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Ancient Greek Myths: the who, what and why

From Homer to Harry Potter, what is it about ancient Greek myths that make them resonate? We take a shot at explaining why their star hasn't faded over thousands of years... with some of your favourite gods and heroes featured in our exhibition Gods, Myths & Mortals: Greek Treasures Across the Millennia.

The first thing to know about ancient Greek mythology is that they had a polytheistic religion, meaning that they believed in and worshipped many different gods and goddesses. Greek mythology had no formal structure, except for the various festivals held in honour of the gods, and there was no sacred book or code to live by. Temples were constructed for the worship of certain gods and goddesses, often the patron deity of the town.

Greek myth was a form of storytelling and it had several uses in antiquity. The myths attempted to explain the origins of the world and recurring natural phenomena, which were often attributed to the moods and actions of the gods. Take the seasons, for example, instead of understanding that the world revolves on an angle around the sun, ancient Greeks believed the difference in seasons was caused by the grief and joy of Demeter, goddess of the harvest. Myths were also used to guide people through certain stages in their life, sustaining social values and customs. Now we can use them to find out what the people of ancient Greece believed in and valued.

Myths also detailed the lives and adventures of a wide variety of gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines and mythological creatures. The most powerful Greek gods were known as the twelve Olympians and were believed to live on the highest mountain in Greece, Mount Olympus. From this spot, they ruled every aspect of human life. Believed to have the appearance and personality of humans, the stories surrounding the gods and goddesses were characterised by arguments, jealousy, love and revenge. As time went on, the myths surrounding each figure grew increasingly complicated and interconnected.

The belief system of the ancient Greeks extended beyond the immortal gods and goddesses to mortal heroes. These heroes, such as Herakles, Theseus and Perseus, fit into a certain type of ‘hero myth’, as it has come to be known, that followed a common structure. Usually, the hero would have peculiar circumstances surrounding their birth, have a calling to action setting them on their adventure, overcome obstacles and challenges with special talents they were equipped with, be aided by the gods and goddesses, and return having succeeded in their mission. This structure is still used today in many comics, novels and films. Think Harry Potter: marked as a toddler as destined for extraordinary things, equipped with special skills and unique items, aided by higher powers, and overcoming obstacles to achieve his ultimate goal.

But how were these myths communicated? The earliest ones were part of an oral tradition that began in the Bronze Age, and their plots and themes gradually developed as written literature of the archaic and classical periods rose to prominence. The first written record of Greece, known to us, comes from Homer’s Iliad. Most likely produced in the 8th century BCE, it tells us of the mythical Trojan War as a divine conflict as well as a human one. In this, the gods and goddesses used humans as their pawns, took sides and warred among themselves.

You may wonder why these myths are so important today, over 2000 years later. The characters, stories, themes and moral lessons of Greek mythology have influenced art and literature for thousands of years. They appear in Renaissance paintings and writings such as in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea and Dante’s Inferno. Modern plays, novels, television programs, movies and even advertisements also often refer to Greek gods, goddesses, heroes and their stories. Think for example about the television series Lost and Charmed, which both have a version of the mythological explanation of how the world was created, or of Xena: Warrior Princess, a television series set in a fantasy world dominated by Greek gods and mythological creatures, of the Battlestar Galactica franchise and Marvel's Wonder Woman. It is hard to look past the everyday references to Greek mythology, such as the brand names Nike and Amazon. Even heroes we know today have their foundation in ancient myth, from the structure of their story to the ideas they embody.

As well as their lasting influence on art and literature, the myths capture ideas and aspects of human nature that are still relevant today and can be used to compare our contemporary values to those thousands of years ago.


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