Greek MythologyMythology

Tropes, Themes, and Motifs in Greek Mythology

Like any collection of stories produced by a culture, Greek Mythology has a number of recurring tropes, themes, and motifs (and archetypes) that reflect the cultural beliefs and norms. These are lines that run through many individual stories and shape the overall feel of the mythology. There are more than this; one could go through the literature and identify several instances of, for example, deities disguising themselves as mortals. But these are some of the general ones.

Table of Contents

The Heroic Journey

One of the most pervasive, or at least most famous, themes in Greek mythology is the hero’s journey. These narratives often revolve around individuals, typically demigods or mortals with exceptional qualities, who embark on epic quests or face daunting challenges to achieve some goal. Prominent examples include the Twelve Labors of Heracles (Hercules) and the journeys of Jason and Odysseus. 

Pride

Pride and the dangers of it are a recurring theme in Greek mythology, just not in the way you might expect. One of the enduring ideas of the ancient Greek worldview was Gnothi Seuton () ‘know thyself’. In this context that means knowing your place and not trying to be above the gods. A good example is Niobe. She had 14 children and bragged about them in comparison to the goddess Leto’s kids. For comparing herself to a goddess, her children were killed.

Fate and Free Will

Some things can’t be changed, no matter how hard someone tries. Even gods could be bound by the forces of fate and destiny. But the best example is probably Oedipus. He was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. It’s a very long story, but the short version is that that’s exactly what happened, despite the efforts of multiple people, Oedipus included. It was simply fate.

The Underworld journeys

This is a motif that shows up surprisingly often. These journeys typically involve a mortal traveling to the realm of the dead, either to retrieve information, seek guidance, or rescue a loved one. Some of the most famous instances of Underworld journeys in Greek mythology include Orpheus and Eurydice, and Herakles 12th labor. : Orpheus, a legendary musician, descends into the Underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, who died after being bitten by a snake. Heracles’ Twelfth Labor: As part of his Twelve Labors, Heracles is tasked with capturing Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the entrance to the Underworld. Heracles travels to the Underworld, confronts Hades and borrows the puppy, bringing him to the surface before returning him to the Underworld.

The succession myth

This is sort of the foundation of Greek mythology, and we see it recur a few times. The first is with Ouranos, who feared his children succeeding him. His son Cronus did just that, and he in turn feared his own children would overthrow him. Which then happened. It’s not always so violent though. Like with Jason taking over for his father. 

Shapeshifting

Less of a trope and more of a recurring motif, shapeshifting was so common in the myths that the poet Ovid wrote an entire epic poem about the events. The interesting thing is that shapeshifting doesn’t have any connotations on its own. Whether done willingly or caused by the gods (Baucis and Philemon, for example), it can be a punishment or a way to honor people. It was also often how deities interacted with mortals.

Deification

People could become gods. Sometimes. Sorta. It was common enough that hero cults to deified mortals arose. Often the people who achieved this had some kind of divine lineage. They were already demi-gods, like Asclepius or Herakles. I’d argue that this shows the permeability and the intermingling of  divine and mortal worlds. Which leads to the next trend.

Interaction

This is one of the things that make greek mythology so fun. The gods could be very involved in the day-to-day lives of mortals, interacting, cursing, blessing, even having children with them. We don’t really see that to such an extent in a lot of other mythologies. Egyptian mythology, for example, doesn’t have stories of Ra descending from the sky to turn into an eagle and abduct someone.

Divine ‘humanity’

The gods, despite their elevated status and supernatural abilities, exhibited characteristics and behaviors akin to mortals. Rather than being distant and aloof deities, the Greek gods were portrayed as immensely powerful beings who mirrored human traits on a grand scale. In their interactions and relationships, the gods displayed a full spectrum of emotions, desires, and flaws recognizable to humans. They experienced love and passion, expressed jealousy and envy, harbored grudges and resentment, and even engaged in petty quarrels and conflicts reminiscent of mortal struggles.

Brain over brawn

All else being equal, in Greek mythology, the smarter one tends to prevail. Odysseus is the best example of this. Yes, he was very strong, but his cleverness is emphasized time and again. We see the same thing with Athena. She’s a war goddess but it’s her intellect that allows her to win battles. In contrast, the raw strength of Ares receives less adulation.

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