Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In 1958, when Edith Hamilton was ninety-one years old, Life magazine declared her to be the world’s “greatest living woman classicist.” One of the reasons for this extraordinary tribute was Hamilton’s publication, more than fifteen years earlier, of Mythology, a popular account of Greek, Roman, and Norse legends. Unlike many handbooks of classical mythology, Hamilton’s work was intended for the general reader rather than for specialists in the field. Mythology contains no footnotes and extremely little commentary, in accordance with Hamilton’s view that myths should be allowed to speak for themselves. Moreover, Hamilton’s focus in the book remained firmly fixed upon literature: She tended to exclude any legend that was not treated in antiquity by a major author of epic, lyric, or tragic poetry.

Almost immediately after its publication, Mythology gained the reputation of being a readable and highly eloquent introduction to the legends of antiquity. The book proved to be especially popular with high school students, the very age group that Hamilton had taught for twenty-six years while she was headmistress of the Bryn Mawr School for Girls in southeastern Pennsylvania (1896-1922). Although it is nominally about legends from all over the world, Mythology clearly reflects Hamilton’s primary interest in the Greeks, a society that she regarded as a model for later peoples. Hamilton relies upon Roman...

(The entire section is 508 words.)