Interview by Ursus
Dr. Philip Matyszak holds a degree from St. John's College, Oxford. He teaches an e-learning course on Ancient Rome at Cambridge University. "Maty" has authored numerous books, many of which have been reviewed at UNRV. He is a "patrician" on the UNRV forums and regularly interacts with its members.
He graciously agreed to be interviewed in reference to his newest book, The Greek and Roman Myths. Jeremy Baer ("Ursus") conducted the interview for UNRV.
UNRV: What prompted the production of this book?
Maty: The popular view of Classical mythology is one of comic-book heroes and silly squabbling gods. I found myself in the pub one night arguing quite passionately (thank you, Tetley's bitter) that on the contrary, Greek and Roman religion was a valid belief system. I still felt that way the next morning and set about organizing my argument more coherently. I soon realized that presenting the argument meant explaining to the modern reader what the myths were, so I did that too.
UNRV: I know you read Latin, but did you have to learn Ancient Greek for this book? If so, what was that like?
Maty: Many years ago I learned Greek as well, and I had to revisit it on occasion for this book. My Latin is far from perfect, but I had to swathe my head in wet towels as I grappled with Greek grammar. Fortunately I was helped by a friend who is passionate about ancient Greek. She assured me that some passages of Homer in the original would move me to tears. And indeed they did, though not in the manner she imagined.
UNRV: What is your favorite myth or work from the entire Greco-Roman corpus? Who is your favorite deity or hero?
Maty: My favourite deity is (naturally enough) Athena, the goddess of Academics. She is generally sensible and a force for good, though I'll concede that her part in the judgment of Paris was not her finest moment. But she did kick Ares' ass in the war that followed. My favourite hero, as you probably noticed, is Diomedes. He got the job done without going on about it. My favourite myth - its almost a fable - is the story of Heracles and the apple of discord. (You can't break the apple by hitting it; it just gets bigger.)
UNRV: You approach myths in this book as the ancients themselves would have understood them, and I greatly appreciated that. But personally, what do you think "mythology" is at the end of the day?
Maty: While researching this book I came across many definitions of mythology, some written in such obtuse academicese that it made ancient Greek look easy ('motifemes with phenomic content and allomotifs' anyone?) I think I once upset some students by flippantly defining a myth as that which is done by a mythter. To approach the question seriously, I'd say mythology is religion without the theology. It's an attempt to define the universe in terms of human experience, and a pretty successful attempt at that.
UNRV: The classics have been deemphasized in Western education in the last several decades ... should students still have to read Greco-Roman myths in their original languages as part of their education?
Maty: Perhaps regrettably, I think the world has moved on. Today I'd settle for students reading anything in any foreign language. It's my firm belief that to learn another language is to learn a new way of thinking. (I'm sure that the occasional rigidity of Roman thought has a lot to do with their grammar and number system). But I'd prefer people approached the classics as adults. Themes like incest, under-age sex, murder and cannibalism take some getting used to, especially when the writers have a different take on the topics to modern society.
UNRV: What is your favorite piece of art from the post classical era that depicts a mythological theme?
Maty: A fellow writer once remarked that many books on ancient history are 'slathered with renaissance porn', and its interesting that Classical depictions of myth show clothed females and naked males, while post-classical pics are generally the other way around. So I'll go with Rubens and his 'Two Satyrs' which captures the essence of drunken debauchery with nary a naked body in sight.
UNRV: I understand another UNRV member collaborated on this work. Please explain.
Maty: Because of my relative ignorance of myth and my need for helpful translators who could discuss the topic, I needed a lot of help with this book. But none of those who pitched into my education were more helpful than our own Nephele, who spent a good part of 2009 showing me things like the difference between nymphs and neriads. She should be seeing the final result in paperback soon (I sent her a copy on Friday when my author copies arrived). I hope she likes the end result. In any case, I'll take this opportunity of giving her grateful thanks.
UNRV: Anything else you want to add?
Maty: Well, partly because of Nephele's influence I wrote this with the users of the UNRV forum in mind. It's people like those who come to this website who formed my target audience. So your feedback is very welcome!
UNRV: Thank you for your time, doctor. May your book make 'mythters' of us all!
...back to the review of The Greek and Roman Myths