Monday, June 11, 2018


Vanda Zajko, Helena Hoyle (ed.), A Handbook to the Reception of Classical Mythology. Wiley Blackwell handbooks to classical reception. Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017. Pp. xiii, 482. ISBN 9781444339604. $195.00.

Reviewed by Evina Sistakou, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Opening a collective volume on classical receptions is like entering The Twilight Zone: each chapter is based on an obscure idea reaching beyond the boundaries of traditional methodology; the authors are keen to offer unexpected turns and twist endings to their interpretations; and, after closing the book, readers are left with mixed feelings of thrill and puzzlement. To unravel the mysteries of reception studies as applied to the equally arcane field of ancient myth and mythology, Vanda Zajko and Helena Hoyle have undertaken the task of compiling a handbook for both. To impose order on the chaos of the vast material and varied disciplines, the editors have divided the handbook into four subject areas.

The 'Introduction' is illuminating as regards its thematic division and offers extensive summaries of each contribution. However, it fails to clarify the notions of reception and myth and their meaning in the present volume. Rather than outlining the research topic or placing the handbook in the Forschungsgeschichte,1 Vanda Zajko states 'when it comes to myth, a strong argument can be made that we cannot but deal with its reception because classical myth as we understand it today is classical myth as it has constituted itself through reception, through its oral, visual, and written dissemination throughout the ages' (p. 2), but without opting for the one or the other methodological trend in reception studies (which Zajko loosely terms the 'theoretical' and the 'pragmatic'). Only in the analysis of the individual sections is it possible to detect what the editorial choices aim at and which are the theoretical issues tackled in the collection as a whole. In the overview that follows I will highlight these issues and describe how they are addressed in the individual contributions.

The first part, with the title 'Mythography', consists of seven chapters. As the editors suggest, mythography, i.e. the collection of myths and their variants in an anthology, is ideologically loaded, an act of interpretation of, and response to, the classical past. Thus this section, through a chronological overview of mythography, casts light on the reception of ancient myth in different historical periods. Robert Fowler and Gregory Hays discuss classical mythography. Fowler succeeds in offering both a historical panorama of Greek mythography and in illuminating the distinction between the vague concept of 'the' myth and its various narrations. Hays highlights the continuity between Roman and modern practice in mythography, and thus introduces the next chapters, where first James Clark explores how the medieval Church accommodated pagan myth, especially via the educational system, and then John Mulryan offers an overview of Renaissance mythographers and explains their modes of approach though iconographical, etymological, allegorical exegesis, and translation. Moving on to the modern era, Part I concludes with three chapters that focus on mythography as popular literature for broader audiences. The mythographical works of Bulfinch and Graves as a source for English literature are discussed by John Talbot; Sheila Murnaghan and Deborah Roberts study children's anthologies of myth; and Ika Willis sketches mythographical practices in the context of contemporary pop culture.

Less clear-cut are the criteria governing Part II, which has the umbrella title 'Approaches and Themes'. Each chapter, the editors explain, is dedicated to a single 'interpretative strategy' and/or to a 'paradigmatic text' that incorporates it; given the vast range of materials, genres and historical periods, the editors opt for 'a selective and imaginative strategy of inclusion' rather than comprehensiveness (p. 5). For Greta Hawes, the paradigm of Circe convincingly demonstrates that allegoresis had a profound impact on the interpretation of myth from antiquity, which is the focus of her analysis, through the early Christian era up to the twentieth century. Sarah Iles Johnston documents the historical and theoretical development of comparative mythology from the eighteenth century until today. Offering an overview of the milestones in this field—Herder, Nietzsche, Max Müller, James Frazer, the Cambridge Ritualists, the cycle of the Eranos Institute, Walter Burkert—this is one of the most systematic surveys in the entire volume. In a chapter with the telling title 'Revisionism' Lillian Doherty studies alternative readings of Homeric mythology diachronically. Up to this point the chapters are more or less dedicated to the scholarly reception of myth. The concluding four contributions of Part II outline how ancient myth has formed part of the ideological and political agendas of each era. Through this lens the philosophical tradition of alchemy (Didier Kahn), nationalism and cosmopolitanism between Greece, Rome, and India (Phiroze Vasunia), the ideal of the Golden Age (Andreas Zanker) and the return of the utopian matriarchy (Peter Davies) serve as a backdrop to novel understandings of ancient myths.

The shortest section of the volume is Part III 'Myth, Creativity, and the Mind'. The scholarly work of Vanda Zajko 2 is the key to the interdisciplinary character of the contributions included here, which all approach ancient myth through psychoanalysis. Joanna Paul, who specializes in film and the classical tradition, views the Percy Jackson series as an adaptation of Greek myth to the social, psychological and mental condition of twenty-first-century children, a chapter that can be read as a supplement to the Murnaghan/Roberts essay in Part I on mythological anthologies for children. Two psychotherapists, Heather Tolliday ('Myth as Case Study') and Meg Harris Williams ('Mythical Narrative and Self-Development'), highlight myth as a heuristic tool in psychoanalytic theory and practice—the first via the study of mythical characters, the latter through analyzing their reception in Shakespeare. In an attempt to establish an even closer dialogue between literature and psychoanalysis Emily Pillinger argues that Virginia Woolf has used the rewriting of ancient myths as a kind of the therapy for the trauma of the self both on a biographical and on a literary level.

As anticipated in a handbook on reception, Part IV 'Iconic Figures and Texts' forms the core section of the volume. Consisting of fourteen contributions it aspires to cover a wide range of mythical stories and characters on the one hand, and historical contexts and artistic media on the other. Not only literature but also painting, music, and film add up to a transcultural and universalizing interpretation of ancient myth through art. Several of the myths discussed here are an indispensable part of any study of classical reception. Genevieve Liveley's analysis of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth ranges from Greek and Roman literature to twentieth century poetry. Rosemary Barrow explores Narcissus and Echo in the visual arts (especially Dali's Metamorphosis of Narcissus) and in psychoanalytic readings by Freud, Lacan and Kristeva. Prometheus, Pygmalion, and Helen are discussed against the background of science fiction by Tony Keen, a chapter that demonstrates how ancient mythology has provided sophisticated models for the making of contemporary science fiction. Kurt Lampe shows how Albert Camus exploited the myth of Sisyphus to express his philosophical take on the human condition in his essays The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, while Mette Hjort analyzes the visualization of the Medea myth in Lars von Trier's film Medea. Two chapters turn the spotlight on ancient Rome: the reception of god Dionysus as the Roman Bacchus and, in the Christian tradition, as Christ (Fiachra Mac Góráin) and the mythologization of a fictional story in the case of Apuleius' Cupid and Psyche (Julia Haig Gaisser). As an appendix to the Roman section Kathryn McKinley argues that Dido offers a 'proto-feminist' model for the reconstruction of sexual hierarchy in Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies (written in 1405).

Gradually, the intercultural dialogue between mythology and other disciplines and art forms becomes more evident. John Channing Briggs argues that Francis Bacon's collection of ancient myths published in 1609 is an attempt to contextualize ancient wisdom in the emerging scientific spirit of the era—a chapter that has a strong thematic affinity with the 'Mythography' section. Two works of art, Pieter Brueghel the Elder's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (ca. 1560) discussed by Jeanne Nuechterlein and Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1640) analyzed by George Burrows, showcase the recasting of Ovid and Homer's narratives into artistic media other than literature. The Romantic reading of classical myth is evident in one of the most celebrated examples of all classical receptions, Shelley's lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound: Michael O'Neill argues that Shelley, in reshaping the Aeschylean prototype, excels in creative mythmaking. For Helen Slaney the remaking of the Ovidian Pygmalion myth in George Bernard Shaw's same-titled theatrical play exemplifies how genre dynamics are crucial for the reshaping of a classical myth and, as she succinctly puts it (p. 140), 'Eliza is a Galatea who has found her voice' and thus escapes her objectification. The concluding chapter by Lisa Saltzman focuses on a sculptural project by artist Anish Kapoor exhibited at The Tate Modern in London under the title Marsyas in 2002-2003: here the depiction of the body in pain through classical myth incorporates post-war notions of human suffering and thus myth acquires a global dimension for modern audiences.

The present volume may be less comprehensive than desired; for example, some of the most imitated narratives from ancient Greece such as the myth of Oedipus, Antigone or Heracles are left out. Or one may object that there is no consistency in the methodology adopted throughout the volume or that case studies are favored over general overviews of a topic. On the positive side, repeated patterns of thought, such as rationalization and allegoresis of myth, comparative or psychoanalytic readings function as conceptual links between the chapters. Although the treatment of mythography in a separate section sheds light on a unique category of reception that is introduced already in antiquity, for the most part reception is considered a post-classical phenomenon in the sense associated with medieval, Renaissance and modern cultures. Each chapter is supplemented by a valuable guide to further reading on the topic.

Given the breadth of vision that underlies such a project, this is a remarkable achievement on part of the editors. The Handbook to the Reception of Classical Mythology is a multifaceted book that represents an outstanding example of creative scholarship. Wandering in the labyrinth of its inexhaustible material and disciplines parading through its pages the reader is constantly kept in a state of suspense. To the fundamental question 'what comes next?' each contributor gives his own, imaginative, albeit at times idiosyncratic, response.


1.   Wiley-Blackwell has already published two handbooks on the fundamental topics of reception and myth: Lorna Hardwick and Christopher Stray's A Companion to Classical Receptions and Ken Dowden and Niall Livingstone's A Companion to Greek Mythology, both published in 2011, offer the necessary theoretical underpinning to the present volume.
2.   Perhaps not unsurprisingly, since Vanda Zajko has co-edited with Ellen O'Gorman Classical Myth and Psychoanalysis for Oxford in 2013.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.