Hamilton begins by highlighting the common misunderstanding that mythology depicts the blissful state of man in his original harmony with nature. On the contrary, Hamilton notes, the lives of ancient people were not romantic and beautiful, but full of hardship, disease, and violence. For Hamilton, the Greek myths are remarkable in that they show how far the Greeks, an ancient civilization, had advanced beyond a primitive state of savagery and brutality. By the time Homer wrote his epic, the Iliad, a new way of looking at the world had come into being. According to Hamilton, this new perspective is critically important, revealing a great deal not only about ancient Greece but about modern America as well—as so much of our own culture comes directly from the Greeks.
One of the most important aspects of the Greek worldview was that it was the first to put humans at the center of the universe. Unlike the animal deities of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the gods of the Greeks are human in form. Not only do they possess human physical characteristics, but they embody the emotional flaws of humans as well. Unlike the gods of other ancient civilizations, Greek gods are not infinitely omniscient and omnipotent, manifesting typical human foibles such as philandering, feasting and drinking, and obsessive jealousy. To the Greeks, the life of the gods so closely resembled human life that the gods felt real and tangible, rather than incomprehensible and remote.
In this way, Hamilton argues, the myths of the Greeks reflect a view of the universe that acknowledges the mystery and beauty of humanity. Even the most magical of Greek myths contain real-world elements: the supernatural Hercules lives in the very real city of Thebes, and the goddess Aphrodite is born in a spot any ancient tourist could visit, off the island of Cythera. In general, Greek myths involve less strange and frightening magic than the myths of other ancient civilizations. In this more rational world, individuals become heroes by virtue of bravery and strength rather than supernatural powers. Hamilton contends that this revolutionary way of thinking about the world elevates humans and the worth of their abilities, making it a far less terrifying place in which to live.
Hamilton points out a downside to this rational view of the supernatural—like humans, the gods are often unpredictable. They do not always operate on the highest moral grounds, and they get angry and jealous, sometimes doing terrible things like exacting vengeance or calling for sacrifices. Even though Greek myth lacks wizards and demonic spellcasters, there are still plenty of horrible magic creatures—the snake-haired Gorgons, for instance—that appear to be relics of that older, primitive world. In the end, however, as Hamilton points out, the Greek hero always manages to defeat these -creatures.
At the same time, Hamilton reminds us that these myths do not really constitute the religion of the Greeks. These myths are more akin to proto-scientific stories that are meant to explain natural phenomena, such as thunderstorms or the setting of the sun. Some myths are pure entertainment and are not meant to explain anything. On the whole, the later myths appear more religious, as Zeus, the primary god, begins to resemble the sort of omnipotent God-figure familiar to modern readers—in the Iliad, he is very human and moody, but by the Odyssey he is more wise and compassionate. Zeus changes so much from the old philanderer he once was that he begins to look very much like the Judeo-Christian concept of God.
Having traced the origins, characters, and changes over time of the content of the myths, Hamilton now tackles their literary record. In this book, she explains, she has compiled myths from a wide variety of sources. The Roman poet Ovid is an especially important source, as he recorded more of the myths than anyone else, and many of the tales we have now have only survived as result of his efforts. However, Hamilton says she has tried to use Ovid as sparingly as possible because, as he appeared so late in the game, and he did not believe in the myths he was writing and merely treated them as tales. Homer, in contrast, is the earliest known Greek poet, and Hesiod, who lived in the eighth or ninth century b.c., is another very early source. Hesiod was a poor farmer, and his myths reflect his deep religious piety and the harshness of his life. Chronologically, the next source is the cycle of Homeric Hymns, though Hamilton never uses them outright in her text. The earliest Hymn was written in the seventh or eighth century b.c., and the latest in the fourth or fifth century b.c. Pindar, at the end of the sixth century b.c., was the greatest lyric poet of Greece, while Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were three famous tragic playwrights from the sixth and fifth centuries b.c. Next, Apollonius of Rhodes—important for his epic about the hero Jason—and Apollodorus, whose writing dates from the first or second century a.d., are the last two Greek writers Hamilton studies. Among the Roman authors who wrote their own versions of the original Greek myths, Virgil is most notable. Though, like his contemporary Ovid, he did not believe the myths as religious truth; he treated them seriously, seeing the important humanity at their cores.
Hamilton’s personal opinions, which come to the forefront here, are largely submerged throughout the rest of the text, as she only plays the role of collector or interpreter. Here, however, she explicitly states her theory of myths. To a modern reader, some of it may seem strange and dated, as Hamilton’s assumption of a single strand of human history—proceeding neatly from “primitive” man to the Greeks and from the Greeks to “us”—is heavily Eurocentric in comparison with the multiculturalism of today. This mode of imperialist or colonialist philosophy was popular at the time Hamilton was writing. The idea that there is a single standard of civilization— European—and that all other societies are barbaric has been discredited by the work of scholars in the intervening decades.
Hamilton’s explanations of the nature of myths also reflect her historical moment: while it may have made good sense then (“according to the most modern idea,” she says) to categorize myths as either primitive science or simple entertainment, scholars today have a more sophisticated understanding of the role of myth in culture. At times, Hamilton seems to be stretching a little, exaggerating in order to better fit her theories. She writes, for example, that Greek heroes rarely wield magic and that the mythical universe is highly rational—claims that are suspect in light of elements such as Hercules’ superhuman strength, Perseus’s magic flying shoes, and Odysseus’s visit to the land of the dead. Yet Hamilton must make these claims in order to support her argument that Greek myths reflect a more rational, cultivated, and advanced society in comparison with others. Hamilton also stretches a bit with her theories about the development of Greek religion. Like a missionary of the colonial era, she implies that the Judeo-Christian God is a necessary part of the truly civilized society. Arguing that Zeus evolved over time into a universal father figure, she implies that classical civilization became more “civilized” as time went on—an idea essential to her notion of history as a progression from primitivism to advancement. Such an evolution is not really supported by the myths she records, however, as Zeus remains a philanderer, acting foolishly, capriciously, and even cruelly to the end. Perhaps Hamilton’s theory is indeed valid, but her text does not support it with evidence.
Though Hamilton’s account may be reductively exclusive of anything contrary to her theory, she does make several excellent points about the nature of the Greek worldview and its difference from the worldviews of other ancient civilizations. The fact that the Greek gods had human forms is significant and does likely reflect the rationality of Greek society—though the Greeks were not the first or only ancient people to have them, as the early Hindus had a similar cast of divinities. Hamilton is also quite right in her observation that our own culture, even today, owes much to the Greeks, as words like democracy and philosophy attest. These myths, then, give us a window into a culture very important for understanding not only its moment and our moment, but all the years of Western history between. Though the myths’ religious and scientific appeal has faded for us, they are still beautiful, complex, and engaging stories that speak volumes about our cultural ancestors and ourselves—in ways so powerful that, as they did for Hamilton, defy explanation.
On page 380 I found it really interesting that Oedipus said " ' For the love of God, ' " a couple of times. I thought they might say for the love of the gods (plural) since they honored many not just one. Or was God considered Zeus to them?
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