BOOK REVIEW: Classical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction by Helen Morales

Classical Mythology: A Very Short IntroductionClassical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction by Helen Morales
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book examines the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, reflects upon how these myths have come to be understood and used in the modern world, and proposes how these understandings may represent partial or incorrect views – in some cases. This approach can be seen from the book’s opening chapter, which investigates how Europa (a figure primarily known for being raped by Zeus) came to be namesake of the continent where classical mythology developed. In later chapters, there’s an exploration of how partial or erroneous understandings of Classical Mythology have been applied to psychoanalysis (ch. 5,) sexuality (ch. 6,) and New Age practices such as astrology and goddess worship (ch. 7.)

I learned a great deal from this book. I particularly enjoyed the discussion about what might have been if Freud had picked a different mythological figure to fixate on, other than Oedipus. How the famed psychiatrist might have extracted lessons that better stood the test of time than those that came about in reality.

While there’s not a great deal of room in a book such as this to explore the full scope of classical myths, the author does use a variety of myths – often well-known stories that don’t require a great deal of backstory – to make the book interesting and thought-provoking.

If you’re looking for a book on Classical Mythology, particularly one that discusses how it (for good or ill) appears in today’s world, I’d highly recommend this brief guide.

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Victory Mythologized [Free Verse]

victory in the palm of the hand
(specifically, 
the winged, laurel-bearing Nike --
goddess who personifies victory)

it's a bit on the nose
as is the bent front leg
as if standing on the chest 
of a vanquished foe

as is the looming,
nothing says victory
like looming
(unless you're a weaver) 

but victory is never so 
unambiguously glorious
as it's mythologized

BOOK REVIEW: Myth: A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal

Myth: A Very Short IntroductionMyth: A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book situates myth amid the broader body of scholarship by examining what role myth plays within – or in opposition to – various academic disciplines, including: science, philosophy, religion, the study of ritual, literature, psychology, structuralism, and social studies. The book is organized so as to compare competing ideas of various major scholars in each of the aforementioned domains. So, as the blurb is upfront about, the book doesn’t spend much time talking about what myths are, and the discussion of how myths are structured is only made as relevant to distinguishing various hypotheses.

One does obtain some food-for-thought about what myths are as one learns how different scholars have approached myth. Questions of how narrowly myth should be defined (e.g. only creation stories v. all god and supernatural tales,) and how myths compare to folktales, national literatures, and the like are touched upon. One also learns that some scholars took myths literally (and, therefore, saw them as obsolete in the face of science and modern scholarship,) but other scholars viewed myths more symbolically.

If you’re looking for an introductory book to position myth in the larger scholarly domain and to examine competing hypotheses about myths, this is a great book for you. However, those who want a book that elucidates what myths are (and aren’t) and how they are structured and to what ends, may find this book inadequate for those objectives. Just be aware of the book you’re getting.


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Helen of Troy [Limerick]

Abduction of Helen; (mid-18th cent. Venice)
There was pretty lady named Helen
whose beauty had all the boys yellin'.
No arrows from Cupid;
her glance made 'em stupid.
But did her face split a thousand melons?

BOOK REVIEW: Egyptian Mythology: A Very Short Introduction by Geraldine Pinch

Egyptian Myth: A Very Short IntroductionEgyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction by Geraldine Pinch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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It’s a daunting task to provide a flyover of such a fruitful mythological tradition, one that spanned thousands of years. This book does a mixed job of it. When it’s good – it’s exceptional, and when it’s not – it’s not. One can’t fault a book with this one’s editorial mandate for not being comprehensive. However, one can fault it for not using the little space available in the best manner. The book spends too much time discussing art and artifacts, and (to a less objectionable degree) history. I say “to a less objectionable degree” not because there was less space devoted to history but because having some historical and anthropological background is of benefit to understanding a culture’s stories [more so than knowing about their material possessions.] Until I got to chapter three, I thought the book might have been mistitled and should have been “Egyptology: A Very Short Introduction” because it was such a broad discussion of Egypt and its artifacts.

That said, in chapter three, the book does an excellent job of reviewing the gods of Egyptian Mythology. Thereafter, it meanders back and forth between being an excellent introduction to Egyptian Mythology and a rambling discussion of things Egypt. There’s a fascinating presentation of the conflict between Horus and Seth, but most of the discussion of myths are short summations (often one-liners.)

I don’t have any basis for comparison, and, therefore, couldn’t tell you if there is a better introductory guide to Egyptian Myth. That said, it does a good job of presenting an outline of the subject, but expect to spend a fair amount of time reading about subjects that are, at best, tangential to the stories of ancient Egypt.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Stories Behind the Poses by Raj Balkaran

The Stories Behind the Poses: The Indian mythology that inspired 50 yoga posturesThe Stories Behind the Poses: The Indian mythology that inspired 50 yoga postures by Raj Balkaran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Released: July 26, 2022

Yoga practitioners will be aware that — while some posture names are banal, straightforward descriptions (e.g. Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, or “standing hand-to-big toe pose –”) many others invoke animals, sages, or deities for historical, mythological, or symbolic reasons. As this book’s title suggests, it presents the mythological backstories for fifty yoga postures. The vast majority of these fifty poses are common ones that will be readily familiar to most Hatha Yoga practitioners, though a few are advanced or obscure and aren’t likely to come up in your run-of-the-mill studio class. (And a couple may be familiar to some individuals by another name.)

The book is cleanly organized with five sections (Shiva poses, Vishnu poses, Devi / goddess poses, God story poses, and sage poses) each containing writeups for ten poses. Each pose is presented via colorful artwork in the Indian style (typically with the deity or sage in question performing the posture.)

I found the entries to be well-written and clear (Hindu Mythology can be extremely complicated and some authors get lost in the weeds by including too much minutiae or unnecessary details, but that wasn’t the case here.) The full-page artistic renderings of the poses are also clear and tidy, such that anyone familiar with the pose should readily recognize it.

The one thing I think could have been done better (though probably not without messing up the aforementioned clean organizational scheme) would be to cut some of the redundancy in the stories. In a few instances, the same story appeared in multiple chapters. To the author’s credit, these weren’t just copy / pasted, they were written uniquely, sometimes with additional information or a different focus. Still, it was a bit distracting to find myself in the middle of the same story and wondering whether I’d zoned out or lost my place. This might have been dealt with by putting multiple poses with one story and not repeating the tale one or more times. For example, the stories about Vasisthasana and Visvametrasana are inherently coupled, and the poses might be as well. (Perhaps even referencing the fact that the story had already been told might have been helpful and less distracting.)

All-in-all, I thought this book did a fine job of presenting the myths and relating them to the postures. I learned a great deal from reading the book and would recommend it for yoga practitioners and those interested in Hindu Mythology.


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BOOK REVIEW: Thor, Vol. 1: Goddess of Thunder by Jason Aaron

Thor, Volume 1: The Goddess of ThunderThor, Volume 1: The Goddess of Thunder by Jason Aaron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I applaud what they were trying to do with this comic book, to hand the title and powers of Thor to a female in order to shake things up and break readers’ calcified thought processes. That said, I felt the story execution was poor. The art was well done, the dialogue was solid, but the story did not impress.

The story picks up with Thor having spontaneously become unworthy for reasons that are teased but left unclear, and the God of Thunder is pining for his hammer. The hammer, Mjolnir, is inscribed / enchanted with a spell: “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” Then Frost Giants attack a Roxxon (Marvel’s Evil Corp) deep drilling facility, with the support of Malekith, the Dark Elf King, to add a cleverer and more competent adversary to the brute power of the giants. Over the five-issue arc, the main action is involved with battling this incursion into Earth (Midgard) by the Frost Giants.

My biggest problem with the story had to do with the fluctuating rules of Mjolnir. First of all, I’m no fan of having all of the power and capabilities of Thor being contained in the hammer. I know that’s what the aforementioned inscription reads, but I think it makes for a poor hero because one has to wonder why the person is necessary, why not just a hammer flying around thrashing enemies. I prefer the way the “Thor: Ragnarök” movie handled this by insisting that Thor isn’t “the god of hammers” and that it is he who holds the power. However, that aside, there’s a point during which [Goddess] Thor becomes separated from the hammer. As I read this, I thought, “This is great, now she will have to do something clever and self-empowered to at least stall or escape.” But she didn’t have to because she was still every bit as powerful as before (maybe more so, it’s kind of hard to judge the wandering power levels of insanely overpowered superheroes.) Long story short, I was tripped up by the “the hammer is the source of all Thor’s power” to “the hammer is irrelevant” quick change. My only other problem with the story was that it felt like they left more unresolved baggage to serve as hooks than they reconciled.

I can see that a lot of people like this story, but I found it unworthy.


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BOOK REVIEW: Supernatural Shakespeare by J. Snodgrass

Supernatural Shakespeare: Magic and Ritual in Merry Old EnglandSupernatural Shakespeare: Magic and Ritual in Merry Old England by J. Snodgrass
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Like – I suspect – most of humanity, I’m a big fan of Shakespeare’s work, but I’m also not alone in feeling that I’ve missed a some of the depth and texture of his plays. Both language and the body of common / popular knowledge have evolved and migrated tremendously since the Elizabethan era. This makes a market for books that offer insight into the age and the role that the beliefs, norms, and daily life played in Shakespeare’s theatrical works. This book is one such work. It focuses on the role supernatural beings and various festivals play in the Shakespearean canon and why they do so.

Conceptions of the supernatural may be one of the areas in which human beliefs have changed most severely since Shakespeare’s day. The book has chapters on witches, ghosts, fairies, and enchanted forests that are interspersed among chapters that deal with various seasonal festivals of Pagan origin. I did find this leapfrogging around a bit odd, but I would speculate two possible reasons for it. First, the author may have wanted to build cyclicality into the overall organization, and thus put beings and creatures that seemed thematically related to a season near its festivals. Second, it may have seemed like a good idea to break up the festivals because that discussion could have felt tedious to a general reader if it’d been clumped together (as opposed to the “sexier” topics of witches and ghosts and the like.) This organization didn’t bother me; it just seemed a bit strange, but I could imagine it being for the best.

I learned a great deal from this book, and my newly gained knowledge wasn’t all about the supernatural elements of Shakespeare. The author dropped some fascinating facts regarding other domains as well – such as Elizabethan sexuality and lifestyles as well as biographical facts about Shakespeare. If you’re looking to expand your understanding of background information relevant to Shakespeare’s plays, this book is worth looking into.

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BOOK REVIEW: Iphigenia in Aulis Adapted by Edward Einhorn [from Euripides]

Iphigenia in Aulis: The Age of Bronze EditionIphigenia in Aulis: The Age of Bronze Edition by Edward Einhorn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This illustrated play is an adaptation of Euripides’ drama of the same name. The title character, Iphigenia, is the daughter of King Agememnon and she’s lured to Aulis by her father to be a human sacrifice, but under the fraudulent claim that she’s to be married to Achilles. [Because, you know, people tend to not show up if you invite them to be murdered, but they’re much more amenable if you invite them to marry a hunky half-god.]

It’s a simple and straightforward story, but one that is never-the-less evocative and dramatic. Agememnon’s will to kill his daughter falters for a time and when his wife, Klytemnestra, scores Achilles’ support for the cause of saving her daughter, it’s unclear how things will unfold. It’s a story that encourages one to reflect upon fate and the virtue of sacrifice, while showing that different chains of causality applied to the same event can radically alter the perception of justness. When Iphigenia’s death is seen as the means to get back Helen (who eloped with Paris to Troy,) it’s vile and despicable. However, when it is viewed as the means to get the fleet moving in order to restore the honor of those assembled nations pledged to fight, that’s a different matter.

I found this play to be compelling and well worth reading.


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