Perhaps the first thing people would think of if they were asked what they knew about the Ancient Greeks and Romans would be their polytheistic religion. The complex and elaborated myths of the gods served many functions, making the Greece and Rome very different from other Ancient Civilizations. The Greco-Roman mythology most prevalent in Archaic & Classical Greece and the Roman Republic served three major proposes: explaining the world, cultivating people’s values, and providing a reason for celebration.
Mythology was derived from the word “mythos”, which means a tale or a story meant to be told aloud. Such was how mythology spread. The earliest ideas of mythology came from the Minoan Civilization (3000 – 1000 BCE) and the Mycenaean Civilization (2000 – 1100 BCE). These ideas were recorded and mixed with the writings of the Greek poets Homer and Hesiod to form the basis of Greek mythology. By 900 BCE, most Greeks identified a pantheon of twelve major deities named the Olympian gods, who dwelled on Mount Olympus in Northern Greece. The worship of these gods was connected to the political life of the Greeks, and they were required to participate in public worship.
Each family also had their own particular means of private worship, being drawn to different gods. The Romans later on admired Greek culture, so they identified their own deities with similar roles but different names and traits that fit the Roman conception. Roman poets Virgil and Ovid contributed the most in merging Greek and Roman myths. All of the Greek and Roman gods resembled mortals but surpassed in beauty, grandeur, and strength. They ruled over the universe and were worshipped daily by their people. The Roman gods lost their standing when the official Roman religion was converted to Christianity by Constantine I’s Edict of Milan in 313 CE. During the centuries when mythology was still the main religion, its contributions to the society was innumerable.
The primary purpose for the poets to write mythology was to explain all the natural phenomena in the world, granting people a sense of security and compensating for the lack of science before the Age of Exploration. For the Greeks and Romans, every event, whether natural or supernatural, was a direct consequence of what the gods wanted. Different gods were in charge of different activities and each city-state had a patron god who represented its population. People trembled at Zeus” wrath when there was thunder and lightning; the sea getting agitated was a sign of Poseidon being unhappy; the goddess of the dawn with rosy fingers drew aside to allow Apollo to begin each day. The story of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and production, explains the seasonal changes. Demeter was so distraught when her daughter Persephone got kidnapped by the god of the underworld, Hades, that the earth became desolate and unproductive. Zeus sent Hermes with a petition to the underworld and achieved a compromise where Persephone would spend six months with Demeter and the other six with Hades every year. Therefore, the earth would be fertile in the spring and summer when Demeter would happily reunite with her daughter, and it would become fruitless during the rest of year when Persephone would leave her mother.
Moreover, the myths answered questions such as where humans came from and where they went after they died. In the beginning, the earth was a confused mass of shapeless elements named Chaos, which separated into the sky and the earth ruled by Uranus and Gaea. They got married and had their children Oceanus, Aether, and Aer, each representing the ocean, atmosphere, and the air. Erebus and Nyx, or darkness and night, were the offsprings of Chaos, counterbalancing the already existing deities. These first-Dynasty gods gave life to the Olympian gods and other minor gods. Men sprung from the earth like the plants and flowers onto the earth and were taught the techniques essential to survival by the gods. Zeus let loose a great flood from the firmament to drown all mankind because they turned evil and degenerate overtime. Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha were the only mortals that survived. They hid in a ship for nine days and when the flood was over, they were told by the oracle to throw stones over their shoulders. These stone turned into humans, who populated the earth again. These humans had souls that would enter the underworld after they died. This belief that everything was a result of divine agency gave people a general direction in life.
The Greeks received oracles from the priests, or messengers of god before making any major decisions in order to avoid any danger or threats. The Romans practiced divination, or ways they could interpret the signs from the gods to understand their will. They watched the patterns of the birds and performed religious services in the places where lightning struck. Hence when the Greeks and Romans were confused or lost in life, they knew that the gods were watching them, and their fates would be protected.The second function of mythology was that it taught the Greeks and Romans to behave well and be virtuous. As a religion, mythology shaped people’s lives so they had routine and schedule in their lives. They performed day-to-day activities successfully under the gods” supervision and worshipped the gods with daily prayers and ritual sacrifices to show reverence. There were prayers for everything: seafarers prayed to Poseidon before their voyage; women prayed to Artemis or Hera for marriage and childbirth; farmers prayed to Demeter for harvest. Men believed they had to have pure hearts and innocence when they prayed so that they could be heard by the gods. They sacrificed the parts of their meals to the gods – food or drink, animal blood served in goblets, fruits and cake, all of which accompanied by salt and libation. Worshipping was both a civic responsibility and a big part of every person’s private life. It kept people pious and humble.
As the role models of the Greeks and Romans, the gods demonstrated a basic moral code. Their stories cultivated the cultural values of the people. In Greece, Athena was the only goddess to hold the same authority as Zeus. The goddess of wisdom and armed resistance was born straight from the head of Zeus. Athena set an example for absolute virtue and purity as the patroness of learning, science and art. Her Roman self Minerva also held much authority, governing schools and teaching students to respect their teachers. Furthermore, the myth of king Midas and Apollo showed people greed is bad and mercy is good. King Midas loved gold so much that he cursed Apollo for scattering golden sunlight on everyone. Apollo punished him by making everything he touched turn to gold. Midas was delighted at first, but he could not eat or drink since all his food became gold. He begged Apollo to revoke the wish and promised he would never be greedy again. Apollo forgave him but left him a pair of donkey ears as a warning. When Midas” servant exposed him of his donkey ears to the whole country, he remembered how Apollo forgave him and did not have his servant’s head cut off. Apollo then made his donkey ears disappear because he had learned to be merciful. Stories like this were told to the Greek and Roman children, teaching them how to be virtuous.
Alternatively, people stayed away from crimes to avoid the severe punishments they could receive. As the representation of the grand laws of harmonious order, Zeus took a paternal interest in the behavior of the humans. He rewarded truth, charity, and uprightness while punishing perjury, cruelty, and all evilness. King Lycaon, who was impious and attempted to kill Zeus, was turned into a wolf by Zeus” lightning bolt. Nemesis was the goddess of the balance of human affairs, and another deity that awarded people with the fate their actions deserved. She maintained the balance between right and wrong by humiliating the arrogant and making the wrong-doers deal with evil. On top of this, the dead would be judged in the underworld by Minos, Rhadamanthys and Aeacus. Good souls could enter the Elysium, or the place of eternal happiness and sunlight, while evil souls would be punished in Tartarus forever. Sisyphus had to push a heavy rock uphill and it would roll downhill at the midpoint every time; Tantalus suffered from a burning thirst chin-deep in a fresh and cool stream that shrunk when he tried to drink from it. To avoid these fates, people remained good.
Lastly, the third function of mythology in Greece and Rome was to give people reasons to celebrate, which encouraged cultural advancements.