The Story of Myth

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Sarah Iles Johnston
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , December
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The purpose of Sarah Iles Johnston’s The Story of Myth is to refocus, at least for a moment, the study of Greek religion from rituals to myths, especially as they appear in “the ancient poetic narratives that we still admire today for their beauty and force” (281). Because her keen interest in Greek myths began, she writes, in her childhood and continues to animate her research as an adult, Johnston is well suited to this book’s task. That her interest in the material has not diminished is evident throughout the work, and the result is an engaging and learned study.

The first two chapters situate Johnston’s contribution within the histories of scholarship on both myths generally—including the difficulty of defining a “myth”—and Greek myths specifically. With respect to the latter, the author focuses on the scholarly correlation of myths with rituals (i.e., myths as “ritual’s handmaid”) and ultimately concludes that “we need to accept that the Greeks understood their myths, first and foremost, as a means of entertaining both themselves and the gods” (64). Johnston favors this approach over speculating about the ritual origins of myths or exaggerating the importance of etiologies within Greek myths generally. Later in the book, she explains, “The assumptions behind these approaches [i.e., structuralist, psychological, and myth-and-ritual approaches] are not completely wrong—each has the merit of revealing some of the ways in which myths affect or reflect the cognitive, emotional, and social worlds of their audiences—but they tend to ignore the hook embedded in the sheer pleasure of the story itself” (187–88). Thus, she argues, attending to the narrative presentation of Greek myths can suggest the ways in which they engendered and sustained belief in the gods and heroes of ancient Greek religion, which are the topics of chapters 3–5.

One belief-creating and sustaining aspect of Greek mythological narratives is that they are firmly situated in the real world (chapter 3). These myths are presented in what Johnston calls an “X/Y Format,” wherein “X” refers to familiar places and experiences and “Y” to extraordinary places and experiences; the commingling of the extraordinary amid the ordinary enables belief, at least for some.

Another aspect is the hyper-extensive nature of the networks of Greek gods, heroes, and monsters (chapter 4). Even though Greek myths are episodic, they all relate to a series of networks of gods, heroes, monsters, and events. Not dissimilar to Johnston’s insight from the previous chapter, the reasoning here relates to familiarity: even novel Greek myths can be regarded as credible if they are properly situated within familiar mythological networks. One final aspect concerns the characters populating Greek myths (chapter 5). Greek gods and heroes lacked canonical instantiations; instead, they experienced what she calls “plurimediality” and the accretion of traits.

Accordingly, Johnstone argues, they exhibit a variety of traits, which vary by narrator and genre, all of which present the gods and heroes as conforming to the expectations of “real” people. The resulting effect, in conjunction with the assent of authority figures, is belief in the existence of these gods and heroes in the ancient world.

In the final two chapters, Johnston applies these insights to Greek myths that feature metamorphoses (chapter 6) and heroes (chapter 7). She argues, for example, that Greek myths featuring either a metamorphosis or a hero could function as a medium for ancient Greeks to think about issues that, apart from these features, might have induced anxiety or discomfort, especially in liturgical contexts. She offers two primary considerations in support of this reasoning. First, she observes that a number of themes become more palatable when narrated about animals, including incest, parricide, and rape. Second, she suggests that some storytellers might have felt more freedom to narrate a story about the capriciousness of gods when the actions narrated are set in the distant past.

Johnston’s book is at its best when she explores the interconnectedness and interpretive possibilities of Greek myths. One particularly interesting section uses the term “affordance” to make sense of how objects and animals, for example, take on various meanings and associations in Greek myths. She writes, “Affordances circumscribe the potential meanings or uses of phenomena to which they are attached, but they do not determine those meanings and uses” (195, emphasis original). Approaching myths in this way can help modern readers make sense, for example, of why a Greek story about spiders might logically include themes of incest and parricide.

Moreover, as the author explains, some Greek writers—including Aristotle and Pliny—describe spiders as killing and consuming their parents, a phenomenon confirmed by modern entomologists, and, “in ancient thought, parricide was often paired with incest” (197). (The myth in question is Theophilus’s story of Arachne and Phalanx.) These are not the extent of the affordances associated with spiders, incest, and parricide in ancient Greek thought, but they are among them, and it is likely that these are the affordances according to which this story made sense to its composer and audience in antiquity.

The Story of Myth is both convincingly argued and enjoyable to read. I expect that especially those interested in ancient Greek religion and mythology will find Johnston’s work helpful. Appropriate for scholars and educated non-specialists alike, this book is highly recommended.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Kochenash is a postdoctoral research fellow in Christian studies at Hunan University’s Yuelu Academy, China.

Date of Review: 
August 12, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sarah Iles Johnston is the College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Religion and Professor of Classics and Comparative Studies at Ohio State University.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.