Mythology is the study and interpretation of myth and the body of myths of a particular culture. Myth is a complex cultural phenomenon that can be approached from a number of viewpoints. In general, myth is a narrative that describes and portrays in symbolic language the origin of the basic elements and assumptions of a culture. Mythic narrative relates, for example, how the world began, how humans and animals were created, and how certain customs, gestures, or forms of human activities originated. Almost all cultures possess or at one time possessed and lived in terms of myths.
Myths differ from fairy tales in that they refer to a time that is different from ordinary. The time sequence of myth is extraordinary- an “other” time – the time before the conventional world came into being. Because myths refer to an extraordinary time and place and to gods and other supernatural beings and processes, they have usually been seen as aspects of religion. Because of the inclusive nature of myth, however, it can illustrate many aspects of individual and cultural life.
Meaning and interpretation
From the beginnings of Western culture, myth has presented a problem of meaning and interpretation, and a history of controversy has gathered about both the value and the status of mythology.
Myth, History, and Reason
In the Greek heritage of the West, myth or mythos has always been in tension with reason or logos, which signified the sensible and analytic mode of arriving at a true account of reality. The Greek philosophers Xenophanes, Plato, and Aristotle, for example, exalted reason and made sarcastic criticisms of myth as a proper way of knowing reality.
The distinctions between reason and myth and between myth and history, although essential, were never quite absolute. Aristotle concluded that in some of the early Greek creation myths, logos and mythos overlapped. Plato used myths as metaphors and also as literary devices in developing an argument.
Western Mythical Traditions
The debate over whether myth, reason, or history best expresses the meaning of the reality of the gods, humans, and nature has continued in Western culture as a legacy from its earliest traditions. Among these traditions were the myths of the Greeks. Adopted and assimilated by the Romans, they furnished literary, philosophical, and artistic inspiration to such later periods as the Renaissance and the romantic era. The pagan tribes of Europe furnished another body of tradition. After these tribes became part of Christendom, elements of their mythologies persisted as the folkloric substratum of various European cultures.
Greek religion and mythology are supernatural beliefs and ritual observances of the ancient Greeks, commonly related to a diffuse and contradictory body of stories and legends. The most notable features of this religion were many gods having different personalities having human form and feelings, the absence of any established religious rules or authoritative revelation such as, for example, the Bible, the strong use of rituals, and the government almost completely subordinating the population’s religious beliefs. Apart from the mystery cults, most of the early religions in Greece are not solemn or serious in nature nor do they contain the concepts of fanaticism or mystical inspiration, which were Asian beliefs and did not appear until the Hellenistic period (about 323-146 B.C.). At its first appearance in classical literature, Greek mythology had already received its definitive form. Some divinities were either introduced or developed more fully at a later date, but in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey the major Olympian gods appear in substantially the forms they retained until paganism ceased to exist. Homer usually is considered responsible for the highly developed personifications of the gods and the comparative rationalism that characterized Greek religious thought. In general Greek gods were divided into those of heaven, earth, and sea; frequently, however, the gods governing the earth and sea constituted a single category.
The celestial gods were thought to dwell in the sky or on Mount Olympus in Thessaly. The Earth, or chthonic (Gr. chtho n, “earth”), deities were thought to dwell on or under the earth, and were closely associated with the heroes and the dead. The lines separating these divine orders were indefinite, and the deities of one order were often found in another. The gods were held to be immortal; yet they were also believed to have had a beginning. They were represented as exercising control over the world and the forces of nature. Ananke, the personification of necessity, however, limited this control, to which even the gods bowed.
At the head of the divine hierarchy was Zeus, the spiritual father of gods and men. His wife was Hera, queen of heaven and guardian of the sanctity of marriage. Associated with them as the chief divinities of heaven were Hephaestus, god of fire and the patron of metalworkers; Athena, the virgin goddess of wisdom and war, preeminent as a civic goddess; Apollo, deity of light, poetry, and music, and his sister Artemis, goddess of wildlife and, later, of the moon; Ares, god of war, and his consort, Aphrodite, goddess of love; Hermes, the divine messenger, later, god of science and invention; and Hestia, goddess of the hearth and home. Around these greater gods and goddesses were grouped a host of lesser deities, some of whom enjoyed particular distinction in certain localities. Among them were Helios, the sun; Selene, the moon (before Artemis came into existence); the attendants of the Olympians, such as the Graces; the Muses; Iris, goddess of the rainbow; Hebe, goddess of youth and cupbearer of the gods; and Ganymede, the male counterpart of Hebe. Poseidon, the worship of whom was often accompanied by worship of his wife, Amphitrite, ruled the sea. Attending the sea gods were the Nereids, Tritons, and other minor sea deities.
The chief earth deities were Hades, ruler of the underworld, and his wife, Persephone, the daughter of Demeter. Demeter herself was usually considered an Olympian, but since she was associated with producing grain and the knowledge of agriculture; she was more closely connected with the earth. Another Olympian whose functions were likewise of an earthly character was Dionysus, god of the grape and of wine. He was accompanied by satyrs, the horsetailed sylvan demigods; Sileni, the plump, bald vintage deities; and maenads, nymphs who celebrated the orgiastic rites of Dionysus. Also among the more important divinities of the Greek pantheon were Gaea, the earth mother; Asclepius, the god of healing; and Pan, the great Arcadian god of flocks, pastures, and forests.
Invocation of the Gods
The ancient Greeks had a strong sense of weakness before the grand and terrifying powers of nature, and they acknowledged their dependence on the divine beings whom they believed those powers to be controlled. In general, the relations between gods and mortals were cordial, divine wrath being reserved for those who transgressed the limits assigned to human activities and who, by being proud, ambitious, or even by being too prosperous, provoked divine displeasure and brought upon themselves Nemesis, the personification of revengeful justice. The saying of the historian Herodotus, “The god suffers none but himself to be proud” sums up the main philosophy that influences all of classical Greek literature. The sense of human limitation was a basic feature of Greek religion; the gods, the sole source of the good or evil that fell upon mortals, were approached only by making sacrifices and giving thanks for past blessings or pleading for future favors.
In front of many a street door stood a stone for Apollo Agyieus (Apollo of the Thoroughfare); in the courtyard was placed the altar of Zeus Herkeios (Zeus as the patron of family ties); at the hearth Hestia was worshiped; and bedchamber, kitchen, and storeroom each had its appropriate god. From birth to death the ancient Greek invoked the gods on every memorable occasion. Because the very existence of the government was believed to depend on divine favor, celebrations for the gods were held regularly under the supervision of high officials. Public gratitude was expressed for being unexpectedly delivered from evil happenings or for being unusually prosperous.
Organization and Beliefs
Despite its central position in both private and public life, Greek religion was notably lacking in an organized professional priesthood. At the sites of the mysteries, as at Eleusis, and the oracles, as at Delphi, the priests exercised great authority, but usually they were merely official representatives of the community, chosen as other officers were, or sometimes permitted to buy their position. Even when the office was hereditary or confined to a certain family, it was not regarded as conferring upon its possessor any particular knowledge of the will of the gods or any special power to constrain them. The Greeks saw no need for an intermediary between themselves and their gods.
Greek ideas about the soul and the afterlife were indefinite, but it was apparently the popular belief that the soul survived the body. It either hovered about the tomb or departed to a region where it led a sad existence needing the offerings brought by relatives. The disembodied soul was also presumed to have the power of inflicting injury on the living, and proper funeral rites were held to ensure the peace and goodwill of the deceased.
Within the framework of Greek worship of many gods are traces of the belief that all natural objects are endowed with spirits. Fetishism, the belief in the magical efficacy of objects employed as talismans against evil, was another feature of early Greek religion. Examples of fetishes are the sacred stones, sometimes regarded as images of specific deities, such as the pyramidal Zeus at Phlius or the rough stones called the Graces at the ruined city of Orchomenus in Boeotia.
Ancient Greek religion has been the subject of speculation and research from classic times to the present. Herodotus believed that the rites of many of the gods had been derived from the Egyptians. Prodicus of Ceos (5th cent. B.C. ), a Sophist philosopher, seems to have taught that the gods were simply personifications of natural phenomena, such as the sun, moon, winds, and water. Euhemerus (370?-298 B.C. ), a historian of myths believed, and many other shared this belief, that myths were the distortions of history and that gods were the idealized heroes of the past. Modern etymology and anthropology research produced the theory that Greek religion resulted from a combination of Indo-European beliefs and ideas and customs native to the Mediterranean countries since the original inhabitants of those lands were conquered by Indo-European invaders.
The basic elements of classical Greek religion were, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, somewhat modified and supplemented by the influences of philosophy, Middle Eastern cults, and changes in popular belief (as shown, for instance, in the rise of the cult of Fortune, or Tyche). The main outlines of the official religion, however, remained unchanged.
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