Discuss about the Interpretations of Greek and Roman myths.
The genesis of European civilization is grounded on the interaction or the conflict of two civilizations; Greek and Roman civilization of the Southern Europe and the German or Scandinavian hordes of the North. In the beginning, the clash was between two pagan societies, cultures and civilizations but later (Blundell 2016). However, the Southern Europe embraced Christianity (Predominantly a monotheistic religion) the conflict remained potent until the very end of the the first millennium. Nevertheless, the role of Greek and Roman literature, science and thought was solely prominent in the Renaissance of Europe in the fourteenth to sixteenth century. The classical texts were very influential in the modern universities of Europe including Oxford, Cambridge, Vienna, Wurzburg and many others. The Theo-centric worldview of the medieval period was challenged by the classical anti-thesis of Anthropocentrism. The Renaissance man was an overreacher, ‘he’ wanted to read and learn more, he wanted to know more, he wanted discover and invent, he wanted to become god. The classical myths played a significant role to shape up the minds of the great thinkers like Christopher Marlowe, John Lily and William Shakespeare. “Knowledge became power” and the mythical gods became the ideal characters to emulate and imitate. Shakespeare’s deliberate use of Theseus and Cupid in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” followed by the re-interpretation of the myth of Prometheus in Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound” and Albert Camus’ idealizing Sisyphus as the epitome of absurd(Anand 2015). European writers can be broadly classified into two different types, some of them idealize the Christian myths and Biblical stories; the other type follow classical myths. Over the period of time their came people who intermingled both and criticized one of them; one such example is Ted Hughes, whose criticism of Christianity has been the highlight of English literature in the second half of the twentieth century.
Mythology is neither a fact and nor is it fiction, it is a combination of both. It is somebody’s truth; it is a way of communication (White 2015). Roland Barthes believed that myths are nothing but a repackaging of appropriating popular culture and repurposing it. All the great writers of European literature have interpreted and reinterpreted the classical myths repeatedly with new contexts. The contexts of the myths have changed according to the thought of the time and the author. Every period of Literature was a mirror of its times but myths has been the instant source of inspirations for the authors. Greek and Roman myths have been present from literature to Architecture and from psychology to sociological studies around the world. Even in the Roman age, the Greek myths were rewritten. Due to the constant conflicts between the Persians, disunity among the Greek states and the constant revolts in the Greek colonies, Greece collapsed and which resulted into the rise of Rome (Blundell 2016). This led to the incorporation of the Greek traditions into Roman culture.
Sophocles’ trilogy of “The Three Theban plays” is synonymous to the tale of interpretations and reinterpretations of the classical myths. The story of Oedipus was mentioned in the old texts of Homer, Pindar, Hesiod and others. Later on, it was reused in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The story of eternal tragedy and sufferance, The constant presence of literary devices like ‘hubris’ (arrogance) and ‘hamartia’ (downfall); the climax and anti climax which leads to catharsis are some of the everlasting aspects of human life. A modern pioneer of psychology, psychiatry and psycho analogy, Sigmund Freud extensively used this myth in the modern times to co-relate the crisis of human mind and a conflict between internal and external world of a human being. The story of Oedipus, who accidentally marries his mother, murders his father and remains ignorant about the facts of his life till the very climax of the play became an ideal figure for human psychology and his analogy of actions. The mythical presence of the story of the play cannot be underplayed and will automatically come at the top to analyse the Greek myths in context to Europe’s literary history.
Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” (8 C.E) is considered as an epic despite its indifferent style of narrative and language (Anderson 1997 ). “Metamorphoses” is a compilation of two hundred and fifty short stories written in verse (Galinsky 1975). The stories include tales from the creation to the death of Julius Caesar (one year before Ovid’s birth). One of those 250 tales is the famous tale of “Pygmalion”. In Ovid, Pygmalion is an eminent figure of Crypton and its Greek parallels can be found in the in Daedulus, who had the power to inhale life in statues (Solodow, 2014). This myth was reused in the story of “Pinnochio”, Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” and many others. Today’s world is a global culture, a culture that is post-age phenomena of inventions and various socio-economic experiments. Humans have experimented with their needs, with their art and culture, they have implied their knowledge for achieving something new, and they have tried to over reach (Solodow 2014). The Greek myths holistically symbolize a tale of coronation and abdication of Gods as the ultimate powers. The Olympians replaced the Titans and the Olympians are concerned of the humans, ‘the future gods’. There are number examples of disobedience in Greek mythology. The dissiliences symbolize the wrath of the gods and the overreaching nature of humans. The great German philosopher and thinker, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe designed three such overreachers in Greek and Roman mythology; Prometheus (who brought fire to mankind), Sisyphus (self aggrandizing) and Tantalus (cannibalism) as the symbols of eternal sufferance. Camus framed the idea as synonymous to eternal human sufferance, where humans do not know the purpose of their existence, the genesis of the human civilization and how the history becomes immaterial (Anand 2015). The concept of Sisyphus has been repeatedly used in the post modern times (Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett) and the idea of Shelley’s Prometheus in “Prometheus Unbound” is a romantic interpretation of the Greek figure, who becomes independent in the poem. The role of these three myths in the history of modern literature is unmatchable (Lampe 2017).
Homer’s “Iliad and Odyssey” is the most prominent form of text in the history of the Classical civilization. The eminent characters of these epics were used reused in different contexts by various authors. Odysseus or Ulysses is believed to be the most complex and controversial character in the epic. The urge of Ulysses to return to Ithaca after the Trojan War and his everlasting spirit to,” strive, to seek, to find and not to yield” makes him an odd one out among all other Greek heroes (Allen 2015). However, the archetypes like ‘Achilles’ heel’ and ‘Agamemnon’s greed’ remains a part of world literature but Ulysses’ presence in the eminent works like “Ulysses”, a novel by James Joyce and a poem by the same name by Lord Alfred Tennyson. The everlasting spirit of human race in the quest of advancement is synonymous to this mythical hero.
The tragedy of Oedipus Rex has a gigantic impact to various forms of sciences and literature in the modern day world. It is a tale of prophecy and the fallacy of human kind who is a puppet in the hands of destiny (Stone 2014). The destiny remains undefeatable and invincible even if you are a king, a warrior or a hero. The play begins with the king of Thebes, Oedipus Rex seeking for the reason of the plague in his empire. The play is written with the literary device of the three unities (time, place and action) like all other Greek plays. The play continues with Oedipus’s search to know the truth. Throughout the play, the audiences get to know the back-story of Oedipus who came from Corinth, as he feared the assassination of his father and marrying his mother. The Prophesy by Oracle of Delphi concerned him with his future and fled from his homeland to Thebes. Hereafter, the story reveals how Liaus the real father of Oedipus was forced to throw his son because of the same prophesies made by Oracle of Delphi. In the end of the play, Oedipus perceives the entire truth that he has accidentally killed his father and married his mother Jocasta (McManus 2014). After knowing this Oedipus self blinded him because of shame and self hatred. The play remains a source of an example used in Freud as a psychological aspect of humans called ‘Oedipal complex’. Shakespeare also incorporated the same concept in his ‘Hamlet’.
Ovid’s “Pygmalion” is a short poem of about sixty lines. As the story of Pygmalion can be traced to the tales of Daedalus of Greek mythology. Primarily it is a story of creation and an urge of a human creator to become Godlike. Pygmalion, a sculptor creates a statue of a woman, which later was named as Galatea by late Roman poets. The creation is so beautiful and near to life that the creator wants injects life into it. The creator has fallen in love with his own creation. Venus, the goddess of beauty listens to the urge of Pygmalion and injects life into the non-living statue. The poem is small yet effective to human imagination. Tales of creation has always been a major subject of interest among the scholars all around the world. This is a retelling of the tale of creation by replacing God with a man and man with a statue (Reynolds 2016).
Prometheus’s story deals with his disobedience to Zeus (the King of Olympians) and his love for the human race. He stole fire from Olympia and presented the superior element to humans. This disobedience led to the anger of Zeus, who eternally punished him (Shelley 2013). According to the punishment, his hands will hang Immortal Prometheus and an eagle will eat out his liver everyday, which will revive itself at night. Prometheus has been part of various Greek abd Roman traditions including Aethenian, Homerian, Pythagorian and many others. Hesoid’s Theogony (507-616) is a major source of this tale. The myth of Sisyphus deals with the story of a king, who betrayed Zeus, used deceitfulness to seduce women and his hatred towards Salmoneous led to his eternal punishment of pushing the same rock to the top the hill everyday, which subsequently comes down every night (O’Neill 2017). It is synonymous to the meaningless existence of Humanity. Both these characters along with Tantalus are deep into underground (Tartarus) because of their misdeeds. The story of Sisyphus and Tantalus are found shortly in “Odyssey”, in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and in the song of Orpheus (Proven 2017).
Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” are two of the most important texts of the ancient Greece. The character of Odysseus plays a prominent role in both parts but truly becomes the protagonist in the epic by his name. The Greek heroes of Trojan war including, Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon, Menelaus and many more. The unforgettable tale of war and loss, treachery and sufferance, chaos and void has a huge impact in the literature and culture of all European traditions. Odysseus, the most treacherous of the all the Greek heroes has gain prominence like Machiavellian “Prince”. Odysseus was the mastermind behind the plan of Trojan horse and he was the only one to use his superior mind to control the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon (Heubeck, West and Hainsworth 1990). His quest to comeback after a curse of Polyphemus in the land of the Cyclops took him ten years. This long-lasting voyage was full of hardships, adventures and sacrifices. He loses all of his companions in this cursed voyage (Cook 2014). Despite this, his eternal spirit to achieve victory and his self-belief did not let him down.
All these myths are used in the modern literature as a source of symbolism and as representative of human mind. In Greece mythology dealt with everyday life. Myths are created from reality; later on after the coinage of the term ‘myth’, it was re-interpreted. In the colonial era the term myth was believed to be a borrowed word from ‘mithya’ which meant lie. According to modern thought and age of science and technology, the authenticity of myths as historical reality is not possible (Bremmer 2014). However, its significance lies in the allegorical, metaphorical and symbolical understanding of them. The advancement of Greek and Roman thought, their science, their technology, their literature and architecture was superior to the European advancement in the next fifteen hundred years. The reintroduction of classical myths and the discovery of their texts along with the invention of the printing press led to the rise in the use of these myths (White 2015).
Europe has observed a sea of changes in the two millenniums. The significant events like the Muslim invasion, the Germanic conflict with the Christians, the Renaissance, the Industrial revolution, the French Revolution, the Romantic movement , the Russian revolution, the colonial conquests around the world, the enormous growth of trade and economy, the first and second World Wars and many more. The eminent writers have searched the source of this events into the past. They have figured out the qualities of Man by looking back. They understood the eminent properties of the most superior race of the planet by studying the myths and reusing them. The Greco-Roman myths are allegorical tales of human minds and deeds, which became the automatic source to the authors (Bremmer 2014). For example, Mary Shelley’s need to showcase the overreaching human innovations in her novel “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus” urged her to borrow qualities from the myths of Prometheus like her husband (Shelley 2016). Her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley reinterpreted the same myth with a twist. He displays his romanticism through the exemption of Prometheus and his subsequent victory over Demogorgon (the evil force). Similarly, Shakespeare has used the oedipal complex to highlight the relation between Gertrude and Hamlet. Hamlet wants to murder his stepfather Claudius to avenge his father’s death. His love and attraction for Gertrude remains a form of intertextuality. Moreover, these ideas are used to represent and reciprocate relevant characters, and to symbolize eternal human qualities, which keep coming back.
The most influential forms of literature have borrowed from the classical literature. The ecstasy and depth, the inherent qualities of human nature has captured the minds of the writers of all periods since the Renaissance. William Shakespeare and Thomas Norton from Elizabethan and Jacobian age, Dryden, Pope and Swift among the neo-classicals or be it Shelley and Keats of the Romantic period, Tennyson, Joyce and Camus of the Nineteenth and the Twentieth century, they have all incorporated the ideas and myths of classical literature into their writings (Yu 2013).
Freud’s theory of unconscious needed an example to understand the bits and pieces of it. Freud deliberately used oedipal complex to portray the unconscious desire of a boy child’s mind for his mother. Electra complex is another such theory, which defines a psychosexual inertness of a girl child to compete with her mother to achieve more love from her father (Pélabon 2013). Chrysanthos Mentis Bostantzoglou’s 1993 play “Medea” is a pastiche of the first play of Sophocles’ trilogy (Solomon 2015). The western world was well acquainted to the story of Oedipus; hence Bostanzoglou and Freud used the myth for their own respective interests (Pélabon 2013).
“Prometheus Unbound” and “Frankenstein” are the two most important works in the Romantic period. Prometheus has become the most symbolic myth for human sufferance and the meaningless of the absurd (Wright 2015). Percy Bysshe Shelley’s idea of Prometheus, who suffers through out the poem but overcomes his curse and attains victory over his enemy Demogorgon is a true representative of his period (Shelley 2013). Shelley was a prophetic in his composition. He was a visionary of the future and a restructurer of the past. And perhaps that is the reason why he uses the old myth but reinterprets it into Prometheus’s victory over all odds unlike the original text (O’Neill 2017).
The myth of Pygmalion is widely used in English, Scottish, German, Romanian and even African and Indian literature. Among all of them, George Bernard Shaw’s adaptation “Pygmalion” is considered as the most popular, which was later further interpreted in a number of films. Bernard Shaw’s play is was a modern interpretation of the myth. The retelling displays an age of socio-economic boom, an age, which is prior to the modern period, an age where every representative of wage earners and labour class wanted to engross their mannerisms and reach better heights in the society, which was dominated by imperialist ideas and aristocratic hangover (Babad 2016). The numerous telling and retelling of Pygmalion is worthy of remembering and analyzing. In Shaw’s play,” Pygmalion”, Professor Henry Higgins tries to escalate the phonetic powers and mannerisms of Eliza Doolittle for a bet with his friend and fellow Phonetician Pickering. In the process, Higgins fell in love with Eliza but part ways at the end of the play. Shaw chose this myth in his legendary work because of the eternal features of humanity. The love of a creator for his creation and his desire to make it lively is eternal (Reynolds 2016). Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” is the most prominent among all other adaptations; it is the most relevant modern retelling of the myth, which is remade into films, operas and many other plays (Babad 2016).
Modernism as a movement had certain features, which are easily obtainable in all the text of the first half of the 20th century. Joyce’s “Ulysses” is a cult text which is an expression of Joyce’s love for the character since the very beginning of his life. He came across this name in an essay of Charles Lamb (Adventures of Ulysses). His retelling is a modern story of Leopold Bloom and his journey in life. Joyce divides the novel into 18 episodes with the chapter names of the original “Odyssey” (Joyce 2016). The retelling remains one of the canonical texts in the history because of its universality and connectivity to all readers and humans (Joyce et al. 2015). The eternal story of voyage, which symbolizes life of every human in the face of earth, is used extensively in the story with the use of the Stream of Consciousness (literary device).
The worldview of Classical mythology divides time and all other elements into Order and Chaos. Chaos is a representation of absence of reason, ignorance and objected to the mythos of others. Chaos and order symbolizes European history. From the civil wars, to the revolutions; from Crusades to Renaissance, European civilizations have observed its representation of Chaos and order. Both the words, History and Mythology are borrowed from Greek and both of them meant story.The classical antiquity has played a larger role in the literary culture of the western thought. The popularity of the Greek myths have led to a numerous film and literary adaptations. From Hercules to the Helen of Troy, from Oedipus to Tantallus and from Aeneus to Hector, the telling and retelling of these stories have been a part of European culture. These characters and myths are thought to be the ancestors of Europeans. The lost history and culture is revived and retold for the glorious past and their link to them. The depth in these myths have created archetypes and the eminent Greek playwrights like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes along with the songs of Homer and Virgil remains in the heart of the core of European literature. Robert Graves, Goethe and Albert Camus have used the myths to portray the hopelessness of Mankind in the Post-modern period.
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Stone, D., 2014. The concept of the Oedipus Complex comes from pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who believed that baby boys developed a sexual fixation on their Mothers but then repress these urges upon realizing that they are culturally taboo. This is an early example of a person’s exercising of their ego, Freud’s term for the rational part of a person’s psyche. The ego is contrasted by a person’s id, which constitutes a person’s most primal and carnal physical.
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