Greek Mythology and Religion Essays and Papers

This essay has a total of 1814 words and 10 pages.

Greek Mythology and Religion

Mythology is the study and interpretation of myth and the body of myths of a particular
culture. Myth is a complex cultural phenomenon that can be approached from a number of
viewpoints. In general, myth is a narrative that describes and portrays in symbolic
language the origin of the basic elements and assumptions of a culture. Mythic narrative
relates, for example, how the world began, how humans and animals were created, and how
certain customs, gestures, or forms of human activities originated. Almost all cultures
possess or at one time possessed and lived in terms of myths.

Myths differ from fairy tales in that they refer to a time that is different from
ordinary. The time sequence of myth is extraordinary- an "other" time - the time before
the conventional world came into being. Because myths refer to an extraordinary time and
place and to gods and other supernatural beings and processes, they have usually been seen
as aspects of religion. Because of the inclusive nature of myth, however, it can
illustrate many aspects of individual and cultural life.

Meaning and interpretation

From the beginnings of Western culture, myth has presented a problem of meaning and
interpretation, and a history of controversy has gathered about both the value and the
status of mythology.

Myth, History, and Reason

In the Greek heritage of the West, myth or mythos has always been in tension with reason
or logos, which signified the sensible and analytic mode of arriving at a true account of
reality. The Greek philosophers Xenophanes, Plato, and Aristotle, for example, exalted
reason and made sarcastic criticisms of myth as a proper way of knowing reality.

The distinctions between reason and myth and between myth and history, although essential,
were never quite absolute. Aristotle concluded that in some of the early Greek creation
myths, logos and mythos overlapped. Plato used myths as metaphors and also as literary
devices in developing an argument.

Western Mythical Traditions

The debate over whether myth, reason, or history best expresses the meaning of the reality
of the gods, humans, and nature has continued in Western culture as a legacy from its
earliest traditions. Among these traditions were the myths of the Greeks. Adopted and
assimilated by the Romans, they furnished literary, philosophical, and artistic
inspiration to such later periods as the Renaissance and the romantic era. The pagan
tribes of Europe furnished another body of tradition. After these tribes became part of
Christendom, elements of their mythologies persisted as the folkloric substratum of
various European cultures.

Greek religion and mythology are supernatural beliefs and ritual observances of the
ancient Greeks, commonly related to a diffuse and contradictory body of stories and
legends. The most notable features of this religion were many gods having different
personalities having human form and feelings, the absence of any established religious
rules or authoritative revelation such as, for example, the Bible, the strong use of
rituals, and the government almost completely subordinating the population's religious
beliefs. Apart from the mystery cults, most of the early religions in Greece are not
solemn or serious in nature nor do they contain the concepts of fanaticism or mystical
inspiration, which were Asian beliefs and did not appear until the Hellenistic period
(about 323-146 B.C.). At its first appearance in classical literature, Greek mythology had
already received its definitive form. Some divinities were either introduced or developed
more fully at a later date, but in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey the major Olympian gods
appear in substantially the forms they retained until paganism ceased to exist. Homer
usually is considered responsible for the highly developed personifications of the gods
and the comparative rationalism that characterized Greek religious thought. In general
Greek gods were divided into those of heaven, earth, and sea; frequently, however, the
gods governing the earth and sea constituted a single category.

Principal Divinities

The celestial gods were thought to dwell in the sky or on Mount Olympus in Thessaly. The
Earth, or chthonic (Gr. chtho n, "earth"), deities were thought to dwell on or under the
earth, and were closely associated with the heroes and the dead. The lines separating
these divine orders were indefinite, and the deities of one order were often found in
another. The gods were held to be immortal; yet they were also believed to have had a
beginning. They were represented as exercising control over the world and the forces of
nature. Ananke, the personification of necessity, however, limited this control, to which
even the gods bowed.

At the head of the divine hierarchy was Zeus, the spiritual father of gods and men. His
wife was Hera, queen of heaven and guardian of the sanctity of marriage. Associated with
them as the chief divinities of heaven were Hephaestus, god of fire and the patron of
metalworkers; Athena, the virgin goddess of wisdom and war, preeminent as a civic goddess;
Apollo, deity of light, poetry, and music, and his sister Artemis, goddess of wildlife
and, later, of the moon; Ares, god of war, and his consort, Aphrodite, goddess of love;
Hermes, the divine messenger, later, god of science and invention; and Hestia, goddess of
the hearth and home. Around these greater gods and goddesses were grouped a host of lesser
deities, some of whom enjoyed particular distinction in certain localities.

Among them were Helios, the sun; Selene, the moon (before Artemis came into existence);
the attendants of the Olympians, such as the Graces; the Muses; Iris, goddess of the
rainbow; Hebe, goddess of youth and cupbearer of the gods; and Ganymede, the male
counterpart of Hebe. Poseidon, the worship of whom was often accompanied by worship of his
wife, Amphitrite, ruled the sea. Attending the sea gods were the Nereids, Tritons, and
other minor sea deities.

The chief earth deities were Hades, ruler of the underworld, and his wife, Persephone, the
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