Many people in the Western world learn stories from Greek mythology at a young age. These stories are often adapted to be more appropriate for our culture’s values and beliefs, but they are based on the legends of ancient Greece.
These popular myths, however, only tell part of the story of Greek mythology.
The people of ancient Greece believed their myths to be based in fact, but even they realized that this was a vague idea. At different times and places, the myths of Greece could be told in wildly different ways.
Further complicating this is the fact that many stories that are told today as Greek myths weren’t truly part of the religious beliefs of the time. Some weren’t even Greek.
At their heart, Greek myths are the stories of ancient religion and history. Understanding them, however, is harder than we might like to think!
Mythology is broadly defined as a collection of legends from a particular culture or religious tradition. In the case of Greek mythology, the term refers to the stories and religious beliefs of the ancient Greek people.
One idea that people often get wrong about Greek mythology, however, is that there is a single version of Greek belief. In truth, Greek myths are varied and changed often.
The culture of ancient Greece lasted for roughly a thousand years. Homer wrote the earliest recorded stories in the 8th century BC and people in Greece still continued the stories after their country had been conquered by Rome.
In this period of time, Greek mythology underwent many changes. As stories were retold and the overall culture changed, the myths often evolved to fit the time.
One of the best examples of this is the stories of the Greek Underworld. Over the course of ancient history, the idea of the afterlife underwent many changes.
The early Greeks believed that the Underworld was a uniformly dark, drab, and unhappy place. Over the course of hundreds of years, however, outside influences and evolving tastes led the Greeks to believe that exceptionally good and virtuous people could attain a version of the afterlife that was more like a paradise.
Greek mythology also varied from place to place.
Throughout ancient history, Greece was never a single unified nation. Unlike Rome, which had a centralized government and a state religion, Greek power always centered on the polis, or city-state.
Many cities rose and fell in importance over the course of Greece’s ancient history. The states were almost constantly at war with one another, with constantly shifting alliances.
The Greeks did not even all live in Greece. Even in its early history, Greek cities established colonies and trading posts in Asia Minor, the Near East, North Africa, the Baltic, and Italy.
The lack of a single center for Greek power and culture meant that each region developed its own slightly unique mythology. While some stories were retold consistently, details in the myths and the relative popularity of different stories varied.
In Asia Minor, for example, the native goddess Cybele was incorporated into the beliefs of Greek settlers. While she had some followers in Greece’s major cities, her cult and legends were mostly unique to the colonies.
In Athens, ancient feuds meant that the stories of King Minos and the people of Crete cast them as the villains. On Crete, however, the same stories were told with Minos as a semi-divine founding king.
What we think of today as Greek mythology are the stories that have survived. Many of these were written in Athens and display the values, priorities, and tastes of that city.
What is important to remember about Greek mythology, however, was that the people who first told these stories did not believe that they were fictional myths. To them, the myths were the foundation of their religion, despite local variations.
The core myths of ancient Greece told the stories of the gods.
The ancient Greek gods were very similar to humans. They had family relationships, distinct personalities, and even flaws.
The gods in Greek mythology were powerful beings, but they were also fallible. Many popular myths showed the failures of the gods and their personal problems as well as their powers.
The most well-known Greek myths sought to explain the world as the people of the time knew it. Like other religions, Greek mythology provided a way of understanding the world.
One well-known Greek myth, for example, told the story of how the god of the Underworld got married. Hades abducted Persophone, with the permission of Zeus, when her mother Demeter was not around.
Demeter searched for her missing daughter. When she learned that Persephone was in the Underworld, she threatened to use her power as the goddess of grain to make the crops fail if her daughter was not returned to her.
Persephone had eaten food from the Underworld, however, so she was bound to it forever. As a compromise, Hades agreed that his wife would split her time between his realm and the surface.
The myth of Hades and Persephone, in its simplest interpretation, explains how the seasons came to be. When Persephone is on the surface her mother is happy and plants grow well, but when she returns to the Underworld Demeter mourns her absence and winter arrives.
Many myths also had deeper significance, however.
The story of Persephone explains the arrival of spring, but it also shows the connection between death and new life. Just as seemingly dead seeds pull new life from below the earth, Persephone comes back from the Underworld to allow new life to grow.
This deeper meaning is not immediately understood by many people, and likely would not have been seen by all Greeks. It shows, however, that the myths were often more nuanced and complex than they first appear.
The stories of the gods in Greek mythology explained almost every aspect of the world. From the creation of mankind to how certain animals got their names, myths helped the people of Greece understand the world around them.
The Greek people did not believe that the gods were entirely removed from the world of men. Although it happened more often in the past, gods could still interact with humans and directly influence their lives.
Greek mythology, therefore, was thought of as history as much as it was a religious system. The gods played as great of a role in the founding of a city or the outcome of a war as they did in the creation of animals or the creation of an island.
Greek myths that were supposedly rooted in history typically featured larger than life characters. The heroes, kings, and queens in these stories were, more often than not, believed to have been the children of the gods.
The Greek gods, and some of the goddesses, had many affairs with mortal women. The children born from these unions were semi-divine heroes, exceptional kings, and women of great beauty.
Heroes like Heracles and Perseus were more than just characters in popular stories. They were believed to have been historical figures who did exceptional things because they had the favor of the gods.
For the earliest Greek writers, these historical myths were not very far removed from their own times.
Homer wrote just a few hundred years after he claimed the Trojan War had taken place. Despite featuring places and technologies that were well-known to him, his stories also included incredible monsters, superhuman heroes, and direct intervention from the gods.
While the myths of the gods largely explained the natural world, the myths of history explained Greek society. They told how cities were founded, how traditions were created, and how old alliances and enemies had been made.
They also justified the power structure of the Greek world. Cities could claim direct favor from the gods their rulers were related to, and those rulers justified their hold on power by claiming divine ancestry.
To the Greeks, these histories were as real as what we would read in a modern textbook. While we are just a few hundred years removed from the discovery of the New World, Homer believed he was similarly close to the legendary voyage of Odysseus.
Despite the literal belief in many myths, there were some stories that were always understood to be works of fiction.
Some of the earliest and most well-known examples of this idea were Aesop’s fables. The popular stories had many of the same themes, characters, and motifs of older myths but they were generally understood to be fiction.
Instead, these stories were written to impart a moral lesson. They were simple stories that used familiar themes to teach people about proper behavior and values.
Aesop’s fables are today mostly read by children, but some of the myths that were not taken literally were much more complex.
One of the cultural achievements of ancient Greece was the development of Western Philosophy. Writers like Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle offered theories about the natural world and the human condition.
Sometimes, the philosophers used mythology to illustrate their ideas. Like Aesop, they based their philosophical writings on the stories of mythology for effect rather than as part of the religion.
Often, this meant simply expanding on known stories rather than creating new ones.
Plato, for example, used the story of Prometheus to illustrate the difference between natural abilities and those provided by technology. He expanded on the story of how Prometheus gave mankind fire to expand the concept of technical abilities.
In modern interpretations of mythology, these stories are sometimes confused for more traditional myths. At times, it is difficult to know whether a story was told as part of a religious belief or as a lesson.
The plays of Aeschylus, for example, offer many versions of myths that were not well-attested before this. It is difficult to know, however, whether they reflect existing belief or the writer’s own agenda.
Stories that are included in Greek mythology, therefore, were sometimes not understood as traditional myths in their own time.
Understanding Greek mythology is sometimes made even harder by the inclusion of Roman stories.
The native gods of Italy did not have the same human characteristics as those of Greece, so they had fewer stories associated with their powers. The Romans borrowed the mythology of Greece and the characteristics of their gods and applied their own names and meanings to them.
Roman myths are therefore largely identical to those of Greece, but with different names attached. Some Roman stories, however, have been mistakenly identified as Greek myths.
Many of these were in the worlds of Ovid, a Roman poet of the 1st century AD. His works combined traditional myths with his own inventions.
Many of Ovid’s stories have been repeated as traditional myths by many sources even though they were completely unknown before his works. The story of Arachne being turned into a spider, for example, was unknown in Greece.
Some of Ovid’s stories entered into the popular imagination after his time, but it is inaccurate to call them Greek myths. They were new stories written by a Roman poet who, like Aesop and Plato, had his own agenda in writing.
Ovid’s stories illustrate another issue with Greek mythology: Some myths are unknown to us today.
Our knowledge of Greek mythology is dependent on what sources have survived. The versions of the myths that we know were not necessarily the most popular or wide-spread at the time; they are just the ones that we still have evidence for.
In Ovid’s works this is clear. Some stories only survive through his account but are believed to have been much older.
The story of Eros and Psyche, for example, is only known through Ovid. Greek art shows Psyche several years before Ovid’s time, however, so some version of her story existed long before he wrote it down.
In these cases, it is almost impossible to know how much of the story is a real Greek myth and how much came from the poet’s imagination after the fact.
The myths of ancient Greece were the stories of its culture and religion.
Because Greece had a long history without a centralized religion, the mythology varied according to time and place. Many myths have different versions that were believed to be true by different groups of people.
The Greek myths centered around the Olympian gods. They told the stories of how the human-like deities created and influenced the world.
The gods were also involved in history. Greek myths that centered around kings and heroes were believed to be historical facts that linked the contemporary world to the gods.
Some myths, however, were not based in widely-held religious beliefs. They were changed and rewritten to suit the author’s purpose, which was often to illustrate a lesson.
Further complicating a definition of Greek mythology was the fact that many myths were rewritten or entirely made up by Roman writers long after the height of Greek mythology. Some stories that are popularly thought of as Greek myths were actually the product of Roman imagination.
While Greek mythology is generally well-known and widely-read, our understanding of it will always be limited. Because of the complexities of the stories and incomplete resources, many myths are only partially known and understood today.