Literature of Western Myth

The Trojan War - Achilles and PatroclosI’ve embarked on another reading list. This one is concerned with the mythological bases of western literature from the Iliad, the first book in the western tradition, through to the core myths of Rome1. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post book reviews and other assorted notes on my progress through the list.

The influence these stories have had on the development of western literature is undeniable. The great medieval and renaissance authors such as Chaucer, Dante, Petrach, Shakespeare, Marlow, Moliere make obvious references to these stories throughout their works – so much so that these stories may be considered the pop culture of any period before about 18502 in the same way that superheroes and rocket ships are the pop culture of the late 20th and 21st centuries.

The list is in three strands: the Trojan War, Other Greek Texts, Other Roman Texts

The Trojan War Strand

The Iliad of Homer is, of course, the foundation text of western literature written sometime in the eighth century BC based a much earlier oral tradition. It’s the story of Achilles and follows him as he attempt to maintain his social position in the Greek camp before the walls of Troy and dealss witht he knowledge that he is ultimately mortal. There is a surprisingly personal story of psychological conflict at its heart. As much as the book portrays a warrior culture centred on gaining and maintaining glory based on deeds of skills and prowess, it shows a real, first-hand revulsion of war and warfare. There is nothing glorious about battle in this text.

The Odyssey, also attributed to Homer, is not a book I’ve actually read before – much to my literary shame – and I’m looking forward to reading it with an unwholesome amount of glee. It’s basically two interwoven stories: one of dad’s struggling to come home after work and the other of mum struggling to keep the household together while he’s gone.

The Aeneid is more than just the Roman re-telling of the Iliad from the Trojan point of view; it’s one of the core foundation myths of ancient Rome. We think of the stories of Romulus and Remus as the beginnings of the Eternal City. The Roman thought of the Aeneid as their beginning. The values displayed by Aeneas as he saves his family from the sack of Troy and his remarkably Odyssey-like travels before he founds the city of Alba Longa, the forerunner of Rome, define the moral values of a good Roman citizen. The story centres on Aeneas’ struggle between his duty to destiny and how own desires.

The Greek Strand

The works of Hesiod, a comtemporary of Homer, are our source of legends of the Greek gods and goddesses. In the two books of the Theogony and Works and Days, Hesiod outlines why the world is the way it is and what the Olympians did to make it so. What comes out of these books is a surprising amount of information of village life in Dark Age Greece and the misogyny central (and essential?) to ancient Greek living. For instance, women were created expressly as a divine punishment for transgressions in a once men only world.

I’m in two minds whether or not to get stuck into the Argonautica in the earlier version written by Apollonius of Rhodes. He definitely used Homer as a model for this much, much shorter epic but even in antiquity is was considered second-rate. It does provide a good  view point from which to see the difference the development of philosophy in the fifth century BC made to the Greeks’ view of the gods and their place in the universe. It’s also really not had that much influence on western literature.

The Roman Strand

This strand basically covers the legends of the Roman kings before the birth of the Republic. These include the majors stories which became favourites in the Renaissance such as Romulus and Remus, the Rape of the Sabines, Lars Porsenna, Horatio on the Bridge and the Rape of Lucretia (anyone noticing a theme here?). The trouble is I haven’t yet selected which text to use. I was thinking of Livy’s History of Rome because it will tie nicely back to Machiavelli’s Discourses but I’m told there are some better sources I should read instead.

The last book on the list is The Metamorphoses of Ovid, written to both poke fun at and ingratiate himself with the newly crowned emperors of the Julii clan. It didn’t work and he remained exiled from Rome to the arse-end of the Black Sea for his literary crimes. This book, however, was one of the most widely known and quoted works of the Renaissance and middle ages. It is a must for anyone professing an interest in western literature.


1 Only the Bible is misisng from the list but it really can’t be considered Greek or Roman. It is, however, HUGE and I’m not wading through it again without narrowing the reading list down to the key stories used repeatedly in medieval and renaissance writing.

2 A date plucked from the air with no more than intuitive backing.