Tag Archives: greek mythology

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.

Saturn in Keats’ ‘Hyperion’

John Keats by Joseph Severn, 1819

John Keats by Joseph Severn, 1819

Having read Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, I was inspired to read Keats’ Hyperion. Keats’ Hyperion is a fragmentary narrative poem about the Titans after their defeat by the gods of Olympus. I didn’t quite absorb it all. It washed over me in a wave of words and rhythm, entrancing me and tugging me, but I was lulled by it in the wrong way.

So I’ll have to reread it.

Anyway, the thing that struck me at the very beginning is that Keats’ vision of Saturn takes into account one striking fact that careful readers of Latin verse observe — Saturn is not Kronos.

We all know the old story of Roman adaptatio of Greek deities with their own, something that had such a powerful impact upon them (and, it seems, their Etruscan neighbours) that little of pre-Greek Italic myth has any existence. And so, it is very frequently (but not always!) possible to say, ‘Jupiter/Jove is Zeus. Juno is Hera. Minerva is Athena. Mars is Ares.’

Saturn is Kronos.


I mean, he is the leading ‘Titan’ and father of the Olympians, such as Jupiter.

However, when we read Vergil, it is evident that Saturn is not a mean, nasty jerk-face who enjoys gobbling up his children the moment they’re born (this is about all most of us are aware of re Kronos via Hesiod). He is, rather, the king of the Golden Age. He creates the first and greatest race of human beings. For Latins, the return of the Age of Saturn is a good thing.

Keats’ Hyperion begins with Thea approaching the supine form of defeated Saturn. And the Saturn she approaches is not the Titanic villain Kronos. He is clearly the golden god of good things, the god of plenty, the king of a golden age.

Of course, Keats knows his Greek myths as well.  The creation of all things from Chaos, for example, is part of the poem. But he has made for us a sympathetic Saturn, rather than the rather the unsympathetic Kronos of Hesiod (and Goya).

This is a wee reminder that when Romantics name ‘Greek’ gods by their Roman names, they are not (merely?) being patronising. There may in fact be a point to so doing. And I would further argue that for someone like Keats, naming the gods by their Roman names makes the most sense, given that he spent his final years in Rome, leaving Hyperion unfinished at the time of his death in 1820.

Just a quick thought, but I felt like articulating it.

Egypt had history while Greece had myth

This is a theme I’ve written on before, but I can’t shake the wonderment I have of the sheer bulk of ancient history — especially ancient Egypt! This bulk was brought home to me again today while perusing the appendices at the end of Mosaics of Time Vol 1: A Historical Introduction to the Chronicle Genre from its Origins to the High Middle Ages by R W Burgess and Michael Kulikowski. In these appendices are excerpts from various chronicles to demonstrate to the reader the basic structure and elements of the genre, including Babylonian chronicles, pre-Christian Greek Chronicles, and Roman consularia and chronicles, including late antique chronicles.

The Parian Marble

One of these appendices is the Parian Marble, an inscribed Greek chronicle written in 263 BC beginning in 1581 BC (pp. 301-309). The earliest entries of this chronicle are all mythological. I give three:

Cecrops became king of Athens and the country was called Cecropia, having previously been called Actica from Actaeus who was a native (of the area) 1318 years ago. (1) (1581-1580 BC)

There was a flood in the time of Deucalion, and Deucalion fled the inundation from Lycoreia to Cranaus in Athens, built the temple of Olympian Zeus, and made thank offerings for his deliverance 1265 years ago, when Cranaus was king of Athens. (4) (1528-1427 BC)

Demeter arrived in Athens and discovered wheat, and the pre-tillage festival (Proerosia) was celebrated for the first time, under the direction of Triptolemus, son of Celeus and Neaera, 1146 years ago, when Erichtheus was king in Athens. (12) (1409-1408 BC)

Cecrops, Deucalian, Demeter — figures well-known from Greek myths. Elsewhere in this chronicle we meet Minos (of the Minotaur), Heracles, Theseus, the Trojan war, Orestes, and so forth. The earliest ‘historical’ event is the birth of Hesiod, put somewhere in the 900s BC — far too early, according to modern reckonings of Greek poetry. For the Classicist, this blurring between ‘myth’ and ‘history’ should serve as a reminder that what we call ‘mythology’ and ‘history’ are not necessarily at a great remove from each other in the Greek mind — after all, what is mythos but a story, and historia but an enquiry?

Now, the Greeks knew that the Egyptian culture was older than theirs (although they would try to find ways to show how, really, it wasn’t), but I don’t know that many of them, or of us, for that matter, spent a lot of time thinking about what it really meant in practical terms. Thankfully, modern archaeological and the decipherment of hieroglyphics can help us see the vast swathe of time separating ancient Egypt and the emergence of ancient Greece from the ‘Dark Age’ in the eighth century BC.

Palermo Stone, a frag of the Egyptian Royal Annals

At some point between 2470 and 2450 BC in the middle of the Fifth Dynasty, the Egyptian Royal Annals were first compiled.* This chronicle provides an annual reckoning of about 550 years of Pharoanic activity in Egypt. One thousand years before the essentially mythological beginnings of the Parian Marble, the Egyptian Royal Annals were inscribing Egyptian history.

And before these Royal Annals were composed, the Great Pyramids at Giza had already been built, back in the 2500s. As in, over 2000 years before the composition of the Parian Marble, and about 1800 years before Homer. Temporally speaking, ancient Greece is small beans compared to ancient Egypt!

I do not write this to minimise the achievements of the classical culture of ancient Greece and the dynamic synthesis it enjoyed with the world of Rome. It is simply a reminder of the bigness of those Egyptians and the might of their power — they were building pyramids while the Indo-European ancestors were nomads on the Eurasian Steppe. Wow.

*Mosaics of Time, p. 63ff for my info about the text.