Why learn about classical mythology? You've picked up this book, so perhaps you have your own answer to that question. Or perhaps you're curious why anyone alive today would care about stories created 2,000 years ago.
Classical mythology comprises a group of stories circulated in Greek and Roman cultures in ancient times, starting somewhere around 900 to 800 B.C. and flourishing until Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century A.D. As you'll read in Chapter 1, the myths served several purposes: to reveal the origins and order of the universe, to explain natural phenomena, to explore human behavior, to praise the deeds of illustrious heroes, and to form the basis of ancient religion and ritual. Even after Christianity replaced Greek and Roman paganism as a religion, the myths themselves lived on, as Chapter 22 will show.
In many ways, classical mythology has shaped — and continues to shape — contemporary life. It's present in the language you speak. For example, the names of planets and constellations, the months of the year, and many plants and animals derive from classical mythology. If you call a conceited person a “narcissist,” a long journey an “odyssey,” or a weakness an “Achilles' heel,” you're referring to classical mythology. Psychologists such as Sigmund Freud have studied myths to gain insight into human behavior. Western literature, art, and music of all ages have been influenced by classical mythology. In fact, when you become familiar with the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans, you start to see them all around you: from television shows to comic books, from novels to cartoons, from pop songs to video games.
Classical mythology also fascinates those who are interested in history, allowing a peek into the everyday lives of the people who lived in Greek and Roman societies thousands of years ago. By reading myths, you can learn about the cultures, beliefs, and religious rituals of the people who created, heard, and retold those myths. Woven into the stories are clues about how they lived and what was important to them.
This book begins with a look at what myths are and what purposes they serve within a culture. After an overview of the best-known poets, play-wrights, and authors of classical mythology, the discussion turns to the myths themselves. You'll read mythological accounts of how the universe was created and ordered, as well as struggles for control among the early gods. Next, several chapters introduce the twelve great Olympians who dwelled on Mount Olympus and had control over the universe's various domains. In these chapters, you'll read about Zeus, the king of the gods; his jealous wife, Hera; Hades, who ruled the Underworld, home of the dead; Poseidon, who ruled the oceans; Aphrodite, the goddess of love; Ares, the god of war; and many others. Aside from these powerful gods, the ancients saw gods and goddesses throughout the landscape — in woods, fountains, and rivers, for example. You'll get to know the most important of these lesser deities. You'll also meet the monsters that threatened the people's well-being and the heroes who challenged them, including those who fought in the Trojan War. Although the Romans borrowed much of their mythology from the Greeks (simply changing the names of the players), a chapter details specifically Roman myths about the founding of Rome. Finally, you'll see how classical mythology continued to influence Western culture after its own decline.
Above all, the myths are stories, full of daring exploits and passion, danger and intrigue. Whatever kind of stories you like — romance, adventure, military, horror, fantasy — classical mythology is sure to have something that appeals to you. After all, the myths have thrilled, entertained, and inspired people for centuries.