Home » Greek and Roman Mythology » A box of tools for Greek and Roman Mythology.

A box of tools for Greek and Roman Mythology.

I am moving my tools here to keep them separate for easy reference.  I will add them as they come along.

A box of tools.

From the Romantic period into the twentieth century there were four specific schools of thought that will give some useful ways of tinkering with myths.


Bronisław Kasper Malinowski ( 1884 to 1942).  Malinowski, an important figure in the human sciences, made tremendous advances and was a critical figure in anthropology.  He studied the cultures nearby him, and noticed that they told stories. The stories got repeated over and over and took place at certain kinds of critical times.  There were moments when mythic stories were turned to in the society and they had a, a central role in the building of culture.  More importantly, Malinowski noticed that there was a specific way that these stories were used by the cultures.  Specifically, Malinowski said when cultures tell myths what they’re doing is legitimizing certain kinds of underlying social and cultural norms that they hold dear.  They serve a purpose, they’re not just there to delight and entertain us or to give us the versions or teach us about the sort of universal structure of the Cosmos.

The ideas of functionalism have already been a part of the course when we started talking about xenia, and the cultural value of overwhelming hospitality, and the usefulness in Greek culture of securing a means of trade, securing a kind of safe territory for people to trade, the different cultures to trade among themselves.  Then we claimed that the story that with Odysseus and his time on Scaria with the Phaeacians helps underline and legitimize the social and cultural value of Xenia.

A functionalist reading would say that the reason the Greeks loved to hear this story is because it legitimized their investment in this cultural value of Xenia and made it seem like it was a normal, natural thing.

Functionalism, structuralism,  psycho-analysis and myth and ritual will be the four main tools in our  toolbox, and when we have need of them and  see usefulness in them, we’ll take the  tool out, tinker with they myth and see  what results we get.

2. Structuralism  

English: Portrait of Claude Lévi-Strauss taken...

Structuralism comes to us from a man named Claude Levi-Strauss (1908 to 2009), an important figure in the field of anthropology and other fields such as physiology, sociology, literary studies,   and in the study of myth.

What structuralists are interested in is the structure of things. Starting with the structure of the human mind, structuralists notice that all of human culture is the product of this and therefore it should reflect the structure of the thing that produced it. How then does the human mind work?   Levi-Strauss said that the most salient characteristic of how we process information as human beings at its most core elementary level is a mode of binaries. It works according to on, off, yes, no, pairs of opposites that we use to structure our basic understanding of the world. All the other more complex forms of understanding that we have are the result of extra binaries layered on top of binaries. Not everything is black and white there are lots of shades of grey.   But every shade of grey is made up of certain amounts of black and certain amounts of white. Binary language can encode lots of cultural information and is capable of carrying very subtle messages. Living in the computer age that we do we see a lot of evidence of binary.

He was interested in ‘the moment of binary origination of information in the human mind’.  For example the world of a human infant is probably a pretty rudimentary one. Imagine that this infant at some point in its life notices a creature that seems to have eyes and has emotional responses. It engages with the infant, and brings food, sounds and other fascinating things, and when that figure is around the infant’s life seems to be enriched. Sometimes the figure is gone. The world is now all of a sudden a completely different place. That figure that was there is now all of a sudden gone.  What we have we just experienced, Levi-Strauss and other structuralists would   tell us, is called an anchoring binary event and   experience.   That is, sometimes there is Mummy, and sometimes there is not Mummy.

The basis of structuralism from Peter Struck is as follows:-

  1. When we try to figure out the world (another way of saying structure our understanding of the world) we divide it up into categories, and these are ultimately reducible to binary oppositions.  In books nine to twelve we saw a set of myths anchored around a pair of  opposite ideas between what counts as food  and what counts as ‘not food’.
  2. Since the world doesn’t come with labels on it (oh that it did!), these categories are our own creations, and this means that they may or may not be stable, secure, and true.
  3. When it appears to us that our binaries might *not* be stable, secure, and true, we get stressed, and the more profound the binary that comes under threat, the more stressed we get.  In the structuralist  reading of food and ‘not food’, it’s not so much what is being eaten or not eaten in one spot compared to another but the  distinction between something that’s okay to eat and something that’s not, that’s the most important thing.    The relationship among the items in the   story is the most important thing, not the   details of any particular element in the   story.
  4. Like the grain of sand that irritates the oyster and results in a pearl, these anxieties are productive, and our greatest works of culture result when our most profound binaries come under threat.  At such moments, we have an urgent desire to talk it over with each other, and myths just the most distilled form of such a conversation.

So, the structuralists see myth as a particularly dense cultural production, which, in their view, must have resulted from some binary pair of oppositions that have come under threat in the culture that produced it.  To explain the myth means to track down that underlying binary pair that must be at stake in the larger story as a whole. You’ll know you’ve found the right one when you find one that accounts for all parts of the myth, with nothing left over.

Structuralists are not interested in the temporal diachronic dimensions of a myth or the way a narrative unfolds.  They are interested in the structural pieces that make up the molecules of the narrative. They break them apart to identify which parts represent each side of the binary. A structuralist is interested the myth and makes the claim that a myth has a meaning not in so far as it’s  particular details give us some complex expression of some cultural form but in the relationships in the details.  So they don’t look at how it is that the voyage of Odysseus moves from culture to culture or how he gets involved in relationships but at the   relationships among those features, how one feature relates to another.

For a structuralist there is a certain universality that’s reflected in myth. But the universality is not related to details of the themes. The structuralist goes through a process of pressing towards   universals will not look at a single item and talk about it has having some specific meaning.   Instead what they claim is that human beings tend to put the same pairs in opposition from culture, to culture and that’s where the universality is.  According to the structuralists some pairs are consistent across many different cultures.

What counts as a structuralist binary pair?   What a structuralist normally does is to hunt for some pair of opposition that is anchored in a biological part of our experience of being human.   A structuralist pair is not based on complex cultural forms or how a culture defines itself.  It’s a binary anchored in basic fundamental human experience at the level of our biological cells, for example, things like food and not food which has a biological dimension to it. Binary pairs include questions about habitat; the environment people live and thrive.

Questions about reproduction, a basic   biological process is fertile ground for finding binary pairs that structuralists are   interested in. As human beings, we come from somewhere. We have mothers and fathers, extended family and we try to find   relationships.  These kinship relationships get expressed universally across human cultures and this is a point at which the structuralist   is interested in.

Structuralists go binary hunting. They try to read myth and first of all get rid of the narrative arc.   They then look at all the features that are in the   story and the elements that make it up. The best structuralist reading is the one that provides two opposite categories into which the largest number   of features in the myth can fit. They find places for all the features of the story.   These are anchored in opposite pieces of   what it is to be human.

For a structuralist there is a single binary pair for each myth.   There could be several different kinds of pairs that work pretty well but one core anchoring them.


 3 . Freud

 Sigmund  Freud (1856 to 1939).

Freud has an important set of observations that help us understand myth. Freud tells us that myths dramatize events in every individual’s mental or psychological development.

Freud thinks that hidden messages inside a myth are always going to be about just you and me as individuals, developing, working our way through the development of our psychological state. As a doctor Freud is interested in us as patients.  When a, a patient goes to see a  doctor, the doctor doesn’t interview a patient to talk about national background, cultural ethnicity, and these things, unless there’s something very  relevant that happens in those aspects.  Mostly what a doctor is interested in is you as a member of a species, as a universal creature that needs some help. Freud thinks about all of us as universal creatures, and he thinks about the human psyche as a universal organ that all of us have inside. From childhood to old age there is an   on-going, consistent development that Freud, is trying to develop a science of.

One particular idea he develops in “The Interpretation of Dreams” (1900). The structure of the psyche he’s working with is made up of two main parts with a repression barrier in between.  We have the unconscious mind and the conscious mind. The repression barrier, in healthy people, keeps the unconscious mind repressed. If the repression barrier weren’t there,  we would all answer to these deep, dark,  unconscious desires that we have which are very powerful. Freud says that we all have at our core the desire for the most intense pleasures we can.  We would pursue those deeply, selfishly, according to the most antisocial, uncivilized behaviour, if our unconscious was given free reign, if there was no such thing as a repression barrier. Sex is a very important piece of this as is food and the pleasure that come from making sure that, the organism maintains its metabolizing at a very elemental level.  Freud also talks about the pleasures that come from being dominant over others in a group. These are the things that animate our unconscious desires, and luckily, our repression barrier keeps them, for the most part, in check.

When we think about our psychological houses, most of us think that our conscious desires are the things that we answer to most, we’re familiar with these, and sure we might have some unconscious desires but they don’t really seem all that important.  Freud says that actually the conscious desires we have are like the tip of an iceberg, underneath is the biggest part. These unconscious desires are the very powerful drivers that are the energy that presses our life forward.

According to Freud, we want to have sexual pleasure with anything and anyone.  That’s what we look for in our view of the world, this most intense gratification. That includes even parts of the larger grouping of human beings that you and I run into that are forbidden to us. The forbidden-ness makes a forbidden fruit of these potential sexual partners for us, and produces frustration. One person that we are forbidden from having sex with in most cultures is a parent. Freud says we all have an unconscious desire to have sex with one of our parents.  We also have an unconscious desire to eliminate the parent of the same gender as us, such that, that person is not in the way.

Luckily there’s a repression barrier. What Freud says happens in healthy people is that these powerful, even forbidden desires, are kept down by the repression barrier.  But on occasion these unconscious desires grow, and become huge, and place pressure on the repression barrier.  In an unhealthy psyche, the repression barrier has no gaps, and the pressure could cause the whole psyche to explode and no longer work.  In a healthy psyche the repression barrier opens up on occasion and allows one of these unconscious desires to actually show itself to the conscious mind, and allow itself to be gratified.  The repression barrier allows the unconscious desire to enter into the conscious mind, but not before it changes it through these processes of condensation and displacement.

That desire we feel for forbidden objects, for example to become dominant over our own fathers, and perhaps trying to have sexual relationships with our mothers.  These desires are allowed to be expressed, but they’re changed, they’re displaced, and put onto someone else who’s authorized.  So we can have a dream about dominance over someone else that stands as a symbol for our father, or intimacy with someone else that stands as symbol, or replacement for our mother.  It’s a system that Freud says allows this tea kettle of the unconscious mind to let off some steam without allowing anything that is absolutely forbidden by the conscious mind. In “The Interpretation of Dreams” Fred says that a main avenue by which these unconscious desires are expressed is through dreams.

Freud tells us that “myths are the dreams of an entire culture”.  When we take a look at myths we get this displaced and condensed expression of primal desires in a culture that are displaced onto now more acceptable targets for those desires.  So the desire to overcome the father, all  of us get to live it out vicariously by  looking at it through this awful figure of  Cronus who we can scold and wag our finger at, but actually each of us gets a little  vicarious thrill by watching a father figure get castrated.  The special intimacy and closeness that Cronus has with his mother, there’s no sexual relationship that’s talked about but they had a special closeness, we now live it out through Cronus.  The connection here, according to Freud is that all of us have these desires.  These desires had a chance to get themselves worked out through this apparatus.

Through this modification, then, each of us is engaged always in a process of myth-making through our dreams. Our cultures are, in a way, dreaming as they write their myths.  These myths then, according to Freud, are interpretable, according to his large scheme.  We see a giant system in which, not only is it true that as  humans that are living along, thinking  that we have this very well set up  conscious mind with a repression barrier that is keeping down our dark desires all of us are actually living in a  psychological house over which we are not  quite masters.  None of us are quite masters of our own psychological desires.  Similarly in our culture’s myths, our culture is not the master over its own, cultural product.  Instead, what we do through myth is live out all the things that our culture forbids itself.  So keep an eye on those things in myth that seem especially salacious, nasty, overstepping of lines, overstepping of bounds.  Freud gives us a really interesting tool, that’s helpful in trying to figure out why in the world would a culture want to tell itself a myth like this.

4. Myth and ritual

David Émile Durkheim (Credit : Wikimedia)

In the Myth and ritual school of thinking about myth there are two prominent figures Emil Durkheim, (1858 to 1917) and  Jane Harrison (1850 to 1928).

Durkheim was an important figure in all, many different human sciences and was interested in, the social phenomenon of what happens when humans get together in groups, amazing thing start to happen. Jane Harrison, brings these ideas about ritual into the reading of classical myth.

Durkheim realized that human beings, when they get together in groups have amazing kinds of feelings that show up. A term that he had coined, called ‘collective effervescence’ talks about the added plus to an experiential level of what life is like when groups of people get together to do things. This is not reducible to (but it’s also not that separate from) big groups of people doing anything, showing up to watch the same football game. Tens of thousands of people doing the same thing you are adds an urgency and power to what’s happening. Durkheim went so far as to say that, this feeling of collective effervescence, way back in the dawn of time, was the reason that human beings started thinking about divinities, that the divine was an epiphenomenon of the feeling of collective effervescent that happens when people get together.

Jane Harrison (Credit : ecx.images)

There is something quite stunning about those affective feelings and they seemed to be absolutely just as true now as they surely were in Durkheim’s time. Durkheim projects them into the very early times of human existence. This feeling of collective effervescence is so important, he says, it is harnessed when human beings engage in ritual. Ritual behaviour is something that’s observed across, human groups universally across many different cultures. Humans get together and behave in collective ways, issuing different, sometimes strange, always very stylized behaviours. These happen at certain heightened moments. The importance around things like transitions are also taken to mark new obligations and new duties that are important to a society. These rituals anchor that commitment and sense of transaction, the newness of someone’s position within a social group. This Durkheim says is the, the function of ritual is to anchor these moments in our lives.

It’s confusing enough as all of us would probably acknowledge, being a human being. People make promises. Sometimes those promises are kept, sometimes they aren’t. People allow debts to go unpaid; sometimes it’s hard to discern the truth behind things. People make transitions and it’s not clear when that transition has been made. Durkheim says rituals solve these ambiguities for us by making them utterly clear to a group as a whole, and so actually does more than just mark a transition or a promise, it actually enacts a transition or a promise.

For example. If someone asks me, hey, do you want a sandwich?” I may say, Yes, I do. And after saying I do I get a sandwich. All I’ve done is convey a preference to someone and someone fulfils it and gives me a sandwich and then I can eat that and say thanks. There’s another context though, in which those same words might be uttered in a slightly different way. At British wedding ceremonies that typically lead to a moment of grand importance, where someone asks a question will you two become spouses to each other? Will you stay with each other for ever? At a certain point someone’s supposed to say ‘I do’. Those same two simple words in English ’I do’ in answer to someone wanting to give you a sandwich are one thing. Maybe oblige you to accept the sandwich. In the context of a ritual, though, they’re much more important. They’re actually efficacious speech. They do more than just mark something, a preference that you have. They actually commit you to it, change your status such that, within the society, you now all of a sudden become something different. You’ve made a transition that is marked, and taken an oath that is marked in the society, and is made to be efficacious. Rituals have the power to do this, according to Durkheim.

When talk about rituals early in the previous century starts to come up to a higher and higher level of importance, people realize just how important rituals are in anchoring human life. Those who are interested in myths start to take notice. In many myths it seems pretty clear that myths and rituals are intimately tied. People who are interested in myths start to say that there is this deep connection between rituals and myths, and in order to understand how myths work, we’ve got to understand their connections with ritual. Harrison published several important works where she starts to develop a claim that says that, in fact, behind all of Greek mythology, what we find as the core thing that makes them tick is some ritual behaviour. We’ve seen this in our Homera camps.

It’s plausible that the writers of these hymns were presented with ritual behaviours that were happening around them and drew up a mythic story in order to explain those mythic behaviours. So the strange drink that we drink in honour of Demeter at the Eleusinian mysteries, where did that come from? Where did the rites of Eleusis come? Why do we celebrate them in honour of Demeter? What’s the connection with everlasting life? How do these things all tie together? Well, Harrison’s suggestion, the myth and ritual school, is that what’s happened is ritual behaviours have been going on for many generations, back to prehistoric times. At a certain point, those ritual behaviours that are repeated every year, strikes some people as sort of strange. When people start to ask that question, this is where myth rushes in. Myth rushes in to the vacuum of sense and understanding that we have around bizarre, stylized behaviours that we practice in rituals.

The ritual behaviours that we practice we find meaningful ways of trying to understand them. But mostly, what we do when we’re performing them, is we just want to make sure we perform them the way they’re always performed. You want to make sure that your particular version of a ceremony matches up with the version of the ceremony last time, the time before, the time before, back to time immemorial. The pure repetition of the action seems to be what’s most important. Now, that can carry forward in its own trajectory. It has a momentum of its own.

Eventually they require some explanation. Someone steps back and says, why do we do this? And when they step back and ask that question that’s when myth rushes in. We saw this with the Homeric hymn to Demeter. Clearly, Apollo is very carefully tied in with mythic stories. We saw it in Hesiod’s Theogony with the episode at Mekone. The connection there is very clear. Hesiod seems to be giving us a mythic story that helps us understand why it is that we Greeks sacrifice the bones to the gods, and keep the good stuff for ourselves. It even seems we’re trying to trick the gods by wrapping them in fat, and then keeping all the rich meats for ourselves. That may fit perfectly into Hesiod’s story, it makes sense, but the myth and rituals would say that what’s really motivating and driving this part of the story is an attempt by human beings to come up with an explanation for some strange ritual behaviour that they otherwise could not figure out, they otherwise could not explain.

Ritual behaviours, just on their own are provocative. They are not typically normal kinds of behaviours. We’ve got things like processions, and chanting, stylized gestures of all kinds, odd foods and strange names come out. There’s all kinds of foreign strange not normal not every day things that happen. Ritual actions are provocative. The myth and ritual says that, that provocativeness is what makes myths happen. We’ve seen example of this with the Homeric hymns and also, we mentioned Mekone the myth and rituals. If you really press this line of thinking you would say that all of myths that we have, have some ritual underneath them. There is some ritual behind them that is driving the myth.

Myth has shown up as, let’s call it a sound track, for ritualized behaviour that just, is something we want to do every year, not quite knowing what it meant. The myth shows up as a soundtrack narrativizing that for us and giving us a sense of why we do the things we do, in our ritual behaviours. So the, myth and rituals jumps into any part of a myth, and tries to find the, ritual that might lie behind it. The more that we learn about ancient rituals the more we can bring to bear a stock of understanding of how rituals work and try to make a whatever legitimate claims we can, that behind each pieces of the myth some ritual is there as the spur to that mythic tale. If’ myth and ritualists’ were looking at a tale the tale about Odysseus and the Cyclops for example, there wouldn’t be a lot of discussion about food and not food as we did in a structural look at it before. Instead a myth and ritualist would say, there’s a hero here who goes into a cave, slays a beast, has this awful experience and emerges in a new life, having preserved himself from mortal danger. When we look back in Greek rituals there are quite a lot of ‘Katabasis’ rituals where individuals that get involved in or individuals that go through certain kinds of rituals, enter into caves. There are scary things that happen to them and they emerge into a new life situation. It may well be that behind the Cyclops Episode was some, one of these Katabasis rituals.

To do a proper myth and rituals reading requires a very broad knowledge of Greek ritual. This is not something we have covered in the course. We don’t have lots of detailed information about Greek ritual. When we start to see connections, between myths and rituals, and there are, we’ve already seen many of them, certainly with the Homeric hymns, we can say yes, that’s indeed how myths work. They’re there as the soundtrack for ritual behaviours, strange ritual behaviours that provoke people trying to invent explanations of them. When they do, they tell stories, and these stories are what you and I call myth.



  1. […] Sigmund  Freud (1856 to 1939).  It is interesting for me to come back to Freud here. Of course reading about the castration of Sky by Kosmos immediately brought him to mind. I have included him in my toolbox. […]

  2. […] that we’re working with. Here we stopped to look at myth and ritual. You can find it in the tool box. NOT […]

  3. […] Functionalism says that myths are told, in order to legitimize certain social and cultural forms. The take Peter Struck gave us on the Oresteia is that what Aeschylus is up to here is telling a myth in a certain historical context. He’s telling a myth that is justifying and legitimizing a social norm of a new scheme of justice. As iterated in this court of the Areopagus, a long and deeply held traditional court in Athens and talking about it as being important along these new democratic lines. That is very much straight forward functionalism. There are many others that are possible of what Oresteia is all about. But the vision that our professor offers is that Aeschylus has a purpose to this telling of this story. The purpose or what is makes it so attractive and appealing to the audience that’s seeing it, is that it is for them legitimizing a social cultural norm, this importance of their institution of justice in the form of these courts. […]

  4. […] gives us a wonderful opportunity to dip into our toolbox. Oedipus is incredibly rich and has given scholars in many different fields a good opportunity to […]

  5. […] his rites, and making sure that human beings perform those rites for him. This lends itself to a myth and ritual analysis which claims that myths are there in order to give a background story behind normal […]

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