The Age of Heroes
The age of heroes can be broken down around the monumental events of Heracles as the dawn of the age of heroes, the Argonautic expedition and the Trojan War. The Trojan War marks roughly the end of the Heroic Age.
Perseus with the Head of Medusa. Among heroes, Heracles is in a class by himself. His fantastic solitary exploits, with their many folk tale themes, provided much material for popular legend. His enormous appetite and rustic character also made him a popular figure of comedy, while his pitiful end provided much material for tragedy.
Other Early Heroes
Other members of the earliest generation of heroes, such as Perseus, Deucalion and Bellerophon, have many traits in common with Heracles. Like him, their exploits are solitary, fantastic and border on fairy tale, as they slay monsters such as the Chimera and Medusa. This generation was not as popular a subject for poets; we know of them mostly through mythographers and passing remarks in prose writers. They were, however, favorite subjects of visual art.
The Generation of the Argonauts
Nearly every member of the next generation of heroes, as well as Heracles, went with Jason on the expedition to fetch the Golden Fleece. This generation also included Theseus, who went to Crete to slay the Minotaur; Atalanta, the female heroine; and Meleager, who once had an epic cycle of his own to rival the Iliad and Odyssey.
Seven against Thebes and royal crimes
In between the Argo and the Trojan War, there was a generation known chiefly for its horrific crimes. This includes the doings of Atreus and Thyestes at Argos; also those of Laius and Oedipus at Thebes, leading to the eventual pillage of that city at the hands of the Seven Against Thebes and Epigoni. For obvious reasons, this generation was extremely popular among the Athenian tragedians.
Troy and its aftermath
The Trojan War, including its causes and consequences, was the turning point between the heroic age and what the ancient Greeks considered to be their historical era. Vastly more attention was paid to this struggle than to all the many other contemporaneous events combined. The lasting popularity of the tales related to the Trojan War have kept them in circulation for millennia. The Trojan cycle includes:
- The events leading up to the war. Eris and the golden apple of Kallisti, the Judgement of Paris, the abduction of Helen, the sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis.
- The events of the Iliad, including the quarrel of Achilles with Agamemnon and the deaths of Patroclus and Hector.
- The ruse of the Trojan Horse and the destruction of Troy. "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts."
- The homecomings of heroes from Troy, including the wanderings of Odysseus (the Odyssey) and Aeneas (the Aeneid), and the murder of Agamemnon.
- The children of the Trojan generation: e.g. Orestes and Telemachus
The Heraclids were the descendants of Heracles who were the rightful heirs to the throne in Mycenae, Sparta, and Argos. There struggle originally started after the death of Heracles. Hyllus attacked Mycenae and was killed. The Oracle told them to wait until "the third crop". Sixty years after the Trojan war they took over the Peleponesus and became the ancestors of the Dorians.
Theories of Origin
In antiquity, historians such as Herodotus theorized that the Greek gods had been stolen directly from the Egyptians. Later on, Christian writers tried to explain Hellenic paganism through degeneration of Biblical religion. Since then, the sciences of archaeology and linguistics have been applied to the origins of Greek mythology with some interesting results.
To begin with, extant literary sources indicate that the ancient Greeks used the word Αιθιοπία to refer to a peoples whom they considered sacred, favored by the gods, and living immediately to the south of ancient Egypt. For example, Memnon was regarded as one of Ancient Greece's noblest heroes. Also, a mosaic discovered in the ruins of Pompeii vividly depicts Hercules as a black man.
But, historical linguistics, on the one hand, demonstrates that particular aspects of the Greek pantheon were inherited from Indo-European society, as were the roots of the Greek language. Thus, for example, the name Zeus is cognate with Latin Jupiter, Sanskrit Dyaus and Germanic Tyr (see Dyeus), as is Ouranos with Sanskrit Varuna. In other cases, close parallels in character and function suggest a common heritage, yet lack of linguistic evidence makes it difficult to prove — as in the case of the Greek Moirae and the Norns of Norse mythology.
And archaeology, on the other hand, has revealed that the Greeks were inspired by some of the civilizations of Asia Minor and the Near East. Cybele is rooted in Anatolian culture, and much of Aphrodite's iconography springs from the Semitic goddesses Ishtar and Astarte.
Textual studies reveal multiple layers in tales, such as secondary asides bringing Theseus into tales of The Twelve Labours of Herakles. Such tales concerning tribal eponyms are thought to originate in attempts to absorb mythology of one tradition into another, in order to unite the cultures.
In addition to Indo-European and Near Eastern origins, some scholars have speculated on the debts of Greek mythology to the still poorly understood pre-Hellenic societies of Greece, such as the Minoans and so-called Pelasgians. This is especially true in the case of chthonic deities and mother goddesses. For some, the three main generations of gods in Hesiod's Theogony (Uranus, Gaia, etc.; the Titans and then the Olympians) suggest a distant echo of a struggle between social groups, mirroring the three major high cultures of Greek civilization: Minoan, Mycenaean and Hellenic.
The extensive parallels between Hesiod's narrative and the Hurrian myth of Anu, Kumarbi, and Teshub makes it very likely that the story is an adaptation of borrowed materials, rather than a distorted historical record. Parallels between the earliest divine generations (Chaos and its children) and Tiamat in the Enuma Elish are possible (Joseph Fontenrose, Python: A Study of Delphic Myth and its Origins: NY, Biblo-Tannen, 1974).
Jungian scholars such as Karl Kerenyi have preferred to view the origin of myths (and dreams) in universal archetypes. Though not all readers are confident of interpretations of myth in terms of Carl Jung's psychology of dreams (by Kerenyi or Campbell for examples), most agree that myths are dreamlike in two aspects: they are not consistent, perhaps not wholly consistent even within a single myth-element; and they often reflect some momentary experience of the essence of the godhead, some epiphany, which then must be assembled into a narrative thread, much as dreams are recreated as sequential happenings.
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