The Function of Mythology in Ancient Greek Society



This scene, known from other representations in Greek art, depicts the heroes Achilles and Ajax playing a board game. The warriors wear their helmets and hold two spears each. Ajax has his right hand near the board, ready to play when his turn comes. Both heroes wear short tunics (chitoniskoi), and are armed, with corslet, cushes, greaves; they wear short cloaks over their armour. Behind them, their shields lean against something, with their helmets perched on top; behind them, or beside them at arm’s reach. Both sit with the hither leg drawn back; Ajax is farther from the table than Achilles, although he sits farther forward on his block (thakos). By the Andokides and Lysippides Painters, 525-520 BCE / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


By Cara Leigh Sailors / 08.2007
History Masters Thesis
Supervised by Dr. William Douglas Burgess, Jr. / Professor of History
East Tennessee State University

Introduction

Greek mythology has long fascinated humankind. Stories of gods and monsters and the men and women who lived and interacted with them have caught the attention of children and adults alike for generations. As captivating as these stories are, they present a unique problem to the historian. Much can be gleaned from ancient mythology about the society from which the Greeks came, how they lived and what they thought about the world around them for example; but because of the nature of myth, it cannot be taken completely at face value. Myth deals with the fantastic, the supernatural, and the divine. Because of this, the function that mythology collectively played in the ancient world becomes historically more important than the interpretation of each individual myth. This discussion will be aimed at answering three basic questions about Greek mythology:

1) What is mythology, 2) What problems arise when studying mythology, and 3) What are the functions of mythology?

Whenever one speaks of mythology, visions of epic battles and quests of heroes and gods in a time when monsters roamed free and terrorized humankind immediately spring to mind, but myth is much more than just a fantasy story. Myth differs from fantasy in many ways. A myth, from the Greek word “mythos meaning ‘word, tale’” is a story meant to be told aloud.[1] When studying myth one must always bear in mind the essential triad of “Narrator – Mythos – Audience.”[2] The narrators, or poets as they were called, were always playing to their audience and “new myths or unacceptable versions of old ones would be rejected by the public and, surely, not repeated in further performances.”[3]

Myth can be told with the intent of being allegorical, symbolic, rational, romantic, theoretical, or analytical.[4] A myth can take on a single form or it can serve all of these types at once. However, it is necessary at the forefront of the study to set the myths apart from the writings that were meant to be factual records such as Herodotus’ Histories or the writings of Thucydides and Hippokrates.[5] Though they are from roughly the same culture and time, the writings of Homer are clearly of a different type than the works of these men.

One of the things that set myth apart from other types of folk tales is the necessary auditory element, but that is not the only thing. Myths are tied to a specific time, a place, and a people; and for the Greeks they are never isolated, as each “myth evokes further myths… it is almost true that every Greek myth is ultimately connected in a chain of association with every other Greek myth.”[6] This difference sets myths apart from fairytales because they are about a land far away and a time long ago. Fairytales are also told as pure entertainment.[7] While entertainment is also a function of myth, myth encompasses much more.

The poets who wrote each myth were also considered to be divinely inspired by the Muses.[8] The Muses, Zeus’ nine daughters by the goddess of memory, were the goddesses of artistic inspiration.[9] These Muses were thought to whisper to the poet of the adventures of the gods. Thus, myths held a revered place in ancient Greece as they were seen to be divinely inspired and were meant to convey some important message about life or the gods to the people.[10] Simply put myths can be seen as “traditional tales relevant to society.”[11]

What Problems Arise when Studying Myth?

Idealized portrayal of Homer dating to the Hellenistic period. / British Museum.

One of the first major problems in studying mythology is determining to which field it belongs. Myth can be seen as history in that it chronicles an event that happened in the past.[12] Myth can also be grouped with religious documents because it was divinely inspired and dealt with the “attributes… roles… and relationships” of the gods.[13] Or, myth can be viewed as literature.[14] Before historians, or theologians, or literary critics, can successfully study mythology they must determine of which field it is a part. It is useful when setting out to assume that any given myth can simultaneously belong to all three; however, one must be wary not to take the myth at face value.

This gives rise to the second problem and returns to the poet–myth–listener triad. Myth, especially Greek myth, is ever changing and “open-ended.”[15] Poets have certain guidelines within which they must remain for each myth; however, they are constantly playing to their audience, changing and adapting the myth to please the listener.[16] Thus there are many versions of each myth. This raises another problem when studying mythology and that is, is the accurate version recorded? Or if multiple versions are available, which version is the original and which reflect changes that have taken place in society more than the original events?

Because myth was all originally spoken, it is safe to factor in the human tendency to distort into the myth. For example, if a fisherman caught a trout and told his son about it, by the time all of his son’s friends heard about the fish it might be a shark. This problem can be more easily applied to the myths about heroes rather than those about the gods because the gods were grandiose figures that had supernatural abilities anyway, whereas many heroes were at least based on actual historical figures.[17] There may once have existed men whose deeds inspired the myths started, but it is doubtful that they actually did all the things attributed to them.

Returning to the problem of the distance between when the myth took place and when it was recorded, the most obvious example of this is found in Homer. Homer’s epic poem the Iliad is roughly set in the Mycenaean period and was an oral tale long before Homer penned the version we have today, which is generally accepted to have been written between the years 800-600 B.C.[18] There is roughly a 500-year gap between the action and the written record.[19] With so much time between the event and the record and with the oral method of passing down information, one must be wary when gleaning any historical information from this poem for Homer, like any other poet, was playing to his audience. This is evidenced by the anachronisms present in his stories.[20] That is not to say that there are not historical accuracies to be found; only that these stories must not be taken at face value.

Another problem that arises in the study of mythology is the problem of modernization, that is changing the story to reflect current social ideals or to address current political problems.[21] For example, “The Tragedians freely adjust their mythical plots to illuminate political and social problems of their own day, as Aeschylus does with Zeus and Prometheus, and Sophocles with Antigone and Philoctetes.”[22] Using well-known stories to demonstrate current societal problems is a common practice, but it distorts the original point and plot of the myth, making the job of understanding the myth harder on the historian.

The difference in type of myth is another problem. When dealing with Greek myths there are two main types: Divine and Heroic.[23] The Divine myths deal with the gods and their origins and actions, while the Heroic myths deal with the actions of humans. Often the gods have a cameo role in the Heroic myths, but the bulk of the story is about humankind.[24] It is necessary to recognize which type of myth one is studying, or at least to recognize that there are two different types of mythology to be studied, while at the same time acknowledging that both are valid forms of mythology.

The last major problem the scholar of mythology runs into is not so much related to the myth as it is to the cultural differences between the society of the twentyfirst century and that of the ancient Greeks and how that difference affects our understanding of their mythologies. The ancient Greeks were a “shame-culture”, meaning that how people in society viewed a particular individuals determined their status regardless of their objective qualifications.[25] If persons were perceived to have done some great deed or possessed some great prize then they were honored whether they actually did or possessed anything. Today we are a guilt-culture, meaning that how we see ourselves is what we project to other people.[26] In this latter type of culture self-worth or lack thereof is what is of the most importance; not necessarily how others see you but how you perceive yourself. This is a subtle difference, but it accounts for much of what the heroes of Greek mythology do, and is essential to understanding the differences in ancient and modern interpretations of myths. Myth can be a very useful element to study for the historian, but one must always be mindful of the potential complications.

The Functions Mythology Served in Greek Society

Statue of Persephone with a sistrum. / Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete

Mythology served many functions in the Greek world, but not every myth served every function. Similarly, few myths served just one function. It is important to look at each function individually, as well as collectively. It is also more expedient to look at the many roles that mythology serves in every culture and society and see if the Greek myths fit this mold instead of looking at each individual myth and trying to deduce its importance to society. I believe that there are eight functions that mythology can serve in any given culture, and the Greek culture is the ideal place to apply this theory.

The first function of mythology is as history. Mythology can be used to relate actual happenings from a time beyond memory.[27] However, it is unwise to rely on mythology as the only source of information about a given event. For example, the Iliad tells the story of a war between several pre-Greek kingdoms roughly united under a single man and the kingdom of Troy. Homer’s story is fantastic with the gods appearing on the battlefield and the beginning with an apple on Mt. Olympus.[28] While there may really have been a Trojan War, and in fact Heinrich Schliemann found Troy in the late 1800s,[29] it is unlikely that the war was fought over a runaway wife. One of the main ways that myth can be useful to historians is as inspiration for further study, such as it was for Schliemann who grew up loving the Iliad and wished to find evidence that some part of it could be true.[30]

The second function mythology serves in society is to teach the youth of the societal social norms and expectations as well as consequences of actions.[31] Take for example the Bull of Minos. Minos, the king of Crete, claimed that the gods would answer any prayer he sent to them. To this end he asked Poseidon to send a bull to be sacrificed, but the bull that was sent was so beautiful that Minos kept it and offered another instead.[32] As a punishment for Minos’ deceit, Poseidon caused his wife to fall in love with the bull and later to bear the Minotaur, a half-man half-bull monster.[33] The lesson learned here is keep you word when your promise the gods something because their revenge is extreme. This is a common theme throughout mythology. Many stories deal with the gods taking revenge on people.

The third function of mythology is to explain the unexplainable, or to serve as an attempt by the ancient Greeks to make sense out of the world around them.[34] An example of this is Core, also known as Persephone, and Demeter. “Demeter [was the] goddess of the cornfield”[35] and Core was her daughter. Hades fell in love with Core and abducted her to the underworld. After this Demeter swore that the earth would bear no fruit until she had her daughter returned to her. Zeus intervened and decreed that Core would be returned as long as she had not eaten the food of the dead. On the trip back to Demeter, Core ate some food; therefore, a compromise had to be reached. Core would spend three month with Hades and nine with Demeter each year.[36] When Core was away Demeter would return her curse to the land and it would bear no fruit. This was why during winter nothing grows.[37] This story is an example of the ancient and pre-scientific mind trying to understand why the world works the way it does, in this case the
nature of the seasons.

The fourth function is similar to the third in that it is to explain why a culture did certain things.[38] This is one of the functions directly tied to religion. An example is Prometheus and sacrifices. Once, long before the Hellenistic Greek age, the gods lived directly with humans, but when they left humankind the gods took fire with them. Prometheus, a Titan, stole fire from the gods and returned it to humankind.[39] This angered the gods, and in an attempt to appease them Prometheus instituted the concept of the sacrifice. He cut up a bull and filled two bags with its parts. One bag contained the good parts covered in dregs and the other the bones and bad parts covered in choice cuts. The high god Zeus chose the second bag and that is the portion that was sacrificed to them ever since, with mortals getting to keep the first bag.[40] This myth tells both how humankind got fire, and why the sacrificial animals were divided the way they were.

The fifth function of myth is to legitimize a claim to land or right to rule or give importance to a city; these are sometimes called founding myths.[41] An example is Cadmus and the founding of Thebes. Cadmus, a descendant of Poseidon and the same man credited with bring writing to the Greeks,[42] was told by the Delphic Oracle, while questing to find his sister, to give up and found a town where a cow laid down to rest. To this end he bought a cow and pushed her east until she lay down exhausted. There he built Thebes and sacrificed to cow to Athene.[43] This myth tells how and why Thebes was founded, supporting certain claims to the land by both a specific goddess and group of people.

A sixth function of mythology is to answer the question, “Where do we come from?”[44] The creation myth of the Greeks is complex and confusing regardless of how long the explanation. This explanation shall be brief. The world began a one unified thing,[45] then Chaos brought forth Eurynome, the goddess who created all things; she bore the Titans and Titanesses to Uranus and had them govern the planetary powers. Rhea and Cronus governed Saturn. Cronus led a rebellion against Uranus, his father, and castrated him. Drops of his blood fell on the earth and life sprang from them.[46] Uranus cursed Cronus to likewise be dethroned by his son. Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon were the sons of Cronus. Zeus felled his father and defeated the Titans to become the chief Olympian, or the chief god. Prometheus, a Titan who fought on Zeus’s side, is said to have made humankind.[47] This is of course a concise, abridged, and integrated version of the four main creation myths.[48]

The seventh function of mythology is to answer the question, “What happens when we die?’[49] In Greek mythology, the dead descend into the underworld. To get there they must pay Charon to take them across the river Styx. Those who cannot pay can never enter the underworld and must remain near the bank of the Styx. A many-headed dog named Cerberus[50] guards the opposite side of the Styx to insure that once across, the ghost cannot return and no living person is allowed to cross. Once in the underworld, souls can go to one of three places, “Asphodel Meadows, if they are neither virtuous nor evil… Tartarus, if they are evil…[or] Elysium, if they are virtuous.”[51] The god of the underworld is Hades and his wife is Queen Persephone. Elysium is ruled by Cronus and the chief judge is Minos.[52]

The eighth function of mythology is entertainment. These myths were meant to be spoken and were crafted to be aesthetically pleasing. While most myths serve one or more of the above functions, they were all meant to be enjoyed. Some of the most popular myths were those pertaining to the Heroes, both those in Homer’s Iliad and those about heroes such as Heracles,[53] Perseus,[54] Theseus,[55] and Jason.[56]

No Greek myth stands alone. All of the myths are interconnected and each leads to another myth. As stated before, each “myth evokes further myths… it is almost true that every Greek myth is ultimately connected in a chain of association with every other Greek myth.”[57] For example, the King Minos of Crete and his brothers are all judges in the underworld, the underworld’s Queen, Persephone, is also Demeter’s kidnapped daughter Core, the Cronus that rules Elysium is the same Titan who castrated Uranus, and the Prometheus who created man was the same Titan who stole the fire from Zeus and returned it to mortals. This is only an example of the interconnection that runs through Greek myths.

This cycle of overlapping and interconnecting makes it hard to isolate a myth for study and is one of the main reasons that each myth serves more than one function in society. Each myth chosen above is representative of the function named before it; however, each also has elements of other functions as well. An example being the Prometheus and fire myth, which serves also to tell how humans got fire as well as why the sacrifices to the gods were done. The myth of Charon and the Styx explained why the dead were buried with a coin. Nothing can be looked at in isolation because if it is then much of the meaning is missed.

Conclusion

The study of mythology is difficult but never dull. The most intrusting part is that to some extent the eight functions above are still a part of American society today. Our myths are not related to the gods in the way that the Greek myth are, but Americans have their own set of demigods that are passed on to their children. American children grow up learning the history of ‘Honest Abe,’ the ethics of the ‘hardworking Puritan,’ and why we shoot off fire works on the 4th of July. Each culture has its own myths, but the Greek myth still continue to enchant those from all cultures thousands of years after that culture had died. In Homer’s the Odyssey, Odysseus calls up the shade of Achilles, and Achilles tells him of his choice between a long life of obscurity and a short life ending in eternal honor.58 Achilles chose eternal honor and sure enough over 4000 years later his exploits are still taught.

Footnotes

  1. Jan Bremmer, ed. Interpretations of Greek Mythology. Princeton: Barnes & Noble Books, 1986, 4.
  2. Bremmer, Interpretations, 4.
  3. Bremmer, Interpretations, 4.
  4. H.J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1959. 1-16.
  5. Rose, Handbook. 1-16.
  6. Bremmer, Interpretations, 6.
  7. Bremmer, Interpretations, 6.
  8. Bremmer, Interpretations, 4.
  9. Bergen Evans. Dictionary of Mythology. New York: Random House, Inc. 1970. Reprint 1991, 178.
  10. Evans, Dictionary, 187.
  11. Bremmer, Interpretations, 7.
  12. Bremmer, Interpretations, 215.
  13. Robert M. Seltzer, ed, Religions of Antiquity. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1987, 164.
  14. Seltzer, 164.
  15. Bremmer. Interpretations, 3-7.
  16. Seltzer, 167. Bremmer, 4-6.
  17. Seltzer, 173-176.
  18. Homer, Iliad. Trans. by Stanley Lombardo. Intro. by Sheila Murnaghan. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1997. xlviii-liv.
  19. Homer, Iliad. Lombardo. xlviii-liv.
  20. Homer, Iliad. Lombardo. xlviii-liv.
  21. G.S. Kirk. “Greek Mythology: Some New Perspectives.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 92 (1972), 74-85.
  22. Kirk, “New Perspectives”, 77.
  23. Seltzer, 168- 176.
  24. Kirk, “New Perspectives”, 74-85.
  25. E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1964. 28-50.
  26. Dodds, 28-50.
  27. Richard S. Caldwell, The Origin of the Gods: a Psychoanalytic Study of Greek Theogonic Myth. New York : Oxford University Press, 1993, 13.
  28. Homer. The Iliad. Trans. and Intro. by Alston Hurd Chase and William G. Parry, Jr. America: The Universal Library, 1950, and Homer, Iliad. Lombardo.
  29. Leonard Cottrell, The Bill of Minos: Discoveries of Schliemann and Evans. Intro. by Peter Levi. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1953, 44-55.
  30. Cottrell, 36-55.
  31. Caldwell, 13.
  32. Apollodorus. The Library, Book I. Trans. by Sir James George Frazer, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1921. 197-201.
  33. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths. New York: Penguin Books, 1955. Reprint 1992. 292-294.
  34. Kirk, “New Perspectives”, 75.
  35. Graves, 89.
  36. Apollodorus. Book I. 35-41.
  37. Graves, 89-96.
  38. Seltzer,179-180.
  39. Aeschylus, The Suppliant Maidens and The Persians, Seven Against Thebes and Prometheus Bound. Intro and Trans by Seth
    Benardete, Intro. Trans and Ed. David Grene. Ed. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1956. 139- 179.
  40. Graves,143-145, and Seltzer, 179-180.
  41. Martin P. Nilsson. The Mycenaean Origin of Greek Mythology. New York: W W Norton & Company, 1932. 122-123.
  42. Herodotus. The Histories. Trans. by Aubrey de Sélincourt. Intro. A.R. Burns. New York: Penguin Books, 1954. Reprint 1972. 361.
  43. Graves, 194-196.
  44. Caldwell, 13.
  45. Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History: Volume I. Trans. by C.H. Oldfather. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967. 22-29.
  46. Apollodorus. Book I. 2-20.
  47. Graves, 27-58, 143. and Hesiod, Theognis. Trans. and Intro. by Dorothea Wender. New York: Penguin Books, 1973. Reprint 1987. 23-57.
  48. Table 1 is a chart of the Greek creators, Titans and gods beginning with Chaos. The chart is from Ivan Kozik, “Ludios” (05 July 2006) http://ludios.org (accessed 07 December 2006).
  49. Caldwell, 13.
  50. Apollodorus. Book I. 233-237.
  51. Graves, 121.
  52. Graves, 120-122.
  53. Graves, 446-514.
  54. Evslin, Bernard. Heroes, Gods and Monsters of Greek Myths. New York: Random House, Inc. 1966. Reprint 2005, 109-133.
  55. Graves, 323-366.
  56. Graves, 577-585.
  57. Bremmer, Interpretations, 6.
  58. Mack, Maynard, ed. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: Fifth Continental Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987, 227-245.

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