The Anatomy of Myth

The Art of Interpretation from the Presocratics to the Church Fathers

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Michael Herren
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     2017.
     248 pages.
     $74.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190606695.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book is a superb presentation of approaches to Greek myth from the Presocratics down to the Church Fathers. Michael Herren is Distinguished Research Professor of Classics Emeritus at York University. He offers incisive summaries of Homer and Hesiod, who together formed the Greek equivalent of the Bible. But even more, he focuses on ancient interpreters of Homer and Hesiod and of the cosmos in general. As he points out, many other ancient peoples had their own myths, but they did not have their own interpreters of them. Or at least those interpretations do not survive.

With precision and pithiness Herren considers Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Zeno, Epicurus, Lucretius, Leucippus, Democritus, Euhemerus, Herodotus, Proclus, Plutarch, Strabo, Cicero, Cornutus, Plato, and Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle garner the most attention.

In part because Homer and Hesiod were “mere” texts and were not, like the Bible, tied to a cult, there was much more freedom to interpret them than there was in Judaism or Christianity. Heresy was almost unknown, though the denial of the existence of Zeus could cause problems. Only Socrates died for his beliefs. Prior to medieval Christianity there was no counterpart to the Inquisition. Pagan religious practices, not theological scepticism, were persecuted. And texts could be interpreted symbolically as well as literally. What counted most was the offering of sacrifices, not any correct interpretation of a work. Herren outlines rather than evaluates the scores of positions on myth and the cosmos that he presents. But he does pit the openness of the ancient pagan world against the literalism of Christian fundamentalism.

Herren is especially adroit at comparing ancient authorities on an array of topics. What is the world made of? Who, if anyone, created the world? What is the place of gods in the physical world? How many gods are there? When does allegory arise? What is the relationship between myth and poetry, between myth and philosophy, and between myth and history? What is the difference between allegory and symbolism? Some ancient writers on myth were materialists. Others, above all Plato, were substance dualists. Herren is particularly exact in distinguishing Xenophanes from Plato, whose attack on poetry is far wider than Xenophanes’s, and Plato from Aristotle, who defends poetry against Plato.

All ancient myth was religious myth—in contrast to modern myth, which can be secular. Therefore the characterization of the gods affected, even dictated, the assessment of myth.

There were few ancient atheists. Differences were over the nature of God and the number of gods. Heroes, notably those in Homer, were assumed to have been historical, even if their feats were often miraculous and therefore fictional.

Even once Christianity became the state religion in the fourth century CE, its authority was limited. The state did not control education and the Bible, especially the Old Testament, was hard to “apply.” The Hebrew Bible served largely to predict the coming of Christ and to offer figures such as Moses as Christ-like figures.

Together with a twenty-page glossary, this book is the most useful overview of myth in the ancient world that I have ever read, and I have read many overviews. The author declares at the outset that his book is meant to be introductory. Yet it manages to discuss scores of key topics, and within 231 pages.

My one criticism of the book is that, despite the main title, it never ventures beyond ancient myth to myth per se. Herren never even defines myth. That his subjects did not either is beside the point. He writes in the preface that he has long taught a course on “Myths and Their Meanings,” during which he “became acquainted with the methods developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for dealing with myths cross-culturally and the various modern schools of myth interpretation—the “myth and ritual school,” structuralism, functionalism…and the different psychoanalytical approaches” (x). Yet these “methods” are just the ones that his book cries out for, to put it a mite dramatically.

To cite just one example, Herren notes that “some [ancient authorities] believed that the earliest men lived under terrible conditions, in constant need of food and shelter and protection against those who were stronger” (4). Herren does cite Hobbes, but Hobbes was no theorist of myth. Herren, who does name a few theorists in his notes, could here have cited Bronislaw Malinowski. What modern methods or theories do is to generalize from specific cases, such as the ancient Western world, to all cases of myth per se. And they offer explanations for the similarities of all myths worldwide. Those explanations seek needs common to all cultures with myth. They do not seek uniquely Greek ones. Theories do not deny differences among myths and among cultures. They deny the importance of them. One learns more about Greek myth from reading about the Trobriand Islanders than from studying Greece ever more intensely.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert A. Segal is Sixth-Century Chair in Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Herren has published and lectured widely on the Latin literature and culture of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. His work includes critical editions and translations, the history of texts, medieval mythography, and the study of Greek in the Middle Ages. He continues to teach and supervise students at York University and the University of Toronto.

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