The History Behind Greek Mythology
History of Greek Mythology
To truly appreciate Greek Mythology a knowledge of the history behind it is beneficial. Through the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures, and their ancestors, a wonderful mix of belief and story created what we see today as a rich and complex mythology. Writers including Homer, gathered the oral traditions together and weaved a variety of characters and situations to describe and explain their ancient past where a wealth of material combined to create varying viewpoints on the same story. Thus the myths evolved and grew over time. Similarly today our archaeologists continue to re-evaluate our ancient past through ever-expanding study and digs. From Heinrich Schlieman’s work at the Troy site to Arthur Evans’ hit or miss interpretation of the Palace of Minos on Crete and up to today, we are inundated with fresh historical material which helps to advance our understanding of mythology.
While we know Greece was settled before 70,000 BCE the evidence is sketchy. The evidence for the Neolithic Period (6000 – 3000 BCE) is more substantial. We can theorize through archaeological material that the Neolithic people came from the east and north. Small female idols with exaggerated breasts, bellies and buttocks suggest there was a mother-goddess cult in place. While male statuettes were also found, their fewer numbers point to the mother-goddess figure having a consort.
The Bronze Age is divided into three periods where the Early Bronze (3000 – 2000 BCE), Middle Bronze(2000 – 1600 BCE), and Late Bronze (1600 – 1100 BCE) are represented by three distinctive geographical areas including the Minoan (Island of Crete), Cycladic (islands off the mainland coast of Greece), and Helladic (the mainland where the Mycenaean age of the late Bronze flourished).
Minoan and Mycenaean
The Minoan Civilization reached its pinnacle around 1600 – 1400 BCE where the city of Cnossos became dominant and was influential as far away as Athens on mainland Greece. The complexity of the great palace at Cnossos hints at some historical basis for the famous labyrinth where Theseus killed the Minotaur. Artefacts found at the location reveal an intricate religion where the bull, double axe, and a snake goddess prevail. The civilization declined around 1400 BCE probably due to a combination of natural disasters and Mycenaean conquest. At this point the power moves to the mainland and centres in Mycenae.
It is believed that invasions from the north and possibly the east gradually created the Mycenaean civilization. While influenced by the Minoan civilization, as is found in the architecture of the palaces and finds of paintings and pottery, there are obvious religious differences. The northern invaders brought their sky god Zeus and Homer-like Olympians which are far different than the mother-goddess cult of the Minoans. Yet both religious ideas merge into a rich tapestry of Greek Mythology of which the story of Troy remains the best known.
Excavation of the Troy site in Turkey began with Schliemann, continued with Dorpfeld and Blegen, and is carried on today by Korfmann. Nine settlements or levels have been discovered on the site. Troy I dates to the Early Bronze. Of major interest in defining the mythical Troy are Troy VI (1750 – 1250 BCE) and Troy VIIa (1250 – 1040 BCE). While definitive proof of Homer’s Troy will probably never be found in an archaeological sense, the Troy VI level holds more promise in trying to prove Homer’s story. Mycenaean pottery discovered on the site, as well as evidence it was a major trading centre and was well protected by a ditch and wall all correspond to Homer’s tale of Priam’s city. According to Homer one of the major deities supporting Troy during the war was Apollo. Through an unlikely source, Hittite texts, mention of a god Appaliunas in the city of Troy, called Wilusa by the Hittites, corresponds with Homer’s Apollo. These Hittite documents confirm strong ties with Troy, and thus give independent verification of its existence. Further excavations around the Troy site corroborate the geographic descriptions and locations of Homer’s epic.
Close on the heels of the mythical Mycenaean victory over Troy, this early Greek period came to an end. Various theories of why it declined range from internal dissension, to the Dorians invading from the north, to destruction brandished by the ‘sea peoples’ of Egyptian records. This chapter of Greek history is followed by a Dark Age which eventually diminishes as Homer’s epics of the Iliad and Odyssey emerge from the traditional telling of oral tales to the written form. Other writers would continue this new writing tradition by fleshing out the oral history, eventually acquainting the world with a valuable history of myth.
1) Morford, Mark P.O., Robert J. Lenardon. Classical Mythology. 7th ed. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.