The place of the mythology category within quizbowl has been often discussed – in every discussion of the distribution I’ve ever read on these forums, and elsewhere, its relative importance and merits have often been attacked, and often not unfairly. After all, myth is probably the single easiest category for any player to sit down and learn – the canon, especially at the easier difficulties, is limited, and will forever remain so, since no one is writing new myths about Heracles or Maui. Furthermore it gets criticised on the grounds of being simply “stories”, without particular academic merit.
In defence of the category, and in the hope of making myth questions more interesting to all players of every level, I’m going to go over what I believe can be done to improve the myth category. This post is prompted by 4 years of studying Classics at Oxford and playing quizbowl, and countless conversations with others, especially Joey Goldman and Daoud Jackson, about myth questions. Given my degree, I will focus upon Classical myth, as I feel best qualified to talk about that, but for almost all mythological systems, at least those with substantial texts behind them, I believe the following arguments are transferable, whether Arthurian or Mesopotamian myth.
(I’m drawing my examples from various tournaments from the past year, and if you wrote one which I picked, sorry!)
1) Almost zero myths have a single definitive version. Ovid varies from Virgil who varies from Euripides who varies from Herodotus who varies from Homer. For example:
The first clue in this tossup comes from a single source, Statius’ Thebaid – in every other source it’s primarily a necklace of gold, including several more famous ones, so this is somewhat confusing. From the same source, we get a contradiction with the tossup as to their parentage – Book 12 of the Thebaid calls Hades their father, rather than the Hesiodic genealogy of birth from the blood. If you prime the listener with clues from one text, it can be very disconcerting to contradict that text later on without making it clear, especially at game-speed.5. The necklace of Harmonia was made from the hair of these figures, one of whom turned into an owl until Zeus fell asleep before appearing in the form of a beast to Dionysus. The Harpies took the daughters of King Pandareus to be servants to these figures. In the Aeneid, one of these figures turns into a small bird and flies in the face of Turnus during battle, while another (*) implants a snake in Amata’s chest to drive her insane. Oedipus dies in a grove sacred to these beings. They’re not the Meliae, but these figures emerged from Uranus’s blood falling on the earth, not the sea. Dido called on these figures when she was on her funeral pyre, and examples of these figures include Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone. These figures were ironically called the “kindly ones,” or the Eumenides. For 10 points, name these goddesses of vengeance, especially for the murder of a parent..
ANSWER: Furies [or Dirae; or Erinyes; accept Eumenides until it’s read] (Penn Bowl 2016)
2) Choice and ordering of the text from which the stories are drawn is important – to continue to use the above toss-up the sources I can identify are 1) Thebaid 2) Nonnus’ Dionysiaca 3) The Odyssey, 4) the stated Aeneid 5) Oedipus at Colonus. 5) The Theogony 6) Aeneid again.
It may be that everyone reads the Dionysiaca in America, and Oxford is weird and stuffy in essentially ignoring, in which case I apologise for the following criticism, but cluing from that text is bloody pointless – almost no one is going to be directly familiar with that passage, if they know it, they know it from the mythological equivalent of SparkNotes. The first clue is ok (with the criticism levelled in point 1), and the Odyssey clue is excellent – it shows deep knowledge of a very important text if you recognise that clue (perhaps you’ve learnt it while studying Penelope’s role in the poem, as she tells the tale) The Aeneid clues I would say are placed far too early – both the Screech owl in the face of Turnus, but especially Alecto inflaming Amata – this is one of the two most important texts of ancient literature, and Book 12, from which the first clue is drawn, is one of the most read sections, and the scene with Amata is part of the repeated symbolism of fire and flames that affects important characters. The Oedipus at Colonus clue is rather isolated – everything else is from epic, and then a single clue dropped in from tragedy – I think it would make a better tossup if you clue entirely from one sort of literature or the other – the Furies have somewhat variant functions in the two genres.
Another connected problem with myth can be egregiously obscure figures being asked for – one of my main thrusts of argument is that it is better to clue deep from the better known texts that are studied by many more people (e.g the Odyssey Harpies clue) than from obscure figures who barely have a presence in anything of importance, and are perhaps at best a sidenote in Pausanias or one of the mythographers. For example
The first clue is just not justified by what is in the text of Book 4 of the Histories – at no point Is the woman described as a drakaina – the words used are echidna and ophis, simply to mean snake/viper, she is specifically human from the hips up, and snake below, and the point of this myth is that it is the foundational myth of Scythia according to Greeks – one of the sons of their union is Scythes – the area is called Hylaia at this point.Herodotus claims that the ruler of Scythia was one of these figures, and that Heracles slept with her because she stole the Cattle of Geryon from him.
For 10 points each:  Name these creatures which are generally depicted as female serpents with human-like features. Sybaris was one of these creatures who terrorized those at Delphi, at least until Eurybaros tossed her over a cliff and killed her.
ANSWER: drakaina [prompt on "dragons"]
 Another drakaina, Campe, was killed by Zeus during this conflict so that he could release the Cyclopes and have them forge weapons to overthrow Cronus.
ANSWER: the Titanomachy [or Titanomachia]
 This deity sent the drakaina Poena to terrorize the Argives for killing Linus, his child. The song of praise ―paean‖ is derived from an epithet of this deity, and originally referred to songs that specifically praised him.
ANSWER: Apollo [accept Phoebus Apollo or Apollon] (ACF Nationals 2016)
Sybaris appears in a single (!) extant text – the mediocre Metamorphoses of Antoninus Liberalis – in the review of the first English translation (published only in 1992!) he is described as follows “those scholars who use [him] at all are resigned to doing so mainly to supply cross-references to Ovid”. The only way to get this part then is to guess which of the Greek terms for “serpentine mythological women” they want – also there’s no need for a prompt on “dragons” as that is what drakaina literally means!
Campe at best appears in few texts, such as the Bibliotheca and the Dionysiaca, but again, painfully obscure – I’m pretty sure no one got Titanomachy from her name, but from the other clue.
Poena is ever slightly more reasonable (Pausanias, a longer passage in Statius, Callimachus), but again I’d still put money on the vast majority getting Apollo from Paean.
In summary, this entire bonus set is built around obscure figures, and a class of beings which doesn’t really exist as such in the ancient conception (plus in the earlier sources, Poena is not obviously serpentine – at Delphi that role is already filled by Python, and it seems there’s some conflation going on here later).
Similarly obscure people appear in all sorts of sets – from Stanford Housewrite comes a set with the Teumessian fox and Europa – fine – but the hard part to start the bonus is Electryon, father of Alcmene – a figure of absolutely zero importance, named only because he’s a son of Perseus and father of Heracles’ mother, without any independent mythological history.
3) On the other hand, I have heard several times clues from the canonical texts dropped too early. The example which comes to mind is from ACF Regionals 2016:
Phoenix’s tale of this man is one of the most important stories told within the entire poem – there are dozens of articles written about it and its relation to the rest of the poem, how precisely it is meant to inform Achilles, how Cleopatra is a Homeric invention meant precisely to reflect the name Patroclus etc. It should not be, in a tossup about Meleager, in the first line – in the academic world, it is his most appearance in ancient texts.In Book IX of the Iliad, Phoenix tells this man’s story as a cautionary tale to inspire Achilles to rejoin the fight. This man’s daughter with his wife Cleopatra married a man who was the first to die in the Trojan War. Following this hero’s death, his sisters Eurymede and Melanippe were turned into guineafowl. During an effort led by this hero, Nestor spear-vaulted away to safety and Ancaeus was mortally wounded. This hero’s mother killed herself in grief after she killed this hero by burning a log that the Fates had tied to his lifespan. That filicide transpired as a result of this man’s murder of his uncles, Toxeus and Plexippus, who had objected to him awarding a hunting prize to Atalanta. For 10 points, name this son of Althaea and Oeneus who led the Calydonian Boar Hunt. ANSWER: Meleager
My point in going into such depth (and I apologise again to anyone whose question I have dug into) is to implore people to be more careful what they are writing about – one of the reasons I fear people find myth tossups so stale is that, in a hunt for difficulty, writers resort to figures so obscure they don’t turn up in the index of Graves’ The Greek Myths. Once you’ve heard that clue about Sybaris or Campe, there is no further learning to be done about figures, you do not need to go away and reread the text from which they are drawn. Compare that say to the excellent clue for the Furies and the Daughters of Pandareus. Myth does not have to be stale repetitions of the same stock clues – between the numerous tragedies, the epics, the poets Greek and Roman, there is a huge amount of material to mine, even for major characters.
1) Say who you’re getting the story from, if you can find it – and think whether that version is the most significant and well-known. The quick test is simply: could the source for this story be tossed up themselves at this difficulty, either title or author? Even if the figure has a long article on Wiki, or on a myth website such as the Theoi project, doesn't mean they are important.
2) If you’re referencing genealogy, explain why it’s important to the mythological story – e.g. in the case of Electryon, swap it round so that in a clue about Amphitryon it is mentioned that he accidentally killed his father-in-law, and that’s why he was in exile in Thebes.
3) Most of these texts aren’t very long and hence are readable by plenty of players – Hesiod’s poems are fewer than 1000 lines, most of the plays are at most double that, and even the epics aren’t great doorstoppers.
Let’s save myth.