Greek mythology is the body of myths and teachings that belong to the
ancient Greeks, concerning their gods and heroes, the nature of the
world, and the origins and significance of their own cult and ritual
practices. It was a part of the religion in ancient Greece. Modern
scholars refer to and study the myths in an attempt to shed light on
the religious and political institutions of ancient Greece and its
civilization, and to gain understanding of the nature of myth-making
Greek mythology has had an extensive influence on the culture, arts,
and literature of Western civilization and remains part of Western
heritage and language. Poets and artists from ancient times to the
present have derived inspiration from
Greek mythology and have
discovered contemporary significance and relevance in the themes.
Penthesileia by Exekias, c. 540 BC, British Museum,
Greek mythology is explicitly embodied in a large collection of
narratives, and implicitly in Greek representational arts, such as
ancient vase-paintings and votive gifts. Greek myth attempts to
explain the origins of the world, and details the lives and adventures
of a wide variety of gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines and
mythological creatures. These accounts initially were disseminated in
an oral-poetic tradition most likely by Minoan and Mycenaean singers
starting in the 18th century BC; today the Greek myths are known
primarily from ancient Greek literature. The oldest known Greek
literary sources, Homer's epic poems
Iliad and Odyssey, focus on the
Trojan War and its aftermath. Two poems by Homer's near contemporary
Theogony and the Works and Days, contain accounts of the
genesis of the world, the succession of divine rulers, the succession
of human ages, the origin of human woes, and the origin of sacrificial
practices. Myths are also preserved in the Homeric Hymns, in fragments
of epic poems of the Epic Cycle, in lyric poems, in the works of the
tragedians and comedians of the fifth century BC, in writings of
scholars and poets of the Hellenistic Age, and in texts from the time
Roman Empire by writers such as
Plutarch and Pausanias.
Archaeological findings provide a principal source of detail about
Greek mythology, with gods and heroes featured prominently in the
decoration of many artifacts. Geometric designs on pottery of the
eighth century BC depict scenes from the Trojan cycle as well as the
adventures of Heracles. In the succeeding Archaic, Classical, and
Hellenistic periods, Homeric and various other mythological scenes
appear, supplementing the existing literary evidence.
1.1 Literary sources
1.2 Archaeological sources
2 Survey of mythic history
2.1 Origins of the world and the gods
2.1.1 Greek pantheon
2.2 Age of gods and mortals
2.3 Heroic age
Heracles and the Heracleidae
2.3.3 House of
Atreus and Theban Cycle
Trojan War and aftermath
3 Greek and Roman conceptions of myth
3.1 Philosophy and myth
3.2 Hellenistic and Roman rationalism
3.3 Syncretizing trends
4 Modern interpretations
4.1 Comparative and psychoanalytic approaches
4.2 Origin theories
5 Motifs in Western art and literature
6.1 Primary sources (Greek and Roman)
6.2 Secondary sources
7 Further reading
8 External links
Greek mythology is known today primarily from Greek literature and
representations on visual media dating from the Geometric period from
c. 900–800 BC onward. In fact, literary and archaeological
sources integrate, sometimes mutually supportive and sometimes in
conflict; however, in many cases, the existence of this corpus of data
is a strong indication that many elements of
Greek mythology have
strong factual and historical roots.
Mythical narration plays an important role in nearly every genre of
Greek literature. Nevertheless, the only general mythographical
handbook to survive from Greek antiquity was the Library of
Pseudo-Apollodorus. This work attempts to reconcile the contradictory
tales of the poets and provides a grand summary of traditional Greek
mythology and heroic legends.
Apollodorus of Athens lived from c.
180–125 BC and wrote on many of these topics. His writings may have
formed the basis for the collection; however the "Library" discusses
events that occurred long after his death, hence the name
Prometheus (1868 by Gustave Moreau). The myth of
Prometheus first was
Hesiod and then constituted the basis for a tragic trilogy
of plays, possibly by Aeschylus, consisting of
Prometheus Unbound, and
Among the earliest literary sources are Homer's two epic poems, the
Iliad and the Odyssey. Other poets completed the "epic cycle", but
these later and lesser poems now are lost almost entirely. Despite
their traditional name, the "Homeric Hymns" have no direct connection
with Homer. They are choral hymns from the earlier part of the
so-called Lyric age. Hesiod, a possible contemporary with Homer,
offers in his
Theogony (Origin of the Gods) the fullest account of the
earliest Greek myths, dealing with the creation of the world; the
origin of the gods, Titans, and Giants; as well as elaborate
genealogies, folktales, and etiological myths. Hesiod's Works and
Days, a didactic poem about farming life, also includes the myths of
Prometheus, Pandora, and the Five Ages. The poet gives advice on the
best way to succeed in a dangerous world, rendered yet more dangerous
by its gods.
Lyrical poets often took their subjects from myth, but their treatment
became gradually less narrative and more allusive. Greek lyric poets,
Bacchylides and Simonides, and bucolic poets such as
Theocritus and Bion, relate individual mythological incidents.
Additionally, myth was central to classical Athenian drama. The tragic
playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and
Euripides took most of their
plots from myths of the age of heroes and the Trojan War. Many of the
great tragic stories (e.g.
Agamemnon and his children, Oedipus, Jason,
Medea, etc.) took on their classic form in these tragedies. The comic
Aristophanes also used myths, in The Birds and The
Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, and geographers Pausanias
and Strabo, who traveled throughout the Greek world and noted the
stories they heard, supplied numerous local myths and legends, often
giving little-known alternative versions.
Herodotus in particular,
searched the various traditions presented him and found the historical
or mythological roots in the confrontation between Greece and the
Herodotus attempted to reconcile origins and the blending of
differing cultural concepts.
The poetry of the Hellenistic and Roman ages was primarily composed as
a literary rather than cultic exercise. Nevertheless, it contains many
important details that would otherwise be lost. This category includes
the works of:
The Roman poets Ovid, Statius, Valerius Flaccus, Seneca and Virgil
with Servius's commentary.
The Greek poets of the Late Antique period: Nonnus, Antoninus
Liberalis, and Quintus Smyrnaeus.
The Greek poets of the Hellenistic period: Apollonius of Rhodes,
Callimachus, Pseudo-Eratosthenes, and Parthenius.
Prose writers from the same periods who make reference to myths
include Apuleius, Petronius, Lollianus, and Heliodorus. Two other
important non-poetical sources are the Fabulae and Astronomica of the
Roman writer styled as Pseudo-Hyginus, the Imagines of Philostratus
the Elder and Philostratus the Younger, and the Descriptions of
Finally, a number of
Byzantine Greek writers provide important details
of myth, much derived from earlier now lost Greek works. These
preservers of myth include Arnobius, Hesychius, the author of the
Suda, John Tzetzes, and Eustathius. They often treat mythology from a
Christian moralizing perspective.
The Roman poet Virgil, here depicted in the fifth-century manuscript,
the Vergilius Romanus, preserved details of
Greek mythology in many of
The discovery of the Mycenaean civilization by the German amateur
Heinrich Schliemann in the nineteenth century, and the
discovery of the
Minoan civilization in
Crete by the British
Arthur Evans in the twentieth century, helped to
explain many existing questions about Homer's epics and provided
archaeological evidence for many of the mythological details about
gods and heroes. Unfortunately, the evidence about myths and rituals
at Mycenaean and Minoan sites is entirely monumental, as the Linear B
script (an ancient form of Greek found in both
Crete and mainland
Greece) was used mainly to record inventories, although certain names
of gods and heroes have been tentatively identified.
Geometric designs on pottery of the eighth century BC depict scenes
from the Trojan cycle, as well as the adventures of Heracles. These
visual representations of myths are important for two reasons.
Firstly, many Greek myths are attested on vases earlier than in
literary sources: of the twelve labors of Heracles, for example, only
Cerberus adventure occurs in a contemporary literary text.
Secondly, visual sources sometimes represent myths or mythical scenes
that are not attested in any extant literary source. In some cases,
the first known representation of a myth in geometric art predates its
first known representation in late archaic poetry, by several
centuries. In the Archaic (c. 750–c. 500 BC), Classical (c.
480–323 BC), and Hellenistic (323–146 BC) periods, Homeric and
various other mythological scenes appear, supplementing the existing
Survey of mythic history
Phaedra with an attendant, probably her nurse, a fresco from Pompeii,
Greek mythology has changed over time to accommodate the evolution of
their culture, of which mythology, both overtly and in its unspoken
assumptions, is an index of the changes. In Greek mythology's
surviving literary forms, as found mostly at the end of the
progressive changes, it is inherently political, as Gilbert
Cuthbertson has argued.
The earlier inhabitants of the Balkan Peninsula were an agricultural
people who, using Animism, assigned a spirit to every aspect of
nature. Eventually, these vague spirits assumed human forms and
entered the local mythology as gods. When tribes from the north of
the Balkan Peninsula invaded, they brought with them a new pantheon of
gods, based on conquest, force, prowess in battle, and violent
heroism. Other older gods of the agricultural world fused with those
of the more powerful invaders or else faded into insignificance.
After the middle of the Archaic period, myths about relationships
between male gods and male heroes became more and more frequent,
indicating the parallel development of pedagogic pederasty (eros
paidikos, παιδικὸς ἔρως), thought to have been
introduced around 630 BC. By the end of the fifth century BC, poets
had assigned at least one eromenos, an adolescent boy who was their
sexual companion, to every important god except
Ares and to many
legendary figures. Previously existing myths, such as those of
Achilles and Patroclus, also then were cast in a pederastic light.
Alexandrian poets at first, then more generally literary mythographers
in the early Roman Empire, often re-adapted stories of Greek
mythological characters in this fashion.
The achievement of epic poetry was to create story-cycles and, as a
result, to develop a new sense of mythological chronology. Thus Greek
mythology unfolds as a phase in the development of the world and of
humans. While self-contradictions in these stories make an
absolute timeline impossible, an approximate chronology may be
discerned. The resulting mythological "history of the world" may be
divided into three or four broader periods:
The myths of origin or age of gods (Theogonies, "births of gods"):
myths about the origins of the world, the gods, and the human race.
The age when gods and mortals mingled freely: stories of the early
interactions between gods, demigods, and mortals.
The age of heroes (heroic age), where divine activity was more
limited. The last and greatest of the heroic legends is the story of
Trojan War and after (which is regarded by some researchers as a
separate, fourth period).
While the age of gods often has been of more interest to contemporary
students of myth, the Greek authors of the archaic and classical eras
had a clear preference for the age of heroes, establishing a
chronology and record of human accomplishments after the questions of
how the world came into being were explained. For example, the heroic
Odyssey dwarfed the divine-focused
Theogony and Homeric
Hymns in both size and popularity. Under the influence of
"hero cult" leads to a restructuring in spiritual life, expressed in
the separation of the realm of the gods from the realm of the dead
(heroes), of the
Chthonic from the Olympian. In the Works and
Hesiod makes use of a scheme of Four
Ages of Man
Ages of Man (or Races):
Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron. These races or ages are separate
creations of the gods, the
Golden Age belonging to the reign of
Cronos, the subsequent races to the creation of Zeus. The presence of
evil was explained by the myth of Pandora, when all of the best of
human capabilities, save hope, had been spilled out of her overturned
jar. In Metamorphoses,
Ovid follows Hesiod's concept of the four
Origins of the world and the gods
Greek primordial gods and Family tree of the
Amor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All), a depiction of the god of love,
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, circa 1601–1602.
"Myths of origin" or "creation myths" represent an attempt to explain
the beginnings of the universe in human language. The most widely
accepted version at the time, although a philosophical account of the
beginning of things, is reported by Hesiod, in his Theogony. He begins
with Chaos, a yawning nothingness. Out of the void emerged Gaia (the
Earth) and some other primary divine beings:
Eros (Love), the Abyss
(the Tartarus), and the Erebus. Without male assistance, Gaia gave
birth to Uranus (the Sky) who then fertilized her. From that union
were born first the Titans—six males: Coeus, Crius, Cronus,
Hyperion, Iapetus, and Oceanus; and six females: Mnemosyne, Phoebe,
Rhea, Theia, Themis, and Tethys. After
Cronus was born, Gaia and
Uranus decreed no more Titans were to be born. They were followed by
the one-eyed Cyclopes and the
Hecatonchires or Hundred-Handed Ones,
who were both thrown into
Tartarus by Uranus. This made Gaia furious.
Cronus ("the wily, youngest and most terrible of Gaia's
children"), was convinced by Gaia to castrate his father. He did
this, and became the ruler of the Titans with his sister-wife Rhea as
his consort, and the other Titans became his court.
A motif of father-against-son conflict was repeated when
confronted by his son, Zeus. Because
Cronus had betrayed his father,
he feared that his offspring would do the same, and so each time Rhea
gave birth, he snatched up the child and ate it. Rhea hated this and
tricked him by hiding
Zeus and wrapping a stone in a baby's blanket,
Cronus ate. When
Zeus was full grown, he fed
Cronus a drugged
drink which caused him to vomit, throwing up Rhea's other children and
the stone, which had been sitting in Cronus's stomach all along. Zeus
Cronus to war for the kingship of the gods. At last,
with the help of the Cyclopes (whom
Zeus freed from Tartarus), Zeus
and his siblings were victorious, while
Cronus and the Titans were
hurled down to imprisonment in Tartarus.
Attic black-figured amphora depicting
Athena being "reborn" from the
head of Zeus, who had swallowed her mother Metis, on the right,
Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, assists, circa 550–525 BC
(Musée du Louvre, Paris).
Zeus was plagued by the same concern, and after a prophecy that the
offspring of his first wife, Metis, would give birth to a god "greater
Zeus swallowed her. She was already pregnant with
Athena, however, and she burst forth from his head—fully-grown and
dressed for war.
The earliest Greek thought about poetry considered the theogonies to
be the prototypical poetic genre—the prototypical mythos—and
imputed almost magical powers to it. Orpheus, the archetypal poet,
also was the archetypal singer of theogonies, which he uses to calm
seas and storms in Apollonius' Argonautica, and to move the stony
hearts of the underworld gods in his descent to Hades. When Hermes
invents the lyre in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, the first thing he
does is sing about the birth of the gods. Hesiod's
Theogony is not
only the fullest surviving account of the gods, but also the fullest
surviving account of the archaic poet's function, with its long
preliminary invocation to the Muses.
Theogony also was the subject of
many lost poems, including those attributed to Orpheus, Musaeus,
Epimenides, Abaris, and other legendary seers, which were used in
private ritual purifications and mystery-rites. There are indications
Plato was familiar with some version of the Orphic theogony.
A silence would have been expected about religious rites and beliefs,
however, and that nature of the culture would not have been reported
by members of the society while the beliefs were held. After they
ceased to become religious beliefs, few would have known the rites and
rituals. Allusions often existed, however, to aspects that were quite
Images existed on pottery and religious artwork that were interpreted
and more likely, misinterpreted in many diverse myths and tales. A few
fragments of these works survive in quotations by Neoplatonist
philosophers and recently unearthed papyrus scraps. One of these
scraps, the Derveni
Papyrus now proves that at least in the fifth
century BC a theogonic-cosmogonic poem of
Orpheus was in
The first philosophical cosmologists reacted against, or sometimes
built upon, popular mythical conceptions that had existed in the Greek
world for some time. Some of these popular conceptions can be gleaned
from the poetry of
Homer and Hesiod. In Homer, the Earth was viewed as
a flat disk afloat on the river of
Oceanus and overlooked by a
hemispherical sky with sun, moon, and stars. The Sun (Helios)
traversed the heavens as a charioteer and sailed around the Earth in a
golden bowl at night. Sun, earth, heaven, rivers, and winds could be
addressed in prayers and called to witness oaths. Natural fissures
were popularly regarded as entrances to the subterranean house of
Hades and his predecessors, home of the dead. Influences from
other cultures always afforded new themes.
Further information: Ancient Greek religion, Twelve Olympians, Family
Tree of the Greek Gods, and List of Mycenaean gods
Zeus, disguised as a swan, seduces Leda, the Queen of Sparta. A
sixteenth-century copy of the lost original by Michelangelo.
According to Classical-era mythology, after the overthrow of the
Titans, the new pantheon of gods and goddesses was confirmed. Among
the principal Greek gods were the Olympians, residing on Mount Olympus
under the eye of Zeus. (The limitation of their number to twelve seems
to have been a comparatively modern idea.) Besides the Olympians,
the Greeks worshipped various gods of the countryside, the satyr-god
Pan, Nymphs (spirits of rivers), Naiads (who dwelled in springs),
Dryads (who were spirits of the trees), Nereids (who inhabited the
sea), river gods, Satyrs, and others. In addition, there were the dark
powers of the underworld, such as the
Erinyes (or Furies), said to
pursue those guilty of crimes against blood-relatives. In order to
honor the Ancient Greek pantheon, poets composed the
Homeric Hymns (a
group of thirty-three songs).
Gregory Nagy regards "the larger
Homeric Hymns as simple preludes (compared with Theogony), each of
which invokes one god".
The gods of
Greek mythology are described as having essentially
corporeal but ideal bodies. According to Walter Burkert, the defining
characteristic of Greek anthropomorphism is that "the Greek gods are
persons, not abstractions, ideas or concepts". Regardless of their
underlying forms, the Ancient Greek gods have many fantastic
abilities; most significantly, the gods are not affected by disease,
and can be wounded only under highly unusual circumstances. The Greeks
considered immortality as the distinctive characteristic of their
gods; this immortality, as well as unfading youth, was insured by the
constant use of nectar and ambrosia, by which the divine blood was
renewed in their veins.
Each god descends from his or her own genealogy, pursues differing
interests, has a certain area of expertise, and is governed by a
unique personality; however, these descriptions arise from a
multiplicity of archaic local variants, which do not always agree with
one another. When these gods are called upon in poetry, prayer or
cult, they are referred to by a combination of their name and
epithets, that identify them by these distinctions from other
manifestations of themselves (e.g.,
Apollo Musagetes is "Apollo, [as]
leader of the Muses"). Alternatively the epithet may identify a
particular and localized aspect of the god, sometimes thought to be
already ancient during the classical epoch of Greece.
Most gods were associated with specific aspects of life. For example,
Aphrodite was the goddess of love and beauty,
Ares was the god of war,
Hades the ruler of the underworld, and
Athena the goddess of wisdom
and courage. Some gods, such as
Apollo and Dionysus, revealed
complex personalities and mixtures of functions, while others, such as
Hestia (literally "hearth") and
Helios (literally "sun"), were little
more than personifications. The most impressive temples tended to be
dedicated to a limited number of gods, who were the focus of large
pan-Hellenic cults. It was, however, common for individual regions and
villages to devote their own cults to minor gods. Many cities also
honored the more well-known gods with unusual local rites and
associated strange myths with them that were unknown elsewhere. During
the heroic age, the cult of heroes (or demi-gods) supplemented that of
Age of gods and mortals
Bridging the age when gods lived alone and the age when divine
interference in human affairs was limited was a transitional age in
which gods and mortals moved together. These were the early days of
the world when the groups mingled more freely than they did later.
Most of these tales were later told by Ovid's
Metamorphoses and they
are often divided into two thematic groups: tales of love, and tales
Dionysus with satyrs. Interior of a cup painted by the Brygos Painter,
Cabinet des Médailles.
Tales of love often involve incest, or the seduction or rape of a
mortal woman by a male god, resulting in heroic offspring. The stories
generally suggest that relationships between gods and mortals are
something to avoid; even consenting relationships rarely have happy
endings. In a few cases, a female divinity mates with a mortal
man, as in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, where the goddess lies with
Anchises to produce Aeneas.
The second type (tales of punishment) involves the appropriation or
invention of some important cultural artifact, as when Prometheus
steals fire from the gods, when
Tantalus steals nectar and ambrosia
from Zeus' table and gives it to his own subjects—revealing to them
the secrets of the gods, when
Prometheus or Lycaon invents sacrifice,
Demeter teaches agriculture and the Mysteries to Triptolemus, or
Marsyas invents the aulos and enters into a musical contest with
Apollo. Ian Morris considers Prometheus' adventures as "a place
between the history of the gods and that of man". An anonymous
papyrus fragment, dated to the third century, vividly portrays
Dionysus' punishment of the king of Thrace, Lycurgus, whose
recognition of the new god came too late, resulting in horrific
penalties that extended into the afterlife. The story of the
Dionysus to establish his cult in
Thrace was also the
subject of an Aeschylean trilogy. In another tragedy, Euripides'
The Bacchae, the king of Thebes, Pentheus, is punished by Dionysus,
because he disrespected the god and spied on his Maenads, the female
worshippers of the god.
Metanira in a detail on an Apulian red-figure hydria,
circa 340 BC (Altes Museum, Berlin).
In another story, based on an old folktale-motif, and echoing a
Demeter was searching for her daughter, Persephone,
having taken the form of an old woman called Doso, and received a
hospitable welcome from Celeus, the King of
Eleusis in Attica. As a
gift to Celeus, because of his hospitality,
Demeter planned to make
his son Demophon a god, but she was unable to complete the ritual
because his mother
Metanira walked in and saw her son in the fire and
screamed in fright, which angered Demeter, who lamented that foolish
mortals do not understand the concept and ritual.
The age in which the heroes lived is known as the heroic age. The
epic and genealogical poetry created cycles of stories clustered
around particular heroes or events and established the family
relationships between the heroes of different stories; they thus
arranged the stories in sequence. According to Ken Dowden, "There is
even a saga effect: We can follow the fates of some families in
After the rise of the hero cult, gods and heroes constitute the sacral
sphere and are invoked together in oaths and prayers which are
addressed to them. Burkert notes that "the roster of heroes, again
in contrast to the gods, is never given fixed and final form. Great
gods are no longer born, but new heroes can always be raised up from
the army of the dead." Another important difference between the hero
cult and the cult of gods is that the hero becomes the centre of local
The monumental events of
Heracles are regarded as the dawn of the age
of heroes. To the Heroic Age are also ascribed three great events: the
Argonautic expedition, the Theban Cycle, and the Trojan War.
Heracles and the Heracleidae
Further information: Heracles, Heracleidae, and Hercules
Heracles with his baby
Louvre Museum, Paris).
Some scholars believe that behind Heracles' complicated mythology
there was probably a real man, perhaps a chieftain-vassal of the
kingdom of Argos. Some scholars suggest the story of
Heracles is an
allegory for the sun's yearly passage through the twelve
constellations of the zodiac. Others point to earlier myths from
other cultures, showing the story of
Heracles as a local adaptation of
hero myths already well established. Traditionally,
Heracles was the
Zeus and Alcmene, granddaughter of Perseus. His fantastic
solitary exploits, with their many folk-tale themes, provided much
material for popular legend. According to Burkert, "He is portrayed as
a sacrificer, mentioned as a founder of altars, and imagined as a
voracious eater himself; it is in this role that he appears in comedy,
while his tragic end provided much material for tragedy — Heracles
is regarded by Thalia Papadopoulou as "a play of great significance in
examination of other Euripidean dramas". In art and literature
Heracles was represented as an enormously strong man of moderate
height; his characteristic weapon was the bow but frequently also the
club. Vase paintings demonstrate the unparalleled popularity of
Heracles, his fight with the lion being depicted many hundreds of
Heracles also entered Etruscan and
Roman mythology and cult, and the
exclamation "mehercule" became as familiar to the Romans as
"Herakleis" was to the Greeks. In
Italy he was worshipped as a god
of merchants and traders, although others also prayed to him for his
characteristic gifts of good luck or rescue from danger.
Heracles attained the highest social prestige through his appointment
as official ancestor of the Dorian kings. This probably served as a
legitimation for the Dorian migrations into the Peloponnese. Hyllus,
the eponymous hero of one Dorian phyle, became the son of
one of the
Heracleidae or Heraclids (the numerous descendants of
Heracles, especially the descendants of
Hyllus — other Heracleidae
included Macaria, Lamos, Manto, Bianor, Tlepolemus, and Telephus).
These Heraclids conquered the Peloponnesian kingdoms of Mycenae,
Sparta and Argos, claiming, according to legend, a right to rule them
through their ancestor. Their rise to dominance is frequently called
the "Dorian invasion". The Lydian and later the Macedonian kings, as
rulers of the same rank, also became Heracleidae.
Other members of this earliest generation of heroes such as Perseus,
Theseus and Bellerophon, have many traits in common with
Heracles. Like him, their exploits are solitary, fantastic and border
on fairy tale, as they slay monsters such as the Chimera and Medusa.
Bellerophon's adventures are commonplace types, similar to the
Heracles and Theseus. Sending a hero to his presumed
death is also a recurrent theme of this early heroic tradition, used
in the cases of
Perseus and Bellerophon.
Further information: Argonauts
The only surviving Hellenistic epic, the
Argonautica of Apollonius of
Rhodes (epic poet, scholar, and director of the Library of Alexandria)
tells the myth of the voyage of
Jason and the
Argonauts to retrieve
Golden Fleece from the mythical land of Colchis. In the
Jason is impelled on his quest by king Pelias, who
receives a prophecy that a man with one sandal would be his nemesis.
Jason loses a sandal in a river, arrives at the court of Pelias, and
the epic is set in motion. Nearly every member of the next generation
of heroes, as well as Heracles, went with
Jason in the ship
fetch the Golden Fleece. This generation also included Theseus, who
Crete to slay the Minotaur; Atalanta, the female heroine, and
Meleager, who once had an epic cycle of his own to rival the
Odyssey. Pindar, Apollonius and the Bibliotheca endeavor to give full
lists of the Argonauts.
Although Apollonius wrote his poem in the 3rd century BC, the
composition of the story of the
Argonauts is earlier than Odyssey,
which shows familiarity with the exploits of
Jason (the wandering of
Odysseus may have been partly founded on it). In ancient times the
expedition was regarded as a historical fact, an incident in the
opening up of the
Black Sea to Greek commerce and colonization. It
was also extremely popular, forming a cycle to which a number of local
legends became attached. The story of Medea, in particular, caught the
imagination of the tragic poets.
Atreus and Theban Cycle
Theban Cycle and Seven Against Thebes
In between the
Argo and the Trojan War, there was a generation known
chiefly for its horrific crimes. This includes the doings of Atreus
Thyestes at Argos. Behind the myth of the house of
Atreus (one of
the two principal heroic dynasties with the house of Labdacus) lies
the problem of the devolution of power and of the mode of accession to
sovereignty. The twins
Thyestes with their descendants
played the leading role in the tragedy of the devolution of power in
Theban Cycle deals with events associated especially with Cadmus,
the city's founder, and later with the doings of
Thebes; a series of stories that lead to the eventual pillage of that
city at the hands of the
Seven Against Thebes
Seven Against Thebes and Epigoni. (It is
not known whether the
Seven Against Thebes
Seven Against Thebes figured in early epic.) As
Oedipus is concerned, early epic accounts seem to have him
continuing to rule at Thebes after the revelation that Iokaste was his
mother, and subsequently marrying a second wife who becomes the mother
of his children — markedly different from the tale known to us
through tragedy (e.g. Sophocles'
Oedipus Rex) and later mythological
Trojan War and aftermath
El Juicio de Paris by Enrique Simonet, 1904. Paris is holding the
golden apple on his right hand while surveying the goddesses in a
In The Rage of
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1757, Fresco,
300 x 300 cm, Villa Valmarana, Vicenza)
Achilles is outraged that
Agamemnon would threaten to seize his warprize, Briseis, and he draws
his sword to kill Agamemnon. The sudden appearance of the goddess
Athena, who, in this fresco, has grabbed
Achilles by the hair,
prevents the act of violence.
Trojan War and Epic Cycle
Greek mythology culminates in the Trojan War, fought between Greece
and Troy, and its aftermath. In Homer's works, such as the Iliad, the
chief stories have already taken shape and substance, and individual
themes were elaborated later, especially in Greek drama. The Trojan
War also elicited great interest in the Roman culture because of the
story of Aeneas, a Trojan hero whose journey from
Troy led to the
founding of the city that would one day become Rome, as recounted in
Aeneid (Book II of Virgil's
Aeneid contains the best-known
account of the sack of Troy). Finally there are two
pseudo-chronicles written in Latin that passed under the names of
Dictys Cretensis and Dares Phrygius.
Trojan War cycle, a collection of epic poems, starts with the
events leading up to the war: Eris and the golden apple of Kallisti,
the Judgement of Paris, the abduction of Helen, the sacrifice of
Iphigenia at Aulis. To recover Helen, the Greeks launched a great
expedition under the overall command of Menelaus's brother, Agamemnon,
Argos or Mycenae, but the Trojans refused to return Helen. The
Iliad, which is set in the tenth year of the war, tells of the quarrel
Agamemnon and Achilles, who was the finest Greek warrior, and
the consequent deaths in battle of Achilles' beloved comrade Patroclus
and Priam's eldest son, Hector. After Hector's death the Trojans were
joined by two exotic allies, Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, and
Memnon, king of the Ethiopians and son of the dawn-goddess Eos.
Achilles killed both of these, but Paris then managed to kill Achilles
with an arrow in the heel. Achilles' heel was the only part of his
body which was not invulnerable to damage by human weaponry. Before
they could take Troy, the Greeks had to steal from the citadel the
wooden image of Pallas
Athena (the Palladium). Finally, with Athena's
help, they built the Trojan Horse. Despite the warnings of Priam's
daughter Cassandra, the Trojans were persuaded by Sinon, a Greek who
feigned desertion, to take the horse inside the walls of
Troy as an
offering to Athena; the priest Laocoon, who tried to have the horse
destroyed, was killed by sea-serpents. At night the Greek fleet
returned, and the Greeks from the horse opened the gates of Troy. In
the total sack that followed,
Priam and his remaining sons were
slaughtered; the Trojan women passed into slavery in various cities of
Greece. The adventurous homeward voyages of the Greek leaders
(including the wanderings of
Aeneas (the Aeneid), and the
murder of Agamemnon) were told in two epics, the Returns (the lost
Nostoi) and Homer's Odyssey. The Trojan cycle also includes the
adventures of the children of the Trojan generation (e.g., Orestes and
Trojan War provided a variety of themes and became a main source
of inspiration for Ancient Greek artists (e.g. metopes on the
Parthenon depicting the sack of Troy); this artistic preference for
themes deriving from the Trojan Cycle indicates its importance to the
Ancient Greek civilization. The same mythological cycle also
inspired a series of posterior European literary writings. For
instance, Trojan Medieval European writers, unacquainted with
first hand, found in the
Troy legend a rich source of heroic and
romantic storytelling and a convenient framework into which to fit
their own courtly and chivalric ideals. Twelfth-century authors, such
Benoît de Sainte-Maure (Roman de Troie [Romance of Troy,
Joseph of Exeter (De Bello Troiano [On the Trojan War,
1183]) describe the war while rewriting the standard version they
found in Dictys and Dares. They thus follow Horace's advice and
Virgil's example: they rewrite a poem of
Troy instead of telling
something completely new.
Some of the more famous heroes noted for their inclusion in the Trojan
On the Trojan side:
On the Greek side:
Ajax (there were two Ajaxes)
Greek and Roman conceptions of myth
Mythology was at the heart of everyday life in Ancient Greece.
Greeks regarded mythology as a part of their history. They used myth
to explain natural phenomena, cultural variations, traditional
enmities and friendships. It was a source of pride to be able to trace
the descent of one's leaders from a mythological hero or a god. Few
ever doubted that there was truth behind the account of the Trojan War
Iliad and Odyssey. According to Victor Davis Hanson, a military
historian, columnist, political essayist and former classics
professor, and John Heath, a classics professor, the profound
knowledge of the Homeric epos was deemed by the Greeks the basis of
Homer was the "education of Greece"
(Ἑλλάδος παίδευσις), and his poetry "the Book".
Philosophy and myth
The School of Athens
The School of Athens fresco (probably in the
likeness of Leonardo da Vinci). The philosopher expelled the study of
Homer, of the tragedies and of the related mythological traditions
from his utopian Republic.
After the rise of philosophy, history, prose and rationalism in the
late 5th century BC, the fate of myth became uncertain, and
mythological genealogies gave place to a conception of history which
tried to exclude the supernatural (such as the Thucydidean
history). While poets and dramatists were reworking the myths,
Greek historians and philosophers were beginning to criticize them.
A few radical philosophers like
Xenophanes of Colophon were already
beginning to label the poets' tales as blasphemous lies in the 6th
Xenophanes had complained that
to the gods "all that is shameful and disgraceful among men; they
steal, commit adultery, and deceive one another". This line of
thought found its most sweeping expression in Plato's Republic and
Plato created his own allegorical myths (such as the vision of
Er in the Republic), attacked the traditional tales of the gods'
tricks, thefts and adulteries as immoral, and objected to their
central role in literature. Plato's criticism was the first serious
challenge to the Homeric mythological tradition, referring to the
myths as "old wives' chatter". For his part Aristotle criticized
the Pre-socratic quasi-mythical philosophical approach and underscored
Hesiod and the theological writers were concerned only with what
seemed plausible to themselves, and had no respect for us ... But it
is not worth taking seriously writers who show off in the mythical
style; as for those who do proceed by proving their assertions, we
must cross-examine them".
Plato did not manage to wean himself and his
society from the influence of myth; his own characterization for
Socrates is based on the traditional Homeric and tragic patterns, used
by the philosopher to praise the righteous life of his teacher:
But perhaps someone might say: "Are you then not ashamed, Socrates, of
having followed such a pursuit, that you are now in danger of being
put to death as a result?" But I should make to him a just reply: "You
do not speak well, Sir, if you think a man in whom there is even a
little merit ought to consider danger of life or death, and not rather
regard this only, when he does things, whether the things he does are
right or wrong and the acts of a good or a bad man. For according to
your argument all the demigods would be bad who died at Troy,
including the son of Thetis, who so despised danger, in comparison
with enduring any disgrace, that when his mother (and she was a
goddess) said to him, as he was eager to slay Hector, something like
this, I believe,
My son, if you avenge the death of your friend
Patroclus and kill
Hector, you yourself shall die; for straightway, after Hector, is
death appointed unto you. (Hom. Il. 18.96)
he, when he heard this, made light of death and danger, and feared
much more to live as a coward and not to avenge his friends, and said,
Straightway may I die, after doing vengeance upon the wrongdoer, that
I may not stay here, jeered at beside the curved ships, a burden of
Hanson and Heath estimate that Plato's rejection of the Homeric
tradition was not favorably received by the grassroots Greek
civilization. The old myths were kept alive in local cults; they
continued to influence poetry and to form the main subject of painting
More sportingly, the 5th century BC tragedian
Euripides often played
with the old traditions, mocking them, and through the voice of his
characters injecting notes of doubt. Yet the subjects of his plays
were taken, without exception, from myth. Many of these plays were
written in answer to a predecessor's version of the same or similar
Euripides mainly impugns the myths about the gods and begins his
critique with an objection similar to the one previously expressed by
Xenocrates: the gods, as traditionally represented, are far too
Hellenistic and Roman rationalism
Cicero saw himself as the defender of the established order, despite
his personal skepticism with regard to myth and his inclination
towards more philosophical conceptions of divinity.
During the Hellenistic period, mythology took on the prestige of elite
knowledge that marks its possessors as belonging to a certain class.
At the same time, the skeptical turn of the Classical age became even
more pronounced. Greek mythographer
Euhemerus established the
tradition of seeking an actual historical basis for mythical beings
and events. Although his original work (Sacred Scriptures) is
lost, much is known about it from what is recorded by Diodorus and
Rationalizing hermeneutics of myth became even more popular under the
Roman Empire, thanks to the physicalist theories of Stoic and
Epicurean philosophy. Stoics presented explanations of the gods and
heroes as physical phenomena, while the Euhemerists rationalized them
as historical figures. At the same time, the Stoics and the
Neoplatonists promoted the moral significations of the mythological
tradition, often based on Greek etymologies. Through his Epicurean
Lucretius had sought to expel superstitious fears from the
minds of his fellow-citizens. Livy, too, is skeptical about the
mythological tradition and claims that he does not intend to pass
judgement on such legends (fabulae). The challenge for Romans with
a strong and apologetic sense of religious tradition was to defend
that tradition while conceding that it was often a breeding-ground for
superstition. The antiquarian Varro, who regarded religion as a human
institution with great importance for the preservation of good in
society, devoted rigorous study to the origins of religious cults. In
his Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum (which has not survived, but
Augustine's City of
God indicates its general approach) Varro argues
that whereas the superstitious man fears the gods, the truly religious
person venerates them as parents. According to Varro, there have
been three accounts of deities in the Roman society: the mythical
account created by poets for theatre and entertainment, the civil
account used by people for veneration as well as by the city, and the
natural account created by the philosophers. The best state is,
adds Varro, where the civil theology combines the poetic mythical
account with the philosopher's.
Roman Academic Cotta ridicules both literal and allegorical acceptance
of myth, declaring roundly that myths have no place in philosophy.
Cicero is also generally disdainful of myth, but, like Varro, he is
emphatic in his support for the state religion and its institutions.
It is difficult to know how far down the social scale this rationalism
Cicero asserts that no one (not even old women and boys)
is so foolish as to believe in the terrors of
Hades or the existence
of Scyllas, centaurs or other composite creatures, but, on the
other hand, the orator elsewhere complains of the superstitious and
credulous character of the people. De Natura Deorum is the most
comprehensive summary of Cicero's line of thought.
Apollo (early Imperial Roman copy of a fourth-century Greek original,
See also: Roman mythology
In Ancient Roman times, a new
Roman mythology was born through
syncretization of numerous Greek and other foreign gods. This occurred
because the Romans had little mythology of their own, and inheritance
of the Greek mythological tradition caused the major Roman gods to
adopt characteristics of their Greek equivalents. The gods Zeus
and Jupiter are an example of this mythological overlap. In addition
to the combination of the two mythological traditions, the association
of the Romans with eastern religions led to further
syncretizations. For instance, the cult of Sun was introduced in
Rome after Aurelian's successful campaigns in Syria. The Asiatic
divinities Mithras (that is to say, the Sun) and Ba'al were combined
Helios into one Sol Invictus, with conglomerated rites
and compound attributes.
Apollo might be increasingly identified
in religion with
Helios or even Dionysus, but texts retelling his
myths seldom reflected such developments. The traditional literary
mythology was increasingly dissociated from actual religious practice.
The worship of Sol as special protector of the emperors and of the
empire remained the chief imperial religion until it was replaced by
The surviving 2nd-century collection of Orphic Hymns (second century
AD) and the Saturnalia of
Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius
Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius (fifth
century) are influenced by the theories of rationalism and the
syncretizing trends as well. The Orphic Hymns are a set of
pre-classical poetic compositions, attributed to Orpheus, himself the
subject of a renowned myth. In reality, these poems were probably
composed by several different poets, and contain a rich set of clues
about prehistoric European mythology. The stated purpose of the
Saturnalia is to transmit the Hellenic culture Macrobius has derived
from his reading, even though much of his treatment of gods is colored
by Egyptian and North African mythology and theology (which also
affect the interpretation of Virgil). In Saturnalia reappear
mythographical comments influenced by the Euhemerists, the Stoics and
Further information: Modern understanding of Greek mythology
The genesis of modern understanding of
Greek mythology is regarded by
some scholars as a double reaction at the end of the eighteenth
century against "the traditional attitude of Christian animosity", in
which the Christian reinterpretation of myth as a "lie" or fable had
been retained. In Germany, by about 1795, there was a growing
Homer and Greek mythology. In Göttingen, Johann Matthias
Gesner began to revive Greek studies, while his successor, Christian
Gottlob Heyne, worked with Johann Joachim Winckelmann, and laid the
foundations for mythological research both in Germany and
Comparative and psychoanalytic approaches
Max Müller is regarded as one of the founders of comparative
mythology. In his Comparative
Mythology (1867) Müller analysed the
"disturbing" similarity between the mythologies of "savage races" with
those of the early Europeans.
See also: Comparative mythology
The development of comparative philology in the 19th century, together
with ethnological discoveries in the 20th century, established the
science of myth. Since the Romantics, all study of myth has been
comparative. Wilhelm Mannhardt, James Frazer, and Stith Thompson
employed the comparative approach to collect and classify the themes
of folklore and mythology. In 1871
Edward Burnett Tylor
Edward Burnett Tylor published
his Primitive Culture, in which he applied the comparative method and
tried to explain the origin and evolution of religion. Tylor's
procedure of drawing together material culture, ritual and myth of
widely separated cultures influenced both
Carl Jung and Joseph
Max Müller applied the new science of comparative mythology
to the study of myth, in which he detected the distorted remains of
Aryan nature worship.
Bronisław Malinowski emphasized the ways myth
fulfills common social functions.
Claude Lévi-Strauss and other
structuralists have compared the formal relations and patterns in
myths throughout the world.
Sigmund Freud introduced a transhistorical and biological conception
of man and a view of myth as an expression of repressed ideas. Dream
interpretation is the basis of Freudian myth interpretation and
Freud's concept of dreamwork recognizes the importance of contextual
relationships for the interpretation of any individual element in a
dream. This suggestion would find an important point of rapprochment
between the structuralist and psychoanalytic approaches to myth in
Carl Jung extended the transhistorical,
psychological approach with his theory of the "collective unconscious"
and the archetypes (inherited "archaic" patterns), often encoded in
myth, that arise out of it. According to Jung, "myth-forming
structural elements must be present in the unconscious psyche".
Comparing Jung's methodology with Joseph Campbell's theory, Robert A.
Segal concludes that "to interpret a myth Campbell simply identifies
the archetypes in it. An interpretation of the Odyssey, for example,
would show how Odysseus's life conforms to a heroic pattern. Jung, by
contrast, considers the identification of archetypes merely the first
step in the interpretation of a myth". Karl Kerényi, one of the
founders of modern studies in Greek mythology, gave up his early views
of myth, in order to apply Jung's theories of archetypes to Greek
See also: Similarities between Roman, Greek and Etruscan mythologies
Karl Kerényi mythology is "a body of material contained in tales
about gods and god-like beings, heroic battles and journeys to the
Underworld—mythologem is the best Greek word for them—tales
already well-known but not amenable to further re-shaping".
Max Müller attempted to understand an Indo-European religious form by
tracing it back to its Indo-European (or, in Müller's time, "Aryan")
"original" manifestation. In 1891, he claimed that "the most important
discovery which has been made during the nineteenth century with
respect to the ancient history of mankind ... was this sample
Sanskrit Dyaus-pitar = Greek
Zeus = Latin Jupiter = Old
Norse Tyr". The question of Greek mythology's place in
Indo-European studies has generated much scholarship since Müller's
time. For example, philologist
Georges Dumézil draws a comparison
between the Greek Uranus and the
Sanskrit Varuna, although there is no
hint that he believes them to be originally connected. In other
cases, close parallels in character and function suggest a common
heritage, yet lack of linguistic evidence makes it difficult to prove,
as in the case of the Greek
Moirai and the
Norns of Norse
Archaeology and mythography, on the other hand, have revealed that the
Greeks were also inspired by some of the civilizations of Asia Minor
and the Near East.
Adonis seems to be the Greek counterpart — more
clearly in cult than in myth — of a Near Eastern "dying god". Cybele
is rooted in Anatolian culture while much of Aphrodite's iconography
may spring from Semitic goddesses. There are also possible parallels
between the earliest divine generations (Chaos and its children) and
Tiamat in the Enuma Elish. According to Meyer Reinhold, "near
Eastern theogonic concepts, involving divine succession through
violence and generational conflicts for power, found their way ...
into Greek mythology". In addition to Indo-European and Near
Eastern origins, some scholars have speculated on the debts of Greek
mythology to the pre-Hellenic societies: Crete, Mycenae, Pylos, Thebes
and Orchomenus. Historians of religion were fascinated by a
number of apparently ancient configurations of myth connected with
Crete (the god as bull,
Zeus and Europa,
Pasiphaë who yields to the
bull and gives birth to the Minotaur, etc.). Martin P. Nilsson
concluded that all great classical Greek myths were tied to Mycenaen
centres and anchored in prehistoric times. Nevertheless,
according to Burkert, the iconography of the Cretan Palace Period has
provided almost no confirmation for these theories.
Motifs in Western art and literature
Greek mythology in western art and literature
See also: List of films based on Greco-
Roman mythology and Greek
mythology in popular culture
Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (c. 1485–1486, oil on canvas,
Uffizi, Florence) — a revived Venus Pudica for a new view of pagan
Antiquity—is often said to epitomize for modern viewers the spirit
of the Renaissance.
The widespread adoption of Christianity did not curb the popularity of
the myths. With the rediscovery of classical antiquity in the
Renaissance, the poetry of
Ovid became a major influence on the
imagination of poets, dramatists, musicians and artists. From the
early years of Renaissance, artists such as Leonardo da Vinci,
Michelangelo, and Raphael, portrayed the Pagan subjects of Greek
mythology alongside more conventional Christian themes. Through
the medium of Latin and the works of Ovid, Greek myth influenced
Renaissance poets such as Petrarch, Boccaccio and Dante
The Lament for Icarus
The Lament for Icarus (1898) by Herbert James Draper
In Northern Europe,
Greek mythology never took the same hold of the
visual arts, but its effect was very obvious on literature. The
English imagination was fired by
Greek mythology starting with Chaucer
John Milton and continuing through Shakespeare to Robert Bridges
in the 20th century. Racine in France and Goethe in Germany revived
Greek drama, reworking the ancient myths. Although during the
Enlightenment of the 18th century reaction against Greek myth spread
throughout Europe, the myths continued to provide an important source
of raw material for dramatists, including those who wrote the libretti
for many of Handel's and Mozart's operas.
By the end of the 18th century,
Romanticism initiated a surge of
enthusiasm for all things Greek, including Greek mythology. In
Britain, new translations of Greek tragedies and
contemporary poets (such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Keats, Byron and
Shelley) and painters (such as Lord Leighton and Lawrence
Alma-Tadema). Christoph Gluck, Richard Strauss, Jacques Offenbach
and many others set Greek mythological themes to music. American
authors of the 19th century, such as
Thomas Bulfinch and Nathaniel
Hawthorne, held that the study of the classical myths was essential to
the understanding of English and American literature. In more
recent times, classical themes have been reinterpreted by dramatists
Jean Anouilh, Jean Cocteau, and
Jean Giraudoux in France, Eugene
O'Neill in America, and
T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot in Britain and by novelists such
James Joyce and André Gide.
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^ Jung-Kerényi, Essays on a Science of Mythology, 1–2
^ D. Allen, Religion, 12
^ H.I. Poleman, Review, 78-79
^ A. Winterbourne, When the
Norns Have Spoken, 87
^ L. Edmunds, Approaches to Greek Myth, 184
* Robert A. Segal, A Greek Eternal Child, 64
^ M. Reinhold, The Generation Gap in Antiquity, 349
^ W. Burkert, Greek Religion, 23
^ M. Wood, In Search of the Trojan War, 112
^ W. Burkert, Greek Religion, 24
^ a b c "Greek mythology". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2002.
* L. Burn, Greek Myths, 75
^ l. Burn, Greek Myths, 75
^ l. Burn, Greek Myths, 75–76
^ Klatt-Brazouski, Ancient Greek and Roman Mythology, 4
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