Greek Mythology Critical Essays

Introduction

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Greek Mythology

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.