Greek myths have a universal quality. Populated by characters who are as recognizable today as they were in antiquity, and who frequently find themselves in dire, unenviable situations – the stuff of our own nightmares – they speak to us directly across millennia. Embraced by the Romans and never forgotten even in the Dark Ages, these myths have exercised a profound influence on literature, art and music since the Renaissance, taking root in continents undiscovered by the ancient Greeks. Today, Greek mythology is so embedded in modern culture, including film, television and computer games, that it has become part of the everyday world of many who may otherwise care relatively little for antiquity.
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In ancient Greece – even after writing was introduced in the eighth century bc – most people heard the stories of mythology as children from parents, grandparents and nannies. As adults in the Iron Age they thrilled to bards who recited epic poetry at banquets. In Classical times they heard professionals declaim the Iliad and Odyssey at public festivals, while praise-singers spun legends into paeans celebrating athletes’ victories and lyre-players sang love songs rich with memories of a lost heroic world. And in theatres citizen-choruses danced to hymns which celebrated fabled deeds and tragic actors took on the role of heroes. The sheer abundance of opportunities for telling and listening to myths was breathtaking.
Already in Homeric epic (which for the first time wove Greek oral myth into literature) we can witness such situations: in the Iliad Achilles sings of the ‘famous deeds of men’ as he sulks in his tent at Troy; while in the Odyssey, the Phaeacian bard Demodocus entertains listeners with tales of not just Troy, but the Olympian gods.