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.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Edith Hamilton saw herself neither as a feminist nor as a leading figure in advancing the cause of women. Nevertheless, by earning her reputation as a learned, eloquent, and successful teacher in a discipline largely dominated by men, Hamilton began to attract large numbers of women to the study of the classics. Both as head-mistress of the Bryn Mawr School—the first women’s high school in the country with an exclusively college preparatory curriculum—and then, after her retirement, as the author of The Greek Way (1930), The Roman Way (1942), and Mythology, Hamilton devoted her entire life to introducing young students to the challenges and rewards of studying classical civilization.

Little in Mythology can be regarded as written from a feminist perspective. In fact, Hamilton’s presentation of men’s and women’s roles in the book is highly traditional. For example, in her account of the myth of Demeter, Hamilton explains that women would naturally have been drawn to the devotion of this earth-mother goddess because of their domestic roles on the farm. While men were occupied with war or hunting, she says, women would have been close to nature, tending the fields and performing “every humble act that made the farm fruitful.” These views are indicative of the time in which Mythology was written. The greater attention that Hamilton devotes to such male figures as Zeus, Hercules, and Siegfried, rather than to such female characters as Hera, Atalanta, and Brynhild, results not necessarily from Hamilton’s own preferences but from the values of the societies that produced these stories. In her own life, Hamilton was a pioneer in advancing the academic reputation of women and securing the higher education of her female students.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Mythology. New York: Modern Library, 1934. The most popular handbook on mythology before Hamilton, this book originally appeared as three separate works: The Age of Fable (1855), The Age of Chivalry (1858), and Legends of Charlemagne (1863). Bulfinch was the first to produce the modern compendium of legends that Hamilton updated in Mythology.

Edman, Irwin. “Mythology: Western Imagination in the Making.” The Nation 155, no. 12 (September 19, 1942): 239-240. An analysis of Mythology shortly after its publication, this article treats Hamilton as a “Bulfinch for our time.” Edman discusses Hamilton’s view of myths as explanations of natural events.

Edmunds, Lowell, ed. Approaches to Greek Myth. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. A thorough discussion of various theories of myth interpretation and the origins of Greek mythology. An excellent supplement to Mythology.

Hallett, Judith P. “Edith Hamilton 1867-1963.” Classical Outlook 70 (1993): 56-57. This brief portrait of Hamilton, written by a woman classicist, provides a summary of the scholar’s life and offers a brief critique of her works.

Hamilton, Edith. “Aged Lover of Ancients.” Life 45, no. 11 (September 15, 1958): 76-80. This interview with Hamilton, conducted when she was ninety-one, examines the author’s belief that Greek society emphasized the individual, whereas modern society emphasizes “the masses.” In it, Hamilton also contrasts the impact that women are able to have in the modern world to their limited role in ancient Greece.

Reid, Doris Fielding. Edith Hamilton: An Intimate Portrait. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967. A full-length biography of Hamilton, written by her close friend and companion of more than forty years.

Sebeok, Thomas A., ed. Myth: A Symposium. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1958. This compendium of nine essays explores various theories about the origins of mythology and the interpretations of particular legends. Contributions are generally made by experts in the field, including Claude Lévi-Strauss on structuralism, Stith Thompson on mythic story patterns, Philip Wheelwright on semantics, and Lord Raglan on ritual.

Stoddard, Hope. “Edith Hamilton.” In Famous American Women. New York: Crowell, 1970. This profile of Hamilton explores the author’s developing interest in the classics, the reasons she began writing, and her belief in the Greek ideal of “excellence.”