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date: 28 June 2022

mythology, Greekfree

mythology, Greekfree

  • Sarah Iles Johnston


Myths were told in a broad variety of contexts by a broad variety of people in ancient Greece. Unlike fairy tales and fables, Greek myths focus on specifically named individuals, such as Heracles and Athena, who interact with other such individuals across a span of different stories, creating a network of stories and characters. Although Greek myths explore many of the same plots and themes as other traditional tales, they were particularly interested in tales of heroes, metamorphosis, and love affairs between gods and human women. Ancient intellectuals interpreted myths as allegories or as distorted versions of real history. Modern scholars have used a variety of approaches to interpret Greek myths, most of which have been anchored in act of comparing them to the myths of other cultures: the ritualist approach, the structuralist approach, the psychoanalytical approach and narratological approaches. In the past few decades, there has been increasing interest in mythography and in the reception of Greek myths.


  • Greek Myth and Religion


In the more than three hundred years that Greek myths have been the object of academic study, scholars have repeatedly tried to define and characterize them, particularly in contrast to other types of narratives such as fairy tales, folk tales, and fables. A definition that has been influential for nearly half a century1 stresses two characteristics:


Myths present themselves as traditional, as having been passed down through many generations.


Myths address issues that are of collective importance, such as the organization of social units, the relationship between the sexes, or the nature of the gods.

More recent work draws attention to additional characteristics:


Individual Greek myths tend to belong to a larger network of other myths that draw on a shared reserve of characters, in contrast to, for example, fairy tales, each of which has characters who are unique to that particular story.


Almost all of these characters are well known to a myth’s audience before the myth begins. Like other episodic forms of narration, Greek myths build, and in turn rely, upon the audience members’ existing familiarity with these characters.2

Many other cultures’ myths manifest these four characteristics as well. There is a fifth characteristic, however, that is more prominently noticeable in Greek myths than in most others:


In spite of the traditional nature of Greek myths and their use of a network of well-known characters, their narrators did not hesitate to change a myth to suit the occasion for which it was being told, sometimes in radical ways.

Indeed, in Greece, myths were vividly expressed through highly polished artistic and literary forms that received enormous public attention and admiration—which inevitably led to their being continually reshaped both so that a myth might better suit the particular performative occasion for which a poet or artist was recrafting it and so that its poet or artist might garner prizes and future commissions.3

Narrative Contexts

Myths were narrated across the span of literary genres in ancient Greece. Poets presented them in epic, lyric, and dramatic compositions performed both at large public occasions and in smaller private settings. Such formal narrations of myths were understood to be a way of praising and pleasing the gods, who were assumed to enjoy hearing about their own exploits and the exploits of the great heroes just as much as the mortal audiences did. Sections of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Theogony, and many other epics now lost to us were recited during festivals in honour of the gods, as were shorter compositions such as the Homeric Hymns. From these we derive some of our best-known myths. The Iliad tells of Achilles’ withdrawal from the Trojan War, the Odyssey narrates Odysseus’s confrontation with the Cyclops Polyphemus and other fantastic creatures and peoples who threaten his homecoming, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter tells the story of Demeter and Persephone, and Hesiod’s Theogony describes the very births of the first gods themselves. An ode that Bacchylides composed for a chorus to perform in honour of Apollo on Delos gives us the tale of Theseus retrieving Minos’s ring from the bottom of the sea (Bacchyl. 17). From tragedies, which were usually performed at festivals honouring Dionysus, we inherit our best-known versions of the sacrifice of Iphigenia (Eur. IA), the deaths of Agamemnon and Heracles (Aesch. Ag.; Soph. Trach.), the horrifying deeds of Oedipus (Soph. OT), and the fate of Medea’s children (Eur. Med.).

Myths were also narrated in more sober prose genres. Thucydides adduced Minos’s Cretan army, Agamemnon’s leadership of the Greek army, Theseus’s reorganization of Attica, and other mythic figures or events to support his arguments (1.1–10, 2.15–16). Demosthenes drew on myths such as that of Procne and Philomela to make his case for patriotic valour (60.30). Plato tells us about how Prometheus and Epimetheus made the first mortal creatures (Prt. 320c–322a). Someone on the island of Paros, early in the 3rd century bce, erected a lengthy public inscription on marble that detailed the mythic history of Athens and other important Greek cities (IG XII.5.444).4 And, of course, in Greece as in all other cultures, myths were narrated informally too: children heard them from mothers and nursemaids, women told them to one another while weaving, and men might use them to persuade one another to take a particular course of action (Pl. Resp. 381e1–6; Eur. Ion 194–200, 507–508; Il. 9.529–605, 24.602–617).

Myths were also common subjects in the visual arts. We see them on the grand, beautifully detailed vases that were given as prizes in athletic games and on the simpler drinking cups used at symposia, in the statues and statue groups erected in public spaces and on the reliefs and pedimental sculptures that adorned temples. With the 1999 completion of the major volumes of the LIMC project (Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae), the richness and variety with which myths were transmitted visually became more apparent than ever before (for more about LIMC, see “Other Approaches”). These visual narratives sometimes offer us variations on myths for which no literary source exists. Thus, for example, an Attic cup from between 550 and 540 bce, now in Boston, shows Circe turning Odysseus’s men not into swine alone, as Homer’s poem would have us believe, but into a variety of animals: a lion, a rooster, two horses, a dog, a panther, and a goat (figure 1).5 An Apulian krater from 330-310 bce, now in Munich (Staatliche Antikensammlungen 3296), shows the death of the Corinthian princess in its central scene and shows Medea murdering her children, below—no surprises so far, as these two events had been inextricably linked in Euripides’ Medea of 431 bce—but to the side of the central scene we find an older male figure labelled eidolon Aētou, making it the “ghost,” or “image” of Aeëtes, Medea’s father, whom she had left behind years ago in faraway Colchis. Neither Euripides nor any other author tells a story that would explain the presence of such a character. Either the artist has innovated or some playwright whom the artist represented has innovated in introducing him.

Figure 1. Drinking cup (kylix) depicting scenes from the Odyssey.

Source: Photo courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Figure 2. Mixing bowl (bell krater) depicting Actaeon turning into a stag.

Source: Photo courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The ancient Greek environment hummed with myths; they were encountered with a frequency that is hard to imagine today. Not all of these encounters were intentional and focused—many were incidental and fleeting (one would have glimpsed the Labours of Heracles and the Labours of Theseus on the metopes of the Hephaesteum when walking through the Athenian agora, for example)—but nonetheless the effect must have been to keep the story-world that these subjects cumulatively built constantly in the people’s minds.6

Subject Matter

Many of the themes found in Greek myths are found in stories told by other cultures too: brothers fight bitterly with one another (Polyneices and Eteocles, Acrisius and Proetus), young men leave home on quests (Jason seeks the Golden Fleece, Perseus seeks Medusa’s head) and sometimes rescue princesses from monsters (Perseus rescues Andromeda, Heracles rescues Hesione), beautiful females prove to be dangerous (Circe, Medea, Helen). Some themes, however, are particularly characteristic of Greek myths, including (a) the hero, (b) metamorphosis, and (c) the mating of gods with women.

1. The hero is a man (in ancient Greece it almost always was a man) who is born with or acquires skills that exceed those of other men. As he appears in Greek myths, the hero has a particular name that is usually unique to him and is associated with a particular locale or limited group of locales (Theseus is Athenian; Jason is from Iolcus; Heracles is claimed by both Thebes and Argos). In these characteristics, they stand in contrast to the nameless, placeless heroes of folk and fairy tales such as the “The White Snake” or “The Glass Mountain.” The Greek hero typically appears in a series of myths which often are interlinked thematically or in terms of plot (the twelve Labours of Heracles; Theseus’s clearing of the road to Athens of villains; Oedipus’s conquering of the Sphinx, the calamitous marriage that it won him, and the after-effects that carried into his children’s generation). In this seriality, the Greek hero is different, again, from the heroes of genres such as the fairy tale and the folktale, but he develops a characteristic that is already seen, although to a much more limited extent, in some earlier clusters of Near Eastern myths such as those concerning the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh and his father Lugalbanda. Often, the Greek hero interacts with other heroes (Heracles has a conversation with Meleager in the underworld, he rescues Theseus while down there and, later, Heracles’ own ghost has a conversation with Odysseus) and sometimes goes forth with them on joint ventures (the Calydonian Boar Hunt, the quest for the Golden Fleece). Such interaction seems to have been a Greek innovation, which further cemented the idea that the hero was a class unto himself, situated somewhere between mortals and immortals. The sheer number of Greek myths that focus on heroes is also striking; Near Eastern myths overwhelmingly focused on the gods, instead. In sum, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the Greeks invented the hero as we know him in later generations.7 The well-developed ancient literary and artistic traditions discussed above were crucial to this cementing of his persona.

2. Another theme that Greek myths explore to a greater degree than other cultures’ stories is that of metamorphosis—the transformation, almost always permanently, of a human into something else (Procne and Philomela become a nightingale and a swallow; Lycaon becomes a wolf; Niobe becomes a rocky crag). Typically, the metamorphosis is performed by a god, who is motivated by anger, pity, or both. (Gods themselves frequently change form too, but for them it is a matter of “shape-shifting”: a temporary transformation undertaken freely for the shape-shifter’s own reasons, most famously in Greek myths, the seduction of human women.) Metamorphosis has been interpreted by scholars in an impressive range of ways, but, as Richard Buxton has pointed out, whatever other purpose it serves, one of its consistent effects upon both the audience internal to a narration and the external audience is that of astonishment, which underscores the gods’ immense power and the concomitant vastness of the gulf between mortals and immortals.8

3. A third theme that runs throughout Greek myths is the Greek gods’ habit of seducing or raping women (the line between seduction and rape is often blurred in these myths, at least to modern sensibilities). These myths, particularly as seen through the lens of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, became the stuff of art and literature, high and low, for millennia to come. One reason that the Greeks developed this theme to a great extent was their focus on heroes, as discussed above, which implicitly posed a genealogical problem. At least in Greek terms, a truly great hero had to be the son of a god (or, less commonly, a goddess). But, because heroes were linked to particular locales, their mothers had to be queens or princesses of those locales. Either way, the god who sired the hero was supposed to have taken his pleasure and engendered the hero without besmirching the honour of the hero’s mother. This conundrum brings us back to the gods’ habit of shape-shifting. Who could blame Leda for comforting a frightened swan that flew into her lap (which turned out to be a lustful Zeus)? Who could blame Callisto for snuggling up to Artemis (who turned out to be a lustful Zeus)? Who could possibly blame Alcmene for admitting into her bed someone who looked exactly like her own husband (who, again, turned out to be a lustful Zeus)?

Approaches to the Study of Greek Myths

Already in antiquity, intellectuals assumed that myths had to be interpreted—that is, they assumed that behind myths there lurked hidden meanings or obscure origins. We now identify three main types of ancient approaches—rationalistic interpretation, Euhemerism, and allegoresis—although the ancients themselves were not always clear-cut in distinguishing among them.9 “Rationalistic” interpretations assumed that there was some core of historical truth behind a myth that had been elaborated into a fantastic story. Among the earliest rationalizing accounts was Palaephatus’s Concerning Impossible Things (late 4th century bce), which argued, for example, that Actaeon was said to have been “eaten by his dogs” because he loved hunting so much that he neglected his estate and went bankrupt (Palaeph. 6). What we now call euhemerism, which is found in writers as early as Herodotus, similarly posits kernels of historical truth behind myths, with an emphasis on understanding the gods as developments of historical men and women. (The 3rd-century Euhemerus himself, it should be noted, was seeking explanations for why humans believed in the gods at all and was not much interested in myths per se.) Allegoresis attempted to uncover the philosophical and scientific truths that had been cloaked in myths. Our earliest examples come from Theagenes of Rhegium (6th century bce) but it particularly flourished in later antiquity, especially among the Neoplatonics.10 The 1st-century ce philosopher Heraclitus used it to explain the embarrassing tale of Aphrodite and Ares’ adultery, as narrated at Od. 8.266–366: if Aphrodite represents love and Ares represents strife, then their affair is nothing more than a mythic expression of a principle that Empedocles articulated, according to which Love and Strife together produce Concord (Harmonia, the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares) (Heraclitus, Homeric Questions 69.8–11).

These three modes of interpretation continued through late antiquity and into the Renaissance; they were particularly useful to Christian intellectuals who wanted to find a justification for continuing to enjoy Greek myths.11 With the Enlightenment, further interpretative approaches developed. To Christian Gottlob Heyne we owe the coining of the word “myth” in its modern sense and the idea (now very common, especially in books about Greek myths written for children) that myths explained features of the natural world for which modern scientific explanations were not yet available—what we now refer to as the aetiological approach.12 Heyne’s friend Johann Gottfried Herder contributed the idea that myths articulate the essential spirit (Volksgeist) of a people. Being a comparativist by nature and believing in the deep unity of humankind, Herder proceeded to what seemed to be a logical conclusion: the comparative study of myth would enable scholars to recapture the earliest stage of the human spirit.13

The comparativism championed by Herder was to thrive and inflect other approaches to the study of Greek myths. Adalbert Kuhn compared the myths of many cultures and proposed that there was what he called an “Aryan myth” according to which a culture-hero stole things from the gods and delivered them to humanity—Prometheus was the familiar Greek example.14 Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker contrasted this “Aryan myth” with the myth of a Fall, which he described as characteristic of Semitic races.15 This contrast inspired Friedrich Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy (first edition, 1872), which presented its own exaltation of the Prometheus myth and denigration of the myth of a Fall. Subsequently, in The Antichrist (1888), Nietzsche compared ancient Greece and its myths (high forms of art) with Christianity (a developed form of Semiticism and the enemy of the artistic spirit).

At about the same time, in England, Friedrich Max Müller (1823–1900), a student of India’s languages, religions, and cultures who was keenly interested in comparing them to those of other cultures that he considered Aryan, developed the theory that poetry was the highest form of expression and that myth was a “disease of language” that parasitically fed upon it. He argued that initially, when the Greeks said that selēnē (“moon”) kissed endymion (a Greek word that represented “dusk” in Max Müller’s interpretation), it was their poetic way of saying that night was falling. Later, when poetic speech no longer seemed natural to them, selēnē became Selene, the goddess of the moon, and endymion became Endymion, her young lover. In other words, myth was born when prose overthrew poetry and natural phenomena took on personalities.16

Müller was most keenly interested in comparing deities from Aryan cultures who, in his analysis, could be identified with the sun. As time went on, his list grew to include not only obvious candidates such as Helios and the Indian god Dyaus but also Heracles, Orpheus, and many other heroes and gods. The comparative methodology as Müller developed it eventually became so flexible as to be virtually useless, as its critics at the time realized.17

The Ritualist Approach

But the comparison of myths was soon reoriented and applied to a different task. Inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution and fueled by abundant new information about the myths and religions of contemporary so-called “savage” or “primitive” cultures from South America, Africa, New Guinea, and Australia, scholars who espoused variations of what some of them called the “ritualist approach” worked from the premise that the earliest stages of “higher” cultures, such as that of ancient Greece, had a lot in common with those of the less-evolved primitive cultures. One of the most important ideas that came out of this, introduced by Semiticist W. Robertson Smith in a series of lectures,18 was the proposal that myths arose to explain not the nature of the universe and all it contained (as the aetiological approach suggested), but rather the existence of religious rituals whose real origins and purposes had long ago been forgotten.

The Cambridge classicist James Frazer, who was a friend of Smith, patiently gathered information about myths and rituals from every culture and period imaginable to make the comparativist case that the myth around which the mythological systems of all cultures were centred was that of a king (or sometimes a god) who dies and is revived. He argued that several Greek mythic figures fit the paradigm: Adonis and Dionysus, for example.19 This move gave new life to an idea that had been inherent in comparative mythology from the start: that there were Ur-myths—myths that had been shared by and transmitted among cultures since the beginning of time, although each culture cloaked them in different clothes.

The slightly younger Jane Ellen Harrison, who was associated with Cambridge off and on throughout her life, developed Frazer’s ideas in new directions. She substituted what she called the Eniautos Daimon (“Year-Spirit”) for Frazer’s king and argued that the myths that she found to surround this figure represented long-lost Greek rituals of adolescent initiation similar to those that anthropologists were just then discovering among the tribes they studied.20 Harrison also stressed, even more than Smith had, the subordinate nature of myths. For her, myths were better studied with the goal of better understanding rituals than in their own right.

After Harrison, the ritualist approach waned among classicists for several decades, although it was carried forward by Semiticists and literary critics. It was freshly resurrected for classicists in the 1970s in two books by Walter Burkert. Burkert argued that both myths and rituals were symbolic expressions of “programs of action” rooted in biologically determined events such as puberty. Greek myths and rituals had arisen independently of one another, he suggested, although they often and most effectively worked in tandem.21 The tale of Demeter’s angry withdrawal and mollified return was more powerful when paired with festivals in which images of gods were taken away and then brought back, for instance, and vice versa.22 Burkert’s work, in these books and many of his other numerous publications, spurred his students and their contemporaries onward in the search for and interpretation of other myth-and-ritual pairings.23

The Structuralist Approach

It was not only the ritualist approach to Greek myths that was inflected by comparativism. Two variations of the structuralist approach, one pioneered by folklorist Vladimir Propp and the other by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, were comparative insofar as each argued that myths had to be stripped down to their essentials before they could be understood. The manner in which one discerned what was essential in a given myth depended on comparing that myth to other myths (or other versions of the same myth) that were judged to belong to the same category. Comparison could be used (implicitly or explicitly, depending on the scholar who wielded it) to discover the very essence of a myth, in other words.

For Propp, that essence lay in myths’ basic plots, which he argued were drawn from a limited pool of possible plots (e.g., “quest”) and in some basic character roles that were likewise drawn from a limited pool (e.g., “hero,” “villain,” “helper”).24 In his analysis, everything else—all the details of a myth, including those that made it narratively interesting—was extraneous to the myth’s proper analysis. His methodology was most notably applied to Greek myths by Burkert,25 who demonstrated that several myths about Heracles fit the Proppian pattern of the hero’s quest. Burkert, however, also extended Propp’s methodology to suggest that the myth of Demeter’s withdrawal from the company of gods and humans was a variation of the Proppian quest pattern and that the myth of Adonis was an inversion of it.

In Lévi-Strauss’s type of structuralism, in contrast, plot was irrelevant; instead “mythemes”—the smaller units of a story—and the way in which they expressed culturally embedded binary opposites (male–female, cooked–raw, hot–cold) were what mattered.26 For Greek myths, the issue of binary opposites was explored particularly richly by Jean-Pierre Vernant and his students—although with closer attention to such issues as how a given myth in which the binaries are embedded unfolded within its particular cultural context and the precise words that its narrators used. In other words, Vernant drew attention to the specific ways in which myths and their embedded messages were conveyed to their ancient audiences. This allowed Vernant to draw our attention to, for example, the way in which Hesiod’s description of Pandora as having the “mind of a bitch” resonated within a larger cultural collocation of female lust, hunger, and the intense heat that the Dog-star brought at the time of year when women were assumed to be most wanton.27

The Psychoanalytical Approach

Although the work of Sigmund Freud has had a profound influence on our understanding of many cultural products, it is the work of his student Carl Jung that has had the most enduring effect on the study of myth—particularly Jung’s argument for transhistorically and universally shared archetypes that are encoded both in the human psyche and in myths (e.g., “the stepmother,” “the cosmic tree”). Karl Kerényi focused on the ways in which these were embedded in Greek myths,28 while Joseph Campbell, who became widely known through his association with George Lucas’s Star Wars epic, worked comparatively to find them throughout many cultures.29 More recently, Robert A. Segal has examined the figure of Adonis through a Jungian lens.30 Although the psychoanalytical approach does not currently have a large following among scholars of Greek myth, the books of Kerényi and, even more so, those of Campbell remain perennially in print and widely read. Thanks to this, and to Campbell’s influence on Star Wars, it is most often a broadly Jungian approach to the study of myth that students bring with them to introductory mythology courses, whether they know it or not.31

Narratological Approaches

While not rejecting approaches that seek meaning below the surface of a Greek myth, some recent scholars have nonetheless emphasized the importance of studying the specific ways in which they were narrated and through which they conveyed meaning to their original audiences—the particular words that were used and how they might have affected their audiences, the contexts in which the compositions were performed (typically festivals in honour of the gods) and the effects of hearing myths recited within those contexts, the episodic nature of Greek myths, and so on. In doing so, they have worked from the presumption that a myth exists only when it is expressed by a narrative, verbal or visual. There is no Platonically ideal “myth of Medea,” in their reading, for example, from which individual “versions” differ to smaller or larger extents but rather many myths about Medea, generated by many individual artists and composers.

Claude Calame has worked on aspects of this question throughout his career, exploring it most fully in a book published in 2000,32 in which he demonstrates that it is only by paying attention to the semantic and symbolic richness of the discourse through which a myth is expressed that we can fully appreciate the social or cultural work that it did under the particular circumstances for which it was composed. In the abstract, the bare-bones “myth” of Demeter and Persephone (for example) tells us little or nothing about what any single narration of it meant to the Greeks, whereas close attention to semantic details of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, for instance, suggests that Persephone’s back-and-forth existence between the upper and lower worlds was meant to serve as a metaphor for the promise of post-mortem bliss promised by the Eleusinian mysteries. Other narrations of the story were crafted to express other things, such as the dangers attending the transition from virginity to motherhood.

Sarah Iles Johnston draws on work in narratology and folklore studies to show that the very nature of Greek myths as we meet them in ancient literary compositions—gripping tales inhabited by engrossing characters—enabled them to help create and sustain belief in the gods. Like Calame, she looks at the semantics and symbols of specific narratives but her closer focus is on issues such as the episodic nature of mythic narration in antiquity, the dense intertwining of mythic characters, and their plurimedial quality, all of which worked to make audience members believe that the myths’ characters really existed—including the gods whom the Greeks worshipped through rituals. In this sense, Greek myths and rituals are once more shown to be interdependent, but neither necessarily takes its libretto from the other, as earlier scholars assumed.33

Geographically Oriented Comparativism: The Ancient Near East and Indo-European Cultures

Walter Burkert and Martin West brought comparativism to bear upon Greek myths by situating them in the context of ancient Mediterranean myths more generally. By studying a Greek myth side by side with its correlates from ancient Near Eastern cultures (which in some cases can be shown to be the place from which the Greeks borrowed aspects of their own myth) one can better appreciate the ways in which different cultures put their own variations of a single story to work in very different ways. Burkert demonstrates, for instance, that the figure of the Mesopotamian demon Lamashtu, who killed children and pregnant women, splintered into several Greek mythic figures, including child-killing demons such as Gello and Lamia but also the gorgon Medusa.34 The work of Burkert and West has been carried on, with greater attention to specific details, by scholars such as Carolina López-Ruiz and Bruce Louden,35 particularly with attention to early Greek epic’s dependence upon Near Eastern predecessors.

Bruce Lincoln expanded the comparative gaze by looking at Greek myths side by side with those of other Indo-European cultures, and by further emphasizing the importance of attending to the differences among myths that we compare. Lincoln’s investigation of Greek, Norse, and Zoroastrian cosmogonies, for example, draws attention to the very different conceptualizations of primeval emptiness that the three express: a space from which ordering elements subsequently emerge (Greek), a place of catalytic productivity (Norse), and a buffer between enemies (Zoroastrian).36


Another relatively recent turn in the study of myth has focused on mythography, a term used here to refer both to the collection of a myth’s variants and to the study of how ancient scholars gathered, organized, and recorded myths. In the first category, Timothy Gantz’s magisterial Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources (1993) was a game-changer. By meticulously collecting every known variant of every known myth from the archaic and classical periods (often straying into later periods, as well), Gantz promoted through his own practices the careful analysis of ancient Greek myths both in their individual historical contexts and as ever-developing sites of meaning. In the second category pride of place must be given to Robert Fowler’s Early Greek Mythography (two volumes, 2000 and 2013). Although every bit as meticulous as Gantz, Fowler shifts emphasis: in Volume 1, he collects our fragments of each ancient mythographer in separate chapters and in Volume 2, he offers commentaries both on them and on mythic traditions (theogonies, local histories, etc.).37

The ongoing MANTO project, directed by R. Scott Smith and Greta Hawes, is building a database of every character and place-name that appears in Greek myths and creating hyperlinks among them. When complete, MANTO will provide a mythographic resource of unprecedented scale that will be easily available to scholars and non-scholars alike. Smith has collaborated with his colleagues Stephen Trzaskoma and Stephen Brunet to produce translations of previously untranslated mythographers (and new translations of others), enhancing the availability and appreciation of these sources outside the field of classics.38 Smith and Trzaskoma’s Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Mythography is due out soon.

Reception Studies

Another growing interest in recent years is the reception of Greek myths in later literature and art, which particularly flourishes under the 20th and 21st centuries’ constant revamping of myths and re-exploration of their potential meanings.  Modern audiences have met Orpheus as imagined by Jean Cocteau and interpreted by Jean Marais (Orphée, 1950); Medea as seen through a Scandinavian lens (Lars von Trier’s Medea 1988); Odysseus and Penelope as reenvisioned by the Coen brothers and performed by George Clooney and Holly Hunter (O Brother, Where Art Thou? 2000)—and also in the persons of Homer and Marge Simpson as imagined by Matt Groening in a 2002 episode of The Simpsons ("Tales from the Public Domain"). These examples are barely the tip of an enormous iceberg of modern representations, to say nothing of those from earlier centuries.

Figure 3. A scene from the 1950 French film Orphée (Orpheus), directed by Jean Cocteau and starring Jean Marais. Set in contemporary Paris, the story of the film is an adaptation of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Source: Photo from Criterion Collection.

Figure 4. The 2002 episode of the Simpsons, “Tales From The Public Domain,” features a retelling of the Odyssey, with Homer in the role of Odysseus (season 13, episode 14).

Source: Photo from Disney+.

A collection of essays edited by Vanda Zajko and Helena Hoyle in 201739 presents a broad variety of topics and approaches, including reception during particular periods,40 myth collections for children,41 the reworking of iconic figures,42 and particular works of reception.43 The older Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, weighing in at 1310 pages, remains an important resource as well.44 Many of the essays in George Kovacs and C. W. Marshall’s Classics and Comics (2011) and Son of Classics and Comics (2015), and in Brett Rogers and Benjamin Eldon Stevens’s Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy (2017) and Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (2015),45 focus on the reception of myths; such projects vigorously push forward our understanding of the ways in which Greek myth lives today. New projects, such as Antiquity in Media Studies (AIMS) and Animated Antiquity, include work on the reception of myth.

Other Approaches

The review of recent approaches offered so far fails to capture the full spectrum of fine, innovative work on myth that is now shaping the field. Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge’s Retour à la source: Pausanias et la religion grecque (2008)46 analyzes Pausanias’s criteria for judging the myths he heard as true or false, shedding light more generally on the possible ways in which myths was received in antiquity. Many other recent books have recently focused attention on individual gods and heroes: Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge and Gabriella Pironti’s L’Héra de Zeus (2015) is a valuable contribution,47 as is Susan Deacy’s ongoing series Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World, which is designed for use by scholars and non-specialists alike. Currently standing at fifteen volumes, Deacy’s series includes, for example, books on Zeus, Oedipus, Dionysus, Apollo, Aphrodite, Artemis, Heracles, and Hermes.48 The Tractatus mythologicus of Christian Zgoll (2019) offers a new paradigm for the analysis of myths not as texts or artistic representations but rather as raw “stuff” (hylē) of a decidedly polymorphic and transmedial nature.49 Greta Hawes’s edited collection Myths on the Map: The Storied Landscapes of Ancient Greece (2017) draws attention to the many ways in which the telling of myths contributed to the Greeks’ delineation of their spatial worlds—and vice versa50.

Finally, there is LIMC—the magnificent multivolume Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, prepared through the collaboration of scholars throughout the world and published serially between 1981 and 2009. Each of the first eight alphabetically arranged volumes are split into two sub-volumes, one of which contains articles on characters from Greek myths and their appearances in ancient art and the other of which contains photos of many of the ancient pieces of art that were mentioned, making it an indispensable asset to any scholar of myth. The ongoing digitalization of the project, under the direction of the Universität Basel, is nearing completion.


  • Bremmer, Jan, ed. Interpretations of Greek Mythology. Beckenham, UK: Croom Helm, 1988.
  • Burkert, Walter. Structure and History in Greek Myth and Ritual. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
  • Buxton, Richard G. A. Imaginary Greece. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
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