The word myth, which comes from the Greek muthos, originally had the general meaning of “word” or “speech.” By the fifth century B.C., myth began to refer specifically to an entertaining, though not necessarily truthful, spoken story. However, myths were far more than just entertaining stories to the Greeks. Myths provided the early Greeks with a sense of their identity and origins, as well as an understanding of their place in nature and their relationship to the gods. By retelling myths from one generation to the next, the Greek people maintained their connection with their past and passed on this heritage to their children.
Most of what is known about Greek myths comes from early Greek literature. Much of the epic* poetry of Homer, for instance, was based on or referred to myths. The works of the poet Hesiod, especially his Theogony and Works and Days, are especially rich sources of myth, as are the odes* of Pindar. The great dramatists of the classical* period—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—also used traditional myths as the basis of their tragedies.
Most myths center on one or more basic aspects of human existence- family, society, religion, and nature. However, the characters, setting, and plot vary greatly from one myth to another. Some Greek myths give an account of how the universe came about or how the gods were born, while others describe the origin of early humans or their culture. Still others are simple tales of adventure, sometimes recounting the deeds of ordinary people, sometimes of well-known heroes*. Frequently, myths are about deities*, and many myths feature fantastic creatures, such as giants or monsters.
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
* ode lyric poem often addressed to a person or an object
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
* deity god or goddess
Greek pottery often depicted scenes from mythology. This amphora illustrates the last of Heracles’ Twelve Labors, in which he was required to capture Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of Hades. The king who ordered the task hides fearfully in a jar as Heracles returns with the beast.
The Origin of the Universe. According to Hesiod, the first things to exist were Void (which the Greeks called Chaos, meaning a “yawning” or a “gaping”), Earth (Gaia), and Desire (Eros). Void produced Darkness (Erebos) and Night, which in turn created Light and Day. Earth produced Sky (Uranus) and Water and, together with Sky, created several other beings. These included the 12 Titans, giants who went on to give birth to the gods; the three Cyclopes, one-eyed giants who created thunder and lightning and gave them to the gods; and three monsters called the HundredHanded, who helped the gods overpower and imprison the Titans.
Rhea and Cronos, two of the Titans, produced several gods as their offspring, including Zeus, Hera, Demeter, and Poseidon. These gods then fought their parents and the other Titans for supreme power. The battle between the gods and the Titans lasted for ten years, according to myth, until Zeus released the Hundred-Handed from the chains in which their father, Sky, had bound them. With the help of these monsters, the gods won the battle against the Titans, who were imprisoned in the underworld* and guarded by the Hundred-Handed.
After this victory over the Titans, according to the myth, Earth advised the gods to ask Zeus to be their king. They agreed, and Zeus in turn gave his siblings their specific rights and privileges. For example, Zeus gave Hades authority in the underworld. These gods then gave birth to other gods, such as Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom, who burst forth from Zeus’s head. Zeus, Hera, Demeter, Hades, Poseidon, and all of their offspring are the subject of many Greek myths. One of the best known is the myth of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, and her daughter, Persephone.According to this myth, Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and taken to the underworld. Demeter was so filled with grief that she caused the earth’s crops to fail, threatening the destruction of human life. Zeus convinced Hades to return Persephone, although she was required to spend part of the year in the underworld as the wife of Hades.
* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades
Myths of Humans and Heroes. The primary source for myths about early humans is the poetry of Hesiod. A major theme of many of these myths is the downfall of humans from an earlier carefree existence. According to one story, Prometheus, the son of two Titans, stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humans. Angered by this, Zeus punished the mortals* by creating woman. She was named Pandora (“all gifts”), because each god gave to her a plague for mankind as a “gift.” When Pandora’s curiosity led her to open the jar filled with these gifts from the gods, they were unleashed onto mankind. (Only “hope” remained in the jar.) For this reason, the earth and sea are full of evils, and endless troubles afflict mankind.
There are also many myths about Greek heroes. These are tales about characters who were believed to have played an important role in the past. Some of the best known of these heroic myths were told by Homer in his epic poems. In the Iliad, Homer described the deeds of the hero Achillesduring the Trojan War, which is the subject of several other myths as well. In the Odyssey, he told of the journey home from the Trojan War of the mythical hero Odysseus. Both Achilles and Odysseus also fit into the modern category of legendary heroes. Legends take place in relatively modern times, instead of the remote past when the universe was created. Legendary heroes also demonstrate personal qualities admired by the society from which they spring.
The most important Greek hero was Heracles, who was believed to protect humans from all kinds of evil. He was worshiped all over Greece and was the only hero to be given the status of a god. (See also Divinities; Epic, Greek; Poetry, Greek and Hellenistic.)
* mortal human being; one who eventually will die
Greek myths show considerable influence from the Near East. This is not surprising, since the Greeks had extensive contact with Asia Minor as early as 1600 B.C. Several Near Eastern myths are strikingly similar to Greek myths about gods and heroes. For example, the myth of Demeter—whose anger causes crops to stop growing while her daughter Persephone remains with Hades in the underworld—is almost identical to the Hittite myth of Telepinus and is similar to the Mesopotamian myths of Inanna- Ishtar. Several major Greek gods are thought to have been imported from the Near East, including Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, and Dionysus. In addition, Greek and Mesopotamian myths share the concept of an underworld where mortals go after they die.