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Greek mythology was used as a means to explain the environment in which humankind lived, the natural phenomena they witnessed, and the passing of time through the days, months, and seasons.
Another purpose of myths was to re-tell historical events so that people could maintain contact with their ancestors, the wars they fought, and the places they explored.
The Telling of Myths
In modern usage, the term ‘myth’ perhaps has negative connotations suggesting a lack of authenticity and reliability.
However, it should not be assumed that myths were whole-heartedly believed in nor should it be assumed that the Greeks were wholly skeptical of them.
Probably, the Greek myths, as with any religious or non-written sources, were believed by some and discounted by others.
Myths were certainly used for religious and educational purposes but also may well have had a simple aesthetic function of entertainment.
What is certain is that the myths were both familiar and popular with a wide section of Greek society through their common representation in art, whether that be a sculpture on public buildings or scenes painted on pottery.
Without wide-spread literacy, the passing on of myths was first done orally, probably by Minoan and Mycenaean bards from the 18th century BCE onwards.
However, this also is a modern interpretation, for it is also possible that the telling of myths followed certain rules of presentation, and a knowledgeable audience may not have willingly accepted ad hoc adaptations to a familiar tale.
Over centuries though, and with increasing contact between city-states, it is difficult to imagine that local stories did not become mixed with others to create a myth with several diverse origins.
Greek Mythology: Sources
there is no single original text like the Christian Bible or the Hindu Vedas that introduces all of the myths’ characters and stories.
Instead, the earliest Greek myths were part of an oral tradition that began in the Bronze Age, and their plots and themes unfolded gradually in the written literature of the archaic and classical periods.
The poet Homer’s 8th-century BC epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, for example, tell the story of the (mythical) Trojan War as a divine conflict as well as a human one.
They do not, however, bother to introduce the gods and goddesses who are their main characters, since readers and listeners would already have been familiar with them.
Around 700 BC, the poet Hesiod’s Theogony offered the first written cosmogony, or origin story, of him.
The Theogony tells the story of the universe’s journey from nothingness (Chaos, a primeval void) to being, and details an elaborate family tree of elements, gods, and goddesses who evolved from Chaos and
descended from Gaia (Earth), Ouranos (Sky), Pontos (Sea) and Tartaros (the Underworld).
Later Greek writers and artists used and elaborated upon these sources in their own work.
For instance, mythological figures and events appear in the 5th-century plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the lyric poems of Pindar.
Writers such as the 2nd-century BC Greek mythographer Apollodorus of Athens and the 1st-century BC Roman historian Gaius Julius Hyginus compiled the ancient myths and legends for contemporary audiences
Greek Mythology: The Olympians
From their perch, they ruled every aspect of human life.
Olympian gods and goddesses looked like men and women (though they could change themselves into animals and other things)
and were–as many myths recounted–vulnerable to human foibles and passions.
Greek Mythology: Heroes and Monsters
he does not just tell the stories of gods and goddesses, however.
Human heroes—such as Heracles, the adventurer who performed 12 impossible labors for King Eurystheus (and was subsequently worshipped as a god for his accomplishment)
Pandora, the first woman, whose curiosity brought evil to mankind; Pygmalion, the king who fell in love with an ivory statue; handsome Trojan prince Ganymede who became the cupbearer for the gods; Midas, the king with the golden touch; and Narcissus, the young man who fell in love with his own reflection—are just as significant.
Monsters and “hybrids” (human-animal forms) also feature prominently in the tales: the winged horse Pegasus, the horse-man Centaur, the lion-woman Sphinx, and the bird-woman Harpies, the one-eyed giant Cyclops, automatons (metal creatures given life by Hephaestus), manticores and unicorns, Gorgons, pygmies, minotaurs, satyrs, and dragons of all sorts. Many of these creatures have become almost as well known as the gods, goddesses, and heroes who share their stories.
Greek Myths – An Overview
Broadly speaking, the imaginative Greeks created myths to explain just about every element of the human condition. The Olympian gods led by Zeus twice defeated the sources of chaos represented by the Titans and the Giants.
These gods then, rule man’s destiny and sometimes directly interfere – favorably or otherwise. A further mythological explanation of the seemingly random nature of life is the blind god Pluto who randomly distributes wealth.
The Heroes – the most famous being Hercules, Achilles, Jason, Perseus, and Theseus but including a great many more – all have divine parents and therefore bridge the gap between mortals and gods. These popular heroes pursue fantastic adventures and epitomize ideal qualities such as perseverance e.g., Hercules’ twelve labors, or fidelity e.g., Penelope waiting faithfully for Odysseus’ return. The heroes and events such as the Trojan War also represented a past golden age when men were greater and life was easier.
The myth of Narcissus symbolizes the dangers of vanity after the poor youth fell in love with his own reflection and he lost the will to live. Finally, the story of Croesus warns that vast riches cannot guarantee happiness when the fabulously rich King misinterpreted the Delphic oracle and lost his kingdom to Persia.
Myths such as Persephone’s half-year descent to Hades explained the seasons. Time itself had mythological explanations: Helios’ seven herds of 350 cattle correlate to the days of the year, Selene’s 50 daughters are the weeks, and Helios’ twelve daughters the hours.
also includes a number of monsters and strange creatures such as the one-eyed Cyclops in the Odysseus story, a gigantic boar in the fabled Kalydonian hunt, sphinxes, giant snakes, fire-breathing bulls, and more. These creatures may represent chaos and lack of reason, for example, the centaurs – half-man and half-horse. Alternatively, they may represent the other-worldliness of certain places, for example, the three-headed dog Kerberos which guarded Hades, or simply symbolize the exotic wildlife of distant lands visited by Greek travelers.
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Mythical narration plays an important role in nearly every genre of Greek literature. Nevertheless, the only general mythographical handbook to survive from Greek antiquity was the Library of Pseudo-Apollodorus. This work attempts to reconcile the contradictory tales of the poets and provides a grand summary of traditional Greek mythology and heroic legends. Apollodorus of Athens lived from c. 180 BC to c. 125 BC and wrote on many of these topics. His writings may have formed the basis for the collection; however, the “Library” discusses events that occurred long after his death, hence the name Pseudo-Apollodorus.
Sources of myths: literary and archaeological
The 5th-century-bce Greek historian Herodotus remarked that Homer and Hesiod gave to the Olympian gods their familiar characteristics. Few today would accept this literally. In the first book of the Iliad, the son of Zeus and Leto (Apollo, line 9) is as instantly identifiable to the Greek reader by his patronymic as are the sons of Atreus (Agamemnon and Menelaus, line 16).
Perhaps unfamiliar experiences were also explained in myth, for example, one can imagine that a Greek visiting King Minos’ sophisticated and many-roomed palace at Knossos might have thought it a labyrinth, and the worship thereof bulls and the sport of bull-leaping might be the source of the Minotaur – is it a coincidence it was killed by the visiting Athenian, Theseus? Could Jason’s expedition for the Golden Fleece be a reference to the rich gold of the Caucasus and a Greek expedition to plunder this resource? Do the Amazons represent an encounter with another culture where women were treated more equally than in the Greek world? Do the Greek myths of the Sirens and Charybdis warn of the dangers of travel beyond familiar territory?
Such questions may well remain unanswered but starting with the discovery of Troy in the 19th century CE, archaeological finds have steadily contributed an ever-growing body of physical evidence which illustrates that the oral traditions and stories from Greek mythology had an origin and a purpose they were not previously credited with.
Other literary works
Fragmentary post-Homeric epics of varying date and authorship filled the gaps in the accounts of the Trojan War recorded in the Iliad and Odyssey; the so-called Homeric Hymns (shorter surviving poems) are the source of several important religious myths. Many of the lyric poets preserved various myths, but the odes of Pindar of Thebes (flourished 6th–5th-century bce) are particularly rich in myth and legend. The works of the three tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, all of the 5th-century bce—are remarkable for the variety of the traditions they preserve.