Edith Hamilton's Mythology Critical Essays

Edith Hamilton


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Edith Hamilton's Mythology cover image

Hamilton’s approach in Mythology is to view Greek, Roman, and Norse myths as they appeared in poetry rather than in folklore. Unlike other scholars who have attempted to reconstruct lost oral traditions, Hamilton was interested in mythology solely because of its effect on ancient literature. She believed that the original oral form of most legends was unrecoverable and, in any case, would be less interesting than the later literary treatments of these stories. Because of this view, Hamilton avoided speculation about the role that myths played in Greek religion or their importance in justifying social customs. She regarded myths as little more than attempts to explain the natural world and to attribute human emotions to the gods and physical universe.

On those rare occasions when Hamilton does discuss the origin of a myth, however, her approach tends to be purely rational. For example, she suggests that Zeus was said to have had numerous love affairs because he was a composite of many local deities: As the primitive gods of various regions began to be merged into a single “supreme god,” their spouses and consorts were recast in mythology as Zeus’ many lovers. Similarly, Hamilton views the tragic death of Hyacinthus, with its description of the youth’s blood spattered over the ground, as an attempt to justify an ancient rite of human sacrifice. For most myths, however, Hamilton omits even these brief interpretations. She prefers merely to tell the stories and to allow readers to draw their own conclusions about why they are important.

Mythology was first published in 1942, and, probably as a result of that period’s social values, it presents a largely sanitized version of ancient legends. For example, myths that included homosexuals as major characters were rewritten by Hamilton so that the sexual nature of the myths was obscured. Thus, unlike Ovid’s Narcissus, who falls in love with “a handsome young man” whom he believes to live beneath the water of a pond, Hamilton’s Narcissus is immediately aware that the reflection is his own. In...

(The entire section is 862 words.)