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What Can I Achieve with Greek Mythology?

What is the good that comes from knowing even a little about the ancient Greeks' religion?

I prefer to learn of actual people who once lived in a historical setting, a time and a place. Greek mythology, instead, is a collection of make-believe fantasy stories I would like to know more of, but I find it hard to gain much traction from them, practical use. I wonder. 

Mark Twain disparaged the whole notion. "Classics," he said, "are the books that everybody wants to claim to have read, but nobody wants to read."

After all, Greek religion is mythology, a series of stories about the gods and the goddesses whom the Greeks believed resided on or near Mount Olympus. 

They included a dozen Olympians: Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Hera, Ares, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Artemis, and Hephaestus, plus a host of others.

A twentieth-century writer devoted to the ancient Greeks, Edith Hamilton, said this about the Greek religion, "It was developed not by priests, nor by prophets, nor by saints, nor by any sect of men because of a superior degree of holiness.

"It was developed by poets and artists and philosophers. The Greeks had no authoritative Sacred Book, no creed, no ten commandments, no dogmas. The very idea of orthodoxy was unknown to them. They had no theologians to draw up definitions of the eternal and infinite."

Instead their religion was stories, written to explain difficult-to-comprehend facets of men and women's adult lives: How to live life well. How to strive for excellence. How to recognize a good way to live.

It was Margaret Fuller, an eighteenth-century intellect, a Transcendentalist, and a contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, "made Emerson aware of the peculiar power of mythology." She saw what he had not seen, or could not have seen.

The twentieth-century writer and scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell would agree with Margaret Fuller. I find Joseph Campbell ok at explaining mythology, Greek or others.

In 1988, Joseph Campbell and journalist Bill Moyers, appeared together in six episodes, three hours each, on a PBS show entitled, "The Power of Myth."

In their first episode, "The Hero's Adventure," Campbell retells the story of Daedalus and his son Icarus, who glued wings to their backs to fly to safety on a distant island. 

Daedalus warns Icarus, "Fly the middle way. Not too high, or the sun will melt the wax on your wings. Not too low, or the tides of the sea will catch you."

Daedalus, the dad, flies the middle way and arrives safely at the island, but the ecstatic Icarus, the son, flies too high. The sun melts the wax, and the boy falls into the sea.

The myth's takeaway? Fly the middle way. Live your life easy, without highs and lows.

In that same episode, Bill Moyers prompts Campbell, saying, "One of the intriguing points of your scholarship is that you do not believe science and mythology conflict."

Campbell agrees. "No, they do not conflict. Science is breaking through now into mystery's dimensions. It's pushed itself into the sphere that myth is talking about. It has come to the edge, the interface between what can be known and what is never to be discovered."

He gives an example. "There is a transcendent energy source. When the physicist observes subatomic particles, he's seeing a trace on a screen. These traces come and go. We come and go. All of life comes and goes.

"That [unknowable] energy is the informing energy of all things. That's the reason we speak of the divine. Mythic worship is addressed to that."

In the fourth episode, "Sacrifice and Bliss," Campbell quotes the last line of Sinclair Lewis' novel, "Babbitt." George Babbitt says, "I have never done the thing that I wanted to in all my life." Campbell says of George Babbit, "That's the man who never followed his bliss."

Mythology. I understand that Joseph Campbell believed that if we see the myth, identify it, and apply it to our lives, it may lead us to a better outcome in life. I would agree, the myth may do that, but still, I wonder.


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