Monday, July 18, 2011

Greek Mythology

History and mythology help explain the world of antiquity, the world the classical archaeologist seeks to illuminate. Classical archaeologists - unlike archaeologists working in many other areas - have many written sources and unwritten stories they can use to help them understand the way ancient people thought and acted.

What is a myth? One of the most enduring legacies of ancient Greece is the collection of stories that tell the tales of gods and heroes (Figure 3.1). Collectively these stories are known as myths. What do we mean when we call them myths? Today when we say "oh, that's just a myth," what we mean is "oh, that's not true (even if many people believe it)." Are myths, then, stories that are not true?

The oldest definition of the Greek word mythos comes from Homer, and it means "word," "speech," or "story," without any of the connotations of falsehood that our term myth has. As time progressed, mythos more and more implied "hard-to-believe stories" so that by the time of Plato (early fourth century B.C.) mythos had most of the connotations that our word "myth" has.

We still have not defined myth. At a very basic level, a myth is a story. However, a myth is a special kind of story. Fritz Graf, in his book Greek Mythology (Baltimore 1993) defines myth as a "traditional tale", with two characteristics that distinguishes it from a legend or a fairy tale. First, a myth is adaptable to many literary genres. Second, although flexible, a myth's adaptability is limited by the fact that a myth must be culturally relevant.

Because a myth is adaptable, it can take many forms. The most famous type of literature which contains myth is epic poetry. Our earliest sources for Greek myths are Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, written in the 8th century B.C., though they were based on an earlier, oral poetic tradition. Later examples of epic include Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica (3rd c. B.C.), which tells the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Furthermore, myths are not confined to epic. Pindar (early 5th c. B.C.) made frequent use of myth in the odes he wrote commemorating the victors of the Olympic (and other) games. Finally, Athens' three greatest dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Eurpides, employed myth almost exclusively in their plays; historical dramas were quite rare.

Because myth is so adaptable, we have no one "sacred text" which tells us all the Greek myths in their definitive forms. Each myth, in fact, had no definitive form, because each storyteller, poet, and playwright felt free to shape the myth according to his own needs. Sometimes the adaptations can seem minor. Aeschylus, for example, made Agamemnon the king of Argos in his play Agamemnon, while previous tradition unanimously places made him king of Mycenae. Sometimes, however, the adaptations are very significant. In his play Helen, Euripides feared that as an adulteress who deserted her husband, Helen of Troy would not be a very sympathetic character. Therefore he changed the story. Eurpides' Helen was in Egypt the whole time, and had nothing to do with starting the war which killed so many Greeks and Trojans. The key point is that each new version must continue to invoke something in its audience. If the new story fails to do this, if it loses its relevance to its culture, it is meaningless and can no longer be called myth.

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