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The Making of A Genealogical Chart of Greek Mythology

An Essay by Jon O. Newman

When an obscure book on Greek mythology rises in the Amazon.com sales ranking from 1,278,372 to 10 in a single day, there must be a story worth telling. The book is A Genealogical Chart of Greek Mythology, published by the University of North Carolina Press, and this is the story about the book.

The immediate cause for the phenomenal jump in sales ranking was a July 12, 2003, article about the book in the New York Times, placed surprisingly on the front page. But the story began nearly forty years before.

The Origin

My late father, Harold Newman, had a major interest in family trees and a slight curiosity about Greek mythology. He had meticulously constructed a family tree of his family, tracing his relatives back eight generations to the 1840s when his ancestors emigrated from Germany to Lake Charles, Louisiana.

An inveterate fan of puzzles, he started one day in 1964 to see if he could construct a family tree of the major figures of Greek mythology. Using secondary sources, primarily the Reverend John Lempriere’s notable nineteenth-century handbook of mythological figures, he began to realize that a very large number of figures from Greek mythology could be linked together into a single family tree.

With the diligence that had enabled him to write four illustrated dictionaries in various fields of the decorative arts, he assembled a large card file of mythological figures and their relatives. He then transferred the linkages on his cards into the format of a family tree, hand-lettering the names and the connecting lines onto seventy-two large sheets of white cardboard, each measuring twenty by twenty-seven inches. By 1980 he had been able to link about two thousand named figures into one continuous family tree.

1980 was the year my father turned eighty on December 22. Having seen his cardboard sheets, I thought a special birthday present would be the rendering of his family tree into a printed format, using the then-new technology of desktop publishing.

Using an early Macintosh computer and a PageMaker program, I began what I thought would be a task of two or three months, working at odd hours of the early morning and late evening. There were several typographical choices to be made. Ultimately, I settled on a landscape-orientation page eleven inches deep and sixteen inches wide. That size could accommodate the twenty generations of the chart, providing one half-inch between generations. I used Helvetica font with its clean sans serif look for the names of the figures on the chart and Times font for text. At that time, the only text was an index that listed just the figures and the number of the seventy-two portions of the chart on which each figure appeared.

PageMaker was an ideal program for creating a printed version of the chart. Horizontal lines could be placed with precision so that they connected from one page to the next. Vertical lines could also be precisely placed, and groups of names could be moved and rearranged with one click.

As construction of the chart in a printable format progressed, I began to realize that my father’s work had both positive and negative aspects. On the plus side, he had located a very large number of names that could all be linked together. But as I began to examine his principal source, the Lempriere Dictionary, I discovered that his work was incomplete and in some respects incorrect.

By the time I had finished creating a printable version of his entire chart, two thoughts entered my mind. First, by examining additional sources, the chart could be expanded to include many more figures. Second, once a fairly complete chart was created, the resulting work might merit publication as a book.

Completing the Chart

Before investing the time needed to make the chart more complete, I visited the New York Public Library and located a reference librarian knowledgeable in the classics. I told him I had two questions. First, I asked, “Have you got a book with a complete genealogical chart of Greek mythology?” “No,” he replied, “that would be impossible.” “Okay,” I continued, “if someone could create a book with such a chart, would you buy it for this library?” “Of course,” he answered, “we’d have to.”

I told him that for my purposes, those were perfect answers, and explained why. I needed to find out if the project I had in mind had already been done, and if not, whether libraries would be interested in it. His answers persuaded me to try and complete what my father had started.

In my naiveté I thought the task would take about two years. It turned out to take twenty-two years–in addition to the sixteen years of my father’s efforts. Had I known how long the project would take, I would never have taken it on.

First, I obtained some additional handbooks, of which the most helpful was Pierre Grimal’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology. Later I acquired Sir Paul Harvey’s Oxford Companion to Classical Literature and Edward Tripp’s Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology. Then I became aware of two notable early works, the Library of Apollodorus and Pausanias’s Guide to Greece. The Library, probably written in the first or second century A.D. (and erroneously attributed to Apollodorus, who lived in the second century B.C.) was perhaps the first still-existing book that collected genealogical information about a large number of figures from Greek mythology. Pausanias, essentially a geographer and historian writing about Greece in the second century A.D., recounted numerous mythological relationships he learned of as he traveled the countryside. Using these and other collections of mythological information, I added a number of figures to the chart.

As I located additional figures who were related to those already on the chart, I had to consider some editorial choices concerning the content and appearance of the chart. A major problem emerged from the fact that there are several figures in Greek mythology with the same name. When a modern telephone book encounters that problem (lots of people named John Smith), it can be sure that different people are involved because they have different addresses and telephone numbers.

But when ancient mythographers write about four women named Antigone, six named Cleopatra, ten named Merope, and eighteen men named Lycus, it is not readily apparent whether these are different figures with the same name or different versions of the genealogy of the same figure (or some of each). My father resolved this problem by assuming that every instance of figures with the same name having different parents must be different figures, not different versions of the same figure. To differentiate the figures, he assigned a different superscript number to each figure with the same name and maintained the same number whenever the figure appeared anywhere on the chart. For example, Antigone¹ appears on the lower left portion of segment fifty-five as the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, and again on the lower right portion of the same segment as the husband of Haemon¹ (there are ten figures named Haemon).

As I examined his chart and learned about new figures, I realized that some of his numbered figures were likely the same figure, only reported by different early mythographers to have different sets of parents. It was often difficult to tell whether two figures were two versions of one figure or two different figures. Usually, I could resolve the matter by reading what was said about the figures. If the two figures were said to have come from different parts of Greece and to have been involved in different battles, adventures, or other exploits, I could be fairly confident that these were different figures. On the other hand, if a reputable secondary source stated that two versions of a figure’s parentage existed, I could be fairly confident that only one figure existed. In a few cases where there was no clear basis for decision, I resolved doubts by showing two different figures.

A decision also had to be made on how far to extend the chart into Roman mythology. Some figures from Greek mythology are reported to have been the ancestors of figures in Roman mythology. For example, Aeneas¹, the son of Anchises and Aphrodite, is reported by some writers to be the father of Romulus and Remus¹. I generally went no farther into Roman mythology than one, or occasionally, two generations.

Another decision concerned whether a figure should be included in the chart where there was some indication that the figure was a real person, not just a mythological mortal person. For example, some of the figures said to be descendants of Zeus are kings for whom precise dates of birth and death have been reported. Perhaps these dates were invented, but I suspect that these are real dates for real people and that some real people in ancient Greece, especially those wielding political power, found it useful to claim that Zeus or some other god was their grandfather. I resolved this uncertainty by including a figure on the chart whenever an ancient mythographer reported his relationship to mythological figures. As I later wrote in the book’s introduction, these claims “might be correct, and one ought not to risk the wrath of the gods.”

Two other decisions were made that would prove helpful to the book’s success. First, I prepared a two-page Master Chart, showing at least one figure from each of the seventy-two segments of what I called the Complete Chart. With the segment number beneath each figure’s name, a reader examining any one of the seventy-two segments would be able to consult the Master Chart and see how the figures on that segment related to the entire clan. Second, I decided that each segment of the Complete Chart should be printed twice, as a recto (right-hand page) and again as a verso (left-hand page). This duplication would enable a reader to see the lateral connections without having to peek around the edge of a page.

The Search for Citations

By 1990, with the chart now including nearly three thousand named figures, I thought the manuscript might be suitable for publication. After the university presses of Oxford and Cambridge rejected the manuscript, I sent it to Yale University Press. That step led to the first of several extraordinarily lucky events that led to the eventual publication of the book.

Although the Yale Press also decided against publication, they sent me the report prepared by the classics scholar to whom the Press had sent the manuscript for comment. The report, with the “reader’s” name deleted from my copy, as is customary, reached two conclusions: first, that the chart would be “a very useful tool for research and reference,” and second, that to merit publication, the book would have to include citations to ancient sources for every relationship shown on the chart.

I was stumped. I had not the slightest idea how to locate a source for every relationship. By this time, I had become familiar with some early texts, but I suspected that many of the relationships reported by modern secondary sources could be located only in obscure works of which I was not aware, and that many of these works were probably available only in Greek. But a thought occurred to me. What if the reader who thought source citations were needed would be willing to help me locate the original sources? I wrote the unidentified reader a letter that offered to retain her for the assignment and asked the Yale Press to forward my letter. My offer was accepted, and later that year, Maria-Viktoria Abricka began her task.

First, she had to educate me about various aspects of Greek mythology. Second, she set about to examine several ancient texts and provide me with citations. Third, she recruited some classics graduate students to assist. I located two skilled researchers in Connecticut. I also started acquiring a large collection of ancient sources that were available in English, and examined them carefully. That process yielded citations for figures and relationships already on the chart and for many new figures that I added.

Three resources were especially helpful. First, I obtained a CD-ROM called “Perseus,” which contains searchable translations of about thirty well-known works of Greek mythography. Second, I acquired Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, by Timothy Gantz. That book is a brilliant survey of the ancient literature of Greek mythology, and yielded scores of helpful citations. Third, I made numerous visits to the Watkinson Library at Trinity College in Hartford, a specialized collection of rare books. The librarian, Dr. Jeffrey Kaimowitz, continued my education during my frequent visits. Among the rare volumes he helpfully located was the 1694 edition of the writings of Stephanus of Byzantium, who wrote in the sixth century A.D. This work, rivaling the Doomsday Book in size and weight, is in Latin, but my early schooling served me well.

One work that proved to be the source for several relationships is especially interesting because it does not exist! “The Catalogue of Women” was a long poem written in the style of Hesiod, but, according to the Hesiod scholar M. L. West, was not written by Hesiod himself, and most likely appeared three centuries after he lived. All that remains of the “Catalogue” are fragments, but these have been cited by writers who lived at an earlier time when the “Catalogue” still existed. Some of the fragments have been translated, and the translations appear in several modern books. A complete set of the fragments in Greek was published by West and his colleague R. Merklebach in 1967. Also of great help was West’s fascinating book, The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, which endeavors to describe how the original “Catalogue” was most likely organized.

Other obscure sources located by my researchers were the various scholia, collections of scholarly notes to the writings of such authors as Euripides, Homer, and Lycophron.

For ten years, the researchers tracked down the needed citations. Sometimes I supplied them with citations I had located in secondary sources, and they would check to see if the claimed relationship could be authoritatively confirmed. This was a time-consuming task, as some secondary sources, for example, Pierre Grimal’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology, provide numerous citations for many figures; all of them had to be checked to see which one confirmed a genealogical relationship. Many times, none of them did. If no citations were available to be checked, the researchers consulted encyclopedias, such as the multi-volume Pauly-Wissowa set, to find citations–or often just looked at indices of various obscure works to see what was said about any remaining uncited figures.

In 1993, a few years into what would turn out to be a decade spent locating citations, my father died at the age of ninety-three. Although he did not live to see the book published, he saw the printed pages generated by my computer, and was delighted with them. If there is an afterlife, I know he is enjoying the rest of the story.

Eventually my list of uncited figures dropped from 1,000 to 500 to 200 to 100. I thought we would never find sources for those remaining figures, but Dr. Abricka was confident that we would. She was almost entirely right. For only about ten figures could no citation be located, and these were dropped from the chart. I concluded that the relationships we were trying to confirm were probably mistakes made by secondary writers.

The massive research not only located authoritative ancient citations for every relationship shown on the chart, but also led to two important features of the book. First, the researchers located many instances where different ancient sources provided different versions of the parentage of what was almost certainly the same figure. I realized that displaying these alternative relationships on the chart would make it hopelessly confusing. Instead, in each instance of multiple versions of parentage, I placed in the index all the alternate versions for which we had located ancient citations, and, to alert the reader that alternate versions existed, replaced the single vertical line on the chart that connects parents to their children with a double vertical line.

Second, although I had previously encountered many instances of two or more figures on the chart with the same name, I became aware of many figures with the same name as a figure on the chart who could themselves not be linked to any figures on the chart. And some of these unlinked figures with the same name were well known. An example was Hero, who killed herself after her lover, Leander, drowned during one of his nightly swims across the Hellespont to visit her. No mythographer reports the parentage of either one of this tragic pair. However, Hyginus claims that a woman named Hero was a daughter of Priam and that one of the fifty daughters of Danaus was also named Hero. It is generally agreed that neither of these two figures is the same person loved by Leander.

I wanted to be sure that no readers who knew of Hero, the lover of Leander, confused this figure with the Hero who appears on the chart as the daughter of Priam (or the Hero in the alternate list of the daughters of Danaus). I decided to include in the index all the unconnected figures who had the same name as a figure on the chart, listing the unconnected figure with an asterisk, in lieu of a chart location, and providing a citation for the figure’s story. The index includes hundreds of such figures.

By the year 2000, citations had been located for nearly every figure on the chart, and scores of figures had been added to the chart in the course of locating citations for previously linked figures. Perhaps further research would have located a few additional figures that could be linked, but I concluded that the project was now sufficiently complete to submit it for publication. As Justice Holmes once said in approving a limit on a lawyer’s time for pretrial preparation, “This was a concession to the shortness of life.”

Publication

Now the task was to see if the work could be published by a reputable press. I had assumed that the book would not be of interest to the general public, but might be a useful reference work to be purchased by libraries. A trade press therefore seemed out of the question, but perhaps an academic press might be interested. I had always thought that even this possibility was unlikely because of my lack of credentials in the field of classics. Indeed, I had long ago decided that if no publisher was interested, I would finance publication myself as a “vanity press” project, simply to have the book available for a few libraries that might acquire it without a well-known publisher.

At this point, another critical event in the history of the book happened. It had occurred to me that a foreword written by a recognized classics scholar was needed to get the attention of a well-regarded publisher. I had struck up a long-distance acquaintance with Professor Timothy Gantz of the University of Georgia. His Early Greek Myth is an outstanding discussion of ancient texts. It had given me numerous citations and provided sound reasons for resolving several ambiguities. I first wrote him to ask questions about some details of his book, and later even had the temerity to suggest two instances where I thought he had erred. He thereby became aware of my project.

One day, after sending him a copy of my manuscript, I telephoned him and asked if he would consider writing a foreword. He replied, “My experience has been that the publisher prefers to select the person to write the foreword.” “Professor,” I boldly told him, “that may be true with authors like you who are well regarded in their fields, but in my case, you’ve got the cart before the horse: there isn’t going to be a publisher unless someone like you writes a foreword!” “All right,” he said, “if you think it would help, I’ll do it.”

In a few weeks he sent me the foreword that appears in the book, a wonderful commentary on the importance of genealogical relationships in Greek mythological literature with some laudatory comments on my manuscript. He pointed out my use of citations to some “really obscure” sources, adding, with marvelous understatement, that an academic in the classics field could “perhaps” have completed the task “in a bit less time.” I was especially pleased that he regarded the Index, with its citations to ancient sources for all relationships on the chart, as “a highly valuable free-standing piece of research,” which he expected to consult even more than the chart. He called the work “a major contribution to our understanding of how ancient Greeks organized the vast corpus of figures constituting what we call Greek mythology” and concluded that, to his knowledge, “there is nothing like it, and I am grateful to have it at my disposal.”

How helpful this foreword would be soon became evident. I decided to send the manuscript to the University of North Carolina Press. Some years before, I had seen an ad in The New Yorker for a wall chart displaying a family tree of about two hundred figures of Greek mythology, produced by the UNC Press. If that small chart met with enough success to justify a magazine ad, I thought the Press might be interested in my manuscript. I am certain that Professor Gantz’s foreword opened the door for me, and persuaded the UNC Press to take the work seriously. The initial reaction of the staff was favorable, and the manuscript was sent out to the first of two readers. This report came back with a very favorable assessment, highlighted by a pointed reference to the foreword. “After all,” the reader wrote, “Prof. Gantz has said all that needs to be said.” The foreword had proved to be invaluable. After the second reader also expressed enthusiasm, I awaited a decision by the board of the Press.

In 2002, I received a call from Charles Grench, the senior editor of the Press. The Board had voted to publish the book! He asked how I felt, and I told him it was like a defendant would feel if a jury acquitted him after deliberating for 22 years.

For the next several weeks, I reformatted the text portions of the manuscript to meet the specifications suggested by the production staff at the Press. Then an issue arose as to the title.

My father at one time had suggested “The Mount Olympus Family Tree.” I feared this was a bit too cute for scholars and university librarians, whom I regarded as my likely audience. Instead, I decided to be purely descriptive (if a bit dull) and title the book “A Genealogical Chart of Greek Mythology.” As the introduction points out, I called it “A” chart, not “The” chart, because I could not claim that my version of relationships shown on the chart was authoritative. (Interestingly, another chart published the same year as mine, but lacking citations, is titled The Genealogical Chart of Greek Mythology.)

A few weeks later, the Press told me that they had decided to call the book “A Genealogy of Greek Mythology.” I had always assumed that the publisher would select the title, but pleaded with Grench to keep the word “Chart,” because the chart (and the citations) were what made the book distinctive. To my surprise, they accepted my argument. We then discussed the cover and considered using a well-known painting of mythological figures. Happily, that idea was discarded in favor of the attractive line drawing developed by the production staff of the Press.

As 2002 ended, I took my zip drive to Kinko’s and ran off full-size (eleven-by-sixteen-inch) pages of the entire manuscript–including the Master Chart, the Complete Chart, the Index, some explanatory discussion about the symbols on the chart, an extensive bibliography, and appendices showing the Roman counterparts of Greek figures and a chronological list of the principal cited authors. The 263 camera-ready pages were then shipped to North Carolina. The UNC Press was thereby spared all composition costs. However, printing such an outsize book was a major expense. The Press located a printer in China who could handle the assignment.

In April 2003, UPS deposited at my front door a package from the UNC Press. Opening it disclosed one of the most amazing sights imaginable: a beautifully bound copy of my book with a stunning orange and black cover. The Press had skillfully designed the cover, using the typical colors of so-called red-figured Greek pottery to display a floret design and a line drawing that subtly suggested the beginning of the structure of a family tree. The book had been published!

The Public Phase

With the book in print, I began to think about its marketing. The UNC Press had begun the task, sending review copies to several popular and scholarly publications, describing the book in the Press’s spring catalogue, and creating a web page for the book on the Press’s web site. Still believing that the primary, perhaps only, audience consisted of public and university libraries, I thought that a bare listing in the Press’s catalogue would not be adequate to inform library purchasing personnel just what this unusual book contained. So I suggested to the Press that we prepare a small brochure showing excerpts from the chart and the Index, and mail it to libraries. With my agreement to pay the cost (the Press had previously sternly refused my offer to contribute to the expenses of publishing the book), the Press endorsed the idea. I prepared the copy, and the Press designed the brochure. It was mailed to some ten thousand libraries.

The Press had asked me for likely sources of publicity, based on personal connections such as the alumni publications of my college and law school. That got me thinking that a contact I had at the New York Times might result in a brief mention of the book. I called Ben Wieser, who covers federal courts, including the court on which I serve. I acknowledged up front that I was calling in a shameless act of self-promotion! After hearing what the book was, he asked to have a copy sent to him. A few days later he called to say that he found the book and the story of its creation fascinating, as did his editor on the Metro section of the paper. He thought there was a fair chance that his story about the book would appear on the front page of the Metro section. He interviewed me at length and sent a photographer to my home for a photo of me working on the book at my computer.

For the next several weeks, Ben called frequently to check meticulously on details and find out where he could reach a variety of people he wanted to speak with about the book. Eventually he told me that publication on the front of the Metro section on Friday, July 11, was likely. That evening he called to say that his article would not be on the front of the Metro section, but that it would appear the next morning, Saturday, July 12. I started to tell him that I would be thrilled if his article appeared anywhere in the paper. “It’s not the front of the Metro,” he said, “it’s going to be on the front page of the paper!” I was stunned. I could not imagine why the Times would possibly place on its front page a story about an obscure book about Greek mythology.

Still stunned, I took another call from Ben a few minutes later that turned out to be yet another fortuitous event. He wanted to read me a caption an editor was placing under two photos of the book–the pages displaying Zeus, his paramours, and progeny, and an inset from those pages showing a few figures in type large enough to read. The caption read, “A detail from ‘A Genealogical Chart’ showing Zeus, Hera, and their children.”

Still euphoric over the unbelievable prospect of a front-page article about my book, I was dismayed at the serious mistake his editor was about to make. “Those are not the children of Zeus and Hera,” I told him. “Your inset shows the children of Zeus and several of his paramours.” Fearing that any classics scholar seeing such an obviously incorrect caption would immediately doubt the validity of the entire book, I pleaded with him to have the caption changed. “Well, tell me quickly what you suggest,” he said, “I’ve only got fifteen seconds.” “Okay,” I replied, “just change ‘Zeus, Hera, and their children’ to ‘some of Zeus’s progeny and relationships.'”

The next morning brought a second amazing item to my front door: the Saturday, July 12, New York Times, with a front page article about A Genealogical Chart of Greek Mythology. Ben’s wonderfully written story continued at length on an inside page, accompanied by a two-column photo of me surrounded by my books and my computer and a photo of the book’s cover. And the caption underneath the front-page photos had been corrected. An editor came up with the amusing headline, “Here’s Uncle Zeus, Aunt Hera, the Twins . . .,” evoking the image of someone proudly showing off a photo album of relatives. After enjoying the humor, I worried that the headline was in error, since the most well-known twins of Greek mythology, Castor and Pollux, are the offspring of Tyndareus and Leda, or in another version, of Zeus and Leda. But then I realized that Zeus and Hera are indeed the uncle and aunt of twins: the five sets of twins who are the children of Zeus’s brother, Poseidon.

I have never understood why the Times gave the book such extraordinary prominence. Perhaps it was a combination of the public interest in Greek mythology, the fact that such a comprehensive, fully-cited chart had never before been created, the oddity that a book about genealogy was a father-son collaboration, the further oddity that one of the compilers was a federal judge, and the even further oddity that the book had taken nearly forty years to complete. And then there was the fortuity that Ben’s article got bumped from the Friday paper, where it was slated for an inside slot, and ended up in the Saturday paper on the front page. I know Saturday is usually a slow news day, but still! Some day I’d like to ask Ben’s editor what influenced the front page decision.

The Reaction

As the cliché goes, the rest is history. Ben called me that afternoon and suggested I check my sales ranking on Amazon. He told me I was up above #50. I checked throughout the day and saw that by evening, the ranking was #10! I doubt if the Amazon sales ranking of any book has ever gone from below one million to 10 in a single day.

A combination of the Times story and the Internet generated consequences that continually amazed me. The Times Web site permits anyone to e-mail up to twenty-five stories from each day’s paper, and indicates the popularity of e-mailed stories. The article on the book was the second most e-mailed article from the July 12 Times. People sent that article all over the world. The UNC Press got an order from Finland. Then the Internet search engines took over and posted links to any mention of the book. The Times article appeared in several papers and was referred to on numerous web sites. Of course, the Amazon sales ranking dropped sharply from #10, but remained above 100 for three days, and above 2,000 for several more days. Into September, the ranking was still above 5,000.

Apart from sales, interest was expressed in numerous ways. The BBC called and did a telephone interview for their worldwide radio network. A few weeks later, NPR invited me to Boston for an hour-long interview program called The Connection. The New Yorker ran a column on my book and a somewhat similar genealogical chart that coincidentally was also published in 2003. This chart, by a Mount Holyoke drama professor, has attractive artwork, but no citations. Its low price, however, will no doubt make it a popular item. The Hartford Courant asked me to prepare an op/ed piece, describing the book and the reaction to the Times article.

E-mails and letters began arriving from all over, several asking if I would autograph a copy of the book. The Smithsonian scheduled me for a literary evening program in December. A travel magazine called for a telephone interview. In September, the UNC Press told me that an Athens publisher had signed a contract for a Greek translation.

The first printing of 1,500 sold out, and a second printing of 1,500 was ordered. From Internet listings of libraries’ recent acquisitions, I learned that many libraries were buying the book. By June 30, 2004, the first anniversary of the book’s publication, sales had reached over 4,000.

Choice magazine, the publication of the American Library Association, selected the book for recognition as one of the “Distinguished Literary Achievements of 2003,” and gave it a very favorable review. The reviewer in Scholia Reviews, a scholarly magazine for classicists, concluded: “I consider this book an indispensable tool for every classicist who works in the field of mythology. It should find its way on the shelves of each Classics department as a standard reference book.”

Over the course of my judicial career, I have written more than one thousand opinions. I suspect that, if anything of mine is looked at a hundred years from now, it will not be any of those opinions; it will be A Genealogical Chart of Greek Mythology. I must admit that the prospect pleases me immensely.