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THE BOOK OF GREEK & ROMAN FOLKTALES, LEGENDS & MYTHS

Edited, translated and introduced by William Hansen

ISBN 978-0-691-17015-2  Princeton  £35

 reviewed by Alan Dent

          

 Divided into eight chapters, each one subdivided, with a thorough, erudite introduction an appendix, notes and bibliography, this is an excellent compendium and reference book. Chapter 1, Kings and Princesses, begins with the story of Cupid and Psyche and includes the perhaps less well-known story of the treasury of Rhampsinitos, told by Herodotus. Grisly and somewhat bawdy it illustrates both the impossibility of keeping great wealth safe and the wiliness of those who would steal it. Like many ancient tales concerning wealth it points to its negative influence on behaviour. The following seven chapters are Gods and Ghosts, Legends on Various Themes, Tricksters and Lovers, Artists and Athletes, Memorable Words and Notable Actions, Sages and Philosophers and Numskulls and Sybarites.

            Hansenís introduction offers a panorama of the kinds of ancient stories: myth, heroic legend, historic legend, religious legend and so on. Knowing which category a story falls into doesnít necessarily enhance the pleasure in reading, but Hansensí thorough knowledge and intelligent taxonomy does make orientation in the potentially confusing world of clashing genres easier.

            The story of Narcissus is included in Chapter 2 under the designation of Lower Mythology. Itís sometimes neglected that Narcissus disdained Eros. He had no interest in love objects. Ameinais pursues him in spite of rebuffs, but Narcissus refuses his love. Only after this did he see his own reflection and become enamoured. Confused and fearing his dismissal of Ameinais was the cause of his distress, he kills himself. The story is much more complicated than is often remembered. Narcissus is destroyed by his inability to love rather than by falling for his own image.

            Pythagoras is included as a wonder-worker not a mathematician. This is not the figure every schoolgirl knows, but the man who displayed his golden thigh and believed he had super-human powers. Porphyry tells of the boy who could understand the birds. His mother urinates in his ears to destroy his gift out of fear that he will be handed over as a gift to the ruler. Theramenes escapes death when a house collapses and responds by asking ďZeus, why me?Ē Subsequently he is put to death by the Thirty, the junta which ruled Athens. Clement of Alexandria recounts the tale of Pygmalion, who apparently, was not alone in falling for the statue of Aphrodite and having sexual relations with it. The moral is taken to be that powerful art can lead people astray. Perhaps a better interpretation is that a naÔve approach to art is potentially disastrous. Taking a work of art for reality is the problem. The people who send condolences when a character in The Archers dies havenít understood that what they are listening to is factitious. Diodorus of Sicily treats sexual transformation, a common theme in ancient legends. His story is set in the fourth century BC and tells, as they all do, of the transformation from female to male, precipitating a crisis of sexual identity. Another recurring theme is the need to cure someone of the inability to laugh. The example here is from Athenaios. Parmeniskos is robbed of laughter after visiting the oracle of Trophonios, whicb involves the terror of descent into a subterranean vault. His faculty is restored when he sees the statue of the mother of Apollon, which he expects to be magnificent but which turns out to be no more than a misshapen piece of wood. Fear of life stops us laughing, the surprise of absurdity restores us to health. According to the Life of Aristophanes, when Plato sought to teach the dictator Dionysios about democracy, he sent him Aristophanesí work and advised him to stage his plays. Good advice to this day. Perhaps someone should introduce Trump and Putin to Aristophanes. Zeusís ledger, in which human misdeeds pile up and await retribution, suggests that sooner or later nefarious behaviour will bring negative consequences, but sometimes there  is a long delay. Plutarchís story of the young man who hires a prostitute only to dream of her the night before and achieve in his sleep what was he looking forward to, resolves into the couple appearing before a judge as the courtesan demands her payment. The judge tells the man to hold his purse out in the sun so it casts a shadow and the woman to take a shadow coin from the shadow purse. Donít confuse dreams with reality. Sophocles comments that he portrays people as they ought to be while Aristophanes portrays them as they are; perhaps an enduring distinction between tragedy and comedy. According to the Etymologicum Magnum, the origin of nude athletes among the Greeks was Orsippos whose loincloth fell while he was competing and he won. Many nude athletes, of course, didnít. Donít take a correlation for a cause. Plutarch tells of the Spartan claim that there were no adulterers among them. When asked what would happen to one if he or she existed, the Spartan replies the sinner would be required to provide a bull which could span the Taygetos mountain and drink from the Eurotas river. As this would be impossible, so it is impossible there are adulterers among the Spartans. Peoples always see themselves as more virtuous than they are.

            Many of the entries are short, which is a delight. This is a book to be dipped into and returned to over and over. It has many items suitable for the young. Plenty of bedtime reading. In an age short of irony in which our public figures seem to speak in inverted commas itís good to be reminded of myths, legends and tales which work by not saying what they seem to say. Perhaps apposite to our sound-bite culture is the example of the attentive donkey. Zenobios writes of the man who told his donkey a story and it wiggled its ears. The response you get to what you say doesnít always mean itís been understood.