The Greek and Roman Writers of Mythology

Most of the books about the stories of classical mythology depend chiefly upon the Latin poet Ovid, who wrote during the reign of Augustus. Ovid is a compendium of mythology. No ancient writer can compare with him in this respect. He told almost all the stories and he told them at great length. Occasionally stories familiar to us through literature and art have come down to us only in his pages. In this book I have avoided using him as far as possible. Undoubtedly he was a good poet and a good storyteller and able to appreciate the myths enough to realize what excellent material they offered him; but he was really farther away from them in his point of view than we are today. They were sheer nonsense to him. He wrote,

I prate of ancient poets’ monstrous lies,
Ne’er seen or now or then by human eyes.

He says in effect to his reader, “Never mind how silly they are. I will dress them up so prettily for you that you will like them.” And he does, often very prettily indeed, but in his hands the stories which were factual truth and solemn truth to the early Greek poets Hesiod and Pindar, and vehicles of deep religious truth to the Greek tragedians, become idle tales, sometimes witty and diverting, often sentimental and distressingly rhetorical. The Greek mythologists are not rhetoricians and are notably free from sentimentality.

The list of the chief writers through whom the myths have come down to us is not long. Homer heads it, of course. The Iliad and the Odyssey are, or rather contain, the oldest Greek writings we have. There is no way to date accurately any part of them. Scholars differ widely, and will no doubt continue to do so. As unobjectionable a date as any is 1000 B.C.—at any rate for the Iliad, the older of the two poems.

In all that follows, here and in the rest of the book, the date given is to be understood as before Christ, unless it is otherwise stated.

The second writer on the list is sometimes placed in the ninth century, sometimes in the eighth. Hesiod was a poor farmer whose life was hard and bitter. There cannot be a greater contrast than that between his poem, the Works and Days, which tries to show men how to live a good life in a harsh world, and the courtly splendor of the Iliad and the Odyssey. But Hesiod has much to say about the gods, and a second poem, usually ascribed to him, the Theogony, is entirely concerned with mythology. If Hesiod did write it, then a humble peasant, living on a lonely farm far from cities, was the first man in Greece to wonder how everything had happened, the world, the sky, the gods, mankind, and to think out an explanation. Homer never wondered about anything. The Theogony is an account of the creation of the universe and the generations of the gods, and it is very important for mythology.

Next in order come the Homeric Hymns, poems written to honor various gods. They cannot be definitely dated, but the earliest are considered by most scholars to belong to the end of the eighth century or the beginning of the seventh. The last one of importance—there are thirty-three in all—belongs to fifth-century or possibly fourth-century Athens.

Pindar, the greatest lyric poet of Greece, began to write toward the end of the sixth century. He wrote Odes in honor of the victors in the games at the great national festivals of Greece, and in every one of his poems myths are told or alluded to. Pindar is quite as important for mythology as Hesiod.

Aeschylus, the oldest of the three tragic poets, was a contemporary of Pindar’s. The other two, Sophocles and Euripides, were a little younger. Euripides, the youngest, died at the end of the fifth century. Except for Aeschylus’ Persians, written to celebrate the victory of the Greeks over the Persians at Salamis, all the plays have mythological subjects. With Homer, they are the most important source of our knowledge of the myths.

The great writer of comedy, Aristophanes, who lived in the last part of the fifth century and the beginning of the fourth, refers often to the myths, as do also two great prose writers, Herodotus, the first historian of Europe, who was a contemporary of Euripides, and Plato, the philosopher, who lived less than a generation later.

The Alexandrian poets lived around 250 B.C. They were so called because, when they wrote, the center of Greek literature had moved from Greece to Alexandria in Egypt. Apollonius of Rhodes told at length the Quest of the Golden Fleece, and in connection with the story a number of other myths. He and three other Alexandrians, who also wrote about mythology, the pastoral poets Theocritus, Bion, and Moschus, have lost the simplicity of Hesiod’s and Pindar’s belief in the gods, and are far removed from the depth and gravity of the tragic poets’ view of religion; but they are not frivolous like Ovid.

Two late writers, Apuleius, a Latin, and Lucian, a Greek, both of the second century A.D., make an important contribution. The famous story of Cupid and Psyche is told only by Apuleius, who writes very much like Ovid. Lucian writes like no one except himself. He satirized the gods. In his time they had become a joking matter. Nevertheless, he gives by the way a good deal of information about them.

Apollodorus, also a Greek, is, next to Ovid, the most voluminous ancient writer on mythology, but, unlike Ovid, he is very matter-of-fact and very dull. His date has been differently set all the way from the first century B.C. to the ninth century A.D. The English scholar, Sir J. G. Frazer, thinks he probably wrote in either the first or the second century of our era.

The Greek Pausanias, an ardent traveler, the author of the first guidebook ever written, has a good deal to say about the mythological events reported to have happened in the places he visited. He lived as late as the second century A.D., but he does not question any of the stories. He writes about them with complete seriousness.

Of the Roman writers, Virgil stands far ahead. He did not believe in the myths any more than Ovid did, whose contemporary he was, but he found human nature in them and he brought mythological personages to life as no one had done since the Greek tragedians.

Other Roman poets wrote of the myths. Catullus tells several of the stories, and Horace alludes to them often, but neither is important for mythology. To all Romans the stories were infinitely remote, mere shadows. The best guides to a knowledge of Greek mythology are the Greek writers, who believed in what they wrote.