Everyone loves a good story, and the ancients were no different. Today, people find stories in books, television, and movies. In antiquity, people listened to the adventures of gods and heroes, told by professional storytellers, or they attended plays. Any discussion of the functions of a myth must include a look at its entertainment value. After all, if myths hadn't been entertaining, they might never have been recorded for you to enjoy today.
The ancient myths were often related to an audience by bards; that is, storytellers who were well versed in heroic tales. Bards told their stories through song and poetry. Because the bards were under pressure to please the audience, they sometimes altered their stories to highlight their own skills or to provide whatever the audience wanted to hear. This is another reason the same story may vary from one version to another.
Then and Now
In the time they were created, myths offered guidance to living a good life, answers to important questions, and religious information. They also provided entertainment. If the myths hadn't been lively and exciting, they probably wouldn't have been recorded and passed down through the centuries.
Today, mythology is a source of both entertainment and academic study. Modern people do not accept the myths as literal truth or use them for religious purposes. Instead, scholars and others read myths to learn about ancient cultures and human nature — and to enjoy a good story.
Better Than Any Soap Opera
Remember that these myths are, above all else, stories — and what stories they are! Much like Shakespearean plays, mythology presents all the facets of human experience: love, war, passion, jealousy, fear, betrayal, and so much more. There are several types of classical myths.
Adventure stories told of heroic deeds, mortals clashing with gods, rescues, and long journeys and quests. Examples of adventure stories include myths about Heracles (the Greek version of Hercules), Odysseus, and Perseus.
A tragedy is an important type of myth, in which the main character encounters some catastrophe, usually brought about because of an internal flaw such as stubbornness or excessive pride. Even though this kind of story is sad, its audience still received pleasure from it. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that audiences enjoy tragedy because it causes them to feel pity and fear for the characters; by feeling these emotions through a story, they experience catharsis, a release of emotional tension. Examples of tragedy include the stories of Oedipus, Antigone, and Niobe, all discussed later in this book.
The word tragedy derives from tragoidia (meaning “goat song”) a contraction of two Greek words tragos “goat” and aeidein “to sing.” One explanation for the origin of this word is that tragic plays were performed in competitions, and the winner received a goat as a prize.
If you enjoy stories of war and bravery in battle, you'll be glad to know that classical mythology is full of exciting battle scenes. The ancients were fierce warriors, and the myths describe their fights in great detail. The story of the Trojan War, for example, contains many graphic descriptions of fighting.
Horror fans will find a fascinating variety of monsters in classical mythology — including some you never dreamed might be lurking under your bed. From Typhon, who had a hundred serpentine heads, to the Minotaur, who ate children, the monsters of classical mythology will give you chills and might even keep you up at night.
Adventure, tragedy, battles, and monsters are just the beginning. You'll also encounter tales of witchcraft and revenge, murder and mystery, crime and punishment, and passionate love and seduction. Love and sex play a major role in mythology, including stories of scandalous affairs — such as the one between Aphrodite and Ares — and stories of true love — such as the myth of Perseus and Andromeda.
With such a wide variety of tales to choose from, classical mythology is guaranteed to have something for everyone!