Liv Albert, Greek Mythology: The Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes Handbook (New York: Adams Media, 2021). 9781474461610; 9781507215494.
Reviewed by Debby Sneed, California State University, Long Beach, firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have anticipated Liv Albert’s handbook on Greek mythology since I became aware of her successful podcast, “Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby!”. The podcast format encourages storytelling rather than dry academic presentations of ancient source material, and Albert’s handbook adheres to that same spirit: it presents ancient Greek myths in a highly digestible and enjoyable format, with short profiles of gods, focused retellings of important stories, and fun facts and trivia sprinkled throughout. Sara Richard’s illustrations help bring the stories to life with their vivid and energetic visualizations of the divine figures and their myths.
The book begins with a section entitled “What is Greek Mythology?,” which provides readers with an introduction to Greek myth, including a discussion of what it is and where it came from. Albert discusses the emergence of Greek mythology from Chaos through the Titanomachy and briefly introduces the major groups of characters who appear in myths, from divine beings to mortals to monsters. Also included is a list of groupings, like the Naiads, the Muses, and the Fates, who appear variously in other myths. This “beginner section” (13) is accessible to those with no background in Greek myth and necessarily makes some broad generalizations, but these should not overly bother those who have more background in the study of ancient myth.
The next three parts of the book can be characterized as profiles of individuals or pairs of figures from Greek myth. Each profile follows more-or-less the same pattern. All begin with the figure’s Greek name, as well as a brief identification of their role and/or a list of alternative names they may be known by, including their “equivalent” Latin/Roman name. Demeter, for example, is glossed as the “Goddess of Agriculture and the Harvest” and is listed as “AKA: Ceres (Roman/Latin)” (43). If the author updates this book in the future, I might suggest phonetic pronunciations of names included under each title. The main body of each profile includes subsections: all begin with “What’s His/Her/Their Deal?,” which gives a basic overview of the character and introduces their relevant attributes. Most profiles include a section called “The Story You Need to Know,” which retells one or more of the major stories associated with that figure. Some profiles also have a subsection entitled “Now You Know,” which provides interesting cultural facts or pieces of trivia, like the mythological etymology of arachnid in the profile of Athena or a brief discussion of xenophobia in Medea’s profile. The consistent framework for each chapter is beneficial for readers and is likely to aid in retention.
Part 2 of the book characterizes each of the Olympian gods, with short excursuses on some minor associated figures. Part 3 is a bit of a miscellaneous category and includes figures who are neither Olympians nor mortals: Prometheus and Pandora, Leto, Daphne, Eros and Psyche, Echo and Narcissus, and Typhon and Echidna. The last section, Part 4, profiles the major heroic and mortal figures in Greek myth, including the major heroes of the Trojan War, some of Zeus’s “lovers,” Jason and Medea, Cadmus, Orpheus and Eurydice, Oedipus, and so on. It is easy to understand why all of the figures in the handbook were included, though sometimes less clear why others, like Tiresias, were excluded. Of course, it is not possible to cover every possible mythological figure in a short, accessible handbook.
The book is illustrated by Sara Richard, whose colorful renderings of the god/desses and their stories help bring the myths to life. My personal favorite is the illustration that accompanies the story of Io: the many-eyed Argus, rendered in blue outline with white eyes sketched across every bit of his muscled body, stands in front of a white cow, who is seated and looks worriedly toward the reader. A winged foot peeks out from behind the tree to which Io-the-cow is chained. A hazy pair of eyes fills the entire background, which has a pink-yellow tint. The scene is framed on three sides by a tree whose trunk and branches seem to move with the wind, and which seems to pull double-duty as the hairline for the ethereal eyes in the sky.
Albert addresses the variety inherent in Greek mythology in Part 1 and clarifies that her task, as the author, was to select which version(s) of the myths to include. Specialists may quibble with certain decisions; nevertheless, decisions had to be made and Albert’s choices are, for the most part, in line with what an academic audience might expect. The retellings largely adhere to the most common (academic) variants but are presented in an engaging and enjoyable way. In at least one instance, however, Albert’s retelling seems to follow a more popular modern tradition at the expense of the ancient source material. In the story of Achilles and Patroclus (213–16), Albert discusses Patroclus donning Achilles’ armor and returning to the battlefield. In her presentation of this, Albert emphasizes that Patroclus’s goal was to disguise himself as Achilles in order to scare the Trojans, and that when Hector killed Patroclus, he did so in ignorance, thinking that he was killing Achilles himself. This version of the myth is somewhat closer to modern retellings than ancient source evidence: in the Iliad, the Myrmidons know that the man leading them into battle is Patroclus, the Trojans immediately recognize that the warrior in Achilles’ armor is Patroclus (e.g., Iliad 16.278), and Patroclus identifies himself to Sarpedon. What is more, Hector is well aware of whom he kills: Glaucus reports to Hector that it was Patroclus who killed Sarpedon (Iliad 16.543) and Apollo encourages Hector to challenge Patroclus (Iliad 16.724). I do not personally know when or where the version that Albert presents first appears, but it is the version shown in the 2004 film Troy and the 2018 fictional book Silence of the Girls. I cannot assess how important it is that Albert does not follow the Iliadic version of this myth—probably not very—but it may strike those familiar with this myth as an odd choice.
Overall, this is a fun, engaging handbook with beautiful illustrations that complement the stories well. It was not written for academics or as a textbook, but rather for readers who want to “brush up on your trivia…better understand a piece of popular culture…or just enjoy these exciting stories” (13). Albert includes all the key players of Greek myth, but also many of the smaller figures who tend to be left out or discussed summarily elsewhere. A particular strength of this handbook is the way that Albert directly addresses some of the less appealing (to a modern audience) aspects of ancient myth, including the numerous rapes and sexual assaults committed, especially by Zeus. A warning, in fact, appears in the introduction, and readers are reminded (where relevant) that the gods’ behavior was often predatory and violent. I recommend this book as a gift for friends or family members who have a casual interest in ancient Greek myth, or who might want to develop one, as well as for students and scholars of ancient myth who are interested in the diverse ways that this material can be presented and appeal to a broad audience.
Table of Contents
Part 1: What is Greek Mythology? (14–21)
Part 2: The Olympians (22–83)
Part 3: Deities, etc. (84–115)/p>
Part 4: Heroes and Mortals (116–230)
Further Reading (and Listening)! (231–33)
General Index (214–16)
1. Writing a popular handbook on ancient Greek myth seems like a unique challenge: you have to decide whom to include, which stories to highlight, and then how to present the material to a broad audience. What was the biggest challenge in this process, and how did you overcome it?
I’m going to preface all of my responses with some information because otherwise it’s going to end up featuring in each of them! This book was a commissioned piece by Adams Media; they were seeking someone to write an accessible, introductory book of Greek mythology that featured links to pop culture and worked within particular constraints regarding content, structure, and length. While I controlled the drafting of the text itself, I was working within their guidelines. It was not a traditional writing experience. Working within the confines of this commissioned book was challenging but provided for an interesting and educational experience. Beyond the traditional characters that Adams wanted featured, I selected mythological women who don’t often get their due or whose stories are usually combined with others (Medea being a prime example). Just like in my podcast, I wanted to humanize some of the women who are so often just cardboard cutouts. Most of the selections I made myself were based around that idea. When it comes to writing for a broad audience, fortunately that’s something that now comes fairly easily to me after so many years of the podcast. I am not a formal person, so my natural inclination is to write casually and contemporarily. Greek mythology is so universally odd, funny, and dramatic that it lends itself easily to accessible–and even explicitly commercial–retellings. The biggest challenge was sticking to word counts! Trying to fit the stories of Heracles and Hestia into the same general word count was a lesson in creativity.
2. There are a lot of books about ancient Greek myth aimed at all sorts of audiences, from children to adults. How does your handbook fit into this genre and what do you think makes yours different?
This is an interesting question because I think people have a tendency to think the book is child- or teen/preteen-friendly, but I certainly wrote it with adults in mind (though not intentionally so much as that is how I write and who I am). The most important thing for me when writing this book was not to sugarcoat the darker sides of myth; I was going to be explicit and describe the horror and violence and, specifically, the assaults of women that so often occur. This is certainly what places it on the more adult end of the spectrum, but also what makes it different. I have countless books on mythology in my home and have read so many more, and I almost never find the word “assault” used to describe Zeus (et al.)’s actions—rather, it is always “carried off,” “rapt away,” “seduced,” etc. That has always been my biggest issue with myth anthologies, and being honest about these moments was a priority of mine in the writing of the handbook. How that fit with specific audiences, I left to the publishers.
3. I love the artwork in your handbook and I am wondering about the conversations that you had with Sara Richard about their creation. Do you see the artwork as illustrations of the myths that you share or as presenting narratives of their own? How do you hope readers interact with the art?
Unfortunately much of my answer here is also related to the process for this book. I didn’t have any conversations with Sara prior to the book being finished, but that also is really indicative of her skill. The publisher chose her as the illustrator, and she did all of the illustrations based on single sentences I provided (for example: “Athena and Poseidon fighting over the founding of Athens”) and her own research. When I first saw them, I couldn’t believe how perfect they were. I think the illustrations, in some cases, illustrate my retellings (for instance, Athena and Arachne) and other times represent their own narratives (for example, Hades and Persephone). In the case of the latter, I don’t tell that story with any kind of romance, but Sara picked up on the popular idea of the couple today. This ends up providing a little something for everyone. I hope that readers see a bit of everything in the illustrations, the myths themselves, the strength of some of these characters, and the complexities inherent in them.
Thanks so much, Liv, for the context on the production of this handbook! I see a little more clearly now why you made some of the choices that you made to highlight particular stories for some of the figures, especially those like Achilles and Heracles, who have such rich mythologies. I definitely picked up on (and appreciated!) how you gave both Medea and Jason their own profiles, instead of subsuming one under the other. I am impressed with how you were able to work with the constraints that you had and produce this handbook, and I commend the illustrator, too, on her ability to engage with the myths and your retellings in such creative ways!