Day 183: The Greek Myths

Cover for The Greek MythsThe Greek Myths is classicist and writer Robert Graves’ well respected and unconventional translation and interpretation of a comprehensive collection of Greek myths. Graves explains that rather than interpret the myths psychologically (i.e., Oedipus), which he appears to have some disdain for, it is more useful and accurate to look at them in combination with the findings of archaeology, as a sort of historic record. Graves relates each myth, with all its variants, and then provides sometimes copious notes to explain each facet. He also points out the many similarities among world myths, showing the relationships between Greek myths and those of the Celts, Sumerians, Jews, and others.

It is Graves’ contention that most of the Greek myths with which we are familiar were manipulations and distortions by the Hellenes of the religious beliefs of the people they conquered. There were four migrations of the Hellenes into Greece. After the first two, the patriarchal Hellenes adopted the matriarchal religions of their hosts, but in the last two, the Hellenes forced the existing tribes to follow their beliefs and then consciously distorted their mythologies to reflect this change.

For example, there are many instances where Zeus chases and rapes various nymphs. In the earlier myths, the three-headed goddess in one of her forms would have been chasing the king as part of a ritual ceremony, so the myth has been turned on its head. Similarly, many a Greek hero’s exploits that involve fighting and killing an opponent are a perversion of the ritual whereby the king is “killed” by his tanist–or alternate ruler (“twin” or “son”)–at the end of his reign and then in turn actually kills the tanist to take up his reign again. Grave states, “Like Aeschylus, Euripedes was engaged in religious propaganda.”

The ideas Graves espouses are very interesting and the book is extremely well written. However, the sheer number of names and places and similar incidents can be overwhelming. Some deities or other figures go by six or eight names, for example. And there’s only so much killing and rapine a person can take. I finally bogged down over Heracles, who has more than 100 of the 600+ pages devoted to him (and whose adventures are very similar to those of Gilgamesh). Heracles, I feel, was a thug, and round about his tenth labor, which was particularly rambling, I gave up on him.

My intention in reading this work was to come out with a more coherent idea of the whole of Greek mythology, but ironically, I feel this book is too comprehensive for me to meet that goal–that something simpler would have worked better for me. However, for serious students of mythology, this is probably required and interesting reading.

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