Mythology The Original Storytelling

Mythology: The Original Storytelling

Posted April 20, 2022 by Amber in Bookish Things / 0 Comments

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I’ve been listening to a lecture series on Classical Mythology, presented by Elizabeth Vandiver for The Great Courses. I’ve always loved mythology because so much of our understanding of ancient cultures is driven by the myths they have left us. In particular, I’ve always been drawn to Greek mythology. Recently, Vandiver lectured on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, and her commentary got me thinking.

How much do we infer truth from mythology?

Many American children are taught a watered down version of Theseus and the Minotaur in public school. The Minoan king in Crete has a grand labyrinth where a man-eating Minotaur – half-man, half-bull – waits at the center. As part of a treaty, the Athenian king is compelled to send 14 young people each year to be killed by the Minotaur as reparations for the death of King Minos’ son, Androgeos. Theseus volunteers to join the party with the goal of killing the Minotaur and ending this once and for all. With the help of King Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, he lays a trail of string to help him find his way back out of the labyrinth, then kills the Minotaur with his bare hands. He and Ariadne escape, Theseus leaves Ariadne marooned on an island, and Theseus continues to live the life of a Greek hero.

As far as we can tell, Minoan civilization was at its height in 2000 BCE, the Bronze Age. Over 4000 years have passed since then and we are left with very little to infer what daily life was like for these people. There are two known written Minoan languages – Linear A (which we can’t read) and Linear B (which we can, but mostly we’ve just found storage inventory lists) The most important archaeological find is the Palace at Knossos – both architecturally and in the artifacts currently housed in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. It’s actually remarkable how well so many of these finds have survived such a long time, especially in the dry Greek climate. Most of what we know about Minoan Civilization comes from this archaeological find and the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

There are two problems with this. First, historians and archaeologists infer a lot of what they know from similar cultures on the find, therefore we have an answer and are looking for supporting evidence, rather than first collecting the evidence and then forming a hypothesis. Every professional tries to remain objective, but with such an old culture, there’s not a lot of informative evidence and they have to start somewhere. Second, there are many versions of this myth with different details, and all versions we have were written hundreds of years after the event. It’s like a game of telephone – how much is truly representative of Minoan culture, and how much if our own inference? Or that of classical writers?

Vandiver muses that perhaps we take things a bit too literally from the myth. The discovery of the palace at Knossos drives this – we know to some extent this story is based on reality, because it is what Sir Arthur Evans used to locate the site of the Palace. But was there really a labyrinth? A man-eating minotaur? Probably not. Many archaeologists pair the story of Theseus and the Minotaur alongside the famous fresco from the palace depicting a bull and three individuals to argue bull fighting, at least, was an event of athletic prowess on Crete.

Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the fresco is portraying a one-time attack, a story from Minoan mythology that didn’t survive the ages, or a feat of the king or queen of Knossos. We simply don’t have the context to give a definitive answer. We guess and use the context we have… because that’s all the information we have.

I think it’s pretty likely we infer too much from ancient myth. I also think we infer too much from modern stories. Imagine 4000 years from now and one of the few written things that have survived from our civilization is a copy of Twilight? It would not be outlandish for future archaeologists and historians to assume we believed in creatures with shimmering skin and maybe even worshipped them. In modernity, we read pretty deeply into most fiction, assuming archetypes and intentions that may be true… but also may not be. I know I don’t think too much about themes and metaphors when I write – I just try to write an interesting story.

And, at the end of the day, that’s what mythology is as well. It’s storytelling. It’s storytelling that has been passed down thousands of years and transformed with every telling. I love mythology because it is a story of the people who have come before us, but as a historian and a fiction writer, I have remind myself to take every word with a grain of salt – especially when the original creators have passed away long ago.

send me your thoughts

What mythology do you enjoy the most?

Do you think it reflects true history? Fiction? A mix?

Share with me in the comments!

stay magical amber

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