Editor’s Note: Today we have a guest post from my good friend,
Leonidas, First Among Spartans (@KingLeonidas21)-
here’s his article, Myth and Mind. You can find him on Twitter, or on his blog, Leonidas’ Kingdom.
Why is that?
Here’s the thing most literature teachers gloss over: mythologies tell us, in the modern world, enormous amounts of information about the past of human civilization, about life for our ancestors. On the surface, this may be hard to see; after all, they’re just stories, right? But you have to consider where stories find their roots and look deeper between the lines for the hidden meanings or the real facets of life that compose the framework of the story in question.
For example, take a quick peek at the Epic of Gilgamesh: on the surface, it’s the story of a divine man, who is ultimately mortal, seeking to live forever; but when you truly examine the story, you find a few lessons: death comes for everyone is probably the first you’ll come across, but also suggestions on how to be a truly just ruler (and person) or how the memory of your life rests on what you do with the time you have on Earth.
Let us focus in on that last one for a moment: Gilgamesh’s story is almost 4,000 years old, and yet his name is STILL widely known, still mentioned and talked about – because he did something immense with his time on Earth and became worth remembering, he found and returned the lost history of his people and built defensive walls, amongst other grand projects for the improvement of the city, that made his city-state of Uruk a sparkling jewel in Mesopotamia. This is a lesson most classes, especially in primary education, won’t even bother mentioning, let alone truly speak about. That’s why the study of mythology is important, for the world and for the self.
So now that we have the general idea of what I mean, we’ll take things a step further. The stories we know these days, the heroes we’ve heard mention of, the monsters and the gods and the kings – they all served an important role in the story, but they also served as an important piece of information disguised as literary convention.
In the Iliad, we have the brother kings Agamemnon and Menelaus – one the king of Mycenae and the other the king of Sparta – who descend from Atreus, the son of Pelops who was the son of Tantalus; this doesn’t seem like much on the surface, just a bunch of genealogy, but don’t worry we’re going somewhere substantial, it’ll just take a moment.
Atreus was king of Mycenae prior to Agamemnon’s ascension, Pelops is regarded as the founder of the Olympic Games and the namesake of the region of the Peloponnese, and Tantalus is where we get the term “tantalizing;” the individual stories surrounding these persons all combine into one narrative encompassing generations, but they also each give hints and insights into ancient Greek life – Tantalus teaches us the importance of piety and respect for guests, Pelops teaches us about marriage customs for nobility and gentlemanly behavior, Atreus teaches us of the sins of familial murder and betrayal, and Agamemnon & Menelaus teach us of familial duty.
Of course, this is only a small sampling of the meanings you can glean from the stories, but I personally prefer to leave the interpretations and extrapolations open-ended for the reader to make up their own mind – instead, I generally offer the story and a method of getting that critical, inferential thinking inherent in all of us to warm up and get started.
In a way, the study of mythology goes parallel, and sometimes hand-in-hand, with the study of history. As I implied earlier, mythology is the earliest known form of telling and sharing history, aside from record keeping; however, instead of just clinically detailing the events like modern historians tend towards doing, those ancient ancestors of ours who specialized in regaling the stories of myths were providing lessons to be learned from the histories.
Think back to Gilgamesh: Gilgamesh is a real-life ancient Sumerian king, but most of the empirical evidence for his existence only tells us a handful of things: he was brash and oppressive early in his rule, but later became a king to be admired and did wonderful things for the expansion and honor of his city of Uruk; in the mythology surrounding Gilgamesh, however, we are provided with an unverifiable tale that serves to explain how he made this personality change from oppressive tyrant to righteous king, while at the same time showing us that we can grow as people, whether through self-realization and actualization, or through submitting to criticism from outside or external forces.
Shifting gears, we’re going to move on to the Aeneid by ancient Roman poet Virgil. For those not in the know, the Aeneid is the Roman response to the Greek epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey; Virgil’s story takes elements from both epics and ties them together into one large story that showcases the foundations of the start of Rome, by following the hero Aeneas, a survivor of the fall of Troy, whose descendants are Romulus and Remus, the founders of the great city of seven hills. What Virgil does is essentially retrace the steps of Odysseus in the first half of the story, by detailing Aeneas’ travels from Troy to what eventually becomes known as Italy – in this portion of the story, we are shown a sequence in which Aeneas meets Dido of Carthage and also earns the eternal hatred of the same city-state, which carries down to their later enemy: Rome.
In the second half of the story, we see a mirror of the Iliad, wherein a coalition of tribes goes to war against a singular enemy who has offended one of the parties of the coalition; in the case of Aeneas, his enemy is Turnus, leader of the Rutuli, and his coalition comes from among the local tribes and city-states opposed to the Rutuli.
The aspects of this tale I want you to take away are thus: Virgil was a student of mythology, he studied the various myths from Greece and those native to Latium, as well as the blended native and Greek myths and stories; from the Aeneid, we can glean that Virgil was VERY good about picking out the subtleties and nuances of the various stories, and extracting the information from them. From these acquired skills, Virgil was able to craft a tale that has become one of, if not THE, most well-known literary works to come out of ancient Rome; Virgil was also hailed as a national hero in his later days, for composing and compiling the foundation story of his home country, and was well regarded and respected by his people for doing what Gilgamesh did: they saw him as having discovered and unlocked the secret, lost history of his people, and revealed it once more unto the world.
Study mythology and put your naturally ingrained critical thinking skills to use. You can learn more than the world lets on from studying the stories of old, and most of the lessons serve to work towards the improvement of one’s self. If you still don’t believe me that you can grow from this in various ways, I’d like to make mention of one last famous tale: the story of Narcissus, from whom we get the terms “narcissism” and “narcissist.” While this lesson is much more overt than the ones I’ve previously mentioned, it serves its purpose here well.
Study mythology, learn the tales and learn from them. You’ll thank yourself later for the vast insights into the world, into society, and into history you will gain. The fog will be pulled back from your sight like never before.