Author Stephen P. Kershaw states his goals as follows: this book provides an overview of a large amount of the raw material of Greek mythology, and makes constant reference to the original source material, "as the myths speak most effectively when they speak directly". The book explores some of the "resonance and relevance" of the tales of Greece, from ancient times to the twenty-first century. Kershaw does not claim to offer the reader a substantial connection to modern research or knowledge related to the Greek myths - be they archaeological, anthropological, hermeneutic or whatever - and he certainly does not do so.
Writing yet another guide to the Greek myths has been a steady industry for classics teachers since writing took over oral storytelling. Why then another one to throw on the pile? Who is this book aimed at? Neither the book cover nor the author state the intended audience. This is not a book for those who just want to read the stories for entertainment or to get a quick overview. On the positive side, Kershaw's take is quite good for amateur enthusiasts, and could be used as a 101 text for students not planning to go farther with classical studies. It is readable and yet based on multiple original sources; it is broad and yet goes into substantial detail; it gives an overview of the plots and relevance of important plays; it livens up the myths with many examples of the "resonance and relevance" up to modern times; and Kershaw is enthusiastic (in most chapters) and gives enlightening insights and etymologies.
The most important drawback for students is that Kershaw makes little connection between his text and modern knowledge or research: the references are mainly to ancient original sources and the list of further reading has scant recent material. When the author makes a reference that is not to ancient original sources, it is usually to a paper that is decades old. In the few cases where Kershaw does explicitly write about recent findings, he often does not even give a reference. For students this book is neither fish nor fowl: it is much more serious than guides aimed at non-students and it offers tools for students (detailed text, explanations of sources, notes, a list of further reading and an index), but, again, with little reference to what has been learned in the last decades. This is surprising for someone who "wrote his Ph.D. under Richard Buxton, arguably the leading scholar on Greek myths in the world" (first page) and who does not hesitate to snub the claims of others (page 442 gives one of several examples).
The Preface and Introduction give beginners some motivation for learning the myths. The Introduction explains the sources and the power, richness and relevance of the myths. "They can have enormous social significance and be used to embody the values of entire societies. ... they are `good to think with', and they embody a great deal of the way in which the Greeks understood their world. They were not regarded as revealed scriptures, let alone the truth about the gods, but they did help to define human beings' relationship with the gods." Perhaps Kershaw is right concerning revealed scriptures, but the ancient Greeks and even the Romans took their gods seriously and blasphemy was often punished. As Kershaw points out, the Greeks did not consider a myth to be necessarily untrue. Perhaps society's interpretation of its myths always evolves over time, from revealed truth to literature and cultural inheritance. In any case, our literature and our contemporary language are built upon the ways of thinking set out in our founding myths. This is the ultimate motivation to be familiar with them.
The Introduction and the final chapter deal with the myths in general and how they have been interpreted: as semi-historical, as moral allegories, as explanations of nature, as aitiologies (explanations of the origin of the Universe), as a basis for comparing cultures, as explanations for rituals, as a prop for theories (Freud, Jung, Levi-Strauss, Vladimir Propp etc.) and ideologies (feminism, Marxism), and as a prop for light entertainment (TV documentaries, Erich von Daniken). They are also used for making money by rehashing and then publishing that which is already known. There is no single correct method for interpreting myths. Most myths have many variants from many sources. The motives of the narrator and the audience usually shaped how a myth was told. There is no reason to believe that the variants of a given myth are all based on an original and uniquely authentic version.
For enthusiasts the book is worth reading. This ends my review. Below are some related ideas mainly from Kershaw's book.
The Greek Zeus is, in origin, the Indo-European (Vedic) sky god Dyaus who derives his name from the Sanskrit root diut, "to beam", and diu, "sky" and "day". Zeus pater, "father Zeus", and Dyaus pita, "father Dyaus", come from the same Indo-European root. The Nordic sky god Tiw, who gives his name to Tuesday, has the same derivation. So does the Latin Jupiter, who has an older form Diespiter - the same root gives the Latin words deus, "god" and dies, "day". The powers of Zeus, the head of the gods of Mount Olympos, are detailed by Aiskhylos: Zeus is the air, Zeus earth, and Zeus the sky, Zeus everything, and all that's more than these.
The Greek myths have probably been influenced by Hittite myths, with which there are striking similarities. Other possible influences are from the myths of Babylon, Phoenicia and Egypt. All had mother and father gods; gods of the earth and the sky. It is unlikely that one set of myths was the original basis for all the others. Good ideas for stories or fragments of stories were recycled creatively.
Hesiod, one of the earliest and most significant historians of Greek mythology, tells the myth of the five successive races of mortals. The golden race lived in the time of Kronos. They lived a very long happy life without ageing and simply died in their sleep. The silver race that followed was inferior, living reckless lives of hubris towards each other. Because they spurned the gods too, Zeus hid them and they became the spirits of the Underworld. The bronze race used much bronze. They were even more inferior and self destructive. The fourth race produced the mortal heroes that fought at Thebes and Troy. They were better and more just than the bronze race. The final and current race is the iron race. Ours is a time of toil, grief and death and the future will be even worse: might will be right, morality will disintegrate, evil will flourish and shame will disappear.
The Titan Prometheus is most known for giving humanity the fire, symbolic of the spark of human intelligence, that Zeus had withheld from them. Later traditions represent Prometheus as the actual creator of humanity, having moulded them out of water and earth. In post-classical traditions, Prometheus' confrontation with Zeus came to symbolize resistance against tyranny. For the Romantics he was the human spirit tussling against priests and kings; Goethe interpreted him as the personification of doing good, not just dreaming of doing it. In Shelley's drama "Prometheus Unbound", he champions mankind, embodying the highest moral and intellectual achievements and illustrating the struggle between good and bad, ushering in the golden age of love and beauty as Jupiter is unthroned. Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus" draws on the tradition to engage in issues such as the creation of life and the limits of human ingeniousness. (Mary Shelley's metaphor is interesting because Prometheus was born mortal but was later made immortal by Zeus.) Wikipedia writes: Prometheus became a figure who represented human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge, and the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences. In particular, he was regarded in the Romantic era as embodying the lone genius whose efforts to improve human existence could also result in tragedy. [Impressive how such a "small" myth is leveraged to such fantastic proportions!]
The myth of Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece comes from several sources including Pindar, Diodoros, Hyginus, Ovid and the best known version of Apollonios. The story and Jason himself show substantial emotional maturity in comparison to Homer's macho, punch and skewer heroes. Jason is modern and Hellenistic. His relationships with women and the women themselves are more complex. Herakles, one of Jason's Argonauts, has a ham-fisted approach to life that is anachronistic. Medeia helped Jason acquire the Golden Fleece and became his wife. She had a relatively simple role up to the time when they return to his homeland. Euripides writes the story following the Golden Fleece, after Jason dumps Medeia, where she is the main character and one of the most subtle in Greek drama. In his plays "Medeia" and "Alkestis" (p85), both written in the 5th century BC, Euripides confronts the Greeks with the wrongness of their unthinking paternalism.
The ancient character of Herakles was often portrayed as egotistical, violent and lustful. Diogenes the Cynic saw Herakles as asserting the freedom of the individual against the artificial constraints of convention and tradition. Theokritos subverted the ancient character, undercutting the traditional heroism.
Hisarilik, in the north-west corner of modern Turkey, is often identified with Homer's Ilion. What we call Troy is in fact Ilion (earlier Wilion), but its inhabitants are Troes (Trojans), named after the hero Tros, and their territory is known as the Troia (Troad).
Although Troy existed as an important Hittite fortification, there is no proof that a ten year siege comparable to that in the Iliad ever took place. One motivation for Greek storytellers was that the story of a Greek military victory was pleasing for their audience. Another important motivation was that it vindicated Greek movements into Asia Minor. It provided a justification for the colonizing movement. In Homer the Trojans are treated as cultural equals. Later, after the Persians invaded Greece, the storytellers portray Trojans as barbarians.
The Iliad is not purely about grand heroic achievements. It has been called the tragedy of Hektor. Homer's book offers macho adventures, but also (some) deeper aspects of the feelings of the characters.
The word nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos (return journey) and algos (pain). Page 451: The word brother has several original variants: brahtr (Sanskrit), bruodar (Old German), frater (Latin), brodthor (Old English).
The Oresteia trilogy from Aiskylos is one of the most powerful ancient Greek dramas. In the final play, the Furies or Eumenides are persuaded as a result of a vote to relinquish their anger against Athens and take up residence there. This is symbolic of change of political order in the life of the author in the 5th century B.C., where tyranny is replaced with democracy.
The myth of Atlantis has inspired countless stories but has a surprisingly modest basis. It was part of a late and unfinished work from Plato. He used this to used the story to contrast the decadence of the barbaric Atlanteans (after their virtue was corrupted by luxury) with the modest Athenians. The Atlanteans incorporate aspects of various real or mythical barbarians known to the Athenians.