ClSt / ComL 200:
Notes and Supplements: Wednesday, April 24

Greek Myths in Popular Culture


As was the case Monday, today we will not attempt a complete survey of the Greek myths in popular culture, but will try simply to indicate a few areas touching on the major themes of the course in which Greek mythology appears in contemporary American popular culture.


One instance that bears mentioning is the work of a production company called Renaissance Pictures that appears on the UPN television network. This company produces two weekly comedy/adventure shows, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. The first show is based very loosely on the Heracles saga, with a liberal addition of motifs having nothing to do with Heracles or even with Greek mythology (e.g. centaurs named "Derek"!). The second goes farther than the first in slinging together motifs from various mythologies. For instance, while Xena (whose name is a feminine form of the Greek word for :stranger" or "guest") is not wholly unlike the Amazons of Greek mythology, her dress and general behavior are reminiscent of heroines from adult fantasy literature that draws on the iconography of Norse mythology. These shows are not meant to be "accurate" in any way. The web sites that UPN maintains to advertise them stress forthrightly that both shows revel in the display of beautiful bodies, male and female. But whoever is writing these shows knows enough about Greek mythology to use it humorously, and the more one knows about the Greek myths, the more laughs (or groans) one is likely to get out of them.

One interesting facet of the Xena series is that, despite the heroine's abbreviated costume and other aspects of the show that might be viewed is sexist, it has actually been praised for portraying a strong woman who rejects stereotypical gender-roles, who succeeds in life by virtue of her martial prowess, whose most enduring relationship is with her female sidekick Gabrielle (! remember Derek the centaur), and so forth. In other words, there are people who take this show at least semi-seriously as a healthy, if fantastic, portrayal of a strong, independent female character. This is a dimension that is completely lacking in Hercules. Not that Hercules too can't be read as a hero for the nineties: as portrayed in this series, Hercules is not just a hero of brute force, but a sensitive soul who (very much unlike the ancient Heracles and, for that matter, unlike his modern female counterpart Xena) believes in monogamy and shows superhuman restraint in the face of constant sexual temptation. But if Hercules and Xena differ in this respect, they resemble one another in that their metier is violence: both solve the problems they encounter by feats of strength and physical skill--Xena again being more unrestrained in her use of force than Hercules. If we remember that Xena as a Hercules spin-off, it seems worth observing that the two shows (which air back-to-back in most tv markets) represent an attempt to address certain modern myths about gender roles both by retelling a canonical ancient myth and then by freely inventing an analogous myth to address issues that the ancient material leaves untouched.

Pop Psychology

Jean Shinoda Bolen, Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women (1984) Gods in Everyman : A New Psychology of Men's Lives and Loves (1989)

True Believers

Bolen's books suggest that the goddesses of the Greek pantheon possess a certain rather ill-defined reality, but stop well short of actual worship of the goddesses as external beings. There are, however, people who do worship the gods and, especially, the goddesses of classical mythology. They call themselves Pagans, Neo-Pagans, Witches, or Wiccan, and they appear to be among those who have taken full advantage of WWW to spread their message and maintain a sense of community. You can learn about them from zseveral sites, including a Pagan FAQ site, Cogweb, a site maintained by an organization called Covenant of the Goddess, and other sites. These organizations do not draw upon Greek mythology alone in defining their belief systems, but rather employ a sycretism not unlike what we have seen in other historical periods. A page devoted to The Dark Goddess illustrates this point very clearly.


The Gaia hypothesis is one opf the farthest-reaching mythological movements in modern culture, involving as it does the most potent of modern mythologies, science, as well as elements of political activism and a powerful ancient myth. The basic idea behind the Gaia movement is that the Earth is not merely a rock but a living organism, and all the biological entities living on the Eazrth, including human beings, are in some way part of this larger organism. This idea was first articulated by James E. Lovelock, a British ecologist, in 1979, but it has found many proponents and opponents since that time. Some of these have been documented on The Earth 2 Web Page.
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