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Edith Hamilton's Mythology

by Edith Hamilton

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What do myths reveal about ancient Greek society's values?

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Hamilton, writing in an earlier era less sensitive to cultural difference than our own, contrasts Greek myths to those fear-based myths of "primitive man," such as in "New Guinea," where human sacrifice and magic appease irrational gods. The Greeks are different:

Of course the Greeks too had their roots in the primeval slime. Of course they too once lived a savage life, ugly and brutal. But what the myths show is how high they had risen above the ancient filth and fierceness by the time we have any knowledge of them. 

The Greek myths, according to Hamilton, show that the early Greeks valued humanity as the center of the universe and valued rationality. She argues that no matter how fantastic the myths are, they are never irrational but reflect an empirical reality:

The exact spot where Aphrodite was born of the foam could be visited by any ancient tourist; it was just offshore from the island of Cythera. 

There is likewise no astrology and very little magic (humans with supernatural power) in Greek myths. There are also no ghosts in these stories.

The Greek myths, although more rational than other myths, also showed the Greeks' yearning to understand the divine and their groping through often amoral gods and goddesses toward a higher concept of godhead:

The Greeks from the earliest mythologists on had a perception of the divine and the excellent. Their longing for them was great enough to make them never give up laboring to see them clearly, until at last the thunder and lightning were changed into the Universal Father.

Thus, the Greek myths show the Greeks valuing humanism, rationalism and wisdom/understanding. 

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By and large, Hamilton is not necessarily concerned with Greek myths as windows to Greek culture, and she believes that many of the Roman writers who translated Greek myths did not take them seriously at all as religious texts or stories. Yet she still believes that they reflect something about the Greek worldview. In the Introduction to Mythology, Hamilton suggests that the "Greeks made their gods in their own image," an inversion of a Judeo-Christian belief that is intended to suggest that we can learn much about Greek values from studying their mythology. Ultimately, Hamilton believes Greek civilization to be superior to that of other contemporary cultures, many of which she views to be "savage" and unenlightened. So where other cultures (including, she seems to suggest, early Christians) lived under the "paralyzing fear of an omnipotent Unknown," Greeks imagined their deities as both beautiful and flawed, noble and capricious, just like humans themselves. "The early Greek mythologists transformed a world full of fear into a world full of beauty," Hamilton argues, and this reflects a deep sense of humanism and even reason among the ancient Greeks. 

Source: Edith Hamilton, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (New York: Mentor Books, 1969) 13-23.

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Greek mythology probably developed to account for ancient ritual practices. It would be a mistake to regard the contents of myths as reflecting the surrounding culture accurately, as many myths reflect rituals far pre-dating the narrative accounts developed to account for them. In general, myths describe not the relationships among himans in a society, but the proper attitude towards the gods, and what the gods require of their followers. The Greek myths emphasize that the gods are unpredicatable and easily offended. It is best not to come to the attention of the gods. Instead, one should perform the rquired rituals or sacrifices, and avoid incurring the wrath of the gods by violating their decrees or becoming ritually polluted by unclean acts. Since excessive favour from one god might provoke jealousy of another god, moderation and equal treatment of all gods is a good policy. One should not even neglect gods one does not know, but make offerings at the altar of the unknown gods just to be safe.

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