Don’t be misled: “The Book of Greek & Roman Folktales, Legends & Myths” isn’t an updated “Bulfinch’s Mythology,” retelling familiar stories about the squabbles and erotic mischief of the pagan gods. It’s a lot more original than that. William Hansen, a professor emeritus of classics and folklore at Indiana University, has extracted from a lifetime of reading seemingly all of ancient literature’s most wonderful anecdotes, eerie stories, Aesopian fables, trickster tales and philosophical parables. The resulting anthology is an extraordinarily entertaining bedside book.
Hansen’s introduction outlines his principles of selection and categorization, but first-time readers should probably just open at random and start to read. Entries range from one-sentence observations — an especially decadent Sybarite “complained that he did not feel at all well because the rose petals he lay upon were curled up” — to the 35-page-long “Cupid and Psyche,” the earliest, and arguably the most charming, of all fairy tales.
What else might you find? Hansen includes Pliny the Younger’s famous letter about ghosts, the Boccaccio-like tale of the widow of Ephesus, several accounts of astral projection and reincarnation, the original story of “the sorcerer’s apprentice” and the shuddery werewolf adventure from Petronius’s “Satyricon.” From Quintilian we learn about the famous strongman Milon who accustomed himself to picking up a calf each day until, as it aged, he was able to lift a full-grown bull; Herodotus describes Abaris, a wonderworker from mysterious Hyperborea who could fly in the air on a magic arrow; and Tacitus relates the legend of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. According to Suetonius, the Emperor Claudius was so absent-minded that “shortly after he had had Messalina put to death he reclined at table in the dining room and inquired why the empress had not come.” You will even learn about a chalice formed from the breast of Helen of Troy and that, according to the transgender Teiresias, women receive nine times more pleasure from sex than do men.
Most of Hansen’s items are supplemented by his brief notes, which can be as delightful as they are instructive. After describing a letter supposedly sent by a Greek geometer from inside the center of the Earth, Hansen adds this tantalizing comment: “The best-known letter posted to earth from a different cosmic realm is the so-called Letter from Heaven, or Sunday Letter, allegedly written by Jesus Christ and dropped from heaven or delivered personally by the Archangel Michael. . . . The text of the letter goes back to at least the sixth century AD, and copies in different languages have been in circulation ever since then.”
Hansen also informs us that there are more stories about Diogenes than any other ancient figure. In my favorite, the philosopher actually snubs Alexander the Great: “Diogenes was sunning himself in the Cypress Grove when Alexander stood before him and said, ‘Ask me for anything you would like.’ ‘Stand out of my light,’ he replied.” Still, Plato wasn’t impressed by his contemporary’s rather showy naturalness, once telling Diogenes, “How charming your unaffectedness would be if it weren’t affected.”
Hansen includes every kind of story, so long as it’s pithy and memorable. According to Aelian, when the king of Assyria fell in love with the beautiful Semiramis, she batted her eyes and sweetly asked if “she might have the royal robe and rule Asia for five days, during which time everyone would do what she ordered. Her request was granted. After the king seated her on his throne and she knew that she had everything in her full control, she commanded the bodyguards to kill the king. This is how she gained control of the Assyrian Empire.”
Once an aged prophetess arrived in Rome and offered to sell its monarch nine books containing predictions about the future. “When Tarquin did not deign to purchase the books at the price she asked, she departed, burning three of the books. A short while later she brought the remaining six books and offered to sell them for the same price.” Refused again and laughed at, she burned three more volumes. But when she came back a third time, Tarquin finally checked with his augurs and magicians, who quickly grasped the truth and told him “to pay the woman as much money as she asked, and get the oracles that were left.” The crone was, in fact, the Cumaean Sybil, and Rome would regularly turn to the remaining oracles for advice during times of crisis.
Some of these stories verge on the surreal or look forward to fables by Borges or Calvino. There was a certain tyrant of Troizen who, “wishing to do away with any conspiracies and plots against himself, issued an order to the local people that no one was to speak to anyone else either publicly or privately.” The people resorted to nodding at one another, employing gestures, and giving looks that were bitter or calm or cheerful. “But these signals also vexed the tyrant, who believed that on account of the intricate gesturing even silence might bring about some sort of harm to him. So he put a stop to this also.” The oppressed citizens were now left only their tears — until the tyrant prohibited all crying. Finally, having fostered what he feared, the people revolted and killed their paranoid ruler.
One last thought: It will soon be the end of the school year, and “The Book of Greek & Roman Folktales, Legends & Myths” would make an ideal, if rather unexpected, graduation gift. After all, these anecdotes aren’t just classical, they’re classic, as much a part of our culture as Grimm fairy tales or stories from the Bible.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursday for Style.
Edited, translated and introduced by William Hansen
With illustrations by Glynnis Fawkes
Princeton. 549 pp. $35