Thursday, February 4, 2016

"Mythology" by Edith Hamilton (1942)

This is one of those books you have seen on the shelves of every bookstore you have ever been in. It's popularity is so widespread that it is regularly on the 'clearance' section of your favorite used bookstores. You have been meaning to buy a copy for years now and when you finally did it ended up, sadly, on the bottom of that stack of books that you always intend to read. It stayed there for months. It wasn't until you read the fantasy novel "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman that you finally bumped "Mythology" to the top of the stack.

Dude, you are an idiot for waiting this long to read this book. This is one that you are going to need to read multiple times throughout your life in order to truly wring all of the wisdom out of it. It feels like it's going to be like "The Lord of the Rings" and you are going to feel compelled to read it over and over again for years to come. Which means that this review of Edith Hamilton's "Mythology" is probably the first of many to come....

This book is poorly named. It is about mythology, however it is not a compendium of the mythologies throughout human cultures like you always hoped it was. "Mythology" dwells almost exclusively on the myths of the ancient Greeks. Since one begat the other, Hamilton also spends a few pages on some particularly singular Roman myths and she even has a phenomenal section on Norse mythology, but the lion's share of the work focuses on the Greek world. The overly broad title is probably a function of the ethnocentrism of the era in which she wrote "Mythology." In 1942, when a scholarly American professor referred to mythology he or she did not mean the stories that any darker hued aborigines had grunted to one another over dwindling fires, the blood-soaked religious anthems obscenely carved onto crumbling tropical ziggurats, or the antiseptic tales from the alien Asian world; when that scholarly professor said the word mythology, he or she obviously was referring exclusively to the body of ancient myths that guided the people from whom Western Europeans and the early Americans had intellectually descended. Despite the inaccurate and dismissive title, "Mythology" is fantastic.

Hamilton is able to take stories from across generations, poems, plays, and prose, often told by authors removed by centuries, and blend them all together to form coherent and absorbing tales. Before each section, she not only lists the original authors she is paraphrasing, but she also says why she prefers certain versions over others. Ovid is far too verbose, Aeschylus is grave and direct, Homer delights in the beauty of the world, while Virgil tends to exaggerate in a typically Roman style. Most ancient Greeks probably never had as clear an understanding of each of their gods' and heroes' story arcs as she lays out in this inimitable book.

Hamilton reminds her readers from the start that myths and gods are as ancient as any human constructs that we know of, but the Greeks were the first people to speak of their gods as people. Zeus was not a jackal-headed deity like in Egypt. Hera was a woman not a some hybrid monster as we can find in Mesopotamia. The Greeks made their gods in their own image, unlike the Hebrews who contend that their god made them in his. The rare satyr or gorgon appears here and there, but for the most part those older, more terrifying creatures are absent in the pantheon of the Greek gods. The Greeks saw beauty and power in themselves and in their fellow humans so they made their gods reflect that. At last in human history, the inhuman no longer reigned over the human. And these were no imperious, aloof rulers pronouncing judgement from on high. These gods were personal. They were involved in the everyday lives of their people.

The first we hear of the Greek gods is through their poetry, and even the oldest examples we can find have a quality that is extraordinary. Reading even the earliest examples of the mythology of the Greeks we find a body of work that is already matured and nuanced. The world was more rational now, a millennium before the birth of Jesus. There were still things to fear in the world, to be sure, but at least the gods were no longer monsters, they could be understood. They had powers of course, but irrational magic and superstitions had no place in Greek mythology. The Greeks were even free to laugh at their gods, something some religious folk still have a hard time allowing even today, almost 3,000 years later.

Another detail that sets the Greeks gods and mythical heroes apart is how realistic they were. They lived in actual, physical, easily visited places that exist right here on Earth. Hercules hailed from the city of Thebes. The exact spot where Aphrodite had been birthed was a popular tourist destination. In addition, Hamilton notes that each god possessed a convincing and intriguing duality about them, two opposing characteristics contained within each deity. Zeus was considered the most honorable of the gods whilst also being an unconscionable philanderer. He was identified as the god of the strongest among the Greeks but also the protector of the weakest. Dionysus might be the ultimate example of the duality of the gods of Olympus. He was the god of rapture and euphoria but also the god of sorrow and suffering, a deity for the immediate and gratifying joys of life but who died horribly every year only to be resurrected in order to bring life to his worshipers. These dualities the great poets and playwrights endowed their gods with, coupled with their grounding in actual geographic locations, make the rulers of the ancient world extremely relateable as characters.

As the culture of the Greek city states evolved and matured, growing in depth and experience, so did their gods. The pantheon was not a static and unchanging lot, they were a manifestation of human understanding of the world. And these were some very curious and brilliant humans. These myths, Hamilton contends, are humanity's early attempts at science, our first forays into explaining the natural world. As this understanding of the world expanded, so did the Greek concepts of their gods.

Reading these ancient stories proved oddly comforting to you. These were not simply crude efforts to explain the increasingly dangerous and complex world the early Greeks saw expanding all around them, these were stories explaining a deeper truth, illuminating the human condition, recognizing and reflecting astonishing wisdom and self awareness. Phaethon's tale was not just a story explaining that there was a god who carries the sun across the sky on a great chariot, it was a story about how a son's ambitions to match his father's accomplishments can end up ruining him. The epic of Hercules was not merely a myth to explain how the massive stones that form the gates to the Mediterranean were created (we call them Gibraltar and Ceuta but the Greeks called them the Pillars of Hercules), it was a story to warn us that we cannot simply be ruled by our basest emotions or justify our actions through overwhelming strength. Reason, intellect, and compassion, qualities Hercules sorely lacked, are essential for creating a world in which justice and freedom are possible, a world worth living in.

This is why we still reference these stories today, eons after the religion has died off. Because their lessons are still true. They still speak to us. Yes, these myths were the blueprint for a religion, but they were also morality tales shaped by poets and playwrights to suit their particular audiences, to help guide their societies through moral dilemmas and through difficult times. These writers illuminated different aspects of the gods while also using their unique media as social commentary just as modern creators do in their own media today. In essence, Greeks mythologies were part sermon, part Star Trek.

Almost every hero of Greek mythology offers one lesson above all others: if we require our heroes to be perfect, we will have no heroes. Hercules was prone to murderous tantrums, Achilles is famous for being a great warrior with a tendency to sulk and pout at slightest perceived offense, Bellerophon was so arrogant that he thought himself the rival of the gods themselves. Teddy Roosevelt was a petulant and manic brat of a man-child. Martin Luther King Jr cheated on his wife almost habitually. Thomas Jefferson made a fortune off the buying and selling of human beings into slavery. Sins and weaknesses should not keep people from becoming our heroes. Today, we foolishly tend to require perfection from our heroes. One big scandal, one embarrassingly viral video, one off-color remark and we are quick to condemn, and we do not forgive. The Greeks knew better than we. No one is perfect, even our heroes.

You noticed some intriguing similarities these stories share with Biblical imagery and tradition. Here a god is raised from the dead and remembered by his worshipers through the eating of bread and the drinking of wine, there a great leader is told to sacrifice his first born son only to see the boy saved by a ram, and everyone who is anyone is the Son of God. The New Testament in particular echos with themes from Greek mythology. It makes sense that the Bible would borrow from Greek mythology, the source material was too good not to! Or maybe it was the Greeks who borrowed from the Hebrews. Or maybe, just maybe, God saw how deeply humans could be moved by these brilliant stories and decided to shape the life of Jesus to echo the stories humans had already been telling each other for eons. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?

Whatever universal truths can be found in mythology, whatever wisdom, whatever inspiration, certain truths are undeniable. Humans are the only hope that life on this planet could ever survive the death of Mother Earth, we solve the greatest mysteries, we defy the story of Icarus and stretch out into the cosmos. We seek out wisdom and knowledge, we change the face of the planet with the sweat of our brows. But we do one thing that makes all the others possible.... we tell stories.

On to the next book!

P.S. Theseus is one of the Greek heroes who deserves more credit than he gets. You had never really heard of him until this book, but he is the mythical inventor of democracy, the ruler of Athens who rejected his crown and gave the power to the people instead. He was the great hero who used wisdom with more potency than any physical weapon. He was present to forgive and thereby save his friend Hercules when Herc was stricken mad by Hera and murdered his own wife and children, This makes Theseus the one who established the idea that a person cannot be condemned for crimes they committed while they were insane. In fact, of all of Hercules' many famous feats, (and that's kind of what he was known for) the Greeks all agreed that his greatest accomplishment was traveling to the Underworld and freeing Theseus.

P.P.S. The final 20 pages of the book are dedicated to illuminating Norse mythology, for which most of the records were almost completely destroyed by the immigrating Christians a thousand years ago. Every Norse tale is a tragedy, even their heaven is prophesied to fall into ruin in some epic battle in the future (called Ragnarok). Therefore, these people valued heroism above all else. Looming over every story is the realization that death is inevitable and the only way to face it with honor, whether you are human or a god, is to die laughing. It is fascinating, but you'll have to elaborate more on that topic on you next review of this extraordinary book.