The main content objective for this section is to trace the development of literature from its mythological beginnings. Mythic stories were created, according to Edith Hamilton, in her
, at a time when the distinction between the real and the unreal was not clearly perceived. The earliest form of myth, for example, was a story of a sun god or underworld god who was portrayed in human terms and yet completely identified with a specific force in nature. These early stories, metaphors in action, if you will, were man’s attempt to explain the natural world in human terms. This imaginative impulse to connect the mind with the world outside is found later in literature, where connections are made through simile and metaphor, our two most common figures of speech. The need to identify through analogy evolves directly from the mythic impulse to associate human with non-human worlds.
I like to introduce mythology through the reading of Creation myths, forms of which can be found in the mythology of every culture. Several different Greek origin myths exist, The most familiar is the story of the Olympian gods found in Hesiod’s
, written in the eighth century B.C. Hesiod’s story became the source for the later Roman version of the myth told by Ovid in his
is a good source for the retelling of both versions. You will also find the story of how the world and mankind were created, together with the story of Prometheus, the first hero. Comparisons to creation stories found in Norse, Eskimo, North American Indian, and Chinese mythology will permit students to note similarities and differences. These readings can be the basis of reports to the class and discussion.
Whichever creation stories you choose to explore with your class, you will find that they fall into two groups. One group describes creations in terms of things being made, or built, or arranged in order; the other group describes origins in terms of things being born or growing. Both Greek and Chinese stories are examples of “growth” myths; whereas Ovid’s story is of a god who arranges things in order. Likewise, the opening passages of Genesis present a god at whose words “Let there be,” creation is ordered into being. Creation myths, then, spring from a very basic human need—to transform chaos into order. By comparing different myths, this need to exert control over the natural world can be seen as a universal impulse. Even though today we have gained more control of nature through reason, our imaginations have not changed their creative function. To bring order out of chaos is still as compelling a need as ever. The power of the imagination to give public shape to private experience as seen in myth is the basis of literary expression today. The same stories are still being told; they have just changed costumes.
The next step in any study of mythology is a discussion of the gods. The most important thing to note is that even though the gods in the earliest myths are all associated with the natural world, they are, nevertheless, fashioned in the image of man. Furthermore, since they are all members of one big family, they behave in their social relationships very much as do members of any family. They are jealous and loving, possessive and generous, crafty and gullible, vindictive and forgiving. My favorite story is of Zeus, who when he learned that his wife Metis was pregnant with Athena, swallowed her, fetus and all, in a jealous rage. Zeus wanted to give birth to the goddess himself. Cannibalism is only part of the story. When Athena came to term and was about to be born, her loving father hired a lesser god, probably Hephaistos, to split his head open with an ax so that Athena, privileged child that she was, could spring from his forehead. And spring she did, fully grown, in full armour, shouting her war-cry and waving her sword around her head. No pimply adolescence for her. When Archie and Edith Bunker sing “Those Were The Days” on their TV. show “All In The Family” we know exactly what they are longing for.
The next thing to observe about myths is that, sooner or later, they begin to cluster into a mythology. When they do, they take on the character of the history of human development. Ovid organized the Greek myths into a complete body of stories which when read in the proper order revealed to the reader the mythical story of the human race from the creation of man down to his own day. Gods reappear in different episodes, in characteristic roles. Also, the plots of the stories begin to recur. Stories of beginnings, stories of the loss of innocence, stories of destruction, stories of metamorphosis, stories that connect human life with the turning of the seasons, stories of search, stories of separation and reunion become familiar to the reader.
The last step in the mythological process is the creation of stories about semi-divine or human figures with extraordinary powers—in a word, heroes—completing the cycle from Zeus to Prometheus. Whatever the story, from whichever culture, the hero stories follow the same recurring narrative pattern. This pattern which will be considered in the third section of this unit is the hero-quest-myth.