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.