Gods and Heroes: Myths and Epics of Ancient Greece by Gustav Schwab
Published in 1946
Olga Marx and Ernst Morwitz translation
Genre: Fiction, mythology
“Often I have told my youngest daughter the legends of ancient Greece, and have found myself wishing that I could give her a book that would show her more of that magic world which was the delight of my own youth, and to which I love to return, now that I am older.”
Though I typically start my reviews with the first line of the book, I chose to begin my review of Gods and Heroes: Myths and Epics of Ancient Greece by Gustav Schwab with the first sentence of the introduction. Though it isn’t technically part of the stories told in the book, this section gives the reader necessary context (as an introduction is wont to do) regarding how the myths are presented. This information is integral to understanding the mighty deeds and tragic ends of the heroes of ancient Greece.
Gods and Heroes (which is how I will refer to the book for the remainder of this review to save time…though this explanation may have just undermined that) is a veritable “Greatest Hits” of Greek Mythology; Jason and the Argonauts, Theseus and the Minotaur, the tragedy of Oedipus, the Illiad and the Odyssey are all retold in detail within the pages of this book alongside lesser known tales of bravery.
Most of the myths recount the lives and deeds of heroes rather than those of the gods. Though the creation myth at the beginning of Gods and Heroes features Prometheus, this is really the only myth that has an immortal as its primary character. The other Titans are mentioned obliquely, but there is nothing about the war between them and the Olympians except for a few short references for context.
These stories are organized with the characters in mind and each section, including those stories within, connects to those that follow in order to maintain a cohesive timeline of events and help the reader follow a linear story that spans whole generations. An example of this can be seen in the tragedy of Oedipus being immediately followed by The Seven Against Thebes which details how his descendants went to war in order to capture the city. Likewise, the stories in Tales of Troy lead into the story of Odysseus and his return to Ithaca.
The longer stories are split up into smaller divisions; there are also shorter tales that are used to fill in the gaps and continue the timeline. The lengthiest of these are The Argonauts, Theseus, Oedipus, Heracles, Tales of Troy, and Odysseus. Most of the book is told through summary with scenes and exchanges of dialogue appearing only when it is necessary. It is split into two parts: Part I has connected myths that lay the groundwork for Part II which concerns Troy, the descendants of King Agamemnon, and Odysseus.
Though it may come as no surprise to someone with previous experience regarding Greek myths, the lives of Greek heroes often end in tragedy. Jason marries Medea during his quest for the Golden Fleece and she eventually murders their children in a fit of madness (which were two stories I was familiar with but hadn’t made a connection between previously), Theseus is murdered in cold blood after killing the Minotaur, and Oedipus is forced by Fate into killing his father, marrying his mother, and gouging out his own eyes to walk the earth as a cautionary tale; only Odysseus returns the victor after a long and arduous journey home.
The gods in these tales are are fickle and take offense easily. Hera, wife of Zeus, makes Heracles kill two of his children in a fit of madness because of the hatred she feels for the offspring of her husband’s faithlessness and Athene helps Odysseus directly during his return to Ithaca while he is beset with trials for blinding Poseidon’s cyclops son.
There is an index present and it should be used by even the most seasoned reader of Greek mythology (which I am not). There are tirades of multiple names for individuals and groups (Greeks, Achaeans, Danai, and Argives all refer to the same group of people) and names are repeated often, especially in Tales of Troy, which can become difficult to keep track of. Gods and Heroes also deals with the minutia of battles; there are sections filled with descriptions of how Ajax fought Dechonenes, son of Archensies, who killed Theseyeseyeseus, son of Bill (only one of those is a name in the book. Care to guess which?). These depictions are typically followed with details regarding the winners and prizes of funereal games, especially during the siege of Troy.
Gods and Heroes is part of the Pantheon series which I found through The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland. I definitely intend to read more in the series since they cover myths and folktales from around the globe, but I will make sure to look up their page counts before buying because I did not realize how large Gods and Heroes was since the book of Norse myths was only around 300 pages. Filled with tales of heroism, ritual sacrifice, and tragedy, Gods and Heroes: Myths and Epics of Ancient Greece is a necessity for any fan of Greek mythology. Though the gods aren’t always center stage, this collection of classic myths is closer to readable prose rather than an academic study of ancient Greece and as such elevates it above simple reference material.
Verdict: 3 libations poured to propitiate the gods out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of Greek mythology, people who enjoy using an index, those who enjoy the words “gird” and “propitiate,” and anyone looking for a comprehensive collection of Greek myths.
Not recommended for: Enemies of Greek mythology, cattle, sheep, goats, wine, or those who dislike reading about the winners of funereal games and what they received as trophies.