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The Greek and Roman Myths by Philip Matyszak

Book Review by Ursus

I have done a lot of reviews for Philip "Maty" Matyszak, Cambridge lecturer and fellow UNRV member. I hate to sound like a paid publicist, but the simple truth is I enjoy the many books of his I have read. With Greco-Roman mythology being one of my favorite areas of inquiry, I was intrigued how one of my favorite authors would approach the subject, and I was not disappointed. The Greek and Roman Myths is an enjoyable overview of the subject.

The study of mythology has been approached from a variety of perspectives over the years. In an effort to deconstruct it, modern scholars have seen it as anything from fabrications to cover real political history and class conflict, to projections of group psychology or the collective unconscious. Me? I prefer to tackle mythology on its terms, seeing it as a product of the culture that spawned it - nothing more, and nothing less. And because Greco-Roman culture is to some degree our culture, even if we are two thousand years removed from it, the stories of Olympian gods and ancient heroes are ipso facto our stories.

Given the above, Maty's approach to the book is one I can appreciate. In his introduction he gives three principle reasons for writing his work. One is to provide a "big picture" of the extent mythological corpus. While these stories spanned one thousand years and different ends of the European continent, they nonetheless forge a unified whole: "It is the greatest collaborative tale ever told, and all the more awe-inspiring for being the collective effort of two different cultures." The second is to provide the background context of the myths, and to "get into the heads" of the original audience that appreciated these stories sans modern exegesis. Finally, the author points out the relevance of it all to moderns, whether the myths are conveyed through historic works of art or everyday items of consumer culture.

The first two chapters cover the mythological creation of the cosmos through the various generations of mankind. The next two chapters provide an overview of the Olympian deities, giving their main attributes and more memorable exploits. Chapters five and six look at lesser mythological beings and the heroes of legend. The last three chapters highlight some of the major cycles of Greco-Roman myth, from the labors of Hercules to the Trojan War and its aftermath.

Maty's intelligent but lucid prose should draw in any interested reader. The book is blessed with 95 illustrations for your visual enjoyment, and includes a bibliography for further study and an index. As a rapid overview overview of the subject, designed to showcase the aforementioned "big picture" of Greco-Roman myth, it works well. For those whose secondary school backgrounds neglected the classics (an all too often occurrence, these days), this work would provide an excellent introduction.

But being more of a survey or overview than a definitive study, it is nonetheless brief, and therein lies its chief detraction. Admittedly, it would be hard to encapsulate ten centuries of mythology into a single work. Also barely mentioned are the various cults of the gods, whose details are interesting in their own rights (i.e., Dionysus as the god of drama, or the inner workings of Apollo's cult at the oracle of Delphi). But on the whole, for the goals it sets for itself, this little book is a great addition to anyone's library, and another triumph for Matyszak.

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The Greek and Roman Myths: A Guide to the Classical Stories - Related Topic: Roman Mythology


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