The Myths of the Greeks.— Few peoples have given us a mythology so rich as that of the Greeks. For convenience we may distin guish between their cosmological myths, myths relating to superhuman beings of every grade, and tales of the after-world.
The earliest extant Greek literature shows that a long period of myth-making had pre ceded it. In Homer there is no elaborate cos mogony, because such did not suit the purpose of the poet, but it is evident that cosmological stories were familiar to him. Hesiod, on the other hand, offers an explanation of the der ivation of the world from Chaos, and knows two dynasties, those of Uranus and Cronos, which had preceded that of Zeus. Literary fragments show us that there were many other cosmogonies, notably those of the Orphics. There were many myll s of the creation, of plants, of animals, and of man; explanations of the origin of the arts and practices of civil ized society, as in the tale of Prometheus; attempts to account for the origin of evil, as in the story of Pandora's fatal curiosity; and tales of the degeneration of the inhabitants of the world, the most famous of which is that set forth in Hesiod's account of The Five Ages, ranging from the Age of Gold through the Silver, the Bronze, and the Age of Heroes, to the present wicked Age of Iron. The Greeks, like many other peoples, had also a story of the great deluge, in which all perished save one mortal pair by whom the world was re peopled.
The myths of the greater gods often tell of their birth, rearing, relations, and charac teristics in detailed fashion. In Homer Olym pus, the home of the divinities of the upper air, is organized like an aristocratic mortal city, with Zeus as supreme king, his sister and con sort, Hera, being far inferior to her lord in power. Zeus himself was the aboriginal god of the Hellenic stocks and universally regarded as the supreme divinity; although in the Ho meric epics he is sometimes cheated and de ceived by the other gods, still his supremacy is not questioned. Originally he seems to have been the bright sky, and therefore the god who controls all meteorological phenomena. It is impossible even to touch on the numerous myths that were told of him. He undoubtedly
absorbed into himself numerous local divinities, so that in many parts of Greek lands the birth place of Zeus was pointed out. In the most common version he was the son of Cronus and Rhea, who brought forth Zeus in the island of Crete, where, during his infancy, he was protected from his father by his attendants, the Couretes. His moral nature contained most complete contradictions; wholly faithless him self, he was also the god who guarded morals, protected oaths, humbled the proud, and pun ished evil doers. His supremacy was such that at times Greek religion rose almost to mono theism, although the step was never completely taken.
Hera likewise was a Pan-Hellenic divinity, but it is difficult to determine her original nature. In Homer she is represented as a good deal of a scold and, we may suspect, she was regarded somewhat as a comic figure; but in general the marriage relations between Zeus and Hera were good, as far as the goddess was concerned. Her powers were occasionally ex erted in directing the phenomena of nature, but she was pre-eminently the protectress of women.
Athena, the virgin goddess, was regarded as the embodiment of wisdom. She was also a valiant fighter on the field of battle. The myth told how she sprang fully armed from the head of her father Zeus, and this tale furnished the central motif of the east pediment of the Parthenon. In her functions she was above all the goddess of practical life, presiding over handicraft of every sort.
Apollo, in the Homeric epics, is the god of archery and of music; but in the later period he was primarily the divinity of prophecy, with his chief seat at Delphi. He also had a shrine of great antiquity on the island of Delos, where, it was said, his mother, Leto, had given him birth. He also practised the healing art, but was second in this to Asclepios, whom post Homeric legends made his son.
Apollo's sister, Artemis, was his counterpart in many ways, but far less prominent. She was a huntress, a goddess of all wild life, and she also practised the art of healing; women in child-birth were especially under her pro tection.