Ancient Greek civilization provided the foundations of Western culture. Philosophically, artistically, scientifically and politically, the Greeks reached an astonishing level of sophistication. The deepest expression of Greek ideology, however, lay in a mythology so rich that its legacy has endured to the present day.
Some of the myths date back to the Aegean civilization, whose bull-cult flourished in Crete before 1600 BCE. This society was matriarchal and worshipped above all the Great Goddess or Earth Mother.
Later myths show a conflict between matriarchal and patriarchal allegiances.
There was a strong oral tradition in Greece, as in most other cultures. However, the particular richness and complexity of Greek mythological owes much to the fact that the stories were fashioned into literature from early times.
One of the first authors was Hesiod, who wrote his Theogony in the eighth century BCE. This was a long poem in which he attempted to collect together all the myths that had been handed down orally and organize them into a comprehensive genealogy.
The genius of Homer
Homer’s two great epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey are thought to have been composed towards the end of the eighth century BCE. The Iliad chiefly recounts events that took place during the Trojan War, concentrating on key heroic figures such as Achilles, Agamemnon and Hector, while the Odyssey relates the adventures of Odysseus on his return journey from Troy. Although he used historical material, Homer’s purpose was not so much to record past events as to give an exciting account of heroic action.
More often than not, the subject of Greek myths is heroic. The role of the hero is mapped out in such recurring themes as the separation from the mother, the overcoming of obstacles, and the finding and supplanting of the father. The great heroes whose lives conform to this pattern include Perseus, Theseus, Jason and Oedipus.
Of these, Perseus can be seen as the most faultless of the Greek heroes. He achieves his quest early on in his career through a combination of the aid of the gods and his own prowess. Then, after winning his bride Andromeda, he nobly gives away his kingdom and rules elsewhere. After this he kills his grandfather by accident and through a trial of skill. In this he fulfils the oracle, but incurs no penalty.
The gods were differentiated from the heroes not so much by their strength as by their supernatural power. They demanded worship from heroes and men alike and, in return, were able to perform miracles, offer supernatural protection, or give magical gifts - as in the story of Perseus.
The Olympian pantheon of gods was the most well-known, each deity possessing a distinctive character. Twelve of them famously lived on Mount Olympus.
In addition to these twelve Olympian deities were Hades, who ruled the Underground realm with his queen, Persephone, and also the dark goddess Hecate, who lived with them. Hestia, goddess of the Hearth, was replaced by Dionysus in the fifth century BCE.
In the story which follows, ‘The Judgement of Paris’, we see how the gods could play with the lives of men.
This famous and intriguing story which is claimed to be the cause of the great Trojan War is found in Apollodorus and is also mentioned by Pausanias.
When the dark beauty, Hecuba, the wife of King Priam, was pregnant, she had a terrifying dream. She dreamed she gave birth to a firebrand and awoke screaming that the city of Troy was burning to the ground. Alarmed by this, her husband consulted his son, the seer Aisacros, who told him the baby would one day cause the destruction of his country. Accordingly Priam ordered that the child should be put to death. So, after the boy was born, he was given to the chief herdsman, Agelaus, to be killed. Agelaus left the child on Mount Ida to die from exposure but, returning five days later, found the boy still alive and took him home, where he brought him up secretly. As a young man, Paris became noted for his extreme beauty, wit and prowess.
At about this time the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the hero and the sea-goddess, was celebrated on Mount Pelion. All the gods and goddesses were invited, with the noted exception of Eris, the Goddess of Strife, who was hideous and disagreeable. Angered at being left out of the nuptuals she strode into the middle of the wedding feast and threw a golden apple into the assembled company. It landed between the three most powerful goddesses, Hera, Athene and Aphrodite. Picking it up, Zeus found it was inscribed ‘For the Fairest’. Wisely deciding not to judge between the three deities himself, Zeus nominated the beautiful Paris as arbiter, but first he sent Hermes to enquire whether he would be willing to act as judge. Paris agreed and so a time was set for the three goddesses to appear to him on Mount Ida.
When the day came, Paris sat himself on a boulder and waited with beating heart for the arrival of the three great deities. All at once a great light appeared which covered the entire mountain. At first Paris was blinded, but then the goddesses cloaked their light in cloud so that he was able to look at them. First Hera, the great queen, approached him and flaunted her beauty in front of him. Radiant with glory she made him a promise. If he awarded her the apple, she would grant him wealth and power. He would rule over the greatest kingdom on earth. Paris felt the excitement of this and his ambition rose up and yearned for her gift.
After that, grey-eyed Athene approached him, drawing near and bending down, so that he might look into the magical depths of her eyes. She promised him victory in all battles, together with glory and wisdom - the three most precious gifts a man could have. This time Paris felt his mind leap with excitement and with desire for the riches of knowledge and the glory of prowess.
Then it was the turn of Aphrodite. Hanging back a little, she tilted her head so that her hair fell forward, concealing a blush on her face. Then she loosened the girdle of her robe and beneath it, Paris caught sight of her perfectly formed breast, white as alabaster.
‘Paris,’ she said, and her voice seemed to sing inside his head. ‘Give me the apple and in return I will give you the gift of love. You will possess the most beautiful woman in the land, a woman equal to me in perfection of form. With her you will experience the greatest delights of love-making. Choose me, Paris, and she will be yours.’
Then Paris, overpowered by the intoxication of her words and her beauty, found himself handing her the apple without even pausing to reflect on his decision, guided only by the strength of his desire.
So it was that Paris awarded the Apple of Discord to Aphrodite, and Hera and Athene became his implacable enemies. True to her promise, Aphrodite gave him Helen, the most beautiful woman living on the earth at that time - but, in order to enjoy her, he had to snatch her from her powerful husband, Menelaus. So began the terrible ten-years’ war between the Trojans and the Greeks in which many a brave hero lost his life, including Paris himself, and after which the great hero Odysseus wandered the seas for a further ten long years before returning home.
This brief episode, which is to have such far-reaching consequences, begins on a suitably ominous note. Hecuba’s dream is reminiscent of other prophetic dreams and portents. As is usually the case, those involved take drastic steps to prevent the awful prophecy coming true. This is the case with the Celtic Deirdre, whose beauty causes similar strife, and Oedipus (see Chapter 4), who is exposed as an infant in a similar way to Paris. Like Oedipus, and other heroes, Paris grows up unaware of his true parentage. Ironically he is even said to have unwittingly attended his own funeral games, finally held by his real parents for their ‘long-dead’ son! As in other cases, too, the gods ensure that mortals are unable to avoid their fate.
The full extent to which humans are ruled by the gods only becomes clear when we learn that Aphrodite set up the contest, presumably knowing that she held the trump card. She did so in order to punish Tyndareus, husband of Leda, for dishonouring her. Pausanias relates that Tyndareus put fetters on Aphrodite’s statue in her temple, because he felt that her amorous powers should be confined to marriage. The outraged goddess decided to make all three of his daughters unfaithful to their husbands. The most famous daughter was Helen of Troy, although strictly speaking her father was probably Zeus, who seduced Leda in the form of a swan on a night when she also slept with her husband.
The marriage at which the fateful apple is produced is unusual, being between a mortal man and a goddess. The failure to invite Eris, Strife (echoed in the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty), represents a dishonouring comparable with Tyndareus’ treatment of Aphrodite. The implication is that even destructive deities are essential to the psyche and to society, and will make their presence felt if denied. Similarly, strife is a necessary part of marriage. Eris is associated with Ares, god of war, who in turn is amorously connected to Aphrodite.
The beauty contestThe contest which Eris initiates sets the three goddesses against each other. In myth, goddesses frequently appear in threes, representing aspects of a single deity. Thus, although Hera, Athene and Aphrodite represent quite different forces, the competition may reflect a time when they were less divided. Paris has a difficult choice. Hera, wife of Zeus, is the goddess of marriage and the home, and as such is always smarting from her husband’s sexual adventures. Athene is a virgin goddess of war and wisdom. Aphrodite is the goddess of sexual love, also associated with physical beauty in all its forms. Yet her affairs with the war god Ares, and her engineering of the Trojan War (as well as lesser conflicts), suggest the close relationship between sexual love and conflict.
The apple thrown by Eris is perhaps related to Eve’s apple, representing a Fall from unity to disunity. The contest itself resembles other mythical contests, especially that between three Celtic heroes, including Cuchulainn, over which of them is the greatest hero. Here the role played by Eris in the Greek myth is paralleled by the mischief-maker Bricriu.In another version of the story, Aphrodite cheats by revealing herself naked except for her magic girdle. Even in the version given here, it seems that the contest is unequal: Paris is overpowered and, contrary to the story’s usual title, is unable to exercise his judgement. We could see this as a metaphor for ‘falling in love’.
In an even more intriguing version, found in Euripedes and Apollodorus, Hera, angry with Paris for choosing Aphrodite, creates a phantom Helen, whom he weds, while the real Helen is spirited away to Egypt by Hermes on the orders of Zeus. This implies that Paris does not relate to the real woman, but to a phantasm of his own imagination. In Jungian terms she is the projection of his own anima.
Adapted from Teach Yourself Greek Myths