Has there ever been a single sacred text of Hellenic Polytheism?
March 13, 2010 11:43 AM   Subscribe

Is there an official bible for the Greek myths?

I've been devouring Caprica and the Percy Jackson stories and thinking about the Greek myths. There have been some great threads about the Greek religion on AskMeFi already.

A big difference I see between Greek polytheism and the Abraham religions is the existence of scriptures. The "Big Three" have a bible with agreed-upon versions of stories and laws. The Greek culture was based on oral storytelling and never had a bible -- did they?

If one wanted to worship the Greek gods today (and I know some people do), or were to write a Caprica-like story in which the gods are worshipped in a modern setting, what official texts would believers use? If you went to Greek temple and the priest said "Open your books to page 215," what book would that be? Was there ever such a thing, or was one compiled anytime afterwards?
posted by Flying Saucer to Religion & Philosophy (24 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
The Theogony of Hesiod
posted by lukemeister at 11:49 AM on March 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Edith Hamilton's Mythology is a pretty standard textbook. When I studied mythology as a freshman in high school, I used my dad's copy from his high school days, 30 years prior.
posted by donajo at 11:53 AM on March 13, 2010

Best answer: Your mistake here is in thinking of the bible as inclusive of all texts considered sacred to early Jews and Christians when, in fact, it is exclusive. There was a lot of authoritative sacred literature around the turn of the era that didn't make it into the canon for various reasons, and the bibles that resulted from those canon-making decisions were originally rejections of a very fluid and fractious textual environment.

Lacking the same sort of orthodox-imposing, canon-delimiting process, there's no way to imagine that the similarly dynamic textual worlds of ancient Greece and Rome could have come up with their own "bibles." If you mean by "single sacred text" a document that all could recognize as authoritative and constitutive, then the Iliad is probably as close as you'll get. With Hesiod running a close second.
posted by felix betachat at 11:54 AM on March 13, 2010 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: lukemeister, that's a good start, but after doing a quick search, the Theogony doesn't mention Jason, Pan, or Arachne, and mentions Artemis exactly twice (she "delights in arrows," apparently). I think that those characters and myths were about as important as the creation of the universe. So is there a "bible" that includes all, or most, of those myths, too?
posted by Flying Saucer at 11:59 AM on March 13, 2010

Response by poster: I understand that my search is most likely futile, felix betachat.

I don't blame the Greeks for relying on oral storytelling and molding the myths to fit their particular time or island or village.

I've just been reading a lot of mythology and I keep coming across: "In some accounts, this happened. In other accounts, this totally different thing happened," or "This character was a princess. But in some stories, she was a river nymph."

Would modern-day characters tolerate that ambiguity? Actually, looking at Christianity, where some people say Jesus was the ultimate liberal and others say he laid the foundation for a free-market society, maybe they would.
posted by Flying Saucer at 12:04 PM on March 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Flying Saucer,

felix betachat had the best answer. I don't think that what you want really exists. You could take a look at this. I highly recommend Perseus.
posted by lukemeister at 12:05 PM on March 13, 2010

Best answer: Greco-Roman culture is not at all a monolithic thing, and it definitely didn't have 'sacred texts' in the sense of the modern Christian Bible. Syncretism and accretions of stories/gods/etc. to one another was how it worked. (In other words, the multiple stories/versions aren't a bug of polytheism, but a feature, to be clichéed about it.) A good ancient source for mythology is (besides the Metamorphoses and other texts mentioned above) Pseudo-Apollodorus, available on the Perseus Project with Frazer's invaluable notes.
posted by lysimache at 12:29 PM on March 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I kept the two volumes of The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, lying around on flat surfaces in my house for several years, dipping into them from time to time and remembering what I could, and the end result was that I felt like I knew less about them than when I started.

Graves' narration of a myth, as I recall, would often prominently feature the most well known versions of the stories (I'm thinking of the Hercules myths, here) interpolated with alternate versions and geographical variations, as well as being made to fit into Graves' idiosyncratic overarching metahistory. In retrospect, I see Graves' effort as being a lot like Fraser's 12 vol. The Golden Bough, with all of the flaws of that work that are so clear in the light of modern scholarship, yet with virtues that now wait in obscurity to be rediscovered by a more tolerant generation.

Unlike Graves' work, you won't find it lying around in a pile at a good used bookstore, but you could go to a good library and look into The Oxford Classical Dictionary.

That's where I think you should start.
posted by jamjam at 1:00 PM on March 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Roberto Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is a contemporary synthesis of a lot of Greek and Roman mythology into one big messy book, a kind of hybrid of narrative and essay. It's by no means "official," though. A tribe of Calvino or Borges readers might be able to base their religion on it, but it wouldn't be a very literalistic one.
posted by RogerB at 1:01 PM on March 13, 2010

Like everyone said above, there isn't one scared text. There a lot of ancient documents (in Greek and Latin) that talk about the gods in an off-hand kind of way. If you go to this entry on Pan at Theoi, you can read through involved myths and short fragments with citations. There is also a source list at the bottom. As many people have mentioned above, Perseus is great for looking at sources too.

In general, the Homeric Hymns are sources other than The Theogeny of Hesiod that are commonly referenced. Just keep in mind that they were not written at the same time or by the same person, and they were not written by Homer. They were also written later than the Theogeny.

Here's Arachne for comparison.
posted by Mouse Army at 1:27 PM on March 13, 2010

Greco-Roman culture is not at all a monolithic thing

The basic point being that much of it was highly localised, with city-based or regional cults. (The protean nature of Athena is a case in point.)

I'd incline in the same direction as b1tr0t: what could be considered "common knowledge" in the West of classical myths comes through the filter of Ovid's Metamorphoses, thanks to the spread of both Latin (and texts) with the Roman Empire. (The In Our Time programme on the Greek myths is worth a listen.)

Would modern-day characters tolerate that ambiguity?

It's not too much of a stretch to regard certain Christian denominations -- particularly ones with highly localised origins, such as the LDS -- in the same light. If you're thinking in terms of speculative fiction, you might look at the practice of Hinduism as a model, though perhaps a more intriguing fictional context might be to consider what might have happened if classical myths had become subject to the kind of controlling textual tradition as the major monotheistic religions.
posted by holgate at 1:36 PM on March 13, 2010

Herodotus' Histories is a pretty good source of stories, but it's not exactly light reading.

For a modern summary of the myths, D'aulaire's Book of Greek Myths is pretty hard to beat even though it's a kids' book. Plus the illustrations are absolutely fabulous.

Otherwise you're looking at Hesiod and Homer, as others have said. It's been a long time since I've read it, but I think Virgil has a fair amount about the gods. He is a Roman though.

And I would be very wary of Ovid as an introduction to the myths, because--at least to my mind--he makes all of the gods in them look like assholes or idiots, which is not how they are all portrayed elsewhere.
posted by colfax at 1:41 PM on March 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

yah, there's no sacred or central text for Greek religion, which partly what makes it all so wonderful

personally, i was brought up on Bulfinch's Mythology - but what i really want to recommend is the fairly awesome Genealogy of Greek Mythology, an accordian book featuring a pretty comprehensive family tree of figures from Greek myth - excellent resource
posted by jammy at 2:11 PM on March 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

gah - which *is* partly what makes it all so wonderful
posted by jammy at 2:11 PM on March 13, 2010

Also good: A Handbook of Greek Mythology by H.J. Rose (Dutton, 1959)
posted by lathrop at 3:37 PM on March 13, 2010

Another reason that there isn't a bible of classical mythology is that there isn't one definitive version of each story. As is the case with many great tales, different writers throughout history tell some tales different than other writers. Not only back in BC but all through the centuries since. Sometimes these differences are just as interesting as the stories themselves.
posted by buzzv at 3:43 PM on March 13, 2010

Also, I would be wary of conceptualising religion as practiced in ancient Greece as analogous to modern religion in any way. They were so _radically_ different, it would be like talking to aliens if you met an ancient grecian today. The culture, ethics, very foundation is so incredibly different. We can't help parsing our information through the lens of modern humanity, but be super careful in doing so.

FYI, Bullfinch and Graves would be considered the "go-to"s for what you're looking for. I would pick the Graves over the Bullfinch, ever so slightly.
posted by smoke at 3:54 PM on March 13, 2010

Thirding, almost without question, Bulfinch's.
posted by phaedon at 5:23 PM on March 13, 2010

Would modern-day characters tolerate that ambiguity?

Uh, they do. Unless you're suggesting Jews, Muslims, and Christians all have the same views on what constitutes scripture, never mind what is scripture and the people therein.
posted by rodgerd at 5:44 PM on March 13, 2010

Jane Ellen Harrison's Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion might be of interest...
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 5:52 PM on March 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's an additional twist: if you wanted to worship the Greek gods — as opposed to telling folk tales about them, or eating tasty food and getting drunk on their festival days — you wouldn't want the sort of stories found in the Metamorphoses (or in Bullfinch, D'aulaire, Graves or Hamilton). You'd want to know about ancient Greek religious practices, especially the practices of real priests and cult members rather than lay folk. And our information on those is much sparser.

We get some things from literature. (Homer describes a few animal sacrifices in some detail, for instance.) And we get some things from archaeology too — we've found grave sites, old temples, sites of sacrifices, divining equipment, and so on, and we can make some guesses from that.

But the trouble is that many of the ancient Greek deities were the objects of mystery cults. That means more or less what it sounds like it should mean — these were smallish initiatory religions, where the uninitiated weren't supposed to know what was in the temple or what the rites involved. The Masons may be our nearest modern counterpart, although I gather most or all of the Masons' "secrets" have been spilled if you know where to look. The ancient mystery cults did a pretty solid job hiding their shit.

There's a decent Wikipedia page on the Eleusinian Mysteries — that's the cult of Demeter and Persephone. It tells you about the procession into the temple, and about the party that you throw after you leave the temple. And it tells you essentially everything that we know about what happened in the temple — which is to say, it gives nothing but idle speculation on the subject, because the only accounts that survive are totally speculative. If any of the initiates ever wrote down a first-hand account of what they did or saw in there, it's long lost.

Similarly, we know the ancient Greeks had priests who did divination using various sorts of tools (IIRC, for instance, they read entrails and did divination by watching birds and clouds, and they also had i-ching-style coin-tossing divination). They also had oracles who had prophetic visions, and we know from ancient drama that — at least early on, before atheism became fashionable — they took that shit very seriously. And we know a little about the ritual surrounding it (again Wikipedia is good here). But we know fuck-all about the actual procedures for using the divinatory tools, and we have no idea what the oracle was doing to get herself into a vision-having trance. It's common to speculate she was on drugs of some sort — well, maybe, maybe not, but that's a modern speculation; there are no ancient sources suggesting anything of the sort; and anyway, there are modern religions with similar visionary trance practices that don't use drugs, so it's not necessarily so.

This gets you at one of the big divergences between Abrahamic and Greek religion. The Abrahamic religions once upon a time had a priesthood in the Greek sense of the word, who knew secret lore and did secret things. For instance, we have no earthly clue what the Urim and Thummim were, other than that they seem to have been some sort of divinatory tool; and of course, as Indy reminded us, we have no idea what was in the Ark of the Covenant. But things changed. The Israelites got a bug up their ass about standardization at some point, which led them to write down all but the most secret practices. And then Christianity veered off in a very anti-magical direction — plenty of sacrament in some branches of the Church, but basically no sacred mysteries in the old sense of the word. Not long after that, the Temple, home to all the deepest mysteries of the Israelites' religion, was destroyed. Whatever practices had been kept truly secret died out after that (unless you believe the Kabbalists that their oral tradition goes back that far; but there's no evidence that that's true) giving us modern Judaism and its offshoot Islam, which have teachers aplenty but little or no role for priests....

Anyway, that's how it goes. The deepest, most important, most sacred parts of Greek religion were made up of Ark-of-the-Covenant shit, specialist knowledge that was too intense and dangerous for regular folks. So we just don't know. What we do know is a bunch of folktales, but there's no indication that those tales were sacred in any sense of the word we'd understand. Divinely inspired? Yes, if only technically, because the author called on the Muses first. Infallible? Probably not. Awesomely powerful? Nah. Separate from stories about the mundane world? Not at all — there's plenty of worldly detail in their mythological stories, and up until a pretty late date, there's plenty of myth in their history and "mundane" fiction.

As for ambiguity — well, here's an analogy that might help. The Bible is full of ambiguity and contradiction. When it shows up in the important parts, the vital, intensely sacred parts — the two conflicting creation stories in Genesis, for instance, or the missing years in Jesus's life — Christians worry about it, and feel the need to find explanations, and occasionally kill each other over the details. When it shows up in the peripheral parts, nobody cares. Nobody gets too agitated about the places where all the begats don't line up, or about the missing years in the life of some minor Old-Testament prophet.

I have a hunch that the Greeks might have been equally intolerant of ambiguity in the core parts of their religion — which is to say, in the mysteries and oracular practices and so on. If the high priest of the Eleusinian mysteries had gotten everyone down in the temple and then said "Okay, guys, to tell the truth, the Holy of Holies is in one of these boxes, but damned if I can remember which one, so we're just gonna play eenie-meenie-minie-mo" — well, I think he would have had a riot on his hands. But stories? Feh. Everyone tells those differently anyway.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:12 PM on March 13, 2010 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Would modern-day characters tolerate that ambiguity?

This is a bit of a derail, but some fairly substantial historians have argued that one of the reasons the Catholic Church fractured in the 16th century (which cleared the way for scientific thinking to rise to prominence in Europe) happened because the printing press made books more widely available, which made it clear that a huge variety of bibles existed. That caused some major problems for both Catholics and Protestants, because the bible was supposed to be the Absolute Word of God, and what do you do when you've got fifty different versions of the Absolute Word?

And given that people are still creating new translations of the bible right now (I'm not a churchgoer, but over Christmas I heard a truly appalling modern version of the "In the beginning was the Word" bit) and archaeologists periodically seem to discover new books of the New Testament buried in the desert, I think it's somewhat faulty to assume that modern Christianity is any less ambiguous than the ancient Greeks' religion might have been.
posted by colfax at 8:28 PM on March 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

I believ4e nebulawindphone above has most of it. I'll throw in some idle speculations:

Greek mythology was not falsifiable to the ancient Greeks. It encompassed all the various religions and practices they were aware of. They would explain Hebrew beliefs as 'they worship Zeus and Adonis, who they believe are the same", and much of the strife about religion in the old testament is about the conflict between worship of Zeus, who they called JHVH, and Adonis, called BAAL (note Adonis and Baal are both 'Lord' in Semetic languages).

Of course, alien gods were not exactly the gods the Greeks knew, but they were close enough to tell any interested ancient Greeks what those barbarians were thinking. And the practical religions seem to have been quite close--the weird sacrifices described in Leviticus (a burnt offering of bread? God likes overcooked toast? WTF?) were not extraordinary in ancient Greece--they were pretty much what every Aegean temple was doing all the time.

After the destruction of the second temple, the Jewish religion was radically recast into its current, basically spiritual and non-practical form. Now that Jews actually control Jerusalem, the question of constructing the third temple is not entirely moot. But the questions it raises ("Are we really going to incinerate bread, pigeons and cows?") have no comfortable answers. The orthodox approach seems to be "we want the next temple to come in a friggin' Hollywood spectacular MIRACLE, with all you bad guys swallowed up by the earth" which gets them out of the responsibility for doing anything more practical than throwing rocks at automobiles on Saturday. Other forms of Judaism seem to be comfortable with "Don't ask, but no!."

As for Christians, what would you tell an ancient Greek?
They worship Zeus, and Adonis and Orpheus, who the believe are the same, and, incredibly, lived in Palestine some 2000 years ago.

And Moslems and Mormons (the more modern faiths). I guess they could be best described as peculiar combinations of Saturn and Joe the Plumber. I realize that Joe the Plumber was not actually part of the Greek pantheon, but I can think of no other short description that makes any sense at all. Help would be appreciated.
posted by hexatron at 8:40 PM on March 13, 2010

People have made it pretty clear that the answer to the question as stated is, no, there's no equivalent to the bible in the ancient Greek religion.

If you're interested in reading up on Greek religion, however, the standard modern textbook is Burkert's Greek Religion (Harvard 1985). If you're only interested in myth (and nebulawindphone correctly makes a distinction between myth and religious practice, although I think he exaggerates the importance of the mystery cults), Gantz's Early Greek Myth (JHU 1993) will outline all the stories and their variants. Both these books are cheap, although neither is exactly light bedtime reading, especially Gantz.
posted by dd42 at 9:19 PM on March 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

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