- Greta HawesGreta HawesCenter for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University
Myths frequently intersect Greek religion, but Greek myth is neither coterminous with ancient ritual nor merely an appendix to it. The ancient poets and writers who took up the tasks of narrating, explaining, and expanding it did so with considerations which went far beyond the strictly religious. In antiquity myths were a repertoire of narratives which took place in a story-world located in a distant past which stretched from the beginnings of the universe to several generations after the return of the Heraclids to the Peloponnese. This repertoire featured episodes, events, genealogies, gods, and heroes that were shared across the Greek world, but within this common cultural paradigm there was broad tolerance for continual invention and improvisation: contingent local concerns fueled constant creation and manipulation of these stories. This apparent contradiction between a common canon and the mass of mutually contradictory variants and versions that it comprised is paralleled by the way that these myths could be simultaneously held up as paramount expressions of Hellenic culture while intersecting in significant ways with the traditions of the Greeks’ neighbors.
Myths were used among ancient Greek communities in broadly etiological ways: they explained why the world of the present was as it was. Myths existed to explain landscape features, political structures, regional alliances, ethic affiliations, cultic rituals, and theological principles. Myths could also be used in rationalistic modes to offer up a historicist vision of the past and in allegorical modes to illustrate philosophical paradigms. Greek myth remains a rich and varied body of stories with an intricate reception history. Nonetheless, what we know of it in antiquity is limited by the patterns of its survival. For the most part, preservation was through written sources (extant poetic and prose literature, documents from epigraphy, and papyri) and material evidence (statuary, votives, vase painting, wall painting, coins, and decorative objects). Although the context of these sources can offer radically different perspectives on myths, the viewpoint is most typically that of the elites.
- Ancient Religion