Allegorical Interpretation of Greek Myths


By the end of the classical period (480 - 322 B.C.) the growing dominance of rationalism in Greek intellectual history caused philospophers such as Plato to find fault with traditional mytholgy and especially with poets -- including even the most ancient and revered poets, like Hesiod and Homer -- for portraying gods and heroes in unflattering and unedifying ways: fighting amongst themselves, commiting hideous crimes against members of their own families, abandoning themselves to grief instead of facing death courageously, and so on. Plato is very much an extremist in his distrust of poetry and traditional mythology, though he is not alone among philosophers in this respect; and yet even he, as can be seen from the example of the Myth of Er, makes use of traditional mythology to some extent. Even in this stage of Greek intellectual history and beyond, traditional mythology remained an important part of Greek culture.

Plato was not the only thinker or the first to criticize the myths, though he is among the most forceful and articulate critics whose ideas survive. It appears, however, that the myths found their defenders as well. Later philosophers argued that many myths had to be interpreted allegorically. Allegory is a word that has a number of specific meanings, but in Greek it is used rather generally to mean that, beneath the apparent meaning of a story is concealed another, more important meaning. It can be used to describe an interpretive procedure only -- i.e. to suggest that it is the interpreter who finds hidden meaning in a story -- and a mode of storytelling as well -- i.e. to suggest that the poet has encrypted hidden and perhaps unsuspected meanings into a story that seems on the surface simple and straightforward. This kind of interpretation was very common in antiquity from at least the end of the classical period onwards; and traces of it survive from earlier times as well.

How Did Allegory Arise?

The simplest explanation is that allegorical interpretation became popular as a response to those, like Plato, who found fault with traditional mythology. Even Plato is uncomfortable about criticizing Hesiod and Homer, and it is only too natural that others will have felt compelled to rush to their defense.

We can see this process at work in writers like Heraclitus, who probably wrote in the first century A.D. (not to be confused with the much earlier and more famous philosopher of the sixth century B.C.). Heraclitus wrote a book called Homeric Problems in which he gathered interpretations of passages in Homer that had been attacked on grounds similar to those used by Plato. In this book, he explains many passages of the Iliad and Odyssey as being about subjects totally different from what they seem to be about. In many of the passages objected to by Plato and others, Heraclitus (and his sources, whoever they were) find essays on topics such as the creation of the universe, correct moral behavior, political philosophy, history, and other edifying topics. It is Heraclitus' position, moreover, not only that it is possible to read embarrassing or inappropriate passages in this way, but that Homer actually composed such passages with the secret meanings that Heraclitus divulges -- i.e. that Homer deliberately hid his true meaning beneath a deceptive and misleading surface.

An Typical Example of Allegorical Interpretation: Ares and Aphrodite

In Book 8 of the Odyssey, Homer presents a poem within a poem. The scene is a banquet at the palace of Alcinous, king of the Phaeacians, on the island of Scheria where Odysseus has just been washed up after a violent shipwreck. The Phaeacians entertain him hospitably, and it is later, at this very banquet, that Odysseus tells them the story of his wanderings. But at this point, they do not know his identity.

Attending the banquet is a blind singer named Demodocus, who sings three songs. The first is about an otherwise unattested episode of the Trojan War, when Odysseus and Achilles quarrelled with one another; this delighted Agamamnon, the leader of the Greek forces, because he had received a prophecy that when the two best of the Greek warriors quarrelled with one another, the end of the war would be at hand. The third song is about the Trojan horse and the capture of the city. But the second, which concerns us, is not about heroes, but gods.

According to the song, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is married to Hephaestus, the god of the forge; but she is carrying on a love affair with Ares, the god of war. Getting wind of this, Hephaestus sets a trap for the illicit lovers and catches them in a fine-spun net of gold. The other Olympian gods come to laugh at the pair in their embarrassment; but Apollo and Hermes, in a conversation one might expect to overhear in a locker room sooner than on Mt. Olympus, admit to one another that the embarrassment would be a price worth paying for a night with Aphrodite.

This is exactly the sort of story -- entertaining but not very edifying -- that moralists like Plato attacked, and which the allegorists tried to defend. The argument goes that the story is told in a lighthearted, entertaining way in order to attract the reader's attention, but that it contains a much deeper and more serious significance than the risqué story on the surface would seem to allow. According to this interpretation, Ares and Aphrodite stand allegorically for opposing principles -- Ares for "strife" and Aphrodite for "love". This interpretation is wholly in keeping with their conventional "spheres of influence". The serious message embedded in the story is the idea that Love and Strife are the two opposing principles that combined to create the universe in the first place and under the influence of which the physical world continues to evolve. The lovemaking of Ares and Aphrodite, on this interpretation, represents the union of these two abstract principles and the creative potential that they represent.

Of course, this interpretation has nothing at all to do with what we might consider to be the meaning of this episode in the context of the Odyssey as a whole. Why should Homer be concerned with the origin of the universe at this point? To us it seems more likely that a story about adultery among the gods might have more to do with the fact that Odysseus' home in Ithaca, from which he has been absent for twenty years, is occupied by a gathering of local noblemen, all of whom want to marry Odysseus' wife Penelope. Furthermore, Homer repeatedly reminds the reader about the tragic homecoming of Agamemnon, who is murdered upon his arrival in Argos by his wife Clytemnestra -- and her adulterous lover Aegisthus. Therefore the theme of adultery has a specific relevance to Odysseus' situation. But adultery is just what the allegorists want to explain away. Their concern is not so much with the meaning of the story in context, but rather with their embarrassment at the fact that a serious poet like Homer should tell such a scandalous and immoral story in one of the greatest classics opf Greek literature. The idea that the story is "really" about natural philosophy is more in keeping with Homer's position in Greek culture than the idea that the story is about what it actually seems to be about.

Because their interpretive strategies differ so markedly from ours, the ancient allegorists have traditionally not been held in much esteem by modern scholars. Until recently, it was not uncommon to find the entire allegoriacl school simply dismissed as "unclassical", "decadent", even "absurd". There are, however, traces of allegorical interpretation among the earlier Greek philosophers, like Empedocles. In fact, it is Empedocles who articulated the idea that Love and Strife are the basic creative forces in the universe, and who even went so far as to identify Aphrodite and Ares with these principles, as the later allegorists were to do. In this respect, the later allegorists were probably follwoing Empedocles' lead. But it is not clear that Empedocles drew this correspondance as an interpretation of Homer. It is not impossible that this was part of his purpose, but it seems more likely that he -- as Plato was to do -- was adapting traditional mythic language to his own philosophical purposes. In this respect, the philosophers are more characteristic of later, rationalistic thinking about traditional mythology than are those who, like Heraclitus, insisted that the myths are inherently allegorical -- that their meaning is cryptic and requires interpretation along the lines suggested above.

Other Modes of Mythological Allegory

Natural philosophy is only one of the targets at which the allegorists aimed. Throughout Greek history we find that certain myths gain popularity in different times and places for reasons other than one might expect. The myth of Demeter and Persephone that we know from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter understandably forms the basis of mystery cult at Eleusis. But why do Athenian artists and poets become so interested in stories about the Amazons in the early fifth century B.C.? The reason may be that they regarded these stories, particularly those in which Theseus, one of the greatest Athenian heroes (as we see in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus), defeats the Amazons as an allegory of the Persian Wars fought in 490 and 480 B.C., in which a Greek coalition under Athenian leadership defeated the invading forces of the Persian Kings Darius and Xerxes. Many similar examples are known in which mythology definitely plays such a role in Roman, Christian, and modern adaptations of the Greek myths.
created 2/7/96; revised 2/4/97