Monday, October 25, 2010

Reasoning: Mythology Lesson #1

I just began reading Edith Hamilton's Mythology. I have owned a copy of the book since 5th grade when I first studied mythology, but I am embarrassed to say that I had not opened it until now. I used to prefer D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths which is a wonderful, illustrated book for children. However, as a classicist and someone trying to improve my mythological background, I figured that I should read Mythology as a basic reference and a jumping off point in order to have a coherent background. I also read  The Universe, the Gods, and Men: Ancient Greek Myths, which I spoke about in a blogpost from a few weeks ago, but Jean-Pierre Vernant-- who is wonderful-- provides a limited selection of myths and tries to speak about them in some kind of chronological order lain over mythology. I have realized reading lyric and other classical poets (e.g. Pindar, Propertius) that a strong mythological background is necessary for understanding beyond and apart from good or any commentaries.
 Mythology D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths

Mythological Interpretation of a By-gone Era
Before I began this reading, I was warned that Hamilton provided a sort of stranger perspective to the modern reader, partially because it was written in 1942. However,t his did not prepare me for her attribution of religious rationality and lack of magic to the Hellenic people. I am not in much of a position to comment on the conception of magic because I am not a historian who can define magic as a cultural phenomenon. However, there is a lot of what I personally would describe as magic in Greek mythology, but I see a large amount of overlap between what I consider in literature in mythology to be "magic" and what I consider to be "supernatural." In this particular subject, I have no expertise.

Hamilton does have certain claims that trouble me more (and that trouble comes from a little more of a basis of my education). In the middle of her introduction, Hamilton contends: "the terrifying irrational has no place in classical mythology" (Hamilton 10). Really? My first classics class in college was on Euripides' Bacchae, and the lovely, very old emeritus professor who taught my class began by radically changing my view on Dionysus. He argued that there was sort of a dual view of Dionysus, at least in Athens. In the city and among the elites there was Dionysus the wine god and essentially the god of the symposium. In the rural areas around Athens, Dionysus was a very different god. Not just the god of wine he was, as  my professor put it so fabulously, the god of liquid nature (e.g. wine, milk, honey, etc). He was the god of all growing things and the changeable world of growth: both bountiful and vengeful. Imported from the East and often depicted in Eastern dress and styling (and in many stories, followed by a band of Asiatic women) Dionysus certainly represents the changeable and irrational. So Hamilton's claim seems pretty problematic to me.

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