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Defining Myth and the Birth of Philosophy
Muthos is a traditional body of stories. They often seem fantastic, bizarre or irrational
The noun muthos and verb mutheomai appear in our earliest works of Greek lit - the Iliad and
At this stage, muthos signifies only “word, speech, utterance” and also sometimes “story,
report” and has no inherent sense of falsehood or fantasy
Ancient sources often associated myths with childishness
But myth is widely held and circulated, not just upheld by children
Myth is a widely held and circulated false belief that resonates with some deep psychological
or socio-cultural need/interest
The story’s popular value and “truth” are independent of the question of factual accuracy - they
are of the people, by the people, for the people
Rational, analytical and scientific minds of the Greco-Roman world tried to make sense of
them, just as we do in the modern world today
Fundamental questions include:
Why do myths arise?
What functions do myths perform for the individual by/to whom and the societies in which
they are recited
What uses and lessons can myth hold for us today?
From the late 7th-6th cent. B.C. on into the Classical Period, Greek philosophers find
themselves in conflict with mythological tradition
Goals and methods of the early Greek philosophers were determined by their antagonism
toward and interaction with the mythological tradition. They wanted to determine what was
true, and how truth compared and contrasted with myth
Greek myth was central to Greek identity. Often we find attempts of philosophers and
historians to work myth into reality, or a rational framework - to “save” myth
Ancient historians and philosophers, while explicitly distancing themselves from the category
of “myth” implicitly, repeatedly acknowledge and exploit the power of myth upon their
intended audiences
Poetic myth is a vehicle for the transmission of scientific truth
Greek myth leads to
The pre-socratics, and then to Lucretius
Logographers, and then to Herodotus
Philosophy is not entirely opposed to myth: in many ways Greek myth underlines the growth
of pre-socratics
And Greek myth feeds into logographers, who write accounts of mythical genealogies, trying
to make sense of mythic tradition
Lucretius is the underlying figure of the modern scientific revolution
ca. 800-700 B.C.
Homer does not posit a polarity between muthos and true, rational exposition. Rather he
contrasts muthos with perception, and action. It is second to direct, accurate perception of
phenomena, and thus occupies a lower level of reality.
This idea persists in later conceptions of myth.
The idea of orality is also central to Homers use of muthos: he rarely references writing. He
shows how “myths” are recited, orally, by professional bards, or exchanged orally between
warriors on a battlefield. Oral speech and transmission remain central to most later conceptions
of myth.
Homer represents his own core stories as originating in oral transmission from divine muses.
As do other poets.
Homer shows his characters recounting “myths” at several key points in the Iliad and the
His epics are presentations of myth, but they also reflect on the nature of storytelling and myth-
Especially through the theme of “story within the story”.These episodes shed light on Homers
view of the context and function of myth-telling
In the Iliad, myths seem designed to limit conflict and circumscribe violence
Iliad B6
Homer shows an exchange of stories marking a pause in battle and interrupting the aristeia
(display of valor) by Greek warrior Diomedes
Myth vs. action
Diomedes threatens to harm anyone, so long as they are not a god. He has internalized the story
of the hubristic Lycurgus in a way that makes him respect the gods
He falls upon Glaucus, who tells him the story of the hero Bellerophon
King Proetus wife Anteia is spurned by Bellerophon and she then accuses him of
attempted rape, and incites her husband to murder him
But Proetus shrinks from direct violence because Bellerophon is his suppliant and guest,
and protected by xenia
So he dispatches Bellerophon to his (Proetus’) father-in-law Iobates, with a sealed tablet
containing instructions to kill the bearer
But Bellerophon is first hosted as a guest for nine days before the message is looked at, at
which point he is again protected by xenia
So Iobates sends him on a series of fantastic, suicidal missions with the hopes that he gets
murdered indirectly
But Bellerophon succeeds in them all, and Iobates recognizes his worth and gives his
daughter in a marriage alliance
This story validates Glaucus’ own worth, being descendent from the hero (many Greek myths
were created with the purpose to justify descendants)
Glaucus’ story leads Diomedes to recognize a relationship of hereditary guest-friendship
between himself and his antagonist, through Glaucus’ grandfather Bellerophon and Diomedes
grandfather Oeneus. So he can’t kill him on account of xenia
The story also reinforces the importance of honoring ties of hospitality, imposing an end to
violence through negotiation
Diomedes responds by offering a pact of friendship, and they exchange their armor. This
exchange is similar to that of Iobates and Bellerophon, and thus negotiation is part of myth
Glaucus story lifts the hearers imagination out of the parameters of the current bloody conflict,
to a world of complex binding social protocols. This allows Diomedes to conceive of himself
not just as a warrior, but within the network of xenia. This is a paradigm shift.
Iliad B9
Achilles withdraws when Agamemnon insults him by stealing his prize
An embassy is sent to Achilles in order to reconcile
Three “ambassadors” (Odysseus, Phoenix and Ajax) make speeches to achilles, urging him to
reconcile with Agamemnon, accept the princely gifts, and return to the fight
Phoenix is an old mentor who is meant to guide Achilles. He tells of a war between the Curetes
and the Aeolians, with an obvious moral for Achilles. The goal is conflict resolution (again)
Meleager stopped fighting for the Aeolians in a fit of pique
He withdrew to sulk, like Achilles
His people begged him to return and offered him gifts and honors
In the end things get so bad that it seems likely the city will fall
Meleager is driven by the extremity of the situation and fights, but joins too late to get the
gifts and honors
Phoenix is saying that Achilles should accept the gifts now and join the fight, because later
he’ll probably feel compelled to fight anyways
It is an allegory for Achilles: according to Phoenix’ interpretation of his story, Achilles wants
honor. But Achilles is sick of honor. Honor is all for a prize which can be taken away so easily.
What is the point of honor if it is a fickle thing?
If all he stands to lose by persisting his sulk is honor and trinkets, why come back?
What is missed is that Achilles does have something to lose: Patroclus
His sulk brings about Patroclus’ death
In the story Phoenix tells there is an element of affections causing honor:
Meleager comes back because his wife begged him to; Achilles comes back because of
Patroclus’ death
Meleager comes back for fear of losing his wife, not honor, which both Phoenix and Achilles
failed to pick up on
Phoenix story has potential to lift Achilles out of his current obsession with his wounded pride,
with an emotional appeal instead to his affection for his comrades and loved ones. But
Phoenix’ interpretation reduces the myth to a simple allegory about honor denied vs. honor
achieved, so no paradigm shift occurs for Achilles, where it did for Diomedes
This highlights the dangers of myth-interpretation
These myths serve a didactic function
Pre-Socratics describes a philosophical movement that arose in Ionia in the early 6th century
B.C., continued down into the late 5th cent. B.C.
They sought natural explanations for phenomena, rejecting traditional mythology in seeking a
more rational theology