Greek Mythology Research Papers
The pervasiveness of the Greek Mythology research papers show how mythology in the culture of ancient Greece is beyond denial. Not only in the temple, but at the theater, during a walk in the country, during ordinary conversation, and at sporting events, the man/woman of ancient Greece underwent a constant exposure to stories, images, analogies, figures of speech, and other aspects of cultural and linguistic practice that referred to the system of mythology presented in Homer and Hesiod. Every stream, valley, and mountain had well known names and stories associated with Greek Mythology.
Some of the most prolific Greek Myths within literature are as follows:
Examples of this immersion of the Greeks in Greek Mythology are not hard to find. Thus at the opening of Plato’s Phaedrus we find Socrates and Phaedrus taking a walk in the country, a walk along the river Ilissis. Phaedrus turns to Socrates and says, “Tell me, isn’t it somewhere about here that they say Boreas seized Orithyia from the river?.” Socrates reply is that the exact spot in question is about a quarter of a mile away.
Greece was filled with visual, plastic, and architectural art and the vast majority of that art contained examples of Greek mythological representation. Richter’s A Handbook of Greek Art gives photographs of the masterpieces of Greek vase painting; nearly all of them involved mythological figures. The preponderant themes of Greek sculpture from the sixth century B.C. on were mythological. Mythological figures were commonplace on tableware, furniture, wall paintings, coins, and jewelry.
The tragic drama of Greece was overwhelmingly mythological: all of the surviving works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were based on mythology; it was only the comedies that departed from mythological themes. The Gods, through the Delphic Oracle, were regularly solicited for political advice. This practice went on for hundreds of years. Lycurgus, who may himself have been a legend rather than a real person, the lawgiver of the early Spartans, was seen consulting the Oracle in Herodotus in what would probably have been the ninth century B.C. This should be no surprise; these were superstitious, relatively primitive times. But anyone who reads Thucydides, which deals mainly with events of the cosmopolitan and sophisticated Periclean Age (fifth century B.C.), will find that this same Oracle was consulted over twenty times. And while Thucydides, who was himself sceptical, noted that oracles often caused people to delude themselves, and that there had been but one instance during the time covered by his history in which people who put their trust in oracles were not deluded, the fact remains that the statesmen of the times, as evidenced by their consulting these oracles so many times, did place a degree of faith in them.
Myth was involved with athletic performance; the work of Pindar, in praise of athletes, made use of myths as paradigms. Almost all of his Odes, e.g. Pythian VI, begin with a stanza in which at least some, and often many, mythological deities are mentioned. It is, indeed, quite impossible for a modern to understand what Pindar is saying without a handbook of Greek mythology close at hand.
The whole of Greek culture made use of myths as paradigms. The myths can be seen as a representation of the world, as a method of conceptualizing the world. People did not need to believe in their literal truth to make use of them. Plato, for example, presented his cosmology in the dialogue Timaeus and, while he paid tribute in passing to the old mythology of Homer and Hesiod, his cosmology bore little resemblance to that found in Hesiod. And, in the Republic, he spoke of Hesiod and Homer as having erred in their portrayal of the nature of the Gods and argued that in his perfect state people would not be allowed to read them. But, while denying in formal argument that Homer and Hesiod were veridical in their description of the Gods and the cosmos, Plato still made extensive use of the material contained in their works. The various tales of the Gods and Heroes were used as a kind of cultural short hand by Plato; they were not believed in but they “stood for”, i.e. they symbolized, certain things. The stories about them, taken in the aggregate, constituted a kind of language of experience. And, while he would have banned their works in his perfect state, Plato loved both Homer and Hesiod. He quoted both of them often. The myths were not true for him, but they still exerted a powerful influence. Thus, in the Apology, he had Socrates say to those who had condemned him to death, that if death were to take one to an afterlife in which one met those who had already died, then “How much would one of you give to meet Orpheus and Musaeus, Hesiod, and Homer?”
Thus, in ancient Greece the Gods were everywhere. They were embedded in the consciousness one had of the land itself, in the theater, in sports, in drama, in music, in pottery, in painting, in politics, in the stars and planets, in curios and gem stones. They were deeply embedded in the Greek language itself. One could choose not to believe in them, but one could not escape them.
I would argue that it is the fact that the mythology of Homer and Hesiod was so deeply embedded in the entire culture of the Hellenes that accounts for the resilience of that mythology. One might be tempted to go so far as to say that, in some sense, there was a kind of cultural totalitarianism at work in the Greek world. One was confronted in every aspect of life with these stories and tales; they were powerful conditioners of the mentality of the times. Plato did not believe in Homer, but he quoted him more than one hundred times. The myths were what made Hellenic culture what it was; they were the cement that bound it together.
Close to the beginning of Aristotle’s Politics we find this expression of Hellenic superiority, “But among barbarians no distinction is made between women and slaves, because there is no natural ruler among them: they are a community of slaves, male and female.”
The sense that Greeks had of their own identity and of being superior to the other peoples with whom they came in contact was an enduring phenomenon. It seems to have involved a belief not only in their sense of possessing a political superiority, as expressed by Aristotle in the above quotation, but also a belief in their cultural superiority. Thus, in his discussion of other peoples, Herodotus discusses the tribes of the Black Sea (Euxine Sea) in the following terms, “…there is not within this region a single nation which can be put forward as having any claims to wisdom, or which has produced a single person of any high repute…”. “Wisdom”, as understood by the Greeks, is a cultural parameter. Price states that it was the Greeks sense of their own cultural superiority that justified them in their own eyes in asserting political dominance in the Hellenistic age.
So self-confident were the Greeks in their own culture that, with respect to mythology, we find a curious thing in Herodotus. He reduced all of the competing mythologies of the Mediterranean and its environs to Greek mythology. There was, in his mind, a Zeus of Babylonia (actually Belus), a Zeus of Ethiopia, and a Zeus of the Libyans. Herodotus seemed completely blind to the fact that the mythologies of other people were completely apart and distinct from that of the Greeks, that the Babylonian Bel did not, in many ways, resemble the Greek Zeus at all.
And in the Iliad we encounter another curious thing. The Trojans may have ultimately come from the same Greek speaking stock that had invaded Greece c. 2000-1900, but the Trojans possessed allies from Lycia, Caria, and the hinterland of Asia Minor that were racially and linguistically distinct from the Hellenes and Trojans. And yet, in Homer, so far as my knowledge extends, there is no hint of a sense of cultural superiority over these people. Nor is there a hint, so far as I am aware, of foreign Gods. And that may have significance. Despite racial differences and differences of language; all the Trojan allies seemed to accept the Homeric pantheon and to have the same sacrificial rituals. This suggests that what was important in the time of Homer was a set of cultural differentiae based not upon race and language, but upon religious practice. Such a hypothesis cannot be proved, but if it could be, it would be an indication of an early development of that confidence in their own culture that was such an obvious feature of Greek society in later times, times about which we know a little more than we know about Homer’s time. This idea gains strength from the fact that, as we have seen, “culture” and “mythology” in ancient Greece were, very nearly, one and the same thing.
One must be wary of reading too much into Herodotus’ naïve assumption that all foreign gods were copies of his own set of gods and the fact that religion seems to transcend race in Homer. Neither Homer nor Herodotus were scientific observers of what they wrote about. But their automatic tendency to assume that other people worshipped as the Greeks worshipped may, perhaps, be read as one more instance of the extraordinary degree of self-confidence displayed by the Greeks up to and beyond the time they became subject to the Romans. It is important to note that the Greeks were not xenophobes. That is, they did not have an insular “us versus them” mentality that caused them to hate and fear outsiders and to react to that fear by pursuing isolation and economic autarky. Their relationship to the Persian Empire is instructive in this sense. Here was a culture and political system that, though an adversary, impressed them greatly; the monarch at Susa was always referred to by the Greeks as the “Great King”. In The Persians of Aeschylus, Xerxes is treated with both respect and sympathy; his last speech in the play is as stately and dignified as would be the speech of any Greek placed in a similar situation. But to say they were not xenophobes is not to say that the Greeks did not feel that their culture was something special, unique, and quite, quite superior to the cultures of the other people they encountered. Xenophobia is probably a manifestation of an inferiority complex and that is something the Greeks never demonstrated.