Mythology resembles one large SparkNote in itself, offering a detailed overview of the myths of ancient Greece and Rome and a brief overview of Norse mythology. Since a tradition as immense as classical mythology cannot be presented in any linear fashion, Mythology frequently contains references to characters or stories that are not explained until later. Nonetheless, it is perfectly acceptable to skip around in the book to alleviate this confusion whenever it arises.

Hamilton begins by providing her rationale for the study of mythology and her understanding of its nature. She then introduces the major gods and describes the creation of the universe. Twelve primary gods live together on Mount Olympus: Zeus, the chief of these Olympians, is joined by his wife (and sister) Hera; his daughter Athena; his sons Hermes and Ares; the brother-and-sister pair Apollo and Artemis (also Zeus’s children); Zeus’s brothers Poseidon and Hades; his sister Hestia; and Hephaestus and his wife Aphrodite (both sometimes considered to be Zeus’s children as well). The names of these gods are Greek in origin, but the Romans renamed most of the gods when they adopted them. Except in cases when a story is told exclusively by a Roman author, Hamilton employs the original Greek names in her retelling. Besides these twelve are two other important gods—Zeus’s sister Demeter and his son Dionysus—who live on earth rather than on Mount Olympus.

According to classical mythology, the universe began in a manner that—remarkably—resembles the modern scientific theory of the big bang. There was originally only chaos and darkness. Out of the swirling energy Earth and Heaven arose and gave birth to many children. Though most of these children were monsters, they eventually gave rise to the Titans, a race of gods in human form. One of the Titans overthrew his sky-father, only to see his own son Zeus overthrow him later.

Zeus and his siblings defeated all the Titans in a fierce battle and installed themselves as the lords of the universe. They created humankind and promptly began manipulating their new creatures. Zeus, an incurable philanderer, frequently descended to Earth, often in some magical form, to have his way with beautiful human women. The offspring of these liaisons grew to be the first heroes among humankind, and, with the gods’ aid, won many victories against vicious monsters and completed monumental tasks. Many of these half-divine heroes, along with their few all-mortal peers, went on to found the dynasties of Greece. The most notable of these heroes are Theseus, Hercules, Cadmus, Achilles, and Aeneas.

The stories about these heroes, which account for the founding of certain cities or the legitimacy of certain dynastic bloodlines, were meant to explain phenomena that the Greeks observed in the world around them. The Greeks also told many other tales, often of a nonheroic nature, to explain the qualities of flowers, lightning, landscapes, and so on. Indeed, as Hamilton writes, these myths can be seen as “early science.” Much of classical myth, however, is far more complex than these simple explanatory tales. The works of the Greek playwrights, written around 500 b.c., portray a rich, complex social and ethical fabric and are sensitive to the most profound issues of the human condition. The protagonists of these plays, caught in webs of circumstances beyond their control, have to nonetheless face their situations and make moral decisions of direst consequence to themselves and others. Many scholars consider these Greek tragedies to be as sophisticated in their psychology and writing as anything penned since.

Hamilton reserves a final section for the traditions of the Norsemen. Unlike the Greek and Roman stories, which have been retold in many versions that still exist today, the Norse tales have barely survived. Christian obsession with the destruction of pagan material swept clean Scandinavia, Germany, and other Norse areas. Only in Iceland did written versions of Norse tales survive. These Icelandic texts, which date from about a.d. 1300 but reflect a much older oral tradition, depict a bleak, dismal, and ultimately doomed universe, headed for a day of battle between good and evil in which even the gods will be destroyed. Though Hamilton’s treatment of Norse myth is brief, it does offer a striking contrast to the comparatively sunny world of Mediterranean myth.