Robert Graves on Myth

Greek myth had importations from Crete, Egypt, Palestine, Phrygia, and Babylonia etc. Therefore  “True myth may be defined as the reduction to narrative shorthand of ritual mime performed on public festivals, and in many cases recorded pictorially on temple walls, vases, seals, bowls, mirrors, chests, shields, tapestries, and the like.” These dramatic performances which, with their iconographic and oral records, became the prime authority “…for the religious institutions of each tribe, clan or city.”  Greek mythology is a huge and disorganised corpus.

The subjects of myths are: archaic magic making; promotion of fertility and stability; sacred queendoms or kingdoms. Queendoms preceded kingdoms throughout the Greek speaking area [see Pausanias; Lucian ‘s ‘On the Dance’ which are ritual mimes in 2nd century AD.

True myth has to be distinguished from: Philosophical allegory (Hesiod’s cosmogony); ‘Aetiological’ explanations (Admetus); Satire, parody (Silenus’s account of Atlantis; Sentimental fable (Narcissus and Echo); Embroidered history (Arion, dolphin); Minstrel romance (Cephalus, Procris); Political propaganda (Theseus and Attica); Moral legend (Eriphyle’s necklace); Humorous anecdote (Heracles, Omphalus, Pan); Theatrical melodrama (Thestor); Heroic saga (Iliad); Realistic fiction (Oddysseus, Phaecians).

Genuine mythic elements are embedded in least promising stories. Prose sense of mythological narrative pays attention to names, tribal origins, fates of characters concerned. Then to restore the dramatic ritual. Individual elements then suggest an analogy with another myth. Greek mythology gives has to be considered in the light of the political and religious systems in Europe prior to the Aryan invasions from the north and east.

Genuine mythic elements – embedded in least promising stories. prose sense of mythological narrative = attention to names of tribal origin; fates of characters concerned. Then – restore to dramatic ritual. Individual elements then lead to suggestion of analogy with another myth. Greek mythology – consideration of political and religious systems in Europe prior to arrival of Aryan invaders from north and east.

The whole of Neolithic Europe = heterogenous or homogenous system of religious ideas – based on worship of many titled ‘Mother Goddess’ (also Syria, Libya). Evidence = artifacts. Hence – Neolithic = matriarchy (matrilineal). Ancient Europe = no gods (pivotal). Great Goddess = immortal, changeless, omnipotent. Concept of ‘fatherhood’ – not yt introduced into religious thought. Thus – no ‘father right’.

Mother Goddess = lovers for pleasure, not to give her children a father. Men – feared, adored, obeyed the Matriarch. Matriarch – tended the hearth in the cave/hut/abode = earliest social centre. Motherhood = prime mystery. [First victim of public sacrifice = Hestia of the Hearth].  Goddess = white aniconic image = widespread emblem. Appears at Delphi as navel boss (omphalos). Aniconic = of idols/symbols – not in animal or human form.

Originally – white ash mound to preserve charcoal embers (hearth). Thus raised navel-boss = omphalos – thence enclosed live charcoal. Raised white mounds also hid the harvest corn doll (removed in spring). Dead king – buried under mounds of white shells, marble, quartz.

Goddess symbols = Moon and Sun – ceslestial symbols. Earlier Greek myth – sun = secondary to moon. Moon – inspires greater superstitious fear. [NB – Greek henera, Irish Grainne]. Moon – does not grow dimmer in year. Credit = grant or deny water to fields. Moon has three phases = new, full, old. Matriarch’s three phases = maiden, nymph (nubile), crone (Triad). Linear triad?

Sun’s annual course – recalls rise and decline of her physical powers = spring maiden, summer nymph, winter crone. Hence – Goddess identified with seasonal changes in plant and animal life. Later conceived as another triad = maiden of upper air; a nymph of earth; crone of the underworld. A vertical triad = Selene, Aphrodite, Hecate. Mystical analogues = sacredness of number 3. Triad of 9 divided by 3.

Hence – Moon Goddess is thence enlarged to 9. When each 3 persons (maiden, nymph, and crone) appeared in triad = demonstration of divinity. But – one goddess not there. Hence shrines (Arcadian Stymphalus) = all 3 thence Hera.

The relevance of coition to childbearing was eventually admitted. Thence – winds and rivers – no longer credited with impregnating women. Recognition of coition role = turning point in religion [Hittite myth of Appu]. Thence – increase of status of men (religious status). Tribal  nymph – chose annual lover (who was sacrificed at year end) = symbol of fertility. Not an object of erotic pleasure. His sprinkled blood = fructified trees, crops, flocks. His flesh eaten raw by Queen’s fellow nymphs [e.g., Cain and Abel; Christ].

Queen’s nymphs = wore masks (bitches, mares, sows). Amendment = king died with decline in power of sun. [King identified with sun]. Another young man (twin, or supposed twin) became Queen’s lover and sacrificed at mid-winter. [Irish = tanist]. Reward = reincarnation in oracular serpent = resurrection. Consorts – permitted to deputise. Consorts = power only when deputising for Queen in her magical robes. Kingship developed. Sun = seasonal course then identified with male fertility.

Sun remained under tutelage of the moon. King remained under tutelage of the Queen. In theory – after matriarchal phase was outgrown – women – sovereign in religious matters. But – men not denied areas in which to act without female supervision. Sun thence a symbol of male fertility – when king’s life identified with sun’s seasonal course. Men thus – hunted, fished, gathered, minded flocks and herds, defended tribal territory. Various rules (in matriarchies) determined war-chief. War-chief – usually – Queen’s maternal uncle, brother, or son of maternal aunt.

Early Greek mythology = concerned – changing relations between Queen and her lovers. Yearly or twice yearly sacrifices. Eclipse of Queen at time of the Iliad = unlimited male monarchy. Greek myth = much politico-religious history. Examples – Bellerophon and Pegasus kill the Chimaera; Perseus beheads Gorgon Medusa (the mother of Pegasus); Marduk kills Tiamat (Mesopotamia).

Perseus – represented patriarchal Hellenes (invaded Greece and Asia early 2nd millennium). Challenged power of triple goddess. Pegasus = sacred to moon goddess = rain making ceremonies plus crescent hoofs. Medusa = once a goddess. Gorgon = a mask. Perseus beheads medusa = Hellenes overran chief shrines, stripped priestesses of masks, took possession of sacred horses.

Other examples – Apollo’s destruction of the Python at Delphi = Achaeans capture Cretan Earth Goddess’s shrine. Also – Daphne and Maenads (priestesses). Maenad colleges – suppressed by the Hellenes. History = Hellenic invasions – 2nd millennium BC. Aeolian plus Ionian. Preceded the Achaean, Dorian (more destructive).

The Aeolian and Dorian = small herdsman bands. Worshipped Aryan trinity of gods = Indra, Mitra, and Varuna. Crossed – mouth of Othrys. Settled – pre-Hellenic settlements – Thessaly; Central Greece. accepted as children of local goddess. provided the sacred kings. Thus – male military aristocracy reconciled to female theocracy. Also in Crete – Hellenes exported Cretan civilisation to Athens, Peloponnese. Greek – eventually – throughout Aegean. King = representative of Zeus; or Poseidon; or Apollo. Used their names.

All early myths – seduction of nymphs = marriage of Hellenic chieftains plus local moon priestesses. Opposition = Hera = conservative religious feeling. Thirteen months reign – too short. Extended to 100 lunations. Hence annual mock death of king. Sovereignty was yielded for a day. Yielded to surrogate boy king = interrex. Surrogate died at close of day – blood sprinkled in ceremony. After king’s reign = ritual death.

Thus – torn to pieces by wild women; speared; felled with an axe; pricked in heel with poisoned arrow; flung over cliff; burned on a pyre; drowned in a pool, chariot crash. New stage = animals substituted for boy sacrifice. Kings then refused death. Hence the great year became the greater year. Successive stages. King’s position by right of marriage to nymph. Nymph chosen by a foot race or from royal house (ultimogeniture) = youngest nubile daughter.

Throne remained matrilineal. Sacred king or tanist – always external to royal house. Thence – incest with heiress (daughter) = when reign needed renewal. Achaean invasions – 13th century BC = weakened matrilineal tradition. King thence reigned for natural life. Arrival of Ionians – end of 2nd millennium = patrilineal.

Princes now patrilocal  (e.g, Odysseus and Penelope). Genealogy = patrilineal. Festival of male kinship replaces female. But – still sacrifices to Mother Goddess. Thus – Olympian system agreed – compromise with Hellenic and pre-Hellenic. Then – divine family (6 gods, 6 goddesses).

Hera subservient. Athene = ‘all for the father’. Dionysos replaces Hestia. Thus “Patrilineal descent, succession and inheritance discourage further myth making; historical legend then begins and fades into the light of common history.” The lives of Heracles, Daedalus, Teiresias, Phineus, spanned several generation = titles not individuals.

Thus – “…myths, though difficult to reconcile with chronology, are always practical: they insist on some point of tradition; however distorted the meaning may have become in the telling.” The myth of Aecus’s dream = immigrations into Aegina – end of 2nd millennium. Bronze, Early Iron Age in Greece – not childhood of mankind.

Examples of ingenious theological drama = Zeus and Metis. Explanation = 3 components. Thus – ‘iconotropy’ = process – mythographers accidentally or deliberately misinterpret sacred pictures. Greek myth = many iconotropisms. Note – Irish and Welsh apple gifts in myth. See – Judgement of Paris. Also – Adam and Eve. Thus all Neolithic and Bronze Age paradises = orchard islands. Paradise = orchard.


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