Updated: Dec 30, 2022
(okay, so there's a reason I am not a comedian)
Myths are obviously an important part of the ancient world. it would be very easy to think that they are just sweet (or in some cases not so sweet) stories. But there is far more to mythology than that. There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying a good story, and the Greek and Roman myths had plenty. However, they are also a rich field of study. So, this short article will look at the following:
What is a myth?
Why did ancient cultures have myths?
How did the Greeks use their myths?
What is a Myth?
The word myth comes from the Greek μῦθος, which can mean word or story. Myths are indeed stories, and originally passed down probably y word of mouth, what is known as oral tradition. But what kind of story is a myth.
When I googled 'definition of a myth just now, Dictionary.com kindly offered my the following two definitions:
1 "a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining
a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or
2. "a widely held but false belief or idea."
The Wikipedia article on Hindu mythology notes:
"Academic studies of mythology often define mythology as deeply valued stories that explain
a society's existence and world order: those narratives of a society's creation, the society's
origins and foundations, their god(s), their original heroes, mankind's connection to the
"divine", and their narratives of eschatology (what happens in the "after-life")."
The second from Dictionary.com is clearly pejorative. The notion that one could believe things that are false, or which have not been supported by evidence can meet with the retort, 'that's just a myth', or a legend. This reflects how we look back on myths now. The other two, show us how richly embedded they were in their societies and their importance as explanation.
Why Ancient Cultures had Myths
So, a myth is a story that is not true (but was perhaps once regarded as history), which refers to a remote time,, and which aims to explain something, such as :
early history (but this goes beyond mere narrative)
political and social practices
I. Natural Phenomena
Before science, myths were a way of explaining the natural world. The most well-known is perhaps the abduction of Persephone by Hades. Following an appeal to Zeus by her devastated mother Demeter, Persephone was allowed to be with her mother for six months of the year, but had to return to her husband, Hades, for the other six months. (Must have been Hell!) The myth might well explain the seasons: Autumn and Winter reflect the growing sadness of Demeter, goddess of the harvest, when vegetation gradually withers and dies; Spring and Summer emanate from the rejoicing goddess who has her daughter back.
A favourite of mine is the myth of the Typhon or Typheus. A grim monster with one-hundred heads, he and the giants fought alongside the Titans and Chronos, against Zeus and the Olympians. Defeated, he was cast into the Underworld, Hades, into the darkest, nastiest part, Tartarus, where unimaginable punishments were meted out to the residents. But in other versions, he was imprisoned under Mount Etna. Etna’s rumblings and eruptions reflect the rising of the angry giant as he rails against his imprisonment. Volcanic eruptions and their tremors are his strainings and strugglings. The wonderful Greek poet Pindar, praising the great ruler Hieron of Syracuse (as Hieron of Aetna, here), exquisitely conjures up the dramatic visual consequences of the grumpy giant:
“ But now the sea-girt heights above Cyme and Sicily press down upon
his shaggy chest. And the heavenly pillar, the sky, keep him bound…and the monster
casts into the air the most dreaded jets of fire.”
A similar mythic explanation of volcanic activity is the Hawaiian myth of the goddess Pele, who set fire to an entire forest, angry that her sister had made love to the man she also loved.
One could also argue that the properties of the Greek gods are also part of the mythic explanation of natural phenomena, for example, Zeus and the weather, Poseidon and the sea.
My final example in this section comes from Pindar. Honouring Damagetes of Rhodes in his seventh Olympian Ode, Pindar recounts the beautiful myth of Rhodes’ emergence from the sea. When the spheres of the world were divided among the brothers Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, land, sea, and the Underworld, respectively, Helios the sun god was absent and no portion was allotted to him. However, Helios did not begrudge the others their shares, despite Zeus offering to redraw the lots. Helios had his eye on a stretch of land as yet under the sea, with rich and fertile potential. He raised Rhodes from the sea and Zeus agreed to this being Helios’ lot, thus explaining why Helios was particularly important at Rhodes. Pindar writes:
“And from the watery sea grew an island, which the birth-giving father of the
piercing rays holds, lord of the fire-breathing horses.”
Though these myths may seem silly to us now, I should like to suggest that the human quest for explanation and understanding is very similar to that which drives scientific discovery.
II. Cautionary Tales
“Look what happens if you do ‘x’.” Many myths give something of a warning. The Greek myth of Hippolytus can be read as just such a tale (read Euripides’ play if you haven’t already, it’s fantastic). The essential message is a simple one: don’t anger one of the gods by rejecting her worship. It is all about angry Aphrodite punishing or rather getting her revenge on Hippolytus, who actually condemned worshipping her priding himself on his extreme purity (hey, he wants to do away with women altogether and sell children in temples for gold and silver, so abhorrent is the notion of sex with a female to him) and favouring the virgin Artemis. His hubristic arrogance brings down her wrath. Hippolytus is torn to bits on rocks after his chariot horses take fright when a bull sent by Poseidon emerges from the sea. The bull was called up by Theseus, who believed Hippolytus had attacked his wife Phaedra.
An episode from the Trojan War also contains a cautionary element. Athena, angered by the attempted rape of Cassandra by Ajax, son of Oileus (not the famous Ajax, he was son of Telamon), plots her revenge on the entire Greek fleet. She calls upon her uncle Poseidon for help in stirring up a ghastly storm to wreak havoc on the returning ships. Daddy Zeus had leant her the thunderbolt and she is ready for action. Her plotting is dramatically depicted by Euripides as the opening scene to his heart-wrenching play, Trojan Women, although the storm will not occur until after the end of the play’s action. Anyway, Athena whips up the storm against the Greeks as they return home. She parts the sea to reveal and series of sharp spines, impales Ajax and also shoots him through with the lightning bolt. Yep, you don’t want to get on her bad side.
There are many others. The myth of Croesus cautions against being spurred on by excessive confidence and arrogance to the point of destruction, essentially hubris. Buoyed by his imperial success, Croesus casts his eyes over the kingdom of Persia, then ruled by Cyrus. He consults the Delphic oracle, asking whether he should invade. Upon receiving the response, ‘if you go to war against Persia, a great empire will be destroyed’, he thinks he cannot lose and prepares for war. Well, he loses. Enough said.
III. Early History
The line between the actual early history of ancient societies and myths was undeniably blurred. Likely, the truth is somewhere in between. The essential core of the story is true, but has become embroidered with time. The Trojan War was very likely inspired by a genuine historical event, a war that saw a mighty city destroyed. The enormity of the event ensured it was immortalised in the tales of men. However, I am not sure heroes with weak ankles, gods dotting around the battlefield in disguise, talking prophetic horses, and divinely made armour were necessarily the reason for the mighty city’s fall. That said, it is a wonderful story, colourful and exciting, yet with a deeply human message.
Early Roman history is interesting here. How historical actually is it? Well, it’s impossible to say, but it is highly likely that the kings may have been real figures, not necessarily, some of the stories surrounding them. For example, the story of Romulus and Remus being the twin sons of Mars after he lay with their Vestal Virgin mother, Rhea, is rather less likely, even if it is a fascinating mythical detail, clearly designed to explain the mighty warrior race Rome became. Then there is Romulus being hidden by a cloud and whisked up to heaven by a whirlwind during a senatorial meeting (swords and sandals meets Twister). The myth explains how Romulus came to be worshipped as the god Quirinus in Rome, hence the word for Roman citizens, Quirites.
IV. Origins of Political and Social Practices
Myths can also explain not just natural phenomena, but the origins of deeply engrained religious and cultural practices. Numa’s purchase of the Sibylline books from an old woman who drive a hard bargain explains the great reverence they were held in by the Romans, who even appointed special priests to guard them. The books were Rome’s go to manual in a time of crisis for advice about how to placate the gods. They made just such a consultation during the Hannibalic War, resulting in the incorporation of the Pergamene cult of Cybele, known in Rome as the Magna Mater, into Roman religion. The Romans had been instructed to import a cult from a kindred people. They interpreted this as Pergamum, which they believed to be connected to their Trojan ancestors.
The foundation myth of Athens lay behind the Panathenaia festival, which celebrated patron goddess, Athena. It occurred every year, with the Great Panathenaia occurring every four years. It was believed to have been founded by Erechtheus an early king of Athens, who was reared by Athena. He was the son of Hephaestus and Gaia, the earth, after an angry Athena wiped Hephaestus’ semen from her thigh and cast it down onto the earth (what these gods got up to!!!). Erechtheus was, therefore, also worshipped as an Athenian hero at the Panathenaia. One way the Athenians referred to themselves was as the Erechtheidai (sons of Erechtheus).
Some myths seek to validate political and social beliefs or identities. One such type of myth is the myth of autochthony. This means that a race of people is sprung from the land where they still live and that they are, therefore, the true original dwellers. The Athenians believed in just such a myth about themselves, queried by Herodotus in his first book with his account of migrations to Attica. There was a Theban myth that Cadmus grew his first citizens from the teeth of a giant serpent that he slayed. Examples of myths justifying political and social hierarchies can also be found.
How were myths used, shaped, changed, and Why? (17/08/2021)
By this, I mean, how were myths used, re-fashioned and re-imagined, and adapted at different periods by the cultures they came from. They were malleable and different versions could co-exist, or even be tweaked by an author for their own particular purposes. In Greek Tragedy, mythical stories provide the backdrop for these gripping dramas. In the Odyssey, Clytaemnestra’s motive for killing Agamemnon is her affair with Aegisthus, and he is very much the main perpetrator. Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, the first play of the Oresteia, presents us with a much more complicated twist. Clytaemnestra has become the prime plotter, whereas Aegisthus is something of a wimpy tag-along. Her main motive, however, is not sexual. One of the most moving and horrifying scenes in all of Greek drama is narrated by the chorus in the play’s opening choral ode (parodos). They sing of the beginning of the expedition against Troy. With the army stranded at Aulis, awaiting a favourable wind for their journey, the Greek leaders, Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus, resolve to consult the prophet Calchas, who informs them of the anger of pro-Trojan Artemis. The only way to appease her and get favourable sailing conditions is to execute a virgin. Agamemnon interprets this as his daughter, Iphigeneia. He hesitates at first, but then overcome by fear of losing face in front of his army, Iphigeneia’s fate is sealed. The scene where she is led bound, gagged, and crying to the altar, glancing terrified at the watching troops. No one comes to her aid, and her blood is spilled. And this is what drives Clytaemnestra. Why did Aeschylus do this? It makes the play far more interesting. It also becomes more uncomfortable for an audience torn between despising a woman who killed her husband (marriage was after all the be all and end all for Athenian women) and being disgusted at a man who killed his daughter for honour and glory. Myth was the perfect setting for uncomfortable questions that were relevant to the watching audience.
Historical settings were a no-no at Athens. Tragedian Phrynichus had been the last to bring an historically based drama to Dionysus’ stage with his Sack of Miletus, 494 a quite recent episode from the current Persian wars. It caused so much distress to the Athenian audience that he was fined.
Myth could also solve a writer’s problems in approaching a work. Virgil was faced with no easy task in composing the Aeneid. Copying Homer was one thing. But doing in a way that praised Augustus and the peace and harmony he had brought Rome, was a Herculean ask. How on earth was he going to do it? He couldn’t exactly have Augustus wandering around a battlefield, Minerva coming down and whispering in his ear, her donning the disguise of Cleopatra to trick Antony, and tipping over a ship. One might expect something of that sort in Ovid. It would look ridiculous. His solution was ingenious. He took his setting from Homer, the aftermath of the Trojan War, and focused on Rome’s foundation myth, that is of the people who would become the Romans, Aeneas and his band of survivors from Troy. The poem looks ahead in anticipation of the glory that was to come. Aeneas must press on bravely to ensure a future that he will never see. This stoic and dutiful warrior, putting his people before all else, would have resonated with Romans. Such were the values that they attributed to their ancestors. Augustus gets his moment of divinely supported glory as Actium graces the shield of Aeneas in book VIII, modelled on that of Achilles in book XVIII of the Iliad. What he created remains one of the most moving poems ever written.
One thing I hope you have noticed from some of the earlier sections is the parallels between myths of different peoples and civilisations. Comparative mythology (CM henceforth) is a fruitful and illuminating area of study. CM looks at the following:
· Parallel myths in different mythologies
· Possible explanations for the similarity
· Differences in similar myths
· Whether one culture may have influenced another, or whether the myths rose
independently. Explanations behind the origins and meanings of the myths
Specific parallels in myths include:
· Gods, heroes and warriors
· Family, brothers, father and son
· Good versus evil
I could go on, but I refer you to the following excellent book if you want to delve into the fascinating world of CM: Puhvel, J., (1987) Comparative Mythology (Johns Hopkins).
Puhvel knows far more than I do.
I shall end with a particularly prevalent parallel myth: Flood Myths. I include here five different, yet similar flood myths from the Incas to India, Ancient Greece to the Maori people of New Zealand.
Flood Myths from around the World
1. Noah’s Flood
Noah, favoured by god as truly good and one who obeyed his commandments was ordered to build an ark in which to house and protect his wife, his three sons (Shem, Ham and Japhet) and their wives from destruction by the flood that god would send to eradicate the sinners. Noah would rebuild the world.
When the storm ceased, Noah sent out a raven, first to see whether the seas had subsided. The creature soon returned. A dove was sent out twice, first time returning with nothing, the second retuning after three days with an olive branch. The ark would eventually come to settle on Mount Ararat.
2. Unu Pachakuti
In Incan mythology, Viracocha, the creator god, sent a flood called Unu Pachakuti to destroy the people dwelling around Lake Titicaca. Only two people were saved to bring civilisation to the rest of the world. The humans killed were turned into stones. Some versions of the myth have the chosen man and woman surviving in a wooden box that floats to Lake Titicaca.
3. Ruatupu (Maori)
Ruatupu was, according to the tradition the second eldest son of Uenuku, the great chief. Ruatupu considered that his father had belittled him by raising his half-brother Kahutia-te-rangi above him in status. Ruatupu took his brother and many young sons of the nobility out in his canoe, where he drowned them by sinking the canoe. However, Kahutia-te-rangi was saved by a humpback whale Paikea and was renamed after his saviour creature.
Meanwhile, in a second act of vengeance, convinced the gods to destroy the land and all who lived in it. Paikea was saved by the goddess Moa-kuru-manu. He was the sole survivor as Ruatupu drowned in the flood, with his bowels becoming the first jellyfish.
4. Philemon and Baucis (Greek)
Zeus and Hermes, wishing to test the hospitality (xenia or guest friendship was a very important institution and practice to the Greeks) of the inhabitants of a certain village, arrived at the village in disguise. They are disguised as travellers and arrive at evening time to ask for a meal and somewhere to stay for the night. They are turned away by all the inhabitants except one. When they knock on the door of the humblest dwelling, the home of old Philemon and his wife Baucis, who willingly receive the gods offering them food and a place to sleep.
Whilst preparing a meal, Philemon notices the wine glasses refilling by themselves and begins to realise that the so-called travellers are gods.
Finally, Zeus and Hermes reveal themselves and say that Philemon and Baucis are blessed and will survive the disaster to come. The gods lead the old couple to a hill outside their village and they watch as the village floods. All the inhabitants apart from them are killed. Upon the hill suddenly rises a temple to the two gods, where Philemon and Baucis are to as priest and priestess. At the end of their lives, because of their piety, Philemon and Baucis are granted their one wish – not to see the other die. They are turned into trees with intertwining branches.
The story is charmingly recounted by Ovid in the eighth book of his Metamorphoses.. This is a more local flood myth, but a version of the Great Flood also appears in Ovid, that is the myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha.
5. Manu and Matsya (Indian)
The earliest surviving version of this flood myth appears in the Shatapatha Brahmana, a sacred text describing Vedic rituals. Matsya, an incarnation of Vishnu, in which he lived as a fish, warned Manu about a flood threatened by the gods and ordered him to build a boat and collect all the grains of the world into it. Manu safely boards the boat, which Matsya pulls to safety as the rest of the world is destroyed. In some versions, Manu is accompanied in the boat by the seven sages. In one version, Manu is also said to have had three sons before the flood (Charma, Sharma, Yapeti). The flood is not sent as a divine punishment in this myth. The flood is seen as an inevitable occurrence in the order of the world. However, Manu is saved by the gods for his piety.