Mythology for Dummies
January 21, 2019 6:25 PM   Subscribe

I recently read Circe by Madeline Miller, and I realized I have a huge knowledge gap when it comes to Greek and Roman mythology. I know almost nothing. Please help me get up to speed!

I'm an adult with a good brain but a short attention span. Where should I start? Should I read the Illiad? Which translation? Then what? All advice or suggestions appreciated.
posted by bonheur to Education (19 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
You want Emily Wilson's The Odyssey if you want to know about Odysseus and his escapades.
posted by smuna at 6:50 PM on January 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

Apparently Stephen Fry's Mythos (for the Greeks) is quite excellent. My own primer was Bulfinch's Mythology, which covers the myths of many cultures and is well-written and the stories are bite- (well, snack-) sized.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:51 PM on January 21, 2019 [6 favorites]

Oh! And how could I forget Edith Hamilton's Mythology, which in retrospect is better than Bulfinch, and slenderer. More slender.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:56 PM on January 21, 2019 [13 favorites]

Agreed, Edith Hamilton > Bullfinch. Those are the two classics that are commonly taught in lit classes. Bullfinch reads more like a short story collection; Hamilton is more systematic. If you're starting from zero, Hamilton makes things easier to understand. Bullfinch might be better as a follow-up. Either way, reading Homer (or Hesiod, or Virgil, or anyone really, except maybe Ovid) would be unnecessary if you just want a introductory survey and you've already read Hamilton.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:04 PM on January 21, 2019 [5 favorites]

Yes--nthing Hamilton. Plus, that quick background helps make sense of some of the more flowery allusions in Homer, if you want to take them on--and they are really fun with a good translation (no one cares if you skip the Catalog of Ships in the Iliad. Really. No one.). I liked Lombardo, even though it can be a little bombastic.

Keep in mind that the audience for the Homeric epics would already have been culturally familiar with the stuff that you're going to be picking up for the first time in Hamilton or Bullfinch. So I'd actually recommend against starting with the epics.
posted by pykrete jungle at 7:08 PM on January 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Ya edith Hamilton is great. I read a well worn copy from a friend while in theater school. Now my 9 year old is reading it. Approachable. Thorough.
posted by chasles at 7:24 PM on January 21, 2019

D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths is ostensibly for kids, but I still love the illustrations and it's pretty comprehensive.
posted by mogget at 7:29 PM on January 21, 2019 [12 favorites]

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is mostly a collection of myths and can be read as that in small chunks if you are not interested in Ovid’s larger literary goals. I’d recommend it (in good modern translation; i liked the Martin translation) or The Odyssey instead of The Illiad or The Aeneid.
posted by D.C. at 7:56 PM on January 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Do you like graphic novels? If so, you might enjoy Gareth Hinds's The Odyssey. (His version of The Illiad will be out soon.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:00 PM on January 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

STRONG second on D'Aulaire's. I love love LOVED it as a kid, and I re-bought it not all that long ago (within the last year or two). It was very enjoyable on a re-read.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:23 PM on January 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

N'th to the Hamilton and Bullfinch (which I remember from HS in the '80s). Maybe check out some of Joseph Campbell's hero's journey stuff which is more mythology in general but a lot of Greek/Roman bits.
posted by zengargoyle at 9:00 PM on January 21, 2019

D'Aulaire's is scoped for a young audience, but it's subtle and insightful. They also made an equally fascinating book of Norse Myths.

Edith Hamilton is good for a taste of gentle commentary explaining how the Romans adapted and developed some of the Greek concepts (& some groovy art by Steele Savage)

If you like these stories, The Kalevala interpreted by Ursula Synge is also very highly recommended.

Bullfinch is good for an overview of many things including Celtic myths & Arthurian legends. Next up, Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology by Robert Graves is the best doorstop with almost everything you can think of, if you can't get enough.

The Illiad and The Odyssey are complicated and challenging works. E.V. Rieu prose style translation is a reasonable starting point in my opinion, more serious scholars might disagree with me.
posted by ovvl at 9:21 PM on January 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Fourthing D'Aulaire's. That book is great.

Anti-recommending that Victorian accountant Bulfinch and the superior-but-still-not-great Hamilton.

If you want to turn to the ancient versions of these stories (which I think is best), often contemporary people respond the best to Euripides (I'd start with Medea) or the Homeric Hymns (I'd start with the Homeric Hymn to Demeter).

Get a decent, recent translation -- nothing will lead you to bounce off these texts harder than trying to read them in a free online translation from 1824 or whatever.

Everyone misspelling the Iliad is driving me crazy. It's one I, one L.
posted by crazy with stars at 9:48 PM on January 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hamilton is a good basic introduction, but keep in mind that she censors out a significant amount of nastiness. Not necessarily a fatal flaw in an introduction, though.

Everyone should read the Iliad, but it's not a short read. Getting a little background first would be helpful. If I were recommending one play, it wouldn't be anything by Euripides, who is basically the po-mo jokester of the major surviving Greek dramatists. Rather, I'd say Antigone, which has lots of nice meaty moral grappling, not too much divine intervention. But of course the same dramatist's Oedipus Rex is far more famous. It wouldn't be the worst starting point of the plays.
posted by praemunire at 10:28 PM on January 21, 2019

It looks like some of Crash Course's mythology series covers Greek/Roman mythology. They're quick edu-tainment animated videos. Likely won't cover as much depth as many of the resources recommended thus far, but could be a fast way to get started.
posted by ellerhodes at 6:58 AM on January 22, 2019

If you have Amazon Prime, there is a French series called Great Greek Myths that is really fun to watch.
posted by TrarNoir at 7:02 AM on January 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

Stephen Fry's Mythos and his follow-up, Heroes.
posted by hazyjane at 7:32 AM on January 22, 2019

I read the Edith Hamilton book in Jr. High and that gave me a good enough background on the mythology of Greece and Rome. It is a good start.
posted by mermayd at 8:25 AM on January 22, 2019

I did this Coursera course on Greek and Roman Mythology a few years ago, and really enjoyed it.
posted by featherboa at 8:45 AM on January 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

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