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.

(Figure 3.1) Statue of Apallo.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.

Greek Gods: The Olympians

One of the distinguishing features of myth is the close interaction between gods and mortals. Gods speak with their mortal favorites as well as intervene on their behalf. They could also do severe harm to their enemies. Odysseus, for example, angered the sea god Poseidon when he blinded Poseidon's son, the cyclops Polyphemus. Poseidon killed all of Odysseus' followers and prevented the hero himself from reaching home for ten years. The Greeks assembled their most important gods into a pantheon of twelve. Not all lists have the same twelve gods, but the list below is fairly standard.


(Figure 3.2) Zeus.

Zeus is the sky-god who uses thunderbolts to strike those who offend him (Figure 3.2). Hesiod's Theogony, which gives the genealogy of Greek Gods, makes him the son of the titans Kronos and Rhea. Kronos feared his children would some day overthrow him, so at birth he took them from Rhea and ate them. Rhea deceived Kronos by giving him a stone wrapped in blankets, and Zeus escaped. Eventually Zeus rescued his siblings and cast his father down into Tartaros. He divided the spheres of the world with his brothers Poseidon and Hades. Zeus received the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld. Few cities claimed special relationship with Zeus, like Athens does with Athena or Argos with Hera, but Zeus' worship was nearly universal among the Greeks. Two of the four Panhellenic Games, celebrated at regular intervals and attended by the entire Greek world, were dedicated to Zeus. These are the Olympic and Nemean Games.


Hera the wife of Zeus represents marriage. In myth Hera plays the jealous wife, persecuting Zeus' mortal lovers and their offspring. When Zeus slept with Semele, daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes, Hera conspired to get rid of her. She persuaded Semele to ask to see her lover Zeus in all his glory. The sight killed her. Another of Zeus' affairs produced Heracles, who spent his entire life facing Hera's wrath. Hera's most famous temples were at Argos and Samos.


(Figure 3.3) Statue of Athena.Athena is a civilizing goddess who is almost always represented armed (Figure 3.3). In one version of the story of her birth, she was conceived in the mind of Zeus. Unfortunately for Zeus, she got stuck there, and the god Haephestos had to release her by hitting Zeus in the head with an axe. Athena is identifiable in art because she is armed. She also often carries an aigis, which is a goat skin usually depicted with the head of a Gorgon on it and which has a border of snakes. The sight of this makes her enemies panic. Athena is especially revered in Athens. The Athenians told the story that Athena and Poseidon competed to be the patron of their city, each giving a gift to Athens. Athena's gift to the Athenians was the olive, and that tree was sacred to her.


Artemis is the daughter of Zeus and the Titan Leto, and the sister of Apollo. She is a virgin goddess who is associated with wilderness and wild animals. She watched over the transition of women from young maiden to adulthood. She could be cruel to those who offended her. In one myth the famous huntsman Actaion stumbled upon Artemis while she was bathing. The chaste goddess was angered at being seen naked and she turned Actaion into a deer, whereupon his own hunting dogs killed him. On another occasion she was angry at Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek expedition against Troy. She refused to grant favorable sailing weather to the expedition unless Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter to her. He complied. Her most famous sanctuary was at Ephesus, in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.


Apollo is the brother of Artemis and had various spheres of interest. He was a musician and played the lyre. He was famous as a healer of disease. He granted oracles to those who asked. His two most famous sanctuaries were at Delphi, where an oracular priestess lived, and at Delos, where he was born (according to the Delians). Every four years at Delphi the Pythian Games honored Apollo. These were second in prestige only to those at Olympia. Apollo could not just cure disease, he could inflict in on those who angered him. At the beginning of the Iliad, Apollo has sent plague to afflict the Greeks because Agamemnon has captured the daughter of one of his priests and refuses to return her to her father. Agamemnon ultimately gives the girl up, but in recompense he demands that Achilles hand over one of his own women. The resulting temper-tantrum is the central plot point of the poem.


(Figure 3.4) Poseidon in a chariot pulled by half horse half serpant creatures.Poseidon was god of the sea, earthquakes, and horses (Figure 3.4). He received his lordship over the sea after the fall of Kronos, when the world was divided among Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. In myth he is famous as the persecutor of Odysseus. He was worshipped all throughout the Greek world, since much of Greece is coastal. One of the most famous temples was at the southern tip of Attica, at Cape Sounion. The ruins of the temple are one of the most picturesque spots in Greece. Another famous sanctuary lies near Korinth, at Isthmia. Games in honor of Poseidon were celebrated every two years at Isthmia.


Demeter was the goddess of grain and fertility. The most famous myth concerning her is the "Rape of Persephone." In this myth, Hades kidnaps Demeter's daughter Persephone and takes her to the underworld to be his wife. A distraught Demeter refuses to allow crops to grow until she gets her daughter back. In the end, Persephone returns to her mother, but she is required to return to Hades for three months each year. During the time she is absent, nothing grows on Earth. Demeter and Persephone were honored each year at the Eleusinian mysteries. People from all over Greece came to Eleusis each year to be initiated. Initiates were strictly warned not to reveal the secret rites conducted there.


(Figure 3.5) Painting of Dionysus.Dionysus was the god of wine, theatre, and madness (Figure 3.5). His mother was Semele, daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes, his father was Zeus. When Semele was killed after seeing Zeus in his full glory, Dionysus was snatched from his mother's body and placed into Zeus' thigh, from which he was born. Several important festivals honor Dionysus. The Athenians, for instance, honor Dionysus at the Anthesteria, where they drink new wine. At the Greater and Lesser Dionysia, dramas were performed in honor of the god. It is at this festival that the great playwrights of the Classical age put on their plays.


Aphrodite was the goddess of erotic love. In myth, Aphrodite was born when the titan Kronos (Zeus' father) castrated his own father Ouranos ("sky") and threw his testicles into the sea. Aphrodite rose up out of the resulting foam. One particularly famous sanctuary of Aphrodite was located at Korinth.


Hephaistos was the god of crafts, and is associated with fire and volcanoes He had crippled feet. According to the story, Hephaistos had no father, Hera bore him alone. She was unhappy with the result and threw him down from Olympus, thus injuring his legs. He later got revenge by giving her as a gift an elaborately crafted throne which trapped her when she sat in it. Dionysus had to get him drunk and bring him back to Olympus to release her. The best preserved classical temple anywhere in Greece is the Temple of Hephaistos, or Hephaisteion, in Athens. Hermes: Hermes is a trickster god, the god of messengers and thieves (Figure 3.6). Stone images of him called herms were used in Athens to mark out boundaries. In later myths and art, he also leads the souls of the dead to Charon, the ferryman of the Styx who will take their souls into the underworld.


(Firgure 3.6) Statue of Hermes with The Child Dionysus.Hermes is a trickster god, the god of messengers and thieves (Figure 3.6). Stone images of him called herms were used in Athens to mark out boundaries. In later myths and art, he also leads the souls of the dead to Charon, the ferryman of the Styx who will take their souls into the underworld.


Ares is god of war. While Athena is portrayed as a civilized, calculating warrior, Ares is more violent. There are few myths associated with him and he has few permanent sanctuaries, though, of course, armies going into battle would naturally sacrifice to him.

Other Gods and Heroes

The twelve Olympian gods do not exhaust the Greek Pantheon. Hestia, goddess of the hearth, Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth, and the titans Prometheus and Leto, and the mysterious Hecate are only a few other divinities who attracted the worship of ancient Greeks. There were also a class of beings who tread the boundary between human and divine -- the heroes.

Famous and exciting tales grew up around the great heroes of Greece. Though the Heroes of the Trojan War, and the Argonauts of a generation earlier, were famous, the most famous of the heroes by far was Heracles. He was the son of Zeus, and jealous Hera persecuted him before he was born. Zeus was aware of Heracles potential, and foretold on the day of his birth that the greatest man of the era would be born. Hera contrived to delay his birth until the next day. Another one of Zeus' children was born on the predicted day, Eurystheus of Argos. King Eurystheus fulfilled the prophecy and became the greatest king in Greece. Eurystheus would eventually make Heracles a vassal and force him to perform his famous twelve labors. According to one version of the myth, Heracles was eventually granted immortality.

The final category of gods are known as "chthonic" gods, from the Greek word chthon (earth). Chthonic gods are associated with the earth or the underworld. Hades is often placed in this category, because of his control over the realm of the dead. Demeter also has chthonic aspects because of her association with the growth of crops.

What Do Myths Do?

For over a century there has been an ongoing debate about what the function of myth was in Greek society. Some have argued that myths arose when men tried to understand the natural world around them. When wondering about the source of lightning, Greeks concluded that it was the punishing arm of Zeus that cast the thunderbolt. Others have concluded that myths are a form of history, that behind every myth there is a kernel of truth waiting to get out. This is called "euhemerism," after Euhemeros of Messene, who around 300 B.C. wrote that the gods were once famous kings and queens who died and began to be worshipped after their deaths. Another school of thought connects myth with ritual, arguing that myths arose to explain the manner in which and the locations at which the Greeks carried out their rites.