Mythology

For the Greeks, myths were originally stories that had been passed down by word of mouth because they were regarded as having a particular significance, often of a religious or ritual nature. Many involved divinities and illustrated popular conceptions of their character. Others told of human adventures, and of bizarre situations in which men and women became entangled. Sometimes myths reflected real events, such as the capture of Troy, but with such changes that make it impossible to sort truth from fiction. This vast store, which had accumulated over centuries, was an essential part of Greek culture. From the first, poets mined it for plots and subject matter. The traditional mythology of Greece continued to inspire Greek poets up to the end of the ancient world and beyond.

What happened at Rome was quite different. One myth that seems to have been genuinely Roman was the tale of how the twins Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf and of how Romulus grew up to become the founder of the city named after him. There were few other myths that are unmistakably Roman, but when Rome came under the influence of Greek culture and Roman divinities were equated with those of Greece (see "Religion at Rome," page 57), the stories connected with the Greek gods were also attributed to their Roman counterparts.

If there were tales about how Zeus, the king of the Greek pantheon, had a penchant for seducing mortal women, then the same tales must be true of his Roman equivalent, Jupiter. This is illustrated in Plautus' comedy Amphitrud (produced c. 190 b.c.), which is an adaptation of a Greek play; the original names of the victim, Alkmene, and her husband, Amphitryon, are simply Latinized to Alcumena and Amphitrud, but Zeus and his accomplice> Hermes, become the Roman Iuppiter and Mercurius.

Roman authors saw themselves as standing in the Greek tradition and continuing it; the only exception was satire, a purely Roman invention. As genres of Greek poetry were taken over into Latin, with them came the whole body of Greek mythology, whether connected with divinities or not. By the end of the Augustan Age, poems both long and short had been written on tales like that of the Argonauts, and this continued into the imperial era (see Valerius Flaccus,"A Pep Talk," page 180).

Perhaps more significantly, Greek mythology came to be used as a tool to illustrate a poet's meaning. When Propertius describes his sleeping mistress, he begins by comparing her with two mythological heroines, Ariadne and Andromeda (Elegies 1.3.1-4, page 104). Statius, in describing his chronic insomnia, cannot refrain from referring to the goddess of the dawn, Aurora, as the wife of Tithonus (Tithonia) and thereby display ing his acquaintance with the myth of their union (Silvae 5.4-9, page 184); later in the same poem, he compares himself to the principal insomniac of mythology, the many-eyed Argus (5.4.iiff.).

Many forms of Latin poetry were permeated with Greek mythology, and this continued until Rome collapsed. The Vigil of Venus (page 213) employs the Greek concept of the goddess and the Greek myths about her, and the last poet represented in these selections, Claudian (page 218), wrote a lengthy account of the abduction of Proserpina by the king of the Underworld, Pluto (De raptu Proserpinae). Roman poets not only adopted the genres and forms of Greek literature—they assimilated Greek mythology as well, and they never abandoned it.

The above-mentioned story of Jason and the Argonauts is an example of a myth that never faded from popularity.

Aeson, the father of Jason, was deprived of the throne of Thessaly by his brother Pelias. On reaching manhood, Jason claimed his inheritance from his uncle, but Pelias attempted to trick Jason by sending him to recover a family possession, the Golden Fleece, from Aeetes, king of Colchis, on the east coast of the Black Sea. This necessitated a sea voyage— something never before attempted—and Jason was obliged to construct the first boat, the Argo. This he manned with the elite of available heroes, who became the Argonauts (Greek for "Argo sailors"), and set out.

Numerous obstacles presented themselves, one of the most threatening being the Clashing Rocks, opposing cliffs that operated like a modern automobile compactor but on a horizontal plane; anything caught in the narrow channel running between them was destroyed. With divine assistance, Jason reached his destination only to discover that he must perform several superhuman tasks before Aeetes would hand over the fleece. Fortunately, the king's daughter, Medea, who possessed magical powers, fell in love with Jason and lent her assistance in return for a promise of marriage.

The fleece won, the newlyweds started back toward Greece, hotly pursued by Aeetes. Medea had foreseen this possibility and, as a precaution, had kidnapped her young brother, whom she now killed; at intervals, she threw his body parts overboard. In retrieving these, the king was delayed, and so the Argo escaped.

On their return to Greece, further adventures and crimes enveloped Jason and Medea, culminating in her murder of their children and her escape from retribution in a flying chariot. Interested readers can consult works on mythology for the many details and variations not included here. <s

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