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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.

Principal Divinities

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

(August 1995)

3. Greek Myths, by Olivia E. Coolidge

(December 1949)

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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