Classics Mythography
by
R. Scott Smith, Stephen M. Trzaskoma
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0142

Introduction

“Mythography” is a broad term used to cover what is, in fact, a disparate set of texts from the ancient world, all in prose, all dealing in one way or another with myth, but otherwise not necessarily closely related. Some of them attempt to collect and organize traditional stories (we refer to this as “systematic mythography”); some are more concerned with the interpretation and evaluation of them (“interpretive mythography”); and some show a mixture of these tendencies. Even within these general categories, there is wide variation among the surviving examples. Systematic mythography includes attempts at organizing the whole of Greek myth into a single narrative (Pseudo-Apollodorus, which covers everything from the reign of Ouranos and Gaia to the generation after the Trojan War), but also works in which the same material is organized as individual stories (Hyginus’s Fabulae), as well as more specialized treatments that focus on a particular subset of myths, such as transformations, love stories, and star myths (Antoninus Liberalis, Parthenius, and Pseudo-Eratosthenes, respectively). Interpretive mythography is likewise varied, but in general it has the aim of making sense of myth in light of other intellectual and philosophical developments, for instance, by attempting to reconcile myth and the observable facts of the real world (Palaephatus) or to explain it as philosophical or religious allegory (Cornutus and others). Many scholars use the term “mythography” solely in reference to the systematic sort. Mythography as a genre is normally seen as a Hellenistic and Imperial phenomenon, but antecedents appear alongside the earliest prose writers of history and philosophy in the 5th century BCE. One area of important investigation remains how to distinguish early mythography from these allied genres, a vexed question because later authorities may often call the same author a historian, genealogist, and mythographer without distinction, and the sources are not well preserved. Mythography remained a continuous activity from these origins until the end of Antiquity, and even beyond. The early Hellenistic examples of the genre, which seem to have been crucial in establishing the central forms and varieties of mythography, are themselves poorly preserved, but we have rather more texts surviving from the 1st century BCE onward, and these often give us our only glimpses of their predecessors. For purposes of convenience, mythographic works here are divided into chronological categories—(1) early (that is, Archaic and Classical), (2) Hellenistic, and (3) Imperial—but it should be remembered that precise chronology is difficult to establish.

General Overviews

There exist no recent comprehensive treatments of mythography in all its forms from its inception to its latest ancient manifestations, and many important general observations will be found embedded only within more specialized studies. One sign of scholarly neglect is that Wendel 1935 remains a productive starting point, although Pellizer 1993 is an improvement in many ways. Cameron 2004 is not a systematic study even of Imperial mythography, but it does contain useful methodological considerations that can be applied more generally to mythography. Briefer seminal methodological considerations will be found in Henrichs 1987. Higbie 2007 gives an overview of some Imperial examples of the genre (which the author terms “Hellenistic”). Alganza Roldán 2006 is a recent attempt to trace the boundaries of the genre. A more approachable general survey will be found in Smith and Trzaskoma 2007. The main focus of the journal Kernos is Greek religion, but it often has relevant articles.

  • Alganza Roldán, Minerva. 2006. La mitografía como género de la prosa helenística: Cuestiones previas. Florentia Iliberritana 17:9–37.

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    Useful survey of the history of modern scholarly definitions of mythography and approaches to constructing a corpus of mythographers. Attention paid to difficulties of delineating mythography from allied intellectual currents in the ancient world and problems inherent in the interplay of the fluid definitions of both “myth” and “mythography.”

  • Cameron, Alan. 2004. Greek mythography in the Roman world. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Wide-ranging treatment of systematic (not interpretive) mythography, concentrating on relatively marginal texts to contextualize mythography in its intellectual milieu and trace the ways it was used to illuminate the reading and writing of ancient literature. Particular attention paid to how mythographers used and cited their sources.

  • Henrichs, Albert. 1987. Three approaches to Greek mythography. In Interpretations of Greek mythology. Edited by Jan Bremmer, 242–277. London and Sydney, Australia: Croom Helm.

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    A lucid, seminal introduction to the nature of mythography, its processes, and its importance for the study of myth, through three exploratory case studies: Conon, mythological catalogues, and the Callisto myth. Identifies several directions for new research, not all of which have yet been pursued.

  • Higbie, Carolyn. 2007. Hellenistic mythographers. In The Cambridge companion to Greek mythology. Edited by Roger D. Woodard, 237–254. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    A cursory survey of Hellenistic and early Imperial mythographers, including Apollodorus, Parthenius, Antoninus Liberalis, Conon, and the Mythographus Homericus. Briefly treats the relationship between mythography and paradoxography, and mythography’s predecessors, chronology, and genealogy.

  • Kernos: Revue internationale et pluridisciplinaire de religion grecque antique. 1988– . Liège, Belgium: Université de Liège.

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    Well-regarded journal covering Greek religion and related matters. Many issues contain articles of interest for the study of mythography, notably Volume 19 (2006), the Actes du Xe colloque du CIERGA: Formes et fonctions de la mythologie et de la mythographie gréco-romaine, with several pieces of direct relevance.

  • Pellizer, Ezio. 1993. La mitografia. In Lo spazio letterario della Grecia antica. Vol. 1.2. Edited by Giuseppe Cambiano, et al., 283–303. Rome: Salerno Editrice.

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    This excellent overview defines mythography more broadly than Wendel 1935, starting its treatment in the 6th century BCE and including some interpretive mythography. Views poetic catalogues (such as Hesiod’s), genealogies, and logography (such as Hecataeus’s) simply as different modes of the mythographic impulse. Bibliography on pp. 300–303.

  • Smith, R. Scott, and Stephen M. Trzaskoma. 2007. Apollodorus’ Library and Hyginus’ Fabulae: Two handbooks of Greek mythology. Cambridge, MA: Hackett.

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    A brief overview of the development of mythography from the earliest examples to the end of Antiquity can be found on pp. x–xxviii. Aimed at a general audience.

  • Wendel, Carl. 1935. Mythographie. In Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft. Vol. 16. Edited by A. F. von Pauly and Georg Wissowa, cols. 1352–1374. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler.

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    Remains one of the best overviews of mythography, covering the mythographic tradition from the 4th century BCE into the Christian period. Limits discussion to the discrete set of texts that involve systematic mythography (no interpretive texts). Particularly interested in identifying sources and establishing relationships between mythographers.

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