Classical Mythology

The Basics

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Richard Martin
  • New York, NY: 
    , May
     184 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This excellent book, by Stanford classicist Richard Martin, gives a packed yet pellucid overview of Greek and Roman mythology. Classical Mythology: The Basics considers myth as speech and not just text, the difference between the negative noun “myth” and the positive adjective “mythic,” myth as tied to a community and not just to individuals, myth and belief, and myth and religion.

There are succinct discussions of myths of origin, especially of Hesiod’s Theogony, which Martin helpfully matches up with the Babylonian Enuma Elish. Discussed at length are hero myths, which some sticklers in folklore would rather call legends. Here Martin most helpfully distinguishes ancient conceptions of heroism from modern ones, where heroes can be ordinary rather than exceptional. The playwright Arthur Miller declared Willy Loman, the subject of his Death of a Salesman, a distinctly modern kind of hero.

This book also presents the array of responses to myth by ancients: rejecting myth (Xenophanes, Heraclitus), replacing traditional myths with other myths (Plato), rationalizing myth (Hecataeus, Herodotus, Gorgias, Euhemerus), and

allegorizing myth (Plutarch). Some of these responses remained popular long after ancient times. In Primitive Culture (John Murray, 1871) the pioneering social anthropologist E. B. Tylor takes on two approaches especially prominent in his day: euhemerism and moral allegory.

Just as most biblicists are by nature interested in what makes the Bible unique, so most classicists naturally focus on what makes Greek and Roman literature distinctive. Similarities across cultures, even when granted, are considered superficial. Differences are considered deep.

The emphasis on differences is hardly limited to the study of mythology. The humanities tend to focus on differences. By contrast, the sciences focus on similarities. The social sciences vary. Some social scientists, seeking to emulate the natural sciences, emphasize similarities. They seek theories, or generalizations, or laws. Other social scientists emphasize differences.

To his credit, Martin is atypical of specialists in considering both similarities and differences. Other classicists who do so include Eric Csapo, Lowell Edmunds, and William Hansen, who is also a professional folklorist.

Martin discusses half a dozen of the leading theories of myth--notably, those of Vladimir Propp, J. G. Frazer, Lord Raglan, Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, C. G. Jung, and Joseph Campbell. Martin rightly notes that not a few of these theorists were themselves interested in classical mythology, and Frazer was an eminent classicist. Freud coined the phrase “Oedipus complex,” and contrary to Martin, Jung invented the phrase “Electra complex.” It was a third psychologist who had already coined the term narcissism.

Martin rightly notes that in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, the version of the Oedipus legend on which Freud focuses, it is not Oedipus’s commission of the deed but subsequent discovery of the fact that is his downfall--a point first made by Bernard Knox in his Oedipus at Thebes (Yale University Press, 1957). Martin notes that in Freud’s “later career,” in Totem and Taboo (Beacon Press, 1913), Freud attributes civilization to the reaction to the supposed Oedipus complex. But this work is still early Freud. In the wake of World War I, Freud gives more importance to aggression than to sex.

Martin properly notes Bronislaw Malinowski’s rejection of a universal Oedipus complex but makes no mention of either Ernest Jones’s refutation of Malinowski or Melford Spiro’s later refutation in Oedipus in the Trobriands (University of Chicago Press, 1982).

Martin accurately notes how close Jung and Freud were for a decade, but they were never collaborators, and Jung was his own proud person from the start. Otto Rank began as a staunch Freudian but soon enough broke with the master, as the second edition of Rank’s The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1922) makes clear. Rank went on to break with psychoanalysis altogether. Ernest Becker became his best-known disciple. Finally, Joseph Campbell, despite the continuing association of him with Jung, was never a Jungian.

For the record, Frazer was not, as Martin maintains, at his ritualist maximum in the first edition of The Golden Bough (Macmillan, 1890). Frazer remained firmly ritualistic throughout all three editions (1890, 1900, 1911-15). Crazily, he turned against the classicists who had been inspired by him in the introduction to his edition of Apollodorus’s Library (Harvard University Press, 1921), where he somehow became a Tylorean intellectualist. Furthermore, Frazer’s own indebtedness to William Robertson Smith, to whom he dedicates The Golden Bough, did not extend to Frazer’s ritualistic theory of myth.

Other theorists who have employed classical mythology to promote their theories are Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose pioneering structuralist analysis of the myth of Oedipus in “The Structural Study of Myth” (Journal of American Folklore, 1955) Martin discusses fully. Also discussed by Martin is the distinctive brand of structuralism that French classicists developed and that is known as the Paris—or Louis Gernet—school. Lévi-Strauss famously uses the myth of Oedipus alongside a Native American myth. Not mentioned by Martin is the French literary theorist René Girard, who likewise enlists the myth of Oedipus to make his case. Both Lévi-Strauss and Girard deem Freud their main intellectual rival.

Overall, Martin does not face up to the assertion of theorists that the particularities of mythologies across cultures are incidental and that the key questions--those of origin, function, and meaning--are to be answered universally. Want to decipher classical mythology? Focus on human nature, not on the nature of ancient Greeks or Romans. So claim theorists. Martin does mention in passing exceptions in Greece and Rome to the universal claims of theories, but theories themselves downplay differences. Maybe it is unfair to demand anything more from a book on one case of mythology. Managing in addition to find space to discuss the appearance of ancient myths in a host of modern media, Martin offers a superb presentation of classical mythology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert A. Segal is sixth-century chair in religious studies at the University of Aberdeen.

Date of Review: 
July 31, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard Martin is professor in classics at Stanford University and has twenty-five years' experience in teaching an introduction to Classical Mythology to undergraduate students. He is widely published on Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Aristophanes,Theognis, and other ancient authors and genres in which mythic narration figures prominently.


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