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The Honest Truth: Why the magic, murder and myths of ancient Greece still fascinate

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From heroism to horses, sex to sacrifice, Greek myths have inspired scholars, tourists and filmmakers.

Isabel Ruffell, professor of Greek drama and culture at Glasgow University, tells Patricia-Ann Young the Honest Truth about the ancient stories and reveals why they still fascinate.

What are the origins of Greek myth?

Our earliest literature and poetry is about myth. It often focused in what was in the remote past for the people that were telling it. It allowed them to create a playground world where they can think about ideas and do things within stories that were not at the time possible.

It was also tied to their religion, but the relationship between Greek myth and Greek religion is quite difficult. Ancient Greek religion does not have a single story like monolithic religions such as Christianity. The gods the Greeks worshipped would turn up in myth, but the relationship between the gods you sacrificed to and gods that turned up in stories was ambiguous and contested.

Was the Trojan War a real historical event?

There is a city or town that burnt down roughly in the right area and time period. We think there may have been a small-scale raid, but the reason it burnt down might not necessarily be because of enemy action, so the historical basis for the war is a bit tenuous.

We do know, however, there were these Mycenaean kingdoms that collapsed shortly after the city burnt down, which fits in with mythology in many ways. What truly happened has been inflated however, and the idea of the launch of 1,000 ships seems unlikely. Whatever happened was chucked into the magic mix of mythology, and moved on from being historical fact to existing in a world where pretty much anything could happen.

Mythologising the story was a way for the Greeks to step back from their lives and think about ideas and the world through a mirror, and hold up a mythological mirror to themselves.

Professor Isabel Ruffell

Why do you think Greek myth still fascinates people today?

I think there is two sides to it. The first of which is that Greek myth is not afraid of exploring big, difficult topics. It gives a lot of insight into the personal world; things like love, marriage, incest, adultery, as well as really big ticket social subjects like politics. It covers both the domestic and the political. The second part is, much like the Ancient Greeks did, we like to use the past as a mental playground to think through things and ideas, in a way we do not necessarily have the freedom to do when we are going about our daily business and thinking about what we have to pick up a the shop later.

Were the Greeks the first to create myths?

No. Hesiod, a Greek poet who was around about the same time as Homer more or less, was telling stories about the gods that seem to be very similar to Near Eastern stories. Throughout the Near East, many cultures had stories about how they were generations of gods, with one generation displacing the previous one through various horrible and grotesque means. Hesiod seems to be borrowing Eastern Mediterranean/Near Eastern culture, and so the Greeks were not the first. What we do have from the Greeks is a lot of texts, because it was obviously such an important part of their culture. We know a lot about Greek mythology because of the richness of the traditions to make art around it, giving present day people a lot of access.

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How did the Ancient Greeks use myths to explore ideas about the world around them?

Writers would often adapt myths to reflect their city’s ideologies or what was going on around them at the time. The way they would tell the story would be different in what they chose to emphasise or de-emphasise.

In Antigone, for example, she rebels against the king and buries her brother against his orders. Burying the dead was very important in Greek culture, and in Athenian ideology there were versions of myths in which the Athenians forced the Thebans to bury their dead. Antigone did not exist in myth, it seems, before Sophocles’ version of the story, and so he seems to be reworking the myth by introducing her to explore the idea of “should we prioritise the rights of the gods over the needs of humans?”.