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 1.53).

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 tell 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. The 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 2.53). Subsequent cultures 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 myth.

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 since antiquity.

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 -- Hercules: 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 "Darmok", 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 protean nature.

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