A Scientific Revolution of Mythology

The council of gods, the Olympians receive Psyche. Raphael and pupils, 1517-18.

Theories through History about Myth and Fable 8


The unwillingness in past centuries to use the word myth is surprising, considering the wide use of the term mythology.





Finally Fable Becomes Myth

One prominent reason for the use of the word mythology instead of myth during most of the Christian era is the focus on Greek myths, which were very well known and appreciated in the European civilization ever since the days of Ancient Greece. These myths were, of course, closely linked to the pantheon of Greek gods and the whole mythology of their cosmos.

       These fables and their background stories were quite familiar not only to the learned of Europe, but more or less to the whole population. They were treasured for the thrill of the fantastic stories, as well as for the messages about the human nature and the grim conditions of life they contained. And no individual fable made much sense separated from the corpus of Greek mythology.


A Thousand Years in Oblivion

There was, however, a long period of diminished familiarity with Ancient Greece and its culture from Late Antiquity until early Renaissance, approximately the middle of the 3rd century to the 14th. But that was particularly for the Western Roman Empire, where knowledge of the classical Greek language became hard to find. Its Eastern counterpart had no such problem and therefore kept a closer contact with the Greek roots.

       Not until the 13th century did the Catholic part of Europe start to regain significant access to the old Greek sources. Therefore, the writings of the Greek philosophers were only known from fragments in second or third hand sources during a thousand years. Homer's and Hesiod's texts, too, were difficult to access through the language barrier. The Greek pantheon and its myths were not unknown, but the knowledge was flawed when devoid of sources for so long.

       Dante's Divine Comedy was completed in 1320, several decades before Greek texts started to reappear in Catholic Europe. Still, it contains many characters and other elements from Greek mythology, but takes the precaution of placing them in Inferno, his vision of Hell. Homer is there as well, albeit in Limbo, the place for those who were good but had the misfortune of living before Christ came. [Inferno IV, lines 83-148] There is no mention of Hesiod in the Divine Comedy. [Stephen Scully, Hesiod's Theogony: From Near Eastern Creation Myths to Paradise Lost, Oxford 2015, 160.]

       In 1362, Leontius Pilatus completed his translation of Homer's Illiad and Odyssey into Latin, which was a language with tremendous reach in Europe of that time.

       Advisor and supporter of Leontius Pilatus' translation of Homer was Petrarch (1304-1374). The Greek manuscript used had been purchased by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), whose place in the history of literature is mainly due to Decamerone. But he also wrote Genealogia deorum gentilium (On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles) in 1360, listing the deities of Greece and Rome as well as their complicated family relations. He revised this account continuously, but posterity firmly concludes that he did not get it right.

       Hesiod's Theogony, with his account of the history of the gods and the world, dates as far back as Homer. It was no stranger to Constantinople, but it took its time to reach the Catholic world.

       Manuel Chrysoloras (c. 1355-1415) from Constantinople was the main instrument by which classical Greek was reintroduced to the Catholic world, and that he did from teaching it only the last three years of the 14th century, mainly in Florence. His students evidently became familiar with Hesiod's Works and Days, but probably not at all with Theogony. [Scully 2015, 162.] The first translation into Latin of Theogony was made by Boninus Mombritius, printed in 1474. [Scully 2015, 163.]

       Once these works were translated to Latin, they got wings. Other Latin versions followed quickly, whereas translations to local tongues did not start to appear until the 16th century.

       The first complete English version of Homer's Illiade and Odyssey was finished by George Chapman in 1616. Hesiod's Theogony had to wait for a complete English translation until 1728, when William Cooke published one together with Works and Days. [Stuart Gillespie, 'Hesiod goes Augustan: An Early English Translation of the Theogony', Translation and Literature, vol. 17, issue 2, Edinburgh 2008, 197.]

       Even if the antique classics took their time to penetrate Catholic Europe, the fables they included were continuously alive as wondrous stories, enriching the world of fiction and inspiring poets. Erasmus of Rotterdam (c. 1466-1536) pointed out this value also as an excuse for studying the pantheon: "For the proper understanding of the poets, one must know the stories of the Gods and Heroes, for which Homer, Hesiod, Ovid, and the Italian Boccaccio should be read." [De Ratione Studii 523a, from 1511, in Scully 2015, 167.] But it did not stop him from complaining about the vices of those gods.

       Another source to Greek mythology was the drama of the same culture. The plays by Sophocles, Euripides and others made lasting impressions, so they were performed for centuries after their creation. This continued in the time of the Roman Empire, where Roman playwrights followed the tradition with dramas of their own or fabula crepidata, adaptions from Greek originals.

       But after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, Greek drama practically vanished from the scene until the 16th century. Medieval drama was instead closer to religious ritual of purely Christian nature, performed in churches instead of theaters.

       There were some minor imitations among clergy of Roman plays, such as those of Plautus and Terence. They were performed in Latin, a language understood by few others than the priests, and the stories acted out tended to be shaped into the agenda of the church. And these occurences were still exceptions to the rule. [Martha Fletcher Bellinger, A Short History of the Drama, New York 1927, 115-121. Retrieved from theatrehistory.com November 3, 2015.]

       When antiquity started to reemerge in 14th century Italy, it was primarily by an interest in the Roman plays. As for the Greek plays, printed copies of the prominent ones started to become available in the beginning of the 16th century. They made vast impressions on playwrights from that time on.

       The most prominent example of this is William Shakespeare, whose plays, written in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, contain numerous references to Greek deities and myths. Also, his structuring of the dramas shows insights into the works of the Greek playwrights and the principles of Aristotle's Poetics.

       As for Aristotle's veritable bible on drama, revered even today, it was also gone from Catholic Europe for a number of centuries. When it reappeared, it did so with a Latin translation made by the monk Hermannus Alemannus of Toledo in 1253. This version quickly spread over Europe, although it was based on a 10th century Arabic translation of a Syriac version and quite far from the original Poetics. A mere quarter of a century later, in 1278, William of Moerbeke made an accurate translation from the Greek, but it was neglected. [umbertoeco.com, retrieved October 3, 2015.]

       The history of art shows the same gap in Greek influence from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance. And again the church was instrumental, with little tolerance for deviations from its doctrins in any way.


Hercules throws Diomedes to his man-eating horses. German game piece, c. 1150.
Hercules throws Diomedes to his man-eating horses. German game piece, c. 1150.


       Contrary to other manifestations of Ancient Greece, though, the objects of art were still around to be studied by anyone in the vicinity. There were plenty of Greek sculptures, and even more so Roman ones made in the same style, in several major cities of the former Empire. They did have an influence on Medieval art, both in style and content. Although the Greek mythological figures and themes were excluded from literature, they had a continued, albeit somewhat discreet, presence in art and architecture. ['Classical Antiquity in the Middle Ages', Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2000-, metmuseum.org, retrieved November 3, 2015.]


Greek and Roman Dominance

The Renaissance was one of rediscovery of Greek and Roman culture, their texts and arts, and thereby unavoidably their mythologies. This was a feast to the deprived minds and hearts of Catholic Europe, so there was little inkling to go beyond European borders in search of any other mythology.

       The knowledge of myths from other cultures was rather scarce all the way up to the 19th century. There had been some exploring of the myths and beliefs of non-European cultures since the Renaissance, usually by missionaries following the traces of explorers. But it was marginal compared to the wealth of Greek fables and their Roman counterparts well known to most Europeans. Whenever non-Christian mythology was discussed, it was taken for granted that it was that of Ancient Greece and Rome.

       Because of this homogeneity of the material at hand, there was no call for any expanded terminology. Nor was there much sense in trying comparative mythology studies, since the Greek pantheon and the Christian monotheism were so fundamentally apart - not to mention the danger in the Christian hegemony of equating it with any other belief.


Hercules strangles the lion of Nemea. Italian Cameo, c. 1220.
Hercules strangles the lion of Nemea. Italian Cameo, c. 1220.


       The latter, Christianity's firm control on thought, should not be underestimated. From the beginning of the Middle Ages and well into the Enlightenment, disregard of the Christian church's dogmas could very well be lethal. Anyone exploring other religious or cosmological perspectives had to tread very lightly, indeed.

       Greek mythology was tolerated simply because it was there and refused to be forgotten. Instead, Christian rhetoric made sure to point out its inferiority to the stories and messages of the bible, as did Eusebius with so much venom. His wrath was fed by the time in which he was writing - the early 4th century - when the Greek and Roman gods still received som adoration. At least they were not dismissed completely.

       In the centuries to follow, though, Greek and Roman mythology had ceased to have any religious weight. The stories about them remained as stories, only. They were fairytales, entertainment and food for thought that inspired without threatening the Christian doctrin and beliefs. So, they were increasingly tolerated by the Christian world, as the amusing components of a dead religion.

       Not so with mythologies from other parts of the world, since they represented religious beliefs still very much alive. They were the very enemies the Christian missionaries traveled across the world to battle. The non-European myths were simply regarded as malignant superstition, pointless to study before discarding.


The 19th Century Boom

That all changed in the 19th century, when the churches lost their grip on the intellectual agenda, following the Enlightenment, the accelerating advances of natural and technical sciences, the blooming industrialism, and the mercantile conquering of the world.

       Missionaries and an increasing number of ethnographers started to report the many strange and wondrous stories and beliefs they found in unexplored parts of the world. They also reexamined mythologies previously known but discarded as nothing but heathen nonsense.

       Patterns emerged from the growing material gathered. This demanded the emergence of anthropology, which did in turn rapidly raise the demand for comparative mythology.

       Then the terminology needed to be reinvented as well. The ethnographers studied not only the fables, but also their importance and function in the cultures transmitting them. Far from all of those stories had any obvious religious significance. So, the term mythology with its connection to one or other pantheon became less adequate. The term myth was taken into use.

       It is hard to overrate the importance of the 19th century in the study of myths as well as in so many other groundbreaking advances in Western culture, science and innovation. For one thing, the whole world became much more comfortably reachable than before, as demonstrated in Jules Verne's novel Around the World in Eighty Days from 1873.

       There was a general delight in all kinds of discovery, which would not heed religious restrictions. Also, the rapidly growing literacy among the Western population and the vastly increased reach of the press made these discoveries known to a far wider audience than ever in the past.

       For example, in 1814 London based The Times was the first newspaper to install a steam powered printing press, and their circulation rose from 5,000 in 1815 to 50,000 in the 1850's. Its competitor The Daily Telegraph did even better with an improved printing technique, reaching 130,000 copies a day by 1860. The Daily Mail sold a million daily copies by 1900. [nytimes.com, retrieved November 4, 2015.]

       The momentum of this process was simply unstoppable, and it made its mark on just about every field of exploration. The constantly growing flow of information had a correspondingly growing thirst of new knowledge. Mappings of cultures very different from the Western world, their customs and beliefs, were also covered with a sense of reporting sensational matters. The findings of the ethnographers did not pass unnoticed.

       Here follow a few of the main 19th century contributors to the study of myth.


NEXT

Andrew Lang: Rational versus Irrational


© Stefan Stenudd 2015

Mythology Meanings Menu

  1. Introduction

  2. Mythology and Fable in the First Encyclopedia: Louis de Jaucourt

  3. Thomas Blackwell: Instruction by Fable

  4. Antoine Banier: Mythology as Idolatry

  5. Eusebius: Myths as Heathen Remnants

  6. Plutarch: Battle of Daemons

  7. Euhemerus: Myth as Actual History

  8. A Scientific Revolution of Mythology

  9. Andrew Lang: Rational versus Irrational

  10. Max Müller: Disease of Language

  11. Edward B. Tylor: Animism Turned Personification

  12. James G. Frazer: Myth as Ritual








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