What is Classical Mythology?
The term “classical mythology” is built from several elements, all of which have a significant historical
classis – (Latin) a class, i.e. the first class
“Classical”, for instance, stems from the Romans and originally referred to a “class” or citizens as they
were “called” out to military service. In fact, “class” is cognate with “call”. Roman politics were based on
this system of military classes, and because they were very elitist the only class that really mattered to
them was the highest class. In time, the adjectival form classicus, which gives us our ”classical”, came to
refer to anything of the highest class, not just people. Particular interest was given to those works of
literature, art, and architecture that were associated with the supposed high points of both Greek and
Roman culture. School children in late antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages (AD c. 400-1400)
studied these works and attempted to reproduce their form. In the Renaissance (c. 1400-1600), with its
rebirth of interests in the classical world and Greek literature in particular, the study of classics or
classical philology, i.e. of the ancient Greek and Latin languages and literatures, came to be a mark of an
educated “gentleman” (or “lady”). It took a great deal of time, which only the wealthiest elite and
monastic religious could afford. A knowledge of Greek and Latin is still necessary for a scholarly
appreciation of classical mythology, but translations have made its works much more widely accessible
to students with limited linguistic backgrounds. It’s important to remember, however, that unlike the
English classical works, such as the tragedies of Shakespeare, classical mythology is the product of other
languages and other cultures, as well as other times. It refers to the stories that are related in works
written between 800 BC and AD 500.
mythos – word, speech, traditional story, plot
“Mythology” is a compound word that was first coined in ancient Greek (mythologia) by Plato in the
fourth century BC. It is made up of two elements, the first of which is myth-, from Greek. We might think
of mythos as cognate with the French mot, meaning “word”, or even our word “mouth”. That is, it may
refer to any oral utterance, such as a word. In Greek it is very flexible in its meanings. For us in this
course, however, its most salient meanings are “traditional story” and “plot”. A traditional story should
have an anonymous origin. It will have been told and retold, initially only through oral, not written,
transmission. (By this criterion, the so-called mythos told by Plato, which he offers as alternatives to
what he sees as corrupt stories being told in his society, are not really myths. In his dialogue entitled
Timaeus, for instance, he tells a famous story of the lost city of Atlantis, but it is likely that he fashioned
the story himself. No earlier source records it.) At some point somebody has written down a version of
the mythos, but it is important to realize that other writers, like other oral storytellers, can write down
other versions of the mythos, some of which may diverge significantly from the first writer’s version.
That does not mean that they are wrong, but the fact that this phenomenon occurs should make us realize that the mythos as such, if we can say that such a thing exists, is different from any one telling of
it. It is flexible. Aristotle uses the word mythos to mean the “plot” of a play, that is, the events that take
place during a play. Remember though that this sense of mythos is different from the playwright’s
narrative of the events surrounding the play; the playwright is also free to change which events he
logos – selection (antho-), language (philo-), telling (doxo-), study (socio-)
The second element of “mythology” stems from the Greek logos, which has at least four meanings that
are relevant to our course, since they offer different meanings for “mythology”. The original meaning
had to do with picking or selecting. In fact it is related to the –lect part of “select”. Our word “anthology”
reflects this meaning: an anthology was originally a selection of flowers (from the Greek anthê), then
metaphorically became a selection of poems or other writings. In this course, we shall also be reading
only a selection of stories. To some extent the term “classical” limits this selection: we shall read the
stories of the classical world. But in fact our selection is even more limited than that. First, our texts all
stem from the Greek world. While the Roman tellings of the myths are well worth study, they happen
not to be in this course. Moreover, we won’t be studying even all the stories of the classical Greek world.
Not only are we constrained by time to make a limited selection of poems in epic and tragic form, but
we are also excluding, for instance, the stories the Greeks told to each other as passing jokes on the
street (“did you hear the story about the guy who…?”) and the animal fables of famous figures such as
Aesop. Ours are the stories of gods and heroes that were widely told in the Greek world, and versions of
most of them can be traced back to the works of Homer and Hesiod. Thus for us, “mythology” can mean
a selection of stories.
“Philology” originally referred to the love (philia is a Greek term for love) of language. (It evolved to
mean the “study of language”, ancient Greek and Latin in particular). Since people tell stories at least
partly simply to communicate certain thoughts to each other, “mythology” can also mean something
like story-language. Like any language, it will have a grammar and vocabulary consisting of various story
patterns and the characters and places that fill in those patterns. Literary theorists refer to this aspect as
a langue, or language. Within that language, moreover, storytellers will also have conversations that use
utterances (paroles). The storytellers’ utterances may or may not agree with one another, and they may
even express different ideas about the rules of the language.
Our word “doxology”, which admittedly is rarely used outside a church, refers to a statement of praise
or glory (from the Greek doxa, which itself has several other meanings), as when churchgoers say “glory
to God in the highest!” So “mythology” can also refer to a particular statement of a myth, such as
Sopheocles’ stating or telling of the Oedipus story in his play Oedipus Tyrannus.
Finally, our word “sociology” refers to the study of society, and “mythology” can likewise refer to the
study of myths, which is the object of our course. Let’s look at a couple of the ways that Plato, who coined the term, used mythologia.
And also in the mythologies of which we were just now speaking, owing to our ignorance of the truth
about antiquity, we liken the false to the true as far as we may and so make it useful.
Plato, Republic 382d
There is one kind of poetry and mythology which works wholly through imitation, as you remarked,
tragedy and comedy; and another which employs the recital of the poet himself.
Plato, Republic 394b-c
The first passage shows us that Plato finds mythologies useful for imagining what the distant past was
like, even if there are no historical records of it. The second passage shows us that he recognizes that
mythology can take the form either of drama or simply of poetic narration, like epic.
Types of Myth and Their Functions
For the purposes of this course, myths have an anonymous origin. We don’t know who first created
them. Beyond that, they take several different forms. We speak of “divine myths” when the stories
focus principally on the gods, who are immortal beings superior to humans. They may be aspects of
nature, such as Sky or Earth, or they may take the form of abstraction, such as Justice or Memory. They
are often in conflict. Classical mythology is known for its anthropomorphism, so gods that take forms
from nature or abstractions tend to play secondary roles. Divine myths often function to provide an
etiology or explanation of some aspect of nature, e.g. why the world came into existence. (The word
etiology is derived from the Greek word aition, which means “cause”.)
Legends (or sagas) are another kind of myth. They are analogous to history because they purport to
describe incidents that happened to specific people, in specific places, at specific times. The greatest
legend of the ancient world was the Trojan War, which the Greeks thought occurred several hundred
years before their own time (they weren’t very precise). People from specific cities all over the Greek
world participated, and in the end Troy was defeated and destroyed. The principle characters in legends
are “heroes”, who are mortal. They all tend to come from the nobility.
The word “legend”, from the Latin, means something “to be read”. It referred to a story of a saint whose
life or actions the readers were supposed to emulate. But as Plato’s quotation above makes clear,
legends served as a sort of pseudo-history for the earliest periods of Greek culture, which the Greeks
imagined were more heroic than their own times.
Another kind of myth is a folktale. In this course we do not treat any folktales per se. Th