Paul Chrystal, War in Greek Mythology (Pen & Sword, 2020)
We humans are curious creatures. We need to explain our world and everything in it, and where we don’t know the answers, we invent them based on where we are now and where we might want to go. Myths, then, emerge from a necessary understanding of the past but are mingled with the present. For the Ancient Greeks, their present included persistent warfare, and the motive and nature of that had to come from somewhere. In War in Greek Mythology, Chrystal collates Greek myths from literature and the arts to explain their symbolism and significance to a warlike people.
By way of introduction, Chrystal attempts to define mythology and its purpose, no easy task. What is clear, however, is that Greek mythology underpins much of Western civilization. Moreover, the mythological stories have survived and thrived through the centuries. With that preamble over, Chrystal gets down to discussing mythology and war. The Greeks, he reminds us, were a warlike people, so it is no surprise they had many Gods that covered all martial aspects. Chrystal lists those from Aphrodite to Thetis before moving onto the Titans and Giants and the struggle for order and power. The story of Zeus’ struggle with Typhon explores his ascendancy to the pinnacle of the gods. Chrystal also narrates the war between Centaurs and Lapiths. The female Amazon warriors receive their own chapter as does the mythical foundation of Thebes. Then there is Heracles, the demi-god whose martial prowess excited the Greeks and Romans as much as his famous twelve labours. The Gods and mortals combined to fight wars, most notably in the Trojan War, which Chrystal dwells on rightly as a cornerstone of Greek mythological history. When wars are over, soldiers return home, but for the Greek Gods and heroes that was often just as tragic an experience with murder, infanticide, and incest just some of the ‘joys’ that awaited them, though it is the women’s suffering that remains the universal post-war experience. Chrystal concludes on a lighter note with the parodic Batrachomyomacia; a war between mice and frogs that echoes the Greek myths. Chrystal’s epilogue brings us into the modern world where the themes in Greek myths have endured, revealing the flexibility of those stories which are seemingly every bit as chaotic as the one the Greeks inherited from their Gods.
Chrystal’s dissection of Greek mythology is more than a collection of interesting and extraordinarily violent stories; he analyses their context and symbolism for a people exploring their world and searching for meaning. His focus is on the warlike aspects of the various Gods and creatures, which creates an interesting quasi-military mythological history. The myths are also reflected in artwork plates, many of them in colour, illustrating the Greek fascination with their myths that echoes through art into the modern period. The result is a fascinating trip into the Greek world both real and imagined.