There's a big gaping hole in my reading experience when it comes to the Greek classics. I read The Iliad and The Odyssey in high school, and I have to reach even further back when it comes to Greek Mythology. If I remember correctly that would have been back in eighth grade. And you know how it goes--so often one book leads to another creating yet another diverging reading path. In this case I've just finished Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles (more about it soon), and not wanting to leave the ancient world quite yet I've pulled out my copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology for more stories about the gods.
After reading the introduction I feel like I am starting from scratch. It's amazing how the space of years can make books go all fuzzy. So I'm setting myself the task of reading through Hamilton's book. I'm in no rush and want to just read a chapter or so a week. They seem to build on each other, and the myths pop up all over literature, so it's good to have a refresher. I also plan on listening to The Iliad on audio (am still looking for just the right version, as the one suggested to me isn't available from Audible), and then will follow up with a reread of it later. I'm sort of excited about it all, as I've had the boxed set of Fagles's translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey for many years now. All of a sudden reading them doesn't seem so much of a chore to get through but something I am anticipating will be a pleasurable experience, which says a lot about Miller's novel since she started me on this path.
So a few things I've learned so far (and please forgive me if this is all 'old hat' to you, but remember the gaping hole I'm trying to fill in).
"Myths are early science, the result of men's first trying to explain what they saw around them. But there are many so-called myths which explain nothing at all. These tales are pure entertainment, the sort of thing people would tell each other on a long winter's evening."
Hamilton draws from many different sources (though she notes the best are Greek writers as they believed in them) to compile her myths. Some twelve hundred years separate the first writers from the later ones and the stories vary widely. She likens the task to drawing from such different English authors as Chaucer, Tennyson, Kipling and even Galsworthy.
Choosing to begin first with the myths and then with The Iliad seems a good idea as Hamilton notes that Greek mythology begins with Homer's Iliad. It's uncertain when the stories were first told as they appear now, but they were shaped by the great poets. The Iliad is the oldest of Greek literature, Homer being believed to have been alive about a thousand years before Christ.
"The tales of Greek mythology do not throw any clear light upon what early mankind was like. They do throw an abundance of light upon what early Greeks were like--a matter, it would seem, of more importance to us, who are their descendants intellectually, artistically, and politically, too. Nothing we learn about them is alien to ourselves."
The Greeks apparently shook things up as mankind became the center of the universe, this being a revolutionary thought at the time. Humans were not of much importance before, but to the Greeks the gods were made in man's image. In earlier times, in places like Egypt or Mesopotamia the gods had little resemblance to man. They were something to be awed and feared. Their images of gods were something out of the imagination and unreal. The Greeks didn't deal in fantasy but modeled their stories and art on what they saw around them. The gods were created in man's image, from what Hamilton calls "a humanized world" freeing the Greeks from a "fear of the omnipotent Unknown". She makes it clear, however, that these stories were not meant to be an account of Greek religion, but only an explanation of nature.
Homer is at the top of the list in terms of the writers from whom the myths come from. Then comes Hesiod, a poor farmer, which if true is notable because he would have been the first man (and living away from the cities) to wonder why things were the way they were (and writing about it). The Homeric poems, which were written to honor various gods, would have come next. At the end of the sixth century Pindar, a lyric poet, wrote the Odes in honor of victors in the games at national festivals. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were tragic poets and mostly wrote plays of mythological subjects. Aristophanes was a writer of comedy. Herodotus was a historian, and Euripides and Plato were philosophers. Around 250 BC the center of Greek literature had moved to Alexandria in Egypt from Greece where Apollonius was working along with pastoral poets Theocritus, Bion and Moschus. Apuleius and Lucian were late writers. This late in the game writers were satirizing the gods rather than holding them in awe.
I've not mentioned Ovid and Virgil who are important as well, but they seem set apart as they didn't believe in the myths as the Greeks did but used them as vehicles for exploring human nature.
But I'm starting at the very beginning. The first part of the Hamilton's Myths is on "The Gods, the Creation, and the Earliest Heroes", which I'll be reading this week. If I am looking for inspiration on what to write about next weekend I might just share what I learn. I decided to read Edith Hamilton's book on the Myths as she is who I initially studied and her name is so well known (at least here in the US) when thinking about Greek mythology. I'm not sure how the scholarship varies amongst classicists, and maybe I should look for other interpretations, so I'll be checking out my library's offerings as well. In any case she seems like a good person to start with as her writing is very accessible.