The Nature of Greek Myths by G.S. Kirk

Approaches to Greek Myth edited by Lowell Edmunds


What is Mythology (and what it isn’t)?


Kirk 8

the study of myths, or stories

muthologia - the telling of stories (1st use of word –  by Plato)
muthos is a "thing said” or a “story”; muthos became differentiated from logos (word) early on, even before the time of Plato.


Edmunds 15

myth: (paraphrased) - a set of variants of the same story, which exist as either written texts, prose or verse, or oral, or a combination - or in vase paintings/plastic arts (sculpture...) The story concerns the divine or supernatural (cf English mythical) or the heroic or animals or paradigmatic humans living in a time undefinable by human chronology. Each retelling or application produces a new variant, and adds to the overall myth - often spoken of as a "traditional tale", if we understand "traditional" to mean "anonymous".


cf folklore: (Edmunds 7) (What Myth Isn't)

moral fable – (ainos) a story which provides a moral pointing out the connection with the immediate situation - if animals, then known as a beast fable.

anecdote - usually a historical person with a witty ending: Alexander the Great pays a visit to the famous Cynic philosopher Diogenes in Corinth. Diogenes is sunning himself and Alexander says, "What can I do for you?" and Diogenes responds: "You can get out of my sun."

joke: a man is told by his friend that the friend's wife has just hanged herself from a fig tree. The man says, "Could I have some cuttings from that tree? I'd like to plant one for myself."


How do we know the myths from antiquity?


            - myths for the most part only exist in literature in brief snippets, or allusions to the stories the Greek audience would have been familiar with from the oral tradition. Myths were very well known by all. It is only much later in the literary tradition (Hellenistic Age - after the conquests of Alexander the Great) that people like Callimachus and Apollonius retold certain myths at length, and were in turn imitated by later Romans, like Ovid. But even their versions are not the whole story - they grouped stories thematically, and sometimes terribly artificially - like in terms of Ovid's Metamorphoses, and sometimes ignored popular aspects of the myth to concentrate on some aspect that would fit into their scheme (for example - the story of Medea in Ovid is NOT the one we know from the Greek).


That is the point - myths are not one-dimensional told from beginning to end, there is no one version that is "correct", and myths tended to evolve over time in the classical tradition. Some versions of a single myth are downright contradictory. E.g. Iphigenia - in some versions she is sacrificed by her father Agamemnon, in some she is replaced at the last minute by a sacrificial animal and saved.


Some mythographers – Apollodorus (2e AD), Hyginus and Ovid (Latin, 1st BC) – wrote down the entire myth from start to finish. Also, some works of classical literature are designed around myth: the anonymous Homeric Hymns, and the Odes of Pindar and Bacchylides. But most often ancient authors simply allude to a well-known story during the course of their own tale:



Ways to Interpret myths (what they meant to the Greeks): how we read myths


First, they are much more than simple stories we tell children as entertainment, although many do qualify on that level. Most scholars believe they somehow reflect the way the Greeks thought about their world, and it is our job to decipher that message. But not one way of looking at myths can satisfy our desire to know all myths.


Myth Theory


It is important to remember the multi-functionalism of myth.

Ways to consider myths as representative of a culture:


1.  NATURE MYTHS - referring to meteorological and cosmological phenomena. On most simple level, a myth is a way to take the fear out of our lives (why thunder happens...); we can appease the angry gods, give ourselves power and security. True - in comparative mythology (myths of Greece, Rome, Australia, Norse, Amerindian, Sumerian, Egyptian...), the head god(s) always control the weather. Zeus - his weapons are lightning and the thunderbolt and he is in charge of making rain; brother Poseidon is the god of earthquakes and all water; the tale of Persephone and Hades can be seen as an agricultural society’s idea to explain winter – the abduction of Persephone by Hades. Demeter mourns because of loss of daughter (death) to Hades, Zeus re-establishes order by reuniting mother and daughter - nature reawakens. Myth explains the cycle of life and death in nature. All natural phenomena and objects are gods or associated with gods (caused by the action of gods) - the planets, the sun, rivers, mountains, the winds... a very primitive use of myth that fades over time.


2.  AETIOLOGICAL – referring to myths that offer a cause or explanation of something in the real world (from aition, "cause"). Acts as a proto-science - generally considered trivial or one-dimensional explanation of myth. Example: the Aegean Sea is called so because King Aegeus threw himself into Procne myth (the mournful song of the nightingale)


3.  CHARTER MYTHS (Malinowski, an anthropologist) - charters for customs, institutions or beliefs - implies that in a traditional society every custom and institution tends to be validated or confirmed by a myth...sets a precedent for it. Explains why certain things are done the way they are done – e.g. in Pindar's Odes, he tells of why certain games exist - example, the Nemean games were founded to honor Heracles, who killed the Nemean Lion.


4.  RETURN TO SACRED BEGINNINGS (of the Creative Era) (Eliade): gets us back to a pre-historical time when everything was magical and mysterious. Puts us back in touch with our origins, our beginnings. Spiritually fulfilling. - idea that myths recreate this special time when man was one with nature and gods.


5.  MYTH-IN-RITUAL: the idea that myths are closely related to rituals and that each exists as an expression of the other. Originally espoused by the Cambridge School (Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough is the paradigmatic text of the school but others such as A.B. Cook and Jane Harrison offer full studies as well), fand the theory fell out of favor for the bulk of the twentieth century, but it has recently been revived. One of the greatest minds in classics today, Walter Burkert, has written excellent books on Greek Religion using this very approach. As with all myth approaches, restraint and care is urged when applying this theory (which is rather one dimensional, since not all myths are associated with ritual, despite the claim) heavy-handedly and with blinders on. Ritual  is defined as ceremonial, repeated action, usually in honor of a god. More on this later.


Ways to interpret myth on a personal level:


1.  Psychological use of myths - refers to the idea that horrible myths act as a catharsis for us - we are purged of fears/desires to commit murder, reading about them (Freudian). Especially if all ends well (like the killing of the minotaur) - horror is followed by fulfillment (the beautiful princess as reward). Or, myths are symbolic - reflections of individual and collective consciousness – and represent something other than what they appear to be about (Jung and Freud).


2. Structural approach As an exemplum of human behavior - warning - this is what happens when we break the rules! Anthopological approach - Structuralism (Levi-Strauss)  - how the plots of myths show the consequences of disruption in nature and society and the consequent problems and therefore stands as a model for human/social behavior. Called Nature v Culture.

Case Study: The myth of Procne and Philomela

has been interpreted in terms of aetiology, social anthropology, ritual in myth, and as an exemplum of human/personal relations gone awry, as represented in vase paintings (my current research)

thrust of the myth changed over time, as new elements were added...

Begin with aetiological reading - explaining the habits and haunts of the three birds in beginning of tradition, myth was purely aetiological as it evolved over time, new plot complications were added, developing its thematic    import - bird habits, then characters as paradigms of behavior (mourning mother) - mention mistake by Roman mythographer

We can now bring in other methods of myth interpretation; idea that this myth is representative of the barbarian threat to Greece (Tereus stands for Barbarian, P and P, the Athenian princesses, as Greece); idea of nature v culture - this is what happens when rules of society are broken. Man commits indecent act breaking familial bonds, everything falls apart around him. He begins by raping his sister-in-law (regarded as act of incest), ends by eating his own child. In other child-feast myths, the message is more mythical - in Thyestes story, the sun stops in its tracks. Nature is thus disrupted by the crimes of mankind. Warning!


so - antitheses include:

barbarian v civilized Greeks (see the devastating effects of barbarians on Greeks?)

but also - wife against husband, woman against man

Personal battlefield as well - power play - idea that T disempowered Philomela by detonguing her (that was her weapon), and then Procne disempowers T by forcing him to eat his own child (rejection of him sexually, and negates his sexual power) - "Not only do I not want to sleep with you anymore, but here! Take this back!"

Note the dissolution of familial bonds because of his crime - causes the women to break rules, too - mother kills and cooks her own son as punishment - Extremes of crimes and punishments. Which is worse?


 needs editing:

Ritual Behavior