Daily Archives: June 13, 2013

The Formation and Preservation Of Myth

20130618-162114.jpg The first ‘true’ alphabet was created by the Greeks in the eight century BCE and is predated by the oldest known forms of Greek writing known as Linear A and Linear B. The often cited “Father Of History”, Herodotus, recorded that this was an adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet (limited to only consonants), merged with elements of their own language.

As Myths existed long before the rise of documentation and literature, they where created and preserved in what is known as Oral Tradition. This is the tradition of storytelling performed by Bards, a very important and respected position within the culture of Ancient Greece.

Many Myths are truly epic in scale, making the task of the bards to memorise and recite them to an audience a formidable one. This is why we see much of Mythology preserved in the medium of Epic Poetry; a format which makes use of rhyme and rhythmic delivery, particularly Hexameters. Bards would also draw from a catalogue of stock phrases and descriptive names, or ‘Epithets’, which would be repeated throughout the telling of the tale. Memorising such epic tales in this way gave them structure and cadence, making them much easier to recall from memory. When people began to capture culture in the written word, these elements became characteristics of the classic mythological texts.

Professor Meineck points out that The origin of Myths in the Oral Tradition makes them “highly mutable”, meaning the details and plots of myths would change in the telling and in the hands of the many Bards acting as their custodians. Bards, and therefore Myths, would travel great distances over long periods of time and would adapt and change to accommodate their audience.

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Of course myth was also captured in other forms of Art. Literature may have become a foundation of civilisation, but reading and writing was not yet a skill available to everyone. The transcribed records of myths would serve as scripts performed as plays, allowing entire communities to enjoy them. Many cultures have unique artistic styles across various disciplines from paintings to sculptures, often inspired by that cultures distinct mythology. Archeological discoveries have often revealed less sophisticated examples of mythological art adorning even simple household objects.

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References

Blackwell C W, Hackney Blackwell A, 2002, ‘Mythology For Dummies’, Wiley, Indiana

Meineck P, 2004, ‘Classical Mythology: The Greeks’, The Modern Scholar, purchased from http://www.audible.co.uk

Pictures From

http://www.college.columbia.edu/core/content/herodotus

http://www.timetrips.co.uk/beginnings_of_greek_theatre.htm

http://www.shmoop.com/zeus-jupiter/photo-zeus-with-thunderbolt.html

http://www.ehow.com/facts_5757255_greek-mythology-pottery.html

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What is Myth?

We often use the word myth in our everyday lives to express something made up or unlikely, or perhaps in the sense of debunked ‘wives tales’. For example: I had a conversation recently where I was told “It’s a myth that spinach has loads of iron you know. That’s how they started selling it but they’ve studied it and it doesn’t have nearly as much as people think.”

In terms of Mythology as the study of Myth, or a collective body of Myths, people may have a tendency to think of them as children’s stories, or tales that where invented to explain the strange things that hadn’t yet been explained by science. Clearly there is truth in this but there is so much more to it. I Love that in ‘Mythology For Dummies’ the authors quickly make a great distinction. There are Myths that helped us understand what we couldn’t explain before science showed us the truth; and there are Myths that help us understand things we ‘know’ are true, but can’t explain with science.

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The word Myth comes from the Greek ‘Mythos’, and translates as ‘story’, or in some cases ‘the plot’. It is opposed by the Greek word ‘Logos’, meaning an ‘account’, which reinforces that Myths are not necessarily grounded in truth. But anyone can tell a story about anything and it isn’t automatically a myth. So we start to define a myth as something that includes deities or the supernatural. Suddenly there is a parallel with religion.

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Its still debated as to whether the Greeks for example really did believe in the famous Greek Pantheon, and there are certainly people who practice religions today that many would consider to be grounded in Mythology. But is whether or not a story, Myth or otherwise, is literally true, as important as the truths and meaning that people extract from them? Perhaps Myth can be approached in the same way a sociologist might study religion then, from a functional perspective, in terms of shared values and social order.

I like the definition of myth that Professor Meineck quotes from Walter Burkert:

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“Myth is a traditional tale with secondary partial reference to something of collective importance”.

This definition is particularly strong, as it emphasises that myths are popular and continue to survive because they communicate something important. They mean something that we feel is worth remembering and can capture a representation of ourselves; even helping to define who we are.

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Resources:

Blackwell C W, Hackney Blackwell A, 2002, ‘Mythology For Dummies’, Wiley, Indiana

Meineck P, 2004, ‘Classical Mythology: The Greeks’, The Modern Scholar, purchased from http://www.audible.co.uk

Pictures from:

Cline A, 2013, ‘Role Of Myth In Greek Religion’, http://atheism.about.com/library/FAQs/religion/blgrk_rituals05.htm

Heuser J, From Davies L, 2012, ‘5 Historical Myths About Real Scientific Discoveries’, io9.com/5962937/5-historical-myths-about-real-scientific-discoveries

http://www.orden-pourlemerite.de/bildarchiv/jahr/2010

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Audio Course: Peter Meineck, ‘Classical Mythology: The Greeks’.

To help broaden my perspective, I’ve been looking for other resources that appear to be a good introduction to the subject. Rather than another book, I’m going to listen to this audio course from the ‘Modern Scholar’ series.

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This course; ‘Classical Mythology: The Greeks’, is by Professor Peter Meineck of New York University’s Centre For Ancient Studies. He has also held academic positions at the Universities of Texas, South Carolina, Princeton and the Harvard Centre For Helenic Studies. A former Royal Marine and West End Producer, Professor Meineck graduated in Ancient Studies at London University.

Professor Meineck is also the founder of New York’s Aquila Theatre Company. http://aquilatheatre.com/

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