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Mythology in the Ancient World

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    Myths exist in every part of the world and are an integral part of the culture and identity. Ancient societies relied heavily on mythology to entertain, to answer questions, to explain and to implement social expectations. But most importantly, it allowed these people to explain the creation of the universe, the birth of mankind, the forces of nature, human condition and the purpose of life. As a result, myths can be considered essential for certain groups of peoples to explain the powerful forces that shape and affect their lives.

    These are evident in the mythology of Rome, Greece, Christian myths, the Norse mythologies and the myths of Mesopotamia. Most ancient myths are often stories of origins, dreams, archetypes, metaphysical aspects, proto-scientific aspects, religion and sometimes just entertaining stories. The most popular myths are ones about gods and goddesses, and ones about heroes. Both these two types of mythology gave these cultures an individual identity unique to themselves. It can be seen that myths connected different aspects of human life and experience.

    From these myths it is clear that they played a major role in the lives of these people. However “myths are not merely explanations, but also function to assure, encourage, and inspire. ” (Internet 4) Creation myths were the most popular myths and underpinned their understanding of the universe. These divine myths provided explanations, reassured life, encouraged people to live on and inspired great achievements. The creation of the universe and also humans are the same in the myths of the Greeks and the Romans. The gods and goddesses were the same for both these cultures but the Romans gave those gods Roman names.

    Ultimately, creation myths are popular because they allow questions about the origin of the universe and mankind to be answered. Moreover, these myths explain the very existence of man and life’s purpose. In Greek myths, origins were attributed to the divine myth about the Rise of the Olympians. The Olympians’ supreme reign over the universe came at the expense of their father, the Titan Cronus. Cronus had come “to power at the expense of his father, Uranus” (Internet 1), and thus knew an inevitable revenge by his children. Thus he is told to have swallowed his children immediately after birth trying to prevent this fate.

    This myth carries significance in terms of both origins and also human condition. It shows that “avoiding fate… doesn’t have a happy ending. ” (Internet 1) Zeus, one of his children, was spiriting away to grow safely to manhood and later returned to force Cronus into regurgitating his other children. Zeus and his sisters and brothers were re-united and fought in battles called the Titanomachy. Eventually the Olympians won, the Titans were imprisoned in Tartarus, and Zeus was made king. This myth underpins their interpretation of how the universe came to be.

    Furthermore, this myth explained other aspects of the universe. The gods and goddesses were assigned different roles which “formed the earth and its creatures and the Sun, Moon, and Stars. ” (Internet 4) Zeus made himself God of the Sky and all its phenomena, including the clouds as well as the thunderbolts. Hestia became goddess of the Hearth. Zeus gave his brother Poseidon rule of the Sea. Demeter became a goddess of Fertility, Hera was the goddess of Marriage and Childbirth, while Hades, one of Zeus’ other brothers, was made god of the Underworld.

    The Underworld is a common element in the Norse myths and the Mesopotamian myths. Virgil describes the Roman/ Greek Underworld with the following words in Aeneid VI, “Luctus… cubilia Curae… pallentes Morbi… tristis Senectus… Metus… malesuada Fames… turpis Egestas… Letum… Labos… Discordia…” or “Sorrow… vengeful care… pale sickness… sad old age… illness… ill-advising Hunger… shameful poverty… death… drudgery… discord”. (Virgil, Aeneid VI: 274-280) Also, he says: multaque praeterea variorum monstra ferarum Centauri in foribus stabulnt, Scyllaeque biformers, et centumgeminus Briareus ac belua Lernae orrendum stridens, flammisque armata Chimaera, Gorgones, Harpyiaeque, et forma tricorporis umbrae. or… Meanwhile many other strange shapes of various beasts are stable in doorways, twin shaped Scylass, and Centaurs, and hundredfold Briareus and also Lernean Hydra horrendous hisses, and the Chimera armed with flame, Gorgons, Harpies, and the shape of the three bodied shade. (Virgil, Aeneid VI: 285-9) The explanation of the world with regards to these gods would have seemed very liable for those people. The creation of mankind according to the Greeks and Romans was by the benefactor, Prometheus.

    He is said to have created man from earth and water and also to have stolen fire from the gods for mankind. It is thus clear the significance of mythology in terms of the theory of the world and the universe. Similarly, in Norse mythology, gods also formed the framework of their understanding of the creation of the world. However, their story is slightly different to the ones of the Greeks and Romans. Nonetheless, they have the same underlying idea about the universe. According to Norse mythology, there was originally a chasm, Ginnungagap, bounded by fire and ice.

    Fire and ice combined to form a giant, Ymir, and a cow, named Audhumbla. By Ymir licking the cow, she revealed a man, Bur, who had three grandsons. These three brothers, one of which was Odin, killed the frost giant Ymir and created the world. It is said that “Ymir’s blood was the sea; his flesh, the earth; his skull, the sky; his bones, the mountains; his hair, the trees” (Internet 1) According to a poem called The Lay of Vafthrudnir, the first man and first woman grew out of Ymir’s armpits before he was killed. The Voluspa states that “Odin and his brothers made the first man and first woman out of an ash tree and an elm tree. (Internet 6) Odin gave man life, intelligence, and beauty. From Norse mythology, a poem called Voluspa, confirms this about the creation of the world: When Ymir lived long ago Was no sand or sea, no surging waves. Nowhere was there earth nor heaven above. Bur a grinning gap and grass nowhere. The sons of Bur then built up the lands. Moulded in magnificence middle-Earth: Sun stared from the south on the stones of their hall, From the ground there sprouted green leeks. (Voluspa-The Song of the Sybil) Odin created the universe in three levels similar to the Greeks and Romans with heaven and the Underworld.

    Correspondingly, other aspects of the world like the sun, the moon and stars, are also explained. They are explained by sparks and from this, the gods regulated the days and nights and also the seasons. But just like the Greek interpretation, the sun a god, Sol. It is said that she rides through the sky on her chariot and is chased by a wolf. The moon is Sol’s brother called Mani who is also chased by a wolf. The Norse myths also explained why the strength of the sun doesn’t kill them because of the shield, Svalinn, which is placed before Sol.

    All this attributed to their theory of the world just like it did for the Greeks and the Romans. The lack of technology and knowledge of science was the main reason for myths to be an integral part of the knowledge of creation. Likewise in the creation myths of Mesopotamia including the Sumerian myths, gods are used to explain the world’s phenomena. “An”, the sky god and “Ki”, the earth goddess had a son called Enlil. According to Sumerian Mythology, the sea, Nammu, was “the mother, who gave birth to heaven and earth” (Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 1972: 39).

    Also in these myths is the common element of the universe in all cultures, an underworld ruled by a god. Like the Greeks and the Romans, the elements of the universe such as the moon are explained. It is a story about Enlil and the goddess of wind Ninlil. The myth goes that Ninlil, whiling taking a bath, is raped by Enlil “impregnating her with the future moon god Nanna. ” (Internet 3) The other gods, outraged with Enlil’s conduct, demand that the “sex offender . . . leave the town! ” (Jacobsen, 1987: 174) Enlil devises a plan to have three substitutes for Nanna who will reside in the underworld for Nanna the moon.

    In this myth, there are mentions of a river in the Underworld like the river evident in Virgil’s Aeneid VI when it says, “Cocytusque sinu labens circumvenit atro” or “Cocytus glides around holding them in his dark lap. ” (Virgil, Aeneid VI: 132) Additionally, the creation of mankind is also explained by these divine myths. Nammu, the sea goddess, goes to her son Enki, god of wisdom. Enki says: Mix the heart of the clay that is over the abyss, The good and princely fashioners will thicken the clay, You, [Nammu] do you bring the limbs into existence;

    Ninmah [earth-mother or birth goddess] will work above you, The goddesses [of birth] . . . will stand by you at your fashioning; O my mother, decree its [the newborn’s] fate, Ninmah will bind upon it the image (? ) of the gods, It is man . . . . (Kramer, History Begins, 1959: 109) This shows that “man was created to relieve the gods of their work” (Internet 3). Furthermore, the Sumerians used these gods also to explain their lifestyle. Samuel Noah Kramer summarizes these myths as follows: it was Enlil, the air-god… who set his mind to bring forth seed from the earth and to establish… rosperity in the land. It was this same Enlil who fashioned the pickax and probably the plow as prototypes of the agricultural implements to be used by man… It is Enki, moreover, who actually organizes the earth, and especially the part of it which includes Sumer and its surrounding neighbours, into a going concern. (Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 1972: 42) Theories of creation and of human existence in their world was, in a similar way to Greek, Roman and Norse myths, underpinned by divine accomplishments. The roles of heroes in mythology are also central to the framework of mythology.

    Heroes in epic myths not only entertain the audience, but also create a guideline for men and women to live their lives. In these myths, divine intervention plays a significant part to suggest the role of gods in everyday life. This suggests that lives are ultimately determined by gods, ‘fata’, and also that this must be obeyed. A prime example of this is the epic myth by Virgil about the founding of Rome. The Aeneid is about the divine Trojan hero of Aeneas, “sate sanguine divom” or “sprung from divine blood” (Virgil, Aeneid VI: 125), who is destined to discover Rome.

    For Aeneas, he is required to invoke his fate, “poscere fata/ tempus” or “It is now time to invoke your fate” (Virgil, Aeneid VI: 45-6). Likewise, in Homer’s Odyssey which summarizes the myth of Oedipus, fate is an important theme. There are also oracles involved in this myth, just like the Aeneid, which in the plot of Oedipus the King says that the oracle “told him/ that it was his fate that he should die a victim/ at the hands of his own son. ” (Sophocles, Oedipus the King: 711-3) Another famous myth is about Achilles who had one mortal and one divine parent like Aeneas.

    This is the common distinction of a hero- a divine birth. However, a hero can also be “fully human but are blessed with godlike strength or beauty. ” (Internet 4) Moreover, in Homer’s Iliad, an oracle states that Achilles is destined to either live “a long life without glory or a glorious death in battle at Troy. ” (Internet 6) This is an important part of this myth as it shows that people should live their lives for glory. Also, Achilles possessed “strength, bravery, military skills, pride and honour—all the qualities the ancient Greeks prized as manly virtues. (Internet 2) This clearly demonstrates that heroes in myths also acted as a role model. In Norse and Mesopotamian myths heroes also set off on a similar quest destined by a god. One of the earliest tales of a hero’s journey is the Babylonian story known as the Gilgamesh epic. This epic was written in cuneiform on 12 clay tablets in about 2000 BC. The hero, Gilgamesh, embarks on a quest for immortality. In Christianity, the narrative of the Hebrew prophet Moses can be interpreted as a heroic journey.

    Therefore, these myths, not only provides an unique cultural identity, but also inspired people to follow the fate of the gods and to value virtues such as strength, bravery, pride and honour. In conclusion, mythology was a crucial part of everyday life in the ancient times. It served not only to entertain but to answer questions of creation, origin, human existence and also human condition. Moreover, myths created social expectations for everyday people to abide by and. These include being brave, loyal, devout, persistent, and obeying the fate.

    Additionally, myths were an essential part of cultural identity. Creation myths and myths about heroes were the most popular myths of the ancient world as they underpinned their interpretations of the universe and it was also a way of spreading their understanding. These are evident in the mythology of Rome, Greece, Christian myths, the Norse mythologies and the myths of Mesopotamia. The main purpose of myths can therefore be concluded to “assure, encourage, and inspire. ” (Internet 4) Thus, ancient civilizations relied on mythologies to explain the powerful forces that shape and affect their lives.

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