Mythology and Astronomy as Manifestations of Ancient Greek Culture

By Paul Hay
Discussions
2007, Vol. 2 No. 1 | pg. 2/2 |

Marriage was an intensely important aspect of the Greek social atmosphere. For girls, marriage became almost the point of living. "Greeks of the Archaic period, indeed, so equated marriage and death that the same vessel...served both for the wedding bath and for decorating the graves of those who died unwed, providing the deceased, as it were, with the accoutrements of the marriage that was not realized in the present life" (Foreign 84). It is interesting to point out that some historians feel the very earliest Greek societies included a great deal of female equality. Many scholars argue that women possessed a large role in the guidance of the smallest Greek communities. "According to [Joseph] Campbell, the story of Perseus's slaying of the Medusa marks the overthrow of that earlier mythology and culture and the relegation of the ̳female principle' to a secondary position" (Meaney 26). Thus this myth sets the tone for the rest of the Greek civilization's history by reducing women to a level just above slave.

The capture by Perseus of the eye of the Graiae, the imprisonment of Danae, and Medusa's death stare all symbolize the fact that "woman is denied the power of observation...her different view will become no view at all" (Meaney 32). Despite this contention, Cassiopeia is still immortalized in the heavens, which suggests that women were not reduced in stature, but merely given a different role in society. The Perseus story illustrates this role.

The Perseus story also explains the importance of maintaining social order. Although he is a member of Greek royalty and is of divine blood, Perseus is often seen as a peasant hero because his weapon of choice, a sickle, is a peasant weapon. "It is not the short straight sword we would expect, but has a curved blade, sharpened on the inside. The harpe is the characteristic weapon of Perseus, and much has been made of it. Robert Graves...associates the sword with the sickle of the moon and Perseus with lunar aspects" (Wilk 28) Wilk also says that several aspects of the myth, including the odd birth of Pegasus and Chrysaor from the neck of Medusa, the demand of a gift of a horse by Polydectes, the golden shower of Zeus, and the fact that there are three Gorgons instead of just one can all be attributed to earlier astronomy—science shaped the myth (142). But these details are in essence the icing on a cake that is a lesson in social structure.

Perseus is seen as a hero because he overcomes the problems that arise from the follies of evil kings. In this sense, "the Gorgon head...became a vehicle for rectifying past injustices and restoring a fair and equitable social balance; once in the hands of Perseus it became a positive force" (Masks 90). Despite being royalty, "Perseus...is both the deindividualized ritual performer of one type of social order and the ego-oriented tyrant of another" (Foreign 79). This idea that Perseus stops society from devolving into chaos is significant, because at the time that the Perseus story is supposed to have taken place, Greece was finally coming into its own, from a cultural standpoint. "That the Perseus-Gorgon myth is about the establishment of a new kind of order...is incontrovertible...The story of his slaying the monster is like many others wherein the defeated is represented by a mask that becomes the signal for the opening of a new and radically different era" (Foreign 80).

Medusa's head becomes a symbol of Greek separation from earlier eastern cultures. "That the Gorgon likely was ritually associated with death and revivification is also suggested by an iconographic association between Gorgons and the wrathful Mistress figures of Asia Minor" (Masks 89). Greeks were historically quite wary of outsiders; Athens was infamous for its strict rules regarding citizenship. Aliens were not treated with the same social status as citizens in Greece. The Perseus myth cements this fundamental difference between Greeks and non-Greeks. A. David Napier notes that "it is important to realize that it was in the era of Peisistratus," when the Perseus legend first significantly rose in popularity, "that the division between mystic ritual and public celebration was dissolved." Napier continues, saying, "The return of the exiled Peisistratus was mirrored—even legitimated—by his support of Dionysus, the ̳outsider' who embraced the common man" (Foreign 107).

Perseus's status as a common man provided a perfect parallel. Oftentimes, city-states worshiped a mythological idea of their own founder, creating a mythology to make that founder more than just a common man. Perseus, then, serves this role for Greece as a whole. "What is important is that, in achieving cultural identity, [the Greeks] perceived themselves as having entered into some kind of symbolic exchange. They took the Gorgon head as a trophy, as the symbol of both the conquering and the assimilation of the alien; in turn they offered Perses, the son of Perseus, as the invented ancestor of the Persians. They gave, through their hero Perseus, freedom to an Ethiopian princess while taking her to become Perseus's queen— that is, queen of Mycenae, and queen, therefore, of Greece" (Foreign 106-107). Perseus, through his myth, establishes the importance of social order.

The mythological story of Perseus and its subsequent astronomical associations include manifestations of the fears and values of the ancient Greek culture. It is the culture that surrounds the storytellers and the star watchers which has the greatest impact on the nature of both the mythology and the astronomy of any civilization. As Lawrence Hatab puts it, myth is another way of saying culture (21). While the constellations as well as the legends of Greek mythology appear to be "larger than life," they are in reality no larger than the mortal men who shaped them.


Acknowledgements

Paul would like to thank his research advisor, Earle Luck, for assisting him with this project. His support was crucial to the completion of this endeavor and his help was greatly appreciated. Paul would also like to thank Rachel Sternberg for her expertise in the field of Greek history.


References

Blok, Josine H. The Early Amazons: Modern and Ancient Perspectives on a Persistent Myth. EJ Brill: New York, 1995.

Bremmer, Jan, ed. Interpretations of Greek Mythology. Barnes & Noble Books: Totowa, NJ, 1986.

Caldwell, Richard. The Origin of the Gods: A Psychoanalytic Study of Greek Theogenic Myth. Oxford University Press: New York, 1989.

Hatab, Lawrence J. Myth and Philosophy: A Contest of Truths. Open Court: La Salle, IL, 1990. Kerenyi, C. The Heroes of the Greeks. Thames & Hudson: London, 1959.

Langdon, Susan. "It Take a Polis: The Art of Adolescence in Early Greece." Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Murch Auditorium, Cleveland, OH. 8 November 2006.

Meaney, Gerardine, ed. (Un)Like Subjects: Women, Theory, Fiction. Routledge: New York, 1993.

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