A review from 2003 of two new books of Greek myth. I don’t remember writing it and I know it was never published.
The Emperor Tiberius used to like to play a trick on the professors who made up a part of his court, asking them them, “What was the name of Hecuba’s mother?” Hecuba was, of course, the Queen of Troy, the mother of the hero Hector who fought so gallantly for the losing Trojan cause before he was slaughtered by Achilles. She later figures in Euripides’ drama, The Trojan Women, the heart-wrenching drama set in the immediate aftermath of Troy’s fall. As a witness to the utter destruction of her civilization, Hecuba is an archetype of tragedy.
“Hecuba’s mother,” by contrast, is an archetype of trivia. We might just as soon search for the surname of Sam-I-Am, for all that it matters. Tiberius’ interest in the question went no further than to see the scholars sweat (This is, after all, the emperor who coined the phrase, “Let them hate me so long as they fear me.”). But for others, then as now, the mastery of such insignificant details is its own reward. For such people (among whom, naturally, I count myself), a family tree of the gods is just the ticket. As it happens, not one, but two new geneaological charts of Greek mythology are now available on the market, each very different in its presentation.
Harold and Jon O. Newman’s A Genealogical Chart of Greek Mythology is easily the more scholarly of the two, and seems to have been designed primarily for library use . At 11 inches high and 15 inches wide, it offers so wide a pagespread that one can easily see the entirety of any mythological clan in a single glance. Still, so unwieldy a book will not fit easily on any ordinary bookshelf and, consisting mostly of charts, is not exactly meant for the coffee-table either.
By contrast, Vanessa James’ The Genealogy of Greek Mythology folds out like a map and breaks up the monotony of the charts with attractive sidebars and pictures. A long thin book (12 by 4.5 inches), it would make a good stocking-stuffer for the family myth fan this Christmas.
But enough of the descriptions! Let’s get to the question on everyone’s mind. Who was Hecuba’s mother? Alas, there is no consensus. According to James, it’s a nymph named Metope, but according to the Newmans, it’s a woman named Telecleia– dishonestly, neither places an asterisk indicating any hesitation by their entry. Yes, both have perfectly sound and utterly obscure justification for their positions, but all that the search for Hecuba’s mother proves is that of bookish minutiae there is no end.
Somewhere Tiberius is laughing.