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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
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Mythology!