As the Romans came into more and more contact with Greek culture and society (especially after Rome conquered the Greek territories), the Romans liked the Greek myths so much that they adapted many of them to their own gods and goddesses. Thus Greek and Roman myths are very similar. These myths have been read throughout history. Many were highly entertaining stories that explained the origins of animals or other natural phenomenon. Greek and Roman myths show up in all sorts of places today from scientific terms to references in movies and books or on TV.
For instance, there is a myth about a beautiful peasant girl named Arachne whose weaving was so beautiful it made Minerva, the goddess of weaving, jealous. Minerva decided to get rid of Arachne by turning her into a spider. However, she left Arachne her ability to weave. That’s why spiders “weave” beautiful webs. In science spiders are part of a group called “arachnids” – taking the name from the Greek myth and using it for a class of insects that includes all spiders. Also, “arachnophobia” is the psychological term for the fear of spiders.
Helios – Sun god
Many more of our words and scientific terms come straight from ancient myths. To give you one more example, Helios was the Greek god of the Sun. (Roman name – Apollo) Believed he drove a fiery chariot across the sky each day.
In modern scientific terminology, we say that our solar system is “heliocentric” meaning the planets go around “Helios,” the sun. And that’s just one example among hundreds.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
In C.S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (part of the Chronicles of Narnia), he introduces a character he calls a faun. This is straight from Roman mythology (Lewis taught ancient and medieval literature at Oxford College in England). Fauns were half goat and half human, similar to satyrs who were the Greek version of the half goat and half human creature. Fauns and satyrs walked on two animal-like legs. “Centaurs” (p. 88 in your book) are another type of mythological creature. They were half horse and half man, but differed from fauns and satyrs in that they had the head and shoulders of a man attached to the full body of the horse and, therefore, walked on four legs like a horse. Centaurs pop up in our modern movies about Hercules, Odysseus, or other Greek heroes. For instance, Morpheus was one of the principle characters in the movie The Matrix. In Greek mythology Mopheus was the principal Greek god of dreams and sleep and was “he who forms, shapes, molds”, (from the Greek morphe).
Here are just a few more Greek gods/goddesses along with their Roman counterparts. Notice that the Roman names of these gods & goddesses gave us the names of our planets (another example of how the myths are embedded in our speech and our culture).
Greek Roman Sphere of Influence
Ares Mars→ God of War
Aphrodite Venus→ Goddess of beauty, love
Zeus Jupiter→ Chief god of all, ruler
Poseidon Neptune→ God of the Seas
Hermes Mercury→ God of trade and profit
Did the Greeks Really Believe these Tales?
You may wonder if anyone actually believed the fanciful stories that were created around these gods and goddesses. Well, some actually did believe the stories (at least partially). But even if they didn’t quite believe all the stories, they did feel that they should show reverence to the gods or else the gods might get angry and cause unfortunate events to happen. Some people felt that they were at the mercy of these often hot-tempered gods, who at times acted more like pampered and spoiled children than adults (much less gods!) with their petty jealousies and rivalries among each other. For other people the stories were just entertainment, mixed with a little mystery, and good for giving people a way of explaining why things happen as they do and how life first began. Children grew up on the mythologies much the way we use fairytales.
However, most people were in some way religious and they believed certain gods and goddesses with real power existed and that they should try to keep on their good side if possible. They prayed and hoped the god to whom they prayed could be persuaded to listen and help.
One has to be careful about writing something off as “just a myth.” Some of the stories of ancient Greek historians (like Herodutus) and ancient bards (like Homer) were thought to be just more ancient myths. Now, archaeologists have found that at least some historic fact is at the root of many of these “myths.” Here are some examples:
- The Amazons– Herodotus told stories of warrior tribes of women…Some think this myth could be based on the Sarmatian women who had to kill on the battlefield before they could marry.
- The Trojan War– Historians scoffed at the idea that Troy could have really existed, then it was found and excavated by a wealthy German businessman who had become convinced as a young boy that Troy was real.
- Atlantis – Plato wrote of a place called “Atlantis” where there was an amazingly advanced civilization. Historians now believe this may possibly have been the wealthy and advanced civilization on the island of Thera, an island that exploded from a huge undersea earthquake and disappeared.