The Dark Side Of Myth

15 March, 2008

masks2After the fall of Mycenaean civilisation there was a dark age across Greece. The writing that was used in the great Palaces of Mycenae and Pylos disappeared from the archaeological record, never to return. Oral tradition and bardic entertainers kept the stories of this heroic age in the minds of the Greeks. The fall of Troy, the interactions of the gods, all were spoken of, none were written. After hundreds of years spent in this ‘dark age’ writing once again came to Greece. This time is was based on the Phoenician alphabet and it would last until the present day. Now the stories of the bards were committed to tablets, written down and stored.

The most famous of these were the Iliad and the Odyssey, telling stories set around the Trojan War. At the same time the Theogony was written, a poem describing the origins of the gods. These tales were full of descriptions of how to serve the gods, and how a hero should act. The Theogony explained why it was that when an animal was sacrificed, the humans got the best parts of the animal and the worst parts were burned in offering to the gods. There was no sacred text book as a foundation for the religion of the Greeks, but these books served a similar purpose, showing how the religion was to be carried out.

The bardic tradition continued. The myths were told again and again, and with variations depending on the audience, or where the tale-teller was from. The myths were well known by everyone and could be used as a shorthand to reach deeper understandings. Around 500 BCE these myths were used in a new form of entertainment – the theatre. Dramas were written and performed at competitions in great festivals. The competition was fierce and the subject matter had to impact those watching. The playwrights used the ancient myths and turned them around to look at their dark side.

The story of Jason and his search for the Golden Fleece was well known. During his voyages he received help from Medea, a barbarian girl who fell in love with Jason. After saving his life many times he brought her back home with him. After that there are several different endings to the tale, but the Playwright Euripides told the version that became the most famous. On arriving back in Greece, Jason was offered the hand of a princess in marriage. Knowing that she would bring him great wealth he accepted the offer, much to the horror of Medea who by this time had borne Jason two sons. Using poison she killed the princess and her father the King. Then she went further and killed her own two sons before fleeing Jason leaving him with nothing. It is a dark tale and although the play is based upon the Jason myth there are no daring sword fights, no miraculous rescues by the gods, and no fantastical wonders. It is the other side of the myth, exploring different subjects than the earlier bards did.

Many of the plays were written as a sort of thought experiment. Just as a science fiction writer today will take an idea and extrapolate it to see what the world could be like, so too did the ancients take ideas and stretch them to breaking point. And as when people discuss crime and law today and someone comes up with a “but what would you do in this extreme case?” argument, so too did the ancient playwrights think about how the law and society would react given events that were stretched beyond the norm.

Agamemnon was a heroic figure in the Iliad. Headstrong, arrogant, but noble. After the war he was murdered by his wife. Her motives vary according to different versions of the tale. In some she was seeking vengeance for Agamemnon’s murder of their daughter. In others it was because he had brought back Cassandra from Troy as a concubine. In yet more it was because she was an adulteress and was fearful of being caught. In any case, it fell to Agamemnon’s son Orestes to avenge him. But what was he to do? If he avenged his father he would have to kill his mother. If he did nothing, then he would allow the murderer of his father to go free. He was stuck with an appalling choice.

Orestes chooses to avenge Agamemnon’s death, and in the plays of Aeschylus this whole story is told. It ends with the trial of Orestes for killing his mother, and here it is most clear that this is a thought experiment. It was a way of looking at the current issues that were facing the Athenians as they watched this play, but told through the common myths of their time. By using this shorthand, by basing the plot of their play on a well known story, the playwrights allowed themselves to explore many issues without losing their audience. In turn they have brought these dark stories into our own modern views of the originals. Just as the Romans incorporated the plays into any summaries of the ancient legends, so do we do the same today. An ancient look at the dark side of myth has left us with better rounded stories showing all sides of the human condition.

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