By exploring the attitudes towards myth, presented by the poets Homer and Hesiod, classical ‘scientists’ such as the Milesians and the Ionians and the Philosopher Plato we find these stories that have no factual accuracy at all, have been incredibly useful in helping to search for answers to the essence and meaning of life. Very often, trying to separate myth from reason has become an extremely difficult task, there are so many examples, analogies and allegories that can be used to explain views or facts and spark debate, that this will probably remain the case for many generations to come. Classical mythology has become a structure on which we can build our thoughts on who we are and where we have come from. There is never really a truth or definitive version of a myth and this very lack of conclusion to them means they can always be manipulated to suit many arguments. It does not reflect a disposition to escape reality because at whatever time and place the myth is re-told we never get the factual history told straight, we always receive a snapshot of the period in history at which the version we are reading was written. How the myth was told at any given moment reveals only the values and aspirations of that time. When myth is questioned, so are creation, humanity and nature.
Classical mythology does provide a desire to explore the realities of life. In the ancient study of the creation of mortals we find that the poets Homer and Hesiod attempted to bring together, and work alongside, traditional oral story-telling in order to answer some big questions. Beginning with Homer, in a time of limited (modern scientific) knowledge and intense speculation, ideas were explored, by the poet, that the earth was a round disk surrounded by a ‘begetter of gods’ called Oceanus and ‘Mother Tethys’. (Emlyn-Jones, p.119). Far from wishing to escape life by using myth, Homer recorded these oral stories and enabled their use as a springboard for philosophical development and discussion. The poet Hesiod also began to make sense of human creation using the mythical springboard in his work, ‘Theogony’. It was one of many possible explanations of creation but followed a certain common theme that is; chaos into order. Male and female influences alternated, violence moved into fertility and night followed day. These were all patterns that offered some sort of structure and sense to a chaotic world, trying to explain why life is often hard, savage and fraught with problems. Those savage actions by the gods, in terms of the beginnings of life, such as the repeated pattern of fathers killing their children, could be very revealing to the poets concerned with the topic of human nature. These myths, that also included the creation of the goddess Aphrodite, revealed that the driving force of human creation and perpetuity is sexual love and the desire for men to oust their fathers and the fear of sexual inadequacy have, to this day, remained fertile in psychological discussion. (M & L p.69). This idea developed with the very essence of sexual desire becoming embodied in the form of a beautiful female ‘goddess of love’. The longevity of such a still explored truth shows the inescapable power of this mythology.
This exploration into the reality of human nature was further compounded by the anthropomorphic nature of divine beings. This again linked the behaviour of immortals to form some understanding of behaviour in humans. Hesiod explored the myths of Prometheus, Pandora and the ‘five ages’ to develop thought on reality. (M & L p.83-90). It is not unreasonable to consider his motivation in exploring these ideas was to question and analyse the relationship between mankind and the gods and therefore develop understanding of ‘real’ human nature. His readers are led to consider, who was the first mortal? And when and how did this all happen? He achieved this by scattering the chronology. The myth concerning Pandora, for example, (M & L p.88-90) recounted by Hesiod tackled the issues surrounding the reasons mankind has a tendency towards evil. As myths never really conclude in their constant state of flux, due to ever being retold, Prometheus and Pandora opened minds to questions such as, what is different about humans to gods or even animals in their alternative physical forms? Why do people offer sacrificed animals to the gods? Why do humans have such trouble controlling their emotions? Why do humans often fail in life lessons? What ideas or qualities do men and women have to cling to in order to hope for a better future? This last point is particularly pertinent when seeing Hesiod’s anticipation things are only going to get worse for people based on the myth of the ‘five ages’ where humanity is only set to deteriorate. Myth in Hesiod unlocks the door of the imaginative mind onto the real world, demanding we ask just what we believe it is to be human.
It is possible that the early Greek cosmologists, particularly Thales, were the ‘founding fathers’ of investigative, explanatory science. This could be because they believed in myth as escapist. So it is worth investigating as to whether they succeeded separating myth from reason as we would define such a separation today. Unlike the poets, Thales actively sought to focus on nature rather than mythology when seeking knowledge on cosmology, creation and natural phenomena. Later, Aristotle reported him as concerned with mathematics and astronomy. He is even credited with having ‘scientifically’ predicted a solar eclipse, although this is and was open to argument. He was also reported to have believed everything ‘came from’ water. It would appear however, that Aristotle could not convey the precise thoughts of Thales because as a Milesian, Thales believed in a construct existing within the physical world that allowed a ‘principle of motion’. Anything that could move something else had the potential to have a soul, such as a magnetic stone moving iron. Under this premise water and air could have souls. This thought returned the Milesian scientists back to the realm of the divine and so back to myth. Once more, myth was being used as a tool to delve into further understanding the physical world.
Although the Milesian way was to use myth to explore reality rather than escape, they did introduce many ideas to the study of physics. Their approach attempted to ‘demythologise’, the natural world, but divinity still had a place with them. Some modern scholars have argued that their methods have their roots in philosophy rather than physics. Aristotle argued that the two were inextricably linked. Bearing in mind the limited ability they had to study in an ‘evidence based’ way these proto-scientists were simply forced to use myth as their starting hypotheses.
The Ionian philosophers also tried to dispense with a blanket, non-questioning belief in divinities. When they wrote attacks on this area of myth, philosophical questions were immediately posed. The gods could not be real, they argued, because of the fact they look like those who worship them. They had noted that in each race the gods are not ethnically diverse. In addition to this they are always anthropomorphic. The Ionians, then, begged the question, did humans create gods in the image of themselves, rather than the other way around? This undermined the ‘fact’ of myth but it did allow them to explore the reality in a theological context. Also, when they attacked the poetic tradition of relaying myth they, possibly inadvertently, used the mythological world to probe human nature. In ‘Against the Professors’ we see they noted Homer and Hesiod had written of some of the worst aspects of human fallibility. Whether they liked it or not they had used myth to spark discussion on this reality.
This leads to the point that the philosophers of ancient times did not only use myths to explore reality but also to re-shape the reality in which they lived and hoped to change as humanity progressed. Plato, who wrote in dialogues rather than the poetic tradition, tried to achieve this. Distinct separation of Muthos and logos appeared to remain at the heart of his philosophising. Armed with a belief that philosophers bore a certain amount of responsibility to society, he often seemed to find the lines between myth and reason became blurred. To impart the truth, as he saw it to those less learned, mythology would often have to be dissected or used as an explanatory tool. Quite the reverse to escaping from reality. In the instance of child-rearing, Plato seemed to believe that children needed to be sheltered from the mythological world, perhaps from its rather forthright revelation of human nature. If the future ‘real world’ was to be shaped favourably, Plato advocated that mothers and nurses should cherry-pick the parts of myth appropriate to their development. If this was not carefully regulated, he defended; children would likely grow up with a moral outlook contrary to that which was desirable to society. He urged those responsible for children to ‘throw out’ the false stories of Homer and Hesiod as they had no ‘good features’. In some cases he proposed the stories were not only blasphemous but would also ensure the young would grow up with a cowardly disposition. So this reveals that, to a certain extent, Plato did believe in divinities but simply questioned the mythic tradition exposed by poets. He seemed very aware that if the gods were portrayed with weaknesses, children would soon learn that such traits could be allowed within their own character. He held a ‘two-world view’ according to Eugenio Benitez. It can be explained by the fact there exists both a real world and a mythic one but the real one is open to be contorted by personal perception. Thus, the poets may write versions of myths as they picture them but the reader will then perceive them through their own very individual life lens. Arguably, Plato would like to have seen a far more utilitarian approach to myth in that, artists and poets should use mythic tales to promote an ‘ethical example’ in order to, ‘foster excellence of character and the cohesion of society’, not for escapism or historical facts. Children could not see an allegory in a tale. Therefore far from seeing myth as an escape from reality, it should only be used to form and develop logical argument which increases understanding. Plato believed mythic stories must be used to manage and shape reality.
The fact that classical mythology has been re-told for so many hundreds of years shows the crucial role it plays in the exploration of reality. To constantly mythologise is to constantly seek answers as they pull in different directions and make the reader face sometimes uncomfortable truths. When Homer and Hesiod brought together oral traditions and wrote them down they gave their society their earliest written theological texts from which to question nature. None of the poets, scholars and scientists from antiquity ever really succeeded in fully separating myth from reason and this has continued and still goes on. Myth is forever questioning systems of belief. It is belief that becomes the key issue. Of course we do not believe in gods who swallow their children, but we can certainly believe something within human nature could come to resent those closest to us. This will also prompt us to reassess ourselves and our attitudes to our families and the psychology behind these feelings. To this day we use mythological terms to express acts and emotions such as, a Pandora ’s Box or a Promethean task, which proves their ability to hit the truth of an issue squarely. Myths are a way of intellectual thinking that will long live comfortably alongside scientific fact and the accurate study of the past.
Benitez, E (2007) Philosophy, Myth and Plato’s Two-Worlds View, The European Legacy, Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 225–242, The Routledge group.
Emlyn-Jones, C (2011) ‘Terminology, function and myths of origin’ in Myth and Reason in Classical Greece, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Emlyn-Jones, C (2011) ‘Part 2: ‘The origins and development of science and philosophy in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE’ in Myth and Reason in Classical Greece, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Emlyn-Jones, C (2011) ‘Myths of the afterlife’ in Myth and Reason in Classical Greece, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Emlyn-Jones, C (2011) ‘Re-examining myth and reason’ in Myth and Reason in Classical Greece, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Morford, Lenardon & Sham., (2011) Classical Mythology 9th Ed., New York, Oxford University Press.
Textual Sources 2, (2011), ‘Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds’ Milton Keynes, The Open University.
All photos and their captions are taken from Wikipedia.