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Chapter 1: Interpretation and Definition of Classical Mythology

The word “myth” has been interpreted in many different ways. It means literally “story” or “tale,” but for many such a definition is far too general and they seek to identify a specific category of story to be designated as true myth.

Thus myth has been variously defined as a tale told orally, of anonymous origin, dealing with cosmological phenomena, revealing the origin and nature of early rituals or customs, and so on.

Most rewarding for enjoyment and study is the realization that myth is a story that has become traditional, explanatory in nature, and, like art itself, expressive of the universal beauties and truths of the human spirit. It need not be told only orally, but may use no words at all, or be conveyed by various media, individually or in combination (e.g., through mime, dance, music, painting, literature, drama, and film)

Classical mythology is in many respects unique in that it embraces a very large body of tales, all of which became traditional not only for both the Greeks and the Romans but subsequently through the ages for Western civilization (and beyond); these myths continue to be very much alive and meaningful today in their many, multifaceted metamorphoses by artists in every genre

It is helpful to recognize legend or saga as a category of myth that reflects some historical basis and to realize that certain myths share characteristics that we associate with folktales, fairy tales, and fables. If these distinctions are made, true myth, or myth proper, tends to be concerned with the gods and religion, although not exclusively so.

Most fruitful for the understanding of classical mythology have been the studies of the structuralists, who analyze the varied patterns that are repeated and found in the mythologies of the world. Those who detect patterns of a sociological nature provide particularly valuable insights, and perhaps the interpretations offered through a psychological and psychoanalytical approach have been the most pervasive and effective of all. Thus mythographers, often through comparative analogies, afford meaningful ways through which we may look at these traditional stories.

Yet, equally rewarding is the study of the transformations of classical mythology in terms of their artistic reinterpretations throughout the centuries. The myths of Oedipus, Orpheus, Phaedra, or Medea, when recreated in works of genius, open our eyes to many things, not least of all a greater understanding of our own world. Moreover, they challenge us with fresh, profound, and exciting perceptions as we go back to the masterpieces of Sophocles, Euripides, or Ovid to reevaluate and enjoy anew these immortal, ancient sources of inspiration.

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