In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Myth and Victorian Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Victorian Theories of Myth
  • Feminist Revisionism of Classical Myth
  • Sappho, Homosexuality, and Myth
  • Specific Classical Myths
  • Alfred Lord Tennyson (b. 1809–d. 1892)
  • John Ruskin (b. 1819–d. 1900)
  • Matthew Arnold (b. 1822–d. 1888)
  • William Morris (b. 1834–d. 1896)
  • Algernon Charles Swinburne (b. 1837–d. 1909)
  • Walter Pater (b. 1839–d. 1894)
  • Jane Harrison (b. 1850–d. 1928)
  • Other Victorian Women Writers
  • Studies of Myth in American Literature
  • Arthurian Myth
  • Biblical and Middle-Eastern Myth
  • Folklore
  • Fairy Tale
  • Irish Myth
  • Norse Myth
  • Scottish Myth
  • Welsh Myth

Victorian Literature Myth and Victorian Literature
Essaka Joshua
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0147


Myth is a prominent part of the Victorian engagement with the past and the present, and myths were essential to the Victorians’ conception of themselves. Before the 18th century, myth usually refers to the inherited stories of the Greeks and Romans, but, with the expanded exploration, through travel and scholarship, this gradually widened to include mythologies belonging to other cultures. The Romantic legacy looms large in the considerations of the early-Victorian inheritance of classical myths. Discussion of myth in this period is often connected to questions of cultural progress, and the classical competes with the gothic for aesthetic pre-eminence. The 1830s, the early Victorian period, sees the beginning of the Arthurian revival. The mid-Victorians are preoccupied by the moral safety of Hellenistic subject matter and by its wider cultural significance, a preoccupation that continues through to the end of the century. Classical myth in the fin de siècle has an important homoerotic element throughout the 19th century, and it achieves this in its fullest form in the work of aesthetes and decadents. It is difficult to limit the boundaries of the study of myth and literature for a number of reasons: the slipperiness of “myth” as a concept; the vast array of cultures from which myths are taken and reworked in literature; the interpretive problem of establishing the nature of echoes of mythological narratives and mythological characters; ambiguities in the genres associated with the wealth of anthropological material that contributes to the scholarly study of myth; and the degree to which myth should be associated with belief. Mythography, or the study of myth, is an interdisciplinary area that transverses folklore, theology, classics, literature, anthropology, and history. In addition to collecting and retelling stories from cultures worldwide, Victorian writers also explored the mentality of mythmaking, the variants of myths, and the social function of myth.

General Overviews

A wide variety of studies address the question of how the Victorians define myth. Kissane 1962 provides a useful schema of the various approaches available to 19th-century writers who include myth in their work. Dorson 1968, Feldman and Richardson 1972, and Ackerman 1991 outline how myth became a subject of academic study. Feldman and Richardson 1972 concludes, somewhat selectively, that the Victorians reevaluated myth through a “mesh of decorous and sunny gentility,” and that they robbed the subject matter of “much of its dignity [and] much of its capacity to nourish tragedy” (p. 301). They see the later 19th century as a scholarly period in which the study of myth contributed to a second Enlightenment. Highet 1976 offers a European context for the transmission of classical myth, as does Raglan 1956 (cited under Arthurian Myth). Dorson 1968 defines myth broadly to include folklore and antiquarianism, and Ackerman 1991 focuses on ritual in addition to these. Louis 2005 is interested in the interplay between intellectual inheritance and the controversies of the day. Bullen 1989 takes an interdisciplinary approach to classical inheritance, including literature and the visual arts. In the discussions of Victorian literature in these general surveys, the writings of Tennyson, Ruskin, Arnold, Pater, and Johann Joachim Winckelmann (b. 1717–d. 1768) receive the most attention. Aside from the following recommendations, the International Journal of the Classical Tradition, which started in 1994, is a useful resource; and there is a special issue (Volume 5, Issue 3, 1999) devoted to classical mythology and 19th-century English literature (see Schultze 1998–1999, cited under Other Victorian Women Writers; Travis 1999, cited under Biblical and Middle-Eastern Myth; Bonaparte 1999, cited under Feminist Revisionism of Classical Myth). A Cambridge University Press series devoted to classical reception launched in 2013.

  • Ackerman, Robert. The Myth and Ritual School: J. G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists. New York: Garland, 1991.

    Ackerman begins with an overview of 18th and 19th century theorizing about myth and offering detailed analysis of the major works of James George Frazer (“a late-eighteenth-century mind in a late-nineteenth-century setting,” p. xiv), Jane Ellen Harrison (“the center of the group,” p. xiv), Gilbert Murray (“clearly the best known,” p. xiv), Francis Cornford (“primarily a student of ancient philosophy,” p. 69), and A. B. Cook (“a rationalist of the Tyler-Frazer sort,” p. 103), and of the debates surrounding their work. Republished New York: Routledge, 2002.

  • Bullen, J. B., ed. The Sun is God: Painting, Literature and Mythology in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

    A collection of essays that examines the Victorian engagement with mythological and theological study, largely in the context of solar myths. The essays deal with Romantic and Victorian writers, and focus on Tennyson, Ruskin, Swinburne, Darwin, Hardy, and Pater. Connections are explicitly made between poetry and painting.

  • Dorson, Richard. The British Folklorists: A History. London: Routledge/Kegan Paul, 1968.

    A wide-reaching exploration of the history of the study of myth and folklore. The chapter “The Mythological Folklorists” is particularly helpful and surveys the work of Max Müller. The issue of whether folklore and fairy tale can be considered alongside classical myth is a subject of much debate and is discussed here.

  • Feldman, Burton, and Robert D. Richardson. The Rise of Modern Mythology: 1680–1860. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1972.

    An anthology of extracts from the major writers on myth, with useful commentaries on their place in the development of the modern study of myth. Part 3 deals with the 19th century up to 1860 and includes discussion of a great deal of German writing on myth. There are sections on German, English, French, and American romanticism and myth, with additional material on Victorian popular mythology (Charles Kingsley and Thomas Bulfinch).

  • Highet, Gilbert. The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

    First published in 1949, this is vast study of the European inheritance of classical mythology covering every literary period and a wide range of genres. The British Victorian focus is on Arnold, Swinburne and Wilde.

  • Jenkyns, Richard. The Victorians and Ancient Greece. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

    A wide-ranging interdisciplinary survey of the cultural perception of Greek art in Victorian Britain, with a chapter on George Eliot, her echoes of Medea’s story, and her references to classical scholarship. Attention is also given to the Victorian renarrations of the Pygmalion story, Arnold’s views on classical education, the influence of A. W. Schlegel on the reception of Greek tragedy, and Pater’s engagement with the Greek cult of the beautiful young man.

  • Kissane, James. “Victorian Mythology.” Victorian Studies 6 (1962): 5–28.

    Using as his starting place Henry Gay Hewlett’s “The Rationale of Mythology” from the Cornhill Magazine (1877), Kissane gives a sense of the eclectic range in the perception of myth based on Hewlett’s six categories of approaches to myth. These are the historical theory (euhemerism), the physical theory (animism), the poetic theory, the allegorical theory, the etymological theory (philology), and the aetiological theory (natural phenomena).

  • Louis, Margot. “Gods and Mysteries: The Revival of Paganism and the Remaking of Mythography through the Nineteenth Century.” Victorian Studies 47.3 (2005): 329–361.

    DOI: 10.2979/VIC.2005.47.3.329

    Traces the development of mythography from 1800 to the 1920s, arguing that mythographic study in this period reflects attitudes toward Greek religion that are driven by contemporary attitudes toward Christianity. Louis suggests that, if one is to give a full account of the reception of myth, mythography must be studied alongside poetry. This essay also appears in Louis 2009 (Cited under Specific Classical Myths).

  • Turner, Frank M. The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

    Examines the Victorian engagement with 5th-century Athens in the context of contemporary debates on anthropology, aesthetics, and theology, arguing that academic scholarship influences art and literature. Turner’s wide-ranging study suggests that there is no single motivation for interest in the Greeks, rather a cluster of motivations, many of which are unconnected.

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