Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Edith Hamilton and the enduring spell of 'Mythology'

Here's what DG reader Gioconda wrote yesterday in response to the topic of essential books in one's life:
I can't say enough for Edith Hamilton's Mythology, which was all but glued to my nine-year-old hands. It was easy to enjoy the stories and overlook the scholarship she brought to the task of relating Greek and Roman mythology in a way that preserved its beauty while giving it continuity, by adding the substance of 'Trojan Women' to the Iliad, for example. Her presentation heightened the tragedy and added poetry that made it unforgettable.
And here's what Sigrud Nunez says, in her chapter of Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book:
How old was I when I first read Mythology? I think around eleven or twelve. It was a natural step from the fairy tales that had been some of my favorite reading before. The book could just as well have been called Everything You Wanted to Know. How the world came into being; who rules heaven, earth, and hell; the origins of seasons, stars, waters, winds; why night follows day; where dreams come from; what makes a person fall in love; where we go when we die—they had it all figured out, the Greeks. And every explanation was rational in the Greek way, and beautiful in the Greek way.
Talk about synchronicity! Nunez's essay was one of a handful of diverse choices from the book that I had wanted to highlight this week. Like many of the books discussed, the physical item had become a talisman:
Mythology has never been out of print. I could easily have gotten myself a new copy anytime. Instead, when it began to crumble and flake ... I kept it in a plastic baggie. This did not look very attractive. But then it was not just a book: it was a memento of childhood, a holy thing.
As Nunez points out, Hamilton quotes frequently from the ancient writers who were her sources (Hesiod, Pindar, Virgil, judicious doses of Ovid, and the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides). An educator at Bryn Mawr for 26 years, she published her first book (The Greek Way) at age 63. Like its companion, The Roman Way, it is entirely absorbing. But it was Mythology that was destined to become the "classic of classics," rivaled only by Bulfinch's Mythology


  1. I can't imagine my childhood without Edith Hamilton's Mythology. I practically had to memorize it word for word when, as a freshman Latin student in high school, I competed in the Junior Classical League U. I. L., in the Greek and Roman mythology category. That was indeed a highlight of my formative years! Thank you for all those hours of reading pleasure, Ms. Hamilton!

  2. It took me years of classical studies to appreciate fully the work Edith Hamilton put into those deceptively readable stories, so loved by children. Although she explained in prefaces to the chapters, how many sources she used, the reader forgets all that, charmed by the integrity of her tales. She wove together shards of myths scattered over time and space into a seamless, seemingly artless whole.

    I have read my Bulfinch too, and appreciate that he covers tales of Arthurian legend, Norse myths, and the Welsh Mabinogeon, that Ms. Hamilton does not. But for all the magic and monsters, it was the death of Roland, beside his loyal warhorse, that became the definition of tragedy for me.

    Compared to these marvelous tales, the ambitions of Stephen Dedalus, or the dilemmas of Paul Morel, weigh like the sighs of crickets on a late summer night!

    1. How Japanese of you (re the last sentence). You'll have to choose a name of one of their great female poets!

    2. I'm happy to see how widespread and enduring the affection for Ms. Hamilton's book remains. Never to be out-of-print is better than a Pulitzer!
      I know almost nothing of Japanese poetry..but I'll find out now!

  3. This is super cool. I've been reading all about mythology and Edith Hamilton on wikipedia all day.

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