Essay: Greek mythology compared to nordic mythology

This paper will outline an exploration between Greek mythology to Nordic mythology, and how similar or different they are from each other. Furthermore it will outline the basic origin of the two mythologies. Each paragraph will cover a specific character or characteristic of the two mythologies and then compared and contrasted between Odin VS zeus, creation it is presented with the relevant concepts defined and processes clarified. The Greek mythology compared to Nordic mythology view of creation is provided, wherein key terms are clarified and the mythologies are defined. The aim is to provide an overview of Greek mythology and Nordic mythology perception, upon which an understanding of mythology and their impact and how it is viewed in modern day in pop culture can be clarified. Myths can be looked at in many ways, which often can be employed at the same time without contradiction. For example, in the story of Ra, Isis, and the snakebite, the possible political interpretation (Isis being advanced by her priests to position of top god) doesn’t rule out a consideration of Ra as sun-god, or possibly seeing some ritual significance to his sickness and subsequent cure. As G. S. Kirk puts it, “a myth may have different emphases or levels of meaning.” Since it often serves more than one purpose, “a tale about human actions can contain more than a single aspect and implication” (39).

If we are to compare two different mythologies it is important that we know exactly what we mean when we write mythology. As we understand it, the word myth was derived from the Greek word “mythos”. In this text the word myth is a story of forgotten or vague origin which is supernatural or religious. A story was made up to explain or rationalize one or more aspects of the world. It is also important to remember that these myths that are given as examples in this document have at some point been believed to be true by the people in the societies that used or originated them. Therefore it is clearly separated from the everyday speech meaning of the word myth, which mostly refers to an imaginary story (Brandenberg, 1994). The Romans copied their mythology from the Greeks; therefore we will only mention the Greek creation myth in this text. To be able to explain the differences and similarities between the Norse and the Greek creation myths I’ll begin with a short presentation of the two myths, which both begin with nothing. The world is nothing but a dark and void place (Brandenberg, 1994).
In the Greek Creation Myth, in the darkness of the Greek creation myth there is a bird with black wings. This bird is making a golden egg from which the God of Love is coming. One of the shells from the egg becomes the sky, which is also called Uranus, while the other shell becomes the earth, Gaia (Brandenberg, 1994).Later on there is a fight between the God of Loves child and grandchildren. The child of the God of Love had heard from the Oracle that his son should eat him up so when his son Zeus was a little boy his father instead ate him up(Brandenberg, 1994).Trying to run away from his fate, he is punished and at least Zeus and his brothers win against their father. Zeus has two sons who have one responsibility each. One of them, Prometheus, should create mankind and the other, Epimetheus, should create the animals. They should also give their creations one gift. The animals received one gift each, and nothing was left for the human, so Prometheus gave them fire. Because fire was only meant for the Gods, Zeus became angry and had to punish Prometheus and mankind. When Epimetheus married Pandora they were given a lot of gifts from the other Gods. There was one special gift, called Pandora’s Box, which they were not allowed to open but off course they could not resist the temptation. Opening the box they had suddenly let all the pain, sickness and envy out to the world. There was nothing they could do to stop it. Later on they heard a sound, like “let me out”, from the box. They opened the box one more time and out flew all hope (Brandenberg, 1994).
The Norse Creation Myth begins, with nothing but dark chaos. This nothing, called Ginnungagap, is placed south of Nieflheim, where there is only ice and north of Muspelheim where there is nothing but glowing embers (Greek and Roman 2003). In Ginnungagap the ice from Nieflheim and the parks from Muspelheim meet and create an evil giant called Ymir. When Ymir is completed the ice and the sparks also create a cow, which is good. The cow feeds the giant Ymir, and itself is licking blocks of ice. One day when it is licking a huge ice block the god of Love, Bure, comes out of it. (Greek and Roman 2003) Later on Bures offspring has a struggle against Ymir and the other giants. Ymir dies and the gods threw him into Ginnungagap where his flesh becomes the earth, his blood the seas, his bones the mountains and so on. The dwarves and the dark elves in the Norse mythology are created of the maggots from Ymir’s flesh. (Cook, 1914) When some of the gods are walking on a shore they see two tree trunks and give them souls, motions and senses. These become the two first humans, Ask and Embla. (Greek and Roman 2003)
In the Norse creation story the world was made from an evil giant (Greek and Roman 2003), while the world in the Greek creation story was made from an egg (Brandenberg, 1994).The Greek people looked at the world in a different way. Maybe they thought the world was more fragile than the Norse people did. Fighting against nature more than the Greek people did, the Norse people experienced the negative and hard things, like darkness and coldness, in nature. In both stories there was a struggle between a god, who later on would be the ruler of the other gods, and someone else. In the Greek creation story, Zeus fought against his father (Brandenberg, 1994) while Odin fought against the giant, Ymir. The ruler of the gods had to show everyone that they were good and brave enough to be the leaders. Then the other gods and the humans could respect and trust them. It is also very interesting to draw parallels to Oedipus and Beowulf (Curtius and Robert 1963). Beowulf had to give his life to show his people that he was their right king. A king could never be afraid of death nor to struggle. Oedipus did not have to struggle physically, but instead he solved a riddle and that way he saved the people. Not solving the riddle he would never have become the king. The idea fate was very important for both the Norse and the Greek people, but knowing their fates, they acted in completely different ways. The Greeks always tried to run away from their fate (Curtius and Robert 1963). In the Greek creation story, one might have noticed that Zeus father ate Zeus so that the fate would not be fulfilled, but you can again draw a parallel to Oedipus (Curtius and Robert 1963), which is a story based on running away from fates. In Norse mythology they instead prepared themselves to meet fates .The Greek gods punished the people with the opening of Pandora’s Box. Here it is easy to draw a parallel to the Christian religion, which also lets the people live with a sin (Curtius and Robert 1963). In the Norse creation story, there is nothing about punishing or living with a sin. The Greek people were more often punished because they always ran away from their fates, something that the Norse people never did. Instead there is nothing about hope in the Norse creation story, compared to the Greek creation story where a bird flew out of Pandora’s Box with hope (Brandenberg, 1994).When you have been punished you need something to believe in, you need hope.
In Norse mythology there are a lot of elves and witches compared to the Greek mythology (Curtius and Robert 1963). What could the reason be? Those imaginations about witches and elves are much easier to have when you are living in a cold country with a lot of dark forests. Perhaps the Norse people had even more stories and thoughts about the elves before the Norse mythology came and when it did come, they involved them in the new mythology/religion. Here one can draw a parallel to the Christening of the Norse people. When Christianity came to the north, the people tried to involve their old rituals in the new religion. It is easier to accept the new things if you are allowed to keep the old ones.
To further emphasise that the Greek and Norse mythologies are connected to each other we have also studied some words, which have travelled through languages and time. Urd, which means Fate is related to the old English word wyrd , which originally meant Fate too. Today we have the word left as the Weird Sisters. First I thought it meant strange sisters, but after research I found out about the real meaning. They are the three sisters of Destiny, which play a big part in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. (Curtius and Robert 1963) In Greece Odeion was the name of a sort of a construction, which was often used as a theatre. Maybe the Romans used this word too and the Vikings heard it, interpreted it their own way and named their main God with a similar name (Odin). Lots of names may have been travelling around like this. Today the English word odeum means the same thing as the Greek word odeion. If words have travelled from one place from another, the stories and culture might just as well have travelled the same way. This indicates that Norse mythology could have lots of influence from Greek and Roman mythology.
Norse mythology is the religion of the Norse people. The Norse people are the ancient people of northern Europe (Scandinavia, Iceland, Denmark, Northern Germany etc.) (World Book 259).A major difference between Norse mythology and Greek mythology are both cultures views of the afterlife and what happens there. In Greek mythology there is one allotted place for people to go after death and once they are there they stay there for all eternity. In Norse mythology there are four different places for the dead: Folkvang, Valhalla, Helheim, and Ran’s hall or the halls of Ran. Folkvang is the allotted area for your everyday warrior who fought and died and did nothing more. Valhalla is Odin’s hall where 800 of the bravest warriors go and train for the coming of Ragnarok (literally the ending of the gods or the end of the world) Helheim is literally the house or home of Hel; Hel is the goddess of the “underworlds” Niflheim (land of fire and heat) and Helheim. Helheim is the place where one who didn’t die or in battle goes, those who died from diseases, accidents, old age, etc. Ran is the goddess of the sea and the drowned. She is said to sink ships and collect the drowned in a net and take them to her hall where they dwell there. In Greek mythology they go to the underworld (or Hades) and they are then separated and either got to Tartarus (hell) or the Elysian fields (heaven) (World Book 257). Folkvang, Valhalla, Helheim, and The Halls of Ran are four separate areas in the world of Norse mythology where as Hades is one and Tartarus and the Elysian fields are two places within Hades.
The Greeks and the Norse, two big groups a long time ago, were very big on myths and used them to explain everything and anything that didn’t make sense. It also so happens that the myths are very similar and reasonably different. So how might these to power house countries myths compare? First off, the Greeks and the Norse came from totally to different areas and life style (World Book 257) On the Norse side you have all the Northern countries which ranged from a lot of different backgrounds and the Greeks who at one point were considered the greatest country. The Norse, up north, had a difficult time. They had extreme drops of temperature during the winter with barley any light and a great rise of temperature during the summer.
Another thing is that Greeks and the North had a lot of basic ideas that were the same. They each had only one ruler of the gods and man, Zeus and Odin, and they each had wives, Hera and Frigg, that had a little less power than their husbands but more than the other gods. Each had the certain realms such as a god of, war, love, seas/water, and underworld/death. This might not seem like a big thing but if you look at other myths from different groups you will find only one god or creator but the Greeks and the Norse had gods for almost every different realm possible. Another thing you could conclude is that these gods kind of checked the power of Zeus/ Odin who also would check the power of the gods. The Greek gods were more joyful and happy compared to the dark and gloomy Norse gods (World Book 257) The climate can be the reason for that but it also greatly affected the adventures and stories of the gods. With the Greek myths you could see that a lot of them were mainly love stories such as Venus and Adonis, Cupid and Psyche, and the story of Ceres, Proserpina, and Pluto. Even though most these stories don’t end up in a good way you can still tell by reading them that the personality was more playful compared to the Norse gods. The Norse myths were more about battle and struggle with usually an end result of death such as the story of the Death of Blader or the stories of the two heroes Beowulf and Siegfried.
Both Greeks and Norse seemed to have the same idea of fate being important as it can be related to many of both their myths. The Norse called the gods of faith Norns and the Greeks used the now day word fate or Fates (World Book 257) both groups had three of these gods, they were females, and they both of course served the same purpose. One sets out the string of life, another decides the length and decides what is to happen to this person and the third cuts it off or ends it, which in simple form can be said as one sets the past, another the present, and the third the future. it seems that the Fates and Norns were more superior then the gods themselves even though they fall into a different realm then the gods which truly shows how important these fates or this idea of fate was to the Greeks and Northen people (World Book 257) As you can see both the Greeks and Norse believed that their lives are predetermined and they can’t really do much about it.
The creation of the two stories is also slightly related. The Norse believed that the world was once frozen over and after years Ymir was born and Ymir was one of the first giants who was later killed by his grandchildren while the Greeks believed the world was formed from chaos were Gaea (mother earth) and Uranus (the heavens), were created. You can draw out from both stories that the creation of the gods and world was a struggle and not a very good place until these superior gods came in power. This idea really shows how much honor both gods had from their people.
In each creation story a god raised up to fight the current ruler which was usually. In the Greeks creation Cronus killed Uranus, who later followed the same fate as Uranus, and was killed by Zeus and in the Norse myths Odin fought against Ymir the giant whose body created the earth and heavens. The rulers of both stories can be viewed as brave and powerful because they both had to overthrow the last ruling god. Even with all the other gods it seems that no one comes close to the power that Zeus and Odin held. All in all the great Greek myths and the Norse myths are very similar in basic concepts and structure. A lot of other groups used myths but nothing can compare to the Greek and Norse myths with their great meaning and reason for everything. Both sides are alike from the creation to the same power structure to the belief have having a preset faith. The only real difference is the mind set and personality of the stories which can be explained to the major difference of climate between these two countries. Why might they be so similar? Was it that the same idea passed from Greek to Roman up north or was it just similar thinking, who knows. Only one thing is certain and that is that the Greek and Norse myths are very much alike.
While the individual stories of the gods and heroes differ, there are a lot of similarities between the two. Both are polytheistic mythologies – they have multiple gods. Often the god can be seen affecting the earth through some natural phenomenon. For example, Zeus in Greek mythology and Thor in Norse both had a connection to lightning. Gods were often patrons of different trades or types of people. Both Demeter (Greek) and Skadi (Norse) were connected to the harvest. The greatest difference is in the end of the gods. In Greek mythology there is no apocalypse – no end of the world. The gods will always be on Mount Olympus, ruling over the earth. Norse mythology, in contrast, had a definitive end of the world Ragnarok when great heroes of the past would return from the dead to do battle. During Ragnarok, it was said that the gods were fated to die – many of the “top” gods would die in battle with the greatest enemies and creatures of the mythology.
Hundreds of years ago people did not have the technology to explain different forces of nature. They created gods, each with separate powers, to rule their domains. Some of the gods were merciful, some were wicked, and others were merely servants of more powerful gods. Looking at the gods, it is easy to tell what the civilization most valued. I am going to look at the Greek and the Norse gods to compare what was most important to their societies.
Both cultures had a king of the gods. In Greek mythology there is no god who is more powerful than Zeus. He is the youngest son of Cronus and Rhea, ruler of the Titans. Cronus was told that one of his children would overthrow him, taking control of his kingdom. To be sure this would not happen; Cronus swallowed his first five children: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon. Rhea could not bear to see another one of her children, devoured so she replaced Zeus with a rock wrapped in swaddling. Cronus, thinking he ate Zeus, left Rhea time to leave Zeus in a cave where he was raised by a divine goat, Amaltheia (pantheon/odin). After Zeus was grown he went back to Cronus with the help of Gaia and Metis, who made an elixir to cause Cronus to vomit his brothers and sisters. Zeus then led the fights against the Titan dynasty. Afterwards they banished the Titans to Tartarus, the lowest place on earth, even lower than the underworld. Zeus and his brothers then drew straws to find who would rule where. Zeus gained rule of the sky, Poseidon ruled the seas, and Hades ruled the underworld (pantheon/odin).
Zeus is the god of law, justice, morals, thunder, lightning, and rain. It was his job to oversee and make sure laws were being kept. He was worshipped originally as a weather god. He was depicted as a middle-aged man with a youthful appearance; he was regale and was almost always shown ready to throw a lightning bolt (pantheon/zeus).
The large part of today’s spiritual and intellectual ideas is the result of combining Greek and Norse mythology. Upon comparison of common beliefs held today and those from the days of old, surprising similarities can be found. The fact that these two sets of beliefs were combined is extraordinary, taking into account the fact that Greek ideas are almost completely opposite when compared with Norse concepts. Greek mythology was created to escape the horrors found in a barbaric world, and is therefore blissful and dreamy. Norse mythology, by contrast, is gloomy and full of impending doom. Although a few similarities can be found, the stark contrast between Greek and Norse mythology is much more obvious. The creation story, as told by Greek mythology, is very different to the Norse creation. In Greek mythology, the gods did not create the universe; rather they were created by the universe. The first descendants of Chaos were Night, Day, Heaven, and Earth. The gods were then descendants of Mother Earth and Father Heaven. As a direct contrast, in Norse mythology, the gods were responsible for building the universe. In the Elder Edda, it is stated that, “of old there was nothing.” Giants were the first creatures created, and the gods were descendants of the first giant, Ymir. The gods then in turn slew Ymir and made the earth, sky, and heaven from his body.
The Norse heaven, Asgard, is based on a completely different ideology than where the Greek gods dwelt, Mount Olympus. There is no joy or bliss in Asgard, merely a dismal sense of doom. Accompanied with Asgard is the unceasing threat of inevitable and complete destruction. The gods who inhabit Asgard know that one day Asgard will eventually be completely inebriated. Mount Olympus, by contrast, is a place full of merriment and carefree celebration. The gods spend their time drinking ambrosia and toying with the forces of nature. Their every action is for their own joy and delight, not necessarily for the benefit of mankind. Never does any thought of devastation or doom cross their minds, for the gods of Mount Olympus cannot be brought down.
Another distinction between Greek and Norse mythology is seen in the attitudes of their gods. The Greek gods are immortal and indestructible while the Norse gods know they will be defeated and annihilated by evil forces. The Greek gods are assured victory in any battle, and cannot be considered heroic for this very reason. Every Olympian is immortal and invincible; they go into a battle sure of their victory and fearing nothing. A drawback to this great advantage is that the Greek gods never know the exhilaration in overcoming astounding odds, or the adrenaline that comes from confronting danger. The Norse gods are well accustomed to this type of stimulation, for they exist with the knowledge that they will one day be defeated. In the end, when the forces of good and evil fight the final battle, evil will succeed over the Norse gods. There is nothing the gods can do to prevent their fate. The gods do not give up, but will put up a strong fight until the very end.
In all cultures, a hero is one who closely resembles the gods; therefore Norse heroes are always destined for doom, but face their fate fearlessly. Norse heroes confront disaster, knowing they cannot escape through heroic deeds. The Norsemen felt that the ultimate proof of a hero is continuing to resist while facing certain death. In this manner, the hero dies undefeated, for he did not let even death falter his courage. Signy, a Norse heroine, embodies these ideas. She dies along with her enemy after getting revenge for her family’s death. Her heroic death is more of a triumph than avenging the wrong done to her. Mark Twain stated that, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear not absence of fear.” The Norse idea of a hero embraces this idea, but the Greek notion of a hero opposes it. Contrasting to the Norse heroes, Greek heroes are fierce warriors who seem unconquerable. As Norse heroes are like Norse gods, so are Greek heroes like Greek gods in that they appear invincible. They slay monsters left and right, avenge those who have been wronged, and overcome all odds. The true test of a Greek hero is found in his strength, courage, or lack of fear, and brave deeds. Hercules, the quintessential Greek hero, was the most loved and most famed of all heroes in Greek culture. The son of a mortal woman and Zeus, Hercules is half god and half human. Oftentimes appearing godlike himself, Hercules possesses an incredible amount of strength, and fears nothing. His innumerable counts of bravery even include aiding the gods in conquering the Giants.
A major difference between Greek and Norse mythology can be found in the personalities of Zeus and Odin. The Greek Zeus is Lord of the Sky and ruler over all the other gods. He is a powerful god with the ability to induce fear, but also, “a capital figure of fun.” Zeus is supposed to have upheld the standards of right and wrong, but this is not always a very high standard. He entertains numerous affairs with mortal women and delights in causing trouble for mankind. Zeus is often pictured as amorous, joyful, and comic. Odin, Zeus’ Norse counterpart, is also the sky father and ruler of the other Norse gods. Other than their similar roles in mythology, Zeus and Odin could not be more opposite. Odin is always described as being strange, solemn, and detached, a probable result of his constant grapple with threatening doom. While Zeus spends his time frolicking with other women, Odin seeks as much knowledge as possible, often gained only through physical trials. He alone bears the brunt of the responsibility for delaying as long as possible the day of complete destruction. The chasm between Greek and Norse mythology is huge. Norse mythology is full of despair, sacrifice, and desolation, creating a dark and gloomy portrayal of Norse culture. The only bright spot in Norse mythology is remarkable heroism, which is characteristically marked by the death of the protagonist. Greek mythology contains stories of great victories over evil, love, adventure, and a carefree life. The hero inevitably wins and mankind is always celebrated. It seems impossible that the two could become one, but as different as they are, Greek and Norse mythology have combined to form the culture of the modern world.
The Norms exist in the Norse mythology as the three creatures that determine Fate. Before they came to Asgard time did not exist. Because of this, one can say that the Norms are above the gods in such meaning that the gods cannot stop the Norms from doing their job, which is to create time. Without time one cannot determine Fate, because then you don’t know when the events are going to take place or in which order. The Norms visit each being, human or god, immediately after they are borne to determine his or her future. Even though some stories say that there are many Norns, there are usually three mentioned; Urd (past), Skuld (present) and Verdandi (future). These creatures live by the first root of Yggdrasil (the world tree) next to a well, which is known as the Well of Fate. Every morning they come out of the cave they spend their night in, then scoop up water and mix it with the sand around the tree to create magic dough. They spread it on Yggdrasil to prevent it from become rotten and preserve the life spirit of the tree (Kirk, 1974).
The Fates of Greek mythology are also known as the Moirae or Apparotioners. These three females decide how long every individual is going to live. They were sometimes considered superior to the gods. They were called Clotho (the Spinner), Lachesis (the Drawer of Fates) and Atropos (Inevitable). Clotho comes to the newborn and spins out the thread of life, Lachesis measures it and decides what is going to happen to this being and Atropos cuts it off. (Kirk, 1974).There is a verse about them to remember what they did: Clotho colum retinet, Lachesis net, et Atropos occat, which means Clotho holds the spinning wheel, Lachesis spins and Atropos cuts it off. (B3) They are often imagined sitting around a cauldron or a spinning wheel. (Kirk, 1974).In both sets of mythologies the creatures that determine Fate are identical in purpose, gender and number. They are both above the gods and their jobs are inevitable for everyone. No one can go against the Fates. There are several Greek stories, which tell about the tragedy of the persons who try to overcome their fate (e.g. Oedipus). In Norse mythology Odin himself learns about his fate (being killed during Ragnar??k, the doomsday, by the wolf Fenris) from the Norms, and there is nothing he can do about it but prepare himself and his allies. Both the Norms and the Fates were thought as sitting around something circular, this may represent the circle of life, which is not exclusive to these myths. If we consider the mythologies as a reflection of the society, the conclusion is that both the Greeks and Vikings believed that their lives were already decided and one can only follow his/hers fate. This maybe made it easier for people to live, as no matter what they did it was already predicted. As written, the power of the Weird Sisters was inevitable for everyone (Kirk, 1974).
The Greek and Roman Mythologies have fascinated human beings for centuries, inspiring books, movies, research, and conversation among those who want to learn more and who want to share the fables of the Gods and Goddesses. Their stories (myths or mythos, depending on the origin), their triumphs and failures, and their imminent Immortality has been the influence of many other religions, including Paganism and Norse Mythology. Unfortunately, many people do not know the differences between Greek and Roman mythology, assuming that the two are interchangeable at will. In reality, the two are very different from one another, and capture almost opposing life values that are central to the people of the time. Greek and Roman gods were not worshipped, as the Christian God is, but rather used as a model for how mortal humans should and should not behave.
The Greeks came first, some 1,000 years before the Romans. Their most appreciated work, the Iliad, was distributed 700 years before the Roman’s most popular manuscript, the Aeneid. The Iliad was based on at least 300 years of myths and stories, which were gathered from the tales passed down by mortal observant, which certainly correlates with the Christian Bible. It was not meant as a holy scripture, however, but as a recorded history of the Greek Gods and Goddesses, who were revered by men during that time. The Greeks were focused primarily on life on earth, versus the eventuality of the afterlife. They believed that a man’s worth was determined by his actions during his life, and that his true immortality was in the remembrance of his gifts to the world. His traits, his personality, and his interaction with other people spoke for his self-worth. Gods and Goddesses were based on human personality traits – such as Love, Honor, Dignity, and Hatred – and their actions in myths were symbolic of the actions of men. Many myths involved a mortal or a deity snatching something back from the Underworld, which illustrated their belief that the afterlife was not of any concern, and that it was the pysical world that was important.
Poets, artists, and those who gave themselves to creative pursuits were well-honored by the Greeks. They held creativity above physical works in the mortal and mythical world; myths reflected those personal traits and were meant to expose the positive and negative aspects of humanity. Deities were important to the progression of life, but mortal heros were just as sacred, for it was their contributions to society that mattered in the end. Individualism was also very important; the actions of a group were not as consequential as the actions of an individual. Men were responsible for their own well-being, and could not be bothered by the mistakes of the masses.
Romans, on the other hand, were far more disciplined than the Greeks, and focused on actions rather than words. Whereas the Greeks revered the poet, the Romans held up the warrior as the epitome of sanctity, and rewarded bravery and risks taken by both mortals and deities. They strongly felt that good deeds on earth would be well-received in Heaven, and they strove to earn their place among the Gods in the afterlife. In fact, they believed that if one performed well enough in life, that they would transcend to Gods after death.
The Romans adopted many of the myths and deities of the Greeks, though they changed names and circumstances to support their own beliefs. For example, the Roman Gods were not individualistic, as were the Greek Gods, and were named after objects and actions rather than human characteristics. Myths were rooted in the brave, heroic acts of the Gods, and rarely displayed the lives of mortals, because mortal life was not as important as that after death. Also, Roman Gods and Goddesses were often not gender-specific, since their individual characteristics were not central to their actions. Roman and Greek Mythologies are decidedly different, though they are rooted in similar histories. A study of their individual characteristics illustrates the values and beliefs of the Greeks and Romans respectively, and can offer a better understanding of how these myths and anecdotes originally came about. In Western culture there are a number of literary or narrative genres that scholars have related in different ways to myths. Examples are fables, fairy tales, folktales, sagas, epics, legends, and etiologic tales (which refer to causes or explain why a thing is the way it is).
Another form of tale, the parable, differs from myth in its purpose and character. Even in the West, however, there is no agreed definition of any of these genres and some scholars question whether multiplying categories of narrative is helpful at all, as opposed to working with a very general concept such as the traditional tale. Non-Western cultures apply classifications that are different both from the Western categories and from one another. Most, however, make a basic distinction between “true” and “fictitious” narratives, with “true” ones corresponding to what in the West would be called myths.
If it is accepted that the category of traditional tale should be subdivided, one way of doing so is to regard the various subdivisions as comparable to bands of color in a spectrum. Within this figurative spectrum, there will be similarities and analogies between myth and folktale or between myth and legend or between fairy tale and folktale. In the section that follows, it is assumed that useful distinctions can be drawn between different categories. It should, however, be remembered throughout that these classifications are far from rigid and that, in many cases, a given tale might be plausibly assigned to more than one category. The importance of studying myth to provide a key to a human society is a matter of historical record. In the middle of the 19th century, for instance, a newly appointed British governor of New Zealand, Sir George Grey, was confronted by the problem of how to come to terms with the Maori, who were hostile to the British. He learned their language, but that proved insufficient for an understanding of the way in which they reasoned and argued. In order to be able to conduct negotiations satisfactorily, he found it necessary to study the Maori’s mythology, to which they made frequent reference.
Other government officials and Christian missionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries made similar efforts to understand the mythologies of nations or tribes so as to facilitate communication. Such studies were more than a means to an end, whether efficient administration or conversion; they amounted to the discovery that myths present a model or charter for man’s behavior and that the world of myth provides guidance for crucial elements in human existence–war and peace, life and death, truth and falsehood, good and evil. In addition to such practically motivated attempts to understand myth, theorists and scholars from many disciplines have interested themselves in the study of the subject.
A close study of myth has developed in the West, especially since the 18th century. Much of its material has come from the study of the Greek and Roman classics, from which it has also derived some of its methods of interpretation. The growth of philosophy in ancient Greece furthered allegorical interpretations of myth–i.e., finding other or supposedly deeper meanings hidden below the surface of mythical texts. Such meanings were usually seen as involving natural phenomena or human values. Related to this was a tendency toward rationalism, especially when those who studied myths employed false etymologies.
Rationalism in this context connotes the scrutiny of myths in such a way as to make sense of the statements contained in them without taking literally their references to gods, monsters, or the supernatural. Thus, the ancient writer Palaiphatos interpreted the story of Europa (carried off to Crete on the back of a handsome bull, which was actually Zeus in disguise) as that of a woman abducted by a Cretan called Tauros, the Greek word for bull; and Skylla, the bestial and cannibalistic creature who attacked Odysseus’ ship according to Homer’s Odyssey, was by the same process of rationalizing interpreted as simply the name of a pirate ship. Of special and long-lasting influence in the history of the interpretation of myth was Euhemerism (named after Euhemerus, a Greek writer who flourished about 300 BC), according to which certain gods were originally great people venerated because of their benefactions to mankind.
The early Church Fathers adopted an attitude of modified Euhemerism, according to which classical mythology was to be explained in terms of mere men who had been raised to superhuman, demonic status because of their deeds. By this means, Christians were able to incorporate myths from the culturally authoritative pagan past into a Christian framework while defusing their religious significance–the gods became ordinary humans. The Middle Ages did not develop new theoretical perspectives on myth, nor, despite some elaborate works of historical and etymological erudition, did the Renaissance. In both periods, interpretations in terms of allegory and Euhemerism tended to predominate.
About 1800 the Romantics’ growing fascination with language, the postulation of an Indo-European language family, the study of Sanskrit, and the growth of comparative studies, especially in history and philology, were all part of a trend that included the study of myth. The relevance of Indo-European studies to an understanding of Greek and Roman mythology was carried to an extreme in the work of Friedrich Max Muller, a German Orientalist who moved to Britain and undertook important research on comparative linguistics. In his view, expressed in such works as Comparative Mythology (1856), the mythology of the original Indo-European peoples had consisted of allegorical stories about the workings of nature, in particular such features as the sky, the Sun, and the dawn.
In the course of time, though, these original meanings had been lost (through, in Muller’s notorious phrasing, a “disease of language”), so that the myths no longer told in a “rationally intelligible” way of phenomena in the natural world but instead appeared to describe the “irrational” activities of gods, heroes, nymphs, and others. For instance, one Greek myth related the pursuit of the nymph Daphne by the god Phoebus Apollo. Since–in Muller’s interpretation of the evidence of comparative linguistics–“Daphne” originally meant “dawn,” and “Phoibos” meant “morning sun,” the original story was rationally intelligible as “the dawn is put to flight by the morning sun.”
One of the problems with this view is, of course, that it fails to account for the fact that the Greeks continued to tell this and similar stories long after their supposed meanings had been forgotten; and they did so, moreover, in the manifest belief that the stories referred, not to nature, but precisely to gods, heroes, and other mythical beings. Interest in myth was greatly stimulated in Germany by Friedrich von Schelling’s philosophy of mythology, which argued that myth was a form of expression, characteristic of a particular stage in human development, through which men imagine the Absolute (for Schelling an all-embracing unity in which all differences are reconciled). Scholarly interest in myth has continued into the 20th century. Many scholars have adopted a psychological approach because of interest aroused by the theories of Sigmund Freud. Subsequently, new approaches in sociology and anthropology have continued to encourage the study of myth. In the industrialized Western society of the 20th century, myths and related types of tales continue to be told. Urban folklorists collect stories that have much in common with the tales collected by the Grimm brothers, except that in the modern narratives the lone traveler is likely to be threatened, not by a werewolf, but by a phantom hitchhiker, and the location of his danger may be a freeway rather than a forest.
Computer games use sophisticated technology to represent quests involving dragons to be slain and princesses to be saved and married. The myth of Superman, the superhuman hero who saves the world and preserves “the American way,” is a notable image embodying modern Americans’ confidence in the moral values that their culture espouses. Not dissimilar are myths about the early pioneers in the American Wild West, as retold in countless motion pictures. Such stories often reinforce stereotypical attitudes about the moral superiority of the settlers to the native Indians, although sometimes such attitudes are called into question in other movies that attempt to demythologize the Wild West.
A particular illustration of the power that myths continue to exert was provided as late as the 1940s by the belief in the existence of an Aryan racial group, separate from and superior to the Semitic group. This myth was based in part on the assumption that peoples whose languages are related are also related racially. The fact that this assumption is spurious did not prevent the Aryan myth from gaining wide acceptance in Europe from the 18th century onward, and it was eventually to provide a supposed intellectual justification for the persecution of the Semitic Jews by their Aryan Germanic “superiors” during the period of Nazi domination. This episode suggests that, in politics, a myth will take hold if it serves the interests and focuses the aspirations of a particular group; the truth or falsity of the myth is irrelevant. In a sense, of course, this function is merely an extension of its more general role in religion, where a myth, as well as addressing questions such as a society’s place in the cosmos, may serve to justify a particular kind of governmental organization.
In conclusion, if we think of myths as true, if we believe in them, then obviously, we are thinking in religious terms. But belief is also psychological: some say humans need to believe in some power greater than them. Others, like Joseph Campbell, see the origins of myth and religion in the psychological response of early man to the trauma of death. Thus, belief in a greater power arises when humans are faced with the mystery of what happens after death. The earliest efforts to rationalize myth by seeing it as disguised history, as disguised philosophy, or as fables illustrating moral truths all proceeded from a desire to make the seemingly irrational and immoral actions of gods and men appear rational and moral. Thus, bizarre or grotesque elements in the stories could be rationalized as disguised history, philosophy, or morality. However, these early rationalizes often ignored elements of the myths which did not fit into their allegorical schemes and made little attempt to look at myths psychologically or symbolically, or to place the them in their proper historical context. (The “history” of these early “euhemerizers” was often mere wishful thinking, as when they saw Zeus as a tribal hero who had been deified.) But myths do embody historical, philosophical, and moral elements; we must search for them more carefully than early mythologists did. Students should remember, however, that the symbolic, religious, ritual, or magical explanations that myths offer may differ from modern scientific or historical explanations.
Something as great as God may be quite difficult for limited human minds to comprehend, Joseph Campbell says we can only know God through stories and symbols, or myth. But our stories are human and limited, and thus cannot, according to Campbell, tell literal truths, but all can and do tell metaphoric and symbolic truths. Ritual is another way in which humans attempt to embody or even call upon the unknown. Ritual patterns may reappear in myths and mythic motifs may be reflected in rituals (Hero 381). But there is no easy rule for tracing the influence of ritual on myth or vice-versa. Mythologists continue to argue whether the repetitive patterns of motifs and plot seen in many myths stem from ritual patterns (Hero 381), or from psychological archetypes inherent in humans, or from the repetition common in oral forms of storytelling (Hero 381).
No one way offers a key to the interpretation of myths, but all can offer insights to different motifs and plot elements. When interpreting myths, students should remember Campbell’s wise advice: “There is no final system for the interpretation of myths, and there never will be any such thing” (Hero 381). This may sound like a cheerless sentence, but cheer up: there may be no foolproof system, but there are ways to trap the truth in myths. According to Campbell, myths are like the god Proteus (sometimes called the Old Man of the Sea) in the Odyssey who “always speaks the truth” (Homer 52, my emphasis). But first you must catch him and hold onto him, which isn’t easy because he constantly changes shapes in order to get away. “He will turn into all sorts of shapes to try you, into all the creatures of that live and move upon the earth, into water, into blazing fire; but you must hold him fast and press him all the harder” (Homer 53). Great advice for any student of myth! Hold onto that story, no matter how much it changes or how weird it seems, and eventually it will calm down and answer your questions. But Proteus only answers the specific questions put to him. So, to get good answers, you have to ask a lot of different questions.
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Pointed out by Bernard Clive Dietrich, The Origins of Greek Religion (de Gruyter) 1973:15.
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