From Mythology to Psychology: Archaic Psychology in Greek Myths

The Triumph of Civilization / Photo by Grizzli, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Wikimedia Commons

The enormous contribution of ancient Greeks to the progress of philosophy, natural sciences and arts, can’t be contested. Unfortunately, the role they played in the history of psychology is hardly mentioned.

By Dr. Vlad Petre Glăveanu
Associate Professor of Psychology
Webster University Geneva


Myths are “the archetypal model of all creations, no matter of the plan which they relate to: biological, psychological, spiritual. The main function of the myth is that of establishing exemplar models in all the important human actions”.
Mircea Eliade

Greek mythology doesn’t resume to the period of Antiquity. It can be found in other epochs (Renaissance and Classicism), other contexts (history and art) and other discourses (scientific and philosophical). The key to understand this “spiritual longevity” lies in myths. As a concept, the myth has known over 500 definitions in about 25 centuries (Topor, 2000); its etymology leads us to (of course) a Greek word, mithos, which means “a fabulous story”. The myth “reveals something that has already been completely manifested, and this manifestation is at the same time creative and exemplar, because it is the support for a structure of the real as well as a human behavior” (Eliade, 1998, p.10-11). Throughout history there has been developed an authentic hermeneutics of myths, because they are an eternal “source of inspiration” (Auregan, Palayret, 1998, p.9). The explanation, in Aristotle’s opinion, is very simple: “the one who loves myths, loves, to a certain degree, wisdom” (Vladutescu, 1984, p.7).

Mythpsychology, a new dynamic branch of Modern Psychology

The enormous contribution of ancient Greeks to the progress of philosophy, natural sciences and arts, can’t be contested. Unfortunately, the role they played in the history of psychology is mentioned only briefly. Very often philosophers are quoted (Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato), as well as Aristotle’s theory about the soul: “De anima” being seen as “the first systematic book of psychological analysis” (Manzat, 2003, p.12). In spite all this, the most important Greek “producer of psychology” has been avoided: mythology. Greek myths are a vast domain of research for disciplines such as: history, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, occultism (astrology), art (literature, painting, sculpture, music); the strongest bond is settled between mythology and religion, with its magical or ritual practices (Sommer, 1969). Therefore, we can understand better the diversity of dimensions ancient Greek myths have:

  • literary (the expedition of the Argonauts)
  • historic (The Trojan War)
  • esoteric (the orphic mysteries)
  • initiatory (the voyage of Ulysses)
  • moral (Daedal and Icar)
  • psychological (the story of Oedipus)
  • philosophic (the legend of cosmogony)
  • social (the ages of humanity)

As we can observe, the psychological “ingredient” of myths can’t be ignored; it is ever present as an essential part. Between myth and psychology the bounds are numerous and thigh and this lead to the development of a psychology of myths (mythpsychology). The psychological interpretation finds in myths an extraordinary material, the perfect occasion to separate the setting from the object, the details from the essence, or, in psychoanalytic language, the hidden from the noticeable. What may be confusing is the multitude of significations seen in myths by different psychologists (Topor, 2000): expression of the archetypes (Jung), form of language (Levi-Strauss), cultural reality (W. Wundt) etc.

Extremely interesting is the initiative of Paul Diel (1966, p.40) to associate every important divinity with a feature: “the spirit is Zeus; the harmony of needs: Apollo; the intuitive inspiration: Pallas Athena; the act of forcing back: Hades etc. The impulse of evolving (as essential need) is represented by the hero; the inner conflict is represented by the fight against the monsters of degradation”. This point of view agrees with that of the psychologists Rudica and Costea (2003, p.8): “all great mythological creations describe, at the level of common psychological sense, the entire dramaturgy of our inner life”.

As a synthesis of all this opinions, we can observe that there are, from a psychological point of view, three levels at which we can understand every myth:

At the first level, the formal one, the narration in itself is important, as a succession of events that leads to a specific end. The second and third levels, much more valuable for psychology, have as a fundament the act of interpretation. “The myth as evidence” is related strictly to its “creator” (in this context, a community or nation). Instead, “The myth as truth” goes beyond the geographical, cultural and historical borders. We are talking, of course, about the psychological truth, the universal signification, the one that reveals something about the human been in itself. Such an analysis is frequent in psychology, being related to “great names” like Sigmund Freud, who believed in the universality (afterwards contested) of the famous Oedipus complex (Sillamy, 2000).

In the present essay we will focus on the second level of interpretation, less noticed, but, as we want to demonstrate, very useful. At a general level, the myth offers us the chance to investigate the conception ancient communities had about the human soul. In other words, this essay is dedicated to the attempt of reconstructing the psychological knowledge of ancient Greeks from their mythology.

We must clarify that the psychology of myths doesn’t resume to Greco-Roman Mythology but also myths of other cultures: Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Celtic, Hebrew, Chinese, Germans, Thracian, Dacian, Indian, etc.

The Pantheon of Ancient Psychology

The psychology we’re talking about in this section isn’t a “didactic” one and has a poor (if not an absent) systematization. It is, instead, dynamic, complex, and, surprisingly, real.

“As in the case of all polytheist religions, the Greek myths talk about the origin of the world and of humans, as well as the actions of Gods and heroes” (Naudin, Cuq, 2001, p.20). The legend of cosmogony is, often, a story about “the birth” of psychological and behavioral manifestations. “The Night gave birth to Moros (the collapse), then Hypnos (the sleep) and Oneiroi (the dreams), as well as a multitude of evil Gods: the Vengeance, the Fraud, the Haste, the Oldness, the Argue, from which appeared: the Trouble, the Forgetfulness, the Hunger, the Disease, the Fight, the Murder, the War, the Slaughter, the Dissension, the Lie and Words with double meaning, the Injustice and the Oath. In the service of Olympian Gods there were: the Hours (representing the idea of order and regularity), Moira (faith), Nemesis (the reward for injustice), the Caryatides (the idea of elegance), the Muses (the idea of art), Iris, Hebe (youth) and Ganymede (the beautiful servant of Gods)” (Stan, Rus, 1991, p.112-113). Some sources also mention Momos, “the God that stands for jokes and irony” (Cordoneanu, 1998, p.192).

Even the main ages find a correspondent in the being of certain Gods: Hermes is the eternal child, smart and creative, “the heroes are associated with the rituals of spiritual initiation of the adolescents” (Eliade, 1992, p.282). Hebe is the youth, married with Heracles (“victories are almost always related to youth”, Mitru, 1996, vol. II, p.62), Zeus symbolizes the maturity as an age associated with power, equilibrium and ability to lead, Cronos represents the end of our evolution, oldness, the God of death and time.

From the start we can’t ignore the determinist vision of ancient Greeks concerning psychical manifestations (a conception which derivates from their general belief in universal order and predestination). The psychic, along with the body, is under the influence of natural laws. Craving for universal harmony (won by defeating the giant Tifon with the help of Hermes – intelligence), ancient Greeks valued equilibrium and psychological normality. To oppose these is a crime leading to some sort of punishment. Prometheus, the prototype of genius and of an unthinkable braveness, was severely punished by the Gods.

Insanity, as a mind disorder, knows a large area of representations. About its origin, in the majority of cases, the ancient Greeks invoked the fault (personal, that of a member of the family or the ancestors – nowadays the idea of “bad” hereditary baggage ) of offending the Gods by egoism, negligence or injustice. For the error committed intentionally the term used is hybris (for example, Ixion), and for the unintentional fault, the term is hamartia (the typical example here is that of Oedipus).

The divinities from Greek myths associated with mental illness or disorder are, as a result, extremely numerous, related to the emotions of the mad person and the reason of his/her misery:

  • Hekate, infernal goddess of the night. Represented as having three heads (symbol of the impossibility to escape your own fears); she waits for travelers at crossroads, “pushing them to despair and death” (Hamann, 2004, p.148). She corresponds to the unconscious fears of every person.
  • Erinies, the Greek name for Furies. “From the Antiquity, they started to be identified with conscience. Brought “inside” the mind, they symbolize the remorse, the feeling of guilt, the self-destruction of the person that feels it is impossible to be forgiven” (Chevalier, 1994, vol. II, p.21). The correspondence with the Eumenides reveals a complex psychological dynamics. “This evolution is related with that of the conscience, which first forbids and after that punishes. The Erinies can transform into Eumenides, favorable divinities, when reason brings the morbid conscience to a better appreciation of human acts” (Chevalier, 1994, vol. II, p.21).
  • The Gorgons, three monstrous sisters that inspired fear; they were synonymous with the ugliness of the soul, symbol of degradation. “Euryale represents sexual perversity, Stheno – social perversity, Medusa symbolizes the spiritual need to evolve turned into arrogant stagnation” (Chevalier, 1994, vol. II, p.105).
  • The Harpies are similar to the Erinies as signification and consequences, but they have a more general meaning. “The Harpies symbolize bad habits – the obsessions generated by craving and also the remorse; the wind that carries them is generated by the spirit” (Chevalier, 1994, vol. II, p. 120).
  • Hydra, the legendary snake with nine heads, continues the analogy with the lust that devours the soul, taking it one step further: “everything that gets in touch with depravity or comes from it ruins or is ruined” (Chevalier, 1999, vol. II, p.129).
  • The Bacchants or Menades, servants of Dionysus, have, because of their rituals, a complex symbolism, being in direct connection with hysteria, drunkenness, perversity.
  • The Nymphs remind us of “a superstition referring to the madness generated by any form that raises from water; the feeling of both attraction and terror” (Elit, 1964, p.178).

Ancient people have noticed the dual nature of humans, expressed in the myth of the Dioscures. “Pollux (the soul) can’t live his terrestrial experiences without Castor (the body)” (Ciuperca, 1998, p.18). As to the existence of conscience and unconscious in our being, the ancient Greeks not only have guessed it, but they also created some suggestive metaphors concerning it: passing to the world of Hades, the fight between Perseu and Medusa, Tezeu and the Minotaur, the centaurs as union of contrasts. “Apollo’s victory upon Python is the triumph of reason upon instinct, the conscience upon the unconscious” (Chevalier, 1994, vol. III, p.144).

But, even best represented in Greek mythology, are the antagonism and complementarities between rational and emotional, by “couples of contraries” like: Athena – Ares, Athena – Poseidon, Apollo – Dionysus. In this context, we can clearly notice the Greek preference for reason, order, Logos. Therefore, “Athena is the worst enemy of Ares, which she defeats in the famous battle of the Gods” (Eliade, 1992, p.277), and so wisdom defeats anger and brute force (the mother of the Goddess, Metis, is “Prudence” in itself). In the same way, Athena wins the capital-city from Poseidon, God of the irrational, sudden and violent gestures, monstrous phantasms. The symbolic gesture of domesticating the horse offered by Poseidon to the Athenians signifies the reshaping, with the help of the intellect, of what is natural and unrefined. The capacity of thinking to help us adapt and evolve is best represented by the image of the caduceus (belonging to Hermes, a God associated with intelligence, agility, wisdom): the two snakes are the alchemic symbol of the union of contrasts, conciliation and creative synthesis.

Zeus married “Metis, whose name means idea. From this union Athena was born, growing in Zeus’s head, from where she jumped into the world” (Hamann, 2004, p.296). This is the way ancient Greeks connected instinctively the process of thinking with the head and, implicitly, the brain. Humorists, in exchange, view it as the capacity of the cognitive labor, the genesis of an idea (Athena), to generate head-aches (for Zeus, her father, or, in other words, the “author”). In conclusion, Athena “symbolizes, most of all, psychological creation, the synthesis, the socialized intelligence” (Virel, 1965, p.104). Therefore, the words of Horatius, the poet, remained famous: “Tu nihil invita dices faciesve Minerva” – “Nothing will you be able to say or do without the help of Minerva (Athena)” (Mitru, 1996).

About the “pair” Apollo – Dionysus (thought by Nietzsche in relation to the philosophy of culture) we can think of as “the harmony of reason” versus “the experience of ecstasy”. Dionysus, God of drunkenness and mystic, “symbolizes the surpass of inhibitions, repressions” (Chevalier, 1994, p.449).

But the opposition between reason and emotion isn’t always seen as a conflict. The symbol of perfection, the Hermaphrodite, the one that integrates the masculine and the feminine, is, as its name demonstrates, the son of the intellect (Hermes) and affectivity (Aphrodite). More than this, the respect for and importance of Aphrodite, Goddess of love, in Greek mythology is obvious. “The sexual act is the specific domain of Aphrodite, which she inspires and protects” (Eliade, 1992, p.280). “Her opposite” is Artemis, a virgin Goddess. “Greeks have seen in her eternal virginity the indifference towards love. In the tragedy of Euripides (Hippolyt), Artemis herself states her hate for Aphrodite” (Eliade, 1992, p.280).

The Goddess is, like all feelings, primordial, feared by Gods, capable even to give life (Galateea). She wins the apple of Discord because love comes first before power (Hera) and wisdom (Athena). The eternal lover of the Goddess is Ares (whose cohort is formed by: Enyo – the destruction, Eris – the dispute, Deimos – terror and Phobos – fear). Inspiring metaphor of the ancient: the union between Aphrodite (feminine and spiritual side) and Ares (the masculine and carnal side) generated Harmonia (joining of contrasts) and Eros (passion). About Eros (Cupid for Romans), the myths say that “his arrows are of two kinds: ones made of gold, soaked in honey, others made of lead, soaked in poison” (Cotrobescu, 1999, p.86). Love is joy and also soreness, just as the affective processes are characterized by polarity and mobility. “The ancient artists presented Eros riding a lion. This way they showed that feelings can tame any being regardless of how cruel it is” (Mitru, 1996, vol. I, p.179).

In the end, we must mention the appreciation of ancient Greeks for creation, talent and art. The legend says that “Zeus united with Mnemosyne, Goddess of memory, generated the nine muses” (Cordoneanu, 1998, p.195), metaphor of creation by inspired use of gained experience. In any case, music is an atribut of the Gods, proof to that being the lire of Apollo (solar God, protector of the muses), Pan’s pipe and the sublime music of Orpheus, that calmed down even infernal forces – a symbol of revealing the products of our unconscious with the help of art. As a fundament of creation stands the fantasy (associated with Pegasus) and the act of defeating all doubts, falsity and lies (the symbolic fight between Pegasus and Belerofon against Chimera). But originality isn’t an exclusive divine feature. “Thetis, the primary, fertile force, became the wife of a mortal (Peleu), and this symbolizes the fact that the creative potential can’t be put to use without the help of human intelligence” (Hamann, 2004, p.149).

From Antiquity to Modern Psychology

The majority of psychological ideas ancient Greeks had (now “taken” from their mythology) are not lost, but found (as we demonstrated), maybe in a different form, in modern scientific psychology. Even more, this psychological approach to mythology has often proved to be more than “literature”, but a valid, useful investigation, capable to generate new concepts and theories.

Because of the well-known anthropomorphism of the Greek Gods, it was possible to create famous typologies, such as “the character in eight planetary types” (Jues, 2003, p.52), basset on a number of four oppositions (Mars – Venus, Earth – Mercury, Jupiter – Saturn, Sun – Moon).

Mythology isn’t dead. ” Gnothi se auton, or, in a Latin more familiar form, Noscere te ipsum: know yourself. The old dictum written at the entrance of the Delphi temple seems more present than ever” (Cotrobescu, 1999, p.678). Myths offer us the way to reach the essence, a way to eternity, to the self.

Even the origin of the word psychology leads us to a myth: Psyche and her lover, Eros. “This allegory has a meaning. Psyche, in the Greek language means soul. But the soul rises only through love, Eros, and ends up in Olympus, the place of eternal happiness” (Mitru, 1996, p.179). The psychic is characterized by feeling, life and torment. So, psychology represents, from the mythological point of view, more than just science or knowledge. Psychology is the study of the human soul in search of love.


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Originally published by Europe’s Journal of Psychology 1:1 (2005) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.