The Classics Club Challenge: The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves

I was really looking forward to reading The Greek Myths. First of all, I was acquainted with Robert Graves’ writing through his classic I, Claudius, which I had loved – and how can you beat that edition, with an introduction from Rick Riordan? So I was definitely excited.

Athene invented the flute, the trumpet, the earthenware pot, the plough, the rake, the ox-yoke, the horse-bridle, the chariot, and the ship. She first taught the science of numbers, and all women’s arts, such as cooking, weaving, and spinning. Although a goddess of war, she gets no pleasure from battle, as Ares and Eris do, but rather from settling disputes, and upholding the law by pacific means. She bears no arms in time of peace and, if ever she needs any, will usually borrow a set from Zeus. Her mercy is great: when the judges’ votes are equal in a criminal trial at the Areiopagus, she always gives a casting vote to liberate the accused. Yet, once engaged in battle, she never loses the day, even against Ares himself, being better grounded in tactics and strategy than he; and wise captains always approach her for advice.

I have a decent background in Greek mythology from reading relatively widely over the years, and I’m fairly well grounded in the personalities and main myths of the Olympian gods and the principal heroes – Odysseus, Heracles/Hercules, Jason, Achilles, and to a lesser extent Theseus and Perseus (who I tend to mix up). I figured this classic compilation, which covers the entire Greek mythologic landscape, would be riveting.

It… wasn’t.

I hung in fairly well through the beginning sections, which focused more on the gods. Quickly, I gave up on my plan of reading all the footnotes, and just stuck to the main text – which was plenty dense enough without all the extra scholarly bits. Graves really started to lose me by the time he introduced the heroes, and after diligently ploughing through a quarter of the book, I started aggressively skimming. Call me unsophisticated, but I do like to have at least one character to root for, and everyone in The Greek Myths – gods, heroes, and other mortals alike – was capricious, jealous, and downright homicidal. Even my longtime favorite Olympian, Artemis, was murdering people left and right until the words started swimming on the page.

Take, for instance, the story of the marriage between King Peleus and Thetis the sea-goddess (a union which produced Achilles). Zeus had the hots for Thetis (and everyone else, too!) but prophecy held that she would give birth to a son who was greater and more powerful than his father. No one can be greater or more powerful than Zeus, so obviously he had to be hands-off with Thetis, and she was married off, much to her chagrin, to a mortal. Trigger warning:

Now Cheiron foresaw that Thetis, being immortal, would at first resent the marriage; and, acting on his instructions, Peleus concealed himself behind a bush of parti-colored myrtle-berries on the shores of a Thessalian islet, where Thetis often came, riding naked on a harnessed dolphin, to enjoy her midday sleep in the cave which this bush half screened. No sooner had she entered the cave and fallen asleep than Peleus seized hold of her. The struggle was silent and fierce. Thetis turned successively into fire, water, a lion, and a serpent; but Peleus had been warned what to expect, and clung to her resolutely, even when she became an enormous slippery cuttle-fish and squirted ink and him–a change which accounts for the name of Cape Sepias, the near-by promontory, now sacred to the Nereids. Though burned, drenched, mauled, stung, and covered with sticky sepia ink, Peleus would not let her go and, in the end, she yielded and they lay locked in a passionate embrace.

(It’s almost impossible to choose a passage to quote, there’s so much “ravishing” in this book. I missed my nice sanitized-for-children version that I grew up reading.) Anyway, Thetis’ marriage starts off inauspicious and gets worse: all of the Olympians attend the wedding, and Hera, Athene and Aphrodite get embroiled in a dispute over a golden ball, which leads directly to the Trojan War. Hate when that happens, don’t you? At least no one gets murdered at the wedding.

If you couldn’t tell, I was decidedly ambivalent about this book. I can see myself returning to it over and over as a reference – Greek mythology is so ubiquitous in popular culture that it’s nice to have a comprehensive guide, for sure – but I didn’t enjoy the reading experience nearly enough to re-read it from cover to cover. Rick Riordan’s introduction was the best part.

Have you read The Greek Myths?

3 thoughts on “The Classics Club Challenge: The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves

  1. I haven’t read this, but did read some of them to my kids–The D’Aulaires version and later, The Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I’ve given all the neices/nephews (now gr-n/n) The D’Aulaire Greek Myths and some of the other myths.

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