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Mythology – Edith Hamilton

This was one of those books I skimmed in high school but only appreciated years later. On a second read through (ok, first real read through) I absolutely fell into it. Hamilton's version of these classic stories make for a crisp and approachable way to get an overview of mythology. She blends main ideas from multiple ancient sources, lamenting Ovid's embellished prose and cheering on Homer's direct delivery.

 

Edith Hamilton

Hamilton was quite the woman. I didn’t know much about her life until beginning my research for this project. Upon graduating Bryn Mawr in the late 1890s with her MA, she received a fellowship to continue her studies in Germany. The academic conditions for women of that era were troubling – she was forced to the edge of lecture halls and silenced from class discussions.

Eventually she returned to the United States to head an all-girls prep school. She diligently continued her work with classic literature and published her first book in 1930 at the age of 62. Mythology came twelve years later in 1942 and has stood as a definitive introduction to the subject.

In 1957, she was invited to Athens by King Paul. Standing at the theater of Herodes Atticus at the foot of the Acropolis, he conferred to her honorary citizenship of Athens for her life's work.

 

My favorite stories
Mythology is written as a collection of short stories that tell the creation, trials, and triumphs of the ancient Greek/Roman gods. Two characters in particular stand out to me: Demeter and Theseus.

Demeter is the goddess of corn and harvest. This particular story begins in Olympus where her daughter Persephone, enticed by the narcisssus flower, wanders away and gets lost. Demeter's brother Hades swoops up from the underworld and carries Persephone off to be his Queen. Demeter falls into a depression as she mourns for her lost daughter. She descends from Olympus and wanders the earth, submitting mankind to a cold, failed harvest. A deal is struck to return Persephone to her mother, but Hades tricks Persephone into eating in the underworld, obligating her to return for part of every year. While she is gone, the vegetation of the Earth recedes and bears no fruit. This story served as an early reasoning for the changing seasons, filling in the knowledge gap of an ancient people. That blend of mythos and reality is an area I find particularly fascinating in this book.

Theseus was Hercules' cousin and was accordingly powerful. Whereas Hercules was the hero of Greece for his brute force, Theseus was the hero of Athens for his intelligence and cunning. He defeated the Minotaur from the labyrinth of Daedalus using a thread to retrace his steps. He fought Thebes for the right of a conquered army to bury their dead, but refused to pillage the city upon his own victory. When Oedipus and Hercules were cast out for their dishonorable actions, Theseus was there to receive them. After taking the title King of Athens, Theseus shunned power. Instead, he proclaimed that the people govern themselves. The liberty that followed under his influence ushered in the age of philosophy and reason for which Athens would be well-known.

 

Visual References

Illustrations from Mythology by Steel Savage

Gortyn code of law Example of Greek inscription

Eleusis Amphora Vase painting by The Polyphemos Painter

Phiale of Megara Inscription on a vessel found in a tomb in Macedonia

The Parthenon

Theater of Herodes Atticus

 

Sketching

As I started sketching I was considering both M and H because I thought H might be too plain. After essentially drawing the Gmail logo a couple times I decided I'd better stick with Hamilton's name like the course intended.

I knew I had to get a few "bad" ideas out so I started drawing columns as ascenders of the letterform. I went off on a tangent, investigated more Greek lettering. The lower-case Eta (H) has an "n" like figure with a lower descender on the right leg. It matched an arch form that I came across during my research so I played with that a couple times. 

I wasn't psyched about using such literal elements in my lettering but I was on a bit of an architecture theme. I started looking at photos of the Acropolis, especially the Herodes Atticus theater where Hamilton was made an official Athenian citizen. I focused in on a series of arches behind the stage that create a blocky H form – if you squint a little and crop it with your fingers like some director stereotype. I drew one version with stone details and one without. I got sidetracked and left my desk at that point but I feel like I have a concept to work with that isn't so literal as a couple columns making an H.

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