Many scholars have written books on everything from ancient tragedy to epic and comedy to poetry. If you can find a few and study a bit or find a translation with a good commentary, you’ll be well on your way to completing this portion. For example, ancient tragedy often shows the effect of hubris or the pride to excess that causes a human to violate the cycle of reciprocity with the gods somehow.
Oedipus Romanos illustrates a terrible tale about fate and denial. But it also shows us the role that Sophocles felt humans play in determining their destiny in the sequel play Oedipus at Chronos. There are detailed explorations of the nature of supply lines and whether or not politics or the nature of their crimes should play a role in protecting them.
Anything we try to learn about ancient beliefs will be hampered because the ancients aren’t around to tell us anymore. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. So, how do you read mythology as close to the ancients as possible? Follow me if you want to study or read mythology as a beginner or pro.
How To Start Reading Mythology? (Study of Greek/Norse/Egyptian/Hindu Myth)
I read Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood’s book ‘Reading Greek Culture,’ which is the landscape of Greek cultural and historical research. Her attention to detail and concern for the perspective of the ancient mind is a true treasure. It’s also nearly impossible to find.
I figure there’s no ethical issue with sharing the method that Inwood outlines about how one should go about studying mythology. So I will give you 5 ideas/tips to start reading mythology step by step. Let’s go!
1. Identify the Emic Vs Etic perspective
Inwood notes in the introductory essay that when studying culture, there are two main perspectives that one can take, Emic and Etic.
Etic: We’ll start with Etic because it’s the perspective most of us have when studying myth. The Etic perspective is that of the outsider or the observer. This is the default perspective of anyone who isn’t oblation from the seventh century BCE when reading Homer. Even if you studied Homeric Greek and are thoroughly familiar with the text, you still aren’t of the culture that produced it.
Emic: Contrast this with the Emic or native perspective. Homer’s audience would have the Emic perspective. Inwood proposes that although the Emic perspective is forever inaccessible to us, we must work to remove our biases to get as close to it as possible when evaluating culture.
Keep in mind that Inwood was talking about Greek scholarship, and the method we’re about to go through includes things like art and artifacts. But as potential aspiring Hellenistic or even interested folks who would like to understand the mythology, we all thought we knew when we were kids. So before you start reading mythology, follow these.
2. Understand the roots of things
The rigorous approach can help us avoid the pitfalls that many folks often run into when they say, decide Zeus is a predator based on modern perspectives. It isn’t to say that criticism of ancient epics doesn’t have its place. Also, it’s important to understand the roots of things like the damsel in distress trope or where misogyny may spring from.
But when trying to understand a work of fiction in its ancient context, these approaches can do more harm than good.
- Inwood opens that in her methodology, the first step is to explore the text in the most exhaustive detail possible, not choosing what’s important until the whole thing has been poured through.
- A good translation is essential if you haven’t studied the ancient Greek dialect in which the original text is written.
I highly recommend the Loeb translations as they have the Greek on the left-hand page and offer frequent notes on translation choices and commentary on how the translation has shifted over time.
3. Have a neutral point of view
What we think is important is based on our own cultural biases. Also, it’s only after we’ve explored a work thoroughly within its cultural context that we can begin to see what was essential to the writer.
For example, people often skim through the long list of the heroic dead in Homer and believe his descriptions of their death are rather dry and emotionless. But if you take a deeper look with an understanding of the poetic verse, you can see the tragic setup of each hero’s cold look at ancient evidence.
You often find the cities where those heroes were purported to have died or cold centers. Sometimes there are hints in the text about what the cult was like. If you skim through to find out what happens next to discourse, you will miss these key details. If you’re going to a text to try and prove a particular theory you have, you’ll often read this into the text.
- So, do your best to approach as neutral a point of view as possible.
- When you first start your reading, take notes and give yourself time to digest the information.
4. Examine the context and characters
Inwood lays out is to conduct separate analyses of the various aspects of the text, first in its context and then in the context of other works of its kind. In that era, she gives the example of a particular action taken in a particular tragedy.
- First, the reader needs to examine the action, and the role plays in the story. Did the character suffer for it? How did those around them react when they were vindicated in the end?
After that, the action can be compared first to other tragedies by the same author and then to other tragedies from the same time in the city-state. From this, a pattern may emerge about the attitude toward that particular action in ancient Greek society. Understanding the text, particular genre, and conventions during that time period is also useful.
5. Draw a systematic fashion
Each story had its place in history, era, and area and its cult significance. If the story comes from Asia, it will have different influences than a story from Attica that can help you resolve seeming inconsistencies in the myth. Remember that although parts of myth were taken as literal history or at least honored as such, the majority of Greeks did not appear to be mythic literalists.
The interplay between myth, history, language and culture is complex and layered. That perspective will be forever out of your grasp, even after studying your entire life. However, when you systematically examine the myths, you’ll at least get quite a bit closer than the average person who reads them as simple fiction and allows their cultural paradigms to intrude on their understanding.
- Read over the text in translation carefully, keeping notes and pushing your biases to the side.
- Don’t decide what’s important about the text until you’ve given it a thorough read.
- Make notes on the language used in anything the translators felt the need to point out.
- Examine the text in light of other evidence.
- Try to find information about the genre conventions of the text’s genre.
- Examine the role the gods play within the text first from the perspective of the text itself, then the particular era and area.
- Do your best not to let these analyses influence one another and draw your conclusions only at the end.
Once you’ve examined as much evidence as possible, you don’t have to apply every single step to every myth you read. But if you do choose to undergo this process, you may well find your appreciation for the masterworks that we’ve inherited deepens.
There isn’t a shortcut to a deep understanding of ancient culture or myth, and much work lies ahead for anyone who desires to achieve such. The attitude of the authors in our daily life is part of our reconstruction.
If we’re reconstructionists, it can help us understand where many of the ideas we still carry come from and what role they played. Don’t wait, start reading mythology and discover something new!
You can start reading mythology from these books:
For Norse Mythology Readers:
For Greek Myth Readers:
For Egyptian Mythology Readers:
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