Hamilton first draws attention to the mistaken view that the humans of mythological times were innocent creatures in harmony with nature and their own creative imaginations. Hamilton reminds us that what we actually know about early humans is that they lived in constant fear and hardship, and that their gods were monsters who often demanded human sacrifice.
In the rest of the book Hamilton will act mostly as an interpreter and compiler, but in this introduction she clearly states her own theories about the myths. She begins by explaining what she finds so beautiful and unique about Greek mythology.
Hamilton then holds up the ancient Greeks as a beacon of light in this dark world – she sees them as having suddenly advanced far beyond other primitive, violent peoples. By the time Homer wrote the first major Greek epic, the Iliad, Greek civilization was already refined and advanced. Hamilton states that learning about how ancient Greeks thought is important to Americans of today, as we are their artistic, intellectual, and political descendants.
Hamilton is writing in the early to mid-1900s, and this part of her theory feels dated and Eurocentric to the modern reader. She creates a clear divide between the “primitive” cultures of the rest of the world, and the sudden, miraculous “civilization” of the Greeks, and then a direct line from the Greeks to “us” – white, Christian Europeans and Americans of her time.
Of the “Greek miracle” – the sudden flower of civilization and art that occurred in ancient Greece – Hamilton emphasizes the importance of how the Greeks put humanity at the center of their universe. They made their gods in their own image, unlike the Egyptian or Mesopotamian part-animal deities. This suddenly made the world seem more rational, as the Greeks could understand their gods.
This part of her theory is mostly valid, although other cultures, like the early Hindus, also had human-like deities. The gods of Ancient Greece did indeed show their worshippers’ love of rationality and the beauty of the human form.
The Greek gods not only looked human, but they acted like humans as well, even exhibiting the full range of human flaws. The gods are physically beautiful, but often characters of comedy or spitefulness, like Zeus constantly trying to hide his love affairs from the jealous Hera.
The importance of beauty will be emphasized over and over in the myths, though the frequent cruelty and randomness of the gods seems to undercut Hamilton’s theory of a rational universe.
The Greeks also made their religion accessible by making Mount Olympus, where the gods dwelt, a comfortable place that even had a physical location in Greece. All the tales of the epic heroes took place in real cities as well, so a familiar location made the myths seem more real. The goddess Aphrodite was born from the foam in a physical location that anyone could visit, and the mythical Hercules lived in the real city of Thebes.
The geographical familiarity of the Greek myths may be part of their fascination for modern readers, and have certainly made some physical locations in Greece incredibly famous. Aphrodite’s birth from the sea-foam again seems to contradict Hamilton’s larger theory about a rational Greek universe.
Because the gods seemed so familiar, Hamilton argues that the Greeks changed the idea of the “magical” to a human kind of magic, and made the world a beautiful place with a human beauty, which was no longer terrifying. There was less strange and horrible magic in the Greek myths than in most other civilizations, and though the gods often acted irrationally, the universe itself seemed relatively rational and benign.
The myths Hamilton goes on to describe do not seem to support this theory very well, as there is plenty of strange magic and horrifying punishments even from the beautiful, “benign” gods themselves.
Hamilton then reminds us of the negatives that still remained in Greek mythology. The gods themselves often acted more despicably than most humans, getting angry and jealous and inflicting terrible vengeances against the slightest provocation.
Hamilton will point out these frequent injustices throughout the book, and how they complicate the Greek notions of morality and justice. The gods’ capriciousness seems just as terrifying as evil magic.
The Greeks had also not totally purged themselves of their more “barbaric” past, and elements of it remained in their mythology, like the satyrs, who were half-goat, half man, or horrible monsters like Gorgons or chimaeras (though the Greek heroes always defeat these monsters in the end). There are also hints of earlier practices of human sacrifice, though Hamilton emphasizes that what is important is how few instances of human sacrifice there are as compared with the early mythologies of other nations.
Hamilton will continue to trace these threads throughout Mythology, expanding her theories about which myths had evolved from tales of human sacrifice, and how the later Greeks became repulsed by the idea of the gods desiring human sacrifices. Again Hamilton only focuses on religions of Europe and the Mesopotamian.
Hamilton then reminds us that though Greek mythology consists of stories of gods and goddesses, it is not an account of a religious system – it is not a “Greek bible.” The myths are meant to explain something in nature, like why the Great Bear constellation never dips below the horizon. Many of the other myths are purely for entertainment, and are basically the earliest form of literature.
Even if the Greeks did intend to explain a moral system with their myths, the gods themselves act too inconsistently to allow it. The Greek love of dramatic, poignant storytelling in their myths may be why they continue to resonate so deeply with modern readers.
Hamilton says that later Greek myths do seem to grow more “religious” in nature, particularly regarding the god Zeus. He probably began as a rain god, and then progressed into a jealous, moody thunderbolt-wielder, but by the time of the Odyssey he is more powerful and compassionate, a protector of suppliants and orphans. Later Zeus is accompanied by the figure of Justice, and Hamilton implies that he ultimately evolves into a concept similar to the Judeo-Christian God – a benevolent, all-powerful creator and father.
This is another theory that feels dated and unsupported by evidence, as Hamilton assumes that Christianity is the natural peak of civilization, and that Zeus evolved into the Christian god. The myths Hamilton will actually retell show Zeus acting just as foolishly and lecherously as ever in the later myths. The evidence will show that the Greeks began to lose respect for their gods, rather than venerate one of them above the rest.
Hamilton then describes the literary record of mythology, and the sources she uses for her book. The Roman poet Ovid is one of the most important and exhaustive sources of stories, but Hamilton tried to avoid using his versions of myths, as Ovid came so much later in history that he treated mythology as unbelievable tales rather than important religious stories.
In trying to get modern readers to deal seriously with the myths, Hamilton wants to use writers that took them seriously. Obviously she does not expect her readers to take the myths as religious truths, but she at least hopes to find the deep humanity in them.
Homer is the earliest known Greek epic poet, whose tales the Iliad and the Odyssey were written sometime around 1000 B.C. Next came Hesiod, who was a poor farmer, and his mythology reflects his religious piety and humble lifestyle. Hesiod was also the first poet to wonder about the origins of the universe and the gods.
Homer is one of the most famous writers in the world, and most readers’ first introduction to Greek mythology. Hamilton has clearly done all the hard work in compiling each story from the best sources.
The Homeric Hymns came next chronologically, though Hamilton rarely uses them. Pindar came next, and Hamilton calls him the greatest lyric poet of Greece. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were tragic playwrights from the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., and their plays are one of Hamilton’s most important sources.
Part of Hamilton’s storytelling method will involve giving a “flavor” of the writer telling the actual myth – stories by the flowery Ovid will be told with more detail, while those by the Greek tragedians will be filled with poignant ironies.
Next came Aristophanes, the writer of comedy, and then Apollonius of Rhodes, who wrote about Jason and the Quest of the Golden Fleece. Apollonius wrote around 250 B.C., when Greek’s literary capitol had moved to Alexandria, Egypt. By the time Lucian wrote about the gods, they had become subjects of satire rather than piety. Apollodorus wrote extensively about mythology, but Hamilton describes him as “very dull.”
Ironically, the two most extensive writers about the Greek myths are Ovid and Apollodorus, both of whom Hamilton tries to avoid as they are both Roman, neither believed the myths were true, and one is excessively ornate and one excessively dull. The gods became satirical figures rather than evolving into an omnipotent God.
Of the Roman writers, Hamilton emphasizes Virgil as the most important. Like Ovid, he did not believe in the myths he described, but he did treat them seriously and found the humanity in the gods and heroes.
Virgil is a Roman writer, but he did what Hamilton is trying to do – find the deep human truths in ancient mythology, without needing to believe in them as religious truth.