The Muses and some of the greek mythology
Muses, in Greek mythology, nine
goddesses, daughters of the god Zeus, king of the gods, and of Mnemosyne,
the goddess of memory. The Muses were believed to inspire all artists,
especially poets, philosophers, and musicians. By late Roman times
(3rd century to 5th century), each Muse was believed to preside over
a particular art: Calliope was the muse of epic poetry; Clio of history;
Euterpe of lyric poetry sung to the accompaniment of the flute; Melpomene
of tragedy; Terpsichore of choral songs and the dance; Erato of love
poetry sung to the accompaniment of the lyre; Polyhymnia of sacred
poetry; Urania of astronomy; and Thalia of comedy.
The Muses were said to be the companions of the Graces and of Apollo,
the god of music. They sat near the throne of Zeus and sang of his
greatness and of the origin of the world and its inhabitants and the
glorious deeds of the great heroes. The Muses were worshiped throughout
ancient Greece, especially at Helicon in Boeotia and at Pieria in
You can find a useful link about the Muses here.
Graces (Greek goddesses), in Greek
mythology, the three goddesses of joy, charm, and beauty. The daughters
of the god Zeus and the nymph Eurynome, they were named Aglaia (Splendor),
Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Good Cheer). The Graces presided over
banquets, dances, and all other pleasurable social events, and brought
joy and goodwill to both gods and mortals. They were the special attendants
of the divinities of love, Aphrodite and Eros, and together with companions,
the Muses, they sang to the gods on Mount Olympus, and danced to beautiful
music that the god Apollo made upon his lyre. In some legends Aglaia
was wed to Hephaestus, the craftsman among the gods. Their marriage
explains the traditional association of the Graces with the arts;
like the Muses, they were believed to endow artists and poets with
the ability to create beautiful works of art. The Graces were rarely
treated as individuals, but always together as a kind of triple embodiment
of grace and beauty. In art they are usually represented as lithe
young maidens, dancing in a circle
Greek Mythology, set of diverse traditional tales told by the ancient
Greeks about the exploits of gods and heroes and their relations with
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 honor it built temples. The temple generally housed
a statue of the god or gods. The Greeks honored 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.
II 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 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
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 Elevsis 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
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
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 (see Pelasgians). 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
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 (see Hercules) 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 labors, 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 neighboring 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.
III 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
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
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 ankle. 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.
IV 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
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 savor 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 honor 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 honor.
The dramatic genre of tragedy provides the clearest example of mythical
exploration (see see Greek Literature; Drama and Dramatic Arts). 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's
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
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.
V 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 Mycenaeans
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
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 (see Greek literature), 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, 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 (see Persian Wars).
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 (323-331 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 (see Greek Art and Architecture).
Among the best-known examples are the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon
in Athens. These reliefs include depictions of combat between centaurs
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.
VI 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 skepticism 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 behavior.
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
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. Computer
games (see Electronic Games) and science fiction frequently use combat-
or quest-oriented story patterns that have clear parallels in classical
mythology. Greek myths developed in a specific ancient society, but
the emotional and intellectual content of the stories has proved adaptable
to a broad range of cultural contexts.