What is myth? There is no one satisfactory definition, since myths serve many different purposes. The first purpose was to explain the inexplicable. Since the beginning of humankind’s existence, myths have functioned as rationalizations for the fundamental mysteries of life, questions such as: Who made the world? How will it end? Where do we come from? Who was the first human? What happens when we die? Why does the sun travel across the sky each day? Why does the moon wax and wane? Why do we have annual agricultural cycles and seasonal changes? Who controls our world, and how can we influence those beings so our lives are easier?
Myths are stories that explain why the world is the way it is. All cultures have them. Throughout history, artists have been inspired by myths and legends and have given them visual form. Sometimes these works of art are the only surviving record of what particular cultures believed and valued. But even where written records or oral traditions exist, art adds to our understanding of myths and legends. Human cultures usually include a cosmogonical or creation myth, concerning the origins of the world, or how the world came to exist. The active beings in myths are generally gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, or animals and plants. Most myths are set in a timeless past before recorded time or beginning of the critical history. A myth can be a story involving symbols that are capable of multiple meanings.
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MYTHS AND ART
The relationship between myths and arts are varied and so dynamics, while we see a myth is a sacred narrative because it holds religious or spiritual significance for those who tell it. Myths also contribute to and express a culture’s systems of thought and values. The arts represent an outlet of expression, that is usually influenced by culture and which in turn helps to change culture. As such, the arts are a physical manifestation of the internal creative impulse. Major constituents of the arts include literature – including poetry, novels and short stories, and epics; performing arts – among them music, dance, and theatre; culinary arts such as baking, chocolatiering, and winemaking; media arts like photography and cinematography, and visual arts – including drawing, painting, ceramics, and sculpting. Some art forms combine a visual element with performance (e.g. film) and the written word (e.g. comics).
Looking at the art produced by various cultures gives valuable insight as to what that culture valued, or even feared. The ancient Greeks made art a priority. In doing so, they captured and immortalized the values they held as a society. When scholars study the art of a culture, they can draw conclusions about how that society lived and what it valued. Many cultures shared values, and in turn the art of one culture may mimic that of another. For instance, the Greeks focused on depicting their gods and goddesses in their art, thus revealing their strong belief in how those deities represented man’s place in the universe. However, other cultures (even modern American culture) may also use the same content but in a different context. This may represent a resounding value or may indicate some other type of commentary. The Greeks were prolific in their artistic representations of the society, especially its gods and goddesses. Though many of the sculptures depicted gods, this did not detract in the slightest from their humanistic quality. The Greek deities existed for the benefit of man, so that in glorifying them he glorified himself. Certainly there was nothing mystical or otherworldly in the religious aspects of Greek art. Both architecture and sculpture embodied the ideals of balance, harmony, order, and moderation. Anarchy and excess were abhorrent to the minds of the Greek, but so was absolute repression.
We have provided a representative (and by no means exhaustive) sampling of influential definitions and interpretations that can be brought to bear on classical mythology. It should be remembered that no one theory suffices for a deep appreciation of the power and impact of all myths. Certainly the panorama of classical mythology requires an arsenal of critical approaches.\
Let us end with a definition of classical mythology that emphasizes its eternal qualities, which have assured a miraculous afterlife. It may be that a sensitive study of the subsequent art, literature, drama, music, dance, and film, inspired by Greek and Roman themes and created by genius, offers the most worthwhile interpretative insights of all.
A classical myth is a story that, through its classical form, has attained a kind of immortality because its inherent archetypal beauty, profundity, and power have inspired rewarding renewal and transformation by successive generations.
For more information on this panel, please see Zeri catalogue number 64, pp. 100-101
““. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. 2016.
Kirk, p. 8; “myth”, Encyclopedia Britannica
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Howells, Richard (1999). The Myth of the Titanic. Macmillan.
Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, 1967, pp. 23, 162.