Whoosh! Issue 27 - December 1998


IAXS project #129
By Carolyn Bremer
Copyright © 1998 held by author
2792 words

Introduction (01)
Defining the Myth (02-05)
Historical Origins? A Case in Point - The Amazons (06-08)
The Myth Tellers (09-13)
Oral Tradition (14-17)
Hero Myths (18-25)
Conclusion (26-28)

The Intersection Of Myth And History

Had she emphasized the last syllable, it would've rained frogs for days.

The myths come alive for Gabrielle pretty much every day.


[1] The threads of mythology have been woven into the texture of human culture as far back as we have been able to trace our history. In fact, myth and history can be thought of as two different ways of examining our past. Myth connects us with our roots, represents our inextricable links with each other, and springs from our very essence. Yet, the origins and functions of myth are as much a part of mystery as history. This article will examine myth and history from two perspectives: the origins of myths themselves and the function of myth in the Ancient World.

Defining The Myth

[2] Greek scholars have noted that the word myth comes from 'muthos', which meant 'spoken word'. Originally, 'muthos' was linked with 'logos', or 'that which is said'. Eventually the two terms became more distinct in their meanings. By the 5th Century BCE, 'logos' was used for truth or rationality, while 'muthos' stood for untruth or irrationality. Plato wrote that 'muthos' (myth) belonged to the spirit of the poet, and 'logos' (reason or logic) was the purview of scientific disciplines.

[3] Attempts to pin a working definition on the term 'myth' have resulted in wildly divergent theories. Edith Hamilton, one of the most well-respected scholars of Greek mythology, believed that myths show us the way humans thought long ago. Norman Austin defines myth as a "medium for the articulation of our experience in the world and for the world's revelation of its own inner dynamic to the human mind". William Robertson Smith differs from those who place the origins of myth in the realms of history or the imagination. He believes that myths and rituals operate together, that one cannot exist without the other. G. S. Kirk has the simplest and perhaps most elegant definition: myth is a special sort of traditional tale.

[4] Suffice it to say, a myth is a story that has complex layers of meaning. Myths represent more than just their simple story. They speak in a symbolic language, allowing the reader (or listener, in the case of how bards originally performed them) to bring a great deal of themselves to the narrative, and that, in turn, permits a more personal, richly rewarding experience.

[5] Joseph Campbell sparked a widely popular interest in mythology. In 1985 and 1986, Bill Moyers interviewed him for the PBS series The Power Of Myth, which aired shortly after Campbell's death in 1987. Campbell described four functions of myths to Moyers in this way:

The first is the mystical function... realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are.... The second is the cosmological dimension... showing you what the shape of the universe is.... The third is the sociological one - supporting and validating a certain social order.... But there is a fourth function of myth, and this is the one that I think everyone must try today to relate to - and that is the pedagogical function, of how to live a lifetime under any circumstances. Myths can teach you that.

Historical Origins? A Case In Point - The Amazons

Amazons practice their anti-cockroach dance

Amazons in the flesh.

[6] As William Blake Tyrrell points out in his book Amazons: A Study In Athenian Mythmaking (Baltimore, 1984), although archaeologists have not yet unearthed an Amazon grave or city, there is "no way historically to deny their existence". Instead, he suggests letting go the search for a historical origin in favor of myth as a "historical product of Greek thought". Though the distinction seems subtle, it is significant. Tyrell argues that myth is created from cultural data including politics, sex, war, and rituals. This alone gives historical significance to myths and particularly to the Amazons. Tyrell also argues that a prevalent theory, one that cultures originally depended on a matriarchal structure, may well support the ancient existence of the Amazon nation.

[7] But in his conclusions, he omits all historical references in favor of the symbolic. Classical Greece was a patriarchy, a male-ruled society. The Amazons represented for them a reversal of their normal rules. In each of the stories about Amazons, the warrior women are ultimately defeated, and therefore the patriarchy remains secure. As Tyrell writes, "The Amazon myth explains something troubling about the status quo in classical Athens... (it) explains patriarchal marriage as the optimum means for controlling female sexuality and rashness.... thus the myth emphasizes the death of Amazons in individual combat, rape, and mass slaughter". It is not a pretty conclusion to consider that the Amazon myth helped to justify the Greeks' oppressive patriarchy.

[8] Whether or not there existed actual Amazons, there existed a historical need for the myth. The same could be said for the Trojan War, which may or may not have occurred. If we view Greek mythology as a historical and symbolic representation of how the Greeks thought about their own culture, then it is likely that we have an accurate interpretation of the origins of myth: part history, part fading memory, part poetic license, part legend, and part wishful thinking. But what about this Greek world? How did myths fit into their historical culture?

The Myth Tellers

[9] Greek history records two great ancient bards of myth: Homer and Hesiod. Homer is by far the more well-known name today. The two writings attributed to him, The Iliad and The Odyssey, are widely read and often re-told in various guises.

[10] Who was Homer? Did he exist? Did he actually write The Iliad and The Odyssey? We do not have certain answers to any of these questions.

[11] Many classicists believe that a man named Homer may have lived around 800 BCE. Those who subscribe to the theory that Homer existed trace his homeland to Ionia, on the Asian shores of the Aegean Sea. Some accounts claim he was blind.

[12] He may or may not have actually written THE ILIAD and The Odyssey (see "Oral Tradition", below), but the modern Greeks have traditionally considered him the author. Their belief in Homer and his authorship of the epics is a cornerstone of their national identity. What cannot be doubted is that these two epics played a significant role in the formation of Greek education and culture, and indeed much of western culture. Both the ancient and modern Greeks regarded the epics as a moral tutor and a symbol of heroism on which their culture was based.

[13] Hesiod lived later than Homer, perhaps by a century, perhaps by more. Like Homer, little is known about Hesiod or his life. He was born in central Greece, in Boeotia. Two great works are attributed to him: Theogony, a thorough history of the gods, and Works And Days, which includes a description of the various events encountered in a rural year. Hesiod provides a realistic balance to Homer's fantastic epics. His writing is more serious than Homer's, with equally dark portraits of the gods and mankind.

Oral Tradition

This is the reason female Titans wear long skirts

Don't tell these Titans they're myths.

[14] Why all this uncertainty about who wrote what? Historians have as their tools only sketchy, written accounts of that which was said. They have very little source material (written records dating from the time). Because spoken words were not recorded, they disappeared into thin air. Literature lived only in memory, recited by performing bards.

[15] As far as we know, The Iliad and The Odyssey were the first stories written down. Before them, and even after them, came a huge body of stories that were only told. They were not written down. These stories, these primary epics, are a part of every culture of the world.

[16] The whole genre, commonly called the "oral tradition", is so remarkably different from ours, we sometimes have a hard time realizing how fundamental the differences are. No bard memorized a story "by heart" because there was no single original source with which to compare it. It was not a matter of laziness or deciding not to retell a story using precisely the same words as someone else, it was because there was no concept of a single authoritative version.

[17] But let us not think of this practice as more primitive than what we do now. Storytelling was an art which required memory, improvisation (in hexameter!), singing, and acting. Performances were often accompanied with music and dancing. The storyteller was simultaneously creator and performer. In performance, the bard remembered some and improvised some, making a fresh tale each time. As Marcel Detienne wrote in The Creation Of Mythology (Chicago, 1986), "Memory and forgetting are equally inventive".

Hero Myths

Uh, Dad...I'm over here.

Jason, a popular mythological figure, pleads for Herc when the big guy gets put on trial.

[18] Homer's pair of epics is historically significant and not just for its position in the chronology of written literature. They are also exceptional examples of the richness of myth and its symbols.

[19] The Iliad is the story of a few days (just forty-two) out of the ten-year Trojan War. It does not cover the beginning nor the end of the war, but rather it concentrates on the relationships among those fighting, including the Olympian gods, and it focuses on the rare days when the Trojans came out ahead of the game.

[20] Edith Hamilton fills in the background of the Trojan War, as told in other myths. The war came about when Paris, a man of Troy, chose Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess. She rewarded him with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. Helen, unfortunately for Paris, was promised to Menelaus, a Greek. When Paris took Helen with him to Troy, Menelaus called upon all of Greece to help him rescue her. Menelaus' brother Agamemnon led 1,000 Greek ships to Troy to bring back the most beautiful woman in the world. The Iliad ends when Achilles, Greece's greatest warrior, kills the Trojan prince Hector. The war ended when the Greeks built a great wooden horse and filled it with their soldiers. They tricked the Trojans into believing it was some sort of gift. The Trojans hauled it into their city, bringing the enemy right into their midst, past the walls that had so effectively kept the Greeks at bay for ten years.

[21] The Iliad is, in essence, a story about Achilles. It is an exploration of the heroic ideal. Achilles is prepared to sacrifice everything to honor and, in doing so, embodies the classic sense of tragedy: a great man who leads a short, troubled life. As noted in the Encyclopedia Britannica:

The Iliad is not merely a distillation of the whole protracted war against Troy but simultaneously an exploration of the heroic ideal in all its self-contradictoriness -- its insane and grasping pride, its magnificent but animal strength, its ultimate if obtuse humanity.

[22] The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus' attempts to return to Ithaca, his homeland. When the Greeks finally conquered the enemy and entered Troy, they forgot to give the gods their due, and so the gods punished them, asking Poseidon to churn up the sea as the fleet sailed home. Among The Odyssey's adventures are visiting the Lotus-Eaters, growers of flowers which made men lose their longing for home; visiting Circe who turned men into swine; and battling the Cyclops Polyphemus.

[23] What a different tale The Odyssey is from The Iliad. While The Iliad is militaristic and martial, The Odyssey is more akin to fantasy, more interested in the picaresque. In fact, this diversity in tone has become, for some, proof that the two works could not have been composed by the same man. But they are alike in many ways. They are both myths of the hero: Achilles the strong warrior and Odysseus the cunning thinker.

[24] It is prudent to consider Joseph Campbell's assertion that the hero's journey is not just through the human or even superhuman world, but through a cosmic one. It is not just the "outward, physical adventures of legendary or historical figures, but the inward, mental adventures..." Whatever Achilles and Odysseus faced in their adventures was just a representation of what they, as heroes, faced within themselves. Campbell writes, "Hero Myths originate in encounters with the lost dimensions of the mind and the world. They function to enable others to encounter these dimensions themselves".

[25] Heroes symbolically traverse a strange internal world, discovering there is much more to the person than his or her own consciousness. And remarkably so, hero myths share this unique quality across all cultures. They do more than identify with the mere individual or nation, they carry meaning for the entire world.


Hera has a taste for liver tonight.

Prometheus runs afoul of Hera (a common hazard in Ancient Greece).

[26] Whether or not actual human beings were models for our myths, myths are a way of viewing our history. They record, in an often veiled and symbolic language, a set of values which are at the very nucleus of our origins. But what is important to remember is that myths are not the sole purview of the ancient Greeks. They cross all cultural boundaries and eras. Myths are a part of who we are now, and we continually write new myths.

[27] To shed a little light onto the richness and complexity of the new mythology being created on Xena: Warrior Princess, consider, for example, that we are witnessing the birth of a new body of stories, or at least a re-telling of them with a belated feminist bent. Some of the stories are as fantastic and absurd as Odysseus' adventures in The Odyssey [e.g., BEEN THERE, DONE THAT (48/302); A A COMEDY OF EROS (46/222); FOR HIM THE BELL TOLLS (40/216)]. Some are as militaristic and devastating as The Iliad [e.g., THE PRICE (44/220), THE DELIVERER (50/304), BEWARE OF GREEKS (12/112)]. Through them all, however, they expand the boundaries of our culture, correcting past misconceptions and yet retelling our fundamental narratives. These new myths are just as complex and deeply layered as those of old. They are open to interpretation and debate, and passionate personal meaning.

[28] To give you an idea of how many ways these new myths can be regarded, consider who Xena's hero might be. Is it Xena? Is it Gabrielle? For as Joseph Campbell writes, "Whoever invents or uses the myth to deal with the unconscious is the true hero".

As long as we continue to be sentient beings we shall continue to need myths, since myth is the primary ground on which we articulate our experience of ourselves in our social and natural environment.
   -- Norman Auston, Meaning And Being In Myth


Norman Auston, Meaning And Being In Myth, University Park, PA (Penn State University Press, 1990)

Blundell, Sue. Women In Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995)

Boardman, Griffin, and Murray ed. Greece And The Hellenistic World. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1986)

"The Homeric Epics: Stabilizing the text." Britannica Online.

"Greek Literature: Ancient Greek literature: The Genres" Britannica Online.

Campbell, Joseph with Bill Moyers. The Power Of Myth, Betty Sue Flowers, Ed., (New York: Doubleday, 1988)

Detienne, Marcel. The Creation Of Mythology, translated by Margaret Cook (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986)

Grant, Michael. Atlas Of Classical History. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994)

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. (New York: Penguin Books, 1940)

Segal, Robert A. Joseph Campbell: An Introduction (New York: Penguin Books, 1990)

Segal, Robert A., ed. Myth And Ritual Theory (Malden, MA: Blackwell 1998)

Thomas, Rosalind. Literacy And Orality In Ancient Greece (London: Cambridge University Press 1992)

Tyrrell, William Blake. Amazons: A Study In Athenian Mythmaking (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984)

Zaidman, Louise Bruit and Pantel, Pauline Schmitt Pantel. Religion In The Ancient Greek City. trans. Paul Cartledge. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

A Guide To The Ancient World (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1997)

Classical Mythology (New Lanark: Geddes and Grosset, 1997)


Yeah, I'm an intellectual...what's it to you? Carolyn Bremer
Carolyn Bremer is a composer of issue-oriented, experimental and political music, and head of the composition program at the University of Oklahoma.
Favorite episode: A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215)
Favorite line: Picking just one out of the plethora of deserving candidates is utterly impossible.
First episode seen: A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215)
Least favorite episode: FOR HIM THE BELL TOLLS (40/216) And I'm really hoping that doesn't get bumped out of the bottom spot by a fourth season Joxer bumble.

Ms. Bremer has previously written for WHOOSH:

"Anachronism Be Damned: A XWP Historiography. Part I: Timetable And Overview", Whoosh! #26 (9811)

"Duality and Completeness: An Analysis of the Xena: Warrior Princess Theme Music", Whoosh! #20 (9805)

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