Lesson Three: The nature of mythology and the GreekGods

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Lesson Three: The nature of mythology and the GreekGods.

One of the most widely known and popular bequest of the civilization of ancient Greece is the surviving collection of Greek myths and legends.

These stories are often told in a form suitable for children. The original tales had deeper meanings for those who told and those who listened. They were intended for adults, as they are complex, detailed and contain a great deal of violence and sex.

What are myths?

A traditional tale. This means it is a story with characters and a plot and it has been passed down through successive generations.

The Greek term MUTHOS means something that is spoken, and, in most societies, Greek myths were made up and passed on by word of mouth in an age before writing was invented or was in general use.

The Greek myths also regularly involve the gods or contain some element of the supernatural. Belief in the supernatural was widespread and sincere.

Poets and writers throughout the Greek world later reworked these primitive tales. Some were ‘cleaned up or tidied up. Sometimes details were inserted for political reasons, and sometimes the poet inserted messages/themes of his own.

The basic tales of Greek mythology were turned into sophisticated literature and were often retold in other media such as dance, plays, music, song, painting and sculpture.

Ever since classical times, artists have found the myths a source of inspiration – it is now used in the new media of films and tv.

Myths and other types of story

Myths are often coupled with LEGENDS which are traditional tales based on some historical facts. Eg the stories of the Athenian hero Theseus include details of how he linked all the small settlements of Attica into a confederation with Athens as the leading city. This was a historical event, though it happened several centuries after Theseus is supposed to have lived! So the tales of the Trojan War exist as legend rather than myths.

THE SAGA - is a lengthy tale told in episodes, of the adventures of a hero or heroes. The Odyssey is a saga. The adventures of the Argonauts in search of the golden Fleece may be called sagas.

FOLK TALES – simple adventure stories in which a hero or heroine fulfils a basic human dream by marrying a princess, or prince, making a fortune, overcoming a villain or a monster, and living happily ever after. They include magic objects and cloaks or rings to give invisibility. But they rarely include divine beings like gods. Eg the story of Perseus, with his winged sandals and helmet of invisibility, who slew monsters and rescued and married a princess, has some of the elements found in folk tales.

It is not a simple matter to sort out where myth ends and legend, saga or folk tale begins.

Types of Myth

It is difficult to find anything that all myths have in common. Most include gods and the supernatural, but for some this is a prime concern, while in others the gods scarcely rate a mention.

Most myths convey a deeper meaning or message, but again the nature of these messages varies.

Most myths will fall into at least one of the following categories:

CREATION MYTHS – explain how the world and how human beings came into existence.

RELIGIOUS MYTHS – look at the nature of the gods and their relationship to each other and to their world. Eg. The tales of Zeus and his family.

Other religious myths explore the relationship of humans with their gods, the meaning of like and the nature of death. Many myths fall into this category. Eg the stories of Orpheus and Achilles.

QUEST MYTHS OR PUNISHMENT MYTHS – Some myths deal primarily with the relationship of humans with one another or with their world. A hero proves his greatness or a hero atones for crimes. Eg The myths surrounding Heracles.

NATURE MYTHS – explain phenomena like the weather, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, day and night, the cycle of the seasons, the growth of crops, human conception …eg The tale of the rape of Persephone explains the seasons, while the story of Eurynome reflects an ancient belief that women were fertilized by the wind.

CHARTER MYTHS explain and justify existing social values, customs, beliefs and rituals. Athenian democracy did not extend the vote to women, and according to myth they lost this right when they voted for Athene as patron of their city, in preference to Poseidon who angrily demanded this revenge for being slighted typical!

PSYCHOLOGICAL MYTHS – may reflect human dreams and desires. Eg the story of King Oedipus who unwittingly murdered his father and married his mother. The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud decided that the tale reflected how all males subconsciously see their fathers as rivals and want to get rid of them so they can marry their mothers, the first women they loved!

Interpreting myths in this way is SPECULATIVE AND CONTROVERSIAL as it carries the assumption not only that the ancient Greeks thought the same as we do but also that such thoughts are universal among all peoples.

If it is accepted that such interpretations are valid, much of the behaviour of gods like Zeus and heroes like Heracles can be explained.

Do both act with the strength and freedom all men crave but few can have?

HISTORICAL MYTHS may reflect actual events that happened long ago. Does the tale of the Deluge of the great flood reflect the flooding of the Black Sea basin after the last Ice Age? Does the tale of Phaethon recall the destruction caused by a comet or asteroid? Does the relentless and often brutal subjection of goddesses, Titanesses, nymphs and mortal women reflect the suppression by Achaean invaders of the Mother Goddess cult? Explanations are speculative and often controversial.

How and when did Greek myths come into being?

Most Greek myths had their origins in the Greek world of the second millennium BC, that is between 2000 and 1000 BC, and to understand those origins it is necessary to go back at least another thousand years to look at that world and at the people who lived in it.

Look at the map and find the following four regions.

  1. On the right, the coast of Asia Minor with the city of Troy.

  2. In the centre, mainland Greece with the city of Mycenae in the southern peninsula of the Peloponnese.

  3. Between Greece and Asia Minor, the group of islands called the Cyclades, including Thera to the South.

  4. Further to the south the large island of Crete with the city of Knossos.

Around 3000 BC the peoples living in these four regions were probably of similar ethnic origins and probably spoke a similar language. It is likely that they migrated from the east, from somewhere in the vicinity of Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, where agriculture had largely replaced hunting as a way of life several thousand years earlier.

They had brought with them the lifestyle of cultivating crops, primarily grains, and domesticating animals such as sheep and goats. Their religion appears to reflect their way of life.
Since their livelihood might be threatened by natural events such as drought or storms, to prevent disasters they tried to placate destructive spirits, whom they generally thought of as male.
Their prime worship, by contrast, was devoted to female spirits, whom they believed were responsible for the fertility of crops, animals and women.
Although there are no written records from this time, archaeologists have unearthed permanent agricultural settlements with the remains of houses, pottery and burials, and also small female figures with rudimentary heads and limbs but well-developed breasts and buttocks, the bellies usually swollen as if in advanced pregnancy. These were fertility figures, stressing the desired results of sexual intercourse rather than the act itself, in an effort to influence and cause bountiful reproduction in animals and vegetation as well as in humans.
Modern taste often considers these figures grotesque, because the lives of most people these days are remote from concerns about fertility.
Today the ‘ideal’ woman is a beautiful, seductive and currently an impossibly thin ‘sex object’, apparently quite unconnected with child-bearing.
Greek mythology and religion 3000BC when metal replaces stone.
Before 3000BC the inhabitants of the Mediterranean world used tools and weapons of wood or stone, and the era is called Neolithic, meaning the new or last Stone Age.

Around 3000 BC the techniques of working metals, especially bronze, began spreading throughout all these regions, and civilization began to flourish.

The name Bronze Age covers the period from 3000 to 1100BC. It is probable that in the early Bronze Age the worship of generalized female spirits came to focus on a single fertility goddess, equated with the earth and thought of as a mother figure.
According to some myths, settlements were ruled by a queen representing the goddess, who each year took as her consort a youth whose status was much lower than hers. Each year this ‘king’ was sacrificed so that his blood might symbolically fertilise the earth. It is even suggested that at this time family lines were traced through the mother, who was in effect the head of the family. This is what is called a ‘matriarchal society’. Writers sometimes call these early people the Pelasgians.
The arrival of the Acheans

Around 2000 BC another group of migrants came in from the east.

Mainland Greece was invaded from the north by several waves of migrants who were culturally less advanced but militarily more aggressive than the Pelasgians.
These people overran the Pelasgians, slaughtering and burning as they advanced.
Eventually they settled and absorbed those they had spared.
Civilisation was set back for many years, and Greek religion took a new turn.
The conquerers’ prime devotion was given to male gods of hunting and war, who dominated both earth and sky from their homes on mountain peaks.
The social structures were strongly patriarchal, meaning family descent was traced through the father, who was the head of the family. These people still practiced fertility rituals but the whole emphasis changed so that the male contribution instead of the female was thought of as the prime source of fertility.
In the new myths, the mother goddess had to become the consort of the supreme male god, and tales from all parts of Greece relate how females, both goddesses and mortals, were subordinated to males – usually by being raped!
Homer refers to these invaders as the Achaeans. They were the first true ancestors of the classical Greeks.
They spoke the language that would some day be used for the first western literature, and worshipped the gods which would feature in classical mythology.
The Civilisation of Crete

The invaders of the Cycladic Islands and Asia minor seem to have been more civilized than the Achaeans, and life in these areas was less disrupted.

Some of the newcomers settled in a highly strategic coastal location commanding trade routes from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, and some 700 years later legends would make their descendants victims of a Greek invasion in the Trojan War.
But no invaders reached the island of Crete to disrupt its way of life, and for the next 500 years its civilisaton, centred on Knossos, was by far the most advanced, culturally, in the eastern Mediterranean.
It is generally called the Minoan civilization from the name of the legendary King Minos. Archaeologists have demonstrated that there was a high degree of skill in arts and crafts, including writing.
It appears that, although the Minoans worshipped many divinities, both in caves and at sanctuaries on mountain peaks, the most important was the earth goddess, or mother goddess.
There were also some ceremonies or sports connected with bulls.
None of the Minoan towns that have been excavated to date show remnants of walls. This suggests that its citizens had a navy powerful enough to repel any attack.
At some stage this navy may have been used to demand some form of tax from cities on mainland Greece, and the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur may reflect this.
The destruction of the Minoan civilization.

On the mainland, the Achaeans were slowly building a culture of their own. There were a number of important settlements but the main centre was Mycenae, and the term Mycenaean is usually applied in general to this civilsation.

They were still a warlike people and each important settlement consisted of a town surrounding a strongly fortified citadel ruled by a warrior kind.
Attacks on neighbours were not uncommon, and around 1450BC mainland warriors appear to have crossed the sea and invaded Crete, burning most of its towns.
It is a common pattern throughout history for culturally advanced cities to become militarily weak over a period of time and to be overrun by more vigorous ‘barbarians’, and Crete’s downfall may simply have been due to natural social decay.
Another possibility is that when one of the most southern islands in the Cyclades, the volcano Thera, erupted on an enormous scale in about 1500, it devastated Crete, some 90km to the south, with ash and tidal waves.
Perhaps the Mycenaeans simply took advantage of this disaster.
In any event, a Greek-speaking group briefly ruled Crete from Knossos until it too was burnt around 1380, and one of the most brilliant ancient civilisations ended. But is was to leave an indelible mark in Greek myth. The complex ruins of the palace of Knossos were seen as the labyrinth of the Minotaur, and the eruption of Thera, which blasted most of the little island into oblivion, may have given rise to the story of the destruction of Atlantis.
Mycenae and the Trojan War.
Mycenaean ships now dominated trade in the eastern Mediterranean and Mycenaean settlements prospered under strong central government. But the peasants of each settlement had to support not only their king but also his nobles. These were a large group of full-time warriors, who fought alongside the king when he went to make war elsewhere, and against him if they thought there was a chance they might depose him and take power themselves.
The whole society was highly unstable and as it passed its peak around 1300BC, resources dwindled. Stronger fortifications built in the early part of the 13 century BC showed that attacks were feared, and to a warrior society it seemed more natural to attempt to rob others of their wealth than to work to increase production at home.
Mycenaean centres may have joined and sailed together, capturing Troy around the tradition date of 1250 BC. If so, neither their unity nor the loot they carried home lasted long.
For whatever reasons, attacks were launched, apparently by Greek on Greek, and by 1100 BC all major Mycenaean citadels had been burnt or destroyed.
Traditionally, the only one to survive was Athens, a comparatively unimportant centre at that time with an exceptionally good citadel on its Acropolis.
The Dark Ages

The next four centuries, 1100-700 BC are often called the ‘Dark Ages of Greece’. The collapse of centralized government in each centre meant there were not more building programmes nor commissioning of art works.

There was general unrest and lawlessness; much knowledge and many skills, including writing, were lost; standards of living declined, and population levels fell sharply. To add to the general disruption, Greece had to endure another wave of invaders from the north.
These were the Dorians, who claimed they were descendants of the great hero Heracles. They were certainly a Greek-speaking people but, like the invaders of 2000, they were less advanced culturally than the inhabitants of the lands they moved into. They moved down through Greece, eventually settling chiefly in the south peninsula called the Peloponnese and in Crete.
To avoid the, many Achaean Greeks migrated east during the 11 century BC to establish colonies along the coast of Asia Minor, and the poverty at home was at this time aggravated by the loss of these more enterprising citizens.
These years must have seemed gloomy indeed for the Greeks, but 3000 years later we have a different perspective. Some good did emerge from the dark years, fit it was during these four centuries that Greek mythology as we know it was largely created.
Those responsible were professional poets, continuing a tradition that dated, perhaps, from Mycenaean times or that had perhaps first come into existence in the Dark Ages. Like the rest of the population, these poets could not read or write, but instead they learned the oral traditions of the past and wove them into great stories.
They recalled the tales of how the world was created, how the great sky god Zeus deposed his father and defeated Mother Earth and all her creatures, and how he established himself on Mount Olympus as kind over all other gods and goddesses. Eventually human beings were created. Memories of the rich and powerful civilisations of Troy, Crete and Mycenae were handed on and led to tales of how the gods impregnated mortal women and fathered a race of heroes, who went on great quests and finally fought and won a glorious victory at Troy.
The poets took memories that dated from as long 2000 years earlier! They used tales and details of the cults of gods from all parts of the Greek world, so there were many versions in existence when eventually they were written down.
During the Dark Ages, the tougher and cheaper metal, iron, gradually replaced bronze in tools and weapons. This was an important factor when in the 8th century BC Greece began to prosper once more.
Trade routes were once more opened to the east, and writing returned. Standard versions of myths began to emerge as great writers polished the oral tales into great poetry. The most important of these writers was homer, whose poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, established the world of the Olympian gods and the Trojan War.

Homer is generally dated to the 8th century BC, and in the same century the poet Hesiod told of the creation of the world and many other myths in his Theogony and Works and Days.

The ‘ages’ of Greek History

It is traditional to use specific names for particular eras in Greek history, and as you may encounter these names in your reading, here is a list of them along with their approximate dates.

The time immediately before 3000 is usually called the NEOLITHIC or late STONE AGE, referring to the fact that weapons and tools were primarily made of stone.
The BRONZE AGE followed this, when metal-working techniques gradually spread throughout the region. The traditional dates of the BRONZE AGE are 3000-11--, and this may be further subdivided into

-the early BRONZE AGE, 300-2000, the heyday of the Pelasgians

-the middle BRONZE AGE, 2000-1450, when the Minoan culture flourished

-the late BRONZE AGE, 1450-11--, when the Mycenaeans were dominant.

In general, most Greek myths have their origins somewhere in the Bronze Age.
Although bronze was slowly replaced by iron after 1100, the next four centuries are labeled the DARK AGES as the collapse of the prosperous Mycenaean civilization into the comparative chaos made a much greater impression than the advantages gained from increasing use of metal!
The years 1100-700 saw the myths put together by oral poets, and after this time, as writing became widespread and the arts began to flourish again, MYTHS WERE USED BOHT IN WRITTEN LITERATURE AND AS TOPICS FOR THE ARTS.
The years 700-480 are called the ARCHAIC (or early) AGE, which ended with the defeat of a huge army invading Greece from Persia.
The Greeks were liberated from the great fear of being dominated by the Persian Empire. There followed the CLASSICAL AGE the time of Greece’s greatest prosperity and finest art and drama.
The date for the end of the CLASSICAL AGE is usually given as 323, the year Alexander the Great of Macedonia died. He and his father Philip had defeated the Greeks and crushed their creative spirit, but Alexander had also spread Greek culture throughout the lands of the entire eastern Mediterranean. This era directly following his death is called the HELLENISTIC AGE, which ended when the Greek world was finally completely absorbed into the Roman empire by the emperor Augustus soon after 30 BC.
Greek mythology was enthusiastically taken up by the Romans, who had no real mythology of their own, and from them it has passed on as a major strand in Western culture.
Until it was forcibly united by Philip of Macedonia, the Greek world consisted of many city-states of varying sizes, each with a major city and an area of land – such as Athens in its state of Attica.
The Greeks did not think of themselves as a nation, though they were conscious that they were of similar ethnic origins, spoke dialects of the same language and shared a common religion and mythology.
Nor did they use the term Greek or Greece which were Roman names!
The Greek called themselves HELLENES and their country was HELLAS, but it is the custom to use the more familiar terms from the Romans.
What were the Greek gods like?

The earliest Greek peoples lived close to nature and, like all primitive peoples, feared the unknown and uncontrolled spirits of nature which could not them so much harm.

They probably saw these spirits as monsters, part animal, part human and part pure imagination, and they tried to placate them with sacrifices and to control them magic. But at some unknown time they took a major step forward when they came to think their most important spirits were ANTHROPOMORPHIC. This means wholly shaped like humans, and the gods and goddess of myth were born.
Why was this a major step forward? Whereas most earlier spirits were frighteningly ugly monsters, violent, destructive and irrational, the Greek imagined their divinities to be not only human in form but also extremely beautiful, based on idealized women and men.
Following the custom that men might go scantily clad or completely naked, particularly in athletic contests, in art the Greeks portrayed their gods and heroes naked. They were the first people to do so, and all subsequent depiction of the human nude in art has been done under Greek influence.
By contrast, respectable women were expected to be fully clothed, and all goddesses were depicted clothed until well after the classical period. The exception was the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, who is sometimes shown fully clothed and at other times partly or completely nude.
The nature of the gods

The gods resembled humans in other ways. They are (ambrosia), drank (nectar), slept, made love, produced children, and had human emotions like anger, compassion, jealousy, lust and spite.

All of them were more powerful than humans, but some, like Zeus, were more powerful than others.
Some had more influence than others did in certain areas, like Ares in warfare or Aphrodite in love affairs. Some of the gods had very strong local attachments. Even in classical times, people could point out the caves on Crete where Zeus was born and hidden as a baby, or the places where Aphrodite came ashore, newly born from the sea, or Hades seized and carried off Persephone.
All this made the Greek gods much less frightening than the original spirits or monsters had been.
Their human emotions and activities implied that they would understand human prayers for help, their greater powers meant that they were able to help if they wished, and their capacity for thought suggested that they might be persuaded by reason…
Why the gods were feared

It was obvious to the early Greeks, as it still is to us today, that people who tried to lead virtuous lives often not only failed to prosper but even suffered great hardship and sorrow, while the greedy and ruthless often did very well thank you very much!!

So the early gods, created in human image, were not concerned about living good lives themselves nor about human virtue or vice!
The gods did whatever they wanted to do and whatever they could get away with; their only guide their own whims and their only restriction the power of a stronger divinity.
In the early tales they are regularly cruel and irresponsible.
But although the gods were not good they were not evil either, and can best be described as amoral. To humans they might be friendly and helpful, indifferent and uncaring, or actively hostile and destructive. Their attitude could change at any time. They were not impressed by people who tried to be honest or kind, but it was possible to win their friendship – or at least avert their displeasure – by regularly offering them sacrifices and prayers. Though these did not guarantee favour, they were the best insurance against harm.
The ‘sin’ of hubris.
In the early stories, people who tried to be good did not impress the gods, who weren’t particularly bothered by human crimes like assault, theft or even most kinds of murder.
They might get offended if they were ignored and were not offered the sacrifices they thought were their due, but the only ‘sin’ they really got upset about was HUMAN PRIDE or ARROGANCE – or HUBRIS.
It was unforgivable for humans to try to equal or outdo the gods in any respect, and just as bad to boast about doing so. Mmmmm Odysseus,eh, boasting about blinding Poseidon’s Cyclops son…
The myths are full of tales of people who try to overstep the boundaries between the human and the divine and are viciously punished.
Why pray to the gods?

At the time the myths were created it was believed that the gods caused most things which happened to humans, so as well as trying to avert their displeasure, people prayed for active assistance from a god or gods who had power in an particular sphere.

Farmers prayed to Demeter and Dionysos for fertility, women to Hera for matters connected with pregnancy and childbirth.
It was recognised that, even if the god was friendly, he or she might be unable to help if prevented from doing so by a greater power.
No god was all-powerful – even the greatest god, Zeus. He was still subject to the laws of Fate, and some things like human mortality could generally not be altered.
But a god could change the length or quality of a person’s life; the great hero Achilles had to die but was given the gist of choosing a short glorious life or a long life as an obscure unknown.
Polytheism and religious tolerance

The ancient Greeks were POLYTHEISTIC, meaning there were many gods and goddesses in the Classical pantheon.

Belief in one god is called MONOTHEISM.
Further, there was always room for more!
Whenever the Greeks came into contact with gods similar to their won in other societies, they accepted them into the family or thought of them as their own figures under different names.
Their sky god, Zeus, was easily merged with the Egyptian Ammon and the Roman Jupiter.
The tales of the gods, even when they were eventually written down, were never put in the category of dogma (theology) and there were no sacred writings (bible) in which people had to believe. They were free to believe what they liked about their immortals.
The only requirements for Greek religion were belief that the gods existed and the making of regular offerings – by individuals for their private benefit and by the state for the public good. This ready acceptance of other people dogs coupled with a lack of dogma meant Greek religion displayed a remarkable degree of tolerance.
The development of moral standards

The early Greek myths were highly entertaining stories often with important messages for humankind. But the need for moral behaviour was seldom included in those messages.

As Greek society pondered and developed ethical standards about what was right and wrong, thinking people were troubled by the BAD EXAMPLE S SET BY THE GODS!.

The philosopher Socrates in the 5th century BC devoted himself to the study of morality and the right conduct of life.

In the 4th century BC Plato moved towards the idea of a single divine being, with all the other gods representing various aspects of this being.
This one god was not only virtuous himself but wanted humans to live similarly good lives.
Do not confuse the morals in the myths with the moral teachings of the ancient Greek people.
Variations in the stories

The tales were handed down by word of mouth for many years and in different parts of the Greek world where cults of the gods took different forms, and local pride insisted on giving local heroes a prominent place.

This meant there were many variations in the material handled by the first writers, and later poets often provided their own variations to emphasise their own messages.
The myths were never regarded as sacred writings which had to be believed.
Variations in spelling

Often the myths come down to us through Roman writers, and the Roman spellings are more familiar. Eg:

-the Greek K may be replaced by the Latin c, and so Herakles and Hektor have become Heracles and Hector

-The Greek ending –os may become the Latin –us. Mount Olympos and Mount Olympus are the same place.

-the Greek ai may be spelt ae. Hephaistos is the same god as Hephaestus, but the first spelling si closer to the Greek.

-some older mythology books may actually use Roman names for Greek characters. Athene may become Minerva and Hermes be called Mercury, while the herod Odysseus may be called Ulysses.


  1. What is the difference between myth, legend, saga and folk tale.

  2. Why were myths created? List as many reasons as you can and give an example of a Greek myth to illustrate each. Display your list in the form of a chart.

  3. Draw a timeline of the Greek Ages between 3000 BC and AD 1, beginning with the Neolithic period and ending with the Roman Empire.

  4. Draw a chart illustrating the ten points you think are the most important about the nature of the Greek gods and how they were worshipped.

  5. After the end of the Dark Ages, what did the Greeks think about the behaviour of the gods as recounted in the myths? What did they think about human behaviour? Think Socrates and Plato…

  6. What does it mean that ‘Greek religion displayed a remarkable degree of tolerance’?

  7. The earliest Greek peoples lived close to nature and believed the world was inhabited by spirits of non-human shape. What major step did their descendants take when it came to visualizing their gods?

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