Greek Mythology Essay Topic Sentences

 
1. The nature of myth
 
1. The word "myth" may bear contradictory senses ranging from "commonly believed falsehood" at one end of the spectrum to stories expressing "the only truth that really matters" at the other.
2. Myths are often "aetiological" explanations of ritualized behavior, whether that is a religious ritual or a recurrent pattern of social behavior.
3. As "explanatory stories/accounts" myths are both similar to and different from scientific hypotheses and historical explanations.
 
2. Greek culture reflected in myth; Forms and phases of Greek mythology; Divine-human encounter narratives
 
1. Understanding the interpretation a particular author intended in his version of a myth calls for recognition of the literary genre (narrative poem, dramatic poem, lyric poem, prose exposition) and the mode of exposition (tragic, comic, lyric) in which a myth has been formulated.
2. Interpretation of a "divine myth" depends partly on whether the story is told by and for a poet and an audience of "believers" or essentially with a desire to entertain.
3. While an epiphany narrative describes the appearance of a god/goddess to a mortal as an event in external reality, its focus must be seen as the human recipient's self-understanding and future course of action; the center of gravity is what happens in the mind of the human person undergoing the experience described in the narrative.
 
3. Cosmos; the order of Nature, Family, & State
 
1. The emergence of order out of primeval disorder in Hesiod's Theogony is achieved through a gradual process of groping toward intelligent control.
2. There are analogous features in Ovid's Roman creation myth in the Metamorphoses and the Biblical creation myth in Genesis 1:1-2:4a; yet each of these displays unique features and must reflect considerably different perspectives on world-order.
3. The fitful progress of cosmogony from disorder to order in the older Greek and Mesopotamian myths seems driven by alternating forces of love and strife and raises the question whether that tension may be merely cultural or universally human.
 
4. Paradise & temporal existence; Gender roles & relationships; intelligence, creativity, & evil
1. Greek and Hebrew myths of human origins display nostalgia for "paradise," "good old days," happy youth/childhood coupled with doubts whether one really wants to go back to such a time.
2. Human hardship and suffering are alternatively represented in Greek & Hebrew myths as resulting from (a) human flaw, (b) a natural world alien and hostile to humanity, and/or (c) jealous/malicious god(s).
3. The exercise of human intelligence is displayed in myths of human origins both as humanity's salvation and as humanity's ruination.
4. Myths of human origins represent sexuality and gender differences as both good and evil features of human existence.
 
5. Dimensions of Zeus; Zeus & Hera; Apollo's vision, purity, and aloofness
1. Zeus as represented in Greek myths in a strange variety of images: awesome, laughable, even lovable, an aspect of nature and a symbol of intelligent governance of the world-order.
2. The marriage of Zeus and Hera appears in Greek myths as both comic and pathetic; it is probably an oversimplification to explain this in terms of typical Greek attitudes toward marriage as an institution.
3. Pure, aloof and disdainful of all that is impure and common, Apollo can purify the polluted and point the way to purity; so distant and overwhelming is his love that intimacy with him tends to be fatal to mortals.
4. Apollo sees clearly and far and empowers whomsoever he will with "sight;" yet he thrusts inquirers back upon themselves, urging individuals to maximize their own resources but not to encroach upon what lies beyond them.
 
6. Hermes as "wayfinder"; Aphrodite's uniqueness & amorality; Artemis as nature's savage beauty; Hephaestus as the underclass artist; Athena & practical intelligence & creativity
 
1. Hermes has (with good reason) given his Latin name to the English words for a metal best known for its liquid properties, for an adjective, "mercurial," that suggests sleight of hand, rapid or even sudden ascent of the economic and social staircase; indeed, even Apollo could not have foreseen, from the childs birth in a remote mountain cavern, how far in the world this son of Zeus would go.
2. Aphrodite eludes simple categorization: although she may be represented in human form and manner, she is sexuality as a demonic primeval force of nature begotten of lust and and the resentments it provokes, yet a heavenly presence said to be a child of Zeus, and, like both Pandora and Helen, a beguiling inescapable temptation likely to bless and curse at the same time.
3. Hephaestus is at once a comic and a sympathetic figure: painfully cognizant of a questionable parentage,.sufficiently grotesque of manner and physique to provide, as Homer says, "unquenchable laughter" to the Olympians, so brilliantly creative that he commands admiration even if not respect, so indispensible to Olympian deities whose existence cannot be complete without his ingenuity and artistry that he may claims the fairest of all divine brides.
 
7. Virginal & natural purity; agriculture & regeneration of nature and humanity; predatory existence and regeneration in Dionysus (this last theme to be included in the next week's focus and topic sentences rather than this week's)
 
1. Artemis, virgin, huntress, and guardian of the realm of wild nature: she is as paradoxical as any Olympian: sexually alluring yet unavailable, protective of the young and innocent yet swift to hunt down her seeming-innocent chosen prey, symbol of divine compassion for the helpless, yet ruthless in her uncompromising demand for purity-she knows what the deep woods and trackless mountainsides know.
2. The "sacred marriage" - the fertilizing union of heaven and earth - was essential to agricultural myths and cults in the ancient Mediterranean world. So too the Eleusinian myth and cult of Demeter and Persephone involved the cyclical interaction of that which remains constant and that which recurs in season in nature.
3. The myth and the rituals linked with Demeter's Mysteries at Eleusis focus upon "the eternal Feminine"* in terms of cyclical aspects of sex, death, and regeneration in nature and human existence. (Goethe, Faust,: "Das ewig Weiblich zieht uns hinan"-'the eternal feminine' draws us onwards')
 
8. The place of death in the scheme of things; Katabasis & regeneration
 
1. For Greek humanity Dionysus became a symbol expressive of humanity's own inner contradictions between animality and spirituality, between natural existence and civilized existence, between mindless destructive violence and intense creative productivity.
2. Although in some respects Dionysus and his ritual sparagmos and omophagia are relics of a phase of cultural evolution long antedating Greek civilized existence, yet in Athens this god and his ritual became an enduring instrument for exploration of the grandeur and wretchedness of the human condition.
3. In Greek myth, the underworld is not merely the grave wherein what has lived in the past is contained, but is also the womb wherein that which awaits birth and fulfillment in life-to-come must emerge; only when the dead have been judged does the framework of choice for life-to-come become discernible.
4. Plato's Myth of Er describes the ordeal of choosing one's own existence intelligently in the face of a bewildering variety of factors bearing on possibilities and probabilities as well as the challenge to remember and make use of past experience when it is far easier to forget it.
 
9. Hero: futility & grandeur of existence within human limitations; Dimensions of Heracles
 
1. Like the gods who are also figures of mythic lore, so the hero too is open to multiple interpretation and revaluation, but because he or she is human, and must confront moral choices that have real consequences, the heroic figure offers more varied and meaningful paradigms for later humanity's self-understanding.
2. Although its traditions extend backward into the third millennium before our era, the Epic of Gilgamesh embodies such classical heroic themes as alienation from community, difficult relationships with women, male bonding, the great ordeal/quest, and confrontation with death.
3. Heracles is a legendary figure/hero reaching all the way to and beyond the limits of humanity as conceived in ancient Greek cultural norms, satisfying the highest ambitions and urges of the Greek male and repeatedly violating boundaries with impunity, yet winning the respect of gods reluctant to accept him and his behavior and later becoming, in the Roman imagination, the champion of civilized existence against barbarism.
 
10. Dimensions of Heracles; Achilles as paradigm of Tragic heroism; gods and humanity in the Odyssey
 
1. Heracles is a legendary figure/hero reaching all the way to and beyond the limits of humanity as conceived in ancient Greek cultural norms, satisfying the highest ambitions and urges of the Greek male and repeatedly violating boundaries with impunity, yet winning the respect of gods reluctant to accept him and his behavior and later becoming, in the Roman imagination, the champion of civilized existence against barbarism.
2. Achilles is the consummate warrior-hero, born of a goddess mother and a mortal father, but doomed to die young with glory; yet in the Iliad his story turns rather around his humanity, his strengths and weaknesses, his understanding of mortality, and his appreciation of what it is to be a friend, a son, and a father.
3. The moral orientation of the Homeric Odyssey is shown at the very outset to favor the ultimate success of intelligent self-interested endeavor and endurance in those who understand themselves and what they most wish to attain and to be adverse to reckless folly and the pursuit of immediate gratification.
11. Growing up (Telemachus & Nausicaa); Re-entering time (Odysseus); Civilization & Barbarism
 
1. The moral orientation of the Homeric Odyssey is shown at the very outset to favor the ultimate success of intelligent self-interested endeavor and endurance in those who understand themselves and what they most wish to attain and to be adverse to reckless folly and the pursuit of immediate gratification.
2. The interactions of Athena with Telemachus in Book 1 of the Odyssey and with Nausicaa in Book 6 focus upon processes of masculine and feminine maturation to adulthood and responsible endeavor in young persons gradually coming to understand who they are, what they most wish to attain, and how they must act in order to achieve their objectives.
3. On the eve of his now-certain return to Ithaca, Odysseus' retrospective account of Polyphemus, upon which he has had time to reflect carefully and to deem a "defining" moment in his coming to self-understanding, seems to display a mature reflection on that adventure as revealing (a) his most valuable inner resources/strengths as well as weakness-the lessons learned from both success and failure, and (b) how good and evil are inextricably bound up with each other in human existence.
4. The sequence of events set in motion by the homecoming of Agamemnon constitutes a recurrent moral paradigm throughout the Odyssey; it is mentioned first by Zeus in the opening scene, discussed by Athena and Telemachus in Book 1 and by Nestor and Menelaus in subsequent early books, offered as a warning by the ghost of Agamemnon to Odysseus in the Underworld, and it appears to provide a justification for the massacre of the suitors in Book 23. Nevertheless it is never clear that those who are "punished" have violated the will of the gods or human laws so much as they have exploited with reckless miscalculation a temporary advantage of superior strength with confidence they nothing can stop them from getting what they want.
5. While it is currently politically correct to say of ancient Greek culture that its institutions and literature reflect a uniquely masculine perspective and one that devalues women, the Odyssey seems to reflect an entire spectrum of feminine figures defining both the real perils and the rich blessings of the male experience of women. There's Penelope, for whom the epithet most commonly used is 'periphron' "very thoughtful"; there's Nausicaa, a princess whom Odysseus reckons will bless some husband's existence; there's Circe, who threatens to rob Odysseus of his humanity but ultimately is a major resource for him; there's Calypso, who renders Odysseus helpless to escape from a sort of sexual oblivion in a paradise outside of time and space; and there's Athena, a curious mirror image of the wealth of resources deep within Odysseus accounting for his survival and the ultimate success of his homecoming.
6 In Pylos and Sparta Telemachus learns little about Odysseus but much about the world in which his father has moved, and discerns paradigms of adequate and inadequate fulfillment of personal ultimate objectives.
7. Homer tells us that Odysseus "saw the townlands/ and learned the minds of many distant men" in the course of his long trek homeward after the sack of Troy, yet that "such desire is in him/ merely to see the hearthsmoke leaping upward/ from his own island, that he longs to die." Interpreters over centuries have found much in the epic itself to suggest that a boundless curiosity to explore is at least as powerful a motive in the hero as is his "nostalgia"-his yearning to come home.
8. Homer has represented Odysseus as a morally ambiguous figure who on the one hand wins the admiration of those who value shrewdness and versatility as essential to human survival and success (he is first characterized in the opening as 'polytropos', "a man of many wiles"), and on the other hand he earns the reproach of those who prefer uncompromising integrity and absence of pretense (one Roman characterizes him as 'duplex Ulixes', "duplicitous Ulysses").
9. Helen is represented in Odyssey 4 apparently as both a blessing and/or a curse- in a way that raises questions about the ambivalence of beauty and sexuality as aspects of the human condition; Homer seems to suggest (if we consider how she is represented in both Iliad and Odyssey) that having her has brought no genuine happiness either to Achaian Menelaus or to Trojan Paris.
10. The encounters of Odysseus and his crew with creatures of various sorts-Lotus-eaters, Cyclopes, Aeolus, Circe, Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis-not to mention the journey to the Underworld-help to clarify the proposition stated in the invocation to the Muse: Odysseus did finally come home, late but successfully, while his shipmates from Ithacadid not, and that he did so means more than that he was favored by the gods.

(Final update September 19, 2001)