“ὦ Ζεῦ͵ πάτερ Ζεῦ͵ σὸν μὲν οὐρανοῦ κράτος͵ σὺ δ΄ ἔργ΄ ἐπ΄ ἀνθρώπων ὁρᾶις λεωργὰ καὶ θεμιστά͵ σοὶ δὲ θηρίων ὕβρις τε καὶ δίκη μέλει”
(Oh Zeus, father Zeus, Yours is the Kingdom of Heaven, and you watch men's deeds, the crafty and the right, and You are who cares for beasts' transgression and justice.)
What comes to mind when you hear “Greek Mythology”?
You think about that weird teacher in high-school that could cite whole passages in ancient greek. And you may remember these fascinating stories about Gods turning into animals, Titans holding the Earth, and mere mortals transcending humanity.
Or, you think about Dwayne Johnson’s movie “Hercules”. Brad Pitt in “Troy”. “Clash of Titans. Perhaps you’ve played video games like “God of War” and “Age of Mythology”.
Whatever the case may be, it’s obvious that Greek mythology has penetrated our culture -- and our consciousness.
But what makes these stories so relevant and valuable? So pervasive that we keep reading them and analyzing them over and over again?
Well, to answer these questions, I’ll have to tell you how I, a native Greek, have come to learn and understand our “mythos”.
Greek Mythology: Logos vs Eros
(Icarus. Pathos defeated Reason)
“Everyone reads the same stories. The thing that defines us as individuals is how we interpret them. This is how you should look at mythology”.
This is what my ancient greek philology teacher told me in class. Even though I was 14 years old at that time, I was fascinated by this revolutionary idea of narratives and self-interested Gods.
See, growing up as a Christian Orthodox, you learn about religion through gospels and divine prescriptive texts.
There’s right and wrong. There’s a distinct duality that jumps out of the pages and forces its paradigm on your worldview.
The philosophical frame is limited, in a sense that the core interpretation has been handled by someone else and all you have to do is make the Biblical stories fit the Orthodox arc.
On the other hand, Greek Mythology was different. In fact, it’s different from most religions -- if you can even call it one. I read about heroes and Gods doing honorable deeds. And then I read about their troubles, their hubris, and their inevitable demise.
At all times, I was reading about human nature. Every character had a piece of myself in him/her.
They stared back at me because they were the collective unconscious of my (and your) ancestors.
But before we delve more into this, we need to go back, back at the beginning.
A brief introduction to Greek Mythology from a philosophical point of view
Mythology derives from “mythos+logos”. Logos is the rational, the inductive, rigid logic. And mythos is Eros. Love. Our pathos. The animal side.
I believe you’ve encountered this concept before, in other forms. Be it Black and White. Yin and Yang. Day and Night. Man and Woman.
The union of the opposites is Nature. And nature is the true God of every prehistoric religion.
Every religion, ritual, and mythological story is a form of mimetics. We, as humans, try to imitate nature. We ARE nature. We write stories personifying different phenomena. And Greek mythology isn’t any different. This is where everything starts.
I want you to think greek Gods as mediums with which we translate and communicate our understanding of the universe as a whole.
And every story as the relationships between the different parts of the universe. That includes interpersonal dynamics, ethics, morals, politics, sex, violence, etc.
For example, in “Theogony”, it is said that Nyx (Night) gave birth to Hypnos (Sleep), Oneroi (Dreams), Moros (Doom), Thanatos (Death), etc.
Can you see the pattern? Instead of mathematics, we use Logos+ Mythos to make sense of night and our experiences relevant to the night.
(Interesting fact: Hypnos and Thanatos are supposed to be twin brothers. Pretty cool huh?)
Of course, Greek Mythology isn’t the only “religion” that uses imitation and sympathetic magic in its stories and rituals.
But there are some differences…
What makes Greek Mythology special?
When I was still at school, we had 10 hours each week where we’d study Homer’s work.
Reading his massive poems we trod the line between reality, legends, and deep psychological dilemmas.
One thing that was prominent was that divine intervention looked very similar to what we now call “subconscious”
Questions about morality would be transposed to a “higher being” that gave the answer in a symbolic form.
History and myth, humans and Gods, idealism and pathos would blend. We’d spend weeks on one paragraph, trying to figure out what the heroes or Gods were thinking and how their decisions affected the story.
We didn’t make moral judgements about the characters. We only saw the outcome of their actions and what others thought about them. Everything was symbolism and it was up to us to interpret the story.
Instead of “action in a vacuum”, linear myths (X God did Y, so agriculture was born), Greek mythology creates narratives that reveal psychological truths about human nature.
Our deepest fears and our secret desires.
We learned about our mythology through tragedies, choruses, art, and music. It was obvious that these stories were alive and vibrant in the ancient world.
Is Greek Mythology relevant in 2019?
OK, but why should YOU care?
What difference does it make if you know why Zeus turned into a white bull?
How the story of Prometheus will make you a better person?
I believe that these ancient stories could help you understand different aspects of yourself. Greeks used to draw power from the Gods... but not in the literal sense.
- The drew wisdom from Zeus
- They became courageous knowing what Ares did
- They could appreciate the beauty of the world looking at a statue of Aphrodite
These are the archetypes that manifest in our lives. They’re the ideals, the absolutes that represent raw power, talent, fun, violence, etc.
They also represent opportunity, danger, lessons about consequences, and whatnot.
Take the myth of Prometheus for example.
I’m fascinated by his story since I read about it a few years ago. It sparked a lot of questions about ethics and shed light to an evolutionary truth about us, humans.
Prometheus was a Titan. There are a bunch of stories, with different endings, but for now, two things are important to keep in mind: He stole the fire from the Gods and gave it to humans.
Fire is chaos. Destruction. But it’s also what makes us able to build civilizations.
Fire builds. Fire destroys. It symbolizes creativity, yet it causes entropy.
Remember, the union of the opposites is Nature. It exists inside every one of us. And it was present in Prometheus.
A trickster that tried to fool Zeus, but also a protector of humans.
His actions may have caused:
“...the descent of mankind from the communion with the gods into the present troublesome life"
“...the ascent of humanity from primitive beginnings to the present level of civilisation."
The interpretation of his actions is correlated with how you view life.
Or, both statements are equal and reveal that there’s a sacrifice for everything.
Prometheus did pay the price. Zeus punished him by chaining him and having an eagle take a bite out of his ever-growing liver… until Herakles freed him, rebelling against his father…
(See how many layers there are? Pieces glued together. A mosaic that tries to capture true meaning)
The question remains, why is Greek mythology relevant today? What makes Greek mythology so popular?
Besides, there are many stories in modern religions that try to teach us these things... Perhaps there lies the answer.
Instead of teaching, these sets of stories try to make you learn. Aid you in your life, revealing your authentic self.
The Purpose of This Series
Greek mythology gives you a toolbox you can use to navigate life. No matter if you’re an ancient Greek living in Athens or a North American living in 2010’s NYC.
Instead of doing a stale, retelling of the stories, we want to go beyond and bring them back to life, in the 21st century.
Consider this post as an attempt to establish a philosophical framework with which we’ll analyze specific myths in the future.
Quick Interlude: The Hero’s Journey
One of the things that we’ll focus on going forward, is revealing the different process ancient Greeks used to make sense of the world.
In case you’re not familiar, the Hero’s Journey is a specific monomyth, a template, that many stories follow.
Interestingly enough, I believe this is a modernist approach to mythology that doesn’t tell the whole story.
And most importantly, when you try to interpret myths using it, you stretch reality to the point you skew your perception of what is real and what’s not. You lose nuance.
The myth of Hercules stops when he finishes the 12 “athlous” and completes the Hero’s Journey, right?
Did you know the reason he had to finish the 12 Labors? He killed his wife and children in a fit of rage caused by Hera.
Herakles dies because he wore a shirt drenched in Hydra’s blood. And as he dies (while Philoctetes lights the funeral pyre), only his immortal side leaves. Through Zeus apotheosis, he rises to Olympus.
If you look deeper into this, you quickly realize that we’ve been fed a surface-level, feel-good story. Time to make this real.
We’ll unravel the underlying themes from these stories and analyze the archetypes, the way we’re related to them, and what they mean to each individual.
Most importantly, I hope that these essays could help you understand yourself better.
Greek Mythology ToolBox
These are the main points of this post I’ll be using in the future:
- Mythos is Pathos, Logos is Rational. We’re looking for the fight between the two
- For Greeks, God is Nature. And they try to imitate Nature through their stories and rituals
- Gods represent psychological archetypes
- No moral judgement. Only outcome and consequences
- How the myth applies to MY life
- Look beyond the Hero’s Journey
There’s our cheat sheet! Keep it as a reference or come back here and read it whenever you read a greek myth. Could you spot the patterns?
It goes without a saying that I consider myself a student. Writing this post (and every post in the future) is a form of active learning for me.
I don’t consider myself an authority, nor I believe my viewpoint is the only valid one.
I’m curious and eager to learn more about Greek Mythology - and comperative mythology in general - as I go. And I want to use this post as a tool that will help me to “break-down” the myths to their core.
If you think this is “out there”, I invite you to read my other posts where I apply the principles I’ve written here.
PS- I’d really appreciate some feedback! And if you have any questions, feel free to ask!
PSS- Oh, comment below the next myth you want us to analyze!