Review: Greek Myths & Sagas

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Review: Greek Myths & Sagas

Postby Gnaeus Dionysius Draco on Tue Aug 03, 2004 7:49 pm


Another review. Perhaps not much of use for the non-Dutch speakers here because the reviewed book is in Dutch, but I have a strong suspicion English translations exist.


TITLE: Greek Myths & Sagas ("Griekse Mythen & Sagen" in Dutch or "Die Schönsten Sagen des Klassischen Altertums" in German)
AUTHOR: Gustav Schwab
PUBLISHING COMPANY: Het Spectrum, 1956 (reviewed version dates from 1975, nineteenth edition)

Okay, now this is a little book many of the Dutch-speaking members of the Societas will be familiar with. It's a relatively thin collection of the most important Greek myths, legends and story cycles, abridged and with an index of names and places on the last pages. For many who are unfamiliar with the Greek legacy of mythology, this book seems like an ideal starting point, telling myths as chronologically as possible. It begins with the creation of the kosmos and the first generation of gods, and ends with the last moments of the story of Odysseus.

Undisputably, Schwab was a well-informed man with regards to the classics but rewrites the stories so that a large audience, even children, could fairly easily understand what is going on. Even though purists will argue that some personalities, myths or storylines are missing from the abridged versions that Schwab hands down to us, even for a beginner the registry is full with names, and all in all it's still fairly much to digest.

The high point of the book is definitely the Trojan cycle. Across about thirty small pages, the entire Iliad and Ilioupersis are comprised without a great loss of dramatic quality. The subsequent chapter then goes on to tell the fate of the heroes after the war is over. Again, purists may argue this has to do with drama more than mythos, but looking back from the 20th and 21st century, the difference can hardly be seen in the stories.

So, are there any negative remarks to make? Yes. Schwab cut out most references to sex or sexual feelings, and sometimes this is a letdown that decreases the power of some myths. Examples include the ommission of Ouranos' emasculation or the ravaging of the dead Penthisileia after Achilleus kills her. It's even hard to spot sex between the lines. The original Greek myths are more raw and brutal than Schwab's versions. Although one might argue that when the book first came out, in 1956, themes of sex and excessive violence were not common, it's hard to imagine that even in the nineteenth edition of 1977, the same sensivities still existed. I have no idea as to the sexual content of today's version (there is also a 2004 reprint available).

Another letdown is, at times, the use of language. As a Dutch-speaking reader who is very familiar with German, some sentences or words are not translated very well or sound awkward. But undeniably much of this can be traced back to Schwab's own style. He is clearly an enthousiast, but sometimes trips over his own words, or chooses words or comparisons that do not come across as very fluid or realistic to modern ears. Some archaic words or constructions evoke laughter in their dead seriousness, and that can't possibly have been Schwab's goal. But all in all, it's still fairly pleasant to read if you keep in mind that the use of language is not the one you would find in normal or even scholarly literature.

As a concluding remark, I would still recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Greek myths, but unsure where to begin. It's a standard work. But if you are already familiar with most of the themes, I wouldn't advise buying it.

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Postby Quintus Pomponius Atticus on Wed Aug 04, 2004 8:01 pm

Salve Draco,

I was also introduced into the fascinating world of Greek mythology by Schwab's little book, which is still a good read. Apparently, it is still used in the Anglo-Saxon world as well, as I have spotted a 2001 reprint of the English translation at

Oh, and looking at Schwab's biography, one does not need to look far to see why he often omits references to sex. I found this at the German project Gutenberg site :

Geboren am 19.6.1792 in Stuttgart; gestorben am 4.11.1850 in Stuttgart. Als Sohn eines Professors und Geheimen Hofrats wuchs Schwab in der christlich-humanistischen Atmosphäre des schwäbischen Bildungsbürgertums auf. Nach dem Besuch des Stuttgarter Gymnasiums studierte er 1809-1814 in Tübingen zwei Jahre Philologie und Philosophie, dann Theologie am Evangelischen Stift.

1956 then, I guess, must be the date of the first Dutch edition. The German original, which is available in html at, was published in 1838-1840, according to the same source.


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