Does Classical Mythology reflect a disposition to explore the realities of the world or a desire to escape from them?

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Hannah Crook

PI: T9562309

Module Code: A330


“Does Classical Mythology reflect a disposition to explore the realities of the world or a desire to escape from them?”

For the purposes of this essay the themes of religion and death will be explored in an attempt to understand whether the ancient Greek societies used myth to understand these concepts or if they used them in a desire to escape the realities of their daily lives.

“Religion, it seems to me, is a set of theories or myths...In the case of religion the problem to be solved is big: the world. Most religions claim to explain the origins, ground plan, building materials, and working of the world; they often also prescribe conduct” (Jarvie 1969).

As the opening statement suggests, in the absence of science and scientists as it is understood today, the function of myth is to provide a framework with which the people of the time used to understand the world around them. It provides explanations for why the world is the way it is; how it was made and how it evolved and what was expected of the people who inhabited it. Myths provide a set of principles by which to live your life. They present and illustrate punishments that can be a deterrent to living a ‘bad’ life; they teach morality and the consequences of hubris. They also enlighten their understanding of what happened to them after death.

Greek religion is a vast and complex subject that developed over hundreds of years and was moulded by many diverse influences, especially those of their Indo-European descendants and of the Minoan-Mycenaeans. Myths were used alongside Religious Mystery rites and imagery to ‘manifest their religious experiences’ (Vernant 1989). For many Greeks the only requirement was to believe that the gods existed and to perform ritual and sacrifice, through which the gods received their due. To deny the existence of a deity was to risk reprisals, from the deity or from the governing authorities. But if a Greek went through the motions of piety, he risked little. A parallel can be drawn today; how many people attend church for special occasions like weddings, christenings, Easter and Christmas? They are seen to be performing the rituals that are expected but do not necessarily believe.  

Hesiod was a Greek poet thought to be living around 750-650BC. Along with Homer, he is the earliest know Greek poet (Radice 1973). Amongst Hesiod’s work he wrote a poem, Theogony, where for the first time, there is an attempt to put into writing an account of the creation of the earth and the evolution of gods and humans. It is by no means the only ancient Greek account of the origins of the world as, like Homer, Hesiod’s work was cultivated from a long line of traditional oral narratives.  

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Before Theogony, there was no one fixed authoritative work, creed, ritual or rite that was observed by the ancient Greek people. Together, Homer and Hesiod created a commonality for the people of Greece, they brought together a wealth of names, relationships and characteristics of both immortals and mortals, epic traditions, that the Greek people could draw upon, recognise and use to enhance their understanding of what it meant to be Greek (Morford et al 2011). What the work shows though is that although Hesiod’s ideas about cosmogony seem irrational when compared to later theories and beliefs, it demonstrates that the ...

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