UNRAVELING MYTHOLOGY



We often see conventions and ideas in literature as growing through time into their present forms. This is in a sense an evolutionary view, which is a reasonable way of dealing with the Past since we are unable to say anything coherent about the foreseeable Future. But in the case of Mythology, which is now such a widely interesting area, I believe it is worth taking the opposite tack, and working back through time to see where it all started. It is as if we were unraveling a woolen sock or sweater to find out where the material as well as the form were designed and where they originally came from. That is the rationale of the following paper.

The Mythology of the ancient Hellenic society is so well known in the Western World today, that we usually accept it without further thought as an integral part of our inheritance from the ancient world . We can outline the families of the myths like the names on a genealogical table, as my former student the late Carl Carlson did in the pre-computer days. But you can now find a number of detailed tables on-line with all the links and cross links laid out in immaculate order. For those interested in personal genealogy this is a good example of how an extended "family" can be described but in the range of several handfuls of centuries. It all seems so neat and factual!

But the Myths appear in many other aspects. They can be used on popular quiz-programs identifing an obscure mythic name, even a storyline as part of an ancient ritual. A basic course in Mythology is one of the most popular college courses since it works with tales and accounts and requires little more in the way of intellectual effort than reading and retaining data. But there is also advanced study in mythology, which involves the tracing of cultural lines across time and places, working on the literary level much in the manner of archaeology on the physical plane.

For decades the public has enjoyed the mythologizing of commentators like Joseph Campbell, who find in the myths the essence of ancient cultures ranging from Greece to India to further Asia, as a non-religious pathway into the relics of distant religious systems. And the public has been delighted with the results, which are accompanied by wonderful illustrations from the art-world, along with clever new twists in cultural analysis. But some will prefer the analytical depth of a Levi-Strauss to those who retell popular stories along with elaborate TV montage. Still others will fondly remember the myths from childhood books, where the unsuitable passages were removed in favor of an ancient Harry Potter style story scaled down for eight year olds. Myths satisfy the natural human interest in the exotic, in a world which can look very pedestrian overall.

Throughout the last two centuries there has been an increasing interest in the people of Greek mythic world, with a special intensity for the pages of Greek drama. The re-discovery of the Athenian Drama in the age of the Renaissance had become by mid-19th century part of the consciousness of the West, and names like Oedipus, Antigone and Electra became more familiar to the public through new literary work than from the actual study of the Greek masterpieces. The eighteen plays of Euripides which probably represented best to the Athenians the intellelectual tenor of their day, have been more difficult for moderns to assess. The Medea is often reworked into new social form, while the semi-comic element of the Alcestis is largely misunderstood. But these plays are just a relic of the vast corpus of what these known dramatists and many others wrote. The seven plays of Aeschylus we have out of a run of some ninety, are the result of the various taste levels of Hellenistic and late Byzantine choices as edited for the schools. The Prometheus Bound with its Christian overtones would be a natural favorite in 800 A.D., while the retention of Euripides' Bacchae with its twisted ritual is still quite a surprise. But of out of the forty two plays we have, we have made such good use that modern literature can hardly be imagined without them.

If Nietzsche made clear the contrast between the wild Dionysiac and the restrained Apollonian casts of mind, thus opening new approaches to hidden levels in human thought, then it would be not un-natural for Freud to frame his theory of child development in an Oedipal terminology. And it would be no surprise to find his student Jung defining his new doctrine of the Superego as ultimately connecting with Socrates' private "daimon" which advised him about good and evil on an intimate and personal level. In modern schools mythological examples seemed entirely valid in exploring the atmosphere of the Greek social and political world. Critics could later find hidden depth in Mythological traits, while Psychology with the same materials could move ahead in a very different scientific direction. But toward the end of the 20th century with the development of interest in oral poetry and folk stories from distant societies, the mythology of the Greeks assumed another place in what is now considered a worldwide Comparative Mythology.

It has seemed to some that the myths as ensconced in the Athenian Drama were veritable archetypes for the architecture of man's spiritual side. But we must remember that the world of 5th c. Athens was very different from the world of the modern West, that it was schooled in an education tracing back in imagination to another earlier society, which was hardly known except by name as Minoan. The 5 th c. drama which was written in a literary dialect language was selected by later critics for their own educational purposes, and this makes the universality of this corpus, as insight for the human soul, somewhat problematic. On the other hand, things which are not vital do not tend to survive while the rich field of Drama has borne rich fruit indeed.

At this point we might well ask ourselves how the interest in Mythology was spread so widely in 19th century America, becoming a standard reading textbook adjusted to the early grades of the small country schoolrooms of the country. Mythology is religious in base since it talks about gods if not about God, but it does not interfere with Christian beliefs since it doesn't seem to be a real religion in its own right. But this country-wide popularity was not spread by the high level academicians who were reading Greek in the universities here and abroad. In fact it comes from the most unlikely source:

Thomas Bulfinch (1797 - 1867) was well educated, first at Boston Latin School and then at Harvard, but upon graduation in 1814 he decided to enter the world of banking on a low level of engagement from which he never rose financially. Living sparsely as a bachelor in a cheap apartment, he decided to turn his organizational skills from the Merchants' Bank to a higher purpose and over the years read everything he could find on myth and fable. This work was finally completed and printed in 1855 as "The Age of Fable" and immediately became a popular book. The three dozen chapters on Greek myth were well written and clearly presented in a way which made them readable but also acceptable for school use, and the book became a standard part of 19th c. American education. By this curious route most Americans became aware of the Greek Myths from an early age, and their knowledge became standard as part of what every educated person should know, as Thomas Bulfinch had clearly planned. Mythology became as well known in America as Geography and basic Astronomy, with a long and lasting effect into the 20th century.

Of course this made access to English literature of the great Elizabethan period much more natural, without constant reference to a dictionary of proper names. The writers of Shakespeare's generation in their turn were early familiarized with the myths which became known in the great European Renaissance after the 13th century. But the question remains: Where did the original source information come from? Remember that the study of the Greek language was only gaining a hold after 1500, so we must look to the libraries of period of the incunabula for a source of Greek mythic storytelling.

English and European authors after 1550 had absorbed many of the Greek myths as used by widely read Roman authors and incorporated them easily into English poetry. The wide fame of Vergil included an imported version of Homer, and most Roman mythologizing was only roughly based on the genuine Hellenic artifacts. Zeus was hardly the same as the Roman Iovis (*dyov-) or Juppiter (*dyov + pater), and the Narcissus of Ovid was much more a native Italic woods-nymph story than a figure in the Greek world. By this odd route many items of Greek mythology were transmuted and changed into something suitable to the world of Roman Italy, but really different from the atmosphere of the Greek sources.

Now we come to the knotty problem in the unraveling and tracing to authentic sources for the Greek myths. But here we find very odd documents which do not give the feel of authentic information. The first source of importance would be the Bibliotheke Mythologike or Library of Myths written by Apollodorus who was a student of the great scholar Theophrastus, himself prime student of Aristotle himself. Apollodorus must have been writing around 140 B.C., and we would expect from his academic background a fine treatise worthy of his teacher's reputations. But in fact we have a short epitomized version of the original lost text, apparently written at Rome around 50 B.C.,. and all in all an uncritical and inferior production. It became known during the Renaissance MSS discoveries and was first printed in 1555, appearing just in time for the development of the new literary creativity in Europe. Only in 1782 did a better and critical text appear from the work of C J Heyne, but by now the author has been formally re-identified as the Pseudo-Apollodorus . This has in fact been our primary source for the world of Greek Mythology.

But we have another even more questionable account of the myths from Diodorus of Sicily, who around 40 B.C. composed a hodgepodge account of the myths as copied indiscriminately from unnamed Greek sources, encorporated in Books 1 - 5 of his Historical Library (Bibliotheke Historike). He pretends to have traveled widely and to have collected information from all countries. His writing is weak and thoughtless but perhaps this is better than nothing at all, and sadly he must be coupled with Apollonius as the prime Hellenistic source for much of our mythic information. His book became known in Europe when Stephanus edited and printed it in 1559, at the time when the subject of Mythology was becoming increasingly popular.

With such sources we must admit that the threads of our unraveling account of the myths are confused and badly knotted. These were hardly the best source materials for the friendly and orderly Bulfinch who had to re-write and re-order materials which were the detritus of a seriously corrupt Hellenistic tradition. But there is another set of problems which confuse the already confused situation even further. In the early years of the 20th century the German scholar Karl Robert began to check on the myth and hero tradition of the Greek world very carefully, going through major texts of Pindar and the Dramatists with a close eye on the ancient Scholia as comments added to MS of ancient authors in the Hellenistic period. He found that the Mythic History was by no means universal, that many of the heroes and theic names were attached to the local cults of individual cities and areas, and that a new assessment of the situation had to be made. In the 1920's he began to publish his revised views of the local cults and their participants, in a series of some five detailed German volumes which unfortunately were too scholarly to enter the growing field of Popular Mythology. But if we want to trace the threads out accurately we would have to reckon in Robert's work as an essential stepping stone back into the past, although it is one which does not provide compact and easy answers for the Mythologizing field.

Continuing our survey of mythic opinions in the Hellenistic period, and setting side for the moment the disappointing epitomes of the Pseudo-Apollonius and the fatuous Diodorus of Sicily, we should take time to consider the work of Euhemerus. This Sicilian writer who was working around 300 B.C. advanced a theory that the gods were originally kings, nobles and heroes who were commemorated in history as Gods because of their societal value and importance. This has found much interest in modern times, it is an entirely practical and non-spiritual approach which I have studied in detail in a series of papers on this website and recommend to your attention. What he said seems rational as a point of departure, but one has to wonder about the author's claims to have found documentary evidence on the island Panchaea in the Indian Ocean. Still it is a breath of fresh air in a stuffy Hellenistic world where gods and spirits and their progeny were in the Hellenistic period often nothing more than academic paperwork.

If we take a jump back from here to the more familiar world of high culture of the 5-4th c. masters, we find abundance of mythic thinking in the pages of Plato, whose story of Er is as much philosophical as mythical in spirit. Socrates' new personal spiritual guide as his "daimon'' shows that a thinking man could find the old standardized gods worn thin, without rejecting them outright. But a radical like Euripides would always have trouble with received Mythology as such, and we see his plays always teetering on the edge of a questioning of the deities. The less read plays like the Heracles and the Cyclops, let alone the satyr element in the Alcestis, show a new style of thinking but still enwrapped in the old theic formularies. But even Sophocles is wavering at times, and we wonder if his Ajax was not intuitively written as a suspicion of schizophrenia turning violent under pressure. And isn't the final appearance of Heracles to save the story of the Philoctetes something of an add-on, while the core of the story about isolation has the same universal tone as in Shakespeare's Tempest and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. But when Aeschylus tried a contemporary view in The Persians, it didn't work well without the mythic backdrop and was not tried again.

I am going to take a leap of imagination here and include very tentatively the Presocratics as anti-myth figures in a period in which attention was being turned toward a new kind of thinking. This shadowy group of thinkers, centered a little earlier than the center of the 5th century, ranges all across Greece from the Ionian Heraclitus, the Italian Pythagoras and Parmenides and Zeno, to the Atomists Leucippus and Democritus. But their work is preserved mainly in quotations from later academic writers, and lies in quizzical fragments which are interpreted with great difficulty and in some cases not at all. These are collected by Kirk and Raven "The Presocratic Philosophers" with Greek and philological discussions of text and variously commented in every textbook on Greek philosophy; but much still remains unclear.

The reason I include these is that the PreSocratics seem to be constructing elements of a new kind of thought which starts from a zero-base and hardly touches traditional mythology except at a glancing angle. Parmenides in The Way of Truth sees "Being . . . or Not-being" as the core question of the world, and this replaces in a flash the traditional view of "All comes from Zeus" in Aeschylus or Pindar. Yet in the Proem Fragment he says that "I was carried on a chariot by steeds as far as his heart could desire to the place of the goddess where..... there was a revelation about the ways of learning and knowing". Yes this is mythic thinking in tone. But his other poem "The Way of Seeming" is used to open doors that will lead to a very different place, one where pure abstract thought can define the truth. He sees IS as separate from the unlimited variations which the mind can fasten on, finally defining the variable untruthful under the classification of the IS NOT. He seems to be looking for something beyond the variations of opinion, searching for a reliable a core of universal truthfulness. This difficult view penetrated Greek philosophy from the time of Plato in the dialogue Parmenides , and lasted for a thousand years of Greek philosophy and on into modern times.

Unfortunately exploring the PreSocratics' world does require great attention and the Kirk-Raven book where the sources lie, does require both Greek and background. Textbooks as usual do simplify, so it is best to always read source material, as for example on this website Heraclitus who talks about mythic and religious matters but in a new vein and Pythagoras the radical mathematical thinker. From this point on in the Greek world, religion with mythology will be traditional state and festival activities, while the questioners of new thought will form into Philosophy as a counterfoil to the ancient mythic views. But the way in which these fragmentary early quotations fits into developed Greek philosophy is still a question in itself, it constitutes a Parmenidean shrine probably too complex for most or us to enter unassisted.

Aristotle touched on these matters in a comment in the Metaphysics 1074b, which brings together several of the points we have been discussing here. It is a carefully thought statement raising some deep questions and should be read several times with care:

" Our forefathers in the most remote ages have handed down to their posterity a tradition, in the form of a myth, that these bodiesare gods, and that the divine encloses the whole of nature. The rest of the tradition has been added later in mythical form with a view to the persuasion of the multitude and to its legal and utilitarian expediency; they say these gods are in the form of men or like some of the other animals, and they say other things consequent on and similar to these which we have mentioned. But if one were to separate the first point from these additions and take it alone-that they thought the first substances to be gods, one must regard this as an inspired utterance, and reflect that, while probably each art and each science has often been developed as far as possible and has again perished, these opinions, with others, have been preserved until the present like relics of the ancient treasure. Only thus far, then, is the opinion of our ancestors and of our earliest predecessors clear to us. "

If we shift attention for the moment to Rome some four centuries later, we find an unknown person named Lucretius writing around 50 B.C. a large philosophical poem "De Rerum Natura" which has come down to us from a single medieval MS example. He had at hand a full library of the dozen PreSocratic thinkers and their views, which he worked into his poem carefully, providing us with a perception of Greek philosophical materials which have been as noted above, confused, erased or lost. Notable in his work was an atomic theory, ideas about psychology, a virtual statement of Evolution which Darwin said he had never read, and a new view of the role of myth and the gods. The gods, Lucretius said, live in a world of their own, uncaring and untouched by human and their affairs. They do exist but since they are removed and emotionally unconnected with us, the world can know and respect them, but cannot hope for help or favor from them. This would seem to imply that Man is somehow a relative atheist, he is comfortable without the gods as focus of faith or prayer; but at the same time he recognizes their name and attributes respectfully. Of course this is not the Roman view of things, it is the lone scholar Lucretius at a Roman library following the major threads of the PreSocratics' thinking by way of summary and consolidation.

Hesiod, writing only half a century after the great poet Homer, is the son of a poverty stricken merchant and himself a farmer who in a flash of perception seems to have grasped the whole of the theological layout of the existing universe, all on one day as he tended his flocks. Unlike his "Works and Days" as a sort of Farmer's Almanac with details about sowing and planting was about life, the "Theogony" or Origin of the Gods was a vast schema of how the gods made the world actually work. This universal manual starts with Night and Ocean as a framework for a hard floating earth-world, and then he goes on to establish a complex system of mythological figures laid out in a hierarchical display with great detail.

After a short introductory list of the greatest gods, he comments: "And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me -- the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis " . This implies an apocalyptic vision suddenly congealing at a single point in time, as in the case of many religious leaders. When first reading the Theogony, you might think that this is a mere list of innumerable mythological names, but in recent years modern scholars have begun to feel that there is a special meaning and order to his storytelling in this complex 1022 line poem written in the Homeric dactylic meter. But to the mythologist, Hesiod is a mine of mythic names and personalities, families and actions, and the Theogonia should be read first of all as a book of complex religious storytelling and for the pleasure of the book itself, leaving interleaved depths of mysterious meaning aside for the moment.

Homer is of course the endpoint of this route. His work is so well known that it is hardly necessary to say more than that for him the gods are real forces which do shape men's lives in the last resort. Trojans and Greeks are each defined in the identity of their own state's god, and what a god wishes cannot be denied. But there are inserted other more intimate and personal views of the world of the gods, often with a touch of humanness and even with a flash of humor. Holy actions and revered holy places are filed in the vast flow of forty eight 'books' of near a thousand lines each, so this becomes a mine of exceptional richness for the close reader and even more for the scholar with a searching mind, as aided by his linguistic and social background. But all in all, the Iliad and the Odyssey, even though they are minefields and manuals for the history of a world of some five hundred years before Homer's time, are wonderful books full of adventure and action and the finest kind of storytelling. Further comment on religion of the Homeric texts is a topic hardly needing comment at this point. Homer speaks well enough for himself!

But when one turns after perusing Homer deeply to read the Homeric Hymns which date from half a century later, much will be found that is quite different. These separate songs which address each of the principle gods, have a different tone and they were apparently involved in specific religious rites or commemorations. The great Hymn to Demeter which concerns in mythological terms the disappearance and death of vegetation in winter and the annual rebirth when all is brought back from the darkness of an storage underground in Spring, had become a key litany in what we now call The Mystery Religions. We know from a quoted fragment of Sophocles that "Thrice blessed those who through rites of the mysteries are souls reborn . . ." and there is a constant documented history of use from the 7th c. down to the time of Christ and beyond. It is clear that the Mystery Rites went far beyond the usual mythological Gods, that they were in fact the real religion of the Hellenic and Hellenistic world. Even the drinking of blood-wine and eating of flesh-wafer as in Christian usage were a reflection of some of the intense soul-saving parts of the ritual of the ancient Mysteries. But these matters can only be touched on here as a point of notice. There are problems about the Mysteries, which were repudiated by early Christianity and there are questions about a long history through he centuries which come from the various texts of the unique and strange Homeric Hymns of the 7th century B.C.



A few comments

a) The Greek word "muthos" does not match the English "myth" exactly. As used in Homer it is just a word, often as compared to an act; but later it comes to mean a discussion, a conversation, or a discourse. This is the main documented meaning, but there is a quite different secondary meaning noted as II in the dictionary of LSJ, which is "a tale, a story, a fiction, a child's story".

b) When we speak of "myth" in Mythology, we are usually speaking of someone else's religion, which we don't believe in. If our religious views are right and true, other people's religious documents will be understood to be interesting as information or as stories, but in terms of religion, untrue.

c) If an outsider were to speak of the gospels of Matthew and Mark as early Christian myths, that would be strange and certainly insulting to Christian believers.

d) If the Big Bang theory of the creating of the universe were not backed up by convincing data, it would be classified as an interesting notion, but finally as a myth. Hesiod's origin of the universe is a myth in the sense of being an ancient religious statement, but because it is fabricated and unsupported, it is "fictional" hence a myth and a part of Greek Mythology.

e) The views of Euhemerus , Aristotle and Lucretius which I have discussed above, are not religious, although proposed in societies which were at least nominally religious. So these authors could be called "a-theoi" in the sense of Greek word, meaning that they were not concerned with the gods. But to people in the modern West, the term Atheist has an entirely different ring. To be "godless" is evil to religious believers, and the modern professional Atheist is an aggressively evil man often felt to be in concert with the Devil, whoever he may be. Again the ancient Greek word "a-theos" and its modern linguistic derivative are a confused and confusing match.



William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris