This essay seeks to demonstrate how valid some form of knowledge and belief in mythology was, during the Classical era, in Athens. It remained a potent force in many different contexts, this will be evidenced by analysing four ancient primary sources.
The first is related to Performance: in ‘old comedy’. Specifically focusing on a section of Aristophanes’ ‘the Frogs’ (136-64.) work ‘, the second examines a source on ‘sacred disease’, by a possible Hippocratic doctor (I-II), The third primary source will explore the ‘Homeric hymn to Demeter’ (2) (1-495) and its relevance in classical society and finally the fourth source presented will look to the relevance and what’ mythos’ meant in terms of ‘logos’ during the Classical period by looking at one of Plato’s famous works ‘the republic’ (2.377b5-3.3.389d5). The main themes to be covered are the gods, life, ethics and the afterlife.
Myth’s continued appearance in entertainment gave playwrights a broader spectrum of themes to play out in relation to the God’s character traits, ideas of the afterlife and what was considered to be good and bad gods. Aristophanes play ‘the Frogs’ which won first place at the annual Dionysus festival is often looked at in a political context.
This essay simply seeks to look at the play from a more surface value perspective. This play proves that myth was indeed a powerful antidote to the serious more philosophical and everyday issues that Athenians were confronted with.
It depends on how informed the internal or external audience were as to how much an individual gained from the experience.
There is a scene that occurs that is completely sardonic where Xanthias expresses his discomfort of going to the underworld and a dialogue takes place between a corpse and himself whereby he is trying to barter with a corpse to go with Dionysus in place of him, “Hey you the dead one, I am talking to you, do you want to carry some luggage to Hades? “(136-64.).
This kind of baldy alternative take on Hades underworld shows how myth was still a huge inspiration for artists in Greek society in regards to the issues and questions relating to the Gods and the afterlife . Myth in this context was contorted and manipulated to tease an audience and provide entertainment.
Then contemporary audiences would have to have some familiarity with myth and Greek culture to fully appreciate the wit that Aristophanes regularly makes reference to. An example: Dionysus preparing to go to the underworld when Herakles is describing the directions to take: “Next …. Of hands”. Dionysus wants to know who these men and women are. Herakles tells him that (they are) ‘the blessed’ ‘the initiate’s’.
This reference is proof that outside of this play there is some other knowledge about the ‘Eleusinian mysteries’ –specifically the cult of Demeter. It appears that on stage nobody was safe from being mocked.
According to ‘Homeric hymn to Demeter’ (471-482) “Happy is the one of mortals of the earth. But those who are uninitiated into the holy rites and have no part are never destined to a similar joy when they are dead in the gloomy realm below”.
Cults of religious worship were colossal in Athens during the classical period even whilst supposed ‘scientific’ and philosophical debate was occurring. The exact rituals and full commentary of worship which occurred in this particular cult were kept extremely secrete. Modern excavations show that at the sanctuary there was holy place dedicated to Demeter (M&L, pg344). The cult did not discriminate class, age nor gender.
This was an annual and ritualistic event similar to the festival of Dionysus in that it attracted masses of people but for different and more serious reasons. The ‘Homeric hymn to Demeter’ contents are emotional, intimate, vengeful, god fearing and relies on the God and Goddess of fertility (which provides an under tone of birth and rebirth to the nature of worship) to carry on harvesting the crops so the mortal race could continue to survive.
The church and state stuck to a rigid programme of what was to occur on each day of this 9 day festival which took place during an important time in terms of agriculture produce is of concern.
The nine day celebrations tie in with the hymn “For nine days… her body.” (40-48). and is a particularly antagonizing quest for a mother looking for her daughter who had been abducted by Hades. It is believed a part of the myth of Persephone and Demeter was appropriated for ritualistic re-enactment. .This cult did not dissolve until it was repressed in Roman times.
This shows the unwavering worship of Gods of mythos despite other ways and methods of approaching myth during this period.
Another important area to highlight with regards to Greek mythology is the attitude towards medical treatment when it came to illness and the study of Biology.
Like in our modern day there are various methods and people to whom we can put our faith in to cure an illness.
The same can be said for the Classical period. This Hippocratic source talks about ‘the sacred disease ‘– (or Epilepsy as we know it).He states that: ‘in my opinion (it) is no more divine or more sacred than other diseases but has a natural cause.’ One could interpret this cause as not coming from a random bored God but coming from our complex brain and body which is divine because of its complexity in nature.
The source presents as wanting to reason and encourage people to look to alternative ways to curing maladies.
Instead to by following the norm by a “facile method of healing….consisting as it does of purifications and incantations” and then showing a reluctance to look at nature is pure ignorance. This source shows alternative thought that perhaps the Gods give us the internal make up to cure our own bodies. Indeed, this physician (II) has a strong opinion concerning the people who ‘christened’ epilepsy (mental illness) as a ‘sacred illness’. He terms them as ‘quacks’ and ‘charlatans’.
These supposed knowledgeable people ‘being at a loss’ in their ability to ‘cure’ or atone for an illness, have instead ‘spun’ as the Hippocratic doctor says “a plausible story and established a method a method of treatment to secure their own positions”.
He is not attacking people’s belief in the Gods. He is stating that respected people in the community had exploited ill people in their ignorance and that there is in fact a more natural way of finding a solution to the various ‘maladies’ by studying the body in its present ill state.
The majority of whom followed the Hippocratic non-traditional method of teaching did so for honourable means to genuinely find a cause and a solution to all illness even if s the prescription came in the form practical advice .Professor Helen King (Open University transcript on ‘Myth in Medicine conclusion) makes a valid point stating that ‘ Peoples beliefs about their bodies are complicated… Medicine doesn’t deal with questions like ‘Why me?’.
Treatment often went hand in hand with religious worship as one relates and attempts totreats the ill mind or body and the other relates and attemptsto treat our psyche .
Plato believed that the soul and the body were separate to one another. In his ‘the Republic’, a dialogue between Socrates and Adeimantus is essentially a discussion on ethics and morals as to what could be interpreted as the necessary elements needed to create a utopian society.
Socrates is not against the belief in the Gods –his argument is to do with content and how the ancient poets have portrayed the Gods in their epic poems; ‘the ones Hesiod and Homer .to people’ (2377. b5-6e.) He argues that these poets created ‘falsehoods’. Stories that make the Gods appear without virtues.
Socrates goes on to discourse (378.5c-e.). One critical viewpoint is that he doesn’t believe that children should be brought up on stories about Gods at war, killing their parents and stealing for example.
These kind of parables, he believes are not setting a solid foundation for people to model their own morals and code of ethics. Young people especially are impressionable .
There is further debate about what is good and bad and the two characters come to the decision that “Gods of course are really good and they must be described as such.’(379.10b.).
Socrates does state that if these stories need to be known then they should be censored to the correct and minimum of people. (378.5a.)
If one is to take on the idea that Gods are good then the idea that they are responsible for all that is not good is a contradiction. The overall summary of Socrates argument is that if people felt a personal sense of responsibility towards themselves to be good in this life then they should not have to fear the afterlife.
Furthermore there is interesting discussion concerning the Gods and their changeability (379.10d.382a). This lengthy debate about there being something more wonderful than the divine form would only make sense. If there was a virtue better than goodness. Socrates again insists that poets must present the Gods as they are: good –virtuous and not in a way that allows them to assume many disguises lowering the basic morale of a society. “Nor should Mothers… children too cowardly.” (379. 5d-e.) It would appear that these snippets of dialogue from ‘the Republic’ reveals that Plato’s’ philosophizing was on other canonised version of the Gods.
These characters had strong views about how the Gods could come across as unreliable punishing, moody, and unstable and that these qualities could not instil unification of trust, virtue and stability in a society. One can clearly see that Classical philosophy was not mainly concerned with terminating myth but it questioned the beneficial effects certain mythological representation’s had on an individual and as a common people.
To conclude we can see that in antiquity Epic myth and Tragedy, Old comedy was never meant to come across as banal. Indeed people with influencing and fantastical ideas of Gods and the afterlife and the author’s agenda and ethics were displayed and debated about. Pre Homeric and Hesiod literature mythos was mostly told orally and so there were many contradictions and versions of myths and what mythical characters did. There were many determining factors. One for example, was the strength of the story teller skills, another was more concerned with demographics. One thing is certain is that Greek mythology was the inspiration and conversation /debate starter from many areas even outside of the western world for subject matter relating specifically to ethics, the afterlife and life and creation. A person can consider this as universal evolvement of thinking and it is not assumed that Greeks were the first humans to enquire on and seek reason on our existence through debate about mythology. There is simply not enough evidence to back this up. Finally Mythos on its own acted as a sacred harbinger to bring meaning to life and issues inside and outside of it.