- Dictionary of Classical Mythology by Jenny March
Jenny March’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology was originally published in 1998 as The Cassell Dictionary of Classical Mythology (with 148 illustrations). A paperback version was reissued in 2001. The text has now returned with textual revision by March and illustrations by Neil Barrett, of which 147 are copies of Greek vases, along with 25 black-and-white photographs. The book is a reference work of mythological characters and stories, and makes no pretension to original scholarship. The entries are arranged in alphabetical order, cross-referenced with other entries. The end matter includes two maps, some genealogical tables, a brief index of Latin and Greek authors, a select bibliography, a list of illustrations, and an Index of Recurrent Motifs.
I have used the text for a couple of months and it has proven to be a modest though very useful work of reference. The short introduction, whose topics include the significance of myth in Greco-Roman life, the most important literary sources for studying myth, and the value of visual sources in fleshing out details of a myth otherwise unknown, ends with a kind of statement of purpose: “My aim has been to retell the myths as readably as possible, detailing any major variants . . .” (xi). The selection of entries is comprehensive and the entries themselves are certainly readable, clear, and informative. They are also of varying length. The entries on Achilles and Odysseus are appropriately full. Most are retellings of the myths devoid of interpretive material. A helpful feature about them is that they include at the end references to the original sources. The one niggling complaint here is that if the original source material was cited or used in the body of the entry, it is not generally repeated, as far as I could tell, in the source citations at the end. The Index of Recurrent Motifs in the end matter is not sufficiently comprehensive to do the job it intends. One searches in vain for countless motifs that readily come to mind. I tried to find a reference to Bees, thinking of Homer or Vergil, without success. In addition, there is a vagueness of reference. To take one example, the motif Portents from the gods refers the reader to the entry on Troy, among others. I’m not sure how helpful this is.
The introduction makes clear a sensibility for which I have great sympathy: that much of the allure of myth is in its “perennial power to inspire great art and great poetry, both in ancient times and down the ages” (xi). Peppered throughout the entries are quotations from British literature from the Elizabethan period to the first half of the twentieth century. And so March includes in the entry on [End Page 576] Hippocrene, to pick one example at random, a quotation from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. But none of this is done in any systematic or comprehensive way. It seems self-reflexively random, and in any case there are other works that treat the influence of classical mythology on English literature much more thoroughly.
One final and minor comment regards a statement March makes in the introduction. “My own belief is that the myths have a core of truth. Yes, the Trojan War (of a kind) did take place . . . There was even, I suggest, some kind of ‘Wooden Horse’” (xiii n.1). First, by “truth” March implies a historical kernel to myth and seems to lump all myths together in this assertion, not just legend or saga. She also seems to reduce one’s position to a tenet of faith. There are reasons for one’s position on the question of the historicity of the Trojan War, none of which she adduces. Perhaps we could overlook this as just an idiosyncratic aside, but if one pursues the reference to the horse, March unabashedly states “why should it not have been successful in reality? Not the immense horse of legend, but one of moderate size, large enough...