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Greek Mythology: Some New Perspectives

  • G. S. Kirk (a1)


A new approach to the ancient world is only too often a wrong approach, unless it is based on some concrete discovery. But I think it fair to talk of new perspectives, at least, in the study of Greek mythology. Certainly the old and familiar ones are no longer adequate. Indeed it is surprising, in the light of fresh intuitions about society, literacy, the pre-Homeric world, and relations with the ancient Near East, that myth—one of the most pervasive aspects of Greek culture—has been left in its old and rather cobwebby pigeon-hole. Rose's simple paraphrases are accepted as adequate for students; Nilsson's sparse pages in his history of religion are rightly respected, though some of them are too simple; the Murray-Cook-Harrison-Cornford reconstruction of religion, ritual and myth is regarded as a little excessive, but perhaps not too far out; Kerényi and Eliade are roughly tolerated, if not widely read by Classicists, and their books are ordered in profusion for the library; the psychological side is adequately taken care of, or so it is supposed, by what is left from Freud and Jung, with Cassirer as sufficient authority for the sources of mythical imagination.

Many of these critics had their moments of brilliant insight, but most were misleading in their theories taken as a whole. We can now accept that many myths have ritual counterparts, and some have ritual origins, without having to adopt Cornford's belief, developed after Harrison, Frazer and Robertson Smith, that all myths are such.



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1 Cornford, 's views are most clearly exemplified in ‘A ritual basis for Hesiod's Theogony’ in The Unwritten Philosophy (Cambridge, 1950) 95 ff.

2 Malinowski, B.: see especially Myth in Primitive Psychology (1926), reprinted in Redfield, R. (ed.), Magic, Science and Religion (Boston, 1948, paperback ed. Doubleday-Anchor, no. A 23); Eliade, M.: see e.g. The Myth of the Eternal Return (London, 1954); Cassirer, E.: see The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms vol. ii (New Haven, 1957).

3 Radcliffe-Brown, A. R., e.g. Structure and Function in Primitive Society (London, 1952) 178 ff., and cf. The Andaman Islanders (Cambridge, 1922) ch. 6, esp. 397 ff.

4 Cf. e.g. Patterns in Comparative Religion (London, 1958) ch. 1.

5 It may be that ‘traditional tale’ is as far as one can reasonably go in defining the common quality of everything that tends to be classified as a myth (excluding specialised applications like ‘falsehood’). Not all traditional tales, of course, are myths, even in this broad sense; for example tales that are clearly historical in essence may become traditional and yet have none of the other qualities that belong to one or another type of myths. The problem of definition (which also includes the question of the relation of myths to folktales) is an awkward one; it is necessary to remain aware of it, yet it is also legitimate to by-pass it to some extent, at least until the special properties of commonly accepted instances have been further explored.

6 Boas, F., Tsimshian Mythology (Washington, D.C., 1916) 879 ff.; Benedict, R., Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences xi (1933) 179.

7 Cf. The Making of Homeric Verse (Oxford, 1971), ed. Parry, Adam, lii ff.; and as one specific instance of such discussion see Parry, A., Yale Classical Studies xx (1966) 177 ff., and Kirk, G. S., Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society n.s. xvi (1970) 48 ff.

8 E.g. Fontenrose, Joseph, The Ritual Theory of Myth (Berkeley, 1966).

9 Lévi-Strauss, C., Structural Anthropology (London, 1963) 213 ff.; Leach, E. R., Lévi-Strauss (London, Fontana Books, 1970) 68 ff.

10 Great flood: cf. ANET 2 (=Ancient Near Eastern Texts, ed. Pritchard, J. B., 2nd ed., Princeton, 1955) 42–4 (Sumerian); ibid. 93–5, also Lambert, W. G. and Millard, A. R., Atra-hasīs (Oxford, 1969) 67 ff. (Akkadian). In Greek contexts the flood is variously associated with Ogygus, Deucalion, Lycaon.

11 Iliad i 5; on the Dios boule cf. schol. A Vind 61 and fr. 1 of the Cypria, most conveniently in Homer, OCT vol. v, pp. 117 f.

12 Cf. Farnell, L. R., Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality (Oxford, 1921) esp. pp. 19 ff.

13 Brief references for what follows in the main text: Shukallituda, cf. Kramer, S. N., Mythologies of the Ancient World (Garden City, N.Y., 1961; Doubleday Anchor no. A 229) 117 f.; Geriguiaguiatugo, Lévi-Strauss, C., Le Cru et le cuit (Paris, 1964) 43 ff., cf. Kirk, G. S., Myth, its Meaning and Functions (Cambridge and Berkeley, 1970) 64 f.; Winnebago trickster, cf. Radin, P., The Trickster (London, 1956) 38 f.; Egyptians: cf. Wilson, J. A. in Frankfort, Frankfort, Wilson, and Jacobsen, , Before Philosophy (Penguin Books, 1949) 54–6; Kumarbi, , ANET 2 (cf. n. 10 above), 120 f., cf. Kirk, , Myth (above) 214–19; Loki, cf. Turville-Petrie, E. O. G., Myth and Religion of the North (London, 1964) ch. 5; Zuni, cf. Benedict, R., Zuni Mythology (New York, 1935)passim; Pitjandjara, cf. Mountford, C. P., Ayers Rock (Sydney, 1965)passim.

14 Cf. Walcot, P., Hesiod and the Near East (Cardiff, 1966) chs. i and ii.

15 Hesiod, , Theogony 295 ff. (Echidna), cf. 821 ff. (Typhoeus); 665 ff. (Titans and 100-handed giants).

16 Inanna's descent: ANET 2, 52–7; Enkidu: ibid., 97–9 (i.e. Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet XII).

17 Adapa: ANET 2, 101–3; cf. Kirk, , Myth, 122–5, 130 f.

18 Hesiod, , Works and Days 131 f. (silver race), 181 (grey-headed babies).

19 Rose, H. J., A Handbook of Greek Mythology (London, 1953) 14.

20 Heraclitus fr. 15 Diels-Kranz (cf. Kirk-Raven, , The Presocratic Philosophers [Cambridge, 1963 etc.] 211 f.): ‘If it were not for Dionysus that they made the procession and sang the hymn to the shameful parts, the deed would be most shameless …’.

21 Benedict, R., Patterns of Culture (Boston, 1934 etc.) 123–6.

22 Etana: ANET 2, 114–18.

23 Cf. Kirk, , Myth 152 ff., esp. 170 f.; Vidal-Naquet, P., Annales v (1970) 1285–7.

24 The possibility that the oak and cloth are also oriental in derivation is re-raised by West, M. L., Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient (Oxford, 1971) 5260; his arguments at this point are far from decisive.

25 This article is a substantially unchanged version of a talk given to the Triennial Conference of Classical Societies in Cambridge in July 1971.


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