Greek Mythology Overviews - Essay


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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 reasonable conclusions therefrom. What are we to say of the tellers of these quite unbelievable, although picturesque legends, and of those who heard and more or less credited them? It is here that opinions differ most widely, and have differed in the past.1

1. The Allegorical Theory.

One of the most ancient explanations is that these tales of wonder are allegories, concealing some deep and edifying meaning, which the wisdom of primeval sages prompted them to hide in this manner, either to prevent great truths passing into the hands of persons too ignorant or too impious to use them aright, or to attract by stories those who would not listen to a dry and formal discussion. As an example, I will cite the interpretation given of a well-known myth, the Judgment of Paris, by the so-called Sallustius.2 As he tells the story, the gods were at a banquet, when Eris (Strife, Emulation) cast among them a golden apple, inscribed 'For the Fairest'. Three goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, having all claimed it, the decision was referred by Zeus to Paris, son of Priam of Troy. Aphrodite having bribed him with the promise of the loveliest of mortal women as his wife, he decided in her favour. 'Here,' says our author, 'the banquet signifies the supramundane powers of the gods, and that is why they are together; the golden apple signifies the universe, which, as it is made of opposites, is rightly said to be thrown by Strife, and as the various gods give various gifts to the universe they are thought to vie with one another for the possession of the apple; further, the soul that lives in accordance with sense-perception (for that is Paris), seeing beauty alone and not the other powers in the universe, says that the apple is Aphrodite's.'

It needs no great amount of argument to show that such a view as this is wrong. It assumes that these early Greeks among whom the story of Paris originated possessed a systematic philosophy concerning the powers, both visible and invisible, of the universe, and also the moral duties of man. Now we know enough of their early history to be able to say that neither they nor any other people in a similar stage of development ever had any such philosophy, which is the product of ages of civilized thought. Had any system of the kind existed in the days before Homer, we may be very certain that the long series of brilliant intellects to whom the organized thought of Greece, and ultimately of modern Europe, is due, would not have had to begin at the very beginning and discover for themselves the elements of physics, of ethics, and of logic. The myth cannot be an allegory, because its originators had little or nothing to allegorize.

Still, we can see how the idea originated. In the first place, the Greeks, like most peoples, had great respect for their ancestors, and were apt to credit them with much that later generations had produced. Hence came a tendency to try to find deep wisdom in anything they were reported to have said or done. Secondly, allegory is really very old in Greece; we shall find examples in Homer and Hesiod, for instance.3 Moreover, one of the oldest forms of religious composition, the metrical answers given at oracular shrines, affected a dark and allegorical language. Hence it is no wonder that this theory, although false, gained popularity, was widely used by orthodox pagans to explain away certain features in the stories told of their gods and heroes which seemed inconsistent with a divine or exalted nature, and was in turn eagerly adopted by Jewish and Christian commentators to read sublime meanings into puzzling passages of the Old Testament.

2. The Symbolic Theory.

After lasting in various forms through the Middle Ages, this view appeared in a modified form as late as the nineteenth century. Friedrich Creuzer (1771-1858), in a very learned but very cloudy and uncritical work,4 set forth a theory which may be interpreted as follows. The ancestors of the ancient nations whose history we know,—Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, Romans and others,—possessed, not indeed a complete philosophy, but a dim and at the same time grandiose conception of certain fundamental religious truths, and in particular of monotheism. These truths their priests set forth in a series of symbols, which remained much the same for all peoples, but were hopelessly misunderstood in later times. To recover the oldest ideas, according to him, we shall do well to take those myths which seem absurdest, and try to interpret them. For myths are not the result of the artistic activity of poets, but something far older. One specimen of his methods will be enough.5 Thus, it is stated that Talos' name meant 'sun' in Cretan. His legend, says Creuzer, signifies that the Cretans set forth the beneficent powers of the sunlight under the form of a divine guardian of their island; they also, like the Phoenicians with their Moloch, symbolized his destructive power, perhaps by a human sacrifice by burning; but also they gave a moral aspect to his nature, for is it not stated that Talos was in reality a man, who went about with bronze tablets containing the laws of Minos, whose observance he enforced?

All this is very ingenious, but falls to pieces at a touch of criticism. To begin with, there is the old difficulty which beset the allegorical theory in its cruder form; we have no right to suppose either that the early Cretans had an elaborate solar philosophy or that, if they had had one, they would have expressed it in allegories. Moreover, his account of Talos is a mere jumble, made up of tags from various late or lateish authors, which Creuzer has put together into a composite picture of what never existed in the Cretan imagination or any other, save his own. He goes on to make the jumble worse by adducing further supposed parallels with which the story of Talos has in reality nothing to do. And if we look at other interpretations of myths scattered up and down his work, or similar works by his followers and predecessors, we shall find many instances of just this uncritical handling of a myth, i.e., this mixture of older and newer forms, combined with absence of any clear recognition of how stories of this sort really do originate.

But for all his absurdities, Creuzer was right on one point. Schiller, to whom he owed much, had said that Art breaks up the white light of Truth into the prismatic colours; and the imagination works in a somewhat similar way, not setting forth facts clearly and sharply, as the reason does, but dealing in pictures. In a sense, myths are symbolic, though not as Creuzer supposed them to be.

Besides this truth which he recognized, and which entitles him to a not dishonourable place in the history of Mythology, there is another and a worse reason why symbolism continues here and there to have a certain popularity, and that is the childish fascination which anything mysterious has for certain minds. A story, or anything else, which is supposed to have a hidden meaning attracts some adults, just as a secret society with pass-words and so forth attracts children; and so there are to this day half-educated persons who read all manner of extraordinary meanings of their own invention into details of pictures by great artists, obscure passages in such documents as the Book of Daniel, or the measurements of ancient monuments, particularly, for some reason, the Great Pyramid of Gizeh. I have even come across one ingenious theorist who had found abstruse secrets hidden in the letter H and in one or two buildings the ground plan of which suggested that letter.

3. Rationalism.

There is a type of mind, which also existed in antiquity, which is utterly incapable of realizing how simple people think. To such a mind, certain facts of experience are so self-evident that every one except a fool must always have recognized them. It follows therefore that no one who thought at all can ever have believed, for instance, that a monster half-horse and half-man could exist, or that a woman was turned into a stone or a tree. If therefore stories of this sort are told, they must be the result of misunderstanding or trickery. There have come to us from antiquity several treatises which put this theory into operation, for instance a little work On incredible tales6, which bears the name of Palaiphatos. The author, after proving elaborately that there are no such things as Centaurs, gives the following reconstruction of the legend. When Ixion was King of Thessaly, the country was much plagued by herds of wild cattle. On his offering a reward for their destruction, certain enterprising archers from a village called Nephele went out on horseback and shot them down. Hence arose the tale that Ixion was the father by Nephele (the Cloud) of a race of beings called Kentauroi (prickers of bulls) who were a mixture of man and horse.

One example is enough of this sort of nonsense, which hardly needs to be refuted. It supposes such a state of mind as never existed or will exist in this world. People so blind to facts as to make a tale of wonder out of a commonplace event like the shooting by mounted archers of some wild cattle would have believed easily enough in all sorts of marvels, and freely invented them without any motor to set their imaginations at work. For savages and barbarians (and it is to be remembered that the origins of Greek and other myths go back to barbarism or savagery)7 have but a small range of experience, and therefore have generally no standard by which to try whether a tale is incredible or not; and even among civilized men there are to be found plenty who will believe almost any wonder if only it is far enough off in space or in time. But even the lowest savages are not as a rule so densely stupid as to misunderstand what is clearly visible to them, or simple statements in their own tongue about things happening to their neighbours; and Palaiphatos supposes the tale of the shape and parentage of the Centaurs to have arisen from a remark that 'the Bull-stickers from Nephele …; the phrase might be taken to mean "born of the Cloud") are raiding', and the supposedly novel sight of horses with men on their backs. Nevertheless, this feeble and irrational 'rationalism' still persists.

I have seen a children's book containing the story of Dick Whittington, which solemnly stated in its introduction that Whittington really laid the foundation of his fortune by a successful venture in a ship called The Cat. Among other things, this explanation neglects the fact that in Whittington's own day the story of the cat was at least two centuries old, for he died in 1423 and the story is to be found in the Annals of Albert von Stade, who died in 1264. Who first told it we do not know. Naturally the old story had been attached to the historical Whittington, as such tales often are to a well-known and popular man.

This miserable theory has not even the grain of truth which is to be found in the first two. Such origins of stories as it imagines simply do not exist. The nearest approach to the supposed process is that, as we shall see presently, legendary details are often enough added to historical facts.

4. Euhemerism.

Somewhat less absurd is the theory called after Euhemeros, a writer who lived not long after Alexander the Great,8 although it existed in a less systematic form before him. His ideas were couched in the shape of a romance, in which he claimed to have discovered evidence that the gods of popular tradition were simply men deified by those whom they had ruled or benefited. Thus Zeus became an ancient king of Crete, who rebelled against and overthrew his father Kronos, the former king, and similar biographies of the remaining deities were offered. Omitting the absurdities in detail,—for the events in these alleged lives of the gods were arrived at simply by rationalizing the current legends,—we may look for a moment at the kernel of the theory, namely that popular gods are nothing but deified men. Here at least we have a fact alleged as a cause, for there is abundant evidence that some men have been deified, from flattery or gratitude, in Greece and out of it. But to make a dead man into a god, one must believe already in gods of some sort; hence this theory will not do as an explanation of the origin of either religion or mythology. Even in its modified form, that the cult of gods arose from fear of ghosts, a view put forward by Herbert Spencer and others, it is unsatisfactory. However, in a book of this sort we are chiefly concerned to note, first, that it will not explain more than a small fraction of the existing mythical tales; second, that there is an element of truth in it, since no very sharp line of cleavage can be drawn between legends of heroes and myths concerning gods.

In antiquity the theory of Euhemeros had a great vogue. In particular, Christian apologists seized joyfully on a statement coming from pagan sources that the best-known pagan gods were nothing but men, for by that time the sense of historical reality was grown too faint for the absurdities of Euhemeros to be noticed, and apart from this particular development, numerous writers tried to discover in these venerable tales some reminiscence of early history, a proceeding which, however mistaken in its methods, was not irrational in itself.

5. Theory of Nature-myths.

We may distinguish here an older and simpler form of the theory from a later and more sophisticated one; but they are fundamentally the same, and both alike possess both truth and falsehood. It is admitted on all sides that the gods of Greek religion and of most if not all others are supposed to be able to control the forces of nature. It seems therefore a suggestion at least worth considering that the gods are these natural forces and nothing else, at least originally. Thus Zeus would be the sky, or the celestial phenomena; Hera, the ancients suggested, using an etymology which was hardly more than a bad pun, was the air, aër; Aphrodite was the moist principle in nature, Hephaistos the element of fire, and so forth, while in later times there was a decided tendency to make all gods into personifications of the sun9. Into these supposed personifications were read, of course, whatever physical theory the interpreter might happen to hold.

Obviously, the idea that gods are personifications cannot stand, for a personification is a kind of allegory, and therefore open to all the objections urged against the allegorical and symbolic theories. When Spenser personifies the virtue of chastity under the lovely figure of Una, or holiness as the Red-Cross Knight, he is merely putting into poetical form what he could have expressed in prose, namely a current theory, derived from Aristotle, of the virtues and vices, and adorning it with the flowers of his inexhaustible fancy. Had no ethical doctrine then existed, the Faerie Queene could never have been written; and in like manner, personified physical forces are unthinkable among a people who were not to learn for centuries that any such forces existed.

But it remains possible to suppose the gods, or some of them, to be the result, not of allegorizing known and understood physical forces, but of a sort of imaginative speculation about unknown ones. In this sense we may say, for instance, that a river-god (usually imagined, in Greece, under the form of a bull-headed man) is simply the river itself, the noise of whose waters is naïvely accounted for by envisaging it as a powerful, noisy beast. The early Greeks, we might conjecture, observed the apparent daily motion of the sun and were sharp-witted enough to see that it must move very fast, in order to get over so much ground in a day. They therefore fancied it as a charioteer, since a chariot drawn by swift horses was the fastest mode of locomotion they knew. The difficulty is, that there seems no very cogent reason why they should worship forces thus explained, and especially why, as appears on careful investigation of their religion, they gave so little worship to the most impressive of them, as the sun, the moon, earthquakes, thunder and lightning, and so forth. It is far more consistent with what we can see of their thoughts and what we know of the ideas of peoples still in the myth-making stage or very near it to suppose that they worshipped the gods whom they supposed to control these forces,—Zeus, who lived in the sky, and not the sky or its thunder and lightning; Poseidon, who lived in the sea, and not the actual seawater, and so forth. The problem of how the idea of divine beings really originated is very complex and far from being fully solved as yet; fortunately it is not necessary to solve it in order to discuss the myths concerning them.

The most famous exponent of the doctrine that mythology springs from imaginative treatment of physical forces is in modern times the great Sanskritist F. Max Müller. His theory was briefly this. Primitive man was filled with a vague feeling of awe and reverence, leading to ideas of divinity, to which, in his hesitating and imperfect speech, he tried to give expression. Of course, his effort to voice the ineffable was hopeless from the first, and the words he used were sadly lacking in precision, ambiguous and metaphorical. Thus, trying to find a name for the divine Being whose existence he dimly conjectured, he hit upon the word 'sky' as the least inadequate he could think of; but some at least of those who heard him could not understand his metaphor, and hence imagined that the literal sky was either the abode of God or God Himself.

Müller further imagined that he had come fairly near to this primitive stage of religion by studying the earliest Sanskrit documents, the Vedas, which undoubtedly are of venerable antiquity. Analysing these and comparing them with what he knew of the mythology of other peoples, he believed that he could trace back a number of names, and consequently the legends containing them, to the sort of primeval metaphors which he postulated. In particular, he held that numerous deities, indeed almost all of them, owed their being originally to the metaphorical use of language concerning the sun. Thus to him Athena, born from the head of Zeus, is the sky's daughter, Dawn, whose birth is helped by the young Sun (Hephaistos). She is called virgin, because her light is pure; golden from its colour; Promachos (Champion) because she does battle with the darkness, and so forth.10

It is not necessary to dwell nowadays on the many weak links in this chain, such as the true character of the Indian literature, which although old is very far from primitive, the badness of many of Max Müller's etymologies, his imperfect knowledge of Greek religion and mythology, and so forth. It is enough to remind ourselves that, firstly, Müller's picture of the primitive theologian is about as unlike that practical person, the savage, as possible; that examination of savage traditions and beliefs indicates that savages are but little impressed by such regular phenomena as sunrise, seldom worship the sun, and have not many legends about it; further, that their tales seem to deal with a very wide variety of subjects, which makes it highly unlikely that the ancestors of the Greeks confined themselves to imaginative and metaphorical talk about the weather; and also that the earliest and most primitive languages we know have a large vocabulary but are extremely poor in general terms capable of a confusing variety of senses, which makes it unlikely that the 'disease of language', as it has been unkindly called, postulated by Müller, was ever a reality. In particular, the more we study the different Wiro languages11, the more evident it becomes, firstly, that the peoples who speak them have many legends and beliefs which they share with their non-Wiro neighbours, and secondly, that the number of traditions provably common to all Wiros is very small; so that even if Müller's theories were proved up to the hilt for India, they would throw but little light on the state of things in early Greece. Incidentally, it seems now to be recognized by the best students of the subject that the supposed preponderance of sun-myths in the Vedic literature is the result rather of the theories of later commentators than of the true nature of the legends themselves.12

6. Modern methods.

The failure of so many theories may well make us hesitate before adopting another; and indeed, the best modern mythologists are as a rule none too eager to put forward a complete theory of the origin and primary meaning of any myth. There are, however, four things which we may do:

  1. We begin by carefully examining the source of the tale, and determining its date. This is not so easy as it sounds, for it is not enough to discover, for example, that one form of a story is found in Sophokles and another in Plutarch. We must find out, if we can, where Sophokles and Plutarch got the story, and it may turn out that the earlier writer invented a good deal of what he says, while the later one drew upon some very early source now lost. The first modern writer to lay emphasis, consistently and thoroughly, on this point was the most notable of the opponents of Creuzer, C. A. Lobeck (1781-1860; principal work, Aglaophamus, 1829).
  2. We may now try to determine, if we can, to what section of the very mixed population of Greece the story is due, i.e., whether it is Achaian, Dorian, lonian, or belongs to some other Greek people, or whether it is pre-Greek, or a later importation from Asia or Thrace. A great pioneer in this work was K. O. Müller (1797-1840).
  3. Next we may ask to what class the legend in question belongs, i.e., whether it is myth proper, saga, or märchen. This, as will be explained presently, may throw light on its ultimate origin. The distinction cannot be attributed to any one researcher, but its existence has become recognized largely through the work of the folklorists and investigators of medieval European and other non-classical legends during the nineteenth century, prominent among whom were the indefatigable brothers, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm (1785-1863 and 1786-1859).
  4. Lastly, when we have constructed a theory of the origin and continuance of a story, we shall do well to compare it with those tales which we can study in an early and undeveloped form,—the legends of savages and, to a less degree, of peasants. In a word, we may apply the Comparative Method, but with due caution, for nothing is more misleading than a false but plausible analogy. That this method is now part of the equipment of most scholars is due above all (if we leave out of account men still living) to one of the most learned and honest researchers Germany ever produced, J. W. E. Mannhardt, 1831-80, and one of the most brilliant and versatile of British writers, the late Andrew Lang.

7 Psychological analysis.

Since legends are the work, not of memory (as historical traditions largely are) or of the reason, but of the imagination, it is obvious that all mythologists must wish well to those who study the imagination, that is, to psychologists. Hence it is interesting to note that the school of psychological thought now most in fashion, that associated with the names of Freud and Jung, devotes considerable attention to myths and tries to explain their genesis. Thus far one can approve; but beyond general approval of endeavour in what may be a fruitful field I for one cannot go. Hitherto, even allowing the truth of the main positions taken up by the psycho-analytic school with regard to the composition of the human mind, I have failed to find in its writings a single explanation of any myth, or any detail of any myth, which seemed even remotely possible or capable of accounting for the development of the story as we have it. I therefore content myself with mentioning their methods, without going into a full account of them.13

We may divide legends, in a fashion which by now is almost traditional, into three classes. We have first the myth proper, concerning which a word of explanation is necessary. Man, brought face to face with the world about him, cannot help reacting to his environment in some way. Besides bodily actions, whether practically useful, such as chipping flints, ploughing fields, and making locomotives, or those meant to be practically useful, such as the various operations of magic, he has two mental processes open to him; he may reason about the world and the objects in it, or he may let his imagination play upon them. Speaking very roughly and very broadly, the more civilized he is, the more apt he is either to reason or, if not, at least to realize when he is not reasoning but imagining. Let us take as an example the phenomenon of rain. A man may busy himself collecting rain-water in a cistern or tank: he may construct a rain-gauge and observe the amount of rain that has fallen, and the season of year at which it falls most abundantly, and from these and other observations theorize about the cause of rain. These proceedings we may call applied and pure science respectively. Also, especially if he is a savage, he may work magic intended to make the rain fall abundantly, or to stop altogether. This, being in intention practical, is a sort of bastard sister of applied science. But there is a third set of activities possible. A poet or other artist may let the rain inspire him to production, and so give the world an ode, good or bad, to the rain, a picture such as Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed, or a pretty fantasy concerning the refreshment brought to the earth by a shower. But the imagination of the artist has also a half-sister, namely the less controlled but equally lively imagination of the myth-maker. He does not try to reason out the causes of rain, nor is he particularly concerned to make an artistic picture of it; he attempts rather to visualize the whole process, for the imagination of course works in pictures, or, if we like to use a favourite word of psychologists, in symbols. The result of this visualizing may be some such mental picture as of a being, or beings, who pour water out of a reservoir upon the earth. The nature of these beings and of their reservoir will vary enormously, and the myth may be anything from very grotesque and absurd to very beautiful, just as the picture made by the civilized painter might be good or bad; but an imaginative picture of some kind it will certainly be.

But now the myth touches upon science, for it offers a sort of cause for the rain-shower. Asked why it rains, scientist and myth-maker alike can give an answer. The former answers 'Because of such-and-such atmospheric conditions', and can give proofs of his statements, more or less cogent according as he is a better or a worse scientist. The myth-maker can reply, 'Because Zeus is pouring down water out of heaven', 'because Yahweh has opened the windows in the firmament', 'because the angels have poured water into a great tub in the sky which has holes in its bottom'. To any one who has dealt with inquisitive children it must be obvious that in many cases this kind of answer would be satisfactory; it gives a reason, and the hearers' minds are not developed enough for them to inquire whether it is the reason.

We see therefore that myths, in the proper sense, are a somewhat primitive form of those mental processes which, further developed, give us both art and science. Of the two sides, the more active is what we may term the artistic or imaginative and visualizing process. This consideration enables us largely to dispose of a question which often arises, namely, Did the myth-makers, in Greece for instance, believe in their myths? The absurdity of this will be evident if we transfer it to a higher sphere and ask, Did Michael Angelo believe in his Moses, or Swinburne in his Atalanta in Calydon? No doubt Michael Angelo believed that there had been a man called Moses, who had done the things recorded of him in the Pentateuch; Swinburne doubtless believed that one of the districts of classical Greece was called Kalydon, and probably did not believe that there had ever been a virgin huntress called Atalanta; but these are intellectual processes, and had nothing to do with the statue or the poem. So with the man who first thought of thunder and lightning as caused by Zeus hurling a celestial dart; it probably would be far truer to say that he imagined it than that he either believed or disbelieved it. It is, however, no doubt true that many people accepted his imagination as a sufficient reason for thunder-storms, while others in time grew doubtful, that is, set their reason, as well as their imagination, to work, perceived that there were other possible causes, and found grounds for preferring one or another of them.14

We may then define a myth proper as the result of the working of naive imagination upon the facts of experience. As a large proportion of these facts are natural phenomena, it follows that the nature-myth is a common kind; and as the imagination is commonly set going by an object which appears wonderful or puzzling, it follows that a very large proportion indeed of myths is of the kind known as aetiological, concerned, that is, with the causes of all manner of things from the apparent movement of the heavenly bodies to the shape of a neighbouring hill or the origin of a local custom. In the last case, the myth often tells what purports to be a history, and this brings us to the next form of legend.

The name saga (in origin, simply the Scandinavian word for 'tale, story') is commonly given to those legends which deal with historical events. To take common instances from the modern...

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