OUP (2017) h/b 352pp £75.00 (ISBN 9780198744771)
Like many of the mythological creatures discussed in its pages, this book is something of a hybrid: a collection of fifteen essays by leading scholars on a wide range of topics, with a broad variety of styles and approaches, each exploring (albeit sometimes loosely) the relationship between mythology and the real or imagined geography of the ancient Greek world. Temporally its chapters take us from the divine inspiration of Homeric and Hesiodic epic in the eighth century BC by way of Pindar, Herodotus, Callimachus and an anonymous third-century BC school-teacher from Fayum to the second-century ad Plutarch and beyond; spatially they embrace not only the Elysian Fields and the nebulous lands of the Hyperboreans but real fountain-houses in Ephesus, Rome and Corinth; thematically they cover everything from the imagined life of Centaurs in the landscape of Thessaly and Cyclopes in Sicily to the use of myth as allegory and political vehicle in Hellenistic Greece and under the Roman Empire. Drawing on a formidable wealth of literary, artistic and recent archaeological evidence, all are impressive works of scholarship. In H.’s words, the book ‘does not seek polemically or dogmatically to advance any one particular approach; rather, as a collaborative project, it makes a virtue of variety and proliferation within the confines of its central theme’. As a result, while some chapters (such as Betsey A. Robinson’s ‘Fountains as Reservoirs of Myth and Memory’ or Charles Delattre’s ‘Islands of Knowledge: Space and Names in Imperial Mythography’) might
appeal specifically to specialists, others (such as Richard Buxton’s ‘Landscapes of the Cyclopes’, Aara Suksi’s ‘Scandalous Maps in Aeschylean Tragedy’ or Daniel W. Berman’s ‘Cities-Before-Cities: ‘Prefoundational’ Myth and the Construction of Greek Civic Space’) will intrigue more general readers.
For this is a book scattered with many jewels – to pick three at random: Aara Suksi discussing how gods and humans perceive time and space so differently; Robert L. Fowler reminding us how, according to Pausanias, rituals performed at Lebadeia ‘take you on a terrifying ride through another dimension where you learn the future’; and Charles Delattre considering how even in antiquity a visit to a site rich in mythology could be a disappointment (he quotes the third century bc Heraclides Criticus, who grumbled, ‘At first sight, a foreigner would find it hard to believe that this was the famous city of Athens’).
In short, then, the book is rather like that mythological hybrid, the Centaur, whose disparate parts meld convincingly into a whole, a creature that can be both passionate (as at the Lapith wedding) and intellectual (the heroes’ tutor, Cheiron, for example), and one that is almost always intriguing.