Greek Mythology


This introduction to Greek Mythology is compiled from E.M. Berens' "Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome", arranged here by topic for easy online reading.

The ancient Greek spiritual beliefs, religion, and oral tradition are all reflected and formulated through rich myths and legends that besides entertainment provided an articulation of the moral fiber of the Greek culture as it evolved through a thousand years.

While most of the "Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome" is presented here, I have performend considerable editing in order to adopt the text to web page spanning and design. Consequently, certain parts have been omitted, while others edited for clarity. Most of all, the linear nature of the original text has been fragmented here into mutliple pages with no sequential navigation.

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Introduction to Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome by M.E. Bernes

"Before entering upon the many strange beliefs of the ancient Greeks, and
the extraordinary number of gods they worshipped, we must first consider
what kind of beings these divinities were.

In appearance, the gods were supposed to resemble mortals, whom, however,
they far surpassed in beauty, grandeur, and strength; they were also more
commanding in stature, height being considered by the Greeks an attribute
of beauty in man or woman. They resembled human beings in their feelings
and habits, intermarrying and having children, and requiring daily
nourishment to recruit their strength, and refreshing sleep to restore
their energies. Their blood, a bright ethereal fluid called Ichor, never
engendered disease, and, when shed, had the power of producing new life.

The Greeks believed that the mental qualifications of their gods were of a
much higher order than those of men, but nevertheless, as we shall see,
they were not considered to be exempt from human passions, and we
frequently behold them actuated by revenge, deceit, and jealousy. They,
however, always punish the evil-doer, and visit with dire calamities any
impious mortal who dares to neglect their worship or despise their rites.
We often hear of them visiting mankind and partaking of their hospitality,
and not unfrequently both gods and goddesses {8} become attached to
mortals, with whom they unite themselves, the offspring of these unions
being called heroes or demi-gods, who were usually renowned for their great
strength and courage. But although there were so many points of resemblance
between gods and men, there remained the one great characteristic
distinction, viz., that the gods enjoyed immortality. Still, they were not
invulnerable, and we often hear of them being wounded, and suffering in
consequence such exquisite torture that they have earnestly prayed to be
deprived of their privilege of immortality.

The gods knew no limitation of time or space, being able to transport
themselves to incredible distances with the speed of thought. They
possessed the power of rendering themselves invisible at will, and could
assume the forms of men or animals as it suited their convenience. They
could also transform human beings into trees, stones, animals, &c., either
as a punishment for their misdeeds, or as a means of protecting the
individual, thus transformed, from impending danger. Their robes were like
those worn by mortals, but were perfect in form and much finer in texture.
Their weapons also resembled those used by mankind; we hear of spears,
shields, helmets, bows and arrows, &c., being employed by the gods. Each
deity possessed a beautiful chariot, which, drawn by horses or other
animals of celestial breed, conveyed them rapidly over land and sea
according to their pleasure. Most of these divinities lived on the summit
of Mount Olympus, each possessing his or her individual habitation, and all
meeting together on festive occasions in the council-chamber of the gods,
where their banquets were enlivened by the sweet strains of Apollo's lyre,
whilst the beautiful voices of the Muses poured forth their rich melodies
to his harmonious accompaniment. Magnificent temples were erected to their
honour, where they were worshipped with the greatest solemnity; rich gifts
were presented to them, and animals, and indeed sometimes human beings,
were sacrificed on their altars.

In the study of Grecian mythology we meet with some {9} curious, and what
may at first sight appear unaccountable notions. Thus we hear of terrible
giants hurling rocks, upheaving mountains, and raising earthquakes which
engulf whole armies; these ideas, however, may be accounted for by the
awful convulsions of nature, which were in operation in pre-historic times.
Again, the daily recurring phenomena, which to us, who know them to be the
result of certain well-ascertained laws of nature, are so familiar as to
excite no remark, were, to the early Greeks, matter of grave speculation,
and not unfrequently of alarm. For instance, when they heard the awful roar
of thunder, and saw vivid flashes of lightning, accompanied by black clouds
and torrents of rain, they believed that the great god of heaven was angry,
and they trembled at his wrath. If the calm and tranquil sea became
suddenly agitated, and the crested billows rose mountains high, dashing
furiously against the rocks, and threatening destruction to all within
their reach, the sea-god was supposed to be in a furious rage. When they
beheld the sky glowing with the hues of coming day they thought that the
goddess of the dawn, with rosy fingers, was drawing aside the dark veil of
night, to allow her brother, the sun-god, to enter upon his brilliant
career. Thus personifying all the powers of nature, this very imaginative
and highly poetical nation beheld a divinity in every tree that grew, in
every stream that flowed, in the bright beams of the glorious sun, and the
clear, cold rays of the silvery moon; for them the whole universe lived and
breathed, peopled by a thousand forms of grace and beauty.

The most important of these divinities may have been something more than
the mere creations of an active and poetical imagination. They were
possibly human beings who had so distinguished themselves in life by their
preeminence over their fellow-mortals that after death they were deified by
the people among whom they lived, and the poets touched with their magic
wand the details of lives, which, in more prosaic times, would simply have
been recorded as illustrious. {10}

It is highly probable that the reputed actions of these deified beings were
commemorated by bards, who, travelling from one state to another,
celebrated their praise in song; it therefore becomes exceedingly
difficult, nay almost impossible, to separate bare facts from the
exaggerations which never fail to accompany oral traditions.

In order to exemplify this, let us suppose that Orpheus, the son of Apollo,
so renowned for his extraordinary musical powers, had existed at the
present day. We should no doubt have ranked him among the greatest of our
musicians, and honoured him as such; but the Greeks, with their vivid
imagination and poetic license, exaggerated his remarkable gifts, and
attributed to his music supernatural influence over animate and inanimate
nature. Thus we hear of wild beasts tamed, of mighty rivers arrested in
their course, and of mountains being moved by the sweet tones of his voice.
The theory here advanced may possibly prove useful in the future, in
suggesting to the reader the probable basis of many of the extraordinary
accounts we meet with in the study of classical mythology.

And now a few words will be necessary concerning the religious beliefs of
the Romans. When the Greeks first settled in Italy they found in the
country they colonized a mythology belonging to the Celtic inhabitants,
which, according to the Greek custom of paying reverence to all gods, known
or unknown, they readily adopted, selecting and appropriating those
divinities which had the greatest affinity to their own, and thus they
formed a religious belief which naturally bore the impress of its ancient
Greek source. As the primitive Celts, however, were a less civilized people
than the Greeks, their mythology was of a more barbarous character, and
this circumstance, combined with the fact that the Romans were not gifted
with the vivid imagination of their Greek neighbours, leaves its mark on
the Roman mythology, which is far less fertile in fanciful conceits, and
deficient in all those fairy-like stories and wonderfully poetic ideas
which so strongly characterize that of the Greeks."

The text adopted here by E.M. Bernes is in the public domain and therefore free for use in any way and form, free of charge. While design, photographs, images, and layout are copyrighted, you may copy, redistribute, and use the text by E.M. Bernes (in italics above this paragraph) in any way you want, including for school papers, or commercial use.

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