The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with M. C. Williams
(of the Myths Your Teacher Hated podcast)
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Mythology has been a deep and abiding special interest for me, and getting the chance to delve into the various stories from myth and legend around the world is in and of itself a comfort (which is a major reason I do the podcast in the first place). Edith Hamilton’s Mythology was my first ever encounter with the wider world of myth, and it’s usually one of the first books I’ll pick up if I just want to forget the world a while. There are also a lot of incredible and far less well-known stories from Zimbabwe and Botswana in The Girl who Married a Lion by Alexander McCall Smith. When I have the time, I love falling down the well on worldoftales.com, which has a truly massive compendium of free folktales and legends collected from all over the world.
When did you first come across Edith Hamilton’s book?
When I was probably 8 or so, I was home during the summer with nothing to do. I’m autistic, but wasn’t diagnosed until adulthood, which led to an awkward and isolated childhood. Books were my refuge, and I read voraciously. That summer, I had read everything I owned as well as all of the library books I had checked out, which left me with a quandary. Fortunately, my father, who was rarely around, had a fairly extensive collection of paperbacks in the basement gathering dust. They tended towards spy thrillers and horror (which I had not yet developed an interest in), so I spent most of the afternoon rifling through random books, hoping to find something to capture my interest, and boy did I ever. I came across an old, annotated version of Hamilton from his college days. The faded picture of Perseus holding aloft the severed head of Medusa captivated me. I had no idea what was in this was a picture of, but I knew that I had to find out. I read the entire thing cover to cover that evening. I was instantly hooked. The next time we went to the library, I came home with an armful of mythology books, and I’ve never looked back. I no longer have that old copy, but I bought my own with one of my very first pay checks in college, which I do still have.
Can you tell me a bit about this book and its context?
Edith Hamilton’s compendium of mythological tales, mostly Greco-Roman, was first published in 1942. This was my jumping-off point to a lot of the classical historians and poets, many of whom are referenced within for the various stories and fragments. She does an excellent job of mixing in translated passages from the original texts that preserve some of the poetic flavor of the originals with retellings of the story that capture some of the excitement and drama of the old tales, which can be harder for modern audiences to see in the often dense texts of the originals. It’s definitely a product of its times, and has a habit of tiptoeing past some of the less savory aspects of the myths with oblique references and careful allusions, but overall, it remains one of the best introductions to Greek mythology that I have encountered.
What is it about this book that appeals to you most?
I’m lucky that Hamilton was the first book on mythology I stumbled upon or I might never have developed my abiding love for the subject. A lot of the sources (Thomas Bullfinch for example) manage to sap a lot of the vitality out of these tales of gods, monsters and heroes. There are even some excerpts from a few of the great epics (such as The Odyssey) that help the action to leap off the page and really help you fall in love with some of the characters (which is a little easier when you don’t realize how morally gray many of them actually are). These massive tales are fascinating and incredible, but it’s very easy to get lost in lists of names, ancestors, and various objects without a lot of context that people just don’t have the first time that they’re exposed to mythology. It truly is here that my own desire to try and bring old stories to new audiences with a fresh telling springs from.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
When I’m not scripting, recording, and editing for the podcast, I have way, way too many hobbies (many of which somehow manage to bring in my mythological love in different ways). I write (with one short story published so far in Descent into Darkness #7, coming this November), and am currently working on a YA novel incorporating aspects of the Aztec mythos as well as editing a completed noir mystery. I’m also a gamer, both video and tabletop RPGs. My current obsessions are Assassin’s Creed Origins (set in ancient Egypt) and Odyssey (set in ancient Greece), as well as trying to adapt some myths to run as tabletop games. I also read a lot of fiction, most recently the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher and Island of the Sea Women by Lisa See (which has less to do with mythology than the title might imply but is absolutely fantastic).
M. C. Williams is an autistic structural engineer, podcaster and writer with far too many hobbies to maintain his own sanity. He spends his days designing nuclear plants and mixed-use spaces and his nights getting lost in ancient mythologies, futuristic civilizations, and unspeakable horrors. M. C. Williams left Georgia Tech with a pair of degrees and a nagging sense that he needed more than numbers. He worked as a structural engineer, designing upgrades for commercial nuclear power plants, apartment complexes, and multi-use spaces. He gathered hobbies like a pack rat, dabbling in theater, script writing, improv, a cappella, spray paint art, and string art before finally settling (well, mostly anyway) on podcasting and writing. He’s the host and writer for the Myths Your Teacher Hated podcast, and he’s been taking that experience and using it to get several short stories, a novel, and a YA novel through the writing and editing process.
You can find the MYTH podcast wherever you get your podcasts or online and on social media at:
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.