Greek mythology has been variously interpreted and analyzed almost since its beginnings, and its origins have been as widely debated as the myths themselves have been interpreted. The difficulty in identifying the origins of Greek myths stems from the fact that, until the time of the Greek poets Hesiod and Homer (both of whom flourished around the eighth century B.C.), the transmission of myths was primarily an oral affair. Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days, in addition to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, are the oldest extant written sources of Greek mythology, and most scholars agree that certain mythological elements in each can be dated to a much earlier period. Many scholars also concede that certain elements of these works have definite Near Eastern parallels, but the extent to which such parallels indicate that Near Eastern myths served as a source for Greek myths remains an issue of critical debate. In addition to studying the age and origins of Greek mythology, modern scholars have also examined such topics as the relationship between myth and history, the themes and motifs of Greek myths, and the treatment of women in Greek mythology.
In searching for the origins of Greek mythology, Martin P. Nilsson first makes a distinction between the myths dealing with heroes and those concerned with divinity and cosmogony, stressing that it is erroneous to assume that "the hero myths were derived from the same source as the myths concerning the gods." Nilsson contends that while divinity myths may indeed have "pre-Greek" origins, the heroic myth cycles as found in Greek epics can be dated back to the epoch known as the Mycenaean Age (1950 to 1100 B.C.) in Greece. Such critics as Richard Caldwell and Robert Mondi are more concerned with the Near Eastern origins of Greek creation myths. Mondi examines this issue by focussing not on the textual transmission of myths, but on the diffusion of "mythic ideas" or motifs. Such ideas include the "cosmic separation of earth and sky," the hierarchical organization of the cosmos, and the "cosmic struggle" by which divine kingship is attained. Mondi concludes by stating that elements in Greek myths are "derived from contact with the considerably more advanced cultures to the East and South."
The analysis of the historical aspects of mythology, specifically the heroic myths, is another way mythology is studied. H. J. Rose begins his study of mythology by noting that "it is very clear that we cannot take [myths], as they stand, as historically true, or even as slightly idealized or exaggerated history." Rose then goes on to review (and invalidate) other approaches to mythology, including attempts to view myths allegorically, rationally, and "euhemeristically" (euhemerism being a school of thought in which mythical gods are viewed as deified human men). Carlo Brillante, on the other hand, examines the ways the ancient Greeks viewed mythology, and argues that mythical heroes were regarded as historical figures by the Greeks. Brillante contends that the Greeks distinguished heroic myths as being situated in "a well-defined past," as a part of the human world, and as separate from those myths which focus on the "age of the gods." He then considers whether an historical approach, similar to that taken by the ancient Greeks, is "adequate" today, and outlines the drawbacks and benefits of various types of historical analyses.
G. S. Kirk breaks down the traditional groupings of gods and heroes sketched by earlier critics even further. For Kirk, divinity myths include those that deal with the creation of the universe (cosmogony); with the development of the Olympian gods; and with the creation of men, man's place in the world, and his relationship with the gods. Kirk divides hero myths into three categories as well: those that deal with older heroes (in myths set in a "timeless past," long before the Trojan War); with younger heroes (in myths set in a time close to or during the Trojan War); and later "inventions" based on "definitely historical figures." In his study of the divinity myths, Richard Buxton identifies several characteristics of Greek gods as well as the prevalent themes of these types of myths. Buxton notes that Greek gods appear as neither good nor evil, but simply as powerful, and that conflict arises between gods and mortals when imbalances of power occur or when mortals overstep their boundaries. The most common themes of these myths include violence, deception, negotiation, reciprocity, and honor. Edward F. Edinger takes another approach in his analysis of the cosmogonical myths; he examines them from a psychological standpoint, noting what the myths appear to demonstrate about the nature of the conscious and unconscious mind. Edinger argues that in these myths, whenever a being is brought from an unconscious state into a conscious one, a split into opposites occurs, and that conflict invariably results; unity is only present in the unconscious state.
In analyzing the hero myths, Kirk details the exploits of some of the more prominent Greek heroes, including Perseus, Theseus, Oedipus, and Odysseus. He notes that many elements in these myths were added on to older motifs over time. Some of the common folktale motifs Kirk identifies, for example, in the Perseus myths, include: escaping danger as a baby, defending one's mother against a seducer, a quest that is meant to be fatal but is not, magical devices used during the quest, the rescuing of a princess, and the accidental killing of a relative. Kirk uses various motifs to attempt to date some elements in these myths, contending that the hero myths demonstrate greater narrative complexity than divinity myths. While the heroic figures Kirk studies are all male, Deborah Lyons argues for the recognition of female heroes, such as Helen, Semele, and Iphigeneia, demonstrating how these meet the typical criteria established for male heroes. Additionally, Lyons cites a number of sources from which evidence of mythical heroines and cults of heroines may be deduced.
Just as Lyons asserts the case for the acknowledgment and study of heroines, Charlene Spretnak champions the cause of early Greek goddesses. Spretnak argues that prior to the establishment of the patriarchal Olympic mythological tradition, which developed after early Greece was invaded by the lonians, the Achaeans, and later by the Dorians, who took up residence from about 2500 to 1000 B.C., there existed an oral tradition "firmly rooted" in "Goddess worship." The goddesses of these matriarchal pre-Hellenic myths were both powerful and compassionate, but Spretnak notes that when they were incorporated into the Olympian myths, they were transformed into jealous, disagreeable, sexual objects. Robert Emmet Meagher also examines how early myths depicting women as birth goddesses and creators were subverted by the later mythological system and by the poet Hesiod into beings created by male gods for the purpose of bringing misery and death to human males as a punishment. In a different approach to the role of women in Greek mythology, C. Kerényi studies the nature of the Kore, or maiden goddess, in Greek myth. Kerényi discusses both the subjugation of the maiden goddess, as in the rape of Persephone, and the power of the bond between mother and daughter, as demonstrated by Demeter's descent into the Underworld to recover her daughter, Persephone.
The scholars who study Greek mythology appear to agree on little with regard to the origin and early developments of myth, except perhaps that parallels between Greek myths and Near Eastern myths exist. As far as interpretation goes, clearly no one can say with any confidence what a given myth "means." Rather, scholars can only suggest ways to approach myth, suggesting that it be analyzed allegorically, historically, or psychologically, for example. Whatever their approach, scholars and students alike continue to find in these ancient tales an endless source of inspiration, analysis, and discussion.
H. J. Rose (essay date 1928)
SOURCE: Introduction to A Handbook of Greek Mythology, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1928, pp. 1-16.
[In the following essay, Rose reviews the various approaches that have been taken to interpret Greek mythology. He also distinguishes between several types of myth, including "myth proper," saga, and märchen (folktales).]
We use the word mythology to signify the study of certain products of the imagination of a people, which take the form of tales. These tales the Greeks called [mythoi], or myths, an expression which originally meant simply 'words'. The purpose of this book is to set forth what stories were produced by the active imagination of those peoples whom we collectively know as Greek, and by the narrow and sluggish imagination of the ancient inhabitants of Italy. It is well to begin by inquiring what manner of tales they were; for it is very clear that we cannot take them, as they stand, as historically true, or even as slightly idealized or exaggerated history. Full as they are of impossible events, it needs no argument to prove that they differ widely from Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War, or Hippokrates' discussions of the effect of diet on a patient. We may disbelieve some of Thucydides' statements, and we have come to consider many of Hippokrates' methods erroneous; but obviously both are trying to state facts and draw...
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Origins And Development Of Greek Mythology
Martin P. Nilsson (essay date 1932)
SOURCE: "How Old Is Greek Mythology?," in The Mycenaean Origin of Greek Mythology, University of California Press, 1932, pp. 1-34.
[In the following essay, Nilsson argues that Greek epics and the heroic myth cycles they include (rather than elements or motifs found in individual myths) can be dated to the Mycenaean age (1950 to 1100 B.C.).]
The question: How old is Greek mythology? may at first sight seem idle, for Greek mythology is obviously of many different ages. For example, many genealogies and eponymous heroes created for political purposes are late, such inventions having been made through the whole historical age of Greece; yet most of them are earlier than the very late myths like the campaigns of Dionysus, or the great mass of the metamorphoses, especially the catasterisms, which were invented in the Hellenistic age. The great tragic poets reshaped the myths and left their imprint upon them, so that the forms in which the myths are commonly known nowadays often have been given them by tragedy. Similarly, before the tragic poets, the choric lyric poets reshaped them. The cyclical epics also are thought to have exercised a profound influence upon the remodeling of the myths. In Homer we find many well-known myths, often in forms differing, however, from those in which they are related later. Finally, it cannot be doubted that...
(The entire section is 18510 words.)
Cosmogonies And Divinities In Greek Mythology
G. S. Kirk (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "The Mythos of the Gods and the Early History of Men," in The Nature of Greek Myths, Penguin Books, 1974, pp. 113-44.
[In the following essay, Kirk identifies three categories of myths about Greek divinities: those dealing with the origins of the universe; those that concern the development of the Olympian gods; and those that deal with the creation of men, their place in the world, and their relationship with the gods. Kirk reviews the content, themes, and folktale-type motifs found in these types of myths.]
In considering Greek myths in detail my plan is not to attempt a complete survey, but rather to divide the myths into six categories and examine some outstanding instances in each. The first three categories are included [here].…
The categories are as follows: first the cosmogonical myths, secondly those that describe the development of the Olympian gods. These are the divine myths as a whole. Thirdly, myths concerned with the early history of men and the fixing of their place in the world, especially in relation to the gods. The fourth category contains tales of the older heroes—the heroic myths in the fullest sense; the fifth has tales of the younger and more imitative heroes, including those of legend and the great Panhellenic sagas. These are the heroic myths as a whole. Finally, the sixth category contains later...
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Heroes And Heroines In Greek Mythology
G. S. Kirk (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "The Heroes," in The Nature of Greek Myths, Penguin Books, 1974, pp. 145-75.
[In the following essay, Kirk asserts that the narrative complexity of hero myths is much greater than that of the divine myths. He then classifies hero myths as those related to older heroes (in myths set in a "timeless past long before the Trojan War"), those related to younger heroes (in myths set at a time close to or during the Trojan War), and those concerned with "definitely historical figures."]
Powerful as some of the divine myths are, it is the hero myths that constitute the most prominent and varied side of Greek traditional tales as a whole. Many other ethnic collections, perhaps most, are virtually confined to divine tales and contain few heroic ones. Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt exemplify the tendency. The Mesopotamian tales of Gilgamesh are admittedly imaginative, and important from many points of view; Egyptian heroes, on the other hand, are both few in number and predominantly legendary and realistic in character. Yet in Greece there are innumerable heroes, and they are involved in a wide variety of actions. Standard situations proliferate, but even so the total narrative complexity far outweighs that of the divine myths.
The heroes fall into an older or a younger type, according to whether their main activity is set in a timeless...
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Women In Greek Mythology
C. Kerényi (essay date 1949)
SOURCE: "Kore," in Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and The Mysteries of Eleusis, by C. G. Jung and C. Kerényi, translated by R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series, XXII, Princeton University Press, 1969, pp. 101-55.
[In the following excerpt, from an essay originally published in 1949, Kerényi analyzes the nature of "maiden goddesses" and their role and function in Greek mythology. Kerényi describes the Kore, or maiden goddess, as a paradox, in that she represents both mother and maiden, both "begetter and begotten."]
How can a man know what a woman's life is? A woman's life is quite different from a man's. God has ordered it so. A man is the same from the time of his circumcision to the time of his withering. He is the same before he has sought out a woman for the first time, and afterwards. But the day when a woman enjoys her first love cuts her in two. She becomes another woman on that day. The man is the same after his first love as he was before. The woman is from the day of her first love another. That continues so all through life. The man spends a night by a woman and goes away. His life and body are always the same. The woman conceives. As a mother she is another person than the woman without child. She carries the fruit of the night for nine months in her body. Something grows. Something grows...
(The entire section is 32670 words.)
Bremmer, Jan, ed. Interpretations of Greek Mythology. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1986, 294 p.
Collection of essays focusing on a variety of issues related to Greek mythology and its interpretation, including essays on the origins and historical aspects of Greek myth, as well as discussions of particular myths and types of myths.
Brillante, Carlo. "History and Historical Interpretation of Myth," pp. 91-140. In Approaches to Greek Myth, edited by Lowell Edmunds. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
Studies the relationship between myth and history, examining in particular the way ancient Greeks viewed myth as a means of transmitting historical events. Brillante notes that they distinguished between heroic myths and divinity myths.
Burkert, Walter, ed. Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979, 226 p.
Series of lectures designed to approach the study of myth from a variety of disciplines. Examines how myths are organized, the relationship between myth and ritual, and discusses several groups of myths.
Cook, Arthur Bernard. Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion, Volume I: Zeus, God of the Bright Sky. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1964, 885 p.
Analyzes the myths related to "Bright Zeus" as god of the "Upper Sky" and the...
(The entire section is 683 words.)