The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology

By Robin Hard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE

SOURCES FOR GREEK MYTH

The myths of the ancient Greeks, like the myths ofmost other cultures, were forever in a state of flux, undergoing constant change as they were passed on by word of mouth and retold in different ways by authors of successive ages. A handbook such as this must aim in the first place to provide a systematic account of the canon of early Greek myth, as initially established in archaic and classical poetic literature, especially early epic and tragedy, and then summarized and systematized in prose by the early mythographers. A good impression of the nature of the resulting vulgate or standard tradition, as conceived by mythographers of the Hellenistic or early Roman period, can be gained from the only general mythological handbook to survive from Greek antiquity, the Library of Apollodorus. The main myths and legends were organized into a pseudo-historical pattern to provide a remarkably coherent history of the universe and divine order and of the Greek world in the heroic era (which was conventionally thought to have ended in the period following the Trojan War); and this history was underpinned by rigorous systems of divine and heroic genealogy, which were essential if consistent chronologies were to be developed. The individual myths within this broad framework could be recorded in a variety of forms; even within the earlier literature, between the time, say, of Homer and that of Euripides, they could undergo a multitude of variations, and later developments could also leave their mark. Although powerful versions might tend to establish themselves in the general imagination at the expense of others, as in the case, for instance, of Aeschylus’ account of the murder of Agamemnon (see p. 509), it is almost always misleading to talk as if there could be a standard version of a myth that was set in stone from some early time. Quite apart from merely narrating myths and placing them in their proper context within the wider body of divine or heroic myth, a handbook must therefore also attempt to trace the history of the more important myths, examining how they evolved over time and came to be narrated in differing ways by different authors in different genres. Since people who have an interest in Greek myth will not necessarily have any very extensive knowledge of ancient literature, and since some authors and writings that are important for myth are not widely familiar outside specialist circles, it was thought that it might thus be helpful to preface this handbook with a brief survey of the main literary sources for Greek myth. The relevant authors are listed

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