Wonder Woman & Edith Hamilton: Why Greek Mythology?

Zeus

Recently, my family and I had the pleasure of watching the Wonder Woman movie. I had read a synopsis of the movie to know the story’s trajectory. As a student of Greek mythology, I looked forward to seeing how the myths would be interpreted. The theatre had the latest upgrade: recliners. King size recliners allowed me to be cozy and comfortable with spacious room. With my shawl draped over my legs, I settled in to watch the movie.

The movie was great and worthy of the high reviews. As a consequence of the family’s discussion, I wondered how ‘true’ to Greek Mythology was Wonder Woman. The short answer is: tenuously. That did not diminish my enjoyment of the movie and so the question, “Why not?” emerges. As a rule, I do not like movies if they are not ‘true to the story’. Surely the actors, director, music score, and CGI, have a part to the answer but not all of it.

So I turned to my old friend, the 1969 edition of Edith Hamilton to see if she could shed some light. I first encountered Edith as a junior high school student. I had not been assigned to read it during the summer, as is the custom these days. I somehow stumbled upon the book and found her retelling of the Greek myths enchanting. Through the years with many a literature, philosophy, or theology class taken, I would return to this old book when some Grecian Myth fact was needed. Always, the delight of that summer read many decades earlier would surface.

Common knowledge presupposes that reading of the Greek and Roman myths shows us what man felt and thought at the dawn of Western civilization. The wonder of the beauty of nature and the life forces that lurked behind the trees, seas, and woods is evident in the myths telling,

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.[1]

Yet Rodney Stark, noted sociologist, and Edith Hamilton are both quick to point out that the ancient person regardless of primitive culture saw lurking behind nature horrors that needed taming and placating. Terrors not nymphs lived in the forests. Man’s typical means of soothing these known forces was Magic with the most potent of incantations: Human Sacrifice. To escape the wrath of the deities man would often require sometimes ‘senseless sacrifices, pain and grief.’[2] The ‘Greek miracle’ would be man’s first attempt to confront the forces of nature in a rational manner. The Greek myths show man’s first attempts at ratio.

The first Greek myth written a thousand years before Jesus would be the Iliad by Homer. Before the Greeks, as is evidenced in other ancient writings, mankind was not the center of the universe and the gods were not human in form. The Egyptians had gods composed of man-creatures such as Amun and Horus. Man counted for little.

In Greece, for reasons unknown, man first realized who man was. As a result, the gods were made in the image of man. By understanding man who is visible, the Greeks came to understand the gods who were invisible. Paul, a Hellenized Jew, will reflect on this same principle a thousand years later when he observes that the visible makes the invisible accessible.

The Greeks would project onto the gods those actions, feelings, and problems that humans have. The heavens felt like home because it had elements common to man. “The ‘miracle of the Greeks’ was a humanized world freed from an omnipotent Unknown.”[3] Odd as it might seem, the fantastical exploits of Hercules take place in a rational world governed by facts. There are no Genies popping out of lanterns with super powers, to disappear to who knows where. The gods and heroes had defined homes with real actions.

The Greeks talk about the stars but there is no horoscope reading and star influencing behaviors as their neighbors had. They studied the stars and discovered Astronomy. There are no stories of priests knowing secret truths of how to manipulate the gods. Poets converse with the gods because poets seek truth.

To be sure, man does not advance in a linear fashion. There is a mixture of dark and light. For a very long time, the gods portrayed in the myths are little better than the worshippers, and often times worse. Zeus’ raping and pillaging of women is a case in point. But over time, justice and wisdom come to represent what is best in Zeus for the Greeks. It would take a Resurrected Man a thousand years later to make the next evolutionary leap for humans.

Greek myths are early literature, science, and religion rolled into one. Science in that the myths attempt to explain rationally what is happening in the physical world. Religiously in the sense of showing forth desired modes of behavior such as the virtues of courage and perseverance. From the Iliad onward there is a sense of the divine and excellent and the worth of pursuing them.

Wonder Woman by borrowing from the Greek Myths, tapped into my subconscious joy of Greek patrimony. The movie with its roots in the treasury of Western Civilization has the makings of an enjoyable story. Re-reading Edith Hamilton reminds me of that summer long ago and the gratitude I have to Greek Mythology and the glorious culture that sprang from it.

            [1] Edith Hamilton, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (Mentor Book: NY 1969) 13

            [2] Ibid 14

           [3] Ibid 17

2 comments

  1. I really enjoyed your brief discussion here on Greek mythology! In writing my latest novel, set in first century Nabataea (at the east end of the Medterranean Basin) I spent some time researching the Hellenistic understanding of the divine—their making sense of the Unknown. While the Nabataeans had their own theology, distinct from the Hellenes, their kingdom was surrounded by Hellenistic culture, which, in the end, overwhelmed their native view of the powers controlling their lives.

    In looking into the details of the Greek pantheon, I was struck by the seeming lack of any kind of orhtodoxy. Not only did their view of each god and goddess change over time, but their relationships, and even lineage seemed to be a fluid matter. And from region to region, who the gods were, what they were called, and how they acted was a fairly variable thing. When the Romans later co-opted and then institutionalized the divine community, not only did Zeus become Jove, and all of his divine “neighbors” gain their own transformed names, but some sense of stability finally seemed to enter the halls of Olympus.

    Because every culture (in time and region) that encountered the Hellene divines seemed to give their own “twist” to them, perhaps its not so odd that 21st century America would impress its own stamp on the gods and their consorts.

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