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Re: books on Greek mythology?

UPDATE 2022-08-07 21:27 +0300: Appended an Annex with some book suggestions and subsequent commentary.

I got the question in the title. My answer is copied below.


Sorry, I have no books to recommend and am not the foremost expert on the subject. I guess you already have an idea of who Homer is, so start with the Iliad and the Odyssey. You will be left with lots of questions and those will lead you to more sources. For a wiki of sorts, check: https://www.theoi.com/.

I searched for a video to help you get started. There is a lot of sensationalised rubbish out there. Though I think this one does a decent job at presenting the bigger picture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCaDjvcaWpo. The video does not go into details and makes several references that you will not be able to connect to, but it should still give you a idea of what the matter is.

What follows are some general thoughts on Greek mythology and polytheism.

The significance of locality

There is no such thing as a singular corpus that is known as “Greek mythology” or “Greek religion”. This is partially a scholarly construct based on similarities that existed between otherwise localised traditions and cults.

The ancient peoples were divided into small states, typically city-states. Each had its own customs, specific cultural events, and deities.

For example, Athens was protected by Athena: the goddess of wisdom, but also of strategy and reasonableness even at war. The famous Parthenon at the Acropolis is a temple dedicated to this goddess, while the word “parthenon” roughly translates to “virginium” because Athena is described as the ever-virgin (I don’t think this is a helpful metaphor for understanding wisdom, but whatever). By contrast, Sparta was all about Apollon.

This is why we have multiple origin stories about the gods: each locality would add its own interpretation and draw its own inferences therefrom. There wasn’t a centralised authority to impose an orthodoxy. The very notion of a “true belief”, of heterodoxy and heresy, was inconsistent with the political and cultural actuality of that world: a world of localism and, thus, a world of diversity.

To me, what we call “ancient Greece”, which is that mosaic of city-states each with their own traditions, begins to end with Alexander. He ushered in imperialism, whose homogenising gigantism and innate opposition to localism persisted through early Rome, the Eastern Roman Empire (aka “Byzantine”), the Ottomans, onto the modern protectorate of Western imperialism known as the “Hellenic Republic”.

But I digress… The point is that the peculiar brand of polytheism is part of the political reality of the time. With globalising religions comes globalising authority, and vice versa.

There is no generic good VS bad trope

Let’s take the Iliad as a case point. The epic starts in the middle of the story with a fight between two of the major characters: Achilles and Agamemnon. They are petty and shameless men who bicker over who gets to own a certain concubine. There is nothing noble about it, nothing to be proud of, nothing “heroic” in the sense we apply that term today.

The audience is not invited to identify with the protagonists and to imagine how they too can emulate the impeccable character they depict. No! Myths tell the story of fundamentally flawed humans, whose frailties of character bring about their eventual ruin. Achilles and Agamemnon are not role models: they are examples to be avoided, albeit nuanced and complex.

Further into the narrative, Achilles, a peerless warrior, reigns supreme over the leader of the opposing camp (Hector). Instead of leaving after he had won the battle, he decides to parade the dead body of his opponent by dragging it along the ground on his chariot: an act of cockiness that soon after led to the death of Achilles.

Agamemnon who, on paper was on the victor’s side of the Trojan War, did not find any glory and greatness in victory. Upon his return home, he was assassinated by his wife, because she could [rightly] not forgive him for sacrificing their daughter at the start of the campaign (Iphigenia).

[ Some stories have Iphigenia killed, others saved at the last minute. ]

There is nothing to respect about this. A father who sacrifices his daughter in his mad pursuit for power and glory. What we learn from this is that war brings the worst out of humans, as does greed and the general mindlessness with which we try to accomplish inane goals.

Hubris and the philosophy of moderation

The gruesome stories of ancient Greek culture are not about ancient Greece per se: they apply to the human condition in general. Do we need to look any further than World War II to discern humanity’s capacity for inhumanity?

Greek mythology does not beautify the human condition. It shows its failings in an attempt to add artistic flair to the core lesson of not going to the extremes.

We learn about humans who lost sense of perspective, who overestimated their abilities or who did not recognise the limits imposed up them by the given situation, and who suffered the consequences of their lack of wisdom and restraint.

[ Relevant commentary with links to more publications: Re: Hey prot, Why greek gods are represented as naked? ]

The word for going to the extremes is “hubris”, which is loosely translated as “insolence” and is presented as that brand of cockiness which pushes the human past their boundaries.

We do not need mythology to understand hubris. Just think about ordinary life:

  • There is an ongoing pandemic yet your friend takes no safety precautions whatsoever because “it’s just a common cold”. This person does not understand the gravity of the situation, while such recklessness can only lead to further trouble.

  • Someone is driving a motorcycle down the highway at full speed without wearing a helmet and protective vest. They do not admit to the the limits imposed by the human body and how their actions can affect others.

  • The government is deforesting large sections of land which then sells to boost “foreign direct investment”. The planet is being destroyed, but authorities will blithely boast about economic growth.

We can easily identify examples of hubris all around us. The key lesson, then, is not whether, say, Iphigenia dies or lives but how far are people willing to go and what they are prepared to instrumentalise in pursuit of their goals. We must question the propriety of those ends.

  • Was it worth it for Agamemnon to fight a pointless war and win it? No. And the artist answers thus by having him killed by his own wife as retribution for his vanity.

  • What is your pandemic-denying friend trying to prove? That they are immune to disease? Bullshit! That they are smarter than you? Nonsense! Whatever the goal, it is ultimately not worth it being careless.

  • Is the motorcyclist achieving anything by driving like crazy? Are we supposed to marvel at their bravery? No. We just wait for their inevitable death and, possibly, the killing of others as collateral damage.

  • Does the destruction of the planet do anything good for our longer-term outlook? Well, I hope we all know the answer.

Understand before you pass judgement

It is easy for us modern folks to misinterpret ancient sources and project our values onto them. Our culture is different, meaning that we do not have the same sensitivities as they did.

Though the greatest error is to focus too much on the details and fail to appreciate the general point. Myths remain relevant insofar as they tell us something about the human condition (they are also useful for historians and related experts, but that is not what we are discussing here).

So yeah, good luck researching this topic further. Feel welcome to share any findings. I, too, am interested to learn more about the subject.

Annex with book suggestions

After I published the above, I received an email with some book suggestions. I am quoting it with permission, while keeping the identity of my correspondent private:

Over the past few years I have read a few interesting books on that matter which might of be interest.

I do not know about their accuracy (at the least they seem somewhat well researched) and are retellings of the original myths in a more contemporary way:

  • Stephen Fry: Mythos-The Greek Myths Retold
  • Stephen Fry: Heroes-Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures
  • Homer/Emily Wilson: The Odyssey

Stephen Fry also has out a third book “Troy” which obviously is on the topic of Troy, I haven’t though read it as of know.

As said, I’m not sure about the accuracy of those retellings but at the least they had been able to give an overview of those myths and are entertaining in a way as they are written in a more “contemporary language”.

And here is the relevant part of my comment to it:

They look promising. Accuracy is always tricky with translations of this sort. It is up to the reader to not take everything at face value.

There is the variant of one myth, for example, which is often referred to as “ancient Greek” even though it is Roman in origin: the origin story of Medusa. In the original ancient Greek sources Medusa is always a monster. There is no nuanced backstory. In the Roman version of later centuries as expressed by Ovid, she is a chaste priestess who gets raped by Neptune (Roman variant of Poseidon) and is then penalised for it by Minerva (Roman variant of Athena). Minerva converts Medusa to the monster we know as punishment for her losing her virginity. I cannot understand why the goddess of wisdom, out of all archetypes, would be the one to lack basic judgement over who the victim is in the case of a rape, but I digress. The point is that this backstory is not “ancient Greek”, strictly speaking. There may be more like it, hence the need to not take things at face value.