The Sources of Greek Mythology
Okay, so the big question is: just who the heck thought up this stuff anyway? Myths didn't just appear out of thin air, so Greek mythology must have come from somewhere....
Well, as a matter-of-fact, myths came from a variety of sources. Most of the ancients utilized the oral tradition of passing stories down from generation to another, and some of the myths are still in Greek folklore, such as the Gelloudes, female demons who devour young children and were actually first mentioned in the Sixth Century BCE. But nearly all of the tales we now know as Greek myth are from ancient poets and playwrights. Mythology is still incomplete, and extremely inconsistent [kinda like the men of my life], but we have managed to piece together viable—and entertaining—stories.
Here are a few small, brief biographies of the sources from whom we have obtained all this marvelous mythology.Included are only the Greek writers—although there are numerous Latin writers that give us myth [such as Ovid and the wonderful Virgil], it is a Greek theme.
The master of the Greek fable. All the history we have about this genius is from the historian Herodotus. Aesop was a slave of a Thracian in Samos around the Sixth Century BCE. He was known by the time of Aristophanes, and it is said that both Plato and Socrates [whilst imprisoned] put some of Aesop's works into verse.
Along with Sophocles and Euripedes, one of the three great tragic poets of Greece. He wrote around 90 plays but only seven have survived: The Suppliants, The Persians, Prometheus Bound, Seven Against Thebes, and the fabulous Oresteia trilogy: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Aeschylus is said to be the innovator is adding a second actor in a scene; beforehand, drama had only one figure appearing at a time.
Born in Eleusis in 525 BCE, he was the son of a nobleman and had previously had a glorified life: he had fought in the Persian Wars [details in one the play bearing the country's name], including Marathon. Because of his history, heritage, and talent, the great leader Pericles sponsored much of his later work. Aeschylus died in Sicily around 456 BCE.
The most famous work by this author was his magnificent Argonautica, which details the Quest for the Golden Fleece. The epic is divided into four books and is the best-known version of Jason's adventures. Of course, the story was known well before Apollonius's time, but it was he who wrote the most widely-accepted account. Apollonius was an Alexandrian whose life spanned 295 to 215 BCE. Because he spent a majority of his latter years on the island of Rhodes, the name "Rhodius" was added.
The one comic poet whose majority of works remain intact. He was born around 450 BCE in Athens but spent much of his early life on the island of Aegina. He was not 24 years old when his first work [now lost]Daitaleis made him famous.
Aristophanes lived through the horrid Peloponnesian Wars and based many of his comedies on the sad irony of battles and power-hungry leaders. He saw his beloved Athens fall to the folly and dishonesty of war. His comedies reflect the ironies of life, and his characters span the spectrum of peoples in Athens. His most famous works include The Acharnians, The Clouds, and The Wasps. He died around 385 BCE, shortly after the production of his last surviving play Ploutos.
Euripides was the youngest of the great triumvirate of playwrights, born around 486 BCE. The region of Salamis claimed his birth, and there is evidence that his parents were simple shopkeepers. He came from very humble origins, but earned the admiration of his contemporaries—including the great Socrates himself.
Euripides never forgot about the simplicity of his birth, though he held a brief stint as a priest of Zeus at Phyla for a while. Unlike the other great playwrights, who kept to the Greek tradition of accepting the fortunes of the gods, Euripides often questioned them. His characters, such Medea, Electra, and Hippolytus, are driven, almost obsessive creatures—yet completely human. He lived during the terrible Pelopnnesian War, and his loathe of battle is clearly apparent in the tragedy The Trojan Women.
He spent most of his adult life in Athens, but left when he retired. He lived to the ripe old age of eighty or such, and in his latter years he resided in Thessaly. One of his most brilliant works, The Bacchae, was written whilst he dwelt in the court of king Archelaus of Macedonia. He wrote over ninety plays, but only seventeen survive: The Trojan Women, The Bacchae, Alcestis, Medea, Helen, Andromache, Electra, Hecuba, Heracles, The Heraclidae, Hippolytus, Ion, Iphigenia at Aulis, Iphigenia at Tauris, Orestes, The Phoenician Women, and The Suppliant Women. All apparently, brilliant masterpieces.
One of the earliest Greek poets, Hesiod resided around 800 BCE. Impoverished in his youth, he moved to Boeotia and became a farmer. His marvelous Works and Days gives an astonishing view of the agricultural life in ancient times. [The piece also lets us in on a family feud with his brother Perses regarding their inheritance.]
Hesiod won a poetry contest at Chalcis, and this is how he became known as a celebrated poet. He wrote the first true "religious" poem, Theogony, where many scholars and mythologists accredit the Greek chronology of gods. In fact, all Greek myth somehow relies on Hesiod's work as a reference source.
The historian Plutarch accounts Hesiod's death as a violent and tragic one: the brothers of a women he was claimed to have seduced brutally murdered him.
Despite his fame, Homer's life is a complete and utter mystery. For example, there are murmurs that he was blind, but little evidence to enforce such a claim. Even the date and place of birth is often the subject of controversy. It is generally accepted he hailed from the island of Chios and was an Ionian Greek [Asia Minor], and he lived sometime in the Ninth Century BCE. The date he lived in would be a couple hundred years after the Trojan War as that event is estimated between 1200-1000 BCE.
His greatest works are, of course, The Iliad and The Odyssey—the former portraying the battles of the Trojan War and the latter about the adventures of Odysseus on his journey home. Both were translated into Latin between the Third and Fourth Centuries BCE. But perhaps a greater accomplishment was that Homer's works were the first ever to be published in the Greek vernacular. Many modern scholars, historians, and archeologists have utilized both books as references for tracing the lost civilization of Troy. Heinrich Schliemann led the greatest excavation in quest of it in the Nineteenth Century C.E., which reinforces the grasp Homer's material has on us.
Homer was a lively and entertaining writer and he infused his characters with a certain "realness" that many of the oral tradition neglected. His gods [except for the wench Athena, who was clearly his favorite] possessed mortal traits such as envy, anger, and fear, and were often not viewed as "betters". His Iliad, for example, contains the myths which had been passed on from generations, but it is often viewed that Hector—the brave, honorable Trojan prince—was a complete invention of Homer's. And Homer did a fabulous job in creating a valiant, heroic—and totally human—warrior.
Pindar was a lyrical poet born around 518 BCE near the city of Thebes. The son of a distiguished family, he moved to Athens while still young to take advantage of the culture and intellect. He befriend Aeschylus and became quite a celebrity himself; a wealthy family commissioned him to to write an ode to their son when he was but twenty years old. His work was so spectacular that it brought immediate fame. His works covered a variety of different topics, and mythologists often extract certain elements of myth from his material. He died around 438 BCE in Argos, but he was so admired that when Alexander the Great destroyed Thebes a near century later, he ordered Pindar's house be spared.
Like Homer, there is little known about this tragic playwright—which, of course, is quite a tragedy in itself. We know he was born near Athens at Colonus around 486 BCE, and was a member of a rather wealthy family. We also know he was quite the charmer— hey, this guy was the looker of the group! He won his first prize when he was twenty-eight, with Aeschylus as one of his competitors.
He was a priest of Asclepius, and his devotion to his religion reflected deeply in his works. He did not question or criticize, but merely present the situation so the audience could observe human nature. He is said to have written over 120 plays, but only seven survive: Antigone, Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Oedipus, Electra, Oedipus at Colonus, and Philoctetes. And while Aeschylus is credited with adding a second actor, Sophocles went a step further and introduced a third, along with including the chorus in the action of the scenes. He died around 406 BCE.