The level of influence of Greek mythology in today’s society is debatable. Whether it is still relevant needs to be questioned. To better understand the level of its influence, we must first become knowledgeable of its origins. The earliest of these myths began as an oral tradition in the Bronze Age and the body of these tales were originally told by Ancient Greeks. These stories focus on the significance of their cultural and ritual practices. Furthermore, Greek myths concern the lives of deities, mythological creatures and heroes, which are a literary form in which the Greeks were taught moral lessons. Heroes were considered the role models of Greek culture, who depicted the ethical regulations that people should live by.
However, there is no single original text, like the Bible, that depicts the full extent of the mythological characters and creatures. It wasn’t until the classical and archaic periods that the tales unfolded in literary works. One of the earliest recognised pieces of literature, entailing the myths, were the Iliad and the Odyssey, by eighth century Poet, Homer. It describes how the mythical Trojan War was a divine and human conflict. However, there’s an apparent lack of introduction to any of the main Gods and Goddesses. This is because the oral depictions would’ve meant that the readers were already familiar with who the main characters were.
If we were to pick apart the word ‘mythology’, Greek ‘mythos’ signifies a word, speech, tale or story. While ‘Logy’ is the investigation aspect. The phrase ‘Muthologia’ translates to ‘talking about, or retelling stories’. Herodotus, a 5th century Historian, was the first person to use the term for an implausible myth. Plato then used the assistance of new dialect to introduce more defined concepts of myths. The Athenian Philosopher allows us to draw back the origins of the modern definition of myths- a false story.
“The simplest and most direct way to approach mythology is to look at its subject matter. In the broadest terms myths are traditional stories about gods, kings and heroes. Myths relate the creation of the world and sometimes its future destruction as well. They tell how gods created men. They depict the relationships between various gods and men. They provide a moral code by which to live. And myths treat the lives of heroes who represent the ideals of a society. In short, myths largely deal with the significant aspects of human and superhuman existence.”
Myths are typically divided, by scholars, into three main types: Legends, Folktales and ‘pure’ myths. Legends consist of actual people and events, but they also include unnatural elements that are associated with myths. These unnatural elements tend to include meetings between mortals and Gods, magic, monsters and superhuman feats. Modern scholars believe that these unnatural elements were mixed in to entertain members of the Royal Court. In Ancient Greece there was no literature, therefore the history of events had to be passed down from generation to generation by memory. The Greek heroes were often glamourized by Poets with the interference of Gods and monsters.
A ‘Pure Myth’ relates directly to religion and rituals. An example would be the tale of Prometheus, which defines early relationships between man and Gods. It explains the nature of animal sacrifices in Greek religious rituals. They often had educational motives behind them. ‘The Age of man’ entails the Golden age in which mortals and Gods lived happily together on earth.
In Ancient Greece, myths were a predominant aspect of everyday life, due to the explanations they gave to the pre-scientific world. This included the weather, religion and other parts of society. Meaning was given to their lives. An example of this was the first written cosmogony (origin story), of Greek Mythology, the Theogony. The Theogony, written in 700bc, entails the Poet Hesiod depicting how the Universe transitioned from nothing to being. The readers are granted a description of the Gods and Goddesses who descended from Pontos (sea), Gaia (earth), Tartaros (underworld) and Ouranos (sky). Later these original sources were elaborated on by Greek writers and artists for their own work. Mythology is significant in the sense that it dictated the lives of the Greeks, albeit it gave them a false understanding of the world around them. They filled the gaps in their knowledge and gave them answers, no matter how illogical, to unanswered questions.
“Myths, whether in written or visual form, serve a vital role of asking unanswerable questions and providing unquestionable answers. Most of us, most of the time, have a low tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. We want to reduce the cognitive dissonance of not knowing by filling the gaps with answers. Traditionally, religious myths have served that role, but today – the age of science – science fiction is our mythology.”
The Greeks harboured great respect for their ancestors and the use of myths allowed people to credit them. Allegories are the oldest form of religious composition, that are also an example of the respect previously mentioned. It granted an opportunity to praise and worship the key figures that came before.
Myths were considered a cultural legacy, which were written before the emergence of science. They are present in every culture and were manipulated and repeated, to show the manner in which previous people applied these stories to their lives. The majority of sources to these myths are unknown, due to the pre-writing period in which they were created. The earliest known writer is Homer.
“Our first witness to Greek mythology is Homer. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, we encounter, for the first time in the history of Greek literature, the gods and heroes that constituted myth as the Greeks themselves knew it, and as we know it now. Since Homer’s day, Achilles and Hector, Paris and Helen, Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and Athena, the Cyclopes and the Giants, the Centaurs and the Sirens…” Fritz Graf, Greek Mythology: An Introduction, trans. Thomas Marier (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 57.
Homer is known as the author of the two most famous poems of Greek Literature, ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’. The poems concern the conflict between King Agamemnon and Achilles during the Trojan War. The central storyline then shifts to King Odysseus’ ten-year journey home, after the fall of Troy. Modern relevance concerning ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ link back to what can be learnt from the poems. Historians have managed to gain insight into the Trojan War, the most significant war of that era. They are the closest thing to a historical text about that period of Greek history. The Trojan War was not just a significant storyline for Homer, but it also impacted Greek people and shaped their culture. Homer managed to set a basis for myths, tales and legends; giving a history to the Greeks.
Despite common, popular belief, myths do not revolve around the stories of Gods and Goddesses. Heroes and monsters are the key features- while humans are often used as moral lessons. Also included are monster ‘hybrids’, who feature prominently in most myths. There are many well-known examples that are still remembered today: Hercules, the man that King Eurystheus made perform twelve impossible tasks; Arachne, the arrogant weaver turned into a spider after challenging Athena; Pandora, the woman who brought forth evil into the world, from a box, and Narcissus, the man who fell in love with his own reflection.
Furthermore, famous mythological creatures include: half women-half bird Sirens that lured sailors to their deaths, the horse-man Centaur, the one-eyed giant cyclops, Minotaurs, the lion-woman Sphinx and hundreds of more. There is a strong link between the past and present in terms of Greek Mythology. The presence of themes, characters and lessons, for thousands of years, have shaped modern art and literature.
The origins of Greek mythology are rooted in the old religion of Creti, in about 300bc. This is approximately when the earliest individuals emerged on the island in the Aegean Sea. The civilisation focused on the idea that nature had to acquire supernatural elements, including spirits. Their ideology later developed into legends of animals and Gods, who had to possess a human form. However, the Greek colonies didn’t remain in one place and the immigrants took their myths with them. This allowed them to develop in other cultures around the world. This included places such as Southern Italy, Egypt and Crimea. The geographical link also influenced the tales that were told. Mountainous areas created a fear of the storm God and the sky. Where the land was fertile, the Harvest God was feared. Furthermore, on the seashore men attempted to claim the favour of the Sea God, in order to guard trade.
A common belief in all myths was that the twelve main Olympian Greek Pantheons resided in Mount Olympus, in Northern Greece. It was stated that any of the Gods could live on the summit, but under no circumstances could a human enter. Albeit mythology has no structure or hierarchy, Zeus was considered the leader of Gods and Godesses. Olympus was considered a paradise. It was supposedly 1,000 feet above sea level and difficult to climb. The mythical place was tested in a myth about the mortal Bellerophon. He tried to ride Pegasus, the winged horse, to Mount Olympus, testing the Gods’ hospitality. Zeus sent a Gadfly (a type of fly plaguing cattle) to attack Pegasus, who kicked Bellerophon from his back. The former hero severely injured his legs and went blind from the fall. Mount Olympus is relevant in the exploration of Greek Mythology, because it gave the Ancient Greeks an unreachable place where their mythical Gods could reside. Furthermore, the tale of Bellerophon is an example of the morals told to them. Don’t try to find paradise, because there will be consequences.
The Euhemerus Theory is vital when considering this topic, as it is often referred to as the ‘historical interpretation’ of Greek Mythology. Modern academic literature defines it as the theory that mythology is distorted accounts of real historical events. Euhemerus’, the Greek Mythographer’s, most important work was ‘Hiera Anagraphe’, translated to the ‘Sacred Inscription’. In his narrative, he is sent on an imaginary voyage along the Indian Ocean, to an Island he calls Panchea. The Poet discovers the Temple of Zeus and the Sacred Inscription.
The inscription states that Zeus, his ancestors and other God’s were mortals who were worshipped after death for their accomplishments. Euhemerus’ work is a combination of fiction, political utopianism and theology. At the time, he was considered an atheist for his rebuke of the immortal Gods. Lactantius, an early Christian writer, stated that because the mythological Gods were originally human, they were inferior to the Christian God. Greek Mythology has influenced the comparison with the Christian religion, as theologists study the superiority of Greek Gods over their own beliefs. Myths became so popular because orthodox pagans would often use them to explain inconsistenies in their Gods/Godesses’ divine nature.