ClSt/Coml 200: Notes and Supplements
What is a Myth?
The Oxford English Dictionary
defines myth as a
synonym for "untruth", "falsehood", or "lie". But the
word has a long history and an equally long range of meanings. The
English word comes from the Greek mythos, which Liddell and Scott's
Greek-English lexicon defines much more variously than
OED defines myth, with
most of the meanings of the Greek
word corresponding to the English story. Only towards
the end of the
entry is the issue of truth or falsehood explicitly raised; and it is
raised in such a way as to cast doubt on the possibility of making any
simple, straightforward distinction between the two.
What is Truth?
The ancient Greeks were capable of treating "truth" and "falsehood" as
mere opposites; but they were also capable of seeing an intimate
connection between the two categories.
The Greeks told many stories about characters who inquired after the
truth, and about others who were inveterate tricksters. Achilles, the
hero of the Iliad, declares that he hates like death the man
who keeps one thing hidden in his heart, but speaks another (Iliad
9.310). But Achilles speaks these words to Odysseus -- hero of the
second great epic poem of archaic Greece, the Odyssey, a
poem in which the hero tells many extravagant lies, all of which
stand in complex relation to the truth.
Many people from all over the ancient world consulted oracles, and one of
the most famous was the oracle of Apollo at Delphi in central Greece.
This oracle was regarded by many as the most authoritative in the world;
but its prophecies were typically so worded as to be completely
misleading. A famous story concerns the Lydian king Croesus, who asked
the oracle whether he ought to make war on the Persians. When the oracle
answered that, if he did so, he would destroy a great empire, he went to
war -- and in the process destroyed his own empire (Herodotus
Hesiod, one of the earliest
Greek poets and the first surviving Greek mythographer, commented rather
enigmatically on the complex relationship between truth and falsehood in
his own craft (Theogony 25). In
doing so, he gave early expression to what remained
in later times as well a very uncertain relationship between "truth" the
representation of truths in stories.
These few examples illustrate the complexity of the relationship between
truth and falsehood in Greek thought generally, and locate this
relationship especially in the telling and interpretation of stories.
Who Owns a Myth?
One of the reasons that the truth-value of myth is so urgently questioned
is that myths and bodies of myth often have to do with identity: people who
the same stories tend to feel that they have something in common with one
another, and that they differ from people who tell different stories.
early Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus said that it was the
even earlier Greek poets, Hesiod and Homer, who gave the Greeks their gods:
i.e. by virtue of their mythic storytelling, they contributed to
determining the national identity of their people (Herodotus
have to an extent modelled their own storytelling on that of the Greeks
-- presumably on the assumption that the stories themselves carry with
them something of value, and that by adopting the stories one takes on
qualities that one associates with and admires in the ancient Greeks.
This is most obviously true of the Romans at the height of their power;
and it is strange enough that the greatest empire of antiquity should
have refashioned its own mythology to make it conform with that of a
conquered people, even if the two systems shared certain features to
begin with. But even after the pagan culture of classical antiquity began
to give way before the Christian culture of the middle ages, the
classical myths maintained a certain importance down into early modern
times. And even in this century, in which various sciences and
technologies are often said to have replaced myth and religion in
setting the parameters of our attempts to make sense of the world,
mythology is continually invoked, even by the inventors of these sciences
and technologies themselves. The most outstanding example is perhaps that
of Sigmund Freud and the "Oedipus Complex", a supposedly universal human
impulse that both explains and is explained by the power of the Oedipus
The myths we will study in this course are primarily those of the ancient
Greeks; but as this brief summary suggests, we will be concerned with
these myths both in their ancient applications, and in later adaptations.
These myths, like all myths, are often thought of as containing "universal"
messages: though they may be regarded as literally false, they may
nevertheless felt to be true on a more fundamental level; and at the same
time, while the particular form that a myth may take in a given culture
may be thought of as somehow defining that culture, myths are just as
frequently held to offer access to insights that transcend any one culture.
In this course we will consider the cultural significance of the Greek
myths in their historical dimension, as they have been continually
adapted to various purposes
How Do Myths Work? The correct question
might really be,
How Are Myths Used?
Because myth is credited with providing access to some of the fundamental
truths about the human condition, it is often, prerhaps normally
regarded, as something to be taken very seriously. This impression is
reinforced by the fact that mythology provides the subject matter for
some of our most famous and revered works of art -- not just literary
art, but sculpture, painting, and other forms as well. But historically,
all myths -- including, but not limited to, the Greek myths --
have been a significant part of popular culture as well. The ancient
Greek satyr plays parodied what we think of as the more typical,
high-minded treatment of the same stories in tragic drama. In Christian
Europe the Greek myths afforded an opportunity to indulge a taste in
frivolous and risqué stories under the guise of an interest in the
Classics. In contemporary culture, it is primarily Norse mythology that
informs the popular genre of "adult fantasy literature" (Conan the
Barbarian and his ilk), but Greek mythology is represented as
well. A single
production company currently produces a pair of television series --
The Legendary Journeys and Xena, Warrior Princess --
that loosely borrow their basic concepts and some of their material from
Greek mythology. Another
typical but more ambitious example of how the idea of mythology can be
found in a certain episode of Start Trek: The Next
Generation that first aired in October 1991. In this episode,
which is entitled
the hero involuntarily finds himself in a dangerous situation and in the
company of an alien being whose language he cannot understand. Gradually,
he discovers that the the alien speaks in phrases that recall events in
the mythology of his (the alien's) culture, and that the situation in
which the two find themselves parallels a particular myth from the alien
culture. The hero is able to turn this insight into an understanding of
how much his own culture actually shares with that of his counterpart,
and encourages him to learn more about the "root metaphors" of Earth's
culture -- which prove to be, the stories found in Greek mythology!
A basic knowledge of Greek mythology and an informed critical approach to
how they have been used in various times and places thus has an obvious
value. What is important to remember, however, is that when we try to
focus our attention on these myths, we are aiming at a moving target. The
myths did not mean any one thing to the Greeks themselves, but took on
different meanings depending on who was telling the story to whom, when
and where the telling took place, in what form and for what purpose. This
is all the more true of later adaptations. Our task will be not so much
to unlock the meaning of these myths, as to come to grips with there