Unlearning High School Mythology

April 19, 2013

The Greek pantheon became large and complex because so many cultural influences shaped Greek history. New gods became incorporated through outside invasions, trade interactions, and the conquest of other states. The foundational strain of Greek civilization, called the Pelasgian culture by ancient Greek historians and part of the wider civilization of Old Europe by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, placed goddesses at the center of worship. Indo-European invasions introduced a patriarchal religion headed by a sky god Zeus. In time other deities were introduced through trade (e.g., Aphrodite) or conquest (e.g., Hecate). Meanwhile devotion to pre-Indo-European goddesses such as Artemis or Athena persisted.

Like nearly all polytheistic societies, the Greeks absorbed new deities by incorporating them in a common religious framework. A favored way of doing this was to marry one of the old goddesses to a new god. The goddess Hera became the wife of god Zeus and Persephone the wife of Hades. Since marriage was seen as subjugation of the goddess, where the cult of a goddess was particularly strong she remained virgin, as in the case of Artemis or Athena. Another way of creating order in the pantheon was to assign specific functions to different deities. Thus Aphrodite was not allowed to do any “work,” but must (officially) stick to her realm of romantic love. Sometimes a deity with a weaker following would become the priestess of a deity with a more robust cult, especially if these deities had similar functions. Thus the Arcadian bear goddess Callisto was said to be a priestess of Artemis. The ecstatic Dionysus was followed by the wild goddesses known as the Maenads. Other times deities with similar functions would be subsumed under the name of the deity with the more powerful cult.

Hera with Prometheus. 4th century b.c.e. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
Hera with Prometheus. 4th century b.c.e. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
When the Romans adopted the Greek religion they pursued this strategy with abandon, and nearly all of their deities had a Greek equivalent that the Romans considered identical. The Romans believed that the gods in all other pantheons were identical to their own, even pantheons from cultures they considered very different from theirs. In some cases the deities probably were the same. For example, Father Zeus, Zeus Pater, not only has an identical position and personality to the Roman god Jupiter, the names sound very similar. Deities from other cultures may have been integrated into the Roman pantheon at an earlier time, or similar deities could have a common origin in an earlier Indo-European or Old European culture.

In the Middle Ages the Roman, but not the Greek, names for deities were known to most people in Roman Catholic countries. Common people called the old gods by their Roman names or by the name of the fictitious saint they had been reinvented as or by the original name in their own language. Scholars in all but a few monasteries in Ireland read Latin but not Greek, and so Greek literature was unavailable to them. With the Renaissance came the rediscovery of Greek literature along with renewed interest in the Greek and Roman deities and perhaps the apogee of Western literature and art. From this time the greatest literature in English has sought inspiration from the old gods. This inspiration has been understood to be, at least officially, one of symbol and of metaphor rather than of worship. This interpretation has emphasized the functional aspects of the deities. So Hera becomes Marriage; Pan, Nature; Aphrodite, Love; Zeus, Authority. This is how we learn Greek mythology in high school.

I asked at the school in my village if Greek mythology was still being taught, and I was told, “Yes, of course! The children get a brief introduction in grade school and more thorough exposure in high school.” I think they were a bit shocked that I would even ask the question. But it is important to keep in mind why children are forced to learn the Greco-Roman pantheon. It is so they can understand ancient literature, Renaissance literature, literature of the Romantic era, and the small amount of art history they are exposed to. It is not about understanding the gods. So we know Hera as the jealous wife of Zeus who presides over marriage, Demeter as the goddess of motherhood, Persephone as ruler of the death realm, and Artemis as forest maiden who hunts critters.

The problem is that not even the Greeks understood their gods in this way. Take this classical hymn to the goddess Hera:

O Royal Juno [Hera] of majestic mien, aerial-form’d, divine, Jove’s [Zeus’] blessed queen,

Thron’d in the bosom of cærulean air, the race of mortals is thy constant care.

The cooling gales thy pow’r alone inspires, which nourish life, which ev’ry life desires.

Mother of clouds and winds, from thee alone producing all things, mortal life is known:

All natures share thy temp’rament divine, and universal sway alone is thine.

With founding blasts of wind, the swelling sea and rolling rivers roar, when shook by thee.

Come, blessed Goddess, fam’d almighty queen, with aspect kind, rejoicing and serene.

Hera is not only the goddess of marriage and the wife of Zeus, she is the creator of everything, the sustainer of life, the protector of people, the force that drives the wind, the waves, and the torrid rivers. She is a big deal.

The problems in how we conceptualized the Greco-Roman gods in our high school English class increase exponentially when we begin applying this methodology to other pantheons. Our understanding becomes not only grossly reductionist, but wrong.

Let’s look again at the Germanic pantheon. The Germanic tribes, like the Greek, had a steadily growing collection of deities to sort out. Unlike the Greeks, who lived for millennia in the same place and found themselves conquered and reconquered, the Germans grew their pantheon by conquering others and absorbing the local gods, then repeating the process many times as they moved westward. It is common wisdom that the gods of the Vanir branch (including Freya and Freyr), are the Old European gods and the larger Aesir branch (which includes Frigga, Odin, Thor and many others) is the Indo-European one, but the Aesir includes plenty of Old European deities that were absorbed at an earlier time. I have heard Odin described as the old warrior and Thor the young warrior; Skadi the winter goddess and Idunn the spring goddess; Frejya the woman warrior and Frigga the hearth goddess. These depictions are totally accurate but completely wrong.

Sometimes a discussion of Germanic mythology from a functional perspective describes the afterlife as the Hall of Valhalla presided over by the god Odin. Only warriors go there, so Odin is the god of the warrior death realm while the goddess Hel is queen of death for ignoble people. But further reading of the myths reveals that half the slain in battle (actually the preferred half) go to Frejya’s Hall of Sessrymnir. Hel’s death field is a sheet of ice, but there is a death goddess by the name of Mengloth who lives on a hill in the underworld called Lyfjaberg. Frigga greets the dead from her island of Fensalir. The god Heimdall meets his faithful in his hall of Himinbjorg. The Germanic tribes seem to have sorted out their gods not by dividing functions, but by allocating real estate in the afterworld. They were a people who lived very close to death, after all.

Unlearning high school mythology allows us to make better sense of the Germanic mythology penned by the first generations of Christians, and perhaps even to discern some of their conceptual errors. Next week we will again look at the goddesses Frejya and Frigga, and hopefully understand them in a better way.

Behind the Olive Branch

July 28, 2012

Early Athenian coin. Goddess has olive wreath. Reverse side has sprig of olive above owl. 6th century b.c.e. Photo Ancient Art.

The Greeks ascribed the source of the olive to Athena, although the tree was first cultivated outside of Greece. The olive has been cultivated for at least 7,000 years, rather significant when you consider that the tree requires a fair amount of knowledge and care to obtain a usable product. The wild olive, native to the eastern Mediterranean, including Greece, produces a long narrow seed with meager flesh, and the tree must be grafted to produce what we would call a true olive. Pruning keeps the tree from growing too large and scraggly over the ten years or more that it takes to begin yielding a significant amount of fruit. Olives off the branch have to be processed, usually fermented in brine, to become edible. Large quantities of olives are crushed, pressed and filtered to produce oil. Whether done with modern or Stone Age methods, it’s a multi-step process that requires time, patience, equipment and collective effort.

Athena is an agricultural goddess who invented the plow along with other technology necessary for a settled farming community, such as oxen yokes, pottery, spinning wheels and looms. Her animals are the owl and the snake, both of whom control rodent populations, the scourge of all grain based economies.
Greek owl and snake goddess, 7th century b.c.e.

To create the plow Athena had to invent metallurgy, and she became the patron goddess of metal workers. Eventually metals became used not only to fashion farm and household implements, religious objects, and jewelry, but to create swords, breastplates, and helmets. Athena at this point became a goddess of war. A later myth says she was birthed fully armed from the god Zeus’ head, but Athena is actually a pre-Indo-European goddess and her rein in Greece pre-dates that of Zeus.

Even after her warrior goddess reputation was established, Athena remained a goddess of mediation and upholder of law, with a marked reluctance for armed conflict. Agrarian communities need peace in order to thrive.
The Erechtheum. Photo LevineDS.

An early temple of Athena on the Acropolis honored the place where she was believed to have planted the first olive tree. The remains of a later temple, the Erechtheum, still stand. This temple was named for Athena’s foster son Erechtheus, who was a snake child born of earth goddess Gaia. The god Poseidon tried to claim the temple site for himself by striking his trident against a rock, spewing forth a salt water spring. Athena would have battled Poseidon for possession, if Zeus had not intervened, imploring the two to accept the judgment of a special council. As instigator of the panel, Zeus had to recuse himself, and the verdict was divided along sexual lines, with all the goddesses favoring Athena and all the gods voting for Poseidon. With one vote to spare, Athena won. Both her tree and Poseidon’s spring were incorporated into the temple complex.

Cosmetic bottle from Greece in shape of an owl. 7th century b.c.e. Photo Marie-Lan Nguyen.
Athena and Poseidon’s conflict mirrors the rivalry along the coast between land and sea, where the sea tries to reclaim the land at every turn through storms, tsunamis and the erosion of relentless tides. The appearance of a salty spring on the high rocky outcrop of the Acropolis was a particularly bold invasion. Still, the Greeks must have seen a complementarity between the two deities, because they believed the olive tree could not grow far from the sea. This widespread belief has been verified somewhat; the olive tree thrives in dry, slightly alkaline, calciferous soils common to Mediterranean coastal areas, though it can also be grown in inland areas with similar temperature and soil compositions.

Olive oil not only revolutionized dietary and cooking practices in the eastern Mediterranean, it produced a cleaner fuel for lighting and a more stable base for cosmetics. The olive branch became a symbol of prosperity and accomplishment for the Greeks and a symbol of peace for the Romans. Athena was worshipped not just in Athens but along the Italian, Greek and Anatolian coasts as the the goddess of technology, best illustrated by her gift of the olive tree and the knowledge of how to grow and utilize it.

Roman mosaic from Tunisia, 300. Photo Getty Museum.

Grimbutas, Marija. The Living Goddesses. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1960.

Quennell, Marjorie and C.H.B. Everyday Things in Ancient Greece. London: B.T. Batsford, 1954.