Greek and Roman Mythology – What is Myth?

The Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1807). Hesiod cites inspiration from the Muses while on Mount Helicon. / Alte Nationalgalerie

By Louise Taylor / 06.21.2013
TEFL Educator
Southwest France

What is Myth?

Mythologies come from many different cultures across the old world but we are going to concentrate on the Greeks and the Romans. “Myth” is one of those deep and highly valued ideas that cultures use in order to try to figure out and describe the world, like love or truth or beauty.  There are many different definitions of it some of which are in direct conflict with each other.

Some Ideas from the Modern English Term “Myth”

  • Myth is by definition a lie, or something untrue that needs to be debunked. For example a newscaster might talk about exploding the myths about topic x . Then they show you something you believe is true and show you why it isn’t.
  • Myth is something that is true profoundly true. It’s the most deep and resonant kind of truth that a human being is capable of. Myth contains stories that are passed down from generation to generation.

So, we already have a first incoherence. Is myth a lie? Or is myth the most profound truth possible to human beings?

There is a second incoherence in that among the people who think myth has some truth to it; there are some that claim that myth has universal truths to it.

  • There are others that claim if myth has truths in it, that myth is actually a window into specific, cultural located truths. If you really want to understand, what it is to be Irish or to be Native American, or to be from a Norse-based culture, or a South Asian culture, or East Asian culture, what you need to do is dig deep down into local myths.

A third incoherence that shows up if myth is true it’s either true about universals or it’s true about cultural particulars.

  • Most people agree that it has something to do with the past, myths took place in an earlier time, but again this is never simple. There are some people who talk about the past as primitive and are happy that it has been displaced by more logical, reasonable ways of thinking. They may view science as a parallel formation to myth and talk about science as somehow displacing myth as a way of looking at the world. Others talk about a primitive idea of myth and embrace that.

A final incoherence some will embrace its primitiveness as being a wonderful thing some will try to show it as being something that is negative that we should try to stay away from.

What Did the Greeks Think of “Myth”?

The word for it is “Mythos” which  looks like the English word myth and identical to the German word, muthos, and for an Italian and a French word. The contemporary words come from a Greek root. Ideas about myth are also built on this Greek idea.  μῦ θος

  • The oldest definition we have from the Greek is that it’s speech. Anything that comes out of your mouth could count as a muthos.
  • A little later in Greek history, the term comes to label a specific kind of speech. It’s a speech that is a narrative story with a beginning, middle, and end, a plot, characters, things that you care about stuff that you want to hear.
  • Later still it became known as a specifically false story.
  • Finally, some thousand years after some of the poets we’re reading at this time, there are people who start to turn to this idea of myth, as being a tall tale but one that has some underlying, deeper truth to it.

Myth is much more than some single, simple definition.

What is a Real Ancient Hero?

This is actor Kevin Sorbo, who played Hercules in a campy United States version of a TV drama for kids back in the 1990’s. He’s got this wispy hairstyle that’s clearly an artefact of his time. He is bulky like a hero would be but his muscles are not chiselled. He seems to be kind and gentle.

Here is another version of Hercules that looks a bit more ancient. It is carved in stone and he’s a chiselled figure and a bit frightening. He has a lion skin and a club next to him. Is this closer to what the real Hercules is all about than Kevin Sorbo?
Firstly this is not a statue it’s a computer image of a, representation of a statue. It is an etching made in the nineteenth century. He has a fig leaf covering his genitals right there but the Greeks didn’t do fig leaves. When this etching was made genitals were thought to be naughty so they were covered up but Greeks and Romans didn’t think that. We are already a step removed from our real hero.
The etching that this is a representation of on the computer screens is a representation of a real ancient statue, sort of. It was made of a Roman version of an ancient statue. The Romans had ideas about Hercules. The Roman statue is actually a copy of a Greek original that existed many hundreds of years before the Roman statue that made up the, the subject matter for our etching.

The Romans invented the name Hercules. They based it on a Greek original but that name was pronounced differently. It was Heracles which is close but wasn’t a Roman kind of name so they changed it. If we’re looking for the true Hercules we have to go back to Heracles, which is the Greek original on which the Roman copy is based. Assuming that our Roman copy is an utterly faithful Roman copy of a Greek original, we are looking at an etching of a Roman copy of a Greek original statue. The Greek original statue surely must be what the real Hercules was like. The Greek original on which the Roman copy was based is only dates from, the end of classical times in ancient Greece, which weren’t very mythical times for the Greeks.

Chances are we’re really never going to find the real Hercules. A myth is a story that is always being retold. We’re not going to find ground truth when it comes to myth, myth defies our attempts to try to find some pure authentic representation of any of the great stories we’re interested in. Myth is always going to be not just a telling but a retelling. These stores have existed functionally forever, and have been told and retold over generations. The subject matter they focus on has to do with our figure right here, this amazing person Heracles.

The Storytellers


We find different versions of these heroes by different poets, different myth tellers, who add their version of the story to long traditions. We’re never going to find THE original one. One of them Homer, was already working at a time when lots of traditional versions were around him. His versions became extremely authoritative. But Homer is not the final answer nor is Ovid, or, Virgil. All of the different versions of the myths are just that, versions. They help us get a window into what it is we’re looking at. The thing that probably is most prominent in all myths is what it is to be human. We’re pretty amazing creatures. Look at the statue of the disc thrower here. He’s got an amazing physique, beautiful form, worthy of representation. Not only can you appreciate the physical form behind the representation, but then you can also add a certain wonder at the representational art itself. Humans are capable of the great feats that this fellow represented is and the feat of representation that the artist who made this statue represents for us.


Mythology doesn’t only include people but animals to and some of the most wonderful of the myths have beasts that are a mixture. We have the half human half animal and then we have the Gods. They can come to earth in disguise to allow them to walk among us.

The final class of beings are monsters such as Cyclops.

Studying Myth in the Contemporary World

We live in a world of microchips. Our interactions are enabled by scientific technology that’s sophisticated.  The world that we live in is absolutely different from our mythic world it has its own magic, and its own amazingness.  It’s built on this sense of connection and interconnectedness, we live in a deeply networked world made possible by the technology of silicon.

We’re connected by silicone in the ’30s is it was radio waves. In Homer’s day the technology available for to people to stay connected or to make contact with people was shipping. They used the medium of the sea. The Mediterranean Sea is another kind of character in Greek and Roman myth. It is a great connecting force in the ancient world.

Attic cup depicting a greek sailing ship. Upper detail. Black figures decoration. Archaic Greek art. Ceramics. Date: Source: FRANCE. Paris. Louvre Museum.

A recent, scholarly treatment of the Mediterranean Sea dubbed it ‘the corrupting sea’ which is a wonderfully apt, description of the role the Mediterranean plays in antiquity. The purity in the Ancient Mediterranean is ephemeral, it doesn’t really exist. Cultures around the great Mediterranean Basin have always interacted with one another. Its part of what makes the Mediterranean such a special place, its inter-connectedness. A connected mind is an intelligent mind and the Greeks were interconnected with cultures all around the Mediterranean via shipping links that had them trading for many, many generations. Before our historical records starts they had contact with cultures in the far Western Mediterranean and definitely in the Far Eastern Mediterranean including cultures from the Italians to the French to the Spanish to the North Africans the ancient Carthage to North Africa. Greece was connected with extraordinarily rich and ancient societies. Each of them has their own distinctive ways of doing things, but all of them share this Mediterranean background.

Views on Myth of Those in Antiquity

  • We start by looking at the view of an anonymous ancient manuscript commentator, someone who scribbled in the margins of the myth that he was reading, a myth that had gods having sexual relations in public. This anonymous manuscript commentator writes in the side of the manuscript. “Among some people these things are not permitted on account of the display of indecency”. Censorship as an attitude toward these mythic stories is alive and well. Some of the ancient commentators are very scrupulous about what should be told and what shouldn’t be told. There are some ‘decency police’ that are operative here that want to make sure the stories that get retold are cleaned up a bit.
  • Plato (429 to 337 BCE), a great philosopher in the Western Tradition, had many complex views about ancient myth and about the poets that retell these myths. He was not a friend of the poets.

Plato / Wikimedia Commons

“Such utterances are both impious and false. They are furthermore harmful to those who hear them. For every man will be lenient with his own misdeeds, if he is convinced that such are, and were, the actions of [the gods.]”

Plato is making a commentary on the same thing as our anonymous commentator, about gods having sexual relations in public. The earlier comment was only about decency and indecency and worried about being scandalized. Plato focuses on the deleterious effect that hearing such stories will have on people as they are building values in their culture. For him myths are not just something that you listen to and get entertained by, or even offended by. They are powerful. They shape the kind of person you are, and the kind of values you have. According to Plato myths construct culture.

  • Xenophanes of Colophon (6th to 5th century BCE)  told us:

Wikimedia Commons

“Mortals consider that the gods are born and that they have clothes and speech and bodies like their own. The Ethiopians say that their gods are snub nosed and black. The Thracians, that their have light blue eyes and red hair. But if cattle and horses or lions had hands or were able to draw, horses would draw the forms of their gods like horses, cattle like cattle.”

Xenophanes had quite a sceptical view. He’s sceptical of the kinds of shapes that the poets give to the gods, and having the gods anthropomorphized and walking around in shapes that seem like ours. Furthermore, he that all we’re doing as Greeks is reflecting back in our gods what we see in ourselves. We make our mythic stories on the kinds of cultural values that we hold. According to Xenophanes, culture  constructs myth.

  • Metrodorus of Lampsacus, (5thc BCE), One of his famous quotation survives:

Wikimedia Commons

“Neither Hera nor Athena nor Zeus are the things which those who consecrate temples and walls to them consider them to be, but they are manifestations of nature, and arrangements of the elements. Agamemnon is air, Achilles is the sun. Helen is the Earth, and Paris the air. Hector is the Moon. But among the gods Demeter is the liver, Dionysus is the spleen, and Apollo the bile.”

Metrodorus says that what’s happening on the surface as one god talks to a human, or a human talks to a god, or a god talks to a god, we don’t have divinities floating around engaging in conversations with others or engaged in actual physical actions. Instead what we have is representations of deep truths, symbolically carrying forward deep hidden wisdom. Metrodorus makes a kind of mapping when he talks about the code that’s underlying this hidden wisdom. All of these humans are related to specific pieces of the natural, physical cosmos. Furthermore the relationships between humans and pieces of the cosmos don’t have to be one to one. Agamemnon and Paris are both air. The gods are mapped onto symbolic representations which for them is body parts. Maybe he was suggesting that when we tell stories about human beings, what we’re really doing is reflecting deep truths about some features of the physical cosmos around us and when we tell stories about gods, what we’re really doing is reflecting deep ideas we have about our human nature.

There is a very famous school of ancient ideas about myth called allegory. Metrodorus and many others were convinced of the idea that myths carried deep, hidden truths. Those who believe this come under the school of ancient allegory. All kinds of meanings get discovered and found in these mythic stories, stories about the physical cosmos and its shape, about the weather, about morality. Hidden wisdoms were thought to be contained in these rich powerful texts especially of Homer. Ancient readers loved to read Homer allegorically and find deep hidden truths in them. This hunting for hidden meanings can sometimes be annoying. People can find hidden meaning all over the place. At a certain point, there are some people who developed a kind of anti-allegorical strategy.

  • Aristarchus of Samothrace (216 to 144 BCE) is one of those figures. He was a very sober commentator, a more scholarly type of person, interested in a literary approach to the mythic tales. Aristarchus thought that readers of the myths ought to take the things told by the poet as more like legends according to poetic license, and not bother themselves about what is outside the things told by the poet. (summary of his ideas in a later author) He gives us a view that we would characterize as something that is literary and pretty strongly anti-allegorical.


  • Euhemerus (4th to 3rdc BCE). Nothing survives except small quotations of Euhemerus, and this summary helps us get a grip on him.

EUHEMERUS / Wikimedia Commons

“The gods, we are told, were terrestrial beings who gained immortal honour and fame because of their gifts to humanity. Regarding these gods, many and varied accounts have been handed down by the writers of history and mythology.”(summary of his ideas in a later author)

Euhemerus had the view that the stories that we hear are actually based on real historical characters. These stores of historical characters get told and retold over time until they’re literally deified. They become gods in the retelling and this is where the myths come from. Real and historic personages are the background behind any of the mythic characters we have.

As time advanced euhemerism and allegory were the two most prominent theories that survive.

Ideas on Myth in the Modern Era

Through the Middle Ages, allegory and euhemerism were the ideas that had the most weight. Medieval churchmen who read them were interested in these ancient tales more as profound knowledge than anything else.  They gave them the term Fabulae, that’s the plural of the Latin of Fabula which is a story or a tale. The Roman word means something like a story the kind of thing you might hear in an Aesop’s fable. They were something that some medieval churchmen had some interest in but not a lot of theoretical ideas developed. Their view was an authoritative Christian version of the Bible so they spent a lot of time thinking about that.

Bernard de Fontenelle (above, 1657 to 1757) said myths were nice stories, fun to hear and maybe were a little racy. In his view, the myths actually grow up as a reaction of early, early humans to the natural environment that surrounds them. They were an attempt to explain otherwise difficult to understand features of our natural world. A strange out-cropping of a mountain, a very dramatic valley perhaps thunder or lightning, these things Fontenelle said require that ancient humans develop some explanation. Myth was an attempt at science.

David Hume (above, 1711 to 1776).  Hume is characteristic of the enlightenment’s impatience with a mythic mentality. Many during the enlightenment felt that what was happening around them was something phenomenal and that there was a birth of rational thinking leading to an expunging of old ways of irrational thought. For Hume, as well for others in the enlightenment, a myth was not a source of great interest. It was thought to be the result of fearful human beings making up stories in a way that was comforting to them but it was not exactly going to be worth a lot of time trying to study these things.

Christian Gottlob Heyne (1729 to 1812). Heyne was interested in the ancient world. Heyne was an early precursor to study of classics. There was a lot of background data that Heyne and his colleagues needed in order to try to understand the ancient world, among them was myth. He said myth was a reaction to the natural landscape the reaction of awe rather than fear. Awe is fear mixed with wonder. Standing at the top of a mountain, surveying a beautiful stretch of the ocean or a wonderful river, there’s a sense of wonder that’s a common human reaction to such a thing. Heyne thought that there was some new dimension of human expression that had to get developed in order to express that sense of awe at the natural world which was identical to myth. For Heyne the term Fabula was not rich enough to describe this awe. He used the Greek term, muthos thus bequeathing the category of myth to modern languages. Myth is a concretization of abstract ideas he thought he would find abstractions underneath the concrete language.

Johann Gottfried Herder (above, 1744 to 1803) was an early precursor to Romanticism. He said it was not the case that myths are lies or wrong they’re actually deeply profound truths. The most profound truths humans have to express, heard or thought, they expressed through myth. They are the most profound manifestations of the human spirit that are possible to be found. Myths in, in Herder’s view of things and he, his views are inherited later by the Romantics thought that myths were innate to human beings. Myth was actually identical with poetry, with religion and language. All of these things were human attempts at coming up and expressing deep ideas that resulted from human beings feeling of being alive.

Walter Burkert (above, 1931- still living) a classicist from Switzerland.  The definition of myth that Burkert believes is the one that we use here as a standard tried and true definition in the course. He says that “myth is a traditional tale told with secondary partial reference to something of collective importance”. They are told in language by people of our species and they are told by particular examples of us and they are always told for a reason.

Originally published by Louise Taylor at E-Learning MOOC Blog under a Creative Commons license.