Critical Essays A Brief Look at Mythology


Our knowledge of the mythologies related here derives from literary works chiefly — from epic and lyric poetry, from drama, histories, romances, and from other prose narratives. But it is important to distinguish between mythology, which is religious and social belief rendered in stories, and the literary form those stories take. Literature is often a late product of civilizations. It occurs when there is enough leisure to record and invent tales, and enough literacy to appreciate the records. Because it usually occurs late in a culture, mythological writing sometimes takes place as a culture is disintegrating. When doubt becomes widespread it is doubly necessary to record a people's myths — to preserve them from extinction and to form a core from which other cultures can be built. When root values are endangered people take care to preserve them in stories. Mythological literature may be seen in part as an embalming of a culture, the point where a living faith is becoming a historical curiosity. This is not always true of course (the Bible being a notable exception), but it holds often enough in the mythologies recounted here.

In Egyptian myth there is a bewildering profusion of gods and sacred names. The pyramid texts refer to several myths without telling them in their entirety. We must rely on a foreigner, Plutarch, the late Greek historian, for a complete account of the Isis and Osiris myth. This tale points to a static, worshipful culture, one founded on moral struggle, death, and an afterlife to come.

The principal Babylonian mythological works are the Epic of Creation and the Gilgamesh Epic, which reveal a rather coarsely masculine culture, sensual and proud, yet with a deep pessimism in the face of death.

Indian mythology is vast, scattered through many literary works: The Vedas, the Brahmanas, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata, the Ramayama, and Buddhist writings, to name some of them. They show a culture evolving from a primitive worship of nature and earthly power to metaphysical speculation and a realization of saintly principles.

In its literary manifestations Classical mythology covers over a thousand years of writing. It starts with Homer, who lived about 800 B.C. and remains the greatest epic poet of the West; and it ends with the Roman elegiac poet Musaeus, a minor writer who lived in the fifth century A.D.. It includes some of the world's best writing and some of its dullest. Moreover, it includes two very distinct cultures, the Greek and the Roman.

Greek mythology is colorful, individualistic, amazingly diversified, and rationalistic. It displays a culture where personal honor is paramount and in which conflict is always present. Homer is both ebullient and stark in the way he depicts war. He delights in his senses, in courage and prowess, but he also shows the horrors of death. He is casual toward the gods, admiring their might but laughing at their human antics. Opposed to him is the early poet Hesiod, fierce, pious, a bit naive, but full of powerful conviction in the gods. He dislikes Homer's irreverent attitude. However, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Hesiod's Theogony contribute much to our knowledge of Greek myths.

The Homeric Hymns, recorded from 700 B.C. to about 450 B.C., were poems in praise of various gods that told of their various exploits. Pindar, a lyrical poet of the late sixth century B.C., wrote Odes celebrating the winners of Greek festivals in which myths were referred to or explicitly told. Pindar was as pious as Hesiod, but he expurgated the brutal elements and rationalized the myths for a more sophisticated audience.

The Greek dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, used myths as material for their dramas. Aeschylus explored the problem of divine justice, Sophocles employed myth to delve into innocent suffering and retribution; and Euripides used myth to present divine injustices. Aristophanes, however, referred to myths in a casual manner. In about a century, from around 500 B.C. to 400 B.C., Greek drama reflected a devolution from high faith to profound disillusionment.

Prose writers such as the historian Herodotus and the philosopher Plato wrote on mythological material, and Plato in fact created philosophical parables in a mythical vein. But after Plato and Aristotle Athenian culture was bankrupt, and a new Greek culture arose in Alexandria in Egypt. It was softer, sadder, and somewhat effete. Apollonius of Rhodes wrote his Argonautica, the story of Jason, and the Alexandrian poets turned to love and pastoral subjects as principal themes.

Then the Romans took over, a tough, unimaginative people to whom mythology was essentially foreign. They worshiped the State and the family to whom their gods were subservient. The Romans borrowed myths from Greek civilization but had few of their own. The myths they had were usually historical legends involving political heroes. Yet they made a contribution to literature in a mythological vein, largely through the historian Livy and the poet Vergil. Other writers, too, took up mythological material. Ovid was fascinated by love' and female psychology. His Metamorphoses, Fasti, and Heroides take up mythological subjects charmingly, but without belief. Apuleius probably invented the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Musaeus wrote of Hero and Leander. This obsession with love and passion was characteristic of decadent Romans. Lucian, who wrote in the second century A.D. satirized the gods. Apollodorus wrote an encyclopedic account of the old myths to preserve them. And Pausanias took a tour of Greece, a sentimental journey in the second century A.D., to visit the sites of mythological occurrences, and wrote of his travels in Descriptions of Greece. Roman culture had exhausted itself.

The Teutonic myths of northern Europe, as they were preserved in Tacitus and the Icelandic Eddas, show a hard, warlike, gloomy culture in which one's pleasures were few but very intense. The Anglo-Saxon epic of Beowulf reveals the noble side of Teutonic ethics.

Arthurian legends were recorded in medieval romances and point to the Christianization of the old warrior code. Chivalry sublimated tribal warfare into combat for abstract principles of justice, purity, and honor. Love, often adulterous love, provided a pretext for valorous deeds in the romances. From the early Welsh tales recorded in The Mabinogeon to Malory's Morte d'Arthur in the fifteenth century, the tales of Arthur and his knights grew in richness and depth. But by the time of Malory the knightly armored cavalry was almost obsolete.

Each culture seems to create a distinct heroic type that is easily recognizable. The goals of a society determine the kind of hero it honors. Our culture is no exception, and like these extinct civilizations we tend to articulate our values when they are threatened. America's great contribution to popular mythology so far has been the cowboy. For over a hundred years the stereotype of the loner cowboy, tough, honorable, resourceful, has been reiterated in the media, just as America was becoming urban, bureaucratized, industrial. Whatever new heroic types emerge from our culture will probably be slightly outmoded, fighting barbarian forces in whatever guise they come.