The Birth of Humanities: Mythology by Edith Hamilton

MythologyMythology by Edith Hamilton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The essence of myths is threefold: it is a branch of natural science, trying to explain what humans saw around them. It is also a genre of pure classical literature. Besides, mythology is religion, the deepening realization of what human beings needed in their gods and goddesses. That is, mythology is a way to show us the way the human race thought and felt untold ages ago. Through mythology we are connected to the men who had close relationship with nature, who had no real distinction between the real and the unreal, unchecked by reason but with the spirit. In this light, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology breathes life into the Greek, Roman, and even Norse myths, which are the bedrock of the western civilization – the stories of gods, goddesses, and heroes that have imbued the humankind with multifarious creativity from time immemorial to present.

The aim of this book is to produce knowledge of the myths that had been recorded by ancient writers and poets. In fact, the myths as we know now are the creation of great poets, one of which is the Iliad by Homer. Unlike the Egyptian, the Greeks made their gods in their own image and breathed them with their emotions and feelings. It is uncertain how the genesis of the Greek mythology came into being; however the earliest Greek poets arrived at a new point of view which had never been dreamed of in the world before them. It was at this point that mankind regarded itself as the center of the universe, intent upon producing the beauty of human, which was the very consummation of reality.

According to Hamilton, what distinguishes Greek mythology from others is it’s foundation on the factual reality. The nonsensical took place in a world, which was essentially rational and matter-of-fact. For example, Hercules always had his abode in the city of Thebes, save when he took of a journey to accomplish his twelve labors; Aphrodite’s birthplace was just offshore from the island of Cynthera; Pegasus’s comfy stable was in Corinth. There was a sense of reality in the mythological world but no place for magic.

Mythology is not a tome that requires of modern readers perquisites for scholarly knowledge of academic languages, intellectual superiority, or historical knowledge of the ancient time. It is an anthology of entertaining and inspiring tales of gods, goddesses, nymphs, and mortals who fell out of favor with the divine, written in plain English; it’s like listening to a very well-read story-teller. In Mythology, we meet all from the mercurial gods and jealous goddesses on the Mount Olympus even to Norse gods in Valhalla. We are fascinated with tales of Cupid and Psyche, Odyssey’s Golden Fleece, and forlorn Clytie whose love for Apollo pined away. We discover that Paris of Troy used to live with a nymph called Oenone before deserting her for Helen of Sparta. Also, we listen to the legends of constellations of the stars as well as many other references for literature, paintings, and music that have been deeply inspired by Greek mythology.

Mythology is the most comprehensive and lucidly accounted tales of mythology based upon Hamilton’s extensive collection of the sources from great ancient poets and writers. Of all other books on mythology of the western civilization I have encountered, this book is by far the most excellent in providing readers with both entertainment and knowledge without academically esoteric approach or literary pompousness. Mythology succeeds in  offering education and appreciation of art that has been passed down to our present time for thousands of years. For this reason, Mythology by Edith Hamilton is a touchstone for books on mythology.

 

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Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson

Neither Here nor There: Travels in EuropeNeither Here nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When John Steinbeck, who wrote The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Travels with Charley: In Search of America, met a young man in traveling across America in his converted camping car named Rocinante, he met a young man who longed to travel to Europe with the idealization of the continent as he had seen in magazines and books. Steinbeck, being already weary of the existential dealings on the road, advised him, “What’s the need when the world is conveniently at your fingertips in colors without all those travel-related hassles? You can see the world in books and films and still keep your ideal images of Europe.” Which is exactly why Bill Bryson, an American- born British writer renowned for his great sense of wit and superb command of the English language, decided to embark on his journey once again twenty years after he and his pal Katz backpacked across Europe. Bryson wanted to see Europe in itself with a tabula rosa and write something about the cultures that seemed at once so different and yet so oddly similar in his own eyes. The result is the touchy-feely, impetuously hilarious, and astonishingly insightful Neither Here Nor There.

Bryson’s journey began and ended in the two geographical outposts of Europe, Hammerfest and Istanbul. By virtue of his narrative both so inviting and vivid with the use of languages both colloquial and literal that are so characteristic of his writing style, readers will easily and willingly follow his train of travel through the chapters, as he first takes us to Hammerfest to watch the beautiful shimmering gossamer of Northern Lights. We find Bryson feeling not-so-attractive while sitting on a bench at a park in Copenhagen, where all people looked handsome and beautiful. Such existential estrangement became heightened in Belgium, for all along he felt homesick, reminiscing about an old diner in Iowa and its cantankerous but hearty old waitress he frequented. In Amsterdam, he was concerned about the country’s “oddly wearisome” social conventions in regard of its complacency toward untenable political stance under the banner of tolerance. We see Bryson in the streets of Stockholm disappointed in the perfect socialist country littered and defiled by wastes mindlessly thrown away anywhere by its civilized residents without a shade of shame.

And who would not but sympathize with Bryson’s pathos in Florence? Here in this City of Flowers, Bryson saw the ubiquitous Gypsies importune everyone, with their haggardly clothed little children as an instrument for orating their poverty to passers-by at which Bryson was righteously indignant. He questioned himself why the police were not making any efforts to stop the Gypsies from harassing people. Further in Austria, we feel for him as his idealization of Austria as the epitome of all things European was ungraciously punctured by unfriendly services, an irritatingly slow mode of business operation, and a lack of charming coffeehouses where he could rest his spent body and spirit for a time. What a Don Quixote-like journey full of episodes  it was.

Bryson’s cultural notes of each country he visited were, however, devoid of malicious sarcasm or jingoistic ignorance of its customs or social conventions. Things that he experienced in his travel in Europe was a clash of cultures he came from – originally Iowa, The U.S. and England afterwards – and cultures he had imagined in his mind, all of which spellbound him like a Boy in Wonderland. In fact, what fascinated him in Europe was his discovery that the world could be full of variety in which there were many different ways of doing essentially identical things, such as eating and drinking and buying movie tickets. Unlike other travel writers who only write about the sunny sides of the countries and peoples in their interests, Bryson is unafraid of telling readers his observations through his experience with a certain kind of fraternal or avuncular affection added by his trademark wits wonderfully interwoven with intelligence and humanism.

The travel ended in Istanbul with his hope of seeing more of the world, his everlasting wanderlust still luring with a vision of Asia across the Bosporus Bridge. He’s all up for the unforseeable happenings awaiting for him to encounter because that’s the glory of foreign travel, a travel to a terra ingonita where anyone can become a stranger, a wanderer blissfully ignorant of almost anything. To Bryson, the whole existence of traveler is to be constructed by a series of instantaneous guesses and endless actions. Notwithstanding all the woes of a lone traveler who was culture-bound, Bryson’s travels in Europe was something of his experience in Wonderland filled with a great sense of childlike wonder and appreciation of the wonders of each country in its own colors. Neither Here Nor There is his tale of veni vidi, vici experience and entertaining accounts of the world through his eyes with amusing and telling details resembling none other than themselves.

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The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney

51emoQ2iSAL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I believe that reality is always better than fiction in truth of events and artifacts that accompany the stories. Besides, if such story chimes the bell of my emotion even in the faintest decibel, I dive into it. In this regard, this book was a sure thing to read about people who were inflicted with “sacred disease” -as termed by Hippocrates – how they got there and what they were really like as individuals with dreams, memories, hopes, and wishes.

jon-crispin-dmytres-suitcase-01
One of the suitcases found in Willard Psychiatric Center courtesy of phaidon.com

Hundreds of derelict suitcases came into light when Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York were closed in 1995, ending its century long history of a public mental institution. Each suitcase has a story to tell with pictures, bus/train tickets, diaries, letters, and even teacups contained herein. In the eyes of the author, it was like the fateful revelation of the outcry of the people who had come to live in the hospital. What I have found in reading this book is that many of the patients do not seem mad or needful of being institutionalized. Many of them suffer from loneliness, abandonment, and ill treatments from others. To my consternation, if a spouse or a family member was regarded irksome, bothersome, and troublesome, a ticket to the lifelong institualization was a sine qua non solution to get rid of the person forthwith.

A truly powerful testimony to the dignity of the people who found themselves on the edges of society, The Lives They Left Behind is comprised of heart-wrenching accounts of those whose lives were immortalized in the artifacts they forgot to claim ever more; that there is only a thin layer of difference between those within and without gives rise to requisite re-examination of what constitutes normalcy of behaviors as “socially and culturally” accepted because in one way or another we all carry a certain degree of “madness” within -for better or worse.

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