Who, What, Where: Hederich’s “Mythologisches Lexicon”

Benjamin Hederich, Gründliches mythologisches Lexicon …

Printed in Leipzig in 1741 by Johann Friedrich Gleditsch.

Do we know the first names of the Greek nymphs? How did the personification of hunger look like according to the Romans? And why do Hercules statues often wear this skalp? Today, hardly anyone is interested in these questions. But things were different 250 years ago: the fact that you couldn’t sleep because of such problems was proof that you were an educated person. And who wouldn’t want to be that? At that time, there was one book that was a must have in the reference library of every member of the German-speaking educated class: the “Hederich”, the “Mythologisches Lexicon” (Mythological Lexicon) by Benjamin Hederich of 1724. Let’s have a look at the second edition of 1741, which was “improved” by the author himself.

This engraving is the only illustration in the entire encyclopaedia. With 1000 pages, the book was thick enough as it is.

A Schoolteacher With a Lot of Free Time

In the 18th century, teachers – or to remain in the jargon of the time: schoolmasters – had the afternoon off and dealt with way less time killers than their colleagues do today. Instead of pedagogical preparation and follow-up work, conferences and the like, teachers such as Benjamin Hederich were able to devote their time to extensive publication activities. Hederich was born in 1675 in Geithain, Saxony. He studied in Leipzig and Wittenberg and worked as a teacher at a convent school. Then he became head teacher in the Saxon town of Großenhain. Until his death in 1748 he was busy publishing textbooks and manuals. However, today the very thought that pupils or adults were supposed to learn ancient languages with Hederich’s tomes makes one’s hair stand on end. Even in his Latin dictionaries only direct translations of the words are given in German. Pupils had to be quite proficient already to understand all the indications and commentaries, as they were written in Latin. This being said, you can probably imagine how his Greek dictionaries looked like…

Hederich also published reference works in fields that are called auxiliary sciences of history today: heraldry, numismatics and others. The most influential book he wrote was without doubt the “Mythologisches Lexicon”: the title alone fills an entire page and this baroque wealth of words shows that Hederich didn’t see himself as an Enlightener, he just gathered knowledge en masse.

Naive, Loutish, Successful

Hederich takes the ancient sources literally and retells many passages adhering very closely to the original text. So you can save yourself the trouble of reading Ovid, especially because, in most cases, Hederich documents precisely the source of every piece of information and provides readers with a list of cited authors at the beginning of his work. The Saxon schoolmaster too noticed that there are some contradictions. Hederich didn’t try to smooth things over. With disarming naivety, he simply put inconsistencies side by side. For example, there is a certain Herophile “daughter of Apollo, or of an Idaeic nymph and a mortal father, Cetophagus.” What’s special about ancient mythology is that there were numerous different versions and every place had its own truth about divine kinship relations and the deeds of the gods. However, analysing the sources critically wasn’t Hederich’s strength.

In 1770 Johann Joachim Schwabe revised Hederich’s encyclopaedia. Considering the size of the book, this wasn’t a rewarding task. Our octavo edition of 1741 comprises about 1000 pages! Schwabe repeatedly employed a critical approach towards ancient authors. The spirit of the Enlightenment started to blow through Hederich’s book, which was rather outdated at the time. However, Schwabe was clever enough to refrain from rewriting the entire Hederich, after all, the work had already been a good seller before. But one thing bothered him, as Schwabe confessed in his introduction: “Sometimes, Hederich wanted to make a joke, and mythological stories give many reasons to do so. But he tended to use a language for his jokes that was a bit loutish. I considered this to be inappropriate for a teacher, and preferred him to be serious about funny things, too.”

Apparently, readers were less repulsed by the loutish teacher than the editor. But for whom did Hederich write his encyclopaedia? Who wanted to dive so deep into the depth of Greek mythology?

When Even Goethe Doesn’t Know the Answer…

The most famous user was probably the prince of poets himself. From “Faust” to “Prometheus”, Goethe’s works were full of mythological references. It is said that the “Hederich” (in the edition revised by Schwabe, though) was always within reach. And from Goethe’s diaries and conversation notes we know that he often used the encyclopaedia. However, the Weimar genius didn’t like how the author told detailed stories in a schoolmasterly stile. In a conversation with the classical scholar Friedrich August Wolf in 1795, Goethe mocked the “inimitable naivety of Master Hederich”. Some of Hederich’s entries were quite detailed, if not excessive. In his diaries, Goethe complained about Hederich’s “mythological waffling about Hercules”.

And yet, two generations after the first “Hederich” was published, the book circulated among the great writers of Weimar Classicism.

The audience hadn’t changed much. After all, Hederich had already addressed artists in his orotund title: “All this is for the benefit and use of students, but also of many artists and other educated people”.

In his introduction, he emphasises that it is precisely the artists who must depict gods and heroes by means of words and images according to the information given by ancient sources. In order to do this, they obviously needed to know how Homer and the like imagined the divine figures to look like.

And, according to Hederich, doctors and scientists could also benefit from mythological knowledge in their profession. Here you can clearly see his schoolmasterly attitude demanding physicians to know that Narcissus and Crocus are not only plants used for medical purposes, but had originally been human beings…

But Hederich gave another argument: even if mythology wasn’t of practical use in one’s professional life, knowledge in this field would still be indispensable for every “polit homme”. After all, the everyday life of an educated person was full of coins, medals and statues. When faced with a highly meaningful work of art, it would have been extremely embarrassing for a “polit homme” to “apologize for one’s ignorance in case someone asks about it. And something like that may well happen to courtiers and travelling cavaliers but also to elegant merchants and the like, making it important for each and every one who does not want to be considered part of the common mob to know something about this learned gallantry.”

The “Mythologisches Lexicon” requires a certain degree of background knowledge: have a look at the Greek names in Greek script, the indications regarding the declension of the names in the Latin version. All this was necessary because, just like Latin, the German language makes extensive use of declension and conjugation. And back then, one had to use the right Latin form of these names when writing in German, too: for example “Iovis” (do you remember? That’s the genitive case of “Jupiter”!) ; “Teleontis” etc. To help the reader keep track despite all the affairs and kinship relations, Hederich added several genealogical trees at the end. This, too, was probably even more important back then since people attached far more importance to questions of family history than they do today.

Hederich’s lexicon was so successful that many of his entries were included in the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the German-speaking world of his time, the “Zedler’sches Universal-Lexicon”.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

A digitalised version of this edition is not available. Here you can read and search a major part of the monumental work in a full text version.

There were productive teachers in the 18th century, too. Emerich Theodor Hohler published a “picture book as an educational tool”.

In Friedrich Justin Bertuch’s picture book for children, pupils could also learn a something about ancient gods and heroes. Bertuch was shocked when he learned that “pirated copies” of his book had been made!