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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology. Cambridge Companions to 
Literature. Edited by ROGER D. WOODARD. Cambridge: Cambridge University 
Press, 2007. Pp. xvi + 536. Paper $29.99. ISBN 978–0–521–60726–1.

Order this text for $26.99 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Online 2009.10.04

[A list of contributors and contributions appear at the end of the review.]

In a recent issue of the American Philological Association Newsletter 
(April, 2009), the organization’s president, Josiah Ober, dedicated his 
letter to the recent proliferation of companion volumes. Ober offers three 
primary reasons why he is troubled by the recent trend. First, the 
explosion of these volumes is owed largely to publishing houses’ business 
interests; as reference works, companions sell. Second, the aims of 
companion volumes are not always clear or consistent; should they aim at 
being an authoritative overview of the current state of scholarship, a 
guide to the subject for the uninitiated, or a place to present new 
research? Third, Ober wonders whether time devoted to working already 
plowed fields will come at a loss to new, innovative work.

Ober’s letter is worthwhile reading for every classicist, and for my part 
it leads to a confession: when I agreed to review the Cambridge Companion 
to Greek Mythology (henceforth “CCGM”), I had given little thought to 
companion volumes as a trend in classics. Indeed, I had just contributed a 
few pieces to one and was thus complicit in the growth of the phenomenon. 
After some reflection, it seems timely to approach the CCGM as a test-case 
for Ober’s concerns, so I beg the forgiveness of those readers whose 
primary reason for reading this review is to decide whether to purchase the 
book. Let me then cut to the chase: this is a good volume with excellent 
contributions by experts in the field, but the parts are in many ways 
better than the whole. Those interested in any aspect of Greek myth will 
likely find a thought-provoking article on the topic along with selected 
further readings. But readers should be aware at the outset that not all 
contributions are equally suitable for any one constituency, as I 
articulate below.

The CCGM is divided into three sections: Sources and Interpretations; 
Response, Integration, Representation; and Reception. The scope is vast, 
dealing with Greek myth from the earliest texts in the 8th century BC down 
to the modern silver screen. The first section might have been more aptly 
titled “Myth and Genre,” as the articles mostly treat how Greek myth 
intersected with specific ancient authors and genres. The second section 
offers more thematic studies (e.g. myth and religion, art, politics, and 
Ovid). The final section enters the realm of reception, starting with an 
article on women and Greek myth and moving on to the influence of Greek 
myth in the middle ages and the Renaissance, its reception in British and 
American literature, and finally adaptations in modern cinema. Although the 
third section alone is entitled “Reception,” the entire book can be 
viewed as a survey of the reception of oral Greek myth by Greek poets, 
writers, thinkers, cities, Roman poets, the middle ages and the modern 
world. Boyle’s illuminating piece on Ovid is instructive. Although the 
piece is located in section II, Boyle argues that because Ovid viewed myth 
as a collection of fictions (fabulae) divorced from Roman cult practices, 
he used it primarily as an instrument for thinking and exploring human 
experiences. Ovid’s employment of myth is thus arguably just as much an 
act of reception as are the Christianizing allegories of the middle ages 
and Renaissance, though no less dependent on the time in which the 
appropriation took place.

Unlike a companion to, say, Ovid, myth is so vast a topic as to be 
unwieldy, creating unique difficulties for the editor. Complete coverage is 
impossible, even though the blurb on the back claims that the CCGM 
“presents a comprehensive and integrated treatment of ancient Greek 
mythic tradition.” So offering a laundry list of topics left uncovered 
would be unfair and self-indulgent. Yet surely a companion to Greek 
mythology should somehow treat the knotty problem of the nature of myth 
itself and what the study of it entails; although many of the contributions 
touch upon these topics, a relatively uninformed reader in particular would 
benefit greatly from a comprehensive overview. There are other significant 
gaps as well. No contribution, for instance, treats the relationship 
between myth and history or that between mythography and history. Early 
mythographers such as Pherecydes, Acusilaus and Hellenicus are hardly 
discussed on their own terms, while Carolyn Higbie’s generally useful but 
slightly outdated overview on Hellenistic mythographers treats the impulse 
to compile myths in the Hellenistic period as a phenomenon unique to that 
time, although compilation and organization were at the core of most 
earlier mythographers as well. There is little to nothing on Herodotus or 
Thucydides, and minimal discussion of the Greeks’ and Romans’ 
rationalizing or allegorical interpretations of their own myths. 
Palaephatus is nowhere found, while Euhemerus/-ism merits only four brief 
mentions, none of which directly explains it or discusses its influence.

The CCGM will thus not be a resource for every specific question, author or 
aspect of Greek myth. This is not a fatal flaw, since the book offers so 
much food for thought. But what do we as a field want Companion volumes to 
be? Some articles in the CCGM offer clear, unobjectionable overviews of a 
subject that seem clearly intended for the uninitiated; others present more 
sophisticated arguments with selected examples to illustrate their points; 
still others advance wholly new arguments that—Ober warns—may well 
languish because they are buried in a companion volume.

Woodard’s own contribution, for example, although comprehensive and 
thought-provoking, can be seen as a test-case for some of the issues facing 
companion volumes. “Hesiod and Greek Myth” is by far the longest 
contribution in the volume, coming in at a staggering 82 pages (no other is 
longer than 34 pages), and the most involved in terms of argumentation. The 
title is a bit misleading, since the piece is less an explication of Hesiod 
than an exploration of the Near Eastern and Indo-European antecedents and 
parallels to the myths in the Theogony and Works and Days. Woodard first 
surveys the main Near Eastern parallels to the succession myth in the 
Theogony, most of which are by now well known to those working on or 
teaching myth. [[1]] Such extensive treatment seems out of place in a 
companion volume, especially since much of the same territory is treated in 
Martin West’s East Face of Helicon, and a summary overview might easily 
have sufficed. Woodard’s supposition that the most likely point of 
entrance of the succession myth into Greece was through the Phoenicians in 
Cyprus (essentially reviving and modifying Güterbock’s Ras Shamra 
thesis) puts too much credence in the problematic theogony preserved in 
Philo of Byblos and implicitly ties the entrance of the myth to the arrival 
of writing in Greece. But even more problematic for a volume of this type 
is the elaborate argument, partially following Vernant, that the Ages of 
Mankind myth in the Works and Days reflects a specifically Indo-European 
tradition. This position does not follow the party line and seems worth 
advancing (though I hasten to add that I do not control all of the evidence 
and cannot adjudicate on its merits), especially since it has the potential 
to change the way we look at Hesiod. But does an argument so elaborate and 
complex as to be accessible to only a few experts belong in a companion?

Jonathan Hall’s far more accessible “Politics and Greek Myth,” by 
contrast, uses three representative case studies to show the ideological 
appropriation of myth by poleis. [[2]] But Hall, like Woodard, puts forward 
new argumentation, arguing that the Pisistratids were influential in 
creating the apparatus of the Theseus myth. Diskin Clay (“Plato 
Philomythos”) also employs a representative selection of Platonic 
“myths” to remind us that “of all Greek philosophers, Plato is the 
most mythopoeic” (p. 212) and that “Plato’s real quarrel is not with 
Greek myth; it is with the poetry of the Greek polis and its false and 
debasing representations of reality” (p. 213). Clay thus illustrates how 
Plato’s own mythopoeia is meant to act as a countercharm to the 
misrepresentations in traditional Greek myth. Likewise, Claude Calame 
(“Greek Myth and Greek Religion”) chooses five case studies in which a 
mythical tale was called upon to legitimate cult practice. [[3]] This 
mainly occurs through aetiology, but the activation of a myth in ritual 
also unites the past with the present to form “an active history” that 
serves as collective memory but can also be adapted to fit the present 
religious or political context.

All three contributions strike a fine balance, offering a general survey of 
the topic with illustrative examples. But selection comes at the cost of 
coverage. A student reading through a translation of Greek lyric poets and 
intrigued by the use of myth in (say) Pindar and Bacchylides might 
naturally turn to Nagy’s “Lyric and Greek Myth” for guidance. What 
will she find? First, an excellent discussion of lyric as genre; Nagy is 
careful not to assume that his readership comes to the topic already 
informed. The crucial explication of the relationship of the performative 
setting to the composition of myth follows. The position advanced—“the 
performing of a composition is an activation of myth, and such activation 
is fundamentally a matter of ritual” (p. 19)—is illustrated by focusing 
on (primarily) Sappho and (less so) Alcaeus, the ritual space of the Messon 
on Lesbos, and the Kallisteia festival. Understanding the context of 
performances and the creation of mythical poetry is fundamental to 
understanding Greek myth. Yet the focus on performance means that a reader 
looking to learn about Pindar and Bacchylides, lyric poets who employed 
narrative myth extensively in their hymns, will have to be content with 
short discussions of Nemean 7.61–4 and Olympian 1.28–32 and two 
offhanded references to Bacchylides. Likewise, Nagy’s “Homer and Greek 
Myth” focuses on the thesis that the performative framework is crucial to 
understanding the activation of an epic mythos (defined again as the 
performative act itself). Unlike lyric, which lays claim to the truth of 
purely local myths, epic myth privileges the past over the present; myths 
become delocalized in the hands of an epic poet and thus in a sense become 
falsehoods controlled by the “master narrator.”

As it happens, there is as much Pindar in Nagy’s piece on epic as in his 
article on lyric. This is also true of Richard Buxton’s “Tragedy and 
Greek Myth,” which offers a summary discussion of the Jason/Medea myth in 
Pythian 4 and compares it to the accounts in Apollonius Rhodius and 
Euripides’ Medea. This piece, exemplary for its clarity, treats the 
location of tragic myths (i.e. in liminal spaces in terms of place, 
ethnicity and the mind) and offers a general treatment of how the gods are 
represented in tragedy. Although Buxton hints at the differing notions the 
tragedians had of the gods (pp. 177–8), his approach is rather to 
generalize and to discern what is common among them. Students will be 
grateful for his gentle (but hardly “simple”) synthesis, whereas 
scholars are unlikely to learn much here. Contrast Woodard’s article.

Given the subject matter, tragedy easily lends itself to discussions of 
myth, but old comedy, as we learn from Bowie’s “Myth in 
Aristophanes,” presents more difficulties. Despite its title, almost half 
of his article treats the fragmentary remains of old comedy, chief among 
them those of Cratinus’ Dionysalexandrus, in which Dionysus becomes a 
failed Paris. Aristophanic comedy, as it turns out, is not overly mythical, 
at least in a narrative or structural sense. Much attention is naturally 
given to Aristophanes’ parodies of tragedy, especially those in 
Thesmophoriazusae and Acharnians (a superb discussion). But Bowie also 
treats the sundry—and often sophisticated—ways Aristophanes employs 
myth, assuming familiarity with Euripides’ plays and (e.g.) the Telephus 
myth on the part of the reader.

Jenifer Neils’ knowledgeable “Myth and Greek Art: Creating a Visual 
Language” begins in medias res. After taking the reader through an 
art-historical reading of a kylix by the Codrus painter that illustrates 
seven exploits of Theseus (ca. 430 BC), Neils traces the development of 
Greek mythical art (that is, of its visual language) that made such a piece 
possible. She focuses on two questions: what tools did artists have for 
depicting myth (and how the visual language itself came about), and how did 
artists make their theme relevant? Although necessarily selective, Neils’ 
contribution serves as a fine introduction to her topic.

Ada Cohen’s intriguing “Mythic Landscapes of Greece,” on the other 
hand, offers a kind of “first-look” into the emerging scholarship on 
mythical landscapes. Cohen acknowledges the difficulties in the subject; 
notions of landscape in archaic and classical Greece can be traced only 
discontinuously (I wonder if at all), and the Greek predilection for 
anthropocentrism means that only isolated elements of landscape appear in 
art. But despite a long, discursive discussion in which Cohen wrestles 
these isolated elements (caves, countryside, mountains, rivers, underworld, 
etc.) to a draw at best, I find it hard to agree that these “solitary 
forms could act as signals for the imagination to roam in dreamy places. 
This surely amounts to a rich and viable conception of landscape” (p. 
327). Cohen’s article raises interesting questions; but one must make 
giant leaps of faith to reach substantial answers, perhaps because the 
evidence is not there. It is unfortunate that the article does not include 
the Hellenistic and Roman periods, where there would be more, and in many 
ways more interesting, material to investigate.

Those interested in Nachleben will have much to digest, though here too the 
articles are irregular in focus and coverage. The section begins with an 
excellent (and obligatory?) article on “Women and Greek Myth” by Vanda 
Zajko, which has little to do with women in Greek myth. Zajko 
pessimistically—and I think rightly—rejects our ability to extract 
useful information about real ancient women from ancient myths about women. 
Instead, she turns to a more positive discussion of modern feminist 
reactions to and rewritings of Greek myths. Following Brumble’s piece 
(mentioned at the beginning of this review) comes Sarah Annes Brown’s 
wide-ranging overview of the appropriation of myth by English and American 
writers, which insightfully discusses the impulses of writers who sought 
the pure, unmediated, authentic past, stripped of all intervening 
appropriations of myth, and of other who owed just as much to such 
intermediate layers (e.g. Shakespeare, Milton). Although a Cambridge 
publication will naturally be aimed at English-speakers, it still seems 
lamentable that little is said of Greek myth’s influence on or 
appropriation by other cultures.

As the final contribution, Martin Winkler’s piece on myth in cinema again 
reminds us how malleable myth continues to be. The tradition of reshaping 
myths to reach contemporary audiences (“neomythologism”) reaches back 
into antiquity itself, a gentle reminder to classicists who groan when in 
the movie Troy Menelaus dies at an overly protective Hector’s hands that 
the movie has grossed about 250 times their average lifetime earnings. 
Winkler explores why modern directors of mythical movies make certain 
decisions (particularly interesting are Tessari’s Fifteen Commandments of 
modern mythico-historical filmmaking and the views of Harryhausen). After 
all, the modern director’s motive—to please an audience—is not as far 
removed from that of early Greek poets as we might want to admit.

The CCGM’s coherence, then, lies in its constant attention to each 
successive generation, genre, or medium’s reaction to Greek myth, that 
“multifaceted, multifarious and multivalent … phenomenon” (p. 1). The 
volume is filled with (mostly) stimulating articles that will (mostly) 
enlighten readers interested in a given subject. But there is wide 
divergence among the articles in terms of scope, purpose, coverage and 
level of sophistication. In short, I remain unsure to which audience the 
book is pitched. In any given instance a general reader, an undergraduate, 
a teacher or scholar might benefit from consultation, but it is impossible 
to know who will until one has pulled the book off the shelf and read the 
article in question. Companions should surely seek internal consistency, in 
order to avoid becoming idiosyncratic collections of articles orbiting at 
various distances and in widely divergent paths around a central topic. If 
consistency cannot be achieved, perhaps we should abandon companion 
projects altogether and return to producing fundamental even if drier 
handbooks offering answers to the most common questions and providing 
references to the most recent scholarship on a topic—and allow 
groundbreaking work on a subject to find its way to scholarly journals.

University of New Hampshire
Fondation Hardt
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Contents & Contributors
Part 1: Sources and Interpretations
1. Lyric and Greek Myth (Gregory Nagy)
2. Homer and Greek Myth (Gregory Nagy)
3. Hesiod and Greek Myth (Roger D. Woodard)
4. Tragedy and Greek Myth (Richard Buxton)
5. Myth in Aristophanes (Angus Bowie)
6. Plato Philomythos (Diskin Clay)
7. Hellenistic Mythographers (Carolyn Higbie)

Part 2: Response, Integration, Representation
8. Greek Myth and Greek Religion (Claude Calame)
9. Myth and Greek Art: Creating a Visual Language (Jenifer Neils)
10. Mythic Landscapes of Greece (Ada Cohen)
11. Politics and Greek Myth (Jonathan M. Hall)
12. Ovid and Greek Myth (A.J. Boyle)

Part 3: Reception
13. Women and Greek Myth (Vanda Zajko)
14. Let Us Make Gods in Our Image: Greek Myth in Medieval and Renaissance 
Literature (H. David Brumble)
15. “Hail, Muse! et cetera”: Greek Myth in English and American 
Literature (Sarah Annes Brown)
16. Greek Myth on the Screen (Martin M. Winkler)

[[1]] Namely, the five Hittite texts that seem to form a cycle of myths 
taken from the Hurrians (Song of Kumarbi, Song of LAMMA, Song of Silver, 
Song of Ḫedammu, Song of Ullikummi), the Babylonian Enuma Elish, the very 
fragmentary theogony of Dunnu, and Sanchuniathon’s Phoenician theogony 
(apud Philo of Byblos).

[[2]] (1) The bones of Orestes and Spartan-Argive politics; (2) Theseus: a 
Pisistratid or Cleisthenic creation?; (3) The orientalization of the 

[[3]] The HH to Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries; Bacchylides Dithyramb 
17 and the Delia on Delos; Callimachus Hymn to Apollo (and Pindar Pythian 
9) and the Carneia at Cyrene; an anonymous dedicatory paean to 
Dionysus/Apollo and the Theoxenia; and Euripides’ Ion and the City 

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