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Robert Graves: “The Greek Myths” – Volume I, Introduction

The medieval emissaries of the Catholic Church brought to Great Britain, in addition to the whole corpus of sacred history, a Continental university system based on the Greek and Latin Classics. Such native legends as those of King Arthur, Guy of Warwick, Robin Hood, the Blue Hag of Leicester, and King Lear were considered suitable enough for the masses, yet by early Tudor times the clergy and the educated classes were referring far more frequently to the myths in Ovid, Virgil, and the grammar school summaries of the Trojan War. Though official English literature of the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries cannot, therefore, be Virgil, and the grammar school summaries of the Trojan War. Though official English literature of the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries cannot, therefore, be properly understood except in the light of Greek mythology, the Classics have lately lost so much ground in schools and universities that an educated person is now no longer expected to know (for instance) who Deucalion, Pelops, Daedalus, Oenone, Laocoön, or Antigone may have been. Current knowledge of these myths is mostly derived from such fairy-story versions as Kingsley’s Heroes and Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales; and at first sight this does not seem to matter much, because for the last two thousand years it has been the fashion to dismiss the myths as bizarre and chimerical fancies, a charming legacy from the childhood of the Greek intelligence, which the Church naturally depreciates in order to emphasize the greater spiritual importance of the Bible. Yet it is difficult to overestimate their value in the study of early European history, religion, and sociology.

‘Chimerical’ is an adjectival form of the noun chimaera, meaning ‘she-goat’. Four thousand years ago the Chimaera can have seemed no more bizarre than any religious, heraldic, or commercial emblem does today. She was a formal composite beast with (as Homer records) a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail. A Chimaera has been found carved on the walls of a Hittite temple at Carchemish and, like such other composite beasts as the Sphinx and the Unicorn, will originally have been a calendar symbol: each component represented a season of the Queen of Heaven’s sacred year—as, according to Diodorus Siculus, the three strings of her tortoise-shell lyre also did. This ancient three-season year is discussed by Nilsson in his ‘Primitive Time Reckoning’ (1910).

Only a small part, however, of the huge, disorganized corpus of Greek mythology, which contains importations from Crete, Egypt, Palestine, Phrygia, Babylonia, and elsewhere, can properly be classified with the Chimaera as true myth. True myth may be defined as the reduction to narrative shorthand of ritual mime performed on public festivals, and in many cases recorded pictorially on temple walls, vases, seals, bowls, mirrors, chests, shields, tapestries, and the like. The Chimaera and her fellow calendar-beasts must have figured prominently in these dramatic performances which, with their iconographic and oral records, became the prime authority, or charter, for the religious institutions of each tribe, clan, or city. Their subjects were archaic magic-makings that promoted the fertility or stability of a sacred queendom, or kingdom—queendoms having, it seems, preceded kingdoms throughout the Greek speaking area—and amendments to these, introduced as circumstances required. Lucian’s essay ‘On the Dance’ lists an imposing number of ritual mimes still performed in the second century AD; and Pausanias’s description of the temple paintings at Delphi and the carvings on Cypselus’s Chest, suggests that an immense amount of miscellaneous mythological records, of which no trace now remains, survived into the same period.

True myth must be distinguished from:

(1) Philosophical allegory, as in Hesiod’s cosmogony.

(2) ‘Aetiological’ explanation of myths no longer understood, as in Admetus’s yoking of a lion and a boar to his chariot.

(3) Satire or parody, as in Silenus’s account of Atlantis.

(4) Sentimental fable, as in the story of Narcissus and Echo.

(5) Embroidered history, as in Arion’s adventure with the dolphin.

(6) Minstrel romance, as in the story of Cephalus and Procris.

(7) Political propaganda, as in Theseus’s Federalization of Attica.

(8) Moral legend, as in the story of Eriphyle’s necklace.

(9) Humorous anecdote, as in the bedroom farce of Heracles, Omphale, and Pan.

(10) Theatrical melodrama, as in the story of Thestor and his daughters.

(11) Heroic saga, as in the main argument of the Iliad.

(12) Realistic fiction, as in Odysseus’s visit to the Phaeacians.

Yet genuine mythic elements may be found embedded in the least promising stories, and the fullest or most illuminating version of a given myth is seldom supplied by any one author; nor, when searching for its original form, should one assume that the more ancient the written source, the more authoritative it must be. Often, for instance, the playful Alexandrian Callimachus, or the frivolous Augustan Ovid, or the dry-as-dust late-Byzantine Tzetzes, gives an obviously earlier version of a myth than do Hesiod or the Greek tragedians; and the thirteenth-century ‘Excidium Troiae’ is, in parts, mythically sounder than the Iliad. When making prose sense of a mythological or pseudo-mythological narrative, one should always pay careful attention to the names, tribal origin, and fates of the characters concerned; and then restore it to the form of dramatic ritual, whereupon its incidental elements will sometimes suggest an analogy with another myth which has been given a wholly different anecdotal twist, and shed light on both. A study of Greek mythology should begin with a consideration of what political and religious systems existed in Europe before the arrival of Aryan invaders from the distant North and East. The whole of Neolithic Europe, to judge from surviving artifacts and myths, had a remarkably homogeneous system of religious ideas, based on worship of the many-titled Mother-goddess, who was also known in Syria and Libya.

Robert Graves, “The Greek Myths”, Volume I, excerpt from the Introduction
Robert Graves: “The Greek Myths” – Volume I, Introduction

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