Continuing the series on World Mythology, here's a take on Greece.
In the beginning, classical studies focused in on what made Greece so unusual and their stories so extraordinarily different from the cultures around them. The best book to typefy this was Edith Hamilton, whose perky insistence the Greeks were super-duper special was one of the most irritating parts of the otherwise splendid MYTHOLOGY.
This kind of triumphalism is unsurprising. Classical Studies have always been a darling of the conservative right, since after all, emphasizing the uniqueness of Western culture separates us from our two archenemies, namely the Godless Commies on one hand, and the assorted disgruntled darkie hordes of the Third World on the other.
When education forcused on Math and Science during the 1960s so America wouldn't lose her tech edge to the Commies, William F. Buckley Jr. urged us not to forget Classical Greece and the humanities, which may have been the only time the World's Most Articulate Asshole and his attack dogs in the National Review were ever in favor of anything that benefitted the human race. Likewise, don't forget Victor Davis Hanson, the Dick Cheney psycophant, discredited after his invocation of Greece to cheerlead Cheney's oil-grabbing misadventures. The truth is, there's nothing that could be less relevant to Iraq or Afghanistan than Classical Greece: the Greeks and Romans never had to deal with anything like an insurgency or asymmetrical warfare. Think of it like this: if a native population attacked Greek soldiers, what do you think the Greeks would have done...to the entire city?
Nowadays, the pendulum has shifted and classical scholars are looking at the similarities between the Greeks and other cultures around them. It certainly helps that we know a lot more about Greek prehistory, thanks to archeology revealing more about the Greeks Indo-European ancestors, the Bronze Age period, the Pelasgians (the non-Indo-European original inhabitants of mainland Greece), and the palace culture of Knossos. There was a wonderful travelogue book entitled ZEUS that traced the life's story and origins of Zeus in a Greek travel book, which investigated the Big Guy's origin in Indo-European and tribal belief.
With that in mind, there are a few things important to emphasize when reading Greek Mythology:
1. The institution of the hero came from Ancestor Worship.
In fact, the reason we are familiar with some heroes is because their cults were important at significant places...not the other way around! Castor and Pollux were a part of the state worship of Sparta, for instance. Some hero-cults were downright bizarre: on Samothrace, the Orphic Mysteries believed the hero-musician Orpheus emerged from the underworld with secret knowledge. Since the Orphic Mysteries were a secret society concerned with magic salvation, we know very little about them...but supposedly initiates in the Mysteries were protected from drowning.
In many ways, the Greek form of ancestor-worship was very similar to the Chinese, Aboriginal, and Sub-Saharan African version of the same practice. Ancestors weren't just the spirits of long-dead blood relatives, but superhuman figures from the distant past with real influence on present events.
It's important to note that Greece was divided into closely-related clans or tribes, called ethnos, rather like Scottish Highlanders. In some cases, being a part of one ethnos was, like the Clintons, Kennedys and Bushes today, a ticket to real political power. Each ethnos had its own hero that they claim descent from, which is what makes reading a lot of epics so dense and impenetrable: lots of little shout-outs to minor-league heroes that pop up just to give that portion of the audience a thrill.
The hero-ancestors had great importance for propaganda and political purposes. A hero's fame increased if the tribe he was related to came into power. After pan-Greek sentiment was the big uniting feeling after the Persian Wars, the previously unimportant hero Hellas was pointed to as a common ancestor for all Greeks everywhere.
2. Greek religion had a surprisingly dark flip-side with extremely ancient roots.
Called Cthonic worship, this type of worship was conducted underground and in caves, often with blood sacrifice to earth and death deities. Hecate, a moon goddess of magic and death, was one of the chief of the Cthonic gods. Hades was another. In fact, Hades was often associated with Zeus, either as a split personality or as a twin brother. The clear-cut separation between Zeus and Hades is a modern invention. Hades after all, was often referred to as Zeus Cthonios: the Cthonic Zeus.
3. The Greeks and Romans didn't take their myths seriously. They loved to lampoon, deconstruct, and usurp their own myths, even from the get-go.
The Byzantine Empress Theodosius, prior to marrying the most powerful man in the world, was a professional stripper who specialized in lewd and sexy reinactments of Greek and Roman myths.
This irreverence towards myth is typical of the classical world. It would be a mistake to call most Greeks and Romans atheists (a very modern attitude inappropriate for the Ancient World), but nonetheless the majority of them didn't believe in the literal truth of their myths and didn't take them all that seriously.
One of the great additions to Greek drama was the Satyr play, which were comic parodies of myths often performed in festivals to help the mostly drunk observers wind down after the super-pompous main performances generally shown at such festivals. The Satyr plays often remind me of the Abbot and Costello movies where the duo met Frankenstein or Hercules, with the goofy figures of the satyrs, horny to the point they sported comically oversized prop erections, were casually slipped into the myths like Forrest Gump. The only existing satyr play to come down to us in its entirety was by Euripides and featured a bunch of Satyrs caught up with Odysseus in his famous escape from the Cyclops. The most typical scene was one where the Cyclops threatened to capture and rape a satyr prison-style. Yes, the satyr plays are as totally hilarious as they sound.
In fact, the most readable and entertaining collection of Greek myth was Ovid's METAMORPHOSES. Ovid was wildly disliked because of this very humor, warmth and humanity. Augustus Caesar, like all prudes and snotty moralists the world over, had zero sense of humor and no tolerance for parody, and much preferred the boring, sterile and unreadable Virgil's AENEID (which not incidentally, kissed the ass of the ruling class and their values) rather than the subversive Ovid. Ovid was someone that actually did use humor as a deadly weapon to speak truth to power: aware of the corruption and indiscretion of the priesthood under Augustus (after all, one of the great ironies of human culture is how sexual perversion proliferates under repressed societies and becomes less frequent with more permissive ones) his book AMOR (which was ROMA spelled backwards!) mentions the Temple of Apollo as a great spot to pick up women. Apparently, the uptight Augustus was unamused: it's commonly believed Augustus Caesar ordered Ovid whacked. Of course, Ovid had the last laugh: his METAMORPHOSES is one of the most influential and widely read work in Western history, whereas Augustus Caesar is worm food. Presumably the devils in hell are right now ass-raping Augustus, and he's probably enjoying every moment of it.
Ovid's METAMORPHOSES is almost like a Mad-Magazine parody of Greek myth. When familiar figures in Greek myth appear, they are often bumbling, ineffective and entirely mortal. The only story featuring the Superman of Greek myth, Achilles, is one about the one time he proved himself impotent against the warrior Cygnus. In one humorous scene, after the battle with Cygnus, Achilles kills a guy just to see if he can still do it. Likewise, Apollo, god of reason and superhottie supreme, is shown as being irrational: crazy in love with Syrinx, a nymph that rejected him and turned into a tree to escape him. The only story with Hercules is one of his death. Nestor, the wise councilor of the heroes in the war against Troy, is shown in METAMORPHOSES as a senile Abe Simpson type that tells stories that go on weird, ranting tangents.
Ovid's stories are full of magnificent imagery, funny characters and imagery: the idea of dolphins swimming through forests after Zeus floods the world, for instance. METAMORPHOSES remains one of the only two books in college I didn't sell back to the bookstore after the course was over.