“Myth has two main functions,” the poet and scholar Robert Graves wrote in 1955. “The first is to answer the sort of awkward questions that children ask, such as ‘Who made the world? How will it end? Who was the first man? Where do souls go after death?’…The second function of myth is to justify an existing social system and account for traditional rites and customs.” In ancient Greece, stories about gods and goddesses and heroes and monsters were an important part of everyday life. They explained everything from religious rituals to the weather, and they gave meaning to the world people saw around them.
In Greek mythology, there is no single original text like the Christian Bible or the Hindu Vedas that introduces all of the myths’ characters and stories. Instead, the earliest Greek myths were part of an oral tradition that began in the Bronze Age, and their plots and themes unfolded gradually in the written literature of the archaic and classical periods. The poet Homer’s 8th-century BC epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, for example, tell the story of the (mythical) Trojan War as a divine conflict as well as a human one. They do not, however, bother to introduce the gods and goddesses who are their main characters, since readers and listeners would already have been familiar with them.
Did You Know?
Many consumer products get their names from Greek mythology. Nike sneakers are the namesake of the goddess of victory, for example, and the website Amazon.com is named after the race of mythical female warriors. Many high school, college and professional sports teams (Titans, Spartans and Trojans, for instance) also get their names from mythological sources.
Around 700 BC, the poet Hesiod’s Theogony offered the first written cosmogony, or origin story, of Greek mythology. The Theogony tells the story of the universe’s journey from nothingness (Chaos, a primeval void) to being, and details an elaborate family tree of elements, gods and goddesses...