The Tradition

As I have discussed briefly before, one of the main reasons I was open enough to Hellenismos to hear the call of the Gods is that it’s part of the roots of my own culture – and the Classical influence has remained a vital part of Western culture and civilization ever since. This continuity is vitally important to my own practice and understanding of Hellenism, and is one of the aspects of Hellenismos that interests me the most.

In addition to being culturally “appropriate”, of course, it also means that I have an almost limitless supply of material to look to for inspiration in creating hymns, prayers, votives, objets d’art, and so on. Much has been written about the modern world’s debt to the ancient – in fields from the arts to architecture, law to ethics, music to philosophy. Today I wanted to share a few of my favorite post-Classical resources, with an emphasis on literature and poetry; a couple of these have been referenced in previous posts, but I think most are new here. (I know there is at least one gaping hole in this list, because I have not yet read Werner Jaeger’s Paideia.)

First and foremost is the monumental Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300-1900s, edited by Jane Davidson Reid. Oxford describes it as “…a topically classified chronology of more than 30,000 artworks from circa 1300 to the present day that take as their theme the subjects of Greek and Roman mythology. In more than three hundred major entries, alphabetically arranged by subject, artworks are listed in chronological order, delineating the history of artistic interest in the subject, including painting, sculpture, music, dance, opera, drama, and literature over the last seven centuries.” Indispensable to anyone interested in the post-Classical interpretation of Classical myth.

French scholar Jean Seznec focuses on the Renaissance in The Survival of the Pagan Gods: the mythological tradition and its place in Renaissance humanism and art.

Narrowing down to the field of literature, next up is Gilbert Highet’s 1947 classic The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman influences on Western literature, a book that one reviewer called “the Baedeker of Western European Literature“. Covering a somewhat narrower terrain are two slightly older books by Douglas Bush, Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry, and Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry. (Note: while looking for links to the first book I came across this article; I haven’t read it yet so I can’t vouch for it, but I’ll put it out there and let you judge for yourselves.)

Rounding out the academic side are two books that I keep coming back to – Patricia Merivale’s Pan the Goat God: his myth in modern times (well and truly out of print, it can still be had but it’s quite expensive), and Geoffrey Miles’ Classical Mythology in English Literature: a critical anthology. Both of these books are more limited in their subject matter; Merivale is focused on Pan, of course, and the Miles book brings together everything in English on three myths: Orpheus, Venus and Adonis, and Pygmalion.

To the Gods of Hellas: lyrics of the Greek games at Barnard College (Helen Erskine, editor – originally published in the 1920s) has recently been e-published through Kessinger Reprints; check your favorite online bookseller. This book is an absolute fount of inspiration for writing your own hymns – some of the material in here almost sings on its own!

I have also found a couple of collections of modern poetry that focus on Classical myth: Gods and Mortals: modern poems on Classical myths, edited by Nina Kossman, and Orpheus and Company: contemporary poems on Greek mythology, edited by Deborah DeNicola. Overall I am fonder of the Kossman volume, but they are both worth having.

And finally, two books that take a slightly different angle. Oliver Taplin’s Greek Fire: the influence of ancient Greece on the modern world was originally published as a companion book to a BBC series, and traces the reception of the idea of ancient Greece in modern times. Broad but not overly deep, Taplin’s book is a good introduction to Greek influence in a number of fields that one might not expect.

William L. Vance’s America’s Rome I: Classical Rome is not as broad but it is a good bit deeper (and somewhat denser as well), tracing the influence of perceived Roman ideals and culture on the development of our Republic. Fascinating stuff.


2 thoughts on “The Tradition

  1. Cosette

    This was very informative, thank you. I’ve been wanting to get my hands on Merivale’s book for some time now, but it’s so pricey. Anyway, one of the reasons I’m drawn to Hellenismos and the Religio is because of that continuity you mention. I look around and see those influences everywhere.

  2. executivepagan Post author

    Hi Cosette,
    Exactly. Whether you look at our literature, art (especially sculpture), political theory… it’s all right there! And even the “civil religion” doesn’t always seem quite as “civil” as one might expect… have you ever seen the painting that adorns the Capitol rotunda ceiling? It’s called The Apotheosis of Washington… makes you wonder. (And that’s not the only work on that theme, either – a Google image search on that phrase will bring you a few others.)

    Forrest Church, in his new book on religion in the first five Presidencies, argues that Washington’s thinking was “more Roman than Christian”; and that in fact, none of the first five Presidents pleased the “religious right” of their day, nor would they please ours if they were in office now instead of safely dead and deified! :)

    Regarding the Merivale book – do you live near a university with a decent library? That’s where I first found it – the one near me even offers a “community borrower card” (for a fee) that gives me many of the same borrowing privileges as the students.

    Thanks for stopping by!

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