Mythology in Greek Literature & Art

For the Greeks mythology was all-pervasive, richly diverse and constantly developing. For us, however, our knowledge is confined to surviving literature and art (such a small fragment of what was originally produced that we can never be certain how representative it is). The Greeks had their own views about the relationship between mythology and literature. The fifth-century bc historian Herodotus (who was familiar with Egyptian, North African and Near Eastern mythology as well as Greek) wrote: How each of the gods came into being, whether they existed for all time and what they look like these are things about which no one knew until yesterday or the day before so to speak, since I imagine that Hesiod and Homer both lived no more than 400 years before my time. It was they who instructed Greeks about the gods’ birth, gave gods their names, assigned their honours and skills, and described their appearances.

Herodotus was wrong on several levels. Homer and Hesiod were closer to him in time, the origins of mythology much more distant. But he was correct that it was early epic poets who helped crystallize details of mythology and the gods. Homer assumes an easy familiarity with a wide range of myths, clear evidence that they were common currency. But there were many other early epic poems, only fragments of which survive. Some told of the Trojan War, others of Thebes, still others of the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts.

From the seventh century bc, lyric poets such as Sappho from Lesbos, Tyrtaeus and Alcman from Sparta, and the Theban Pindar peppered their verses with mythological allusions, sometimes so obscure that modern readers find them almost incomprehensible. From the sixth century bc, mythology provided material for hundreds of tragedies, written and performed in Athens and throughout the Greek world. In the Hellenistic period (following Alexander the Great’s death), mythology was studied, developed and transformed at the Library of Alexandria by scholars and poets including Callimachus, whose Aetia catalogued causation myths, and Apollonius of Rhodes, whose Argonautica was self-consciously modern in its learned references. Prose authors, too, such as the second-century bc Apollodorus, collated and streamlined myths, often tying themselves in knots, while Latin poets such as Vergil and Ovid adopted and adapted Greek mythology to suit their Roman ends.

Mythology in Greek Literature & Art Photo Gallery

In the second century ad mythology fascinated the traveller Pausanias. His Description of Greece provides useful evidence for local variations, as well as for many now lost artworks that played an important role in the understanding and dissemination of Greek myths. One was the Throne of Apollo at Amyclae near Sparta, whose sculptures represented myths as diverse as the Calydonian boar hunt and the Judgment of Paris. Another was the Chest of Cypselus in the Temple of Hera at Olympia: perhaps dating to the seventh century bc, its richly carved sides and lid showed scenes from the Trojan War, the Voyage of the Argo, the Labours of Heracles, the voyage of Odysseus, the Seven Against Thebes and the adventures of Theseus and Perseus.

Myths in a Landscape

Sometimes sculptures helped link location with mythology. The east pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia showed preparations for Pelops’ chariot race, which was supposed to have begun close by, while the subjects of the west pediment and west metopes (self-contained sculptural blocks) of the Parthenon at Athens were myths set on the Athenian Acropolis. Natural phenomena provided another link. Also on the Athenian Acropolis an olive tree and three grooves in the rock, apparently made by a trident, reinforced the reality of Athene and Poseidon’s contest. In Magnesia in Asia Minor a cliff shaped like a weeping woman was identified with Niobe, turned to stone, still mourning her children slain by Artemis and Apollo. At Delphi another rock, positioned at what for the Greeks was the centre of the earth, was venerated as the stone Cronus swallowed in mistake for his son, Zeus.

For many, the very landscape was alive with myths and mythical creatures. Dryads lived in oak trees, oreads in mountain caves and nereids in ocean waves. Breezes, pasturelands and meadows, fountains, springs and rivers, all had their resident spirits. In many places, too, mythology and landscape were inextricably linked – the boar hunt to the wooded glens of Calydon, the birth of Aphrodite to the sparkling sea at Cyprus or the slaying of the Minotaur to the palace at Knossos.

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