If you’re like me and a lot of my students, you grew up with Greek mythology. The monster-filled adventures of Odysseus, the (somewhat bowdlerized) philandering of Zeus, the just-so story of Echo and Narcissus, and others were part of my childhood reading. Myths seemed like any other sort of story, with well-defined characters and plots. But there’s something different about mythology. We can’t think of it the same way we think of other kinds of literature. Mythology, in fact, has more in common with fanfiction than with literature as we usually think of it. Greek mythology is one of the best documented and most widely known mythic traditions in the West, so it makes a useful example. When you dig into the primary sources of Greek mythology you find that it is stranger, more complicated, and less cohesive than it seemed when I was a child.
Defining exactly what makes a story a myth can be surprisingly difficult, but if we take as our starting point stories about fictional characters who are larger than life and more than human, we have a good chunk of Greek literature and art to work with. The literary versions of myths that have come down to us must themselves have been based on oral traditions passed down through generations, retold and reimagined in every new performance. There is no canon of Greek mythology. There is no original text that we (or the ancient Greeks themselves) can point to and say: “This story is the correct one; anything that conflicts with it is wrong.”
The nearest thing to a canonical text in ancient Greek culture was the two epics attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Neither of these epic poems was written down until the sixth century BCE, although some version of them circulated orally for hundreds of years prior. These poems were themselves just elaborated snippets of a much broader oral tradition which encompassed the whole story of the Trojan War and its heroes’ return to Greece. There was, however, some collective sense of how the epics ought to go. We know this because of the scandal caused by Peisistratus, the tyrant of Athens, who was accused of tampering with the Iliad by inserting a line to suggest that the nearby island of Salamis ought to belong to Athens. On one hand, the fact that such a minor tweak to the poem caused an uproar suggests a degree of reverence for the text. On the other hand, it is clear that the text could be tweaked. We have no idea how many changes the text of the epics may have gone through over the centuries that went by unremarked because they were less politically dicey.
If the Homeric epics were viewed with a certain reverence by the ancient Greeks, the same is not true of our other major sources of mythic stories. Our knowledge of Greek myth mostly comes from the literary productions of a few particular places and times. These works were regarded as literature, free to be debated, reinterpreted, or ignored. Apart from the oral traditions codified the Homeric poems, these include:
- Athenian drama, mostly written in the fifth century BCE at a time when Athens was a major economic, military, and political power in Greece, the leader of an Aegean empire known as the Delian League, and wrapped up in ongoing conflicts with Sparta, Thebes, and the Persian Empire.
- Poetry and prose composed in Hellenistic Alexandria, much of it by scholars working at the Library, which compiled and retold stories from earlier Greek traditions as part of the Ptolemaic kings’ propaganda program celebrating their links to classical Greek culture.
- Roman poetry of the late republic and early empire, composed at a time when Roman society was in crisis and different factions within the elite were competing for power.
There are significant works of art and literature not from these times that add to our knowledge of Greek mythology, but much of what we know comes from one of these clusters. Each one represents a time of fraught cultural and political tensions, and these tensions are reflected in the literature of the period. Fifth-century Athenian drama often portrays Athens as a place of wisdom and sound democratic government while painting Athens’ major rival Thebes as a chaotic city of violence and tragic folly. Written at a different time and in a different context, Roman versions of mythic stories, such as Vergil’s Aeneid, position the Romans as worthy heirs to the glory of ancient Greece.
The works of these different periods also reflect different literary interests. Athenian comedy often took heroic figures from myth and put them into ridiculous situations for laughs. The Alexandrian authors liked to show off the breadth of their learning by tying together disparate characters and tales into grand narratives, or retelling familiar stories from the point of view of minor characters. The Roman poet Ovid played to the sexual culture of his day by composing a collection of imaginary love letters between famous mythic couples.
All of these variations on mythic tales depended on an audience who already knew the stories and characters that were being referenced. They could also end up representing wildly different interpretations of the same events or figures. Part of the fun for ancient readers and theatre-goers was recognizing familiar stories told in a new way. In this respect, mythology worked the same way fanfiction works today. Whether it’s a passionately rendered love scene between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, a quippy duel between Batman and Iron Man, or the adventures of Aragorn and Galadriel’s secret love child, the fun of fanfic comes in taking the stories we have in common and doing something new with them—sometimes something inspired by the social and political context around us, and sometimes just for the delight of bringing a favorite character back on the stage for an encore.
The fragmentary nature of the literary record from antiquity means that when we try to put together the narrative of a certain character or event from Greek mythology, we are often cobbling together bits and pieces of sources from many different genres, written centuries apart on different continents for widely varying audiences and purposes. The fact that we are able to make any sense out of these stories at all is a testament to how much the ancient Greeks and those who learned their stories loved their myths and enjoyed retelling them. But whenever we deal with mythology—Greek or otherwise—we have to remember that what we are dealing with is a wonderfully strange mishmash of stories, none of it canonical as we understand the term today, but all of it lovingly retold by generations of people who made the stories their own.
Image: Mosaic of Vergil with the muses of history and tragedy, photograph by Giorces via Wikimedia (currently Bardo Museum, Tunis; 3rd c. CE; mosaic)
Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.