The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Ancient Greek Mythology

Foreword

The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101 is a series of articles that opens a major project dedicated to analysing perceptions of the body in different civilisations, cultures, and societies.


This broad-brush study of this issue draws a prospect of a large-scale work since the visual, performative, and literary traditions from ancient times to this day have left an immense amount of research material for us. The relevance of addressing this subject seems to be permanent because it will always be attributable to the problems of a particular period and society. The real and the illusory social pressure that dictates rules of self-presentation is being actively comprehended and discussed at the moment, and it is a topic of acute importance. Also, the almost universal identification of people with their bodies easily leads to the fallacy that if an individual belongs to a society, their body belongs to this society too. Further, depending on the circumstances, rules are dictated, often endangering both the mental and physical health of individuals or whole social groups.


The series is divided into the following chapters:

  1. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Culture of the Greek Bronze Age

  2. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Heroic Nudity

  3. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Archaic Period

  4. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Classical Period

  5. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Ancient Greek Philosophy

  6. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Athletic Body in Classical Athens

  7. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Hellenistic Period

  8. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Ancient Greek Mythology

  9. The Body as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: The Culture of Late Antiquity

The Body in Ancient Greek Mythology

Ancient Greek mythology is a complex system of cosmogonic, etiological and heroic legends that evolved and transformed over the centuries. Despite the existence of a general structure of beliefs throughout the Hellenic world, particular myths could differ significantly in accordance with local traditions or due to external cultural influence (Woodard, 2007). The periodization of Greek mythology begins with the Late Bronze Age, which for its part provided historical material for the later myths (i.e., the myth of the Minotaur associated with the palace of Knossos in Crete). The first literary sources, however, belong to a much later period - ca. 750-620 BCE - and are associated with the oral tradition of the dissemination of the poetic cycles of Homer and Hesiod (Porter, 2020). The word μῦθος (mûthos) itself, in ancient Greek, meant something said, a word or a story, and didn’t have the later acquired implication of fictitiousness (Beekes, 2010).

The Berlin Painter (attrib.), Zeus in pursuit, red-figured neck amphora, ca. 480-470 BCE. [Clay]


The origin of the Greek gods was outlined by Hesiod in his Theogony (Evelyn-White & Hesiod, 1914). The Olympians, who won in the battle (titanomachy) with the Titans, the older gods associated with cosmogonic myths, were anthropomorphic in many respects. The former were described as unattainably beautiful creatures resembling humans in appearance and in emotional manifestations but endowed with infinite power. The Olympians and the other deities, standing lower in the cult hierarchy, had complex family and love relationships not only among themselves, but also with people, the results of which were the birth of beautiful demigods. The story with the lover of Zeus Semele, however, suggests that the gods only took on the form of people. According to the myth, Semele instantly burst into flames and died when Zeus appeared before her in his real form (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 3 251-313).


Fundamentally, the mythological tradition implied the kinship of the Greeks with their gods. As per the flood myth, the surviving son of the titan Prometheus, Deucalion, with his wife Pyrrha revived mankind from stones. However, Deucalion and Pyrrha had their own children, among them the son Hellen, from whom the Greeks, Hellenes, trace their common ancestry (Kerényi, 1974). Thus, the difference between the Greeks and representatives of other peoples lied not only in the plane of linguistic or cultural identity, but at the level of the very corporality.

[…] by the ordinance of Zeus with the flashing thunderbolt, Pyrrha and Deucalion came down from Parnassus and made their first home, and without the marriage-bed they founded a unified race of stone offspring, and the stones gave the people their name. (Pindar, Olympian odes, 9 41-43)

Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo (copy after Jan Cossiers), Deucalion and Pyrrha, 17th century. [Oil on canvas]


What distinguished a living body from the corpse in the ancient Greek beliefs was the presence of the soul (psūkhē). The soul had precious attributes since it was the main object of protection during battles. The death of a body did not bring the end to the subsistence of a soul, but neither did it imply any optimistic options for its further presence (Lorenz, 2009). Nonetheless, among the exceptions stands Heracles, who, according to the Greek mythology, joined the Olympian gods after death, which may serve as an indication of an existing religious cult that revered Heracles as a deity (Pausanias, 1918). Nevertheless, as a rule, the souls of people, regardless of their social status during life, went to Hades for an eternal and bleak existence in the form of shadows. Sinners who especially angered the gods, such as Tantalus or Sisyphus, were subjected to additional and endless trials in the underworld (Homer, Odyssey, 11 580-595). Some mythological stories depict the so-called katabasis (from the ancient Greek κᾰτᾰ́βᾰσῐς - descent), where the hero visits the underworld. In Homer’s Odyssey Odysseus makes such journey, meeting among others the shadow of Achilles, a demigod and a fellow Trojan war hero:

The psūkhē of the fleet descendant of Aiakos knew me and spoke piteously, saying, ‘Resourceful Odysseus, noble son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, what deed of daring will you undertake next, that you venture down to the house of Hādēs among us inept dead, who are but the spirits of them that can labor no more? (471-476)

As the passage above demonstrates, neither heroic glory nor divine origin saved Achilles from the common to all doom. This fact, along with the absence of the motif of rebirth in ancient Greek mythology, allows the assumption of a special attitude towards the body, its meaning and functions within a limited life cycle, in the culture of Greek antiquity. This could also be traced in the Homeric Iliad, the poem that was at the base the Hellenic self-conception and was largely concentrated around the ritual aspect of the relationship to the body. The Iliad ends with an emotionally charged scene of the ransom of Hector's mutilated body by his father Priam, for whom neither the risk of being killed nor the risk of being humiliated by the enemy could outweigh the importance of performing a proper burial rite:

And Priam the godlike answered, “Since, then, you suffer me to bury my noble son with all due rites, do thus, Achilles, and I shall be grateful. You know how we are pent up within our city; it is far for us to fetch wood from the mountain, and the people live in fear. Nine days, therefore, will we mourn Hector in my house; on the tenth day we will bury him and there shall be a public feast in his honor; on the eleventh we will build a mound over his ashes, and on the twelfth, if there be need, we will fight.” (24 659-667)

The Rycroft Painter (attrib.), The Ransom of Hector, fragment of a back-figured amphora, 520-510 BCE. [Clay]


Rituals involving the body existed within human control, but if a god claimed an interest in someone's body, that person no longer had any control over the situation. Whatever their nature, the myths about the passion of the gods for mortal people, which included seduction, abduction, transformation and murder, demonstrate the obedience of an ancient Greek before the elemental higher forces. The gods could appear to their beloved in the form of their spouses, birds, animals, or, as in the myth of Danae, the rain. Greek etiological myths (stories about the origin of animals, birds, insects, plants or constellations) are usually based on stories with the passion or revenge of the gods, turning their victim into one or another creature (More, 1922).


The lyric poetry of the archaic period offered a new look at the body in the prism of interpersonal relations. In contrast to the austere Homeric epic, which largely concentrated on the theme of death, it praised the beauty and life-affirming power of love, the main aspect of which was often erotic attraction. The erotic connection in the lyrical tradition is not burdened by the premonition of tragedy and danger as it was in the poetry of the Homeric authors (Brockliss, 2019). This exploration of new forms of self-understanding, through relationship with another person rather than in struggle with the world, testifies to a qualitative shift in the perception of corporeality starting in the 6th century BCE, which was also reflected in the visual arts of the period (Beazley & Ashmole, 1966).

The Phiale Painter (attrib.), red-figured amphora with Zeus abducting Europa, ca. 440 BCE. [Clay]


The dark aspect of interpersonal relations, however, preserved in the tradition of Greek tragedy. Tragedy interpreted the ancient myths with the whole horror of discovering the depth of subconscious. Stories from the past included such treatment of the body as acts of incest, cruel murders and cannibalism (Levi, 1986). What is characteristic of the tragedy is how, by contrast with the earlier mythological traditions, most of the appalling deeds in these stories were indictment of the humans themselves and not the superior power.


If mythology is a form of expression of shared mental concepts of a society, it can act as an indicator of religious, social and cultural evolution within a community. A chronological review of the development of the ancient Greek mythology demonstrates a growing curiosity towards physicality and the tendency to perceive a physical self as an individual, controlling the manifestations and abilities of the body.

Bibliography

Beazley, J. D.; Ashmole, B. (1966). Greek Sculpture and Painting to the End of the Hellenistic Period. Cambridge: University Press.

Beekes, R.S.P.; van Beek L. (2010). Etymological dictionary of Greek. Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill.

Brockliss, W. (2019). Homeric Imagery and the Natural Environment. Hellenic Studies Series 82. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. Retrieved November 4 2022 from: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_BrocklissW.Homeric_Imagery_and_the_Natural_Environment.2019

Evelyn-White, H. G. (Ed., trans.); Hesiod. (1914). Hesiod. The homeric hymns and homerica. London: William Heinemann. Retrieved November 3 2022 from: https://archive.org/details/hesiodhomerichym00hesiuoft/hesiodhomerichym00hesiuoft

Homer. Iliad (S. Butler, Trans.). Retrieved Novemer 2 2022 from The Center for Hellenic Studies website: https://chs.harvard.edu/primary-source/homeric-iliad-sb/

Homer. Odyssey (S. Butler, Trans.). Retrieved November 2 2022 from the Center for Hellenic Studies website: https://chs.harvard.edu/primary-source/homeric-odyssey-sb/

Kerényi, K. (1974). The gods of the Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson.

Levi, P. (1986). Greek drama. In J. Boardman, J. Griffin & O. Murray (Eds.) The Oxford History of the Classical World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 177-213.

Lorenz, H. (2009). Ancient Theories of Soul. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Edward N. Zalta, Ed.). Retrieved November 3 2022 from: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2009/entries/ancient-soul/

More, B. (Ed.) (1922). Ovid. Metamorphoses. Boston: Cornhill Publishing Co. Retrieved November 2 2022 from Perseus Digital Library: http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:latinLit:phi0959.phi006.perseus-eng1:3.251-3.313

Pausanias. (1918). Pausanias Description of Greece (W.H.S. Jones & H.A. Ormerod, Trans.) (Vols. 1-4). London: William Heinemann Ltd. Retrieved November 3 2022 from Perseus Digital Library: http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0525.tlg001.perseus-eng1:4.8.2

Pindar. (1990). Odes. D. A. Svarlien (trans., ed.). Retrieved November 3 2022 from Perseus Digital Library: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0033.tlg001.perseus-eng1:9


Porter, J.R. (2020). Greek mythology: Chronological overview — periods and sources. Retrieved November 2 2022 from Academia: https://www.academia.edu/43650357/Greek_Mythology_Chronological_Overview_Periods_and_Sources


Woodart, R.D. (Ed.) (2007). The Cambridge companion to Greek mythology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Eugenia Ivanova

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