Although her name is the only one on the cover, Edith Hamilton is not really the author of all the tales in Mythology. It is more accurate to think of her as a collector or interpreter, as she compiled the stories in the book from the writings of various Greek, Roman, and Icelandic authors. Nevertheless, Hamilton’s choices reflect a personal point of view: the stories she includes, her methods of storytelling, and her omissions reveal her own interpretation of the myths and also reflect the time period in which she was writing.
Hamilton was born in 1867 to an American family living in Dresden, Germany, and grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In 1894, she graduated from Bryn Mawr, a women’s school in Baltimore, and was then appointed headmistress there in 1896. In 1922, she retired from her headmistress position to focus on her writing and her studies of ancient Greek and Roman civilization. Hamilton’s experiences at Bryn Mawr undoubtedly affected the perspective of Mythology, where the theme of women struggling in a male-dominated world runs throughout the text. She died in 1963, having been made an honorary citizen of Athens, an award that signified what she considered the pinnacle of her life.
Hamilton wrote a number of well-known books about Greek and Roman life, most notably The Greek Way (1930) and The Roman Way (1932). These books, along with Mythology, became standard interpretations of classical life and art, as Hamilton focused on the ways Greek and Roman value systems serve as the foundation for modern European and American societies. She wrote the books between World Wars I and II, and they clearly reflect the search for cultural roots that many felt was needed during that historical period. Written in a time of great upheaval—the global economic Depression and Europe’s disintegration before World War II—Mythology’s focus on the shared, broad, and ancient cultural heritage of America and Europe gave the book widespread appeal.
Again, Hamilton is not the original author of these myths, but their compiler from a variety of classical poets from ancient Greek and Roman civilization. Greek civilization flowered first, generating the paradigms, frameworks, and myths that the Romans later adopted. The earliest poet Hamilton uses is a Greek one—Homer, who is said to have composed the Iliad and the Odyssey around 1,000 b.c.. These two works are the two oldest known Greek texts and are—with their clear and widespread influence—considered fundamental texts of Western culture and literature. Their depictions of heroism have provided models for social morals and ethics that still resonate today. Their imaginative power has achieved no less: their characters, images, and narratives have continued to fascinate generations of readers and guide multitudes of artists.
Hamilton draws from a number of other authors besides Homer: other Greeks, such as Hesiod, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and Romans such as Ovid, Virgil, and Apollodorus. At the beginning of each chapter, Hamilton notes which authors she has used as source material for that chapter’s stories. Such citations are important, as these different authors—widely separated by time and worldview—tell radically different kinds of stories. Hamilton’s introduction offers a chronological overview of these original authors, reminding us that the Romans wrote roughly 1,000 years after Homer and about 500 years after the Greek tragedians. This time difference is significant, as the warring, fractious conglomeration of independent Greek city-states made for a very different society from the immense, stately Roman Empire, the largest and most stable empire the world had ever seen. Augustus’s Rome was a rich, sophisticated, and decadent culture, and its literature reflects this spirit. Whereas myths were very practical for the Greek authors, defining their religion and explaining the world around them, Roman authors treated the myths as elaborate fantasies told purely for entertainment or as cultural hallmarks that were used to justify Roman world dominance as a divinely decreed manifest destiny.
These contrasting motivations of the classical poets, and the degree to which such motivations are reflected in their stories, remind us that even these Greek and Roman poets were not themselves the original creators of these myths. Each written retelling of a myth was merely a new version of an old story that had been told countless times before in Greek and Roman oral and written tradition. Yet each new telling represents a new interpretation that shifts emphases and draws connections not previously made. Therefore, whether intentionally or not, each retelling radiates a new and different meaning. The same may be said here of Hamilton and her retelling in Mythology.
Brief Historical Context
The idea of “ancient Greece” itself is problematic: for most of its history, the country was disunified, comprising frequently warring city-states, each with its own culture and history. Myths largely emerged from Athens, the most dominant of the city-states and the one that especially encouraged intellectual and artistic pursuits. It is not surprising, then, that the greatest literary legacy of ancient Greece would emerge from this dominant city.
The greatest Greek epics, the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, were written during the Greek Middle Ages (roughly 1100–700 b.c.), most likely around 1000 b.c. These epics evolved from a long oral tradition that Homer supposedly transcribed, but his single authorship is disputed. Greek society transformed from its Dark Ages to the city-state society that would dominate the next several centuries. Over the course of this time, overseas trade prospered, with Athens and Sparta its principal cities. The Persian War (490–479 b.c.) gave Athens its first great glory, proving itself a naval power. Athenian culture blossomed, as the great tragic poets Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides competed in the renowned Athenian drama festivals. Myth, literature, and drama flourished. This Athenian golden age is generally regarded as the period 478–431 b.c., ending the year Athens became embroiled in the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. Athens lost the war and their dominance in the region in 404 b.c.
In 358 b.c., King Philip of Macedonia began a conquest that eventually brought all of Greece under his rule. After his murder in 336 b.c., his son Alexander the Great inherited and expanded the empire until his death in 323 b.c. During the Hellenistic Period (323–146 b.c.), Alexander's empire was divided, and Alexandria, Egypt, became the new cultural and literary center of the region.
Around 200 b.c., the emergent civilization in Rome began a process of overseas conquest and expansion. By the 140s b.c., the entire Greek empire had become a Roman province. The Romans, enamored with Greek culture and art, adopted much of it. After Caesar's murder in 44 b.c., a period of turmoil enveloped the Empire. Octavian, Caesar's grand-nephew, assumed control after his great defeat of Marc Anthony at Actium in 31 b.c. He later became known as Augustus, whose reign from 31 b.c.–a.d. 14 was a time of great prosperity and expansion for Rome. Virgil and Ovid, the most famous Roman literary figures, wrote during this period.