Friday, 28 October 2011

Review: The Greek and Roman Myths: A Guide to the Classical Stories by Philip Matyszak

This book is a concise introduction to and overview of the myths of classical Greece and Rome. It begins right at the start of the universe’s (or cosmos’) creation and proceeds until the Odyssey and Aeneid which tell the tale of two heroes after the Trojan War ended.

Although far from dry it is more strait-laced than the other books (the Legionary and Gladiator Unofficial Manuals, which I highly recommend) I’ve read by the author. Having read a few works of classical literature it’s easy to appreciate the difficulty of sorting the entangled and various accounts of myths into anything approaching a coherent narrative, and Dr. Matyszak does a good job.

It should be stressed that whilst there are summarised accounts of a few major myths (the likes of Perseus, Aeneas and so forth featuring particularly prominently) this is not so much a collection of abridged stories as an over-arching guide to the entire canon of Greek and Roman myths.

There are multiple references to the later impact of classical myths upon the world, such as where words derived from the myths, works of art inspired by various divine shenanigans and so on. In addition, there are a number of photographs and illustrations of the gods and heroes.

The parts I found most interesting were actually the earliest bits and pieces, as the Trojan War and its aftermath for Odysseus and Aeneas are pretty well-known. I didn’t, for example, realise that Aphrodite was actually the oldest of the Olympians.

Another aspect of the book that was new to me and helpful as well as interesting was the concise explanation of how Greeks and Romans viewed their gods. This is my own example, but to an extent they might praise Zeus for rain in the same way a modern person might say “Thank God for that” (ie not necessarily a literal thanking, just an expression of relief at a handy change in the weather). The Olympians and heroes as forces of civilising order arrayed against the monsters and wilderness of chaos was another perspective I hadn’t considered before.

It is somewhat tangled, with multiple references throughout to characters who are involved in multiple myths, however, this is the nature of classical mythology. Everything’s interwoven and there are often multiple accounts of single events.

If you’re after an overview of classical mythology, this is nice and concise, clearly written and covers the major stories (although Dr. Matyszak was a bit rude about Telamonian Aias, my favourite hero of The Iliad).

There’s a slightly short section at the end on further reading, and I was surprised to see that I’d read many of the suggestions. The Iliad (apparently Lattimore’s version is excellent, but I’ve got the Rieu translation recommended in the back) and Odyssey are obvious starting points, and the Aeneid, though later, is also worth reading. To be honest, I found West’s translation of Hesiod’s Theogony and Work & Days to be the most easy to read of classical literature, but it is quite brief.

The author also refers to a number of other books, including Graves’ Greek Myths, which I’ve been intending to buy for about four years now.


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