Sunday, June 14, 2015


Lowell Edmunds, Approaches to Greek Myth. Second edition (first edition 1990). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. Pp. viii, 470. ISBN 9781421414195. $29.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Anthony F. Mangieri, Salve Regina University (

Version at BMCR home site


The second edition of Lowell Edmunds' Approaches to Greek Myth makes an important contribution to its subject by updating, revising, and contextualizing what was already an excellent collection of essays. Eight chapters by leading scholars present case studies that introduce the reader to eight approaches to Greek mythology: the history of myth (Pàmias), myth and ritual (Versnel), comparative mythology with Near Eastern and Indo-European traditions (López-Ruiz and Nagy, respectively), comparative folklore (Hansen), narratology (Calame), iconography (Sourvinou-Inwood), and psychoanalysis (Segal). This edition offers much new material that merits reading and purchase of this volume even if one already knows and owns the first edition.

Edmunds outlines the changes to this second edition in the preface to the book (compare the table of contents in the first edition: Preview). This book reprints (and reedits) only two chapters from the first edition, those by H.S. Versnel and Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood. The chapters by Joseph Falaky Nagy, William Hansen, and Claude Calame have been revised by the authors. Robert Mondi's "Greek Mythic Thought in the Light of the Near East" from the first edition has been replaced by Carolina López-Ruiz's "Greek and Near Eastern Mythologies: A Story of Mediterranean Encounters." Likewise, Robert A. Segal's "Greek Myth and Psychoanalysis" replaces Richard Caldwell's "The Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Greek Myth". Carlo Brillante's original chapter on "History and the Historical Interpretation of Myth" also does not appear in the second edition, but Edmunds discusses this subject in his general introduction. A new chapter by Jordi Pàmias addresses the reception of Greek myth. New introductions by Lowell Edmunds precede each chapter and provide summary, context, and discussion that will be useful to readers looking to place each contribution within its intellectual tradition. Thorough bibliographies and extensive notes accompany each individual contribution.

The new parts of this book are insightful. Lowell Edmunds' "General Introduction" thoughtfully begins the volume with a discussion of "the practice of Greek myth," meaning "how persons used and experienced myth in daily life" (19). This allows him to touch on a variety of subjects, such as the relation of myth to history, poetry, and religion, among others. Especially useful is Edmunds' discussion of pragmatics as an approach to Greek myth, taking into consideration its benefits and limitations. At the end of the introduction, Edmunds considers some current work in the field, like that of the Italian historical-anthropological school, and looks ahead to what is next, suggesting that a future edition of this book would need a chapter on mythography.

Jordi Pàmias' chapter on "The Reception of Greek Myth" begins with Homer and surveys this subject through the nineteenth century with discussion of pertinent authors. While Pàmias credits sixth and fifth-centuries BCE logographers as the "inventors of mythology—understood as an organized collection of myths, a system" (50), he traces their enterprise back to earlier genealogical literature. Pàmias, moreover, suggests that "it is possible to take the view that Homeric epic is already an early form of the reception of myth in the sense of a kind of story that transcends the text" (46). I agree with his interpretation, which potentially offers new ways to think even more broadly about the relation between literary forms of myths and those from lost oral traditions.

The two chapters with new authors also make nice additions to this volume. Carolina López-Ruiz's chapter explores the comparative approach of looking at the relation of Greek mythology to traditions in the Near East. The beginning of her chapter reviews previous scholarship and the issues that have characterized the difficulty in reconciling Greek and Near Eastern parallels. Recent scholarship shows how "comparison no doubt holds the key to many unopened doors" (159) and how the state of this field "tantalizes us with the possibility of an apparently inexhaustible line of research" (154). A section on "Methodological Considerations" offers nine pitfalls that scholars should avoid in a comparative perspective. These range, for example, from warnings to avoid thinking of the "Near East" as a monolithic cultural entity to suggestions that we use terms like "adaptation," "appropriation," and "cultural transactions" rather than "simple borrowing" to describe such exchange between cultures (159-60). A final section offers an overview of genres, themes, and mythical figures that find parallels between the Greek and Near Eastern worlds, including discussions of Zeus and Aphrodite, connections between Homer's poems and the Epic of Gilgamesh, and relation between Greek cosmogony and the Hurro-Hittite Song of Release. López-Ruiz's suggestion that we can speak of a "mythological koine" or "international mythological language" from the Late Bronze Age and later is sound and supports the approach of seeing Greek culture as part of, rather than separate from, the cultures of the Near East.1 This important chapter should become standard reading for anyone looking for a brief but sophisticated overview on this subject.

Robert A. Segal's chapter provides an overview of psychoanalytic approaches to Greek myth. Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung figure prominently, and Segal offers clear explanations of their theories and how they apply to myth. The long quotation of Freud on the Oedipus myth from his The Interpretation of Dreams (p. 411), and Segal's discussion of it revisits a canonical text. The section entitled "Freud and Jung" nicely compares the two and outlines clearly similarities and differences that could easily confuse a student encountering these thinkers for the first time. Besides Freud and Jung, Segal discusses the work of those following in their footsteps. In particular, Otto Rank's The Myth of the Birth of the Hero and Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces receive detailed treatment. A section on "Frazer and Jung on Adonis" uses the Adonis myth as a case study to compare nineteenth-century approaches to myth that drew parallels to science with psychoanalytic ones. While differences between Freud and Jung are often emphasized, Segal points out that both, as "twentieth-century theorists of myth," shared an opposition to nineteenth-century theorists like E.B. Tylor and J.G. Frazer in seeing myth as a way to access the interior of the mind rather than a way to explain physical phenomena in nature. The final sections on "Contemporary Freudian Theory of Myth" and "Contemporary Jungian Theory of Myth" trace ways in which each variety of psychoanalysis has developed subsequently, and it is here that some scholars might find further theories and ideas to explore. In his conclusion, Segal suggests that psychoanalytic approaches to myth have been underutilized. He writes, "How commendable it would [be] (sic) if classicists smitten with psychoanalysis of any variety were to consider applying to Greek myth not just Freud but contemporary Freudian psychoanalysis. How commendable it would be if even Jung himself, let alone contemporary Jungian psychology, were applied" (445).

The revised chapters by Nagy, Hansen, and Calame retain their original arguments. Joseph Falaky Nagy's "Hierarchy, Heroes, and Heads: Indo-European Structures in Greek Myth" engages with the work of Georges Dumézil to show how stories like the Judgment of Paris and those surrounding Herakles and Orpheus share structural and ideological affinities with Indo-European traditions. Especially interesting is Nagy's analysis of the "vital head," that is of the severed but often still speaking head, which he proves is a complex motif in both Indo-European and Greek traditions that has symbolic dimensions that comment on the nature of communication and the oral tradition and also on the relation of written to oral expression. The bibliography to this chapter includes a number of entries preceded by asterisks that usefully alert the reader to major contributions in the field, even though they may not be explicitly cited in the text.

William Hansen's "Odysseus and the Oar" interprets the Sailor and the Oar narrative first known in Homer's Odyssey (11.121-34) by introducing a comparative approach derived from folklore, with a focus on typology and contextualism, that analyzes it in relation to texts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hansen concludes that this story offers seamen "a means of expressing implicitly and cleverly a negative evaluation of seafaring as a way of life," reflecting their "ambivalent attitude toward the sea" (273-4). Furthermore, Hansen cautions in seeing an etiological interpretation as dominant in these stories at the expense of "the expressive element of the mariner's fantasy" (273).

Claude Calame's "Narrative Semantics and Pragmatics: The Poetic Creation of Cyrene" presents a different title from that of the first edition. His sources for the foundation of Cyrene are Pindar's Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Pythian Odes, a passage in Herodotus, and other fragmentary sources, which he analyzes through a "semionarrative approach" that reflects the influence of Algirdas-Julien Greimas' narrative theory. For Calame, "syntactic and semantic analysis cannot take place without pragmatics, without reference to the conditions of the production and reception of meaning. . ." (286).

The essays by H.S. Versnel and Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood are reprinted from the first edition.2 Both represent foundational studies in the field and continue to resonate with insight. Versnel's "What's Sauce for the Goose Is Sauce for the Gander: Myth and Ritual, Old and New" provides the now classic study of myth and ritual as an approach, drawing on the work of Jane Harrison and Walter Burkert to bring together the New Year complex and initiation. Sourvinou-Inwood's "Myths in Images: Theseus and Medea as a Case Study" introduces an approach of "reading" Greek vase-painting through a semiotic lens, illustrating the possibilities that the visual arts hold for understanding Greek myth. The ten plates of illustrations that accompany this article should be of a higher quality, but this in no way affects understanding of the text. The two line drawings and three maps that appear elsewhere in the book are of a good quality.

While this is an excellent book, I would like to see a chapter dealing with approaches to issues of gender and sexuality in Greek myth. Edmunds suggests that perhaps the next edition of this book might include a new chapter dealing with this area of study (23), which I think would be a most welcome addition. The difficulty here would be in deciding which approach to gender and sexuality studies best captures the complexity and multitude of voices that characterizes scholarship in this field, which has a massive bibliography.

Even considering the profusion of fine books on Greek myth available, this volume merits attention and should find a wide audience. I plan to use it in my undergraduate mythology class as a "complement" to our main textbook, a handbook of myth, which is one of the ways that Edmunds describes the book as fitting within competing volumes (vii). Students encountering this book for the first time will find an authoritative resource that offers case studies of salient approaches to Greek myth that are thought-provoking and illuminating. In addition to new essays, scholars already familiar with the first edition will find trenchant insights, fresh perspectives, and new lines of inquiry to pursue. This rich and challenging book offers an abundance of material for further research, study, and debate.


1.   To López-Ruiz's thorough bibliography, we can add the recently published book by Marian H. Feldman, Communities of Style: Portable Luxury Arts, Identity, and Collective Memory in the Iron Age Levant (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2014).
2.   Reviews of the first edition of this book discuss these essays and the earlier versions of those by Nagy, Hansen, and Calame. See, for instance, the reviews in The Classical World 84, no. 6 (July-August 1991): 498-9; Phoenix 45, no. 3 (Autumn 1991): 263-9; and Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, 46, fasc. 2 (May 1993): 261-4.

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