What is the relationship of classical mythology with literature and arts?

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Classical mythology has been a fertile source of artistic inspiration in the West for thousands of years. This is not surprising when one considers that Greek and Roman antiquity together provide one of the main foundations of Western civilization. Though the significance of ancient mythology has undergone considerable change across several millennia, it has always retained a certain universality, allowing it to remain relevant to myriad cultural traditions. And although classical mythology may speak to us somewhat differently today than it once did, the fact that it still speaks to us at all is a testament to its enduring relevance within Western culture and civilization.

Mythology formed the basis of much of the creative output of both Greek and Roman culture. Myths were a way for Greeks and Romans alike to tell stories about themselves to each other. In no sense were they thought of as being simple fairy-tales or boyish adventure stories, written purely for pleasure. On the contrary, they were a vitally important means for the ancients to examine and criticize certain elements of themselves, their societies, and political systems. Myths served as moral lessons, encouraging appropriate behavior, both in respect to other people and also the gods.

Works of literature substantially interwoven with myth such as Virgil's Aeneid could indeed be enjoyed as simply cracking good stories. But of far greater import was the didactic function of such works. Virgil's employment of myth in his monumental epic lends the founding of Rome a truly timeless perspective, one that transcends the immanent human world and ascends to the level of the eternal. The founding of Rome wasn't just an historical event; it was pre-ordained by the gods themselves.

As mythology was such a great inspiration for creative works of art and literature, so the myths themselves were creatively interpreted to relate them to human, earthly concerns. Take Ovid's Metamorphoses, for instance. Though certain tales from the Metamorphoses undoubtedly have more than a hint of didacticism about them (the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe springs to mind), it's the stylistic, narrative continuity of the various myths rather than their content that is most immediately apparent.

Nevertheless, in terms of their content, it's noticeable that whichever myths are being illustrated by Ovid, the subject remains the same: humans and their myriad foibles. Characters in various myths do not always act as moral exemplars for us to follow; in many cases their folly enables us to reflect upon our own moral shortcomings, the better to change our conduct as we go through life.

From the Middle Ages onwards the cultural treasures of antiquity became more widely disseminated throughout Europe. The powerful and hugely influential synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy effected by Thomas Aquinas contributed greatly to the spread of classical learning across the whole of Western Europe. In turn, this led to the incorporation of classical mythology into the creative horizons of countless writers, painters and sculptors. Some theologians continued to condemn the wisdom of antiquity, seeing it as a threat, or at the very least, a direct contradiction of Christian teaching. Yet most educated Christians came to see not just pagan learning, but classical mythology, as supplementing the Word of God as they understood it.

This more open attitude manifested itself in the Renaissance, in which classical models of just about every human endeavor were eagerly copied and emulated. In the fine arts, classical mythology provided a seemingly endless source of inspiration for artists and sculptors alike. The didactic messages often contained within ancient myths were, for the most part, entirely compatible with the dictates of Christian morality. Pagan myths could be successfully Christianized, turned into powerful visual methods of moral instruction for a largely illiterate population.

The Christian message of love's triumph over all, for example, finds exuberant expression in "The Loves of the Gods," by the Carracci brothers. This is a massive fresco cycle adorning the ceiling of the Gallery of the Farnese Palace in Rome. A variety of mythological figures are used to convey love's triumph, yet it is clear that such love trancends its depiction in the figure of pagan deities, aspiring rather to a higher, more celestial plane, Dante's love that moves the suns and the other stars.

So long as classical mythology remained a key component of Renaissance humanism and its artistic offshoots, it could continue to form an important thematic element in literature and art. Examples would include the multiple references to classical myths in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The utilization of myth was a useful way for Shakespeare to develop the story and the characters. Many in the audience will have been familiar with classical mythology and so will have been more readily able to identify with the characters on stage and their actions.

But the end of Christendom in the wake of the Reformation led to the long, slow demise of classical mythology as a source of artistic inspiration in Western Europe. Many Protestants, most notable Calvinists, were extremely hostile to anything that smacked remotely of idolatory. The lavish depictions of scenes from antiquity in the many churches and palaces of Rome were seen as symbolic of the greed, worldliness and rampant corruption of the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, classical mythology continued to exert some influence over the artistic life of Western Europe, mainly in the 18th century. Although the nature of this influence was somewhat different than in previous ages. Ancient myths were no longer seen as a handmaid to Christian morality, but as embodiments of timeless truths, eternal verities discovered by our pagan forebears and handed down to us as part of a noble bequest. To many leading members of the Enlightenment, the pagan myths expressed an ancient wisdom that had been distorted by what they saw as Christian obscurantism. The Renaissance synthesis of pagan and Christian learning was finally broken asunder, with classical ideals being followed and valued purely on their own terms.

In today's world, classical mythology tends to be regarded as a source of entertainment rather than as a repository of ancient wisdom. Countless books, comics, TV shows and movies remind us that, irrespective of their cultural significance, these myths were great stories full of memorable characters and exciting action. Any moral messages we continue to derive from ancient myths tend to be a by-product of their representation as narrative. The lessons are still there; it's just that they can often get lost beneath the lust, the magic, and the gore. Nevertheless, so long as human beings continue to tell stories, in whichever medium they choose to tell them, classical mythology will undoubtedly live on, providing us with an insight into who and what we are. And it will also provide us with a little fun and enjoyment along the way.

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