Introduction to Greek Mythology


Hellenist mosaics uncovered in the year 2000 in Zeugma, Turkey by Ankara University. This mosaic depicts the nine muses.


Greek mythology is the study of the body of myths found within ancient Greek religion. When most people think about mythology today, it is often Greek mythology that comes to mind. With it's grandiose cast of memorable characters- from all-powerful, yet highly flawed, deities such as Zeus- to the brave, but often tragic, heroes such as Achilleus- to the many horrifying, larger-than-life monsters such as the Hydra- Greek mythology has everything needed to stimulate the imagination and promote both intrigue and wonder. In spite of the fact that the religion and culture that birthed this lively cast of characters has long since faded into the mists of history, their influence can still be strongly felt to this day within Western culture.

How Do We Know What We Know?

The earliest written sources of Greek mythology come in the form of epic poetry from the 8th century BCE. The first of these are the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey written by Homer, a greek poet who resided in what is now modern-day Turkey. Even though he is well known in the modern-day for his epic poems, little is known about Homer's life. His epic poems recount the events during Trojan war. Rather than being a purely historical account, Homer's recounting paints the war as both a human and divine one, with both gods and mortals on either side. Homer's writings seem to be part of an even older poetic and mythological tradition. In both the Iliad and the Odyssey Homer writes of the Greek gods as if his readers are already familiar with them and know their backstories.

Next are the works of Hesiod, also from the 8th century BCE, but likely closer to 700 BCE. Hesiod was a Greek poet from the town of Ascra, in central Greece. Like Homer, little is known about Hesiod's life. The first of his famous works is the Theogony, which accounts how the world first formed out of chaos in the ancient Greek creation myth, as well as the origin and history of the gods. His second famous work, Works and Days, accounts the myth of Prometheus stealing fire for mankind, the creation of woman in the story of Pandora's Box, as well as humanity's decline from a mythic golden age. Due to Hesiod's renown, many other later poetic works have been falsely attributed to him throughout history.

Poets and Playwrights

Besides the works of Hesiod and Homer there are various literary works that give insight into ancient Greek mythology. The first of which are the Homeric Hymns. The Homeric Hymns are a collection of thirty-four ancient Greek poems, all written anonymously and composed during different dates, that were mistakenly ascribed to Homer due to similarities in style. Each of the Homeric Hymns centers around a specific Greek deity. The collection though, is incomplete- with major hymns to certain deities (such as Aphrodite, Apollon, Demeter, and Hermes), and shorter hymns for others. The hymns appear to be introductions that were meant to be recited before some other play or poem. Exactly what they were supposed to be introductions for is currently unknown.

Next, there's the ancient Greek tragedians. The tragedians were ancient Greek playwrights from the 6th century BCE who wrote influential dramas called the Greek tragedies. These tragedies often incorporated mythological themes, and were thought to be connected with the worship of Dionysos. The three most famous tragedians were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Aeschylus' famous works include plays on Agamemnon as well as the furies. Sophocles' most famous work is that of the ill-fated king Oedipus. While Euripides' most famous work concerns Medeia, who killed her own children after her husband, the hero Jason, leaves her for another woman.

From What Remains

Many archaeological discoveries have added to our understanding of Greek mythology. In the 19th century, German archaeologist Johann Ludwig Heinrich Julius Schliemann famously discovered the Mycenaean civilization- an ancient civilization that existed from 1600-1200 BCE that greatly influenced the Greek culture that came after it.

Later, in the 20th century, the British archaeologist Sir Arthur John Evans discovered the even more ancient Minoan civilization that existed from 2200-1450 BCE on the island of Crete. Both the discoveries of the Mycenaean and the Minoan civilizations has greatly increased our contextual understanding of Greek culture. Regrettably, all we know about the two civilizations is what we can infer from their material remains. Their script, referred to as "Linear B" has yet to be deciphered.

Also influencing our understanding of Greek mythology are the plethora of Greek pottery decorated with mythological themes, dated to the 8th century BCE. Archaeologists and scholars theorize that the purpose of these mythological depictions was to help spread these myths to a wider, and possibly illiterate, audience. Today, the tireless work of archaeologists continues to add context to our understanding of Greek myths. Who knows what discoveries still lie waiting to be discovered!

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