Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 862
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 Mythology, Hyacinthus is merely Apollo’s “dear companion,” and there is no indication that the god and the young man were lovers. Ovid’s depiction of Orpheus as falling in love with young boys after his loss of Eurydice is passed over in silence. Indeed, Hamilton has eliminated nearly every detail of a sexual nature from her account of Greek mythology. That is why the Titan Cronus is said to have “wounded [Uranus] terribly” without any indication that Cronus castrated him.
The result of these adaptations is to make Mythology a suitable introduction to classical legends for younger readers but a misleading representation of Greek society for any other audience. Yet this should not be regarded as intentional on Hamilton’s part. In addition to reflecting the social customs of her time, she was also influenced by a scholarly view widely shared by her contemporaries. For the first half of the twentieth century, most academics still depicted the ancient Greeks as living in an almost utopian society of harmony, order, and reason. As a result, Hamilton’s description of the Greek gods as lofty defenders of justice and personifications of beauty was not unusual for its time. Only later did it become clear that the Greek fascination with harmony and proportion could not be divorced from the irrationality and disorder that were also a central feature of Greek life. For example, such mythological figures as the Maenads, who engaged in orgiastic rituals on remote mountain tops, are proof that the same society that produced Aristotle’s logic and Euclid’s geometry also possessed a far more irrational side. This aspect of life is missing from Hamilton’s view of the Greeks. In Mythology, the Maenads are characterized as responsible for nothing more unusual than “singing exultant songs.” Similarly, Hamilton cannot offer any explanation for Phrixus’ sacrifice of the golden ram; she merely remarks that it “seems odd.” This darker side of Greek life either was not understood by Hamilton or she chose to ignore it. Thus, she regards Hercules as “an allegory of Greece herself” without reflecting what his story reveals about a society that regarded such a murderous figure, a slayer of his own wife and children, as its greatest hero.
None of this is to say, however, that Mythology is without value even for today’s reader. Its summary of the major myths of Greek, Roman, and Norse societies provides a highly readable introduction to the legends that have shaped the art and literature of Western civilization. Even Hamilton’s idealized view of Greek culture provides a useful antidote to the more negative assessments of that civilization that have emerged since the publication of Mythology. Hamilton’s discussion of the differences in character of the Greek, Roman, and Norse peoples encourages the reader to seek further evidence of those differences in the art, literature, and monuments that those societies produced. In the end, therefore, Mythology fills the role that its author had originally intended for it: It provides a young reader’s first look at those legends that have inspired countless generations since they were first told in antiquity.
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