Mythology through (ancient) literature

Mythology through art - Theseus vs the Minotaur, National Archaeological Museum, Naples

Mythology through art – Theseus vs the Minotaur, National Archaeological Museum, Naples

I have stolen the title ‘Mythology Through Literature’ from an undergraduate course my wife had the good fortune of taking — I did not have enough room for that particular course due to an overload of Latin and Greek. However, as an undergraduate I had the opportunity not only to take ‘Greek Mythology’, but ‘Homer and Virgil’ and ‘Greek Tragedy’ besides courses on Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad in the original languages. When I reflect on this, as well as my graduate education, the reality comes home to me time and again that our knowledge of Greek mythology comes to us through literature, and not simply compendia such as the Library of ‘Apollodorus’ — itself the greatest compendium of Greek myths. (I’d link to it, but WordPress has lost its mind.)

Of course, epic in the tradition of Hesiod can feel like a compendium, whether Hesiod’s Theogony or Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Such epics, however, are more than compendia (one might argue, in fact, that compendia are not ‘mere’ compendia, either). They, themselves, have all the artistry of more extended literary tellings of the ancient stories, whether Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid. They are, themselves, literature, written in dactylic hexameters with their own beauty and structure and use of metaphor, simile, allusion.

I love Hesiod and Ovid. Nonetheless, there is a different kind of pleasure that comes from discovering myths in other poets. When I was studying Greek and Latin poetry, mythology felt as if it were hiding behind every corner. For example, reading The Iliad you encounter not even the whole tale of Troy (or Ilium), but along the way (in Book 6) you encounter the tale of Bellerophon, as recounted by characters on the battlefield. In Virgil’s Aeneid book 8, we meet what may be an Italic folktale in the story of Cacus vs Hercules. Or you sit down to read a victory ode written by Pindar for Arcesilas, King of Cyrene, for the victory of Arcesilas’ chariot in the Pythian Games (Fourth Pythian Ode), and find yourself reading about Jason and the Argonauts and the founding of Cyrene.

Another lyric poet who wrote mythological victory odes was Simonides of Ceos, who was once refused half of his pay on the grounds that Castor and Pollux should pay the other half, given how much they featured in the poem!

The most famous mythological literature of the ancients is, of course, the epics — Homer, Hesiod, and Apollonius in Greek, then Virgil, Ovid, and Statius in Latin (but also Claudian) — and the tragedies. Indeed, who can not be moved by the power and force of Aeschylus Oresteia? It is Sophocles’ telling of Oedipus that we all know, and the finish to the tale of Jason comes through Euripides’ Medea. Yet alongside the poetry, we meet mythology in an unlikely place — Plato, who barred poets from his Republic, is our main source for the myth of Atlantis in the Critias.

Ancient Greek and Latin literature is vast, spanning many centuries, from Homer in the 700s BC to Claudian in AD 400. The result of learning mythology through literature is that your Greek mythology storybook from when you were a kid is sometimes at variance with what you find. I remember one of my professors in university having given a particular version of a myth (really sorry, I forget which!!), and a friend was bent out of shape that he had ‘got it wrong.’ However, later on I discovered that he had, in fact, ‘got it right’ — there was more than one telling.

For example, how was Aphrodite born? Hesiod tells us that she was born from the foam that built up in the sea around Ouranos’ castrated genitals (Theogony 188). Homer refers to Dione as her mother (Iliad 5.370). Who is ‘right’? Hesiod even gives us conflicting accounts of Athena — daughter of Zeus and Metis, although born out of Zeus’ belly (line 887), or self-generated from Zeus’ head (line 924)?

According to ‘Apollodorus’, Athena blinded Teiresias for seeing her naked while bathing (Library 3.6.7). But another version (I forget the source!) says that Teiresias was blinded because he revealed that women enjoy sex more than men (having spent part of his life as a woman, part as a man), and Hera was angry with him for giving away her secret. Which is ‘right’?

Did Aphrodite offer Paris the most beautiful woman on earth or irresistible sexiness?

Such a list could go on.

There is much appeal to reading mythology through ancient literature — the literature itself is pleasant to enjoy. The drama of a tragedy, the glory of an epic, the terseness of a lyric poem. The beauty of it all. And, alongside it, there comes the pleasure of encountering new versions of old stories, revealing a textual and narrative playfulness with the ‘canon’ that we have difficulty grasping ourselves. Once you’ve read a book about Greek myths, there’s no better place to turn next than the ancient literature itself.


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