Below is the abridged transcript of a talk presented to youngsters on the Oxford University Summer Academic Program (July 2008) for those who might be interested. (James Head – aka O’Dell.)

‘The Importance of Myths in Ancient Greece- and to Modern Day Followers of the Greek Hellenistic Religion’.


[Brief from organizers: ….. My aim with this course was to elevate myths beyond the status of static, immutable, ancient morality tales, and to encourage discussion about mythology's place in both the ancient and modern worlds. To that end I was hoping to invite you, as a modern Hellene, to give a guest talk to the students, as I think it would be incredibly valuable for them to hear about how one approaches worshipping the ancient gods from a 21st century perspective.]

Part A – My personal involvement in Hellenism – Introduction.

Part B – Modern Hellenism today - Summary.

Parts A and B available on request.


Part C – Follows below ..........

‘I thought it would be useful to give you this little bit of background about modern Hellenism before now discussing our main subject today: “myths”, in more detail……

We must remember that when the ancients heard the myths, they were stories that related to their own ancestors and to the Gods they worshipped. They were not stories of ancient fictional heroes or Gods of a dead religion.

These ancestral myths would perhaps relate to a particular city state or territory – perhaps justifying why the land belonged to a certain group of people. Myths could help form part of the “history” of that particular group of people and therefore help bind them together as a community of people – e.g. city state, religious community – or even a nation. For example, Sparta justified having two kings by the myth of Heracles – seen as a literal truth. For Athens, Ion (a son of Apollo and a mortal queen) was literally a founding father of the Athenian people. In the Ancient Agora of Athens there was a temple to Apollo Phratrios – (Apollo the Father) – and Ion was an important “phratrias” family of Athens. The Macedonians used myths in their everyday life – in diplomacy and in legal cases. Myth could be used therefore almost as a constitution – as well of course as a basis of religious practice. Myths were used for a variety of purposes in everyday life and were not just nice stories that grandfathers told their grandchildren sitting on their knees around the fire – although no doubt they were used for that as well.

Of course, in ancient times, like today, myths were also stories which helped to explain symbolic truths to the people and helped to make sense of the world they lived in. There were, for example, creation myths – myths of Hades and Elysia – a rough equivalent of the ancient Greek heaven and hell.

These days, as you would expect myths are not seen in quite the same way as ancient times. They are far more seen as moral and symbolic truths rather than laws or actual facts of history. However, in a similar way as Shakespeare is still regarded as relevant in modern times since he dealt with timeless and “classic” themes such as justice; hate; revenge; love; so are Greek Myths relevant to modern day followers of the Gods and indeed a wider public of readers. Incidentally, I am always amused by a Greek lady friend of mine who produces various theatrical performances who regards Shakespeare as a “modern” writer – something we tend not to do in the UK or USA.

Many myths are less well known these days than in ancient times, and people inside and outside Greece are not so familiar with them. However, many Greeks still have a reasonable knowledge of their traditional myths. The point I am making is that while Homer may still be studied in schools; it is no longer the “main” school textbook as in ancient times. To modern day followers of the Gods, myths can help to explain aspects of our religious practice and still help bind us together as a community of followers although most myths are not seen as literal truths.

However, if we take a myth such as Homer’s Troy, until just 60 years ago Troy was a “mythical” town, but now archaeologists know that it was a reality. Perhaps the storey of Homer’s Troy was based on truth and then simply embellished? I guess this is what happens to many old stories from around the world not just Greece; they become embellished to the point of making them mythical. We should be careful of the word “myth” though, since an interesting definition I once heard was that: ‘Myth is what people of one faith call other people’s religion’. I think it is accepted that the traditional orthodox Jew might consider the storey of Jesus to be a myth, as the Christian might regard the Vedic scriptures and stories of Hindu Gods as myth, and the traditional Hindu might well look at Genesis as a myth.

When it comes to us looking for spiritual information about the Greek Gods, modern day followers are largely obliged to look to the Greek myths, theatrical plays and other writings – but we have to take into consideration the sources of these myths. It is important to remember that the stories of the Greek Gods were passed down from generation to generation orally for many centuries, some perhaps for as many as a thousand years, before anything at all was actually written down. This has led to a number of variations on certain myths, and certainly various interpretations of certain myths - some positive and others negative. Indeed, Socrates himself regarded many of the myths as blasphemous or untrue – and I quote Socrates only as a well-known historical man of the time whose opinions we actually have written down for us to agree or disagree with.

The point is, we must exercise care in interpreting the myths we have, firstly because of the oral tradition for many centuries before they were written down and therefore a proneness to variation; and secondly, because of the interpretation some people have given to the myths, often negative, as I suppose they are entitled to do. However, some people such as Socrates (and indeed me) would say such interpretations are blasphemous.

The Greek myths are therefore unfortunately, yet oddly “fortunately” in some ways, open to considerable interpretation and discussion unlike some more “closed” or “dogmatic” faiths. For example, we have two creation myths, but this is not a problem for us or a source of friction. In a similar way, some Hindus would describe themselves as polytheist and others monotheist; and oddly this is no problem to them.

As I begin to summarize this short presentation to you, I would like to tell you something which I think is very important to our understanding of the ancient Greeks and their myths. This was revealed by Socrates later on in Plato’s book Phaedo. If nothing else, I would like you to take this point away this evening. (Set the scene of Socrates in jail and close to execution for students.) When asked by one of his visitors in the Athens jail about “the afterlife” Socrates gives a three or four page answer in some detail that is quite bizarre, with boats taking us down rivers that go around the world engulfing it like snakes. It is Socrates’ final two lines of this passage that are so important and should be remembered. Having given his lengthy description of the afterlife he says:

‘Of course, one can’t expect any one with any sense or education to believe that what I have just said is exactly what happens literally (in reality). But what I have just said is more or less how it is, and we can think of it in that way.’

This is of course my whole point about many of the Greek myths and stories - were they ever intended to be believed literally, or were they ‘truths’ and ‘descriptions’ given to us in symbolic language and phrases so we could understand the ideas and difficult concepts being discussed? Furthermore, Socrates in another of Plato’s books, the Phaedrus, tells us that we humans will never know what the Gods are, or the divine actually is in detail: we do not even have the language and understanding to describe or know these things. However, we can describe more or less the situation and roughly some of the aspects of the divine, so that we can get an idea of what it is like.

I am reminded of my early teenage years in the science classroom at school. On the wall there were the traditional posters of molecules looking like colored ping pong balls on straws. Also, there were posters of atoms, with an electron orbiting a nucleus in the middle - as per the well known CERN logo. These posters are not facts – molecules and atoms look nothing like this in reality. These well known school classroom posters are myths; but they do give us an idea of what is going on. The posters are just scientific myths which help us to understand what is happening in a very simplistic way.

Without wandering off too far from today’s topic, I think Socrates’ views of myths are supported well in a science book I read recently by Dr John Gribbin, an astrophysicist from Cambridge. He says in the final chapter of his book called ‘Schrodinger’s Kittens’ which deals in some detail with the various latest theories and models of quantum physics:

‘I stress again, all such interpretations (of quantum reality) are myths; crutches to help us imagine what is going on at the quantum level and to make testable predictions. They are not, any of them, uniquely “the truth”. Rather they are all ‘real’, even when they disagree with one another.’

In a way, I just think this is a lovely idea to apply to different people’s religions and their traditional mythologies.

Finally, I am going to give you a more personal reason on why I think the Greek Myths are important today to followers of the Greek religion and a broader audience. I believe the Greek myths today could offer young and even older people like me some better role models than what is currently on offer. What role models do we have these days to look up to:

Celebrity chefs?
Footballer’s wives?
Soap opera stars?
Cat walk models?
Game show hosts and contestants ?
Unfortunate tourists - portrayed as heroes when they unfortunately get stuck
in a Tsunami whilst on holiday?

What practical, spiritual, civil guidance or inspiration do we get from my above list of proposed modern role models? If we compare these all too present figures on our TV screens to the truly courageous (albeit often flawed) figures of Greek mythology on which students – and the wider population were weaned in ancient times, is it any wonder that the ancient Greeks in many ways achieved so much.

We no longer have our Perseus, Hector, Jason or Helens. We are no longer reminded of the flaws such as hubris and greed of which we should take great care to avoid. Indeed, hubris and greed are now mostly presented as “qualities” to which young and old should aspire. I accept that the Greek Gods and myths are not to everyone’s taste – but on the matter of suggestions for modern day role models and morality tales for us to consider, I am always open to suggestion.’

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