and the Mythographus Homericus (Pagès), and the ways in which the ‘mythographical mindset’ intersects with other intellectual pursuits. It equally points the way to further research and future surveying. For those reading the volume from cover to cover The Handbook of Greek and Roman Mythography constitutes a lively debate on the usability and desirability of mythography as a category and a genre, greatly helped by the many cross-references in, and to, individual chapters. Following the series’ format and layout, The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Mythography is well produced, with very few remaining infelicities.[5] In addition to the series’ intended readership of scholars and graduate students, this collection will undoubtedly serve undergraduates in the fields of cultural, classical, literary, and reception studies equally well.


Authors and titles

Part I Mythography from Archaic Greece to the Empire

  1. The Mythographical Impulse in Early Greek Poetry (Pura Nieto Hernández)
  2. The Origins of Mythography as a Genre (Jordi Pàmias)
  3. Hellenistic Mythography (R. Scott Smith and Stephen M. Trzaskoma)
  4. Imperial Mythography (Charles Delattre)
  5. Mythography in Latin (R. Scott Smith)

Part II Mythographers

  1. Mythography in Alexandrian Verse (Evina Sistakou)
  2. Antihomerica: Dares and Dictys (Ken Dowden)
  3. Antoninus Liberalis, Collection of Metamorphoses (Charles Delattre)
  4. Apollodorus the Mythographer, Bibliotheca (Stephen M. Trzaskoma)
  5. Conon, Narratives (Manuel Sanz Morales)
  6. Cornutus, Survey of the Traditions of Greek Theology (Ilaria L.E. Ramelli)
  7. Diodorus Siculus, Library (Iris Sulimani)
  8. Heraclitus the Mythographer, On Unbelievable Stories (Greta Hawes)
  9. Heraclitus the Allegorist, Homeric Problems (David Konstan)
  10. Hyginus, Fabulae (K. F. B. Fletcher)
  11. The Mythographus Homericus (Joan Pagès)
  12. Other Mythography on Papyrus (Annette Harder)
  13. Greek Mythography and Scholia (Nereida Villagra)
  14. Ovid and Mythography (Joseph Farrell)
  15. Palaephatus, Unbelievable Tales (Hugo H. Koning)
  16. Parthenius, Erotika Pathemata (Christopher Francese)
  17. Pausanias, Description of Greece (William Hutton)
  18. Tragic Mythography (Chiara Meccariello)

Part III Interpretations and Intersections

  1. Rationalizing and Historicizing (Greta Hawes)
  2. Allegorizing and Philosophizing (Ilaria L.E. Ramelli)
  3. Etymologizing (Ezio Pellizer)
  4. Catasterisms (Arnaud Zucker)
  5. Local Mythography (Daniel W. Berman)
  6. Mythography and Paradoxography (Irene Pajón Leyra)
  7. Mythography and Education (R. Scott Smith and Stephen M. Trzaskoma)
  8. Mythography and Politics (Lee E. Patterson)
  9. Mythography and Geography (Maria Pretzler)
  10. Mythographer and Mythography: Indigenous Categories? Greek Inquiries into the Heroic Past (Claude Calame)

Part IV Mythography and the Visual Arts

  1. Mythography and Greek Vase Painting (Kathryn Topper)
  2. Mythography and Roman Wall Painting (Eleanor Winsor Leach)
  3. Retelling Greek Myths on Roman Sarcophagi (Zahra Newby)

Part V Christian Mythography

  1. Mythography and Christianity (Jennifer Nimmo Smith)
  2. Byzantine Mythography (Benjamin Garstad)
  3. Mythography in the Latin West (Benjamin Garstad)
  4. Mythography and the Reception of Classical Mythology in the Renaissance, 1340–1600 (Jon Solomon)



[1] Practically all contributions to the handbook consider as foundational A. Cameron, Greek Mythography in the Roman World (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2004), C. Higbie, ‘Hellenistic Mythographers’, in R.D. Woodard (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology, 237-254 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2008), R.L. Fowler, Early Greek Mythography. 2 Vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000 [Vol. 1: Text and Introduction], 2013 [Vol. 2: Commentary]), R.L. Fowler, ‘Greek Mythography’, in V. Zajko and H. Hoyle (eds), A Handbook to the Reception of Classical Mythology, 15-27 (Chichester UK and Malden MA: Wiley-Blackwell 2017), G. Hawes, Rationalizing Myth in Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2014), S.M. Trzaskoma and R.S. Smith (eds), Writing Myth: Mythography in the Ancient World (Leuven: Peeters 2013).

[2] T. Heinze and S. Fornaro, ‘Mythography’, in H. Cancik, H. Schneider and M. Landfester (eds), Der Neue Pauly 8, 627-632 (Stuttgart: Verlag J.B. Metzler 2000).

[3] C. Meliadò, ‘Mythography’, in F. Montanari, S. Matthaios and A. Rengakos (eds), Brill’s Companion to Ancient Greek Scholarship, 1057-1089 (Leiden: Brill 2015).

[4] Where most chapters manage to fit their content within the size available, Hawes’ merely touches upon a tantalizing final issue in its last page: ‘flyting’, ‘the agonistic aspect of storytelling’ in mythographical authors. Those interested are referred to the discussion of the combatant tone of epic storytelling in R. Martin, ‘The Myth before the Myth Began’, in J.F. Nagy (ed.), Writing Down the Myths, 45-66 (Turnhout: Brepols 2013).

[5] P. xviii: He > He; p. 3: p. 0-0-0 > p. 78; p. 53: Luraghi (2010) > Luraghi (2001); p. 93: Bowie, Ewan > Bowie, Ewen; p. 96: Sluiter, Irene > Sluiter, Ineke; Small, Jocelyn P. > Small, Jocelyn P. 1997; p. 141: ancient nove > ancient novel; p. 157: Dräger 2005: 887-889 > Dräger 2005: 887-889); p. 158: is so now > is now; p. 181: If indeed, > If indeed; Whether that is true > Whether or not that is true; p. 265: These who > These; p. 267: Met, > Metamorphoses,; p. 279: statues that whose > statues whose; p. 294: he is has > he has; p. 298: they still > they are still; p. 358: Odysseus > Ulixes; p. 362: Schironi > in Schironi; p. 454: knew Iberian > knew the Iberian; p. 494: paintings is > paintings she is; p. 531: god be > god to be; p. 534: Varro (116-127 BCE) > Varro (116-27 BCE); p. 541: van Nuffeln > van Nuffelen.