Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World

May 15, 2008

So far, seven volumes in this series have appeared: Emma Griffiths's Medea, Carol Dougherty's Prometheus, Ken Dowden's Zeus, Richard Seaford's Dionysus and Lowell Edmunds's Oedipus (all 2006), and now Susan Deacy's Athena and Daniel Ogden's Perseus. Diana and Apollo are forthcoming.

All seven are uniformly excellent. The amount of information compactly conveyed is exceptional. Key themes are outlined, the classical sources and interpretations are given, and the "reception" of the figure ever since is recounted. Pictorial as well as verbal sources are enlisted. The cult of a figure garners as much emphasis as the myth.

Where, to make some comparisons, the Routledge series focuses on myths themselves, Fritz Graf's Greek Mythology: An Introduction (1987 in German, 1993 in English) concentrates on approaches to myths, as does the aptly titled Approaches to Greek Myth (1990), edited by series author Lowell Edmunds. G. S. Kirk's The Nature of Greek Myths (1974) presents myths, but chiefly to test theories. H. J. Rose's once-standard Handbook of Greek Mythology (first edition 1928, sixth edition 1958) begins with a crude dismissal of all theories, save that of E. B. Tylor, and then provides summaries of the myths themselves, yet barely considering hero stories. Robin Hard's Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology (2004), while "based on" Rose's book, is virtually a new book. Omitted is any discussion of theories. Like Rose's Handbook, Mark Morford and Robert Lenardon's popular Classical Mythology (first edition 1971, seventh edition 2003) offers a pedestrian survey of theories and a bland retelling of myths. Richard Martin's shorter Myths of the Ancient Greeks (2003) does the same less blandly. Robert Graves's idiosyncratic The Greek Myths (1955) does the same with infinitely more pizzazz.

Both Pierre Grimal's Dictionary of Classical Mythology (1951 in French, 1985 in English) and Edward Tripp's Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology (1974) (Crowell's Handbook of Classical Mythology (1970)) give wonderfully detailed alphabetical listings of thousands of gods, heroes, places and events. Jenny March's Cassell Dictionary of Classical Mythology (1974) does the same in less detail. Timothy Gantz's huge Early Greek Myth (1993) traces myths back to their original versions and then forward in their embellishments. Where Rose's professedly folloristic expertise is limited to differentiating basic genres of folklore, William Hansen's superior Handbook of Classical Mythology (2004) types stories using Aarne-Thompson's classification system.

Within the series, both Oedipus and Perseus use Aarne-Thompson to classify their subjects. Separately, Prometheus categorises its subject as a conspicuous trickster. Rarely are the other figures categorised. Zeus is doubtless much more than a sky god, but even in his role as a sky god, Ken Dowden stresses his distinctiveness.

Dowden is typical, with Edmunds and Ogden as commendable exceptions. As specialists, or "particularists", classicists understandably focus on the uniqueness of individual instances. Similarities among phenomena are deemed superficial and vague. By contrast, "generalisers" show how similar seemingly disparate phenomena are. Differences among instances are deemed trivial and incidental.

Neither side is easily dissuaded. For the divide is not over the fact but over the importance of either differences or similarities. Still, differences begin only where similarities end. Zeus is distinctive only when he ceases to be like any other sky god. Therefore comparativism is indispensable to pinpointing his uniqueness.

When used here, comparativism is usually of a regional variety. Susan Deacy shows Near Eastern parallels to the quirky birth of Athena from Zeus and then considers whether the story of Athena hails from the Hittites or Mesopotamia. Had she considered thematic parallels worldwide, the origin would have become one of independent invention rather than of diffusion. Both the birth of children from males and a reigning father's fear of his progeny are mythic themes worldwide. Happily, Ogden does parallel this kindred theme in Perseus to hero tales worldwide, but he still sidesteps the issue of independent invention or diffusion.

Comparativism leads to theories, or nonhistorical explanations of similarities. Some authors enlist theories, but the use of them is shaky. Carol Dougherty's claim that "the real force of the (Prometheus) myth is to make that specific historical context seem natural each time" goes back to Bronislaw Malinowski, who goes unmentioned, and is merely applied to modern society by Roland Barthes, who is invoked. Emma Griffiths' appeal to C. G. Jung to argue that "we are able to relate to ancient cultures as to our own" misses Jung's firm distinction between the universality of archetypes and the specificity of their manifestations.

Using theories to study classical mythology raises new issues. If the gods and heroes have outlived their Greco-Roman setting, the needs they serve cannot be merely Greco-Roman. Psychology, anthropology and sociology may, then, better account for the continuing and even the original popularity of these figures. As committed as the authors are to the ongoing allure of their subjects, few actually account for that allure. Ogden notes the heroic pattern of Otto Rank, who himself cites Perseus, but not the Oedipus complex underlying it.

Each volume offers sharp observations. Changing interpretations of Medea are linked to changing social views. Prometheus is shown to change from trickster to rebel to comic figure. Zeus is appreciated as the god of justice, kings, strangers and supplicants, not just of the sky. Dionysus is likewise appreciated as the god of far more than wine and as a symbol. Oedipus is interpreted via the Marxist Vladimir Propp and the structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Athena is shown to be more than the legacy of a matriarchal age. Seeing her vis-à-vis the rest of the pantheon reflects the structuralist approach of the French classicists inspired by Lévi-Strauss. The effect on Perseus of at once historicising (euhemerism) and philosophising (allegory) is incisively presented.

These superb volumes spur further questions. Is the distinction between god and hero clear? Have modern heroes replaced traditional gods? What is the relationship between the cult and the mythology of a god? What is the relationship between mythology and religion? How did pagan gods survive the demise of the religion of which they had been a part? Have they survived only as symbols of the human world and not of the physical one?

Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World. Series edited by Susan Deacy.

Athena. By Susan Deacy. Routledge, 200pp, £60.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780415300650 and 300667. Published 13 February 2008.

Perseus. By Daniel Ogden. Routledge, 224pp, £60.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780415241 and 4258. Published 13 February 2008

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