Sources of Greek mythology

Greek mythology is known from ancient Greek literature. In addition to written sources, there are mythical figures visualized in various media dating from the geometric period (900-800 BC) and beyond.
Among the literary sources, chronologically first, are the two epic poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Homeric Hymns, despite their name, have nothing to do with Homer. Other poets completed this epic cycle with shorter poems, but most have not survived.

Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer, records in Theogony (origin of the Gods) the most complete record of early Greek myths. The myths of Theogony, which shaped popular beliefs, narrate the creation of the world, the origin of the gods, the titans, the giants and the formation of genealogies. In the Works and Days of Hesiod, a didactic poem about rural life, also includes the myths of Prometheus, Pandora and the four seasons. The poet gives advice to survive in a dangerous world that becomes even more dangerous than the gods.

The lyric poets were often inspired by myths, but the gradual elaboration turned the works into less narrative and more suggestive. As a result, Pindar, Bacchylides, Simonides, and bucolic poets, such as Theocritus and Bion, provide individual mythological facts in their works. On the other hand, the myths were prominent in the classical Athenian drama. The three great tragic writers Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were inspired in many of their works from the mythical era of the heroes and the Trojan War. Thus many of the great mythical stories (eg Agamemnon and his children, Oedipus, Jason, Medea, etc.) took their classic form through tragic plays. Comedian Aristophanes also used myths, e.g. in Hens and Frogs.

The historians Herodotus and Diodorus of Sicily, and the geographers Pausanias and Strabo, who traveled throughout the Greek world and recorded the stories they heard, provide numerous local myths, thus preserving the lesser-known alternative editions. [7] Herodotus, in particular, researched the various traditions he heard and came to the historical or mythological roots of the controversy between Greece and the East. [9]

The literature of the Hellenistic and Roman eras contains many important details. This category includes:
The poets of the Hellenistic era Apollonius the Rhodian, Callimachus, Eratosthenes and Parthenios.
The Latin poets Ovid, Statios, Valerios Flaccus, Seneca and Virgil with comments by Servius.
The later Greek poets of the end of Antiquity, Nonnos the Panopolitan and Kointos the Smyrnaean.
The ancient novels of Apoulios, Petronius, Lollianos, Heliodorus and Achilles Tatios

Archaeological sources

The archaeological discoveries of the German amateur archaeologist Henry Schliemann (19th century) about the Mycenaean civilization, and those of the British archaeologist Arthur Evans (20th century) in Crete of the Minoan civilization), contributed to the for many details of the myths, for the gods and for the heroes. Unfortunately, the elements for the myths and ritual elements in Mycenae and Minoan Crete are entirely monumental, as Linear B was used mainly for recording catalogs. Nevertheless, the names of the gods and heroes that had already been revealed were verified.

8th century pottery depicts various mythical events. These visual representations of myths are important for two reasons: on the one hand because many myths were imprinted on pottery much earlier than in literary works, and on the other because visual representations sometimes represent myths or mythical scenes that are not recorded. in any other existing literary source. For example, of the twelve feats of Hercules, only the feast with Cerberus appears in a literary text

Epic Poetry

One of the most significant sources of Greek mythology is epic poetry, particularly the works attributed to Homer and Hesiod. Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” are monumental texts that provide rich narratives about the gods, heroes, and the Trojan War. These epics not only recount the adventures of figures like Achilles, Odysseus, and Helen but also offer insights into the Greek understanding of divine intervention, fate, and heroism. The “Iliad” focuses on the wrath of Achilles and the siege of Troy, while the “Odyssey” follows Odysseus’s perilous journey home after the war, highlighting his encounters with various mythological creatures and gods.

Hesiod’s works, particularly “Theogony” and “Works and Days,” are equally crucial. “Theogony” offers a cosmogony and genealogy of the gods, detailing the origins and relationships of the deities in a structured format. “Works and Days,” on the other hand, provides moral and practical advice, interwoven with mythological tales, including the myth of Pandora and the Ages of Man. These texts are foundational, as they set the framework for the pantheon of Greek gods and the mythological chronology.

Dramatic Literature

Greek tragedies and comedies also serve as vital sources of mythology. Playwrights like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides explored mythological themes, often reinterpreting traditional stories to address contemporary social, political, and moral issues. Aeschylus’s “Oresteia” trilogy, for example, retells the story of Agamemnon’s murder and the subsequent revenge by his children, focusing on themes of justice and the evolution of legal systems.

Sophocles’s “Oedipus Rex” and “Antigone” delve into the fate and moral dilemmas faced by the Theban royal family. Euripides’s plays, such as “Medea” and “The Bacchae,” highlight the human emotions and psychological complexities of mythological characters, offering a more nuanced portrayal of figures like Medea and Dionysus. These dramatic works not only preserve mythological narratives but also provide interpretations that reflect the concerns and values of classical Athenian society.

Historical Texts

In addition to poetic and dramatic sources, historical texts by ancient historians and geographers contain valuable mythological information. Herodotus, often called the “Father of History,” includes numerous mythological references in his “Histories,” blending historical events with legendary accounts. His work provides context for understanding how myths were perceived and integrated into the historical consciousness of the Greeks.

Pausanias, a geographer of the second century CE, authored “Description of Greece,” a detailed travelogue that describes various sites and their associated myths. His accounts are indispensable for linking mythological narratives to specific geographical locations and for understanding local variations of myths. Similarly, Apollodorus’s “Bibliotheca” is a comprehensive mythological handbook that compiles and systematizes various myths, making it a valuable resource for scholars.

Material Culture

Archaeological findings, including sculptures, pottery, and inscriptions, offer another dimension to our understanding of Greek mythology. Vase paintings and sculptures frequently depict mythological scenes, providing visual representations that complement and enhance the literary sources. For example, the François Vase, a famous Attic black-figure krater, illustrates numerous mythological episodes, including the hunt for the Calydonian Boar and the funeral games for Patroclus.

These artifacts not only corroborate the narratives found in texts but also reveal how myths were visualized and interpreted by ancient artists. Temples and sanctuaries dedicated to gods and heroes, such as the Parthenon in Athens and the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, also provide insights into the religious and cultural significance of these myths. Inscriptions found at these sites often record dedications and rituals, further illuminating the role of mythology in Greek religious practices.