Pictured above are Oxford World Classics’ editions of three ancient Greek works collecting together various myths.
A question I am asked time and time again is where to read about the ancient myths of Greece. The question although fair reminds me of a misconception many people have even when starting university and finding themselves interested in taking Ancient History courses: that there is a canon.
The long and the short of it is that there is no canon.
It is a strange concept to many of us to begin with I think. Teamed with our understanding of monotheistic religions that survive today, with their bibles etc., which although open to different interpretations provide a standardised text outlining that religions history and teachings; and our exposure to ancient myths in popular culture, often picking up on common themes and images regarding Zeus or Hercules etc. it is easy to think that Greek myths, the stories that depict these people’s gods and heroes, have a common source. This could not, however, be further from the truth.
To begin with there is no literary canon or original source for Greek myths. No one book collects together every Greek myth that existed, you won’t find it and you can’t read it. There are some collections like the works of Pindar and Apollodorus that collect together and tell a large selection and variety of mythological stories. Even then, however, these are by no means the definitive version of a myth. Greek myths rarely have one version and if they don’t vary entirely in ending or motivation there are always small details that change depending on who does the telling or where you are in Greece. If every version of Greek mythology was to coexist alongside one another Helen, for example, would have been given birth to by at least two different women.
There are various reasons why the characterisation of Gods and heroes varied along with the stories they starred in. That is not because the Greeks did not treat their religion any less seriously than any other culture. There are, however, a variety of contributing factors. For one the Greek gods were not benevolent entities above human emotions – they felt and they acted on these feelings. Even more than this, because they were not subject to a higher force and held so much power, they often acted with impunity and their deeds on occasion rival the most vile crimes committed by mortal men and women. This leads to stories with gods behaving badly existing alongside stories of the same gods saving lives; and when the stories are more ambiguous various different reactions to their behaviour, good and bad.
There are also geographical and cult differences. Ancient Greece was not the ancient equivalent of the country we know now. It was not a unified state under the control of one government. Ancient Greece was the geography spanning a great many separate city-states that sometimes agreed and more often than not disagreed on, well, everything. Different versions of myths often originated from different city-states and even countries and made their way to Greece.
On top of this quite often individuals would manipulate and emphasise different themes in different myths to meet the demands of the contemporary cultural climate they lived in i.e. the writers of Greek tragedy.
Where do we learn ancient Greek myths from then?
Well once you begin to wade your way through the great breadth of ancient literature you will stumble upon myth after myth in almost every book you read. Either a straight up recounting of one version of a myth; a reworking of a myth to present to a contemporary audience in the religious theatres of Athens; the reference to a mythological example by orators delivering public speeches or even fictional characters lamenting their own stories resemblance to that of a tragic hero’s.
They are everywhere and their ‘proper’ version is nowhere.
If you’d like to read some classical myths I have a whole video dedicated to different ancient works that compile multiple myths in one place, which you can watch below:
4 thoughts on “Mythological Misconceptions”
Very interesting post Jean!
I was wondering, does it ever occur that you are ‘lost’ in a myth story when the reader is assumed to know this specific version? That is to say, certain ancient authors have written novels and included bits of myths, influencing the story, but the reader is assumed to know that specific myth from that city state, and now in present day readers could be confused due to lack of background or differing myth provenance?
Oh yeah I think that must happen to a lot to people and happened to me in the beginnings of my journey into the realm of classical lit. Like, why do these two people say different things about this mythological character? Or that’s not how that myth ends is it? Authors would definitely have presumed you knew the most popular versions at least, so you could understand what they were doing, why they took this avenue and what they might have changed. Luckily I have read a lot on the mythology now so don’t find it to be much of a problem anymore but it is still an exercise in enquiry and research sometimes.
It is difficult learning to be an audience other than yourself but it is something I’ve had to do at Uni and it it makes for a very interesting reading experience.
Interesting post: I agree. It is the same with myths and legends from the Celtic traditions, isn’t it? There are many versions of the famous stories. Sometimes you feel like you are getting a glimpse of what an original might have been but then you find yourself twisting back on yourself and getting confused. This happens to me especially in Spain where we only know about the native religions from Greek and Roman commentators and they often muddle themup with what they already know.
There are also bogus classical explanations of myth and legend, like Euhemerus, the idea that all the gods were historical figures that time and tradition had transformed into gods. They were groping around as much as we are.