Ancient Myths and Legends
Ancient Myths and Legends
Narratives . All cultures encode and transmit their values to later generations in the form of narratives. The ancient Greeks are certainly not exceptions to this rule. Before the development of rational thought and expression, they turned to traditional stories or myths for answers. Cosmogonic myths addressed broad questions about the source and nature of the world. How did the universe originate? How is it structured? Who controls its operation? Other myths addressed more specific questions about observable events. What causes storms? Why do crops grow from the earth? How do adult beings create new ones? Where does disease come from? What makes thunder? What exactly are those bright objects that move—some slowly, some rapidly—across the sky by day or night?
In the following passage from Homer’s great epic poem, the Iliad, a goddess visits Hephaestus at his home and workshop:
She found him sweating as he turned here and there at his bellows busily, since he was working on twenty tripods . which were to stand against the wall of his strong-built home.
And he had set golden wheels underneath the base of each one so that, by their own motion, they could wheel into the immortal gathering, and return to his house—a wonder to look at...
He set the bellows away from the fire, and gathered and put away all the tools with which he worked in a silver strongbox. Then with a sponge he wiped his forehead clean, and both hands, and his massive neck and hairy chest, and put on a tunic, and took up a heavy stick in his hand, and went to the doorway limping. And in support of their master moved his attendants. These are golden, and in appearance like living young women. There is intelligence in their hearts, and there is speech in them and strength, and they have learned what to do from the immortal gods. ..
Source: Homer, ilad , translated by Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961).
Zeus and Poseidon . For the most part, the traditional answers to such questions involved the assumption that
powerful, supernatural agents—gods, spirits, demons—were responsible for much of what happened beyond immediate human control. The great god Zeus, lord of the sky, sent rain to irrigate the ground and make plants grow. His bolts of lightning—powerful weapons manufactured by creatures known as Cyclopes—sometimes hit the earth, and wherever they struck, the Greeks erected temples to mark the sacred spot. Earthquakes, on the other hand, were traditionally said to be caused by the god Poseidon, master of horses and the sea. When angered, he would strike his trident against the walls of hollow caves deep below the ground, producing violent tremors at the surface. The development of Western science involved the discovery of different habits of thinking and a different language to express answers that did not involve the existence of gods.
Explanations . Many ancient legends were also aetiological, that is to say, they aimed to explain the origin of familiar objects or practices. The Greeks had an especially rich assortment of stories about three specific technological issues: the wondrous technology enjoyed by the gods; the first inventors of various tools and ways of doing things; and the accomplishments of legendary technicians.
Other Gods and Goddesses . Among gods, it was the lame Hephaestus, god of forge fire and the almost magical craft of metallurgy, who presided over most technology. He was credited with such fantastic creations as automatic doors, robotic servants with the power of speech, and unbreakable nets so fine as to be invisible. The goddess Athena, daughter of Zeus, was also closely involved with technological activity. The bridle and ship were said to be her special inventions. She also controlled the crafts of pottery, weaving, and the manufacture of products from olives and olive wood, both sacred to her. Other legends attributed the invention of all the basic technologies to the Titan Prometheus, who reportedly gave human beings not only fire, but also the full range of tools and practices essential for their survival.
Daedalus . Finally, several legends surround the famous craftsman Daedalus, along with his son Icarus and his nephew Perdix. The nephew is credited with having invented the first saw, using the backbone of a fish as his model. Daedalus himself constructed the mazelike structure or labyrinth on the island of Crete in which the monstrous Minotaur, half-bull and half-man, was imprisoned. Later, in his attempt to escape from Crete, Daedalus is said to have invented wings for himself and his son by attaching feathers to their arms with molten wax. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, but the boy ignored him. The wax melted from his wings, and he plunged to his death in the sea far below. To this day Greeks refer to the area of the Aegean Sea between the islands Patmos and Leros and the coast of Asia Minor as the Icarian Sea to commemorate his tragic flight.
This passage, from a play by the great fifth-century tragedian Aeschylus, is a touchstone for what Athenians considered the quintessential signs of human culture. The Titan Prometheus, chained to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains as punishment for stealing fire from Olympus, lists his many contributions to the human race.
Now hear what troubles there were among men, how I found them witless and gave them the use of their wits and made them masters of their minds…. For men at first had eyes but saw to no purpose; they had ears but did not hear. Like the shapes of dreams they dragged through their long lives and handled everything in bewilderment and confusion. They did not know of building houses with bricks to face the sun; they did not know how to work in wood. They lived like swarming ants in holes in the ground, in the sunless caves of the earth. For them there was no secure token by which to tell winter nor the flowering spring nor the summer with its crops. All their doings were indeed without intelligent calculation until I showed them the rising of the stars, and the settings, hard to observe. And further I showed them numbering, preeminent among subtle devices, and the combining of letters as a means of remembering all things—the Muses mother, skilled in craft, It was I who first yoked beasts for them in the yokes and made of those beasts the slaves of trace-chain and pack saddle, so that they might be man’s substitute in the hardest tasks. And I harnessed to the carriage, so that they loved the rein, horses, the crowning pride of the rich man’s luxury. It was I and none other who discovered ships, the sail-driven wagons that the sea buffets. Such were the contrivances I discovered for man. . ..
Hear the rest, and you will marvel even more at the crafts and resources I contrived. Greatest was this: in former times if a man fell sick he had no defense against the sickness, neither healing food nor drink, nor unguent; but through lack of drugs men wasted away, until I showed them the blending of mild simples with which to drive out all manner of diseases. It was I who arranged all the ways of seercraft, and determined what things come true from dreams, and gave meaning for men to the ominous cries, hard to interpret. It was I who set in order the omens of the highway and the flight of crooked-taloned birds—which of them were propitious or lucky by nature, what kind of life each lead, what their mutual hates, loves, and companionships were. I also taught the smoothness of the vital organs and what color they should be to please the gods, and the dappled beauty of the gall and the lobe. It was I who burned thighs wrapped in fat and the long shank bone, and set mortals on the road to this murky craft. So much for these. Beneath the earth, man’s hidden blessing, copper, iron, silver and gold—will anyone claim to have discovered these before I did? No one, I am very sure, who wants to speak truly and to the purpose, One brief word will tell the whole story: all crafts that mortals have came from Prometheus!
Source : Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, edited by Mark Griffith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 442-471.
William Keith Chambers Guthrie, The Greeks and Their Gods (Boston: Beacon, 1951).
Barry B. Powell, Classical Myth (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1995).