Edith Hamilton’s Mythology is primarily a collection of Greek and Roman myths. Several Norse myths are included, but the book focuses almost exclusively on the gods and goddesses created by the ancient Greeks and generally adopted by the Romans, who gave them different names and incorporated them into their own body of mythology. In language that is simple and direct, Hamilton introduces and describes the deities in the pantheon, explains their relationships with one another, and tells their stories—ancient myths about creation and stories that incorporate the heroes and great families of the ancient world. Before addressing specific gods and goddesses, however, the author devotes the first section of her book to a general discussion of the origins of Greek mythology and the writers who first recorded the myths.
First published in 1942, Hamilton’s Mythology continues to appeal to new generations of readers. Not written for academics pursuing research in mythology, the book instead offers an overview of the subject that is as entertaining as it is informative. Organized much like an encyclopedia, it also serves as an excellent reference book. Although Hamilton did not write her book for scholars, her own scholarship is evident in the text. She culls from Greek and Roman authors, including Homer and Hesiod (Greek texts from 750–550 BCE); Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (Greek authors from 500–400 BCE); Ovid and Virgil (Roman authors circa the beginning of the Common Era); and Apollodorus (a Greek writer circa 150 CE). Her research also includes the Norse poems of the Elder Edda (early thirteenth century). At the beginning of each chapter in Mythology, Hamilton notes the specific sources that support the text.
Myths played several important roles in the lives of the Greeks and the Romans. They explained the natural world, provided a platform for ethical and philosophical debate, and justified particular political and imperial systems. They also entertained. Filled with stories of heroism, beauty, love, death, betrayal, revenge, victory, defeat, and the immutable power of fate, the myths engaged the ancient Greeks and Romans just as they continue to entertain us today. Furthermore, the myths develop universal themes in regard to human nature. They present a particularly complicated view of mankind; many of the hero’s challenges arise from within himself, and no clear definition of good and evil exists. Greek and Roman myths present a complex view of women, as well; women are dangerous and deceitful or loyal and beneficent, but all are subject to male domination, even those who are powerful goddesses. In contrast, women are not significantly represented in Norse mythology, which is firmly rooted in the Heroic Code that celebrates fame achieved through fierceness in battle.
Mythology was published when Hamilton was sixty-two years old, but it was far from being her final literary achievement; she published an additional nine books on Greek and Roman culture and mythology. Hamilton admired the lucidity of Greek poetry and myth and lamented the fact that American society had become too complicated to live by the values of the ancient Greeks. In 1957, at the age of ninety-one, Hamilton traveled from America to Greece for the first time; she was made an honorary citizen of Athens and was awarded the Golden Cross of the Order of Benefaction. Despite having had a very successful career as an educator and then as a writer, Hamilton exclaimed upon receiving the award, “This is the proudest moment of my life!”
Hamilton adopts a Eurocentric view of Greek mythology, asserting that it informed the cultural evolution of Western civilization. The influence of Greek mythology in Western art, literature, and philosophy is readily apparent. Renaissance artists Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael were inspired by classical mythology, and the works of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, Byron, and Shelley also reflect its influence.
As students become acquainted with the characters and stories in Hamilton’s book, they may be surprised to discover that mythology influences their own culture, as well. Movies draw on the larger-than-life heroes of myth in creating contemporary heroes like Spiderman and Batman, and numerous video games, such as Titan Quest and Rise of the Argonauts, incorporate mythology. Creatures of the Norse imagination—dwarves, elves, and trolls—people the world of fantasy in the movie Shrek! and in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Additionally, miscellaneous references to mythological deities are rife in our culture. Car models are named after Saturn and Mercury; Venus is the subject of song; Adonis is synonymous with male beauty; a space mission is named Apollo; and Atlas is always a popular name for moving companies.
Familiarity with Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology gives students insight in regard to ancient societies and universal human behavior; it develops cultural literacy and augments their understanding and appreciation of art and literature. These educational objectives, however, won’t be uppermost in students’ minds as they read Hamilton’s Mythology. They will instead be caught up in the fascinating world of gods and goddesses and the adventures of the mortals whose lives they protect or destroy.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify the primary themes developed in Mythology.
2. Identify the symbols present in Mythology and discuss their significance.
3. Identify the common root of fate for the gods and mortals alike. Discuss how fate and mortality versus immortality are developed thematically in a story.
4. Determine and define the elements of Greek and Roman mythology that have influenced modern literature, social science, and religion.
5. Explain the notions of good and evil illustrated throughout the collection of myths, and discuss how the gods reward and punish.
6. Discuss the themes of morality and ego (pride, hubris, vanity, arrogance, and ambition), especially in regard to the behavior of the gods and goddesses.
7. Identify examples of the motifs of beauty, love, death, nature, hospitality, and the foreigner, and discuss their significance.
8. Explain how, and through which characters, revenge is exacted, and discuss how some characters are perceived by their actions as villainous, while others are seen as heroic.
9. Compare and contrast the representations of women in Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology.