Greek Mythology is a set of diverse traditional tales told by the ancient Greeks about the exploits of gods and heroes and their relations with ordinary mortals. The ancient Greeks worshipped many gods within a culture that tolerated diversity. Cosmogony is the study of the universe. Creation mythologies explain the actual formation of the world by a variety of processes. These processes include the sacrifice of a primal being (for example, a giant or serpent); a struggle between supernatural powers; the blending or coalescing of elements, particularly water and earth; the incubation of a cosmic egg; and the uttering of a divine word.
In myths that credit primary creation to gods, such as the Greek deities Uranus (sky god) and Gaea (earth goddess), these deities often become hazy, remote figures in later mythology, and stories often recount their overthrow by their own offspring. For example, in the Greek tradition, Zeus succeeded his father Cronus and grandfather Uranus to become ruler of the gods Unlike other belief systems, Greek culture recognized no singe truth or code and produced no sacred, written text like the Bible and Qur’an.
Stories about the origins and actions of Greek divinities varied widely, depending, for example, on whether the tale appeared in a comedy, tragedy, or epic poem. Greek mythology was like a complex and rich language, in which the Greeks could express a vast range of perceptions about the world. Greek mythology has several distinguishing characteristics, in addition to multiple versions. The Greek gods resembled human beings in their form and in their emotions, and they lived in a society that resembled the human society in its levels of authority and power.
However, a crucial difference existed between gods and human beings: Humans died and gods were immortal. Heroes also played an important role in Greek mythology, and stories about them conveyed serious themes. The Greeks considered human heroes from the past closer to themselves than were the immortal gods. Most creation stories assume the eternity of matter or even of the world itself. However, these myths hold that the world in its precreation state was uninhabitable and must be organized either by the action of cosmic forces or by creator deities.
Certain images of the primal, or precreation, state of the universe are common to a number of mythological traditions. Some myths represent the primal state as a void. Others depict it as a chaos of indistinct elements. Still others present it as a primeval sea, or as a cosmic egg containing all things in embryonic form. Some creation myths reflect the environmental circumstances of a particular culture. For example, in Mesopotamia, located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a dependence on irrigation systems, and the perpetual threat of flooding were a pervasive feature of life.
Accordingly, the action and control of the waters played a major role in the mythology of Sumer, an early Mesopotamian civilization. In Sumerian mythology, the primeval sea, personified by the goddess Nammu, is the source of the gods and of the cosmos. When the gods decide to destroy their human creations, they do so by sending a flood (Ancient Middle Eastern Religions; Deluge) Many mythological accounts ascribe creation to impersonal agents rather than to individual deities.
In some African traditions, a cosmic egg hatched to release spirits called Nommo, who then set about the creation of humankind. In Egyptian mythology, both personal and impersonal creative forces came into play: four divine couples who fused to form the cosmic egg, from which the sun god was born, personified Elemental energies. In later Egyptian mythology, the sun god became identified with the figure of Ra, a deity who gave rise to a pantheon of high gods (known as the Nine Gods of Heliopolis) through self-fertilization (Egyptian Mythology).
Many mythologies include similar stories of self-fertilization by a creator deity, whose offspring then give birth to other gods, creating a pantheon based on incestuous family relationships. The most famous such line of descent occurs in Greek mythology, in which Zeus begets offspring by many goddesses and mortals. The Greek mythologies served several purposes. First, Greek myths explained the world. Second, they acted as a means of exploration. Third, they provided authority and legitimacy. Finally, they provided entertainment.
Greek myths lent structure and order to the world and explained how the current state of things had originated. Hesiod’s Theogony narrated the development of the present order of the universe by relating it to chaos, the origin of all things. A complex process of violence, struggle, and sexual attraction eventually took the regime led by Zeus taken over (Hamilton 1942, 1998: 246-298). Another poem by Hesiod, Works and Days, explained why the world is full of trouble. According to the poem the first woman, Pandora, opened a jar whose lid she had been forbidden to lift.
As a result of her disobedience all the diseases and miseries previously confined in the jar escaped into the world. Such a myth also makes a statement about the relationship between the sexes in Hesiod’s own world. Scholars assume that he composed the poem for a largely male audience that was receptive to a tale that put women at the root of all evil. One of the commonest types of explanation given in myths relates to ritual. Myths helped worshippers make sense of a religious practice by telling how the practice originated.
A prime example is sacrifice, a ritual that involved killing a domesticated animal as an offering to the gods. The ceremony culminated in the butchering, cooking, and sharing of the meat of the victim. Hesiod recounts the myth associated with this rite. According to this myth, the tricky Titan Prometheus tried to outwit Zeus by offering him a cunningly devised choice of meals. Zeus could have either an apparently unappetizing dish—an ox paunch, which had tasty meat concealed within—or a seemingly delicious one, gleaming fat on the outside, which had nothing but bones hidden beneath.
Zeus chose the second dish, and ever since human beings have kept the tastiest part of every sacrifice for themselves, leaving the gods nothing but the savor of the rising smoke. Myths also had the function of legitimation. A claim, an action, or a relationship acquired extra authority if it had a precedent in myth. Aristocratic Greek families liked to trace their ancestry back to the heroes or gods of mythology. Many songs have been written in praise of current victors in the Olympian Games by linking them with the deeds of their mythical ancestors.
Scholars can demonstrate influence on Greek mythology from the Middle East much more reliably than influence from Crete. Greek mythology owed much to cultures in Mesopotamia and Anatolia, especially in the realm of cosmogony (origin of the universe) and theogony (origin of the gods). To take one example, a clear parallel exists in an early Middle Eastern myth about the castration of Uranus by his son Cronus and the subsequent overthrow of Cronus by his son Zeus. The Middle Eastern myth tells of the god Anu who was castrated by Kumarbi, father of the gods.
The weather and storm god Teshub, in turn, displaced Anu. Scholars continue to bring to light more and more similarities between Greek and Middle Eastern mythologies . Mythology formed a central reference point in Greek society because it was interwoven with ritual and other aspects of social existence (Avery 1970: 201-203). Yet the question of how far people believed the myths is a difficult and probably unanswerable one. Some intellectuals, such as Greek writer Palaephatus, tried to interpret the myths as having figurative (nonliteral) meanings.
Writing in the 4th century BC, Palaephatus interpreted the stories of Diomedes, a king devoured by his own mares, and of Actaeon, a hunter torn apart by his own hounds, as concealing perfectly credible accounts of young men who had spent too much money on their animals and so been figuratively eaten alive by debt. Other thinkers, such as the 4th-century-BC philosopher Plato, objected to some myths on moral grounds, particularly to myths that told of crimes committed by the gods. Yet such skepticism seems hardly to have altered the imaginative power and persistence of Greek myths.
As late as the 2nd century AD, the Greek traveler and historian Pausanias described the myths and cults in the places he visited as if they constituted a still-living complex of religious discourse and behavior. Cosmogonic myths generally culminate in the creation of humankind (Rees 2001: 34-47), after which the mythic cosmos comes to resemble the world of human experience. In mythic history, the earliest era of the world is usually the closest to perfection—a Golden Age or Garden of Eden—with later phases showing the progressive degeneration of the world as it grows more distant from the original creative impulse.
The earliest humans are often thought to have been of extraordinary stature and longevity and to have been much closer to the gods than are the humans of the present day. In many traditions, the story cycles associated with demigods and heroes are an even richer source of myth than those involving the gods themselves. Such myths enable the listener to recall the time of creation when the world was in its infancy.
In summary, the patterns in Greek and Mesopotamian mythology are both cultural and universal as stated above, since all the myths of different cultures in the world have similarities.
Avery, C. 1970. ‘The New Century Handbook of Greek Mythology and Legend’. 201-203 Hamilton, E. 1942, 1998. ‘Mythology’. 246-298 Malam, J. 2000. ‘Ancient Greece: Gods and Goddesses’. 49-72 Gribbin, R. 2001. ‘Hyperspace: The Universe and its Mysteries’. 03-41 Rees, M. 2001. ‘Our Comic Habit’. 34-47 Kallen, S. 1997. ‘Exploring the Origins of the Universe’. 107-118 .