Gods who punish but also bless

The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology (Based on H. J. Rose's Handbook of Greek Mythology) - The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion
October 29, 2004

There is a lot of it about - myth, that is. Last year's Proms theme of Greek gods and monsters (reprised by the religion department of BBC TV Manchester) has been followed up by Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and Robert Butler's excellent book about Nicholas Hytner's Royal National Theatre staging of it; the Harry Potter books and films; the silver-screen versions of The Lord of the Rings ; Troy (the movie); the Athens Olympics... And so it goes. It seems that we do somehow need myths, whatever exactly they may be.

One standard academic definition, derived from the original Greek significations of muthos , holds that they are traditional tales of wide and enduring cultural significance to some relevant group or groups within a society. Pierre Maranda, a Canadian anthropologist, once put it rather more elegantly (in a 1972 Penguin Modern Sociology reader that he edited): "The life of myths consists in reorganising traditional components in the face of new circumstances, or, correlatively, in reorganising new, imported components in the light of tradition." But Maranda then rather spoilt that elevating effect by embracing an ultra-populist vision of modern myths, claiming that they are made of - among much other cultural bric-a-brac - depilatories, royalty, pets, antiques, religion, hair tonics and what he rather oddly called "cinemactors".

Presumably, he meant the likes of Brad Pitt. And, of course, for all the thousands who queued to see Troy at their local multiplex on either side of the Atlantic there will be only hundreds, alas, if that, lining up to buy the expensive Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology . A rose by any other name is said to smell every bit as sweet, but Robin Hard's re-cultivation of H. J. Rose's Handbook of Greek Mythology (my copy is the sixth edition of 1958; the first appeared in 1928) may not smell equally pleasant to all nostrils.

Rose's original was 363 pages long. The Hard copy is more than double that, with much larger pages, minus the Greek font but plus a very welcome selection of 65 black-and-white illustrations. Rose's 11 chapters have become Hard's 17, the last more aptly titled "Aeneas, Romulus and the origins of Rome" in place of Rose's "Italian pseudo-mythology". The learned barbarian (as Rose was nicknamed) was very much a scholar of his Hellenocentric times. Hard begins with a (serviceable) chapter on sources, whereas Rose began with a much tougher history of mythology, the study and interpretation of myth. Rose's genealogical tables and indexes have been retained and helpfully amplified and reordered so far as "the great Olympian gods" are concerned. But Hard's jejune bibliographical note is not an improvement on Rose's original bibliography and entirely misses the opportunity to update his mythography - by properly exploring, for example, the very different "structuralist" approaches of Walter Burkert or Jean-Pierre Vernant (indeed, the whole "Paris School" of myth-studies gets very short shrift indeed here). So what we seem to have is a bicephalous hybrid, a bit of a chimera perhaps, but have the heads been put together to the best effect? Was it all worth the bother of a pious revival? (Why not write a new handbook? Or another kind of book altogether?) Unfortunately, the answers must surely be negative. This is a worthy enough and workmanlike production, but it is no more than that. Hard's chapter 13, for example, rehearses for 44 pages the Trojan War myth - or myths. It sets out the origin of the war and the Greek crossing over to Asia, the leading figures in the conflict, the course of the war and the sack of Troy, aided - the chapter, that is - by nine illustrations (Thomas Banks' 18th-century marble of Thetis dunking Achilles in the River Styx, now in the Victoria and Albert museum, is almost worth the ticket price by itself.) The narrative is generally unexceptionable, if unexciting. But innocently trusting viewers of Wolfgang Petersen's film might well find themselves spluttering in disbelief at not reading that Agamemnon was murdered by Briseis at Troy, or finding that gods and goddesses had rather a large part to play in inflecting or deflecting the Homeric epic action.

Yet similar work is done, and more economically, on this and many other myths in Simon Price and Emily Kearns' edited Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion , which does fuller justice to the Roman side of things. For a much more stimulating introductory retelling of key Greek myths, one should consult either J. P. Vernant's relatively simple The Universe, the Gods, and Mortals (2001) (not cited by Hard), or Jenny March's more complex but still very user-friendly Cassell Dictionary of Classical Mythology (1998), which Hard himself generously describes as "scholarly and accessible, a model of its kind... both enjoyable to dip into and useful as a work of reference".

For more sophisticated interpretations, the nonspecialist or general reader should have regular recourse rather to Yves Bonnefoy and Wendy Doniger's admirable collective volume, Mythologies (1991). Or for specific themes with continuing contemporary relevance and resonance, go to provocatively comparative studies such as Lillian Doherty's Gender and the Interpretation of Classical Myth (2001). This is hard doctrine, perhaps. But for adults reading myth and mythology, especially those as subtly polysemous as the Greeks', it is never going to be child's play - even if it really is true, as James Lasdun has optimistically put it in a recently published poem, that "the gods, when they act at all, have been known to bless/ as well as to punish".

Paul Cartledge is professor of Greek history, Cambridge University.

The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology (Based on H. J. Rose's Handbook of Greek Mythology)

Author - Robin Hard
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 753
Price - £120.00
ISBN - 0 415 18636 6

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