Throughout man’s long history, all peoples, no matter how sophisticated their society, have felt the need to create sets of myths and legends to justify, explain, and interpret the meaning of nature’s mysteries and to understand the forces behind life: from atmospheric phenomena to the source of a spring, from the infinite variety and shades of plant life to the destructive fury of an earthquake; to the hidden subtleties of the human psyche and spirit.
The fervid and creative imagination of the people of Greece, constantly enriched by cultural interchange and open to the influence of stimuli from the entire Mediterranean area, developed a rationalized and detailed corpus of myths that followed in logical progression from the ancient narrated sagas and was organized by clearly delineated genealogies.
Yet it must be remembered that this “system” is in no way unequivocal. Quite the contrary. There exist many versions of the same myths, conditioned by the city or geographical area in which they developed, by the period in which they were created, and by the cultural milieus in which they were refined and fleshed out (just think of the variations that may be introduced to a myth in relation to its role in religious practice, as a metaphor of philosophical thought, or through the revitalizing effects of theatrical representation.) Another key element in mythical tradition is the role played by the modes in which the myths have been transmitted. Many are known to us only from written sources (and this work clearly offers only a limited selection from the numerous possible versions); we know of others only from archaeological sources: scenes illustrated on vases, in bronzes, in reliefs, on sarcophagi, and in decorative architecture elements from all ages.
To all this, we must add the difficulties encountered by modern-day interpreters in reading these stories correctly after thousands of years. The problems do not stop with those inherent to the narrative and its immediate meaning but frequently continue when the interpreter delves beyond the story into the hidden symbolic meaning implied by a mythological presentation. Nor must we forget that even in ancient times the same myth could take on different shades of meaning and relative weights according to place – Greece, Magna Graecia, or Eturia – even though it was formulated in the same formal language everywhere. It is also vital to remember that all the while a lively oral tradition continued, shaping and changing the myths and adapting them to changing circumstances.
This composite, eclectic matrix of diversified elements and forms resulted in the nearly spontaneous generation of mythical sagas that were in practical universal but nonetheless different in every region of the Greek world, especially in those dominated by supreme cultural centers. Athens’ cultural hegemony extended to Attica and the surrounding regions, Corinth’s to the northeastern Peloponnese, and Sparta’s to Lacedaemon ans the southern Peloponnese.
The myths narrated here were shaped in these three areas of cultural influence. It must not be forgotten, however, that in the more remote or isolated areas different versions developed, and that over time some of the variants assumed greater importance than the original “official” versions.
Another warning. Greek mythology should not be confused with ancient Greek religion, even though the two are inextricably linked. The myths form the basis of religious beliefs of that people, with its feasts, its established practices, and its ceremonial rites to both public to private. In this lies the fundamental difference: mythology was subject to change and development, religion was the immutable foundation.
The Greek myths were adopted, adapted, and transmitted by the Romans and interpreted by medieval scholars before the Renaissance and Humanism. They were reread and reinterpreted by Neoclassicism and Romanticism and endure even in the peculiar metaphysical interpretations of modern art. In short, over time the values expressed by the figures created by ancient Greek mythology and the concepts they came to represent have been gradually but thoroughly absorbed by all the cultures of the western world.
There is, in fact, no country in the western world where the name of Odysseus (Ulysses) fails to strike a particular chord: his cunning is proverbial, as is his yearning for his homeland; the immortal image of his sovereign anxiety weaves through James Joyce’s 20th century literary masterpiece that bears the hero’s name. Who does not know of the dramatic unfolding of the destiny of the royal family of Thebes – or at least the “Oedipus complex” named after its principal player by Sigmund Freud? And what of the strength of Heracles (Hercules), the fidelity of Penelope, Antigone’s love for her brother, the mutual loyalty of Achilles and Patrocles, the beauty of Aphrodite, the power of Eros, or the impartiality of Zeus?
Source: Greek Mythology (book), by Panaghiotis Christou and Katharini Papastamatis