Skip to Main Content

Bibliography of Classical Mythology (September 2023): Special Topics

By Scott Goins and Barbara H. Wyman

Special Topics

The Greek mystery cults are perhaps most properly considered a religious phenomenon, but they are also intimately connected with mythology, particularly in the stories of Demeter, Persephone, Dionysus, and Orpheus. A good survey of the topic is Hugh Bowden’s Mystery Cults of the Ancient World. Detailed and scholarly, Richard Buxton’s Forms of Astonishment: Greek Myths of Metamorphosis treats the change of gods and persons into other forms in Greek mythology. Buxton does not discuss Ovid and other Latin writers, but his work will be useful as background for Roman authors telling myths of metamorphosis.

The connections between classical mythology and the myths of other regions is also a popular topic. Published in the 1990s, Walter Burkert’s The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age and M. L. West’s The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth drew increased attention to the influence of Near Eastern myths on the Greek myths. This focus continues in several recent books. Gods and Mortals in Early Greek and Near Eastern Mythology, edited by Adrian Kelly and Christopher Metcalf, covers a wealth of material on the interaction of the Mesopotamians, Hittites, Hebrews, and the Greeks. Carolina López-Ruiz offers Gods, Heroes, and Monsters: A Sourcebook of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern Myths in Translation, which provides a valuable selection of texts, some not previously published in English. Similar but narrower in focus is López-Ruiz’s When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East, which compares Hesiod and other Greek sources with stories from the Near East. Round Trip to Hades in the Eastern Mediterranean Tradition: Visits to the Underworld from Antiquity to Byzantium, edited by Gunnel Ekroth and Ingela Nilsson, comprises comparative views of the underworld. Thorough and scholarly, this collection links ancient views of journeys to and back from the underworld with the same motif found in early Christianity. A more specialized but still accessible view of Hades is found in the lavishly illustrated Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife in Ancient Southern Italian Vase Paintings, edited by David Sounders. Reaching back into the origins of the Greek and Roman pantheon, creation stories, and mythological motifs, M. L. West’s Indo-European Poetry and Myth is an important scholarly work that seeks to trace the influence of Greece’s Indo-European roots on Greek myth, religion, and poetry.

Although Roman mythology is often seen as a slightly veneered version of Greek mythology, the truth is of course much more nuanced. T. P. Wiseman’s scholarly but accessible The Myths of Rome focuses on the originality found in both the peculiarly Roman myths and their interpretation of Greek myths. The book is beautifully illustrated and includes discussion of the afterlife of Roman myths, especially in the Renaissance. Alan Cameron’s scholarly Greek Mythography in the Roman World focuses on the importance of a knowledge of mythology on the part of the Roman elite and on the consequently large number of Roman reference works on myth, most of which are now lost. Like Wiseman, Cameron demonstrates that mythology was vibrant in, and integral to, Roman culture. Zahra Newby’s detailed Greek Myths in Roman Art and Culture: Imagery, Values and Identity in Italy, 50 B.C.–A.D. 250 focuses especially on how the Romans used myth in art to display the wealth and erudition of the elite and to offer moral exempla. The myths and religion of the Etruscans had a huge influence on early Roman culture, and this has been the topic of several good studies. Nancy Thomson de Grummond’s thorough, well-illustrated account of Etruscan mythology, Etruscan Myth, Sacred History, and Legend, incorporates many archeological finds. A brief account is available in Larissa Bonfante and Judith Swaddling’s Etruscan Myths. The “Great Courses” series also has an excellent twenty-four-episode course on the Etruscans: Steven Tuck’s The Mysterious Etruscans.

There is no shortage of works on important themes and characters in mythology. Lowell Edmunds takes a comparative approach, using folk motifs in studying the myth of Helen in his Stealing Helen: The Myth of the Abducted Wife in Comparative Perspective. Edmunds examines the Greek authors thoroughly and shows parallels and possible influences from other cultures. He also treats the influence of the story of Helen. The other member of this Homeric couple, Menelaus, is the topic of Anna Stelow’s Menelaus in the Archaic Period: Not Quite the Best of the Achaeans. Stelow convincingly demonstrates that, though Menelaus was not one of the most important characters in Homer, he was admired by Homer and by later authors and artists in the archaic period of Greece. The multifaceted nature of Hera is the topic of Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge and Gabriella Pironti’s The Hera of Zeus: Intimate Enemy, Ultimate Spouse. Originally published in French, this important scholarly work sets about reconciling the usually negative representations of Hera in myth with the goddess’s much more positive cult and role as the protector of home and family. Tracking Hermes, Pursuing Mercury, edited by John Miller and Jenny Strauss Clay, offers twenty some essays by distinguished authors. The collection considers several aspects of Hermes, including father, son, trickster, lover, and figure of comedy. Routledge’s “Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World” series deserves mention. To date the series comprises books, by various authors, on some twenty mythological figures, starting in 2006 with Prometheus and including Apollo, Zeus, Prometheus, and others. At this writing the most recent addition to the series is a treatment of Antigone.

The intersection of psychoanalysis and mythology continues to fascinate. Work on Carl Jung tends to be general and not focused strictly on classical mythology, but there are several studies that deal with Freud and classical, or mostly classical, mythology. Although frequently dismissed by scholars of mythology, Freud consistently comes up in scholarly discussion. Rachel Bowlby takes a fresh approach to Freud and tragedy in her Freudian Mythologies: Greek Tragedy and Modern Identities. Bowlby closely engages the texts of Freud and the Greek tragedians and shows how Freud’s ideas can be understood and somewhat revised in terms of recent changes in society and family structure. Classical Myth and Psychoanalysis: Ancient and Modern Stories of the Self, edited by Vanda Zajko and Ellen O’Gorman, treats many mythical topics from a Freudian perspective. In addition to the expected topics (Oedipus complex, phallic symbol), there are essays on Freud and Prometheus and Freud and Virgil.

Monsters in myth are unfailingly intriguing. An accessible general introduction is Paul Murgatroyd’s Mythical Monsters in Classical Literature. Snakes and serpentine monsters are Daniel Ogden’s topic in Drakōn: Dragon Myth and Serpent Cult in the Greek and Roman Worlds.

Works Cited

Works Cited