Greek Mythology set of diverse traditional tales told by the ancient Greeks about the exploits of gods and heroes and their relations with ordinary mortals.
The ancient Greeks worshiped many gods within a culture that tolerated diversity. Unlike other belief systems, Greek culture recognized no single truth or code and produced no sacred, written text like the Bible or the Qur’an. Stories about the origins and actions of Greek divinities varied widely, depending, for example, on whether the tale appeared in a comedy, tragedy, or epic poem. Greek mythology was like a complex and rich language, in which the Greeks could express a vast range of perceptions about the world.
A Greek city-state devoted itself to a particular god or group of gods in whose honour it built temples. The temple generally housed a statue of the god or gods. The Greeks honoured the city’s gods in festivals and also offered sacrifices to the gods, usually a domestic animal such as a goat. Stories about the gods varied by geographic location: A god might have one set of characteristics in one city or region and quite different characteristics elsewhere.
PRINCIPAL FIGURES IN GREEK MYTHOLOGY
Greek mythology has several distinguishing characteristics, in addition to its multiple versions. The Greek gods resembled human beings in their form and in their emotions, and they lived in a society that resembled human society in its levels of authority and power. However, a crucial difference existed between gods and human beings: Humans died, and gods were immortal. Heroes also played an important role in Greek mythology, and stories about them conveyed serious themes. The Greeks considered human heroes from the past closer to themselves than were the immortal gods.
Given the multiplicity of myths that circulated in Greece, it is difficult to present a single version of the genealogy (family history) of the gods. However, two accounts together provide a genealogy that most ancient Greeks would have recognized. One is the account given by Greek poet Hesiod in his Theogony (Genealogy of the Gods), written in the 8th century BC. The other account, The Library, is attributed to a mythographer (compiler of myths) named Apollodorus, who lived during the 2nd century BC.
A1. The Creation of the Gods
According to Greek myths about creation, the god Chaos (Greek for “Gaping Void”) was the foundation of all things. From Chaos came Gaea (“Earth”); the bottomless depth of the underworld, known as Tartarus; and Eros (“Love”). Eros, the god of love, was needed to draw divinities together so they might produce offspring. Chaos produced Night, while Gaea first bore Uranus, the god of the heavens, and after him produced the mountains, sea, and gods known as Titans. The Titans were strong and large, and they committed arrogant deeds. The youngest and most important Titan was Cronus. Uranus and Gaea, who came to personify Heaven and Earth, also gave birth to the Cyclopes, one-eyed giants who made thunderbolts.
A2. Cronus and Rhea
Uranus tried to block any successors from taking over his supreme position by forcing back into Gaea the children she bore. But the youngest child, Cronus, thwarted his father, cutting off his genitals and tossing them into the sea. From the bloody foam in the sea Aphrodite, goddess of sexual love, was born. After wounding his father and taking away his power, Cronus became ruler of the universe. But Cronus, in turn, feared that his own son would supplant him. When his sister and wife Rhea gave birth to offspring—Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon—Cronus swallowed them. Only the youngest, Zeus, escaped this fate, because Rhea tricked Cronus. She gave him a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes to swallow in place of the baby.
A3. Zeus and the Olympian Gods
When fully grown, Zeus forced his father, Cronus, to disgorge the children he had swallowed. With their help and armed with the thunderbolt, Zeus made war on Cronus and the Titans, and overcame them. He established a new regime, based on Mount Olympus in northern Greece. Zeus ruled the sky. His brother Poseidon ruled the sea, and his brother Hades, the underworld. Their sister Hestia ruled the hearth, and Demeter took charge of the harvest. Zeus married his sister Hera, who became queen of the heavens and guardian of marriage and childbirth. Among their children was Ares, whose sphere of influence was war.
Twelve major gods and goddesses had their homes on Mount Olympus and were known as the Olympians. Four children of Zeus and one child of Hera joined the Olympian gods Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Demeter, and Ares. Zeus’s Olympian offspring were Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, and Athena. Hera gave birth to Hephaestus.
A4. The Offspring of Zeus
Zeus had numerous children by both mortal and immortal women. By the mortal Semele he had Dionysus, a god associated with wine and with other forms of intoxication and ecstasy. By Leto, a Titan, Zeus fathered the twins Apollo and Artemis, who became two of the most important Olympian divinities. Artemis remained a virgin and took hunting as her special province. Apollo became associated with music and prophecy. People visited his oracle (shrine) at Delphi to seek his prophetic advice. By the nymph Maia, Zeus became father of Hermes, the Olympian trickster god who had the power to cross all kinds of boundaries. Hermes guided the souls of the dead down to the underworld, carried messages between gods and mortals, and wafted a magical sleep upon the wakeful.
Two other Olympian divinities, Hephaestus and Athena, had unusual births. Hera conceived Hephaestus, the blacksmith god, without a male partner. Subsequently he suffered the wrath of Zeus, who once hurled him from Olympus for coming to the aid of his mother; this fall down onto the island of Lemnos crippled Hephaestus. The birth of Athena was even stranger. Zeus and Metis, daughter of the Titan Oceanus, were the parents of Athena. But Gaea had warned Zeus that, after giving birth to the girl with whom she was pregnant, Metis would bear a son destined to rule heaven. To avoid losing his throne to a son, Zeus swallowed Metis, just as Cronus had previously swallowed his own children to thwart succession. Metis’s child Athena was born from the head of Zeus, which Hephaestus split open with an axe. Athena, another virgin goddess, embodied the power of practical intelligence in warfare and crafts work. She also served as the protector of the city of Athens.
Another of Zeus’s children was Persephone; her mother was Demeter, goddess of grain, vegetation, and the harvest. Once when Persephone was gathering flowers in a meadow, Hades, god of the underworld, saw and abducted her, taking her down to the kingdom of the dead to be his bride. Her grief-stricken mother wandered the world in search of her; as a result, fertility left the earth. Zeus commanded Hades to release Persephone, but Hades had cunningly given her a pomegranate seed to eat. Having consumed food from the underworld, Persephone was obliged to return below the earth for part of each year. Her return from the underworld each year meant the revival of nature and the beginning of spring. This myth was told especially in connection with the Eleusinian Mysteries, sacred rituals observed in the Greek town of Elevsís near Athens. The rituals offered initiates in the mysteries the hope of rebirth, just as Persephone had been reborn after her journey to the underworld.
Many Greek myths report the exploits of the principal Olympians, but Greek myths also refer to a variety of other divinities, each with their particular sphere of influence. Many of these divinities were children of Zeus, symbolizing the fact that they belonged to the new Olympian order of Zeus’s regime. The Muses, nine daughters of Zeus and the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, presided over song, dance, and music. The Fates, three goddesses who controlled human life and destiny, and the Horae, goddesses who controlled the seasons, were appropriately the children of Zeus and Themis, the goddess of divine justice and law. Far different in temperament were the Erinyes (Furies), ancient and repellent goddesses who had sprung from the earth after it had been impregnated with the blood of Uranus’s severed genitals. Terrible though they were, the Erinyes also had a legitimate role in the world: to pursue those who had murdered their own kin.
A5. Disruptive Deities
Human existence is characterized by disorder as well as order, and many of the most characteristic figures in Greek mythology exert a powerfully disruptive effect. Satyrs, whom the Greeks imagined as part human and part horse (or part goat), led lives dominated by wine and lust. Myths depicted them as companions of Dionysus who drunkenly pursued nymphs, spirits of nature represented as young and beautiful maidens. Many of the jugs used at Greek symposia (drinking parties) carry images of satyrs.
Equally wild, but more threatening than the satyrs, were the savage centaurs. These monsters, depicted as half-man and half-horse, tended toward uncontrolled aggression. The centaurs are known for combat with their neighbors, the Lapiths, which resulted from an attempt to carry off the Lapith women at a wedding feast. This combat was depicted in sculpture on the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to Athena in Athens.
The Sirens, usually portrayed as birds with women’s heads, posed a different sort of threat. These island-dwelling enchantresses lured mariners to their deaths by the irresistible beauty of their song. The seafaring Greek hero Odysseus alone survived this temptation by ordering his companions to block their own ears, to bind him to the mast of his ship, and to ignore all his entreaties to be allowed to follow the lure of the Sirens’ song.
The Greeks had several myths to account for the origins of humanity. According to one version, human beings sprang from the ground, and this origin explained their devotion to the land. According to another myth, a Titan molded the first human beings from clay. The Greeks also had a story about the destruction of humanity, similar to the biblical deluge.
B1. The Creation of Human Beings
Conflicting Greek myths tell about the creation of humanity. Some myths recount how the populations of particular localities sprang directly from the earth. The Arcadians, residents of a region of Greece known as Arcadia, claimed this distinction for their original inhabitant, Pelasgus. The Thebans boasted descent from earthborn men who had sprung from the spot where Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, had sown the ground with the teeth of a sacred dragon. According to another tale, one of the Titans, Prometheus, fashioned the first human being from water and earth. In the more usual version of the story Prometheus did not actually create humanity but simply lent it assistance through the gift of fire.
Another tale dealt with humanity’s re-creation. When Zeus planned to destroy an ancient race living on Earth, he sent a deluge. However, Deucalion, a son of Prometheus, and his wife Pyrrha—the Greek equivalents of the biblical Noah and his wife—put provisions into a chest and climbed into it. Carried across the waters of the flood, they landed on Mount Parnassus. After the waters receded, the couple gratefully made sacrifices to Zeus. His response was to send Hermes to instruct them how to repopulate the world. They should cast stones behind them. Stones thrown by Deucalion became men; those thrown by Pyrrha, women.
B2. The Greek People
According to myth, the various peoples of Greece descended from Hellen, son of Deucalion and Pyrrha. One genealogy related that the Dorian and the Aeolian Greeks sprang from Hellen’s sons Dorus and Aeolus. The Achaeans and Ionians descended from Achaeos and Ion, sons of Hellen’s other son, Xuthus. These figures, in their turn, produced offspring who, along with children born of unions between divinities and mortals, made up the collection of heroes and heroines whose exploits constitute a central part of Greek mythology.
Myths about heroes are particularly characteristic of Greek mythology. Many of these heroes were the sons of gods, and a number of myths involved expeditions by these heroes. The expeditions generally related to quests or combats. Scholars consider some of these myths partly historical in nature—that is, they explained events in the distant past and were handed down orally from one generation to the next. Two of the most important of the semihistorical myths involve the search for the Golden Fleece and the quest that led to the Trojan War. In other myths heroes such as Heracles and Theseus had to overcome fearsome monsters.
C1. Jason and the Golden Fleece
Jason was a hero who sailed in the ship Argo, with a band of heroes called the Argonauts, on a dangerous quest for the Golden Fleece at the eastern end of the Black Sea in the land of Colchis. Jason had to fetch this family property, a fleece made of gold from a winged ram, in order to regain his throne. A dragon that never slept guarded the fleece and made the mission nearly impossible. Thanks to the magical powers of Medea, daughter of the ruler of Colchis, Jason performed the impossible tasks necessary to win the fleece and to take it from the dragon. Afterward Medea took horrible revenge on Pelias, who had killed Jason’s parents, stolen Jason’s throne, and sent Jason on the quest for the fleece. She tricked Pelias’s daughters into cutting him up and boiling him in a cauldron. Medea’s story continued to involve horrific violence. When Jason rejected her for another woman, Medea once more used her magic to avenge herself with extreme cruelty.
Jason and the same generation of heroes took part in another adventure, with Meleager, the son of King Oeneus of Calydon and his wife Althea. At Meleager’s birth the Fates predicted that he would die when a log burning on the hearth was completely consumed. His mother snatched the log and hid it in a chest. Meleager grew to manhood. One day, his father accidentally omitted Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, from a sacrifice. In revenge Artemis sent a mighty boar to ravage the country. Meleager set out to destroy it, accompanied by some of the greatest heroes of the day, including Peleus, Telamon, Theseus, Jason, and Castor and Polydeuces. The boar was killed. However, Meleager killed his mother’s brothers in a quarrel about who should receive the boar skin. In her anger Althea threw the log on to the fire, so ending her son’s life; she then hanged herself.
C3. Heroes of the Trojan War
The greatest expedition of all was that which resulted in the Trojan War. The object of this quest was Helen, a beautiful Greek woman who had been abducted by Paris, son of King Priam of Troy. Helen’s husband Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon led an army of Greeks to besiege Troy. After ten years, with many heroes dead on both sides, the city fell to the trick of the Trojan Horse—a giant wooden horse that the Greeks built and left outside the gates of Troy while their army pretended to withdraw. Not knowing that Greek heroes were hiding inside the horse, the Trojans took the horse into the city. The hidden Greeks then slipped out, opened the city gates and let their army in, thus defeating Troy. The Iliad, an epic poem attributed to Greek poet Homer, tells the story of the Trojan War. The story continued with the Odyssey, another long poem attributed to Homer, in which the Greek hero Odysseus made his way home after the Trojan War. Odysseus returned to his faithful wife, Penelope, whereas Agamemnon returned to be murdered by his faithless wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover.
Historians considered the Trojan War entirely mythical until excavations in Turkey showed that there had been cities on the site of Troy and that fire had destroyed one of these cities at about the time of the Trojan War, sometime from 1230 bc to 1180 bc.
C4. Heracles and Theseus
The deeds of the heroes Heracles and Theseus exemplify a central theme in Greek mythology: the conflict between civilization and wild savagery. Each hero confronted and overcame monstrous opponents, yet neither enjoyed unclouded happiness.
Heracles had been an Argonaut but left the expedition after being plunged into grief at the loss of his companion Hylas. In another story, a fit of madness led Heracles to kill his own wife and children. But he is best known for his feats of prowess against beasts and monsters, which began soon after his birth. The most difficult of these feats are known as the 12 labours, which are believed to represent efforts to conquer death and achieve immortality. Although Heracles died, his father, Zeus, gave him a place on Mount Olympus.
Theseus successfully slew the Minotaur, a monster that was half man and half bull. On his voyage home to Athens, however, he forgot to hoist the white sails that would have signified the success of his adventure. According to one tale, Theseus’s heartbroken father Aegeus, seeing black sails, believed his son had died, and committed suicide. The Aegean Sea in which he drowned is presumably named after Aegeus.
No hero of Greek mythology has proved more fascinating than Oedipus. He destroyed a monster, the Sphinx, by answering its riddle. Yet his ultimate downfall served as a terrifying warning of the instability of human fortune. As a baby, Oedipus had been abandoned on a mountainside by his parents, King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes, because of a prophecy that the child would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. Saved by the pity of a shepherd, the child—its identity unknown—was reared by the king and queen of the neighbouring city of Corinth. In due course, Oedipus unwittingly fulfilled the prophecy, matching the horrific crimes he had committed with the equally ghastly self-punishment of piercing his own eyes with Jocasta’s brooch-pins.
THE NATURE OF GREEK GODS AND HEROES
A. Gods and Goddesses
In many respects the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology resembled extraordinarily powerful human beings. They experienced emotions such as jealousy, love, and grief, and they shared with humans a desire to assert their own authority and to punish anyone who flouted it. However, these emotions and desires took supernaturally intense form in gods and goddesses. As numerous literary descriptions and artistic representations testify, the Greeks imagined their gods to have human shape, although this form was strongly idealized.
The Greeks, moreover, modeled relationships between divinities on those between human beings. Apollo and Artemis were brother and sister, Zeus and Hera were husband and wife, and the society of the gods on Mount Olympus resembled that of an unruly family, with Zeus at its head. The gods could temporarily enter the human world. They might, for example, fall in love with a mortal, as Aphrodite did with Adonis; Apollo with Daphne; and Zeus with Leda, Alcmene, and Danae. Or they might destroy a mortal who displeased them, as Dionysus destroyed King Pentheus of Thebes for mocking his rites.
Not all Greek divinities resembled human beings. They could also be uncanny, strange, and alien, a quality made visible in artistic representations of monsters. For example, the snake-haired Gorgon Medusa had a stare that turned her victims to stone. The Graeae, sisters of the Gorgons, were gray-haired old crones from birth. They possessed but a single tooth and a single eye between them. Typhoeus was a hideous monster from whose shoulders grew a hundred snakeheads with dark, flickering tongues.
Even the major deities of Olympus showed alien characteristics at times. A recurrent sign of divine power is the ability to change shape, either one’s own or that of others. Athena once transformed herself into a vulture; Poseidon once took the form of a stallion. This ability could prove convenient such as when Zeus assumed the form of a swan to woo Leda. Zeus turned Lycaon, a disrespectful king, into a wolf to punish him for his wickedness. The ability to exercise power over the crossing of boundaries is a crucial feature of divine power among the Greeks.
Greek mythology also told how divinities interacted with heroes, a category of mortals who, though dead, were believed to retain power to influence the lives of the living. In myths heroes represented a kind of bridge between gods and mortals. Heroes such as Achilles, Perseus, and Aeneas were the products of a union between a deity and a mortal. The fact that the gods often intervened to help heroes—for example, during combat—indicated not the heroes’ weakness but their special importance. Yet heroes were not the equals of the gods.
With a logic characteristic of Greek myth, heroes typically possessed a defect to balance out their exceptional power. For example, the warrior Achilles, hero of the Trojan War, was invulnerable except in the heel. The prophet Cassandra, who warned the Trojans of dangers such as the Trojan horse, always prophesied the truth but was never believed. Heracles constituted an extreme example of this paradox: His awesome strength was balanced by his tendency to become a victim of his own excessive violence. Nevertheless, the gods allowed Heracles to cross the ultimate boundary by gaining admission to Olympus.
THE FUNCTIONS OF GREEK MYTHOLOGY
Like most other mythological traditions, Greek myths served several purposes. First, Greek myths explained the world. Second, they acted as a means of exploration. Third, they provided authority and legitimacy. Finally, they provided entertainment.
Greek myths lent structure and order to the world and explained how the current state of things had originated. Hesiod’s Theogony narrated the development of the present order of the universe by relating it to Chaos, the origin of all things. By a complex process of violence, struggle, and sexual attraction, the regime led by Zeus had eventually taken over. Another poem by Hesiod, Works and Days, explained why the world is full of trouble. According to the poem the first woman, Pandora, opened a jar whose lid she had been forbidden to lift. As a result of her disobedience all the diseases and miseries previously confined in the jar escaped into the world. Such a myth also makes a statement about relationships between the sexes in Hesiod’s own world. Scholars assume that he composed the poem for a largely male audience that was receptive to a tale that put women at the root of all evil.
One of the commonest types of explanation given in myths relates to ritual. Myths helped worshipers make sense of a religious practice by telling how the practice originated. A prime example is sacrifice, a ritual that involved killing a domesticated animal as an offering to the gods. The ceremony culminated in the butchering, cooking, and sharing of the meat of the victim. Hesiod recounts the myth associated with this rite. According to this myth, the tricky Titan Prometheus tried to outwit Zeus by offering him a cunningly devised choice of meals. Zeus could have either an apparently unappetizing dish—an ox paunch, which had tasty meat concealed within—or a seemingly delicious one, gleaming fat on the outside, which had nothing but bones hidden beneath. Zeus chose the second dish, and ever since human beings have kept the tastiest part of every sacrifice for themselves, leaving the gods nothing but the savour of the rising smoke.
Myths charted paths through difficult territory, examining contradictions and ambiguities. For instance, Homer’s Iliad explores the consequences during the Trojan War of the Greek leader Agamemnon’s decision to deprive the warrior Achilles of his allotted prize, a female slave. Achilles feels that Agamemnon has assailed his honour or worth but wonders how far he should go in reaction. Is he right to refuse to fight, if that means the destruction of the Greek army? Is he justified in rejecting Agamemnon’s offer of compensation? One of this poem’s themes explores the limits of honour.
The dramatic genre of tragedy provides the clearest example of mythical exploration. The great Athenian playwrights of the 5th century bc—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—wrote tragedies that explored social questions by placing them, in extreme and exaggerated form, in a mythical context. Sophocles’ tragic play Antigone concerns just such an extreme situation. Two brothers have killed each other in battle: Eteocles defending his homeland, and Polynices attacking it. Their sister Antigone, in defiance of an edict by the city’s ruler, attempts to bury her ostensibly traitorous brother Polynices. Sophocles raises several moral issues. Is Antigone justified in seeking to bury her brother? Which should prevail, a religious obligation to tend and bury a corpse, or a city’s well-being? The answers to these moral issues are far from clear-cut, as we might expect from a work whose subtlety and profundity have so often been admired.
Myths also had the function of legitimation. A claim, an action, or a relationship acquired extra authority if it had a precedent in myth. Aristocratic Greek families liked to trace their ancestry back to the heroes or gods of mythology. The Greek poet Pindar, who wrote in the early 5th century bc, offers ample evidence for this preference. In his songs Pindar praised the exploits of current victors in the Olympian Games by linking them with the deeds of their mythical ancestors. In addition, two Greek city-states could cement bonds between them by showing that they had an alliance in the mythological past.
Finally, myth telling was a source of enjoyment and entertainment. Homer’s epics contain several descriptions of audiences held spellbound by the songs of bards (poets), and recitations of Homer’s poems also captivated audiences. Public performances of tragic drama were also hugely popular, regularly drawing some 15,000 spectators.
ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT OF GREEK MYTHOLOGY
Our knowledge of Greek mythology begins with the epic poems attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which date from about the 8th century BC even though the stories they relate probably have their origins in events that occurred several centuries earlier. Scholars, however, know that the origins of Greek mythology reach even farther back than that.
A. Origins of Greek Mythology
Linguists (people who study languages) have concluded that some names of Greek deities, including Zeus, can be traced back to gods worshiped by speakers of Proto-Indo-European, the common ancestor of the Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit languages. But it would be misleading to regard the people who may have spoken this language as originators of Greek mythology because many other elements contributed.
Archaeologists have shown that many of the places where mythical events presumably took place correspond to sites that had historical importance during the Mycenaean period of Greek history (second half of the 2nd millennium BC). Scholars thus consider it likely that the Mycenaean’s made a major contribution to the development of the stories, even if this contribution is hard to demonstrate in detail. Some scholars have argued that the Minoan civilization of Crete also had a formative influence on Greek myths. The myth of the Minotaur confined in a labyrinth in the palace of King Minos, for example, might be a memory of historical bull-worship in the labyrinthine palace at Knossos on Crete. However, there is little evidence that Cretan religion survived in Greece. Nor have any ancient inscriptions confirmed that Minos ever existed outside of myth.
Scholars can demonstrate influence on Greek mythology from the Middle East much more reliably than influence from Crete. Greek mythology owed much to cultures in Mesopotamia and Anatolia, especially in the realm of cosmogony (origin of the universe) and theogony (origin of the gods). To take one example, a clear parallel exists in an early Middle Eastern myth for Greek poet Hesiod’s story about the castration of Uranus by his son Cronus and the subsequent overthrow of Cronus by his son Zeus. The Middle Eastern myth tells of the sky god Anu who was castrated by Kumarbi, father of the gods. The weather and storm god Teshub, in turn, displaced Anu. Scholars continue to bring to light more and more similarities between Greek and Middle Eastern mythologies.
B. Development of Greek Mythology
Our knowledge of Greek myths comes from a mixture of written texts, sculpture, and decorated pottery. Scholars have reconstructed stories that circulated orally by inference and guesswork.
Homer’s epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, stand at the beginning of Greek literary tradition, even though they almost certainly depended on a lengthy previous tradition of oral poetry. The Iliad is set during the Trojan War; it focuses on the consequences of a quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, two of the leading Greek warriors. The Odyssey is about the aftermath of the Trojan War, when the Greek hero Odysseus at last returns to his home on the island of Ithaca following years of wandering in wild and magical lands. The Trojan War later provided subject matter for many tragic dramas and for imagery on countless painted vases.
Hesiod’s Theogony, composed in the 8th century bc at about the same time as the Homeric epics, and gave an authoritative account of how things began. The creation of the world, described by Hesiod in terms of passions and crimes of the gods, is a theme that later Greek philosophers such as Empedocles and Plato developed but took in new directions. This connection serves as a reminder that mythology was not a separate aspect of Greek culture, but one that interacted with many other fields of experience, particularly the writing of history. For example, in the 5th century bc Greek historian Herodotus employed numerous themes and story patterns from Greek epics and tragedies in writing his historical account of the war between Greeks and Persians.
Although the authority of Homer and Hesiod remained dominant, the poetic retelling of myths continued throughout antiquity. Myths were constantly remade in the light of new social and political circumstances. The Hellenistic period of Greek history (4th century to 1st century bc) saw many new trends in the treatment of myths. One of the most important was the development of mythography, the compilation and organization of myths on the basis of particular themes (for example, myths about metamorphosis). Such organization corresponded to a wish of newly established Hellenistic rulers to lend legitimacy to their regimes by claiming that they continued a cultural tradition reaching back into a great past.
Artists too, portrayed myths. Statues of gods stood inside Greek temples, and relief sculptures of scenes from mythology adorned pediments and friezes on the outside of these temples. Among the best-known examples are the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens. These reliefs include depictions of combat between centaurs and Lapiths.
Other visual representations of mythology were more modest in size and scope. The best evidence for the use of mythology in Greek painting comes from painted ceramic vases. The Greeks used these vases in a variety of contexts, from cookery to funerary ritual to athletic games. (Vases filled with oil were awarded as prizes in games.) In most cases scholars can securely identify the imagery on Greek vases as mythological, but sometimes they have no way of telling whether the artist intended an allusion to mythology because myth became fused with everyday life. For example, does a representation of a woman weaving signify Penelope, wife of Odysseus who spent her days at a loom, or does it portray someone engaged in an everyday activity?
The Greeks retold myths orally, as well as preserving them in literary and artistic works. The Greeks transmitted to children tales of monsters and myths of gods and heroes. Old men gathered to exchange tales in leschai (clubs or conversation places). Storytelling, whether in writing, art, or speech, was at the heart of Greek civilization.
THE LEGACY OF GREEK MYTHOLOGY
Mythology formed a central reference point in Greek society because it was interwoven with ritual and other aspects of social existence. Yet the question of how far people believed the myths is a difficult and probably unanswerable one. Some intellectuals, such as Greek writer Palaephatus, tried to interpret the myths as having figurative (nonliteral) meanings. Writing in the 4th century BC, Palaephatus interpreted the stories of Diomedes, a king devoured by his own mares, and of Actaeon, a hunter torn apart by his own hounds, as concealing perfectly credible accounts of young men who had spent too much money on their animals and so been figuratively eaten alive by debt.
Other thinkers, such as the 4th-century-BC philosopher Plato, objected to some myths on moral grounds, particularly to myths that told of crimes committed by the gods. Yet such scepticism seems hardly to have altered the imaginative power and persistence of Greek myths. As late as the 2nd century ad, the Greek traveler and historian Pausanias described the myths and cults in the places he visited as if they constituted a still-living complex of religious discourse and behaviour.
A. Ancient Rome and Early Christianity
The ancient Romans eventually took over Greek civilization and conquered Greece. In the process, they adapted Greek mythology, and myths remained a vehicle for reflecting on and coping with the world. In his poem the Aeneid, written in the 1st century BC, Roman poet Virgil used the theme of the wandering Trojan hero Aeneas and his eventual foundation of a settlement that became Rome. The Aeneid not only continues story patterns developed in Homer’s epics, but it also makes frequent and detailed allusions to the texts of Homer and other Greek writers. The long poem Metamorphoses by Roman poet Ovid embraces an enormous number of Greek myths, reworked into a composition that later had unparalleled influence on European culture of the middle Ages and Renaissance.
Greek mythology survived during Christian antiquity by its interpretation as allegory (expressive of a deeper or hidden meaning). Early Christians incorporated pagan stories into their own worldview if they could reinterpret the story to express a concealed, uplifting meaning. In the 5th century ad, for example, Latin mythographer Fulgentius gave an allegorical reading of the Judgment of Paris. The Greek myth told of a young Trojan shepherd faced with a choice between the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Each goddess tried to bribe Paris to name her the most beautiful: Hera offering power, Athena offering success in battle, and Aphrodite offering a beautiful woman. Fulgentius explained that the choice was actually a moral one, between a life of action, a life of contemplation, and a life dominated by love. The allegorical approach to the myths has never died out; we find it today in the writings of those who regard myths as expressions of basic, universal psychological truths. For example, Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, borrowed from Greek mythology in developing his ideas of human psychosexual development, which he described in terms of an Oedipus complex and an Electra complex. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung believed that certain psychic structures he called archetypes were common to all people in all times and gave rise to recurring ideas such as mythological themes.
B. European Art, Music, and Literature
The influence of Greek mythology on Western art, music, and literature can hardly be exaggerated. Many of the greatest works of painting and sculpture have taken myths as their subject. Examples include the Birth of Venus (after 1482) by Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli, a marble sculpture of Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625) by Italian baroque sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini, a terrifying Cronus Devouring One of His Children (1820-1823) by Spanish painter Francisco de Goya, and Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (about 1558) by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel. In the Bruegel painting peasants continue with their daily toil oblivious of the mythological drama being played out in the sky above.
Musicians too, especially composers of opera and oratorio, have found inspiration in ancient myths. Operatic dramatizations of these stories begin with Orfeo (Orpheus, 1607) and IL ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland, 1641) by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi. They continue into the 20th century with Elektra (1909) by German composer Richard Strauss and Oedipus Rex (1927) by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.
The impact of Greek mythology on literature has been incalculably great. In the 20th century the story of the murderous revenge of Orestes on his mother Clytemnestra (for killing his father, Agamemnon) has inspired writers as diverse as American dramatist Eugene O’Neill (in Mourning Becomes Electra, 1931), American-born poet and playwright T. S. Eliot (in The Family Reunion, 1939), and French philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre (in Les Mouches [1943; The Flies, 1946]). Among the most notable of all literary works inspired by Greek mythology is Ulysses by Irish writer James Joyce. In this intricate novel, Ulysses (Odysseus) becomes Dublin resident Leopold Bloom, while Bloom’s wife, Molly, combines characteristics of faithful Penelope (wife of Odysseus) and seductive Calypso (a sea nymph who holds Odysseus captive on his journey home).
The influence of Greek mythology shows no sign of diminishing.