Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 40.
Paul Murgatroyd, Mythical Monsters in Classical Literature. London: Duckworth, 2007. Pp. ix + 200. ISBN 978-0-7156-3627-5. UK£16.99.
B. van Niekerk,
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal
This book not only considers mythical creatures found in Greek and Roman literature, but also gives the various methods that authors and storytellers used to highlight the aspects of their subject, and to captivate their readers or audience. All translations from the primary sources are the author’s, and the notes (pp. 187-94) and select bibliography (pp. 195-97) direct the reader to additional primary and secondary works that will provide more information on the subject. The book is aimed at students studying mythology and the general reader interested in monsters and mythology. Whilst the representations of the various monsters are analysed from a literary standpoint, it is presented at a level that is still entertaining and understandable for those who do not possess a literary background. Murgatroyd provides the recipe for many good Classical horror stories. The book is illustrated with a selection of Renaissance era paintings and photographs of classical statues and vase paintings. The index (pp. 199f.) provides a list of monsters that have appeared in the book.
Murgatroyd takes a look at the precursors to modern entertainment’s monsters in Chapter 1, ‘Vampires, Werewolves and the Living Dead’ (pp. 5-21), after a giving the definition of the term ‘monster’ and an overview of the possible origins of such creatures in the introduction (pp. 1-3). The Classical equivalents of vampires are considered (pp. 5-11) in the depiction of the four types of creatures: the Furies in Aeschylus (Eumenides 264-68), the Keres in the Shield of Heracles (248-63), Empusa in Philostratus (The Life of Apollonus 4.25), and the strix, a type of vicious screech-owl appearing in Ovid’s Fasti (6.131-68). The author mentions a few brief references to werewolves, but focuses more on Petronius’ Satyricon (61), where two characters are sharing horror stories. Murgatroyd contrasts the methods employed in each of the stories to illustrate what would have constituted a good ghost story. He then goes on to give a narrative about two occurrences of the living dead raised by witches, namely in Lucan (The Civil War 6.570-830) and Apuleius (Metamorphoses 2.28). An appendix (pp. 18-21) at the end of Chapter 1 provides an overview of non-mythical monsters and a brief study in horror to illustrate how modern vampire clichés echo the elements discussed earlier in the chapter.
Chapter 2, ‘Impact’ (pp. 22-33), provides a more in-depth look at literary techniques that were used to maximise the impact of the monster, the precursors of modern cinematic techniques. He uses the representation of a number of monsters, such as Cerberus, the Chimera, Echidna, Amycus and the Cyclops from a wide range of sources, most notably Hesiod’s Theogony and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to illustrate a number of techniques used to describe monsters, such as stressing various aspects or actions, creating expectation, or giving lengthy descriptions. The use of monsters to shape human affairs is examined in Chapter 3, ‘Laocoon and the Sea-Snakes’ (pp. 34-43), where two sea-snakes kill the seer Laocoon and his sons to prevent him from interfering with the fate of Troy. The primary source in question is Book 2 of Virgil’s Aeneid, where the killing of Laocoon and his sons by two sea-snakes ensures a Greek victory in the Trojan War, and the episode has an impact on the whole book. The symbolic impact of the episode is studied as Murgatroyd highlights a number of links to the remainder of book 2 that have a significant structural role. A brief comparison with the representation of the Laocoon and Sinon episodes in book 12 of Quintus’ Posthomerica is also given (pp. 41-43.)
Chapter 4, ‘Sirens’, (pp. 44-56), looks at the original depictions of these creatures by Homer in the Odyssey (12.39-54 and 12.182-200) and Apollonius of Rhodes in Voyage of Argo 4.891-920. As the Sirens are not clearly or fully described the adaptations of them appearing in other classical authors and in the medieval and Renaissance periods are examined. The depictions vary drastically; Apollonius imagines them as 'partly like birds and partly like girls in appearance' (Voyage of Argo 4.899) whereas they are later described as a 'stammering, squint-eyed, club-footed woman' by Dante in canto XIX of the Purgatorio. Four more winged creatures are described in Chapter 5, ‘Winged Monsters’ (pp. 57-69), namely the Stymphalian Birds, Griffins, Harpies, and the Sphinx. Of these four, the majority of the attention is devoted to the Harpies, where their representation by Apollonius (Voyage of Argo 2) is compared to those by Valerius Flaccus (Voyage of Argo 4) and Virgil (Aeneid 7).
Chapter 6, ‘A Monster Slayer’ (pp. 70-90) and Chapter 9, ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ (pp. 119-30) focus more on the heroes Theseus and Jason, respectively, than they do on monsters. After an introduction to Theseus, his early life and his first conquests, the author moves on to the slaying of the Minotaur and Calydonian Boar, the Theseus’ battle with the centaurs at the wedding of Pirithous and Hippodame, and finally his death and later apparition. Extracts from the poets Bacchylides and Catullus dominate the analysis of the hero’s early years and his adventures with the Minotaur, whereas Ovid is emphasised in the remaining sections. Chapter 9 only considers Apollonius’ Voyage of Argo, which is compared to the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts. Three episodes are considered; Talos, the hydra, and the earth-born men. Murgatroyd also places emphasis on the differing portrayals of Medea in Apollonius and the film.
Chapter 10, ‘Fighting with Monsters (1)’ (pp. 131-45) and Chapter 11, ‘Fighting with Monsters (2)’ (pp. 146-64) continue the theme of heroes. In Chapter 10 the second and tenth labours of Hercules are used to illustrate a method of plot analysis that the author has developed to analyse combat with a monster, breaking it down into three stages and a number of functions. Chapter 11 continues with the plot analysis, applying it to Zeus’ fight with Typhos and Perseus’ slaying of Medusa and a sea serpent to rescue Andromeda.
To contrast the ‘bad’ monsters that are the main focus of the book, Murgatroyd pays attention to one that is benevolent in Chapter 7, ‘A Good Monster: Chiron’ (pp. 91-103). After a brief introduction that gives examples of a few ‘good monsters’ and provides a background to centaurs and Chiron’s history, the author examines three poets whose works feature the centaur. Pindar in Pythian Ode 9 used Chiron for glorification, whereas Horace in Epode 13 used him for moralising. Ovid portrays Chiron twice: as a ‘family monster’ in Metamorphoses 2.633-77, and his demise in Fasti 5.381-414. Whilst there is focus on Chiron’s ability to prophesize, Murgatroyd illuminates some techniques used by the poets that can be classed as ‘cinematic,’ and makes a comparison to cinematic monsters.
Chapter 8, ‘Metamorphosed Monsters’ (pp. 104-18) focuses on two monsters that appear in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Medusa and Scylla. Ovid’s account (Metamorphoses 4.787-803), according to the author, is sympathetic towards Medusa, where Ovid dwells on her previous beauty, which he compares to Lucan’s account in The Civil War 9.624-85, which provides a view of the more conventional concept of Medusa. Again with regard to Scylla, Murgatroyd compares Ovid’s sympathetic and humorous take (Metamorphoses 13) with the original encounters in Homer (Odyssey 12.73-126 and 234-59), and Virgil (Aeneid 3.420-33).
Chapter 12, ‘Polyphemus’ (pp. 165-85) features the Cyclops. Homer’s representation in the Odyssey 9 is analysed and contrasted with the comedy Cyclops by Euripides and Virgil’s Aeneid, however Murgatroyd shows how both works are based on the original portrayal by Homer. Homer is also briefly compared to a similar episode involving an ogre in The Arabian Nights. Murgatroyd also examines works that show Polyphemus in a different light; that of a monster in love with Galatea. Theocritus’ Idyll 11 presents another comic view of Polyphemus, whereas Ovid in Metamorphoses 13 plays both on the farce, but also introduces the savage behaviour found in Homer. These works follow a tradition in which Galatea rebukes his love; however Lucian follows the line that Galatea returns his love in his comedy Dialogues of the Sea Gods. At the end of the chapter an appendix entitled ‘Other Gigantic Monsters’ (pp. 184f.) provides an overview of a few other giants in classical myth, such as the Laestrygonians.
In this book Murgatroyd provides an entertaining and analytical look at the portrayal of a number of mythological creatures found in Classical literature. Even though the analysis is mainly literary, the concepts are well conveyed and easily understood, making this book ideal for first-level students of mythology as well as academics. Whilst the analysis of the majority of featured monsters is comprehensive, it might have been possible to expand on a few creatures, such as providing a more detailed look at Cerberus, and perhaps the griffins, whose legacy continued throughout Europe until at least medieval times.