Greek Mythology, on the whole, consists of stories of gods and goddesses who purportedly dwelt on Mt Olympus. But it is not an account of the Greek religion. The modern idea of a real myth is that it constitutes an explanation of something in nature; for example, how and everything in the universe came into being – men, animals, this tree or that flower, the sun, the moon, and the stars. A volcano erupts because a monster is imprisoned within and intermittently struggles to escape.
Myths are early science – the result of man’s effort to explain the phenomena around them. However, there are also myths that elude explanation. These tales are pure entertainment which people tell each other (children, especially) to while away the time. The stories are early literature as well as early science, and also religion. In the background to be sure, but in plain sight. From Homer through the tragedies and even later, there is a deepening realization of what humans need and what is expected of their gods.
The list of the chief writers to whom the Greek myths are attributed is headed by Homer. The Iliad and the Odyssey contain the oldest of the Greek writings that have come down to us. The second writer, Hesiod, was a poor farmer who led a hard and bitter life. His poem Works and Days tries to show men how to live a good life in a hard world.
Hesiod has much to say about the gods; in fact, his Theogony, entirely focused on mythology is an account of the creation of the universe and the generation of the gods. He was the first man in Greece to wonder how everything happened – the world, the sky, the gods, mankind and to think out an explanation.
Next in order come the Homeric Hymns, Homer’s poems written to honor various gods. Pindar is the greatest lyric poet of Greece. In every one of his poems, myths are told or alluded to. The three tragic poets are Aesochylus, a contemporary of Pindar, and two who were younger – Sophocles and Euripedes. All these plays have mythological subjects.
We shall now choose two or three Greek myths to show what they have in common that unify them as Greek mythology and at least one Roman myth to provide a bit of contrast.
Our first myth is that about Demeter, Great Earth Goddess of the Corn. The myth is definitely Greek if only because the setting is in Greece and the writer is Homer who is a Greek. The story of Demeter is closely connected with the creation of the narcissus which is told only in an early Homeric Hymn of the 7th or 8th century.
The most lovely wildflowers grow in Greece. They would be just as beautiful anywhere else. Greece, however, is not a rich and fertile place, but a land of rocky ways, stony hills, and rugged mountains. Yet in such land not conducive to plants, there grows a profusion of exquisite blooms. The first storytellers in Greece told many a story about how they were created and why they were so beautiful.
It was the most natural thing to connect this with the gods. All things in heaven and on earth were linked mysteriously with the gods, but mostly beautiful things. Often an especially beautiful flower was regarded as the direct creation of a god for some purpose or other. In the beginning, Zeus called into being the narcissus – a lovely bloom of glowing purple and silver. Zeus created the flower to help his brother, Pluto, to lure Persephone, the daughter of the goddess Demeter away to his kingdom – the dark underworld. Pluto wanted her for himself since he had fallen hopelessly in love with her.
Persephone was gathering flowers with her companions in a meadow of grass and wildflowers. She caught sight of the narcissus, totally unknown to her, and was struck by its unusual beauty. Only Persephone among the maidens perceived it and just then, as she stretched out her hand to pluck the flower, a chasm opened in the earth. From it sprang coal-black horses drawing a chariot and driven by no less than the God of the Netherworld. She was borne away from the home she loved to the world of the dead, leaving her mother, Demeter, inconsolable.
The Greeks’ love for flowers prompted the early writers to rite how they came to be. The Hymn where the creation of the narcissus was taken, shows a fundamental difference between the Greek and the Roman. The Hymn is written objectively, simply, and without a touch of affectation. This is Homer’s style. On the other hand, the poet, Ovid, is always thinking of this audience, but he tells his story well as in his account about the origin of the Hyacinth.
The year after the abduction of Persephone was the most terrible for humanity. Nothing grew, no seed sprouted. It looked as though the race of men would die of hunger. At last, Zeus knew he must act. He sent a group of gods to intervene, but Demeter turned a deaf ear; she would not give way to Zeus’ plea – not until her daughter be returned to her. Powerless in this respect, Zeus sent Hermes to the Underworld to tell his brother to give way and return the wife he loved back to her mother.
Persephone’s husband knew he was on the losing end, so before she left him, he prayed to her to always think kindly of him and remember that she was once the wife of one who was great among the immortals. She sprang up joyfully, eager to join her mother whom she missed so much. Before she went, Pluto made her eat one pomegranate seed, knowing in his heart that if she did, she would have to come back to him. Even a god will do anything for love.
The story of Persephone, too, is a love story, as are many myths are. The Greek writers are incurable romantics as are the Romans. This tale also evidences the Greeks’ high respect for old age. Zeus, knowing that Demeter would not refuse, sent his own mother, Rhea, oldest of the gods, to speak to Demeter, explaining the situation and the changes that had to take place:
“As each year is accomplished and bitter winter is ended,
For a third part, only the kingdom of darkness shall hold her
For the rest, you will keep her, you, and the happy immortals.
Peace now. Give men life which comes alone from your giving.”
Demeter had to content herself that because of that single pomegranate seed, Persephone would be lost to her four months each year. During that period, winter would set in and mankind would once more suffer. But for the rest of the year, Demeter would make the fields rich once more with fruit in abundance and the world bright again with flowers and green leaves.
A myth in order to be one has to explain some event or phenomenon in nature and this one about Demeter and Persephone explains the seasons of the year for this is most important for agriculture. Following the seasons, the farmer can schedule for himself a time for his reaping and a time for his saving. In the early days of mythology, people depended on farming for survival. Demeter realized this. She chose one of the princes of Eleusis to be her ambassador to men, teaching them how to sow the corn. Demeter, goddess of the harvest wealth was kind. Because of her concern for humanity, men always called her the “Good Goddess”.
Our next myth, Baucis and Philemon was written by the Latin poet, Ovid, who is the only source for this story. It shows especially well his love of details ad the skillful way he uses them to make a fairy tale seem realistic. Ovid is the most prolific writer on mythology. He told his stories well and he told them at great length. Since Ovid was Roman, the Latin names of the gods are used. We have already mentioned the fact that people who lived during times when myths began, held pity and respect for the old –even the gods did. This is the story of two old people, Baucis and Philemon, who led virtuous lives and were rewarded by the gods.
The tale of the two aged couples also serves to explain the natural phenomenon of two trees located in the Phyrgian hill country, which peasants near and far pointed out as a great marvel. It was no wonder for one was an oak and the other, a linden tree, and yet they sprouted from a single trunk. How this came about is proof of the immense power of the gods and how they give recompense to the pious and the humble.
It is said that sometimes when Jupiter grew tired of the life he led on Mt. Olympus, he would disguise himself as a man and come down to earth. His companion was usually Mercury, the messenger of the gods. In this instance, Jupiter wanted to find out how hospitable the Phrygians were. So, looking like poor wayfarers, they knocked at every door, asking for food and lodging, but they were just rudely sent away by the villagers. At last, tired and hungry, they came upon a humble hut, which was opened to them by a kindly-faced old man and woman. In the friendliest fashion, the strangers were welcomed and made comfortable.
The old woman introduced herself as Baucis and her husband as Philemon. She confessed that they were very poor, but that it was all right for they had been happy together and that poverty was no problem if one is a willing town up to it. The couple managed to feed the strangers and give them rest. The old folks were so happy to provide the hospitality that the failure to notice that the earthenware mixing bowl that contained their simple, beechwood wine, never diminished in contents. Fearful, they then prayed and the two gods decided it was time for them to take action. In those early times, the tie between guest and host was strong. Each was bound to help and never harm the other.
“You have been hosts to gods”, they said. “and you shall be rewarded.” This wicked country that gives no welcome to poor strangers shall be punished.” When Baucis and Philemon looked outside, they saw to their amazement that the whole countryside had been changed into a great lake and the tiny, lowly hut in which they lived, was transformed into a stately pillared temple of white marble and a golden roof.
“Good people, tell us what you wish and we shall grant it.” The old man and his wife exchanged furtive whispers and then Philemon said, “Allow us to be your priests guarding this temple and grant that we will always be together, come what may.” Their wishes were granted and when they grew very old, they were changed into trees but still, they were together. People came from far and wide to admire the wonder of it and always honor the pious and faithful pair by hanging wreaths of flowers on the branches of the two trees which used to be the old lovers true to each other till the end.
Ovid’s tale is a prime example of Roman mythology, despite the rhetoric and sentimentality that is present in his works. He was able to appreciate the myths enough to realize what excellent material they offered.
The story of Achilles and the heroes of the Trojan War is almost entirely taken from Homer. Unlike the Latin writers, Homer “tells it like it is.” Unlike Ovid and the other Latin writers, Homer is not frivolous. Homer writes objectively, simply, and without a touch of affectation. This is true of the myths he has written about Achilles and his participation in the Trojan War.
The tale of Demeter and Persephone shows clearly the theme of love between parent and offspring. In the story of Achilles, this theme runs true, and even more so, because his mother Thetis knew that his life would be brief, indeed. Achilles was the son of Peleus and the sea nymph, Thetis. When the recruitment of warriors for the Greek Army to be sent to Troy began, Achilles was kept back by his mother. The sea nymph knew that if he went to Troy, he was fated to die there.
She sent him to the court of King Lycomedes and made him wear women’s clothes and hide among the maidens. Odysseus was dispatched by the chieftains to find him. Disguised as a peddler, he went to the court where the lad was said to be. Odysseus recognized him from the way he fingered the swords and daggers and not the trinkets which the girls flocked to. During the war, not one among the Greeks deserved the title of Champion except Achilles. He was told by his mother, “Very brief is your lot. Would that you could be free now from tears and troubles, for you shall not long endure, my child, short-lived beyond all men and to be pitied.”
For nine years, victory wavered between the Greeks and the Trojans. Then a quarrel flared up between Achilles and Agamemnon and this turned the tide in favor of the Trojans. Agamemnon had a woman Chryseis, daughter of Apollo’s priest. Her father came to beg for her release, but Agamemnon refused unless another would take her place. The maiden Bryseis who belonged to Achilles was given in her stead and Achilles was furious. That night, silver-footed Thetis came to him, equally furious. She told her son not to have anything to do with the Greeks. She went to Zeus to give success to the Trojans, but Zeus was reluctant.
As a result, Achilles stayed in his tent, sulking, and refused to fight along with the Greek warriors, and the Greeks without Achilles were losing the battle. Achilles had a friend whom he loved like a brother. His name was Patroklus. When the war reached a point where the Greeks were being sorely defeated and ready to sail away on their ships, Patroclus could not bear it anymore. Not even for Achilles’ sake could he stay away from the battle. “You can keep your wrath while your countrymen go down to ruin. I cannot.” So saying, he put on Achilles’ armor and braced for battle.
For a time Patroclus fought as gloriously as Achilles did before, but he was no match for Hector on the Trojan side, who slew him. When Achilles learned of his beloved friend’s death, he resolved to avenge his death.
“I will no longer live among men if I do not make Hector pay with his death. Thetis, weeping, bade him remember that he himself was fated to die after Hector. Achilles answered, “I who did not help my comrade in his sore need, will kill the destroyer of him I loved.”
The heretofore overprotective mother, Thetis, this time did not hold him back. “Only wait till morning and you will not go unarmed. I shall bring you arms fashioned by the divine armor himself, the god Hephaestus.” The two warriors fought the last fight between the two great champions as all the immortals knew. They both fought a glorious fight, but only Achilles emerged the victor.
Achilles stripped the bloody armor from the corpse pierced the feet of Hector and fastened them with thongs to the back of his chariot, letting the head trail. Then he lashed his horses and round and round the walls of Troy he dropped all that was left of the champion of the Trojans.
Old King Priam filled a car with splendid treasures and went over to the Greek camp to Achilles’ tent. Hermes met him and offered his services as a guide. He accompanied the old man until they came into the presence of the man who had killed and maltreated his son.
He kissed Achilles’ hands and clasped his knees. As he did so, Achilles and the rest felt awe and looked strangely at one another. “Remember, Achilles, your own father, of like years with me and like me, wretched for want of a son. Yet I am by far more to be pitied who have braved what no man on earth ever did before, to stretch out my hand to the slayer of my son.”
Grief stirred within Achilles’ heart as he listened. Gently he raised the old man. “Sit by me here”, he said, “and let our sorrow be quiet in our hearts. Then he bade his servants wash and anoint Hector’s body and cover it with a soft robe so that his father should not see it, frightfully mangled as it was. “How many days do you desire to make his funeral?” he asked. “For so long I will keep the Greeks back from battle.” Nine days they lamented him; then they laid him on a lofty pyre and set fire to it.
It is paradoxical that Achilles went so far as to abuse the dead which displeased the immortals, especially Zeus. Yet he extended pity and respect to the father of the man he killed and was kind enough to give the son a decent funeral. This shows how highly the people of ancient times regarded their elders.
We in this modern world, are grateful to the writers of myths – both Greek and Roman. The myths provide us with information as to how people lived and loved in Ancient times. We are given the idea that they were people who were close to the gods. On the whole, they believed that they were protected by these immortals provided that they led good lives and were kind to strangers. They would be punished if they did otherwise. The myths serve as pre-history and give us an inkling as to the manner in which they acted.
They were people who loved nature – the earth, the lakes, the mountains, the sea, and the sky. The sea was often a setting for the stories in which heroes were sailors e.g. Ulysses, Jason, and others. Although they loved adventure, they opted for adventure, they opted for the quiet life at home. They had close family ties and gave due respect to the elderly. The women were good housekeepers and kept their homes neat and clean. Penelope, the wife of Odysseus took good care of their son, Telemachus till he reached manhood. The myths have many other examples of devotion between mother and child, Greek and Roman alike.
Plying her loom, Penelope was able to keep peace in her heart until her husband came back to her. Her story is still another love story wherein love endures through the years. Greek and Roman myths capitalize on this same theme. The menfolk cannot entirely avoid warfare, but when they are able to steer clear of it, they would rather be working in the fields as in the case of Odysseus who did not want to leave his house and family. He was plowing a field when the messenger from the Greek army arrived to seek him out.
There are many similarities between Greek and Roman myths. In fact, there are more comparisons than there are contrasts. Only the names of the gods and the characters are different. The Greeks made their gods in their own image. The world of Greek mythology was not a place of fear for the human spirit. True, the gods were disconcertingly unpredictable. Nonetheless, the entire group of immortals, except for a few were entrancingly beautiful and nothing humanly beautiful is really fearful. The early Greek mythologists changed a world full of fear and the unknown, into a world full of beauty and rationality.
The storyteller found Hermes among the people he passed in the street. He saw the god “like a young man at the age when youth is loveliest” as Homer says. Greek artists and poets realized how splendid a man could be – straight and swift and strong. He was the fulfillment of their search for beauty. All the art and all the thought of Greece centered on human beings. On earth, too, the deities were exceedingly and humanly attractive. In the form of lovely youths and maidens, they peopled the woodland, the forest, the rivers, the sea, in harmony with the fair earth and the bright waters.
Mythology is indeed a revelation. It reveals classic standards of beauty. Most of all, the myths give us an insight into the ideals and cultural values which the early Greeks and Roans treasured, looked up to, and, like a lamp in the darkness, lighted their way through life.
Asimov, J., “Fallible Gods”, Humanist, Vol. 67, Issue 1, 2007.
Edwards, M., Homer, Poet of the Iliad. Baltimore and London: John Hopskins University Press, 1987.
Hamilton, E., Mythology. New York: The New American Library, 1942.