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Lecture Notes - Cumulative MT#1.docx

Course Code
CLAS 203
Margaret Palczynski

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CLAS203 Lecture Notes
CLAS203 Lecture 1 & 2 Notes
There is no easy way to package myth into a simple definition. There are times where a
story you recognize as a myth, but it does not fit into the definition of a myth.
The word myth comes from the Greek word “mythos”, which means “utterance”,
something that is said like a story of some kind, but not a written story but rather a
spoken story.
Myth is not limited to the Greeks; it is a universal phenomenon among human beings,
and of every culture.
Myths are as old as language itself, and before spoken language, myths could be
portrayed in stone tablets, artworks, etc.
Earliest written myth was The Epic of Gilgamesh which appeared around 7th century B.C.
Myths are terribly difficult to define. While some like Hercules are well known, others
like the many Titans or Giants are not always known individually. Therefore, it is hard to
define myth itself.
Myth is a “traditional story with collective importance.” Traditional from Latin: trado
which means to ‘hand over’ by mouth generation after generation. During that time as
one generation hands to another generation, the myth changes.
Myths were orally transmitted.
Myths maintain contact with past; the past of a particular culture or society.
Myths transmit inherited experience to future; what were the experiences of the people
living at the time of the creation of the stories of the heroes?
One of the functions of myth is to explain society to itself, its concerns and values.
Myths can have certain characteristics which apply to all myths:
o Plot
o Characters
o Setting
Time: past or unreal
Place: real, surreal, past real
o Transmission: spoken, anonymous
Subject to constant change
Teller: no claim of responsibility for content
There are various ways of classifying myth:
o By principal character (central character of story)
Divine myth: focus on supernatural beings (Gods, Goddesses, Deity)
Personifications of natural forces (Sky, Sea, Earth)
Abstractions (Love; Eros)
Superior to humans in power
Control forces of nature
Supernatural characteristics: size, power, appearance

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Events in unreal time and place
Legends: focus on human beings
Hero: more than human (mortal)
Extraordinary qualities: courage, strength, beauty, skill
Divine parent/frequent divine input (most often from god, but
sometimes goddess; sometimes not born from god, but affiliated
afterwards to a god/goddess)
Doers of great deeds
o Great wars
o Great quests
o Slaying Monsters
o Founding of cities
Assumed by Greeks to have really lived
Set in distant past/unreal places
May contain element of historical truth
Folktale: focus on ‘ordinary men and women
Are ordinary men and women
Low social status
Victims, persecuted
Has some unrecognized virtue
Often has happy ending, just reward
Supernatural present as magic, spirits, etc.
Great variety of tales
Distinctive aspect: motif (regularly appearing, identifiable
narrative pattern)
Type: Larger pattern of motifs
Most Greek myths: mix of legends/folktale
o By function
Etiological myths: (Greek aition ‘cause’)
Are myths that talk about why the world is the way it is (customs,
culture, etc.)
Divine myths: explain the way the world is
o The origins/destruction of the elements of the universe
(i.e. ‘creation myths’)
Legends: Explain events in the human past
o Explain and justify human present
Folktales: Explain patterns of human behaviour
o Entertain, teach
The study of myth:
o Recording and compiling the myths of a given culture
Recorded by members of the culture for goals other than that of
study/preservation of myth
Many variants: confusing, incomplete

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Primary source: literature
Oral and written works differ significantly
Written text not necessarily a true record of oral tale may reflect
previous literary versions
Archeology: Artifacts and art clues to myth not often clear as to: who told
them, when/where they were told
o Analysis of the role specific myths played within the culture
Examine functions of specific myths in context of a given society
Myths told by/to someone on some occasion: identify teller, audience:
gender, status, etc. (Male usually told legends to audiences of men;
women told legend NOT proper)
Function: etiological? Enhanced prestige of teller/listeners? Justified
order of society? Expressed protest?
o Study of how the myths of one culture are related to the myths of cultures
Examine migration patterns
Examine transformations and adaptations of myth to the needs and
traditions of the adoptive culture (inter-culture myth, compare and
o Assessment of the deeper human significance of myth (myth interpretation)
Long history of interpretation dating back to antiquity (what function
does myth fulfill for us)
Allegorical, philosophical, psychological, structural, etc.
Never conclusive
Maps to know:
o The Ancient Mediterranean: inside front cover of textbook
o Greece. The Aegean Sea and Western Asia Minor: inside back cover of textbook
o Southern and Central Greece: page 21 of textbook
o Become familiar with the places that are most prominent in lectures and reading
material. Associate places with persons/gods, stories, why these locations are
important, etc.
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