Unlearning High School Mythology

The Greek pantheon became large and complex because so many cultural influences shaped Greek history. New gods became incorporated through outside invasions, trade interactions, and the conquest of other states. The foundational strain of Greek civilization, called the Pelasgian culture by ancient Greek historians and part of the wider civilization of Old Europe by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, placed goddesses at the center of worship. Indo-European invasions introduced a patriarchal religion headed by a sky god Zeus. In time other deities were introduced through trade (e.g., Aphrodite) or conquest (e.g., Hecate). Meanwhile devotion to pre-Indo-European goddesses such as Artemis or Athena persisted.

Like nearly all polytheistic societies, the Greeks absorbed new deities by incorporating them in a common religious framework. A favored way of doing this was to marry one of the old goddesses to a new god. The goddess Hera became the wife of god Zeus and Persephone the wife of Hades. Since marriage was seen as subjugation of the goddess, where the cult of a goddess was particularly strong she remained virgin, as in the case of Artemis or Athena. Another way of creating order in the pantheon was to assign specific functions to different deities. Thus Aphrodite was not allowed to do any “work,” but must (officially) stick to her realm of romantic love. Sometimes a deity with a weaker following would become the priestess of a deity with a more robust cult, especially if these deities had similar functions. Thus the Arcadian bear goddess Callisto was said to be a priestess of Artemis. The ecstatic Dionysus was followed by the wild goddesses known as the Maenads. Other times deities with similar functions would be subsumed under the name of the deity with the more powerful cult.

Hera with Prometheus. 4th century b.c.e. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Hera with Prometheus. 4th century b.c.e. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

When the Romans adopted the Greek religion they pursued this strategy with abandon, and nearly all of their deities had a Greek equivalent that the Romans considered identical. The Romans believed that the gods in all other pantheons were identical to their own, even pantheons from cultures they considered very different from theirs. In some cases the deities probably were the same. For example, Father Zeus, Zeus Pater, not only has an identical position and personality to the Roman god Jupiter, the names sound very similar. Deities from other cultures may have been integrated into the Roman pantheon at an earlier time, or similar deities could have a common origin in an earlier Indo-European or Old European culture.

In the Middle Ages the Roman, but not the Greek, names for deities were known to most people in Roman Catholic countries. Common people called the old gods by their Roman names or by the name of the fictitious saint they had been reinvented as or by the original name in their own language. Scholars in all but a few monasteries in Ireland read Latin but not Greek, and so Greek literature was unavailable to them. With the Renaissance came the rediscovery of Greek literature along with renewed interest in the Greek and Roman deities and perhaps the apogee of Western literature and art. From this time the greatest literature in English has sought inspiration from the old gods. This inspiration has been understood to be, at least officially, one of symbol and of metaphor rather than of worship. This interpretation has emphasized the functional aspects of the deities. So Hera becomes Marriage; Pan, Nature; Aphrodite, Love; Zeus, Authority. This is how we learn Greek mythology in high school.

I asked at the school in my village if Greek mythology was still being taught, and I was told, “Yes, of course! The children get a brief introduction in grade school and more thorough exposure in high school.” I think they were a bit shocked that I would even ask the question. But it is important to keep in mind why children are forced to learn the Greco-Roman pantheon. It is so they can understand ancient literature, Renaissance literature, literature of the Romantic era, and the small amount of art history they are exposed to. It is not about understanding the gods. So we know Hera as the jealous wife of Zeus who presides over marriage, Demeter as the goddess of motherhood, Persephone as ruler of the death realm, and Artemis as forest maiden who hunts critters.

The problem is that not even the Greeks understood their gods in this way. Take this classical hymn to the goddess Hera:

O Royal Juno [Hera] of majestic mien, aerial-form’d, divine, Jove’s [Zeus’] blessed queen,

Thron’d in the bosom of cærulean air, the race of mortals is thy constant care.

The cooling gales thy pow’r alone inspires, which nourish life, which ev’ry life desires.

Mother of clouds and winds, from thee alone producing all things, mortal life is known:

All natures share thy temp’rament divine, and universal sway alone is thine.

With founding blasts of wind, the swelling sea and rolling rivers roar, when shook by thee.

Come, blessed Goddess, fam’d almighty queen, with aspect kind, rejoicing and serene.

Hera is not only the goddess of marriage and the wife of Zeus, she is the creator of everything, the sustainer of life, the protector of people, the force that drives the wind, the waves, and the torrid rivers. She is a big deal.

The problems in how we conceptualized the Greco-Roman gods in our high school English class increase exponentially when we begin applying this methodology to other pantheons. Our understanding becomes not only grossly reductionist, but wrong.

Let’s look again at the Germanic pantheon. The Germanic tribes, like the Greek, had a steadily growing collection of deities to sort out. Unlike the Greeks, who lived for millennia in the same place and found themselves conquered and reconquered, the Germans grew their pantheon by conquering others and absorbing the local gods, then repeating the process many times as they moved westward. It is common wisdom that the gods of the Vanir branch (including Freya and Freyr), are the Old European gods and the larger Aesir branch (which includes Frigga, Odin, Thor and many others) is the Indo-European one, but the Aesir includes plenty of Old European deities that were absorbed at an earlier time. I have heard Odin described as the old warrior and Thor the young warrior; Skadi the winter goddess and Idunn the spring goddess; Frejya the woman warrior and Frigga the hearth goddess. These depictions are totally accurate but completely wrong.

Sometimes a discussion of Germanic mythology from a functional perspective describes the afterlife as the Hall of Valhalla presided over by the god Odin. Only warriors go there, so Odin is the god of the warrior death realm while the goddess Hel is queen of death for ignoble people. But further reading of the myths reveals that half the slain in battle (actually the preferred half) go to Frejya’s Hall of Sessrymnir. Hel’s death field is a sheet of ice, but there is a death goddess by the name of Mengloth who lives on a hill in the underworld called Lyfjaberg. Frigga greets the dead from her island of Fensalir. The god Heimdall meets his faithful in his hall of Himinbjorg. The Germanic tribes seem to have sorted out their gods not by dividing functions, but by allocating real estate in the afterworld. They were a people who lived very close to death, after all.

Unlearning high school mythology allows us to make better sense of the Germanic mythology penned by the first generations of Christians, and perhaps even to discern some of their conceptual errors. Next week we will again look at the goddesses Frejya and Frigga, and hopefully understand them in a better way.

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2 Responses to Unlearning High School Mythology

  1. Flora Elmore says:

    My daughter recently defended Medusa during a mythology lesson at her middle school. Her argument was that Medusa was probably a female warrior of the first class with dread locs that scared the crap out of the Greeks. Medusa’s defense of her home lands freaked the Greeks out so badly that they were paralyzed with fear turning them to stone on the spot. At least that was their defense for not bringing back more slave women.

    When I asked my daughter what her teacher thought of her version of the Medusa myth she said that she got an ‘A’ along with a note that said “Blessed are the myth makers.”

    I love that my daughter looks beyond the lines of whitewash and pokes at the truth that keeps moving forward even today through our myths.

    Thank you for the post I will make sure to ask my daughter to read it. ~ Flora