The Book of Greek and Roman Folktales, Legends, and Myths

By William Hansen. 2017. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 584 pages. ISBN: 9780691170152 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Joseph Russo, Haverford College

[Review length: 837 words • Review posted on February 22, 2018]


[Cover ofThe Book of Greek and Roman Folktales, Legends, and Myths]

This is a remarkable book, whose enormous range takes us deep into the world of oral storytelling enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans. It could only have been written by William Hansen, who for decades has straddled the diverse disciplines of folklore and classics and made signal contributions to both. Hansen begins by noting that Greek and Roman societies were predominantly oral and employed all the genres that folklorists today recognize. A trained eye can recognize these genres in the written texts the Greeks and Romans have left behind; and Hansen has the perfect eye for this. The volume's wide-ranging contents have been organized into coherent categories and themes, and important distinctions are discussed and displayed. A masterful forty-six-page introduction defines and describes all the genres of ancient oral narrative, beginning with the large threefold distinction between myth, legend, and folktale, and going on to discuss specific types within each genre--e.g., heroic, local and religious legend, memorate, fable, wonder tale, comic tale, anecdote, apothegm, personal experience narrative, and so on--and noting which are credence narratives and which are understood as fictitious. This introduction is uniquely valuable to both folklorists and classical scholars; there is nothing like it in print anywhere.

While some ancient tales are well-known, like the story of Cupid and Psyche or Odysseus and the Cyclops, many others have remained unrecognized or unidentified in any formal sense. Hansen has made a great effort to bring these tales into full view by collecting them from a wide range of authors and organizing them into categories that fall into recognizable patterns. Sometimes these are the formal types with ATU documentation; more often they are simply story types that commonly circulate with less formally fixed features. Folklorists and students of oral tradition will find familiar-looking stories drawn from hitherto unknown sources, and classical scholars will find many stories worth knowing from authors they seldom read.

Most of the tales collected here are set in the human realm rather than the divine. The many interesting categories include stories about tricksters and lovers, artists and athletes, shape shifters, magicians and witches, diviners and seers, wonder-workers, numbskulls and wits, kings and queens, sages and philosophers, famous authors, and more; and also narratives about famous words and memorable acts kept alive in oral tradition. Hansen also records stories on such themes as happiness and contentment, education and learning, discoveries and invention, delusion, and--a pleasant surprise--"the delicate sybarites." Every entry is numbered consecutively from 1 to 369 and an appendix gives the source for each story and its ATU type if one exists. The appendices are of great value, and include a List of International Stories in which a column of ATU types is matched with a column of stories in this book; an essay, "Across the Genres," in which ancient terms--the "emic" labels--are explained and matched with our modern terminology and the question of belief (credence) versus disbelief is examined; a long list of every ancient source consulted; a valuable glossary of terms; and of course a bibliography, which is rich and thorough.

Hansen explains in his introduction that he had to leave out some interesting stories because they were too long and included extraneous material. Readers of classical authors know how many good stories are to be found there and one inevitably thinks of interesting tales that did not make it into this collection. A prime example is the story of Candaules, his queen, and Gyges in Book 1 of Herodotus, and of a similar love triangle that appears in Book 8 with King Xerxes and his brother's wife. "Love triangles" (or perhaps "vengeful queens") might well have been a category to include if--as seems likely--a few more examples can be found. Under Hansen's rubric "memorable sayings" the classical scholar will miss the famous bon mot of Hippokleides upon being told that with his obscene behavior he had "danced away his [politically advantageous] marriage." His reply ou phrontis Hippokleidei (loosely translated as "Hippokleides doesn't give a hoot") became legendary, but the story of the political maneuverings leading up to this classic utterance is indeed too lengthy and digressive for inclusion. This famous quote could only have been included if the preceding story were summarized or paraphrased; but Hansen's method is to cite original sources verbatim, not to emend by abbreviation. One can see that resorting to paraphrase would have opened the way to still more material and added unmanageable extra bulk.

I use the above examples of "missing" stories in order to illustrate how, with such a vast and rich topic, a reader may naturally think of another good story that might have been included, or imagine adding another category to Hansen's selection--but such speculations are beside the point. Anyone who has this book in front of them will experience abundant delights and some genuine surprises. It is wonderful to have this treasure house of good stories from classical antiquity available in English in a form that will satisfy the scholar as well as the lover of a tale well told.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.