I can't really say that the tales of the gods, goddesses, and heroes of ancient Greece are my favorites, since they are the ones I'm most familiar with, but I do love them! I find them totally fascinating. I read parts of the Iliad and the Odyssey when I was in high school, and thus, know the most famous stories.
So, as I begin this series of posts on world mythologies, which is part of the wonderful Midnight Summer Festival, I must begin with the tales I grew up with. Furthermore, Greek mythology has, more than any other, been the foundation and source of Western civilization. Thus, it would seem to me, it's the most important. The other important mythologies are the Celtic and the Norse. The Celtic in particular had a marked influence on the King Arthur tales, which I wholeheartedly adore!
I will explore these other mythologies in later posts.
The fascinating tales of every culture's mythology were, and in some cases, still are, part of each culture's religion. Such was the case with the Greeks -- their gods and goddesses were once actually worshipped, having their own temples and special days of celebration. Every Greek citizen was expected to honor these gods and goddesses, too. The worship rituals were woven into a Greek's daily existence.
The Greek religion/mythology also influenced every other aspect of Greek life -- its art, politics, and literature, although at the beginning, the tales were only transmitted orally. This was the oral-poetic tradition.
Later on, the principal Greek tales were set down in two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which are believed to have been written by Homer. In fact, these are the two earliest known Greek 'books'. Both of them deal with the events of the Trojan War, which, according to the first poem, began when Paris, from the city of Troy, kidnapped Helen, the most beautiful woman of the time, and took her to his city, and away from her husband, King Menelaus of Sparta. This even ignited a prolonged war between the Trojans and the Achaeans, as the Greeks of Homer's time were known.
One of Homer's possible contemporaries, Hesiod, is considered the author of the Theogony, which sets down the earliest Greek myths, and deals with such things as the creation of the world and the origin of the gods, as well as that of the Titans and the Giants. Another poem by Hesiod, Works and Days, although primarily dealing with the subjects of farming, astronomy, and various others, also contains the legends of Prometheus, Pandora, as well as Hesiod's Five Ages of Man.
The Greek myths and characters most familiar to me, and probably to most of us, are those related to the Olympians, a group of younger gods that overthrew the Titans or Elder Gods. There were twelve Olympians, and they lived on Mount Olympus, hence their name. This mountain is the highest in Greece, and is located on the border between Thessaly and Macedonia, as well as about 62 miles (100 kilometers) away from Greece's second largest city, Thessaloniki. it is still known as "the abode of the gods".
The classical list of the Olympians consisted of the following gods and goddesses: Zeus, who was the main god, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Dionysus, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, and Hermes. To this list, other gods and goddesses are sometimes added: Hades, Hestia, Aesclepius, Eros, Hebe, Heracles, Pan, and Persephone.
(Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican)
These divine beings were thought to preside over certain religious and aesthetic concepts. For example, Aphrodite (known as "Venus" to the Romans), was the goddess of love and beauty, Ares (the Roman Mars) was the god of war, Hades (the Roman Pluto) was the god of the dead, and Athena (the Roman Minerva) was the goddess of wisdom and knowledge.
Some of the famous tales associated with these gods, goddesses and heroes, are the creation of Man by Prometheus, the twelve labors of Hercules, the tale of Daedalus and his son Icarus, Orpheus and Eurydice, Theseus and Ariadne, Cupid and Psyche, and Phaeton, who drove too close to the sun. The stories of Perseus and Oedipus are also well-known. Then there's the judgement of Paris, which set off the Trojan War.
One of my favorite myths is that of Orpheus and Eurydice. Why? Because it's very romantic, of course! It's one of the myths retold by Edith Hamilton in her classic, Mythology, which was the subject of one of my previous posts. It's a very beautiful, yet bittersweet, story...
Orpheus was the most skilled musician and poet in the Greek world. He was also considered a prophet, and the founder of the Orphic mysteries. His skill with the lyre, which he used to accompany his singing, was such that everyone who heard him, including animals, and the nymphs of the forests, were enthralled. In some versions of the myth, his father was said to be the great god Apollo, while in others, he was said to be the son of Oeagrus, a Thracian king.
Orpheus fell in love with and married Eurydice, who, in some versions, was an oak nymph, and in others, a daughter of Apollo (make of this what you will!). On their wedding day, Orpheus played for her, and she danced joyously through the meadow. A satyr caught sight of her and pursued her. While trying to escape, Eurydice was bitten by a venomous snake, and died instantly. Orpheus was inconsolable, and decided to go down to the Underworld in search of her. While there, he charmed Hades and Persephone, the gods of the Underworld, into allowing him to return with his wife to the world of the living. There was one condition, however --- he was not to turn around to look back at her until they had emerged entirely from the Underworld. Everything goes well, but, when they are at the point of emerging, Orpheus is seized by doubt -- is Eurydice really following him? So, of course, he turns around, just in time to see her outstretched arms, as she begins to vanish...
Orpheus attempts to retrieve her again, to no avail. So he returns alone to the land of the living, and falls into a deep depression. He is unable to sing or play his lyre. The only way he can see Eurydice again is to die himself.
Orpheus was later killed by the Maenads, who became angry when they saw that no amount of persuasion by them could bring him out of his depression. Thus, he was finally reunited with Eurydice in the Underworld.
This myth has had such an impact on the human imagination that it has been retold in several different ways in literature and drama, as well as music and ballet. One notable example is "Black Orpheus" a 1959 film, made in Brazil by French director Marcel Camus. It was given the Palme D'Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, as well as the 1960 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and the 1960 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film. Another important example is "Orfeo ed Euridice", an opera by the German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck. It was first performed in Vienna in 1762.