18 March 2015
Glory and Story: How Greek Mythology Informs Modern Culture
“Excellence is not an action. It is a virtue.” Says Aristotle. In a way, as an action, excellence would seem episodic, occasional, or lucky. As a virtue, excellence would appear to be serial, rehearsed, or practiced. In both contexts, just as ancient Greek philosophy made different, lasting conceptual designs about the idea and ideal of “aristein” or to be the best of yourself and/or the better of your peers, so did classical Greek mythology make diverse, lasting impacts about superior character in the modern cultural imagination. Especially so in the arts, such as lyric and epic poetry. Greek mythology was and continues to be both a model and marvel symbolic engineering. By symbolic engineering, I mean to define a type of character design through allegory and/or rhetoric. As a way of shaping behavior, conduct, and ritual, mythology, as Oxford Classics professor, Helen Morales suggests that it “could and did function as an agent of ideology”(Morales 63). This technique, as mastered and understood by ancient writers such as, Ovid, Plato, Aristotle himself, and others has trickled down through Western culture; Medieval and Renaissance poets such as William Shakespeare and John Milton infused many of the classical mythological forms and concepts to reinforce their historical interpretations of mundane and the divine. For us in our modern, American times, classical figures are the mythic themes that reinforce our blockbuster films, our namebrand commerce, and our sports community. Ancient ideals educate our modern ideas.
When discussing the term, “myth” we can notice strong parallels in our
contemporary distinction between the words “fact” and “fiction”. In her text, Classical
Mythology: A Very Short Introduction,
Professor Morales elucidates this when she writes “Our word ‘myth’ derives from the Greek word
which means something like ‘story’, in
which means ‘truthful account’” (Morales, 57). For the Greeks as for us, there was a necessary and subtle narrative difference between a tale and a report. The value in each lie in their respective abilities to instruct or nurture (ideally) virtuous behavior. They are both forms of media: poetry and philosophy. How a culture shapes itself depends on the mythological shape it takes. “The myths of different cultures have been given different valences by their reception in socalled Western (and nonWestern) culture. Those of ancient Greece and Rome have become
myths of the Western world” (Morales, 3). We have the term, “GrecoRoman” for reasons other than wrestling; in the development of Western history it forms the secular counterpart to the JudeoChristian element. As incorporated by Roman poets the likes of Ovid and Virgil however, mythology was to last alongside logic in the growth of Western thought and eventually American technology.
“Modern tellers of ancient myths are no less creative than were the ancient
mythographer and poets” (Morales, 24). Today’s cinema and its filmmakers serve a long, sustained cultural imperative to perform ancient tales with advanced tools. Every generation of classical scholars and students adapts their comprehension of myth with the creative use of their current machines. For our aesthetic and entertainment purposes, so to speak, epic films demonstrate how film viewing itself can be “epic”. In today’s world, the movies are where the mythology is. Recent examples include those of mixed acclaim including, Troy (2004),
(2007), Clash of the Titans (2010),
As a technologically adaptive
medium, film differs from theatre in the sense of having the wider license to convey the often spectacular, cosmic imagery that abounds in ancient works such as Homer’s Iliad
Cited: . Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation
. London: Penguin, 2004.
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