“Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes” by Edith Hamilton is one of the most popular books on mythology to be found. While it includes a small section on the Norse Gods, this book is truly a book about Classical Gods. The book is divided into seven parts with a foreward. The foreward is a note from the author on her selection of myths. An introduction to Mythology follows, with a section covering greek mythology and their authors. It reminds us that mythology is an explaination of something occuring in nature, and that the Greeks were the ‘first to make their gods in their own image’ (page 16). Each tale begins with a note from the author concerning its original source. This is a delightful way to see all the different authors who have played a role in the formation of Classical mythology.
Part one is “The Gods, The Creation, and the Earliest Heroes.” The first section of part one covers the Gods, beginning with an overview of the Titans and the twelve great Olympians. Each of the twelve are covered briefly with a description of who they were, their role in the mythology canon, and their connections with specific animals, trees, and cities. The lesser gods and the gods of water are also covered, as well as the Underworld, the lesser gods of earth, and the Roman gods. The second section covers the two great gods of earth, Demeter and Dionysus. The rape of Persephone is laid out well in the section on Demeter, and the story of Dionysus is covered. He was born to the mortal princess of Thebes, carried by Zeus to term, and raised by Nymphs. Several of his stories are presented, and the contrast between his character in them is explained, as well as his role in theatre. The third section covers Mankind and the World’s creation, and includes several variations of their telling. The fourth covers the earliest heroes, Prometheus, Polyphemus, and the flower myths. Zeus’ infidelity is also discussed, as well the Greeks’ love for the misfortune of the young.
Part two is “Stories of Love and Adventure.” Section five covers the tale of Cupid and Psyche, while section 6 is broken up into eight tales. These brief tales are: Pyramus and Thisbe, Orpheus and Eurydice, Ceyx and Alcyone, Pygmalion and Galatea, Baucis and Philemon, Endymion, Daphne, and Alpheus and Arethusa. Each is a tale of lovers; some star-crossed and unfortunate, others unrequited, but each striving for another meeting with the one they loved. The seventh section is a telling of ‘The Quest for the Great Fleece,” perhaps one of the more well-known tales of the classics, for Jason was one of the better known heroes of the canon. The eighth is a collection of four great adventures, Phaethon, Pegasus and Bellerophon, Otus and Ephialtes, and Daedalus.
Part three is “The Great Heroes Before the Trojan War.” This part is excellent for background on the heroes of the Trojan War, which was one of the main centerpieces of the Classical canon. Section nine covers the tale of Perseus, a fairy-tale of sorts that begins with the imprisonment of his mother out of the fear of his birth. Section ten is on Theseus, the great Athenian hero, cousin of Hercules, and son of the king of Athens. Eleven covers Hercules, the greatest hero of Greece. This section gives us much insight into the minds of those who lived during that time period. He embodied all the things the Greeks admired most, and despite his lack of intellect, his emotion carried him where he needed to go (page 167). Section twelve is about the heroine Atalanta, whose tale is not entirely clear.
Part four covers “The Heroes of the Trojan War.” Section thirteen is the “Trojan War,” and covers the beginning of the war and Eris’ involvement in beginning the conflict, as well as the war itself. Fourteen covers the Fall of Troy, and the author includes a very valid point: “What was the end of that far-famed war? Just this, a ruined town, a dead baby, a few wretched women” (page 201). The fall of Troy was a turning point for the Greek as well, as afterwards many of their heroes found the Gods had turned away from them. Section fifteen follows the “Adventures of Odysseus”, and his cursed journey home as well as the misfortune that befell his family. Section sixteen is the “Adventures of Aeneas,” the son of Venus. It is broken up into three parts; from Troy to Italy, the descent into the lower world, and the war in Italy.
Part five is “The Great Families of Mythology.” Each section covers the family name and their generations. Section seventeen is the “House of Atreus,” and covers specifically the following individuals: Tantalus and Niobe, and Agamenon and his children. Eighteen is “the Royal House of Thebes,” and specifically covers Cadmus and his children, Oedipus, Antigone, and “The Seven Against Thebes.” Nineteen is “The Royal House of Athens,” and covers specifically the following: Cecrops, Procne and Philomela, Porcris and Cephalus, Orithyia aand Boreas, and Creusa and Ion.
Part six covers “The Less Important Myths.” The myths covered in section twenty are: Midas, Aesculapius, the Danaids, Glaucus and Scylla, Erysichthon, and Pomona and Vertumnus. The twenty first section is an alphabetical arrangement of a series of very brief myths, and is more of a guide to the remaining names in the canon.
Part seven brings us to “The Mythology of the Norsemen,” and begins with an excellent introduction. The Norse valued heroism over anything else; their unyielding courage to face death was viewed as a triumph. Section twenty two covers “the Stories of Signy and Sigurd,” the most famous of the Norse heroes. The twenty third section is on the Norse Gods, and offers a short comparison of them to the Classical Gods, as well as an overview on the gods, the creation story, and Norse wisdom.
There are also several diagrams outlining the classical relationships in Greek Mythology. Overall, this book is an excellent overview of the Classical Mythologies. The only thing truly lacking is more depth in the Norse Mythology.