Edith Hamilton: Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes – Review

Frankly you couldn’t ask for more from an introduction to mythology book. Edith Hamilton writes with complete lucidity without losing any of the magic of the original stories. Her style is neither dry nor overly verbose and she manages to pack in a lot of information into a small space in sharp literary prose.

To me the most interesting accounts of myths in this collection were:

– The story of Dionysus who, although I have read a lot about Dionysian concepts through Nietzsche, I didn’t know a lot about his character. “The worship of Dionysus was centered in these two ideas so far apart—of freedom and ecstatic joy and of savage brutality.”.

– The story of Theseus which included small pieces of information about each one of his adventures that made me curious to learn more about him. He is by far the more archetypal Hero than his contemporary Hercules and his tale connects to almost every other other famous Greek legend.

– The story of Daedalus the genius inventor, creator of the Cretan Labyrinth and father of Icarus. “He [Theseus] had Daedalus, a great architect and inventor, construct a place of confinement for him from which escape was impossible”. Daedalus was a fascinating figure precisely because he as the creator of the Labyrinth was the one who suggested for Ariadne to give Theseus the string. Daedalus is the epitome of the pharmakon.

– The retelling of the Iliad (Homer’s epic tale of the Trojan war is one we are all familiar with but Hamilton provides an excellent summary of long and complicated story.)

– And the retelling of the Aenid (I for one wasn’t quite aware of the lengths Virgil and the Romans went to link themselves to the bloodline of the Trojans but it’s fascinating.)

Hamilton is clearly a scholar of both Homer and Virgil but her retellings of these classic tales bring them to life in such a concise yet entertaining way that either your children or your grandparents would find them equally informative and enjoyable. In fact, although the Iliad has been on my reading list for years I never wanted to read the Aenid until I read this book.

Those were just a couple of things that stood out to me but of course this book covers all the escapades of the gods, demi-gods, and heroes, as well as the stories of creation and the much later Roman interpretations of earlier tales.

Overall this isn’t the scholarly source book that something like Robert Graves’ Greek Mythology is but it’s an immensely readable collection of the most important myths from antiquity (it even includes a very short section at the end that covers the Norse gods!)

In my opinion this book has not dated at all and I think even modern readers would be hard pushed to find a better introduction to Greek mythology. 5*