[vii] THE aim of this volume is to present, in a form
suitable for young readers, a small selection from
the almost inexhaustible treasure-house of the ancient
Greek tales, which abound (it is needless to say) in all
Greek poetry, and are constantly referred to by the prose-
writers. These stories are found, whether narrated at
length, or sometimes only mentioned in a cursory and
tantalising reference, from the earliest poets, Homer and
Hesiod, through the lyric age, and the Attic renaissance
of the fifth century, when they form the material of
the tragic drama, down to the second century B.C., when
Apollodorus, the Athenian grammarian, made a prose
collection of them, which is invaluable. They reappear
at Rome in the Augustan age (and later), in the poems
of Vergil, Ovid, and Statius—particularly in Ovid's
"Metamorphoses." Many more are supplied by Greek or
Roman travellers, scholars, geographers, or historians,
of the first three centuries of our era, such as Strabo,
Pausanias, Athenaeus, Apuleius and AElian. The tales are
various-stories of love, adventure, heroism, skill,
endurance, achievement or defeat. The gods take active part,
[viii] often in conflict with each other. The heroes or victims
are men and women; and behind all, inscrutable and
inexorable, sits the dark figure of Fate. The Greeks had
a rare genius for story-telling of all sorts. Whether the
tales were of native growth, or imported from the East
or elsewhere—and both sources are doubtless represented—once
they had passed through the Greek hands, the
Greek spirit, "finely touched to fine issues," marked
them for its own with the beauty, vivacity, dramatic
interest, and imaginative outline and detail, which were
never absent from the best Greek work, least of all during
the centuries that lie between Homer and Plato.
The eleven tales here presented from this vast store
are (as will be seen) very various both in date, character,
and detail; and they seem well chosen for their purpose.
The writer of these English versions of ancient stories
has clearly aimed at a terse simplicity of style,while giving
full details, with occasional descriptive passages where
required to make the scene more vivid; and, for the same
end, she has rightly made free use of dialogue or soliloquy
wherever the story could thus be more pointedly or
The first story, called "The Riddle of the Sphinx,"
gives us in brief the whole Theban tale, from King Laius
and the magical building of the city, to the incomparable
scene from Sophocles' last play, describing the "Passing
of OEdipus." It even includes the heroic action of Antigone,
in burying with due rites her dead brother, in spite of the
tyrant's threats, and at the cost of her own life. No tale
was more often treated in ancient poetry than this tragedy
of Thebes. Homer and Hesiod both refer to it, AEschylus
[ix] wrote a whole trilogy, and Sophocles three separate
dramas, on this theme. Euripides dealt with it in his
"Phoenissae," which survives, and in his "OEdipus and
Antigone," of which a few fragments remain. And
several other poets whose works are lost are known by
the titles of their plays to have dealt with the same subject.
One other tale in this selection rests in large measure
on the Attic drama—namely, the story of Alcestis,
the fourth in this series. As far as we know, Euripides
alone of the ancients treated this theme, in his beautiful
and interesting play "Alcestis," which is here closely
followed by our author. The past history of Admetus,
the king, which Euripides briefly summarises in the
prologue, is here dramatized, and adds much interest
to the story, including as it does the Argonauts' visit
to Pelias, and the romantic imaginary scene of the
king's first meeting with Alcestis.
The two charming love-stories which come second and
third in this series, though unquestionably Greek in origin,
reach us from Roman sources, and bear clear evidence
in their form and spirit of belonging to a later age. The
character of the love romance in "Hero and Leander"
and the transparent allegory of "Eros and Psyche"
(Love and the Soul), leave little doubt on this point.
The former tale is ascribed to a late Greek epic poet,
Musaeus, of whom nothing else is known ; and the latter
we owe to Apuleius, a Roman philosopher and man of
letters in the second century A.D.
The fifth and tenth stories (in both of which Atalanta
appears) rest in their present shape on the authority of
Apollodorus; but the incidents of the Calydonian
boar- [x] hunt, and the race for the hand of the princess, won by
the suitor's clever trick of the golden apples, are found
as local traditions connected with two different parts of
Greece, Arcadia and Boeotia, and may be in. their earliest
form of great antiquity.
The two fanciful stories of Echo and Narcissus, and
Alpheus and Arethusa, which form the sixth and ninth
in this series, are among the prettiest of Nature myths,
and are characteristic Greek inventions. The chase of
Arethusa under the sea by the river-god Alpheus was
to a Greek the most natural of fancies, for to him all
water was protected by, or identified with, some god,
nymph, or spirit; and the fancy was especially easy to a
dweller in the limestone district of Arcadia, where streams
may run underground for long distances, and reappear
as full-grown rivers from a cavern at the foot of the hills.
The tale of Echo in its present form comes only from
Latin poetry (Ovid); but the fancy that Echo was a
spirit or nymph, which is the heart of the story, may well
be of unknown antiquity, especially among the most
imaginative of races, living in a land of rocky hills, the
native home of echoes.
Of the remaining stories (Pygmalion, Orpheus,
and OEnone), the briefest comment will suffice. The
beautiful and pathetic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice,
which is best known to us from the incomparable version
of it at the close of Vergil's fourth "Georgic," we know
on good evidence to have been extant at least as early as
AEschylus (fifth century B.c.), and possibly much earlier.
The touching story of OEnone is post-Homeric, and is
known to us only from Ovid and Apollodorus. It is
[xi] familiar to all Englishmen from the two beautiful poems
of Tennyson, which are respectively among the earliest
and latest of his works. The strange yet striking tale
of Pygmalion also comes to us from Apollodorus; and
though it may be much older, it is perhaps not likely to
belong to an earlier time than the fourth century B.C.,
a date which seems to be suggested both by the
character of the story, and the development of the art of
sculpture implied in it.
It only remains to commend these beautiful old stories,
in their English dress, to the favour of those for whom
they are intended.
September 9, 1908.