Greek and Roman Mythology

Greek and Roman Mythology MOOC by Uni of Pennsylvania in 2016  This course is interesting for me as I am interested in incorporating mythology into my art practice.

What  are myths?  They are attempts to get to the truth of the world.  They endure over time. Some myths cross cultures. They can be untrue, made up.  We cannot possibly prove many myths, especially those of the ancient Greek culture for example.  According to the Greeks any sound that comes out of the mouth is a myth.

What subterranean messages are there in myths? What does the real Hercules look like !  well, he has a fig leaf in the statue we are looking at in the video!  So there have been many attempts to describe the mythological characters: gods, and goddesses and monsters,


Hercules or Heracles

odysseus and cyclops

Cyclops and Odysseus


Odysseus and the cyclops

Plato said that myth creates culture where Xenophanes said the opposite.  Another character, recorder of this time is Metrodorus of Lampsacus who says that the gods are manifestations of nature and arrangements of the elements.  Metrodorus said that myths are ancient allegories.  There is a hidden truth.

Agammemnon is air, Achilles is the Sun, Helen is the Earth and Paris is Air.  Hector is the Moon.  Metrodorus states that all of these people are related to the natural cosmos.

The gods according to some ancient philosophers relate to the parts of the body – Demeter is the liver. Dionysus is the spleen.  Apollo is Bile.  Metrodorus was convinced that myths carried deep hidden truths, allegories, the surface is a code of deeper truths: weather, morality.  These gods are not floating around they are representations of deep truths.

Ancient readers of Homer found deep hidden truths.

Aristarchus of Samothrace.  just take a step back and you will find an exaggerated story, there is no hidden wisdom, myths are anti allegorical. Had a literary approach to tales. He thought that readers ought to take them as poetic licence and not bother to look for meanings outside, there are no deep hidden truths.  Poets exaggerate things.  Literary and anti allegorical.

Euhemerus, the gods were terrestrial beings, the stories are based on real historical characters, which are told and retold and in so doing the characters become gods and goddesses.

Bernard de Fontanelle said that myths were a reaction for early humans to their env., to explain strange outcroppings, thunder, weather patterns and calamities. Fear was at the root of mythology.


David Hume (18th c); lived during the Enlightenment, he had an impatience with a mythic personality.  He lived at a time when there was an expunging all ancient thought, irrational minds are being cast aside towards new scientifice ways of thinking.  Myths are a result of fearful humans making up stories but not worth much.

Christian Gottlieb Heyne –  Heyne was very interested in the ancient world, The Classics, he wanted to know more about it, so he would have a book that helped him with the geography, natural world etc. of this ancient world.  Myths give erudition to the past. contextual info. In contrast to Hume and F, with their lame explanations.  Heyne says it is more complex than just a reaction to fear;  wonder has a part in myth creation; innate sense of wonder that all of us will feel when we approach the Sublime (!).   Myth is the particular genre that we use to express a sense of awe.  Fabulae is another word for myth, created by Heyne.

Heyne also said that early peoples were prone to grandiose reactions; language was concrete, no abstractions. Concretisation of abstract ideas.Myth is connected to the world around, this will carry forward into the thinking of Herder:

Johann Herder – a reaction against the Enl.  a Romantic – myths are truth, not only so but deeply profound truths – late 18th century.  He believed that myths are innate to humans.  He was taken up by the Romantics later.  Myth is identical to poetry and religion, expressions of deep ideas and our feelings of being alive, a living breathing creature. An autonomous response to the subject.

Walter Burkert, Swiss, living, still active writing about mythology.  Definition:  Myth is a traditional tale told with secondary partial ref to something of collective importance, told by someone for some reason (Struck)

The modern era counts as the Renaissance and forward.  Throughout the Middle Ages the ideas of Euhemanism and Allegorism were important for those who read the myths; Medieval churchmen were interested in these ancient tales – called them Fabulae; a story or a tale, a tall tale.

The Trojan War and the world of Homer

The story of the Trojan War—the Bronze Age conflict between the kingdoms of Troy and Mycenaean Greece–straddles the history and mythology of ancient Greece and inspired the greatest writers of antiquity, from Homer, Herodotus and Sophocles to Virgil. Since the 19th-century rediscovery of the site of Troy in what is now western Turkey, archaeologists have uncovered increasing evidence of a kingdom that peaked and may have been destroyed around 1,180 B.C.—perhaps forming the basis for the tales recounted by Homer some 400 years later in the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.”(found online)

Time scales: Roman time from 1st century BCE – classical Rome; 1st century CE: classical Athens first century CE: Homer’s times 8th C BCE; Trojan War 13th century BCE.  Homer will feature in this course plus Hesiod, Homeric hymns, Classical Athens and the Tragedies; Romans and Virgil and Ovid

Trojan War 13thC BCE – did it really take place?  Heinrich Schliemann went to Troy and found ruins, and that the city had been conquered many times.  Homer’s world is a dark world: war, violence, human talents are taking place in the field of conflict.


We need to familiarise ourselves with various characters from Homer’s World, from the Trojan Wars etc: Ajax, Agamemnon, Achilles, Paris, etc.  The rage that drives the Trojan wars is the argument between Agam and Achilles; younger warrior, they can’t settle their conflict and so we end up with a war – He insults Achilles who then withdraws into his tent. Achilles wishes death on his greek comrades, he has a lot of rage and that all of his compatriots pay the price for this conflict. The Iliad is the war between Ach and Aga.  It’s Greek against Greek.

Some other character: Ajax and Domedes, and later Odysseus.  King Priam with his sons Hector and Paris lead the other side.  Much death, a very beautiful epic poem though.  Ach does finally end his rage, his does not reconcile with Aga; but he has a moment to express other dimensions of his humanity other than his violence, King Priam has a chance to ransom back his son’s body.  Priam kisses the  hand that killed his own son and begs for mercy. Priam is the Trojan general and King.  Achilles relents and the war ends.  What happened to the Trojan Horse?  Is this part of the Odyssey? 

Paris, Helen, Menelaus: Paris is the son of Priam, more a lover than a warrior – he steals Menelaus’ wife Helen, then he upsets Agam the brother of Men; he kidnaps Helen and then the war is started.  Aga tells his fellow leaders that they need to go and retrieve Helen.

An army of one hundred thousand leave Greece to Troy.  Peleus and Thetis have a wedding, who marries a goddess, they have a party and invite everyone, Eres is the goddesss of discord and is not invited, so she takes an apple and inscribes on it a letter,  Thera and Athena, Aphrodite is made the winner of the apple in return for Helen.  Paris thinks that Helen is all his…

Week 1 Question – which of the above views is in your opinion the best: 

For me it’s the views of both Herder and Heyne. Heyne said that myths are more than just a reaction to fear of the natural world; and that wonder has a part in the creation of myths; that there exists in all of us an innate wonder at the Sublime. Herder too, felt that myths are an important aspect of our make up; that they are akin to poetry and religion in that they are expressions of our deep ideas and our experience of being alive.

The Trojan War supposedly took place in the 13th century BCE.  Ruins were found in Turkey of a great city that had been attacked many times which could have been Troy.  Schliemann never found anything like archeo evidence as they are recorded in Homer‘s texts.  So – did it exist?  No swords, shields etc. have ever been found.

Homer’s version of the war may be true.  Was his epic pro or anti war?


scene from Iliad

Scene from the Iliad – The Trojan War, engraving in style of Greek vase painting, 19th century



Peleus and Thetis had a great wedding and a party.  Eres is not invited to the wedding so she tosses an apple into the wedding with a letter inscribed on it and Athena, Hera and Aphrodite try to decide what to do with this apple – Paris gives it to Aphrodite and thinks that Helen is his.  The whole war all boils down to an affair of the heart.

Next video – post Trojan war.   Many legends about this time have been created.  The Greeks fight each other, they had had leadership.  They hold up in their myths that they did awful things, they sent spies to Troy in a raid to extract a figure, called the Palladium which reps Athena.  They sneek in and removing a magical element that had an aura over the city of Troy.  Now this protection has been removed and they have violated Athena.

They talk about themselves as murderers.  They took a little prince and murdered him.   Princess Cassandra is raped by Ajax.  The negative energy follows the heroes home.  The Nostoi, the greek heros going home and working out the nastiness of the battle of Tory.  Nestor.  Menelaus has a long journey, meets the Old Man of the Sea.  Aga gets home but then there is a nasty welcome for him.  The Odyssey gives us the story of the journey home of Odysseus after the war.

Homer 715 BC.  Wandering bards sang songs for wealthy clients: the trojan war legend and famous heroes.  This is the material behind the Iliad and Odyssey.  However, the coherence of the story itself (Iliad) makes it likely that it is a single poetic hand.


Here are some notes on Homer and the stories surrounding his birth, life etc.

Little is known about the life of Homer.  Historians place his birth sometime around 750 BC and conjecture that he was born and resided in or near Chios. However, seven cities claimed to have been his birthplace. Due to the lack of information about Homer the person, many scholars hold the poems themselves as the best windows into his life. For instance, it is from the description of the blind bard in The Odyssey that many historians have guessed that Homer was blind. The Odyssey‘s depiction of the bard as a minstrel in the service of local kings also gives some insight into the life of the poet practicing his craft.

There is much evidence to support the theory that The Iliad and The Odyssey were written by different authors, perhaps as much as a century apart. The diction of the two works is markedly different, with The Iliad being reminiscent of a much more formal, theatric style while The Odyssey takes a more novelistic approach and uses language more illustrative of day-to-day speech. Differing historical details concerning trade also lend credence to the idea of separate authors. It is certain that neither text was written down upon creation. By the eighth century BC written text had been almost entirely forgotten in Greece. Both The Iliad and The Odyssey conform to the diction of a purely oral and unwritten poetic speech that was used before the end of that century. Indeed, some scholars believe the name “Homer” was actually a commonly used term for blind men who wandered the countryside reciting epic poetry.

The Iliad is in the form of a Dactylic Hexameter:

Dactylic hexameter (also known as “heroic hexameter” and “the meter of epic”) is a form of meter or rhythmic scheme in poetry. It is traditionally associated with the quantitative meter of classical epic poetry in both Greek and Latin and was consequently considered to be the Grand Style of classical poetry. The premier examples of its use are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.


The meter consists of lines made from six (in Greek ἕξ, hex) feet, hence “hexameter”. In strict dactylic hexameter, each of these feet would be a dactyl (a long and two short syllables), but classical meter allows for the substitution of a spondee (two long syllables) in place of a dactyl in most positions. Specifically, the first four feet can either be dactyls or spondees more or less freely. The fifth foot is frequently a dactyl (around 95% of the time in Homer).

Because of the anceps (a short or long syllable), the sixth foot can be filled by either a trochee (a long then short syllable) or a spondee. However, because of the strong pause at the end of the line (which prevents elision and correption between lines in the dactylic hexameter), it is traditionally regarded as a spondee. Thus the dactylic line most normally looks as follows:

— U | — U | — U | — U | — u u | — X ( Long, short short ….x6)

(Note that — is a long syllable, u a short syllable and U either one long or two shorts and X anceps syllable.)

As in all classical verse forms, the phenomenon of brevis in longo is observed, so the last syllable can actually be short or long.

Hexameters also have a primary caesura — a break in sense, much like the function of a comma in prose — at one of several normal positions: After the first syllable in the third foot (the “masculine” caesura); after the second syllable in the third foot if the third foot is a dactyl (the “feminine” caesura); after the first syllable of the fourth foot; or after the first syllable of the second foot (the latter two often occur together in a line, breaking it into three separate units). The first possible caesura that one encounters in a line is considered the main caesura. A masculine caesura can offset a hiatus, causing lengthening of an otherwise light syllable.

In addition, hexameters have two bridges, places where there very rarely is a break in a word-unit. The first, known as Meyer’s Bridge, is in the second foot: if the second foot is a dactyl, the two short syllables generally will be part of the same word-unit. The second, known as Hermann’s Bridge, is the same rule in the fourth foot: if the fourth foot is a dactyl, the two short syllables generally will be part of the same word-unit.

We looked at a verse from the Odyssey in Greek and the tutor translated it, showing how Homer is a man of great wisdom.


Odysseus is a man of bravery, he suffers but fights back, however his men are reckless and pay the price for this later on in the epic.’The blind fools ate the cattle of the sun’, and the Sun God wipes their homeward journey from sight.

The Aftermath of the Trojan War : there are  many legends, where the Greeks don’t come off so good, Greek on Greek struggle, bad leadership, nasty motives.  The Nostoi are a group of stories of the journey home.  Nestor gets himself home, Menelaus gets blown off course.Odysseus is the most imp of these Nostoi.

Link to early Greek scripts


has some resemblance to egyptian hieroglyphs and cuneiform.  Linear A and B were early Greek scripts.  The alphabet arrived in Greece about Homer’s time, invented by Phoenicians, on the eastern edge of the Med, Hebrew and Greek and Arabic characters.  Thanks to this alphabet Homer’s works survived.

His diction is from various dialects which is strange!  Maybe there were a few people writing his poems after all

End of week 1 – I got 50 per cent for the weird and a bit mean quiz