The role of myth in Classical Greece was an attempt to describe, in its explorations, the nature of reality, both physical and psychological, and while myth in drama and in story-telling, by the nature of its transmission, was a form of escapism for its audience, the use of myths by the time of Plato gained a moral force at odds with any such desire to escape from life itself. In this piece I wish to explore the symbiotic relationship between muthos and logos by examining three areas where myth and reason mixed: in origins, with authority, and in theories of the afterlife.
The Origin according to Art
Martin Heidegger, in an essay titled ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, explained ‘truth’ has come down to us today from the Greek, alētheia, meaning ‘unconclealment’, he also said that ‘To be a work [of art] means to set up a world.’ What does he mean? He is saying that we know the ‘real world’ through art. Logos means word and words are the poet’s fundamental tool. In the hands of one ancient artist, Hesiod, we learn of the birth of the universe and earth herself, where the gods reside on Mount Olympus:
‘In truth, first of all came Expanse [chaos], and then
wide-bosomed Earth, seat ever safe of all
From Expanse came Darkness and black Night;
and from Night came Ether and Day
whom she conceived and bore after joining with Darkness in
(trans. Barnes, 2001, pp.3-4)
In this truncated excerpt we come across what philosophers call a first principal, the coming into being of something from chaos. Further on in the Theogony Hesiod does something interesting: he personified natural and psychological phenomena with the gods themselves, for example, Oceanus for water, or Aphrodite for love. The beginnings of cosmology held a debt to the theological myths of the gods, this ursprung of reason came not from isolation but from the varied oral culture of mythology that allowed thinking itself to develop.
If one was to accept the eminent classical scholar, W.K.C. Guthrie’s claim that with the pre-Socratics Greece was to abandon the search for alētheia by the use of myth and to continue on using only rational thought (whatever that is) then we would be left with a sterile, if not entirely correct, vision of the past. Yet the Ionian philosophers, in the guise of Thales and Anaximander, took much from Hesiod’s style and combined their ‘rational thought’ with the need to explain or describe things. What did the function of myths have to do with this? In the first place myths explain, they give an aetiology, to describe the causation of things, and it was this cosmogony that Thales appropriated when he said that all things were of water (that is: water is the origin), we know this from Aristotle who said that Thales came to this way of thinking through looking at nature and seeing the preponderance of water, using the empirical method, possibly for the first time. It is not a long shot from that to think of the Oceanus myth. Anaximander, as Thales’ pupil, continued with his own arche, moving away from his teacher by claiming that it is the ‘boundless’, or apeiron, that is first principal, not something physical but, rather, metaphysical. With these two thinkers we are presented with the beginnings of scientific thought, bringing in the empirical method, the idea of substance, and the surprisingly liberating concept of metaphysics, and yet this ‘world of proto-science still seems imbued with the language of myth’. Far from trying to ‘escape’ reality the classical Greeks, like Heidegger’s artists, were making reality.
Fantastical myth still played a strong role in myths of origin, but in particular in the origins of mankind’s achievements thanks to Prometheus (see image below). We know that this god, cousin of Zeus, created man and brought fire to man, and that he was the protector of man, usually from Zeus’ wrath, according to Hesiod. While his battles with Zeus are interesting for their own sake, there is something else of more significance that is told in Prometheus’ myth, and Ovid lets us in on it: ‘Where other animals walk on all fours and look to the ground, man was given a towering head and commanded to stand erect….’. One can easily extrapolate a nascent evolutionary theory from this myth, especially the theory that the discovery of fire allowed humans to leave the trees and to kill and eat cooked meat, enabling the brain to grow and man to become more intelligent. Here we have a perfect example of myth preceding scientific theory.
Reaffirmation of Authority in Art
In the later Roman period we learnt that myth was used by authority for control and elevation. Preceding this in classical Athens through the character of Socrates and the words of Plato we are confronted with a questioning of, not just the myths and gods, but also of the nature of knowledge itself. We know that Socrates commits suicide by hemlock after being found guilty of ‘corrupting the youth’, and that the greatest knowledge he had was that he knew nothing at all – well, actually Plato never ascribes these last words to Socrates – but in the dialectical method (also known as the Socratic method) we learn that not everyone knows why they claim to know something, an activity that was seen as very threatening to authority: powerful people cannot bear to be ridiculed, or worse, to be seen as not wise. In the Apologia Plato sets out the case against Socrates and a defence of him, in the former that he denied the gods and was only interested in ‘what is beneath the earth and in the sky’, and in the latter that he did not deny the gods, he preformed religious practices, and claimed that any advice he gave was ‘at the prompting of the divine’. His bone of contention was that he found it hard to believe the stories people tell of the gods, not the existence of said divinities, but the power of mythology was so great that even the possibility of creating new gods was akin to declaring war on the established powers.
Socrates wasn’t beyond being ridiculed himself, Aristophanes’ Clouds made fun of the charge against Socrates that he was interested in what was in the sky: for Aristophanes Socrates walked on air.
If myths had an aetiological function then nothing needed explanation more than death and the afterlife. In book 11 of the Odyssey Homer tells us about the underworld and what happens to the dead. We are presented with ‘an ill-assorted lot’ containing all people in one place (Hades) including those who are being punished: we see Sisyphus rolling his rock, and Tantalus being tantalised, all the while Hades and Persephone preside over this world, seemingly unaffectedly (seen in an Apulian krator below). There is no judgement in this version of the afterlife, Minos as ruler of the Underworld adjudicates as one would on earth, except he is acting on behalf of disembodied spirits who ‘while alive, drift aimlessly and joylessly in the gloom; the light and hope and vigour of the upper world are gone.’
It was the amoral nature of Homer’s representation of the Underworld that annoyed Plato, not that myths existed but that they were put to bad use, and ironically (considering Plato’s Apologia) corrupted the young and impressionable. While it could be argued that Homer’s amoral world-view is an attempt to ‘escape’ the world as we know it, with Plato we are at the dawn of morality, that ‘doing good’ is good for its own sake and is reward enough. Plato’s Republic is a dialogue on the ‘just’ state, on justice and ultimately on morality itself, but it is also about the way to this just state by the education of the populace. Following on from Socrates’ scepticism of the tales of the gods iterated above (though not of the gods), in the Republic we come to understand Plato’s dislike of Homer’s tales of the gods: that it shows them in a bad light, that even if it is true that the gods fought amongst themselves, it should not be common knowledge. The multiplicity of the myths and the chameleon nature of the gods (think of Zeus changing into an eagle to abduct Ganymede) did not fit with the stability that Plato wished for: his ‘theory of the forms’ was not just a metaphysical concept it was a contrast to the attempts by the artists to represent reality through their copies of nature. Only the Ideal, through philosophy, represented truth, the non-philosopher sees the real as though they had spent all of their time in a cave and were suddenly dragged out to face nature but were blinded by the sun (the sun represented the absolute Form), distorting what was seen.
It wasn’t telling myths that was wrong for Plato but what was told that was wrong. A Just state needed it’s citizens to fear the consequences of being bad, but equally to expect reward for being good: the Homeric Underworld gave no such guarantees, apart from lack of passion, everyone seemed as they were above ground. As such Plato created a myth of his own, The Myth of Er, to show how a myth can be utilised for the ‘good’ of the republic. These beginnings of morality can be seen in the contrast between the use of fate in mythology and Plato’s new conception of ‘choice’: man is not helpless before the gods but are responsible for their own actions. First of all the afterlife required judgement, the just directed down one path, the unjust to take another. Hades was split into two: a heaven and a hell, tyrants, no matter their outward appearance, would be judged as tyrants and would not ‘pass through’. While there is much more to this myth than I have presented here, the moral for Plato was that each person was to ‘find the man who will give us the knowledge and the ability to tell a good life from a bad one and always choose the better course so far as we can’. I can’t help feeling, though, that Plato was a philistine, a condition that defines those who moralise too much.
Far from trying to ‘escape’ from the realities of the world, muthos and logos are inextricably linked, the first gave space to the other, and they each could not exist alone. In myths of origin we confront the need to explain what is before us, the phenomena we experience enabled us to create our own world. And this creativity of logos led to the ability to question established norms, and incorporated new dialectics that were still influenced by the old way of telling stories. And the finality of death demanded description, both old and new, yet the language of myth still pervades, even to this day.
Aristotle, The Metaphysics, 1998, Hugh Lawson-Tancred (tr), Penguin Classics
Plato, The Republic, 1987, Desmond Lee (tr), Penguin Classics
Early Greek Philosophy, 2001, Jonathan Barnes (tr), Penguin Classics
Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2004, in Feeney, D (Intro) & Raeburn, D (tr) (eds), Penguin
Morford, M P O & Lenardon, R J, 2011, Classical Mythology (International 9th edn), Oxford University Press
Grimal, P: Kershaw, S (ed.) & Maxwell-Hyslop, A (tr) (eds), 1991, The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology, London: Penguin
Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, David Farrell Krell (ed), 2004, Routledge
W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy: I The earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans, 1997, Cambridge University Press
The Cambridge Companion to Socrates, Donald R. Morrison (ed), 2011, Cambridge University Press