Interpretation and Definition of Classical Mythology
THE PROBLEM OF DEFINING MYTH
The establishment of a single, comprehensive definition of myth has proved impossible to attain. No one
definition can satisfactorily embrace all the various kinds of stories that can legitimately be classed as
myths on the basis of one criterion or another. The attempt to define myth in itself, however intractable a
proposition, serves to highlight the very qualities of the stories that make them so different from one
THE MEANING OF THE WORD MYTH
Myth is derived from the Greek word mythos, which can mean tale, or story, and that is essentially what
a myth is: a story. For many, such a general definition proves to be of no real service, and some would
add the qualification that a myth must be a traditional tale or story, one that has proved of so lasting a
value that it is continually retold, through whatever medium the artist/storyteller chooses to employ. For
further clarification, distinctions are often made between myth, i.e., true myth or myth proper, and
saga or legend, and folktale.
MYTH, SAGA OR LEGEND, AND FOLKTALE
Myth: not a comprehensive term for all stories but only for those primarily concerned with the gods and
their relations with mortals.
Saga or legend: a story containing a kernel of historical truth, despite later fictional accretions.
Folktale: a story, usually of oral origin, that contains elements of the fantastic, often in the pattern of the
adventure of a hero or a heroine. Its main function is entertainment, but it can also educate with all sorts
of insights. Under this rubric may be classed fairytales, which are full of supernatural beings and magic
and provide a more pointed moral content.
Rarely, if ever, do we find in Greek and Roman mythology, a pristine, uncontaminated example of any one
of these types of story.
MYTH AND TRUTH
The most common association of the words myth and mythical is with what is incredible and fantastic.
How often do we hear the expression, Its a myth, uttered in derogatory contrast with such laudable
concepts as reality and the facts? As opposed to the discoveries of science, whose truths continually
change, myth, like art is eternal. Myth in a sense is the highest reality, and the thoughtless dismissal of
myth as fiction or a lie is the most barren and misleading definition of all. Myth serves to interpret the
whole of human experience and that interpretation can be true or fictitious, valuable or insubstantial, quite
apart from its historical veracity.
MYTH AND RELIGION
The study of myth must not and cannot be separated from the study of religion, religious beliefs, or
religious rituals. No mythologist has been more eloquent than Mircea Eliade in his appreciation of the
sacredness of myth and the holy and timeless world that it embodies.
SOME CONCLUSIONS AND A DEFINITION OF CLASSICAL MYTH
We have provided a representative (and by no means exhaustive) sampling of influential definitions and
interpretations that can be brought to bear on classical mythology. It should be remembered that no onetheory suffices for a deep appreciation of the power and impact of all myths. Certainly the panorama of
classical mythology requires an arsenal of critical approaches.
Let us end with a definition of classical mythology that emphasizes its eternal qualities, which have
assured a miraculous afterlife. It may be that a sensitive study of the subsequent art, literature, drama,
music, dance, and film, inspired by Greek and Roman themes and created by genius, offers the most
worthwhile interpretative insights of all.
A classical myth is a story that, through its classical form, has attained a kind of immortality because its
inherent archetypal beauty, profundity, and power have inspired rewarding renewal and transformation by
Chapter 2: Historical Background of Greek Mythology
EARLY GREECE AND THE AEGEAN
The study of classical mythology, especially Greek legend or saga with its basis in historical fact, is
enhanced by a survey of the history of Greece in the Bronze Age, our knowledge of which has continually
been expanded since the time of Heinrich Schliemann.
Heinrich Schliemann (18221890), Founder of Modern Archaeology. Schliemann fervently believed
in the historicity of Homers picture of the age of heroes and amassed a great fortune before he turned to
archaeological excavation to prove the truth of his seemingly romantic convictions. His extended
excavations at Troy, Mycenae, and Tiryns, begun in the 1870s, confirmed that these cities had achieved a
stature in wealth, power, and influence that accords well with Homer's depiction of the Mycenaean world.
Sir Arthur Evans in Crete. Subsequently the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans discovered the Bronze Age
civilization that existed on the island of Crete. In 1899 he began his excavations at Cnossus, th