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Where does Greek Mythology Come From?

Where does Greek mythology come from? Greece! That’s the most obvious and unhelpful answer I can offer. It’s also not wholly accurate. While the myths and stories ultimately did emerge in the Panhellenic form that most people know, the origins are somewhat more fluid, subject to international influence (such that the concept of “nation” existed at the time as a geopolitical construct) and local.

In general, Greek mythology and ancient Greek religion are interesting in that they don’t come from a single source. There’s no ‘canon.’ The stories were always somewhat nebulous and “like the myths of most other cultures, were forever in a state of flux, undergoing constant change as they were passed on by word of mouth and retold in different ways by authors of successive ages.” (Hard, p. 1). You had basic outlines and people and places, but lots of things could be and were added into the framework provided, and different people made different stories. Conflicting stories could and did exist together without one being considered ‘correct’ and another being labeled ‘heresy.’ Examples include the multiple places that claimed to be the birthplace of Zeus or the conflicting accounts of the origin of Aphrodite.

So there’s no genuine ‘canon’ per se, but there are plenty of sources that were revered (though not ‘sacred’ as we would define the concept), that told stories that were commonly accepted and influenced almost everything that came after, though even these were subject to retelling.

Let’s go through a few of the essential texts.

Table of Contents

Homer and Hesiod

First, a discussion of the nature of the gods, because this is one of the aspects of mythology that Hesiod and Homer managed to embed in Greek myths. Burkert writes that

“The distinctive personality of a god is constituted and mediated by at least four different factors: the established local cult with its ritual programme and unique atmosphere, the divine name, the myths told about the named being, and the iconography, especially the cult image. All the same, this complex is easily dissolved, and this makes it quite impossible to write the history of any single god” (Burkert, 119)

and that, because of this nature of this “the authority to whom the Greeks appealed was the poetry of Hesiod and, above all, of Homer.” (Burkert, 120 ) They weren’t regarded as infallible, though, and

“had their local versions which either rooted the myths in the local community or elaborated significantly different versions of the myth. Local myths might concern the Olympians or they might relate to a further order of beings, ‘heroes’, normally conceived as mortals who had died and who received cult at their tomb or at a specific sanctuary.” (Price, 19)

And neither “claims divine revelation, though both claim that the divine omniscience of the Muses, daughters of Zeus, remedied their own ignorance. Nor was either writer comprehensive.” (Price, 13)

That being said, such was their impact that Herodotus thought they “constructed the genealogies of the gods and gave to the gods their names, distributed their honours and skills and indicated their appearances.” (Price, 6) So it’s hard to overstate the importance of these two figures in the history of Greek culture. Whether or not anyone named Homer or Hesiod ever lived and wrote these works is debatable. Still, the writings are attributed to them. They “fixed in Greek consciousness a highly anthropomorphic and more or less stable picture of divine society, a pattern extremely influential throughout antiquity despite its frequent incompatibility with ritual practices and local beliefs.” (Hornblower, Spawforth, Eidinow, 1300) Hesiod is somewhat less known than Homer, but his influence and enduring legacy are just as strong.

They didn’t do it on their own, though. They owe a lot to near eastern traditions:

The principal narrative poems of the Near East which show close connections to Homer belong to Mesopotamia (Sumerian and Akkadian verse epics) and the Levant, especially ancient Ugarit. More distant influences and ritual traditions are detected in Egyptian documents and Hittite texts. Many evolved to survive in the Hebrew Bible, still a primary source of parallels for early Greek literature.(Morris, 601)

Theogony and Works and Days

Theogony

Hesiod, Theogony, Venice, Gr. 464

Hesiod, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I love a good creation myth, and Hesiod’s Theogony stands out as a fun one (to me!) It’s basically a mix of a divine genealogy and a creation story, going from Chaos through the Titans, the Titanomachy, the ages of man, and the attributes of various deities. You’re not wrong if you read it and see parallels in other cultures. It is now considered a simple fact that” much in the traditions of creation and theogony represented for us in Hesiod has very striking parallels in several West Asian sources, probably reflecting contact in the Minoan-Mycenaean period.” (Hornblower, Spawforth, Eidinow, 1300). Specifically, it was Akkadian and Hittite influences that had the most impact. Burkert states that “for both central myths, the succession myth, and the battle myth, there are detailed Hittite parallels; hence these myths must be regarded as borrowings from Asia Minor.” (Burkert, 122-123 ) Hornblower’s Dictionary of the Classical World says the same, that the “‘Succession myth’ has striking parallels in Akkadian and Hittite texts and seems originally to have come from the near east.” (Hornblower, 700)

Works and Days

Ἡσίοδος ΕΡΓΑ ΚΑΙ ΗΜΕΡΑΙ Hesiod Hesíodo Works Trabajos

Hesiod (author); Nicolaus Valla (Latin translation), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Works and Days is like a mix between a sermon and an agriculture manual, using mythical allegory to communicate the proper way of living. As a whole, it is “a unique source of social conditions in early Archaic Greece. It has closer parallels in near eastern works of literature than in Greek and seems to represent an old traditional type” (Hornblower, Simon, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 700)

Iliad and Odyssey

Iliad

Iliad41

Johann Balthasar Probst (1673 – 1748), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Iliad is a somewhat bizarre story set during the Trojan War. It focuses on Achilles, who, after being deprived of his war-prize/victim, pouts in a tent for several days until his friend/lover Patroclus dies in battle. At this point, Achilles becomes enraged and slays Hector, the Trojan king’s son, and refuses to give the body back until ordered by the gods to accept a ransom. The story ends with Hector’s funeral. There is obviously more to it than that, with numerous gods intervening and other characters taking action, but that’s the basic plot.

One of the things we see in the Iliad is a divine society of anthropomorphic gods with clear roles, very much in line with Akkadian stories. The division of the world into discrete domains is also reminiscent of Akkadian tradition:

Most vividly, the division of the cosmos by lot into three domains (Tablet I.11-15)-the sky for Anu, the earth for [Enlil?], and the sea to Enki-corresponds nearly verbatim to the Homeric partition of divine rule between Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon (Iliad 15.187-93).

This is true in other deities as well. Morris, in discussing the Babylonian creation myth, states that “these watery forebears compare to Okeanos and Tethys, parental figures invoked by Hera in her famous deception of Zeus (il. 14.200-11)” and notes: “Even the name of Tethys has been proposed as a Greek transcription of Tiamat” (Morris, 602)

Odyssey

Odysseus verlaat Circe De werken van Odysseus (serietitel), RP-P-OB-66.751

Rijksmuseum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Odyssey was “probably composed in its present form in imitation of the already existing Iliad. “(Hornblower, Simon, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 718). It tells the story of Odysseus’s years-long journey home after the Trojan War and the various beings that help and hinder him. Arguably more popular than the Iliad in the modern world, “the Odyssey is a romance, enjoyable on a more superficial level than the heroic/tragic Iliad.” (Hornblower, 718)

A significant influence of the Odyssey was likely the Epic of Gilgamesh.

A legendary Sumerian king of the third millennium B.C., Gilgamesh builds the walls of Uruk, fights and befriends Enkidu, defeats a monster, and resists divine seduction, then loses Enkidu and travels in quest of the secret of eternal life’ from Utnapishtim. The latter survived the primeval flood with divine assistance, narrated in details too close to the version in Genesis (8:7-13) for coincidence. The hero’s final adventure is to obtain a plant with the secret of life before returning to Uruk. This epic themes-nature of kingship, heroic combat and perilous journey, sexual intimacy, interaction with the gods, and the quest for immortality share much with both Iliad and Odyssey(Morris, 601)

I’d argue that we see more echos of that in the Odyssey than in the Iliad. We get Egyptian influences as well:

The story of the Shipwrecked Sailor resembles the nostoi of Menelaos and Odysseus: a traveler who has returned safely comforts another with a tale of his adventures. As in the Odyssey, the Egyptian narrator is the sole survivor of a shipwreck, washes up on a strange island, subsists on fish and birds, and confronts a snaky creature with divine powers who foretells his safe return. The sailor is rescued by a ship which takes him home, after the serpent predicts: ‘If you are brave and control your heart, you shall embrace your children, you shall kiss your wife, you shall see your home,’ words and events evoking the Odyssey. (Morris, 603)

Conclusion

The most straightforward answer is that the source of the myths for Greek mythology is…people—lots and lots of people, both Greek and not. There was no definitive source, and tales were subject to retelling at will, within a generally accepted framework inherited from before Hesiod and Homer and molded by their works and the reception of their works. If you take it back far enough and look into other cultures, you’ll find very obvious echos of other near eastern traditions in the myths (because nothing exists or forms in a vacuum), and that can’t be ignored, but I would argue that the Greeks succeeded in adapting and merging these into their belief system.

Bibliography

Burkert, Walter. 1991. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. Translated by John Raffan. 1st edition. Wiley-Blackwell.

Hard, Robin. 2019. The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology. 8th edition. Routledge.

Hornblower, Simon, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow. 2012. The Oxford Classical Dictionary. 4th edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morris, Sarah. 1997. “Homer and the Near East” in A New Companion to Homer. 1st edition. Brill.

Price, Simon. 1999. Religions of the Ancient Greeks. Illustrated edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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