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Greek Myths and the Uses of Myths

Author(s): F. Carter Philips

Source: The Classical Journal, Vol. 74, No. 2 (Dec., 1978 - Jan., 1979), pp. 155-166
Published by: The Classical Association of the Middle West and South, Inc. (CAMWS)
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Greek or classical mythology is extremely popular at the moment, and

indeed it has never been unpopular. But, in these troubled times when the study
of languages is in a state of decline, many teachers are now turning to it at least
partly as a means of recruiting enough students to sustain their positions, a by
no means monstrum horrendum when one considers the values inherent in the
subject. Unfortunately, however, almost every Latin teacher at the secondary
level who can obtain copies of Edith Hamilton's text then feels ready to offer a
course in mythology; and teachers at the undergraduate level are not necessarily
more knowledgeable, even though they are likely to use slightly more sophisti-
cated texts.
At the same time, classical mythology is a subject that can be approached in
any number of different ways, almost all of them interesting and potentially
legitimate; and teachers without formal preparation can indeed offer worth-
while courses from a variety of approaches, whether in elementary or secon-
dary schools or at a higher level. Nevertheless, those of us who teach mythol-
ogy need to strengthen our theoretical foundations and be careful to teach the
subject as best we can, no matter what our approach, in the light of the
knowledge now available. Too many mythology courses are now being taught
with little advance over the knowledge of Bulfinch-an approach which is
rather like trying to teach chemistry from a text written before the Curies
discovered radium. Even our slow learners deserve better than that.
The study of the Greek myths is important, a significant part of the patrimony
that education should provide a student. These myths provide the single most
important key for unlocking the rich treasures of the European tradition and its
descendants; although poets and artists have occasionally created their own
private symbols, they have again and again found that the classical world alone
provides the vitality and universality that their works demand. Myths in
general, whether the Greek ones or those of other cultures, can offer an
introduction to a significant mode of human thinking that is deeply embedded
within the minds of us all. When other means of tackling man's deepest
questions fail, myths proper can again provide answers to those mighty ques-
tions about the nature of man and of the universe and about the role of man
within that universe. Scientists and social scientists try to approach such
questions rationally; but one suspects that rationality can account for only a part

'Earlier versions of this paper were delivered in October 1976 to the Tennessee Foreign
Language Teaching Association and in March 1977 to the Mid-South Conference of Independent
Schools. I am grateful for the criticism of persons at both meetings and indebted to my colleagues at
Vanderbilt University for their penetrating reading and discussion.


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of the answer,2 and in any case such explanatio

to further verification and unable to provide co
answers to the questions. Plato, the greatest
necessary to create myths when rational langu
mythical modes of expression do so only by r
concept of the nature of man and the universe
traditional literature offers a rich store of enter
variety of man's needs. A student studying the
valuable key toward understanding the many f
single course can open all the doors that are ac
enough to have pointed the way.
Greek mythology is a subject fraught with prob
is that no one has yet satisfactorily defined my
printed definitions. (Mythology is thus both an e
not to believe all that they read and a nightmare
teach something that cannot be defined.) In h
Book The Nature of Greek Myths (Harmondswo
that we might approach the problem from pop
know, generally speaking, a myth when we see
although he is certainly aware of its limita
handicap that the lack of a definitive descript
students carefully to regard any printed defin
indulge myself in a popular use of the word). W
the Greek myths are in any case different from
by anthropologists and others in many societie
both myths proper (a useful term for singling
stories that usually comprise the mythologies of
and various other types of folk literature and pa
for us at a level of culture which is higher th
societies. Too often we see texts giving defini
cosmological and divine myths before expendin
paraphrasing stories from other types of folk
myths proper at all.
Kirk ultimately concludes (p. 27) that the only s
"traditional tale," a suggestion based upon soun
to provide enough help in a field where content i
helpful approach may be to do as H. J. Ros
satisfactory (or at least not unsatisfactory) defi
and miirchen, the three major types of tradit
2". . . it is a property of your rationalist," said H. J. Ros
below), "that he is unable to understand any type of min
3See Ch. 1, "Problems of Definition," as well as the three
devastating comment on the state of affairs is worth repea
unfair to say that the nature of myths is still, in spite of the
confused topic. The state of Greek myths, in particular, is o
and the general literary public have been content to let most
their heads, concentrating meanwhile either on new contr
sometimes with pictures, or on specialized research into
4Pp. 12-14 of A Handbook of Greek Mythology, 6th e

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define myths proper as "the result of the working of n

facts of experience" or saga as "legends which deal w
miirchen as (I paraphrase) a simple story aiming at am
the cause of nothing, recording no historical or semi
necessarily fitting the hearers' notions of probability
guidelines about the types of stories that will be fo
Greek mythology. Imprecise guidelines they may be,
rough direction that the path will take. If not asked
Procrustes, they may be helpful.
A second problem for Greek mythology stems from t
branch of folk literature and thus belong to the traditio
society and not to literary inventions that spring fro
Folk literature is oral, it belongs outside the inflexib
word, and its stories act in a manner reminiscent of
never exactly the same twice, and their details and em
in subtle ways across the years as they move fro
geographical and political boundaries. This is not the
nature of folk literature, but we need to be reminded that
of "literature" that is completely different from li
conceive it, because it exists apart from the frozen
This fact being true, we are shocked into a reminde
possess any myths (or any other type of folk literature
at all; what we have are various uses of the myths with
that fact that helps to make the Greek myths so diff
myths and, indeed, so superior in some ways to the
distinguish between the myths themselves that once e
doubt) and their uses by various authors from Hom
Sophocles' Oedipus Rex is not a myth-it is a tragedy
difference, however subtle it may seem, is crucial to
As classicists, our deepest interests lie in the literary
popular myths and folk tales (which can in any case p
known), but we must not lose sight of the fact that th
other. If we do, we may lose completely the point th
trying to make.
As I have worked with the Greek myths I have tried
stages that are involved in the history of the myths a
following tentative outline with a realization that it is b
on the subject. The first stage that we must mention
when the Greek myths were genuinely alive as p
tradition. This period was clearly, as Kirk has shown
Homer and Hesiod and may have been over for some
ledge remains inadequate, it seems safe enough to su
belong to the Bronze Age; but further investigation m
even older than that. Much of the heroic material clea

5In what follows I shall, largely to avoid cumbersomeness, confin

What I have to say about literature is generally applicable to ar

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Age, although its motifs and themes may be f

case, by the time we can see any Greek myths,
oral uses. If classicists were to use the wor
thropologists studying most cultures, we would
other stages that I mention really belong to a
although we will no doubt continue to use th
which results will be less if we remember tha
differing ways.
The second stage (the first that we can see) is
themselves self-consciously used their myths f
literature; and it is this subject that we norma
though the term would properly apply to the
other peoples. From Homer and Hesiod, throu
great period of Attic drama, and on into the H
again and again proved their vitality to inspire
and literary circumstances and needs. What is
this subject is that we confuse myth and litera
neither. Too many textbooks turn out to be
glorious Greek literature (in the deadly manne
that keep students from confronting, say, t
snippets of various authors pasted together to
never existed for the Greeks. Occasional text
passages, but they generally forget to make e
myths should not normally be confused with
use texts that work from Greek literary uses of
both excellent and indispensable), we need to
time that the Electra of Greek myth is not t
Sophocles or of Euripides. We also need to re
cannot be independently documented may well
in question and thus not really be a part of th
The third stage which I distinguish is that
myths, a study of considerable interest, althoug
minds as if there were no difference from th
identical. But Ovid is not Greek, nor is Vergil
and versions of the Greek myths speak to Ital
ought not be buried within Greek uses, and La
Italian traditions also deserve more careful an
usually receive. It is a shame that so many
themselves unable to sort out the Greeks and Ro
a problem to which we shall return.
The last stage that I will distinguish is that of
earlier mythical material; and it is quite clear
(which could be divided into any number o
distinction between myth and literature, betw
Ovid often seems to serve as the only source o
we are heirs to this last stage that we have fa
different ones on which it is founded. And this
late antiquity through the Middle Ages and Ren

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century should not be scorned in importance. The p

myths are significant for the development of western
names continue to show a vitality characteristic of no
folk literature. Indeed, twentieth-century authors ha
give the characters a life that they had not had for cent
no signs of dying, and wherever we look along its len
of interest.
A third problem that complicates understanding our s
myth can in effect become so for the tradition. Homer
literature, in spite of the oral tradition to which he
sophisticated poet whose poems are a remarkably co
and novelty. Moreover, neither the Iliad nor the Ody
both contain numerous passing references to myths and
serve as a mine of mythical information. But textb
expend many pages retelling the plots of the two epi
simply giving paraphrases of great literature, even th
belong to traditional literature. However, all later G
acted toward Homer as if his poems were myths, so
call, for want of a better phrase, pseudo-mythical sou
folk literature in the technical sense, but it has func
civilization as if it were; and hence we are justified, if w
we are doing, in keeping Homer within the sphere of
Agamemnon outside the largely literary tradition, bu
Aeschylus says about him is wholly fabricated by th
mythical material. If we would look at real folk heroe
such thick overlays of literature that the character of
hidden, we should look at such figures as Heracle
Jason, or Meleager-although we must still be car

The question of sources is especially perplexing. Before we lo

examples of what individual poets can do to the folk tradition
some general observations. We have long assumed that earli
more likely to be free of literary overlay than later ones; and we n
the vast bulk of Greek mythology belongs to the Bronze Age
period from which we do not have and are not likely to receive lite
The usual approach to the problem has been that of H.J. Rose:

It may, however, be mentioned that our sources in Greek ar

poets, of all dates from Homer and Hesiod down; and of thes
those up to and including the great Attic dramatists of the f
B.C. Next in importance to these are the Alexandrian po
Kallimachos, from the fourth century onwards, who often gi
information not to be had elsewhere, but who must be used w
as they often of set purpose confine themselves to very out

"H. J. Rose uses the term pseudo-mythology somewhat differently, to refer to Ita
tions of Greek myths and to native Italian traditions.

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stories, not forming part of what may be cal

Greece; moreover, they not infrequently re-
new ones, to suit their own purposes, a
mythologist's point of view, of which the o
Next come the earlier historical writers, such
nately are known to us only in fragments
great deal is due to the mythological handbook
the learning of the Alexandrian critics, alth
Of these, one of the best is the so-called Apo
century A.D.?) contains much good old m
reckoned the scholiasts . . . . As regards the
poets draw upon the Alexandrians, and may f
late Greek authors. Here again, notably in th
own fancy is the source of not a little.7

Before discussing the problems with Rose's

respects to this exceedingly wise scholar who of
even though he did not yet always know how t
about the Alexandrians and Ovid remains prec
needs to be applied to the older poets as well."
But our approach to the ancient sources ne
probably begin-in spite of the difficulties-with
can be trusted not to invent, the scholiasts to v
handbooks (especially Apollodorus, although H
study remains to be undertaken, but Apollodor
respect than it has often been given and seems,
to use early and reliable sources. It is, moreove
ancient handbook and in many ways is superior
scholiasts, too, as inaccessible as they usually ar
The second rank among sources should generally be the pre-classical Greek
poets, although they (especially Stesichorus) can sometimes be seen creating
new material that does not belong to the folk tradition. But outside his main
plots Homer offers a wealth of traditional material (by no means always in the
complete form in which he knew it) that does not seem to be invention. Hesiod
does invent from time to time but remains a good source for much material, and
Pindar is another storehouse of myth. I am currently working on Archaic
knowledge of the Greek myths, and we may eventually be in a position to know
what the Archaic poets invent for the later tradition and what they transmit from
the genuine folk traditions. We must always remember that arguments ex
silentio are for once inapplicable. Homer, for example, did not know that later
generations would want him to have written a complete handbook of the myths

70p. cit (supra, no. 4) 15-16.

81 should mention that Rose's Modern Methods in Classical Mythology (St. Andrews 1930)
remains a brilliant exposition of problems and can still be consulted with great profit. His
discussions of the relation of the Greek myths to religion, history, and folklore is an excellent
example of his wisdom in such matters.

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that he knew; and we may, I think, assume that he kne

Meleager, to pick a single example, and simply chose to ig
of that hero's death. Nor should we expect any informati
poems about the wrath of Achilles during the Trojan War or
Odysseus to Ithaca. Nestor was the single Homeric ch
Heracles was living, and Homer gives us a great deal mo
that hero than we have any right to expect.
The third rank for ancient sources should probably be v
of different ages who can generally be relied upon to h
traditions as they had received them-such authors as He
Siculus, Strabo, and Pausanias. Although we might wish t
mation to be arranged in a more systematic form, we can
have preserved for us.
Most other ancient poets and authors are likely to be ill
sources for the traditional Greek myths, and we should
that any information preserved by them alone may have be
for a particular literary purpose and is thus not to be cou
tradition. But any of these writers can, of course, seize th
generations and thus become the pseudo-mythical source
tradition. It is Sophocles' magnificent Oedipus, not the po
fountainhead of all later tradition; and Ovid provided us
characters whose popular versions were of little import
should by no means be removed from the study of the w
they should be put firmly into their proper places in th
should not be used without corroboration elsewhere for t
It was Sophocles, after all, and not "the Greeks" wh
Oedipus out of rather meager material; and he deserves
Let us turn now to examples of the uses of the Greek m
Roman times, beginning with Oedipus, perhaps the best
treatment that is radically different from the myth and of
version that becomes the pseudo-myth for all later tradition
place to state that the term pseudo-myth should not be t
indicates only that whereas the later tradition treats such a
not from the technical standpoint a myth at all.
We know little of the story of Oedipus before Sophocle
three Theban plays, although we can see a few traces to sh
were quite different from those that Sophocles evident
important role that Oedipus and Antigone and the other fig
played in later tradition stems almost exclusively from
genuine myth was a relatively unimportant one to the G
enough known; and what Sophocles created has function
technically, what I am calling pseudo-myth, since it doe
literature at all-for all its many uses since the fifth cen
Sophocles, Oedipus would have remained an interestin
known largely from handbook accounts and numerous o
often useless) references.
Before Sophocles' use of Oedipus, the only significant
of the hero are in Homer, although there are enough refe

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01.2.35-42) to show that his was a familiar nam

refer to a war at Thebes that destroys many her
Oedipus," but Homer discusses Oedipus in just
that he did not know such important later de
immediate self-imposed exile, and the death
probably Sophoclean or Attic inventions, as m
Polyneices and the death of her fiance Haemo
Jocasta and Oedipus may be fifth-century inve
been Oedipus' children by Euryganeia (Paus.
Odyssey 11.271-280, Odysseus sees Epicaste (a n
that they may well be mere variants) and, as h

"I saw the mother of Oedipodes, fair Epicast

deed in ignorance of mind, in that she wedde
he had slain his own father, wedded her, an
these things known among men. Howbeit h
means in lovely Thebe, suffering woes through
gods, but she went down to the house of H
made fast a noose on high from a lofty beam,
but for him she left behind woes full many, e
mother bring to pass." (trans. A.T. Murra

The oblique reference in Iliad 23.676-680 is sho

So spake he, and they all became hushed in s

to face him, a godlike man, son of king Meci
time had come to Thebes for the burial of O
and there had worsted all the sons of Cadm

Pausanias' comment on these passages (cited su

When Laius was king and married to loc

Delphi that, if locasta bore a child, Laius wou
hands. Whereupon Oedipus was exposed, who
to kill his father; he also married his mother. B
children by her; my witness is Homer, who
here quotes 11.271 ff.]. How could they h
with," if Epicaste had borne four children to
these children was Euryganeia, daughter of H
of this are the words of the author of the p
moreover, Onasias painted a picture at Platae
grief because of the fight between her child
Jones, Loeb Classical Library.)
Much of the story of Oedipus is clearly a part
the oracle given to Laius, the exposure and su
and the patricide, as well as the riddle of t
marriage; but a number of striking incidents are
pseudo-mythical in a way that the earlier detai

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quickly seized upon these details (as in Euripid

followed the Sophoclean tradition. A more deta
belongs to literary criticism rather than to mytho
tigone and Oedipus).
Another splendid example of myths and their uses
Iliad and the Odyssey Homer places her firmly at Troy
is no reason to assume that the ancient folk tradition
creation steps in with the sixth-century poet Stesi
following the standard account but speaking dispara
ness to abandon her husband. Having thereafter bee
second poem denying that Helen was ever at Troy
Homer. He regained his sight, and literary history g
(that did not ever completely oust the Homeric acc
tion had Helen taken from Paris when they reached
in the safekeeping of the Egyptians until Menelaus c
of the war. Helen, if it was she who was responsib
evidently failed to notice that her virtue remained
Stesichorus' new version, since she had still volunt
for Paris, even though she was no longer the latte
It is Euripides who again alters the literary histo
purifies her reputation completely in his romantic
never leaves Sparta with Paris and is never unfaithfu
Helen a motif that was ancient though not previou
transported to Egypt by Hermes, while Paris retur
phantom-the poet can preserve her complete marita
reaches Egypt after the war, the phantom vanishe
tender reunion of husband and wife after long sepa
Herodotus, we may note in leaving Helen, did n
Stesichorus' invention and tried to consider the two
to ascertain the "true" one (2.113-116). He made th
with the encouragement of the Egyptian priests who f
deciding that the Egyptian version was the histori
Homer had intentionally ignored it because of its un
The Romans, of course, continued to use the Greek
had done; and I will end my discussion of literary uses
caution about Ovid. His narrative brilliance has give
over his posterity, and the difficulties of tracking
versions have helped us to forget that he is not a go
repeating that Ovid should never be used as the source
independent, Greek confirmation.9 Ovid is normally
standard accounts of Arachne, although there is som

9So beguiling is Ovid that Rose could not resist retelling in either o
story of Baucis and Philemon, a folk tale that Ovid evidently m
8.618-724. There is no reason why the Greeks could not have know
no evidence that they did.

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reversed the traditional version in which Athe

proper for a deity in competition with a morta
a reversal that completely changes the nature o
know no Greek versions of the tale, the G
suggests that it is a Greek myth. But by consid
one, we fail to see what he was trying to do t
One other Ovidian tale will suffice, that
11.410-795), a story no longer well known but
importance to Ovid is certain. In the Greek
transformations into birds were a punishment f
bliss they considered themselves the happiest
Hera and Zeus, by whose names they addressed
Niobe, the impiety was crucial to the tale. Ov
tale into one of his very few that reveal a beaut
case by an accidental and violent storm that dr
are used not as any punishment but a miraculous
and wife in spite of everything in order to conf
their love. There is no impiety at all, nor any hat
or Juno (who actually tries to help Alcyone). By
traditional version that Ovid reworked we lose
We would do well, if we would appreciate Ovid, t
that he knew. By so doing, we might liberate
shackles that later tradition can impose.
What does all this mean for our understandin
ogy? It does not mean that we should cease to st
various approaches that we now use. It does m
much as we can about the subject, try to be p
aspects, and attempt to keep abreast of new de
that our body of myths, no matter what its pr
from the myths of any people who can be stud
us who try to approach myths as embodiments i
wisdom known to that culture must remember that we cannot see that
mythopoeic stage for the Greeks except dimly and that comparative studies will
be of limited, though sometimes great, value.
I am well aware that most of us who teach mythology (and most texts as well)
focus on the Greek myths as used during my second and third periods, those of
the Greeks and Romans; and what I have written throughout this essay some-
times seems disparaging of such a liaison. I do not intend for that to be the case:
I would ask only that the two parts of the tradition be approached with attention
to the nature of each. In a complete study one should consider (not necessarily
in this order) what the primitive nature of a given myth was (with a note if that
cannot be recovered) and the significant Greek and Latin uses of it, with
attention to notable alterations and additions. One could then go on to study the
post-classical life of the myth. If one were to emphasize post-classical uses of
the myths, it would be necessary to refer only to whatever myth or pseudo-myth
functioned as the poet's source. A study of Bernini's use of Daphne, for
example, need refer only to the pseudo-myth in Ovid, whereas a study of the

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classical myth would need to consider the nature of

Greeks as well as Ovid's adaptation of it.
The chief role of our subject in academic curricula
focusing upon my second, third, and fourth stag
tradition where boundaries are both artificial and h
generally are. The magnitude of the material means tha
teacher must be highly selective and concentrate upon
and the possibilities are enormous-only Greek uses,
uses (the common approach, even though methodolo
post-classical uses (where again, one would have to b
amount of time). Most of us try to touch upon sever
varying intrinsic interests and as a means of demonstr
Greek myths. A course entitled "Greek mythology"
considering later Roman or other uses, although th
Greek (Rose's Handbook has a sane approach to the di
difficulties that I mentioned earlier), and a course i
would seem deficient without some references to mat
It might be helpful, although the old term mytholo
to be applied to both, if we could try to distinguish b
the various other types of folk literature that the anci
to us. We need not be insistent, but students will b
cosmogonical myths existed on a level of seriousnes
marchen or even from that of heroic stories. And t
theogonic myths were of ever-lessening importance t
the eighth century B.C. on, as philosophers and their
satisfactory explanations for the nature of the universe
the Bronze Age. It would be useful again if we were
the relation between myth and religion is complicate
think that the two are synonymous for the Greeks
the same problem), but the myths in actuality only
religious practices and beliefs of the classical period
been developed to explain the complex religious evo
The stories of the many illegitimate affairs of Zeus
them) have little or nothing to do with the worship
Comparative mythology is going to continue to po
cists, since the primary mythopoeic stage is one that
but it ought to remain an important part of college-l
few reasonably good texts now exist for the seco

10See R. J. Schork, "Basic Mythology Courses: Two Suggestio

for some sensible suggestions for organizing a course thematica
"This is not the place to develop the topic further. The best acco
standpoint of religion rather than mythology, of the meaning of the
that of W.K.C. Guthrie in The Greeks and Their Gods (Boston 195
"The Divine Family." Rose's Modern Methods in Classical M

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Peradotto suggests,12 to correct our cultural bi

have to remember that such studies are aimed
period for the Greeks and that our later sources m
frustrating to have so little genuine Greek mat
but such an approach still contains many rewa
All the texts now in existence need at least some
burial; but I doubt that one need despair if
Hamilton, although I suspect that learning m
easier with a sound text. The teacher can prov
changes of emphasis as needed, and mistakes no
wait quietly until later. I shudder to consider th
mythology, although the students were genera
The quality has improved dramatically in severa
decade of teaching may again make my current
ly, Greek mythology, with its many classical
tions, has always been a fascinating field; and ex
different fronts should continue to make it so fo

Vanderbilt University

12P. 17 in John Peradotto, Classical Mythology: An Annotated Bibliographical Survey (Urba

Ill. 1973), an inexpensive booklet that no student of the subject can dispense with. His contrib
tions to the study of classical mythology ought not be undervalued.

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