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Greek Myth: The Evolution of Classical Mythology

Perhaps some of the world's best-known Mythological stories come from Roman and Greek Myth. Mythology is the rich tapestry through which we take a glimpse of the universal subconscious.

(Odysseus's ship sailing past the Sirens in this illustration)

Tarot & Mythology weave a rich tapestry to open the doors to the universal collective unconscious.

The word Mythology has come down to us from antiquity. Muthos is what the Greeks called their own myths. Muthos in Greek meant to mean anything spoken. It then came to encompass anything that was a story or a tale with a clear beginning, middle and ending. The word then evolved to mean a tall or exaggerated tale.

(Here is the illustration of the myth of the titan Prometheus (1868 by Gustave Moreau). The myth of Prometheus appeared initially in the works of Hesiod and then provided the blueprint for a tragic trilogy of plays, that have been credited to being spun by Aeschylus, and consist of Prometheus Bound, Prometheus Unbound, and Prometheus Pyrphoros.)

Ancient Greece was a well-developed sophisticated society and it produced a lot of thinkers and philosophers. A lot of those intellectuals had a lot to say about the tales of their own gods, pretty much as we have an option in today's day on our own theologies.

Xenophanes (570-475BC) was of the opinion that the Greeks had anthropomorphised their gods attributing them with human looks and characteristics and values that were specific to Greek Culture. He, therefore, had the opinion that it is a culture that forms a framework for myth. It is a culture that decides what is heroic and then shapes the myths based on what's appropriate and what is a transgression. It is interesting to note that Christian Myth also views man as the supreme form since in our mind we cannot conceive of a better form. In Greek myth, it was the monsters that were hybrids between men and animals since they were not like us.

Metrodorus of Lampsacus who died in 464 BC, thought that Myths were actually representations of deep truths which are manifestations of Nature. His view of the world was that everything that the mythical stories mentioned were allegory. Allegories are stories that have hidden meanings and one has to scratch the surface to get to the core of what the myth wants to address. The use of Allegory was the base of religion in the Medieval ages in Christian Europe.

Plato 429 to 337 BCE was next and he was of the opinion that it isn’t Culture that makes Myth as Xenophanes had mentioned, instead, Myths were meant to instruct and they played a very important role in shaping the culture of a people since they helped build values into the young generation.

Euhemerus in the third and fourth BC was of the opinion that Myths were actually retelling a tale from a past so far back that with every exaggeration that was built into the historical figures they had become Demigods. This idea can be seen in the retelling of the Trojan War where Achilles and Hector are demigods of sorts. This idea of myth being a highly hyperbolic retelling of history carried well into the Middle Ages, and it has been conjectured that Malory’s Mort d Arthur which is a telling of the exploits of King Arthur was actually based on a historical figure.

Aristarchus of Samothrace 216 to 144 BCE believed that the Myths were just tales told with a poetic license, and are not allegorical. Myths in the middle ages were known to be tall tales or Fabulae.

Bernard de Fontenelle from 1657 to 1757 was of the opinion that Myths were created to explain the natural phenomena and therefore in his mind myth was an endeavour for man to be scientific. In the following centuries especially the Age of Enlightenment, myths were thought to be a waste of time.

Christian Gottlob Heyne from 1729 to 1812 is in many ways the father of Modern Classical studies which encompasses Roman and Greek Myth. He tried to get all the geographical data from antiquity, learn more about how the society functioned and also sought out linguistic data. He did not analyse the myths in a vacuum and his theory was that the Myths were created by man because he was in awe of the world around him. He also connected the Myths to the geographical landscape and thereby revived the name of myths from Fabulae to Muthos. The Greek Myth which recounts the tale of Orestes emphasizes the importance of the son avenging the father's death, in Greek Society.

Johann Gottfried Herder 1744 to 1803 a precursor to Romanticism, mentioned that myth was a natural reaction propelled by awe and wonder to explain natural phenomena, and that myths were synonymous with language, and religion and were an independent self-sufficient response to the natural world.

Carl Gustav Jung 1875 – 1961 the father of modern Analytical Psychology was a student of the Tarot. He believed that the human psyche needed Myth and that myth was an essential aspect that helped the psyche to find order and meaning in the world. For Jung, the myth gave human beings something bigger than themselves to rely on and that gave them a sense of security.

Joseph John Campbell 1904–1987, one of the modern authorities on mythology mentions that different cultures and civilizations all have similar themes, and narrative progressions, the characters are similar to each other, and the reason for this is that Myth helps find and teach meaning, thereby explaining the natural phenomenon. Myths take on the task of providing security by having a benevolent universe watching over and thereby giving a person a sense of comfort and safety. He categorised them as Etiological Myths. This explains the personification of Zeus the god of the Thunderbolt and Poseidon the god of earthquakes and oceans in Greek Myth and of Varuna the wind god, Indra the god of thunder and Agni the god of Fire in Indian Myth. Myths try and explain the natural world and why things are the way they are.

Campbell said that there were also Historical Myths. This means that these myths tell of a historical event that took place and the retelling elevated it to a higher level than that of the actual event itself. The Trojan war was one such historical event that has been immortalized for all eternity by both Homer and Virgil. The Battle of Kurukshetra immortalized in the Mahabharata also is a great example.

The Psychological myths trace the journey of the hero from the known realm, past the unknown to self-realisation. The hero attempts to balance the external world with his own consciousness of it and goes through various stages and experiences growth in the process. This Journey of the Hero is also seen in the Fools Journey which is catalogued in the Major Arcana of the Tarot.

Some Greek Myths used to illustrate the Tarot:

Works Cited:

Brunel, Pierre editor Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes Routledge, 2015. Campbell, Joseph, with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1988.  

Ancient Roman art in the Bardo National Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Gustave Moreau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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