For many, mythology is no more than a hopeless first attempt to explain the world. With the discovery of reason and the scientific method, humanity outgrew these silly, primitive tales and began to uncover real facts. But myth should not be seen as a rival to science. Greek myth may not be factually accurate; if you wish to know facts about Mount Olympus, home of the gods, an encyclopedia will inform you that the mountain is located in northwest Greece, is 9,500 feet high, and is 20 million years old. No respectable encyclopedia would add that it is inhabited by 12 powerful deities, headed by the god of thunder and lightning.
And yet, although Greek myth may be short on such objective facts, it does contain profound truths: about the power of sexual love, with its ecstasies, jealousies, and torments; the unavoidable and inescapable nature of death; the need for courage and endurance; the danger of jealousy and revenge; the agony of grief; the mystery of free will; and, above all, humanity’s relationship with the divine or unknown. And the influence of Greek myth upon the arts can hardly be exaggerated. Painters, sculptors, novelists, dramatists, poets, and even musicians have been thrilled and inspired by these stories for centuries.
Before turning to Greek myth, it would helpful to clarify just what a myth is. How does a myth differ from, say, a novel? The fundamental difference is that a myth has no single author and was not composed in a specific time or place. Rather, myths emerge from the past and evolve through the centuries, with each generation adding something new, re-working and re-imagining the stories. For Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, they were the products of a shared or “collective” unconscious, archetypal, universal, and numinous. Contrast this with a specific modern novel and the differences become more apparent. Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles in 1891. Like a myth, this tale embodies profound truths about the human experience, such as how the innocent are preyed upon by the strong and cruel, the need to forgive, and so on. But unlike the characters in a myth, Tess lives in a specific time and place. The novel is the product of a single mind, that of a sensitive, pessimistic Englishman born in the 19th century. Of course he gave free rein to his imagination, but he gave the material shape and order, using logic and reason to achieve a desired effect. Logic and reason play no part in myth.
Greek mythology begins with chaos, itself a Greek word. Out of chaos arises Gaia, or Mother Earth, who in turn gives birth to a son, Uranos, or sky. She takes her son as lover (the first of numerous incestuous relationships) and gives birth to the 14 Titans. One of these, Kronos, leads a rebellion against father sky, castrates him, and takes his place. Zeus leads a counter-rebellion against Kronos and the other Titans. Zeus then takes his sister Hera as wife, and together they rule over a family of gods on Mount Olympus.
The 12 Olympian gods and goddesses are Zeus, god of lightning and thunder; Aphrodite, the goddess of love; Apollo, god of light, music, and the arts; Artemis, twin sister of Apollo and goddess of hunting; Ares, god of war; Demeter, goddess of the Earth, grain, and fertility; Athena, goddess of Athens itself; Hera, wife of Zeus and goddess of marriage; Hephaestus, the great smith and craftsman who built Zeus’ throne; Hestia, goddess of the hearth and domesticity; Poseidon, god of the sea; and Hermes, the messenger of the gods.
Those who encounter Greek myth for the first time are often struck by the character of these gods, by their spite, their vindictiveness, their lechery, and their cruelty. But perhaps most striking of all is their pettiness. They may be glorious to behold, but they often behave like the most unimpressive of humans.
Zeus, for example, frequently cheats on his wife, appearing to his lovers in various disguises, including a swan, a bull, even a shower of gold. Hera is incensed by this and takes out her bitterness not on her husband, but on his lovers and their children. By the same token, their son Hephaestus marries Aphrodite, goddess of love. But the marriage is unhappy, and like her father-in-law, she takes other lovers. Most famous of these is Ares. Hephaestus builds a net with which to catch them, and catch them he does — in the act of lovemaking. The gods gather round and stand laughing at the humiliated lovers. Hardly the behavior you would except from divine beings!
This mundane, human-like nature can be explained in part by Ancient Greek culture. The Greeks, unlike their neighbors, revered and celebrated the human being. They were human, rather than god, centered. At times, the great heroes of Greek myth even rival the gods in beauty, courage, and skill, and these heroes form a major part of Greek mythology. Perhaps the most famous of all is Heracles, son of Zeus and his human lover Alcmene. Hera, as usual, resented the affair and vented her fury on the child. He later married the daughter of King Creon, and Hera, seizing her chance, drove Heracles mad. He murdered his wife and children, for which he was condemned to perform 12 dreadful tasks. These included stealing the belt of queen Hippolyta, leader of the fierce Amazonian warriors, stealing the golden apples of the Hesperides, and most demanding of all, travelling to the underworld and returning with the three-headed dog Cerberus.
Another great hero, Perseus, like Heracles, was the son of Zeus and a mortal lover, Danae. An oracle warned Danae’s father that the child would one day kill him, so he locked Danae and Perseus in a wooden box and threw it into the sea. King Polydectes rescued them, however, and they remained in his kingdom. Perseus grew into a proud, boastful youth who claimed he would one day behead the gorgons, monstrous sisters with snakes for hair. But Polydectes called his bluff. Reluctant to back down, Perseus set off to kill Medusa, most terrifying of the gorgons, whose gaze could turn men to stone. Fortunately, the gods were with him. Hermes gave him his winged sandals and a helmet of invisibility, with which he was able to reach and gain access to her lair. Using Athena’s polished shield, he could then observe Medusa’s reflection while avoiding her gaze. With Hephaestus’ sword he decapitated her. From the blood sprang the winged horse Pegasus, on whose back Perseus returned.
Flying over the Phoenician coast, he saw Andromeda, a beautiful young woman chained to rocks and left to die. Andromeda was a princess whose mother, Cassiopeia, had boasted that her daughter’s beauty surpassed the sea nymphs. Enraged by this, Poseidon had sent a monster from the ocean depths to terrorize the kingdom. In hope of appeasing his anger, Andromeda was to be sacrificed. With the help of Pegasus, however, Perseus rescued her.
The end of Perseus’ tale illustrates a major theme of Greek mythology: the inescapable nature of fate. Perseus knew of the prophecy that he would someday kill his grandfather, and so, instead of returning to Argos, he set out for Thessaly. While there, he took part in some funeral games, choosing the discus. But his disc went astray and killed a spectator. The dead man was his grandfather.
The myth of Orpheus, quite different in tone, is gentler, sweeter, and sadder than the tales told of Heracles and Perseus. A sublime musician, Orpheus’ talents were so great that rivers were said to change course to hear him. He loved the nymph Eurydice and was so heartbroken by her death that he journeyed to the underworld in search of her. Hades, god of the underworld, was normally unmoved by appeals from the bereaved. But Orpheus sang and played with such beauty and power that Hades agreed to free Eurydice and allow her to return with him. There was a condition however: Orpheus was not to turn and look at her as they made their way out. But he could not resist, and as he turned, she disappeared back into the realm of the dead. Death cannot be cheated.
Back among the living, Orpheus fell afoul of the Maenads, the female worshipers of Dionysus, god of wine and ecstasy. When intoxicated, these women gave in to wild, violent excess. Orpheus was torn limb from limb and his head thrown into the river Hebrus. Here it floated, singing forever of his lost love.
Besides the gods and heroes, Greek myth includes many other strange and fabulous beings. The fields and woods were believed to contain nymphs, beautiful young girls who often took gods and even mortals as lovers. Living alongside them, and frequently pursuing them for sexual favors, were the Satyrs, creatures with the legs, horns, and ears of a goat and the torso of a man. Wild, libertine, and lecherous, these beings represented an idealized rural life, one without rules or boundaries. Like the Satyrs, the Centaurs were human-animal hybrids, with the chest and head of a man and the legs and body of a horse.
Other beings frequently confused were the Fates, the Furies, and the Harpies. The Fates were three sisters who determined the course an individual’s life would follow. One spanned the thread of life, one drew lots to measure its length, the third cut and ended it. The Furies were divine beings who pursued murderers. The Harpies were winged monsters with the face of a beautiful woman and the body of a great bird. Unlike the Furies, their malevolence had no purpose.
To dismiss mythology as untrue, and therefore worthless, is to miss out on something vital and nourishing. After all, there is a reason the great mythic tales survived for so long. And none are greater than those told by the Ancient Greeks.