ClSt/Coml 200:
Notes and Supplements to Lecture of January 17

"Greek Myths: An Overview"

Background Information on:

Hesiod | The Spelling of Greek Names | The Titans | The Olympian Gods | The Structure of Hesiod's Theogony | Map

Greek Mythology and Greek Religion

Greek mythology and religion are intimately connected, but they are not precisely the same thing. Many of the gods who figure in myth were worshipped in cult as well, but many were not. The principal deities in Greek religious observance are the Olympians, who represent the last generations of the immortals. In some cases the stories with which we are familiar were closely involved in the worship of particular gods; but this was not always the case, since the worship of any given divinity took different forms at different places and times throughout the Greek world.

Greek Mythology and Greek Literature

Greek literature, like Greek religion, is closely wrapped up with mythology; but neither is it the same thing. All the major genres of Greek literature make use of myth to some extent, and for most kinds of poetry in particular the myths are the principal source of subject matter. But a work of literature is not the same thing as a myth: it is an instantiation of a myth that exists in many other forms. Hesiod's Theogony, for instance, tells the story of how Zeus became king of the gods. But the poem is not the myth itself, nor is it necessarily the definitive telling of that myth. Rather, it is one of many instantiations of the myth, which took many other forms as well. These forms were not only literary, of course. A myth might be represented graphically, as on a vase painting or sculptural relief; architecturally or spatially, as in a temple or sacred precinct; or in cultic practice, i.e. the actual ritual observances through which worship took place. But all these partial representations of a myth do not "add up" to the entire myth itself. Even so widespread and so consistently represented a myth as the accession of Zeus to the throne of Olympus could not be expressed entirely and in ideal form: every version is limited in the first place by its medium (textual, material, or practical as the case may be) and, in the second place, exists in order to serve some purpose more limited and specific than any ideal version could accommodate. This is true even of versions that were widely accepted throughout Greek culture and that address myths of fundamental importance from an extremely broad perspective, as is true, for instance, of Hesiod's Theogony.

The Generations of the Gods

Is Hesiod's Theogony a "Standard" Account?

Hesiod's Theogony tells how the Olympian gods worshipped in his day came to be born. This poem acquired great authority in later Greek culture. Writing perhaps eight hundred years after we believe Hesiod's poem was composed, Apollodorus based his own account of divine genealogy (which is contained in a mythological handbook known as the Library) largely on Hesiod's Theogony. But Apollodorus differs from Hesiod in certain respects: These differences are small, but there are more pronounced differences between some of the details that Homer gives about the ancestry of the principal Olympian gods: So Homer, a poet comparable to Hesiod in antiquity and if anything even greater in his influence over later Greek culture, disagrees with Hesiod in certain ways, both large and small, concerning the generations of the gods. In fact, we know by report of earlier theogonies, some of them nearly contemporary with Hesiod, others much later but still considerably earlier than Apollodorus, that also differed from Hesiod, sometimes in important respects.

The point is that while Hesiod's Theogony was regarded as an authoritative text, we cannot assume that all accounts of Greek mythology agreed with his either as a whole or in particular details.

What Does Hesiod's Theogony Have in Common with Other Theogonies?

Despite these differences, there are certainly broad similarities among the various Greek theogonies: While the details of different accounts vary from one another, they agree broadly on such features as these; and it is tempting to infer on this basis that the idea of generational succession corresponds to some sort of chronological development in Greek religion -- e.g. that worship of the elements in some deeply archaic period of Greek culture was replaced by worship of successively anthropomorphic deities culminating in the Olympians, or that worship of the feminine principle represented for instance by Gaia was eventually replaced by worship of the hyper-masculine Zeus. But this is probably not in fact the case. It is more likely that the successive generations should be interpreted without reference to time, but rather in terms of the relationships that exist within specific tellings of the myth. On this view, earlier generations exist only to serve as foils to the Olympians and, especially, to Zeus, who imposes order on a chaotic world and maintains it by virtue of his superior physical and mental power.
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