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Chapter 01

Interpretation and Definition of Classical Mythology


The establishment of a single, comprehensive definition of myth has proved impossible to attain. No one definition can satisfactorily embrace all the various kinds of stories that can legitimately be classed as myths on the basis of one criterion or another. The attempt to define myth in itself, however intractable a proposition, serves to highlight the very qualities of the stories that make them so different from one another.


“Myth” is derived from the Greek word mythos, which can mean tale, or story, and that is essentially what a myth is: a story. For many, such a general definition proves to be of no real service, and some would add the qualification that a myth must be a “traditional” tale or story, one that has proved of so lasting a value that it is continually retold, through whatever medium the artist/storyteller chooses to employ. For further clarification, distinctions are often made between “myth,” i.e., “true myth” or “myth proper,” and “saga” or “legend,” and “folktale.”


Myth: not a comprehensive term for all stories but only for those primarily concerned with the gods and their relations with mortals.

Saga or legend: a story containing a kernel of historical truth, despite later fictional accretions.

Folktale: a story, usually of oral origin, that contains elements of the fantastic, often in the pattern of the adventure of a hero or a heroine. Its main function is entertainment, but it can also educate with all sorts of insights. Under this rubric may be classed fairytales, which are full of supernatural beings and magic and provide a more pointed moral content.

Rarely, if ever, do we find in Greek and Roman mythology, a pristine, uncontaminated example of any one of these types of story.


The most common association of the words “myth” and “mythical” is with what is incredible and fantastic. How often do we hear the expression, “It’s a myth,” uttered in derogatory contrast with such laudable concepts as reality and the facts? As opposed to the discoveries of science, whose truths continually change, myth, like art is eternal. Myth in a sense is the highest reality, and the thoughtless dismissal of myth as fiction or a lie is the most barren and misleading definition of all. Myth serves to interpret the whole of human experience and that interpretation can be true or fictitious, valuable or insubstantial, quite apart from its historical veracity.


The study of myth must not and cannot be separated from the study of religion, religious beliefs, or religious rituals. No mythologist has been more eloquent than Mircea Eliade in his appreciation of the sacredness of myth and the holy and timeless world that it embodies.


An etiological interpretation of myth demands that a true myth must give the aitia, or cause or reason, for a fact, a ritual practice, or an institution. Thus narrowly defined, etiology imposes too limiting and rigid a criterion for definition. On the other hand, if one broadens the concept of the aitia of a myth to encompass any story that explains or reveals something or anything, an etiological approach offers one of the most fertile ways of interpreting myth, although it cannot really define it. What story can avoid offering some kind of explanation or revelation? Is the best general definition of myth, after all, a traditional story?


Euhemerism: an attempt to rationalize classical mythology, attributed to Euhemerus (ca. 300 B. C.). He claimed that the gods were great men of old who had become deified.

Allegory: a sustained metaphor. The allegorical approach to mythology is favored by the anti-rationalists, who interpret the details of myth as symbols of universal truth.

Allegorical nature myths: for Max Müller in the nineteenth century, myths are to be defined as explanations of meteorological and cosmological phenomena. Müller’s theory is too limited. Some Greek and Roman myths, but by no means all, are concerned with nature.


The theories of Freud and Jung are fundamental and far-reaching in their influence, and although continually challenged, provide the most searching tools for a profound, introspective interpretation of mythology.


Freud’s most influential ideas for the interpretation of myth center on psychosexual development, the theory of the unconscious, the interpretation of dreams, and the Oedipus complex.

  • Oedipus Complex

Developed in a work that attempts to explain the particularly uneasy and timeless dramatic import of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, the theory of the Oedipus complex holds that a male child’s first sexual feelings are directed towards the mother with the concomitant arousal of jealousy and hatred towards the rival for those affections, the father. The female version has been identified by Carl Jung as the Electra complex, in which the daughter's love is towards the father with hatred of the mother.

  • Dreams

Freud saw dreams as the expression of repressed or concealed desires. The “dream-work” of sleep has three basic functions: to condense elements; to displace elements, by altering them; and to represent elements through symbols. In this regard, symbols of dreams can work in much the same way as the symbols of myths.

Carl Jung

  • Collective Unconscious

Jung went beyond the connection of myths and dreams with the individual to interpret myths as the projection of what he called the “collective unconscious,” that is, the revelation of the continuing psychic tendencies of a society. Jung made an important distinction between the personal unconscious, concerning matters of an individual’s own life, and the collective unconscious, embracing political and social questions of the group.

  • Archetypes

Myths contain images or “archetypes,” according to Jung, traditional expressions of collective dreams, developed over thousands of years, of symbols upon which the society as a whole has come to depend. These archetypes, revealed in peoples' tales, establish patterns of behavior that can serve as exemplars, as when we note that the lives of many heroes and heroines share a remarkable number of similar features that can be identified as worthy of emulation. Similarly, other kinds of concept are to be classified among the many and varied types of Jungian archetype embedded in our mythic heritage, e.g., the great earth mother, the supreme sky-god, the wise old man, the idealistic young lover.


Myth and Ritual

  • J. G. Frazer and Jane Harrison

Sir J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough remains a pioneering monument in its attempts to link myth with ritual. Similarly, the works of Jane Harrison are of seminal importance. Both Frazer and Harrison provide a wealth of comparative data, and both may be subjected to the same critical reservations about the validity of their ritualistic interpretations and their analogies between myths of primitive tribes and classical myths. Yet both established fundamental approaches that endure to this day.

  • Robert Graves

The justly renowned novelist and poet Robert Graves has written an influential treatment of Greek myths, full of valuable factual information, accompanied by dubious and idiosyncratic interpretations. He definition of true myth as a kind of shorthand in narrative form for ritual mime is far too restrictive. He separates myth from tales of other kinds by wisely focusing upon the literary distinctions to be found in a variety of stories.


  • Bronislav Malinowski

Bronislav Malinowski’s work as an anthropologist among the Trobriand Islanders (off New Guinea) led to his identification of the close connection between myths and social institutions. Myths are related to practical life and explain existing practices, beliefs, and institutions by reference to tradition; they are “charters” of social customs and beliefs.


  • Claude Lévi-Strauss

The structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss sees myth as mode of communication in which the structure or interrelationships between the parts, rather than the individual elements alone, establish meaning. In the belief that human behavior is patterned and that the human mind has a binary structure, Lévi-Strauss argues that the creations of the mind, including myths in particular, partake of a binary structure. One of the principal aims of myth is to negotiate between binary pairs or pairs of opposites (e.g., raw/cooked, life/death, hunter/hunted, nature/culture, male/female, inside/outside), and to resolve them. Since the meaning of a myth is “coded” in its structure, all versions of a myth have the capacity to be equally valid.

  • Vladimir Propp

Vladimir Propp, a Russian folklorist, developed the structuralist approach to myth before Lévi-Strauss by analyzing a select group of tales with similar features and isolating the recurrent, linear structure manifest in them. In this pattern Propp identified 31 functions or units of action, which have been termed motifemes. All these motifemes need not be present in one tale, but those that are will always appear in the same sequential order.

This comparative approach to mythology has proven useful in analyzing a wide range of seemingly dissimilar tales across many different cultures, which satisfy the sequential pattern, such as those about a hero’s quest or, in particular, the thematic details concerning his mother and his birth, which Walter Burkert has broken down into five motifemes:

  • The girl leaves home.
  • The girl is secluded.
  • She becomes pregnant by god.
  • She suffers.
  • She is rescued and gives birth to a son.

The understanding of classical mythology can be made both easier and more purposeful if underlying structures are perceived and arranged logically. The recognition that these patterns are common to stories told throughout the world is also most helpful for the study of comparative mythology.

  • Walter Burkert

Walter Burkert has attempted a synthesis of various theories about the nature of myths, most important being those having a structuralist and a historical point of view. To Burkert, of great significance is the fact that a myth has a “historical dimension.” In its development a myth may incorporate “successive layers” of narrative, each of which has addressed the particular needs of a particular storyteller with a particular audience in a particular time. To support his synthesis, he has developed four theses:

  • Myth belongs to the more general class of traditional tales.
  • The identity of a traditional tale is to be found in a structure of sense within the tale itself.
  • Tale structures, as a sequence of motifemes, are founded on basic biological or cultural programs of actions.
  • Myth is a traditional tale with secondary, partial reference to something of collective importance.


Oral and Literary Myth. Many insist that a true myth must be oral and anonymous. The tales told in primitive societies are the only true myths, pristine, timeless, and profound. The written word brings contamination and specific authorship. We disagree with such a narrow definition of mythology. Myth need not be just a story told orally. It can be danced, painted, and enacted, and this is, in fact, what primitive people do.

Myth is no less a literary than an oral form. Despite the successive layers that have been grafted onto Greek and Roman stories and their crystallization in literary works of the highest sophistication, comparative mythologists have been able to isolate the fundamental characteristics that classical myths share with other mythologies, both oral and literate.

Joseph Campbell. A comparative mythologist, perhaps best known for his series of PBS interviews with Bill Moyers, Campbell did much to popularize the comparative approach to mythology. Though his attention was largely devoted to myths from other traditions, many of his observations, as he himself was well aware, can be profitably applied to classical mythology.

Feminism, Homosexuality, and Mythology

  • Feminism

Feminist critical theory focuses upon the psychological and social situation of female characters in terms of the binary nature of human beings, especially in the opposition (or complementary relationship) of female and male. Feminist scholars have used the critical methods of deconstruction to interpret myths from their points of view about political, social, and sexual conflict between men and women in the ancient and modern world. Their conclusions are sometimes determined by controversial reconstructions of two major topics: the treatment and position of women in ancient Greece and the theme of rape.

  • Women in Greek Society

Here are four out of many observations that could be made about the treatment and position of women in Greek society:

  • Women were citizens of their communities, unlike noncitizens and slaves—a very meaningful distinction. They did not have the right to vote. No woman anywhere won this democratic right until 1920.
  • The role of women in religious rituals was fundamental; and they participated in many festivals of their own, from which men were excluded.
  • A woman’s education was dependent on her future role in society, her status or class, and her individual needs (as was that of a man).
  • The cloistered, illiterate, and oppressed creatures often adduced as representative of the status of women in antiquity are at variance with the testimony of all the sources: literary, artistic, and archaeological.
  • The Theme of Rape

What are we today to make of classical myths about ardent pursuit and amorous conquest? Are they love stories or are they all, in the end, horrifying tales of victimization and rape?

The Greeks and the Romans were obsessed with the consequences of blinding passion, usually evoked by Aphrodite, Eros, or Dionysus and his satyrs, and of equally compulsive chastity, epitomized by a ruthless Artemis or one of her nymphs. The man usually, but by no means always, defines lust and the woman chastity. Often there is no real distinction between the love, abduction, or rape of a woman by a man and of a man by a woman.

Stories about abduction, so varied in treatment and content, have many deeper meanings embedded in them, e.g., social, psychological, and very often religious. The supreme god Zeus may single out a chosen woman to be the mother of a divine child for a grand purpose, and the woman may or may not be overjoyed. Thus the very same tale may embody themes of victimization, sexual love, and spiritual salvation, one or all of these conflicting eternal issues or more. Everything depends on the artist and the person responding to the work of art: each individual’s gender, sexual orientation, age, experience or experiences, politics, and religion. There is no one “correct” interpretation, just as there is no one “correct” definition of a myth.

These stories from antiquity to the present have evoked so wide a range of responses that they should not be subjected to a criticism reduced to a simple harangue about the mistreatment of women—or of men. Romantic critics in the past sometimes chose not to see the rape; many today choose to see nothing else.

  • Homosexuality

Homosexuality was accepted and accommodated as a part of life, certainly in Athens. There were no prevailing hostile religious views to condemn it as a sin. Yet there were serious moral codes of behavior, mostly unwritten, that had to be followed to confer respectability upon homosexual relationships and individuals who were homosexual.

Homosexuality may be found as a major theme in some stories, e.g., Zeus and Ganymede, Poseidon and Pelops, Apollo and Hyacinthus, Apollo and Cyparissus, Achilles and Patroclus, Orestes and Pylades, and Nisus and Euryalus. Thus Greek and Roman mythology embraces beautifully the themes of homosexuality (and bisexuality) but, overall, it reflects the dominant concerns of a heterosexual society from the Olympian family on down.

Female homosexuality in Greek and Roman society and mythology is as important a theme as male homosexuality but it is not nearly as visible. Sappho, a lyric poetess from the island of Lesbos (sixth century B.C.), perhaps offers the most overt evidence.


We have provided a representative (and by no means exhaustive) sampling of influential definitions and interpretations that can be brought to bear on classical mythology. It should be remembered that no one theory suffices for a deep appreciation of the power and impact of all myths. Certainly the panorama of classical mythology requires an arsenal of critical approaches.\

Let us end with a definition of classical mythology that emphasizes its eternal qualities, which have assured a miraculous afterlife. It may be that a sensitive study of the subsequent art, literature, drama, music, dance, and film, inspired by Greek and Roman themes and created by genius, offers the most worthwhile interpretative insights of all.

A classical myth is a story that, through its classical form, has attained a kind of immortality because its inherent archetypal beauty, profundity, and power have inspired rewarding renewal and transformation by successive generations.

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