Today is the birthday of Edith Hamilton whose writings on ancient civilization and mythology have been read by generations of students.
Born in Dresden, Germany in 1867, Hamilton immigrated to the United States with her family as a child. At the age of seven, she began studying Latin and committing biblical passages to memory. She completed her education in classics at Bryn Mawr College in Baltimore where she later became headmistress. She gained a reputation as an excellent teacher, storyteller, translator, and interpreter of Greek tragedies. Encouraged by her friends to write, she published her first book, The Greek Way (1930), in her 60s.
Hamilton continued writing into her 90s, publishing a total of nine books. Although she wrote about ancient Rome and Israel, the civilization she seemed to admire the most was ancient Greece:
The fundamental fact about the Greek was that he had to use his mind. The ancient priests had said, “Thus far and no farther. We set the limits of thought.” The Greek said, “All things are to be examined and called into question. There are no limits set on thought.”
Hamilton’s best known and most widely read book is Mythology (1942), which she wrote as an overview of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. This book is known by generations of middle school and high school students who read it as a primer on the myths.
Prior to her death in 1963 at the age of 96, Hamilton received several honorary degrees in the U.S. and was also honored internationally as an official citizen of Athens, Greece in 1957 (1).
Words from the Gods
Many common English words spring from the stories that Hamilton told of the ancient Greek and Roman gods. Given the eight clues below, see if you can name the words.
- This word for any grain, such as wheat or oats comes from the name of the Roman goddess of agriculture.
- This word for a repeating sound comes from the name of a nymph who loved Narcissus.
- This word for maintaining health and preventing disease comes from the name of the Greek goddess of health.
- This word for psychically induced sleep comes from the name for the Greek god of sleep.
- This word for being full of happiness and playfulness comes from the name of the most powerful Roman god.
- This word for being changeable or volatile comes from the name for the Roman messenger of the gods.
- This word for sudden fear comes from the name of the Greek god of fields, forests, and wild animals.
- This word, used to refer to something that induces sleep, comes from the name of the Roman god of sleep.
In addition to being embedded in the etymology of English words, the characters from mythology and their stories are frequently alluded to by many writers. The works of Edith Hamilton are one the best ways for students to become familiar with these fascinating stories as well as to become familiar with allusions – indirect or passing references – to these characters that are made throughout our culture, both past and present.
Here is a list of a few prominent figures from Greek Mythology:
What characters and stories from mythology to you think are the most captivating? Brainstorm a list of characters from mythology that come to mind. Identify which one character you think has the most captivating and fascinating story. Then, tell the story of that character and explain what makes it such a captivating story. (Common Core Writing 2 and 3)
Today’s Quote: It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought — that is to be educated. –Edith Hamilton
Answers: 1. cereal 2. echo 3. hygiene 4. hypnosis 5. jovial 6. mercurial 7. panic 8. somniferous
1 – Sicherman, Barbara. “Edith Hamilton.” The Reader’s Companion to American History, Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors, published by Houghton Mifflin Company