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Greek Mythology And Religion Essay, Research Paper
Mythology is the study and interpretation
of myth and the body of myths of a particular culture. Myth is a complex
cultural phenomenon that can be approached from a number of viewpoints.
In general, myth is a narrative that describes and portrays in symbolic
language the origin of the basic elements and assumptions of a culture.
Mythic narrative relates, for example, how the world began, how humans
and animals were created, and how certain customs, gestures, or forms of
human activities originated. Almost all cultures possess or at one time
possessed and lived in terms of myths.
Myths differ from fairy tales in
that they refer to a time that is different from ordinary. The time sequence
of myth is extraordinary- an “other” time – the time before the conventional
world came into being. Because myths refer to an extraordinary time and
place and to gods and other supernatural beings and processes, they have
usually been seen as aspects of religion. Because of the inclusive nature
of myth, however, it can illustrate many aspects of individual and cultural
Meaning and interpretation
From the beginnings of Western culture,
myth has presented a problem of meaning and interpretation, and a history
of controversy has gathered about both the value and the status of mythology.
Myth, History, and Reason
In the Greek heritage of the West,
myth or mythos has always been in tension with reason or logos, which signified
the sensible and analytic mode of arriving at a true account of reality.
The Greek philosophers Xenophanes, Plato, and Aristotle, for example, exalted
reason and made sarcastic criticisms of myth as a proper way of knowing
The distinctions between reason and
myth and between myth and history, although essential, were never quite
absolute. Aristotle concluded that in some of the early Greek creation
myths, logos and mythos overlapped. Plato used myths as metaphors and also
as literary devices in developing an argument.
Western Mythical Traditions
The debate over whether myth, reason,
or history best expresses the meaning of the reality of the gods, humans,
and nature has continued in Western culture as a legacy from its earliest
traditions. Among these traditions were the myths of the Greeks. Adopted
and assimilated by the Romans, they furnished literary, philosophical,
and artistic inspiration to such later periods as the Renaissance and the
romantic era. The pagan tribes of Europe furnished another body of tradition.
After these tribes became part of Christendom, elements of their mythologies
persisted as the folkloric substratum of various European cultures.
Greek religion and mythology are
supernatural beliefs and ritual observances of the ancient Greeks, commonly
related to a diffuse and contradictory body of stories and legends. The
most notable features of this religion were many gods having different
personalities having human form and feelings, the absence of any established
religious rules or authoritative revelation such as, for example, the Bible,
the strong use of rituals, and the government almost completely subordinating
the population’s religious beliefs. Apart from the mystery cults, most
of the early religions in Greece are not solemn or serious in nature nor
do they contain the concepts of fanaticism or mystical inspiration, which
were Asian beliefs and did not appear until the Hellenistic period (about
323-146 B.C.). At its first appearance in classical literature, Greek mythology
had already received its definitive form. Some divinities were either introduced
or developed more fully at a later date, but in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
the major Olympian gods appear in substantially the forms they retained
until paganism ceased to exist. Homer usually is considered responsible
for the highly developed personifications of the gods and the comparative
rationalism that characterized Greek religious thought. In general Greek
gods were divided into those of heaven, earth, and sea; frequently, however,
the gods governing the earth and sea constituted a single category.
The celestial gods were thought
to dwell in the sky or on Mount Olympus in Thessaly. The Earth, or chthonic
(Gr. chtho n, “earth”), deities were thought to dwell on or under the earth,
and were closely associated with the heroes and the dead. The lines separating
these divine orders were indefinite, and the deities of one order were
often found in another. The gods were held to be immortal; yet they were
also believed to have had a beginning. They were represented as exercising
control over the world and the forces of nature. Ananke, the personification
of necessity, however, limited this control, to which even the gods bowed.
At the head of the divine hierarchy
was Zeus, the spiritual father of gods and men. His wife was Hera, queen
of heaven and guardian of the sanctity of marriage. Associated with them
as the chief divinities of heaven were Hephaestus, god of fire and the
patron of metalworkers; Athena, the virgin goddess of wisdom and war, preeminent
as a civic goddess; Apollo, deity of light, poetry, and music, and his
sister Artemis, goddess of wildlife and, later, of the moon; Ares, god
of war, and his consort, Aphrodite, goddess of love; Hermes, the divine
messenger, later, god of science and invention; and Hestia, goddess of
the hearth and home. Around these greater gods and goddesses were grouped
a host of lesser deities, some of whom enjoyed particular distinction in
certain localities. Among them were Helios, the sun; Selene, the moon (before
Artemis came into existence); the attendants of the Olympians, such as
the Graces; the Muses; Iris, goddess of the rainbow; Hebe, goddess of youth
and cupbearer of the gods; and Ganymede, the male counterpart of Hebe.
Poseidon, the worship of whom was often accompanied by worship of his wife,
Amphitrite, ruled the sea. Attending the sea gods were the Nereids, Tritons,
and other minor sea deities.
The chief earth deities were Hades,
ruler of the underworld, and his wife, Persephone, the daughter of Demeter.
Demeter herself was usually considered an Olympian, but since she was associated
with producing grain and the knowledge of agriculture; she was more closely
connected with the earth. Another Olympian whose functions were likewise
of an earthly character was Dionysus, god of the grape and of wine. He
was accompanied by satyrs, the horsetailed sylvan demigods; Sileni, the
plump, bald vintage deities; and maenads, nymphs who celebrated the orgiastic
rites of Dionysus. Also among the more important divinities of the Greek
pantheon were Gaea, the earth mother; Asclepius, the god of healing; and
Pan, the great Arcadian god of flocks, pastures, and forests.
Invocation of the Gods
The ancient Greeks had a strong
sense of weakness before the grand and terrifying powers of nature, and
they acknowledged their dependence on the divine beings whom they believed
those powers to be controlled. In general, the relations between gods and
mortals were cordial, divine wrath being reserved for those who transgressed
the limits assigned to human activities and who, by being proud, ambitious,
or even by being too prosperous, provoked divine displeasure and brought
upon themselves Nemesis, the personification of revengeful justice. The
saying of the historian Herodotus, “The god suffers none but himself to
be proud” sums up the main philosophy that influences all of classical
Greek literature. The sense of human limitation was a basic feature of
Greek religion; the gods, the sole source of the good or evil that fell
upon mortals, were approached only by making sacrifices and giving thanks
for past blessings or pleading for future favors.
In front of many a street door stood
a stone for Apollo Agyieus (Apollo of the Thoroughfare); in the courtyard
was placed the altar of Zeus Herkeios (Zeus as the patron of family ties);
at the hearth Hestia was worshiped; and bedchamber, kitchen, and storeroom
each had its appropriate god. From birth to death the ancient Greek invoked
the gods on every memorable occasion. Because the very existence of the
government was believed to depend on divine favor, celebrations for the
gods were held regularly under the supervision of high officials. Public
gratitude was expressed for being unexpectedly delivered from evil happenings
or for being unusually prosperous.
Organization and Beliefs
Despite its central position in
both private and public life, Greek religion was notably lacking in an
organized professional priesthood. At the sites of the mysteries, as at
Eleusis, and the oracles, as at Delphi, the priests exercised great authority,
but usually they were merely official representatives of the community,
chosen as other officers were, or sometimes permitted to buy their position.
Even when the office was hereditary or confined to a certain family, it
was not regarded as conferring upon its possessor any particular knowledge
of the will of the gods or any special power to constrain them. The Greeks
saw no need for an intermediary between themselves and their gods.
Greek ideas about the soul and the
afterlife were indefinite, but it was apparently the popular belief that
the soul survived the body. It either hovered about the tomb or departed
to a region where it led a sad existence needing the offerings brought
by relatives. The disembodied soul was also presumed to have the power
of inflicting injury on the living, and proper funeral rites were held
to ensure the peace and goodwill of the deceased.
Within the framework of Greek worship
of many gods are traces of the belief that all natural objects are endowed
with spirits. Fetishism, the belief in the magical efficacy of objects
employed as talismans against evil, was another feature of early Greek
religion. Examples of fetishes are the sacred stones, sometimes regarded
as images of specific deities, such as the pyramidal Zeus at Phlius or
the rough stones called the Graces at the ruined city of Orchomenus in
Ancient Greek religion has been
the subject of speculation and research from classic times to the present.
Herodotus believed that the rites of many of the gods had been derived
from the Egyptians. Prodicus of Ceos (5th cent. B.C. ), a Sophist philosopher,
seems to have taught that the gods were simply personifications of natural
phenomena, such as the sun, moon, winds, and water. Euhemerus (370?-298
B.C. ), a historian of myths believed, and many other shared this belief,
that myths were the distortions of history and that gods were the idealized
heroes of the past. Modern etymology and anthropology research produced
the theory that Greek religion resulted from a combination of Indo-European
beliefs and ideas and customs native to the Mediterranean countries since
the original inhabitants of those lands were conquered by Indo-European
The basic elements of classical
Greek religion were, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, somewhat modified
and supplemented by the influences of philosophy, Middle Eastern cults,
and changes in popular belief (as shown, for instance, in the rise of the
cult of Fortune, or Tyche). The main outlines of the official religion,
however, remained unchanged.
1. Ancient Myths, by Norma Lorre
Goodrich Meridian Books (July 1994)
2. The Greek Gods, by Bernard Evslin
3. Greek Myths, by Olivia E. Coolidge
4. Greek and Egyptian Mythologies,
by Yves Bonnefoy (November 1992)
5. Gods and Heroes; Story of Greek
Mythology, by Michael Foss (September 1995)
6. Funk and Wagnalls, New Encyclopedia
7. Multipedia CD-ROM for windows
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