The interpretation of myth continues to be a popular topic of study, and ritual theory remains the dominant approach to interpretation. For ritual theory readers will want Walter Burkert’s Savage Energies: Lessons of Myth and Ritual in Ancient Greece. Burkert is considered by many the primary expert on this theory, although some recent scholars have called into question his emphasis on violence in sacrificial ritual.
There is also increasing attention paid to ideological theories associated with economics, power, social status, gender, and sexuality. Eric Csapo provides a good summary of current theoretical views in Theories of Mythology. Csapo’s work is thorough, although it does not cover all the major theories. Csapo intentionally gives minimal or no attention to some important theorists—Carl Jung, Georges Dumézil, and René Girard, for instance. Nevertheless, the work serves as a good review of the field and is a helpful update to G. S. Kirk’s still useful Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures and The Nature of Greek Myths, both published in the 1970s. Another work that offers thorough discussions of various theories is Approaches to Greek Myth, edited by Lowell Edmunds. Contributors provide lengthy essays on topics including myth and ritual, Near Eastern influence on myth, Indo-European theory and myth, and psychoanalysis. In The Story of Myth Sarah Iles Johnston provides a readable account of the deeply embedded pervasiveness of myths in Greek culture and belief. Johnston tends to argue against excessive reliance on individual theories, including the ritual approach, to explain myths. She contends that these theories are too simplistic and do not account for the breadth of the network of beliefs among the Greeks. Robert Segal’s Myth: A Very Short Introduction offers a brief introduction to mythical theory for the reader seeking a summary of most current positions.
Focusing especially on myths relating to women, Lillian Doherty’s Gender and the Interpretation of Classical Myth provides an excellent discussion of the various theories of myth. Another work concentrating on women in the ancient world is Mary Lefkowitz’s revision of her influential Women in Greek Myth, originally published in 1986. This second edition adds several chapters and an additional generation of scholarship to the original. As she did in the first edition, Lefkowitz argues that Greek men were not always as negative toward women as is often assumed, and that there was in Greece a place for intelligent, assertive women. Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought, edited by Vanda Zajko and Miriam Leonard, includes essays on a wide range of topics connecting women and mythology, including psychoanalysis, politics, and mythical figures such as Antigone and the Muses. Published in 2006, this collection tends to focus on theory and will probably be of most interest to specialists. Moving forward fifteen years in feminist classical scholarship is Helen Morales’s Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths. Although she notes that myths have often perpetuated a patriarchal agenda, Morales sees in some of them the potential for challenging that agenda.3
3. Those interested in homosexuality in Greek myth should seek out Joseph Pequigney’s “Classical Mythology.” GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer Culture. GLBTQ Inc., 2002.