The Influences of Greek and Roman Mythology on Western Language and Literature
The Influences of Greek and Roman Mythology on Western Language and Literature
Greek and Roman mythology is the body of myths and legends belonging to the ancient Greeks concerning their gods and heroes, the nature of the world, and the origins and significance of their own cult and ritual practices. (Volume: Hellas, Article: Greek Mythology". Encyclopaedia The Helios. 1952)It is widely accepted that Hellenic culture is the soil from which Western culture grows.As a most important part of Hellenic culture,Greek mythology has made western culture what it is now.Roman mythology is often associated with Greek mythology by which it is greatly influenced.Greek and Roman mythology is just like the spring giving much vitality to Western civilization. Greek and Roman mythology can be seen everywhere in Western culture.Lack of the knowledge of mythology may lead to misunderstanding and confussion.That’s to say,to study Western culture and language,we have to study Greek and Roman mythology first.This article aims to analyze some inluences of Greek and Roman mythology on Western language and literature by giving lots of examples,which helps us to understand the importance to study Greek and Mythology mythology.
1．1 Backgrounds and Objective of the Research
Greek and Roman mythology is the body of myths and legends belonging to the ancient Greeks concerning their gods and heroes, the nature of the world, and the origins and significance of their own cult and ritual practices. They were a part of religion in ancient Greece. Modern scholars refer to the myths and study them in an attempt to throw light on the religious and political institutions of Ancient Greece and Rome, on the Ancient Greek and Roman civilization, and to gain understanding of the nature of myth-making itself. (Volume: Hellas, Article: Greek Mythology". Encyclopaedia The Helios. 1952) In Greek and Roman mythology people can read about the origins of the world,the stories about gods,goddesses and heroes,which to large extent the value and belief of Ancient Greek and Roman people.These accounts initially were disseminated in an oral-poetic tradition;and today people denify Greek and Roman mythology as Ancient Greek and Roman literature,Which greatly influenced Western civilization and remains part of Western heritage and language. Poets and artists from ancient times to the present have derived inspiration from Greek mythology and have discovered contemporary significance and relevance in these mythological themes. It is widely accepted that Hellenic culture is the soil from which Western culture grows.As a most important part of Hellenic culture,Greek mythology has made Western culture what it is now.Roman mythology is often associated with Greek mythology by which it is greatly influenced.Greek and Roman mythology is just like the spring giving much vitality to Western civilization.That’s to say,to syudy Western culture and language,we have to study Greek and Roman mythology first.
Greek and Roman mythology,as a key for people to study Western cuture,draws more and more attention from scholars. In 21st Century, the Greek mythology research in the western academic world reoccurs, the massive research monograph and the paper appear, and all kinds of theories and methods are used one after another in the ancient myth text during the study.As a result,many scholars and experts have written many theis on the subject such as "An Impression of Foreign Research on Greek Mythology in Early 21st Century"(Wang Qian,2007)"Preliminary Study of Greek Mythology's Influence on English Vocabulary"(Wu Guangting,2006)"The Influence of Greek Mythology on the English and American Literature"(Zhou Yan,2002)"The Manifestation of Greek Mythology in English Romantic Poems——Greek Images in the Works of Keats,Shelly and Byron"(Lin Yang,2007)"The Allusions of Greek Myths and British - American Cultures"(Wei Jiahai,2000)"On Cross-cultural Communication Teaching from the Perspective of Greek Mythology"(Chen Lian,2000)"On Teaching English Culture by Means of Ancient Greek Mythology"Li Pin,2007)"The Enthusiasm of Cognition--some arguments on the subjective ideology and rationalism of the ancient Greek myth"(Gu Yang,2007:)
However,most of the theses are about why Greek and Roman mythology has influenced the Western world so much.To learn about the importance of Greek and Roman we need many examples to tell us how it carries on the influence.What kind of influences did Greek and Roman mythology bring to Western language and literature?From where can we see these influences?This is what we are going to discuss in this paper.
1．2 Research methods
Firstly,I carefully study the Greek and Roman mythology to get a comprehensive understanding of the cuture.Next,I study Western literature from different periods to find out the influences of mythology.finally,I consulted some reference books on this subject.And the thesis is based on my researches.
1．3 Organization of the Thesis
There are altogether five parts in this thesis.Part 1 presents the background and objective of the reseach,explains the research methods,outlines thre organization of the thesis .
Part 2 analyzes the influences of Greek and Roman mythology on Western language by giving lots of examples. 2.2 Why Did Greek and Roman Mythology Influence the languge 2.2 Greek and Roman mythology and Modern English; 2.3 Some Words From the Names of Gods in Greek and Roman Mythology;2.4 Phrases from Greek and Roman Mythology
Part 3 focus on how Greek and Roman mythology influenced Western literature and from where we can see. 3.1 Inluences on Literature; 3.2 How Literature is Influenced; 3.3 Some Mythological Allusions in Literature Works
Part 4 draws a conclusion of the whole thesis,summing up the influence of Greek and Roman mythology and the improtance for us to do research on it.
1.4 An Introduction to Greek and Roman Mythology
The birth of Greek and Roman mythology was early of the human civilization.It was the friut of the collective work of generations.It was passed by orally and the earliest wriiten works should be the epic peoms by Homer. “Theogony” by Thego was another literature works consisting of many myths.Greek and Roman mythology was the the raw material for many kinds of literatures.The content of the mythology changed as the nation which made it changed.The basic characteristics shall be the change of worship from nature to human spirit.The gods in Greek and Roman mythology was created according to human beings themselves.The gods were just like humans in many ways.In Greek and roman mythology,gods were not regarded as the highest standard for human beings.Instead,they were the reflection of human society.People turned to the gods for help while they also condemned gods for their misdeeds.The major part of Greek and Roman mythology was the stories of heroes.The strories were about powerful humans or half-god humans who began their adventure to establish their fame.For example: “The Twelve Labors of Hercules”
II.The Influnences of Greek and Roman Mythology on Western Language
2.1 Greek and Roman mythology and Modern English
Very few Western people speak ancient Greek or Roman on a regular basis,but Greek and roman mythology has shaped English and other languages to large extent.A”Heculean task,”for example,is one thar requires great effort.This phrase comes from a muth about the Twelve Labors of Hercules.The drug morphine takes its name from the Greek God of sleep,Morpheus.”Venereal disease”is a rather unflattering reference to Venus.The goddess of love fares better in the term “aphrodisiac”,referring to any subsatance or circumstance that arouses sexual desire.
In modern English, there are a lot of words coming from Greek and Roman mythology and they still play an important role in English study. Greek and Roman mythology has a great influence on English vocabulary. Learning Greek and Roman mythology well is helpful for us to understand English words better.
2.2 Why Did Greek and Roman Mythology Influence the languge
Greek and Roman mythology was renewed in Western world during the Renaissance.In the 16th century,lots of works of Greek and Roman mythology was translated.Many colleges made Greek and Roman mythology a subject to study.Greek and Roman mythology was popular in all kinds of fields. From the early years of Renaissance, artists portrayed subjects from Greek mythology alongside more conventional Christian themes. Among the best-known subjects of Italian artists are Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Pallas and the Centaur, the Ledas of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, and Raphael's Galatea. Through the medium of Latin and the works of Ovid, Greek myth influenced medieval and Renaissance poets such as Petrarch, Boccaccio and Dante in Italy.( Greek Mythology". Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2002) This is a kind of culture infiltration. Language is the verbal expression of culture. The relationship between language and culture is deeply rooted. Language is used to maintain and convey culture and cultural ties.That’s to say,a culture infiltration is also a language infiltration.Thus,many words from Greek and roman mythology had been absorded into Western languge,most of which were still being used tody.
2.3 Some Words From the Names of Gods in Greek and Roman Mythology
In mordern English,many words come from the names of gods or heroes in Greek and Roman mythology,.If we do not know the mythology,we may have confusion to understand and difficulty to memorize these words.So,to have a better comprehensive of the cuture we study,we need some more background knowledge.Here are some examples:
Cassandra: In Greek mythology, Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. She was beautiful and Apollo the god of sun fell for her and granted her the gift of prophecy. However, Cassandra betrayed Apollo.Apollo cast a curse upon Cassndra and nobody believed her words.Cassandra had forseen the doom of Troy,but nobody listened to her warning.So this word refers to a person whose words are never believed.
Flora: She is the goddess of flower .She married Zephyr, her husband gave her a beautiful garden as a gift.The couple liked to take a walk in the garden when spring came,and immediately the garden was filled with all kinds of flowers and grasses.In morden English , Flora means plants.( derivation: flower,flour, flourish, floral, florist)
Gordian knot: According to Greek legend, King Gordius tied a wagon to a column with an extremely complex and intricate knot, which many tried but failed to undo. An oracle declared that whoever could untie the knot would rule the world. With a single stroke of his sword, Alexander the Great cut the knot in two, and went on to rule Asia. In mordern English,a “Gordian knot” is an intractable problem, and to “cut the Gordian kno”t is to resolve a difficult problem with swift and bold action. Let’s make a sentence for example:The president believed he could cut through the Gordian knot of growing civil unrest by sending in the national guard with tear gas.
Atlas: a rebellions Titan. He was condemned by Zues the king of all gods to hold the heavens up on his shoulders; this word refers to a person or thing with sole responsibilith for holding up the status quo or growth, development of something. (derivative word: Atlantic)
Eros: He is the God of love , a lovely angel with two wings.He is known as Cupid in Greek mythology.The image of him can be seen everywhere in every fields.He flies in the sky and holds an arrow of love.When he shoots his arrow into a man or a woman’s heart,she/he immediately fall in love.He is also described as the matchmaker.However,the words coming from Eros usually have bad meanings: Erotic means sexy .cupidity means greedy .
Hercules:He is the man of the greatest strenghth in Greek and Roman mythology. He is noted for his strength and courage and for his many legendary exploits. Hercules is the Roman name for the Greek hero Heracles. He was the son of the god Zeus and Alcmene, wife of the Theban general Amphitryon. This cause Hera,wife of Zeus jealous.Hera sent two giant serpent to kill baby Hercules.However,even as a new born baby Hercules got great power and kill the two serpent with bare hand.When he grew up,Hercules began his adventure and conducted 12 expoits,which is one of the most famous story in Greek and Roman mythology(derivation:Herculean: of great difficulty; anything that is hard and difficultto carry out .)
Morpheus: He is the Dream Gold in Greco-roman Methology .Drean Gold is the son of sleep gold,Hypnos and control people’dream .Words relating to it : morphine , marijuana ,both of them come from apium , and are usually used on medicine.
Oedipus: He is the prince of Thebe.Before his birth ,his father was told that he would be killed by his own son.The king was afraid and abandoned Oedipus.Then the baby grew up and began his travel for fame.On his way to Thebe,he killed his own father by mistake.Afterwards,he killed Sphinx the monster and people let him to marry their queen---his mother. Now a son psychological attachment to his mother and jealousy of father is now called Oedipus complex .
Sisyphus: He was condemned to roll a huge rockto top of a hill , and then to repeat the task as it rolled down again ; a Sisyphean task is a harsh , endless and futile task .
Ceres: Ceres is the Roman name of Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture. She looked after the fields and crops. Ceres is part of an ancient myth that helps explain the cycles of seasonal change. (derivation: cereals)
Hygeia: Hygeia was the goddess of good health. She was a daughter and attendant of the medicine-god Asklepios, and a companion of the goddess Aphrodite. Her sisters included Panakeia (All-Cure) and Iaso (Remedy).Hygeia's opposite number were the Nosoi (Spirits of Disease). The Romans named her Salus. In classical sculpture she was represented as a woman holding a large serpent in her arms. The ancient cults of Hygeia are described on a seperate page. (derivation: hy-giene)
2.4 Phrases from Greek and Roman Mythology
The impact of Greek mythology on Western culture and language isn’t only confined to individual words.Many expressions,proverbs and cliches are direct references to ancient Greek myths.For example,the expressions ”caught between a rock and a hard place” and between the Devil and the deep blue sea”both come from tales about sailors being caught between monsters Seylla and Charbdis of Greek mythology. an unpleasant woman may be called a “harpy”(a winged monster with a woman’s torso and a bird’s feet).Alternately,a handsome man is an “Adonis,”the motal man so beautiful that Aphrodite herself fell in love with him.We call computer virus “Trojans”,which is from the famous “ Trojan Horse”.During the war between Greek and Troy,the Greeks hided in a big horse they built and entered the Trojan city successfully,just like how the virus invade our computers now.
Other common expressions that demonstrate Greek mythology’s impact on modern societies include:
The face that launched a thousand ships: A reference to the mythological figure Helen of Troy.Helen was the queen of Sparta and was said to be the most beautiful woman in the whole world.She abandoned her country and husband and ran away with Paris to Troy,ehich caused the famous war between Troy and greek. The English dramatist Christopher Marlowe described Helen as having the "face that launched a thousand ships." Marlowe continues with the line, "Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss" (Best).
Pandora’s box: In Greek mythology,Pandora was the first human made by gods.Before sending her to the human world,the gods gave Pandora a beautiful box and told her not to open it. However,Pandora opened the box out of curiosity,from inside the box came out fear,hate,pain,disaster and all kinds of bad things.Pandora was frightened and closed the box.And “hope” was the only thing left in the bos.Nowadays “Pandora’s box” refers to a source of countless troubles.Howver,we should not a afraid of troubles,because no matter how awful the situation is,there is always hope.
Midas touch: a special gift or talent for making money, getting rich; from story of King Midas who was franted the power to turn anything he touched into gold-the golden touch.However,he turned his whole country and his beloved daughter into gold in the end.
Augean stables:usually in “to clean the Augean stables,” a reference to the heavy task of cleaning a stable for 3,000 cattle theat had not been cleaned for 30 years that Heraules had to carry out as punishiment;This phrase refers to any difficult and unpleasant task.
Achilles’ heel: Achilles is a famous hero in mythology.Her mother held his heel and sank him into the holy spring so that nothing could hurt him. However,his heel where his mother held was not touched by the spring.In the war btween Troy and Greece,Paris shoot Achilles’heel and killed him. Achilles’ heel refers to a weakness that can kill.
Dragon’s teeth: usually in “ to sow dragon’s teeth, ” a reference to Cadmus, who planted the teeth of a dragon,he had killed :these teeth spang up from the earth as armed men who tried to kill him-thus action to subdue that cause trouble.
The sword of Damocles: Pamocles is a minister,and he admired the wealth of king very much.Once a day , king let him sit on his seat ,hangs a sword in one of his hair, and tells him the danger of throne just like the sword will come in any time.So ,the sword of Pamocles means ‘The dangers hidden in forture’.
Under the rose: It comes from old Greco Mythology story.Cupid is the son of Venus and Mars.To protect his mother’s fame Cupid sends a bundle of roses to the God of Silence,Harpocrates,let him keep him keep mouth shut up as that of a jar, and do not spread the dissolute story of Venus.As a result, Harpocrates agrees and so on .Because of this mythology, old Romans regard rose as a symbol of silence or keeping secrets: under the rose means ‘secretly’.
Damon and Pythias: Damon and Pythias were good friends.One day,Pythias offended the king and was sentenced to death.Pythias wanted to see his mother for the last time before he died.The king detained his best friend Damon.If Pythias ran away or did not come back in 3 days,his friend would be killed instead of him.In the end,Pythias made just in time to return to save his friend.The king was moved by their friendship and released both of them. "Damon and Pythias" came to be an idiomatic expression for "true friendship".
Apple of discord: It is recounted that Zeus held a banquet in celebration of the marriage of Peleus and Thetis . However, Eris, goddess of discord, was uninvited. Angered by this snub, Eris arrived at the celebration, where she threw a golden apple (the Apple of Discord) into the proceedings, upon which was the inscription "for the fairest one".Three goddesses claimed the apple: Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. They asked Zeus to judge which of them was fairest, and eventually Zeus, reluctant to favour any claim himself, declared that Paris, a Phrygian mortal, would judge their cases, for he had recently shown his exemplary fairness in a contest in which Ares in bull form had bested Paris's own prize bull, and the shepherd-prince had unhesitatingly awarded the prize to the god.Thus it happened that, with Hermes as their guide, all three of the candidates appeared to Paris on Mount Ida, in the climactic moment that is the crux of the tale. After bathing in the spring of Ida, each attempted with her powers to bribe Paris; Hera offered to make him king of Europe and Asia, Athena offered wisdom and skill in war, and Aphrodite, who had the Charites and the Horai to enhance her charms with flowers and song, offered the love of the world's most beautiful woman. This was Helen of Sparta, wife of the Greek king Menelaus. Paris accepted Aphrodite's gift and awarded the apple to her, receiving Helen as well as the enmity of the Greeks and especially of Hera. The Greeks' expedition to retrieve Helen from Paris in Troy is the mythological basis of the Trojan War.
Penelop’s web: Penelope is another of those mythic heroines whose beauties were rather those of character and conduct than of person. She was the daughter of Icarius, a Spartan prince. Ulysses, king of Ithaca, sought her in marriage, and won her over all competitors.When the moment came for the bride to leave her father's house,Ulysses and Penelope had not enjoyed their union more than a year.when it was interrupted by the events which called Ulysses to the Trojan war. During his long absence, and when it was doubtful whether he still lived, and highly improbable that he would ever return, Penelope was importuned by numerous suitors, from whom there seemed no refuge but in choosing one of them for her husband. Penelope, however, employed every art to gain time, still hopping for Ulysses' return. One of her arts of delay was engaging in the preparation of a robe for the funeral canopy of Laertes, her husband's father. She pledged herself to make her choice among the suitors when the robe was finished. During the day she worked at the robe, but in the night she undid the work of the day. This is the famous Penelope's web, which is used as a proverbial expression for anything which is perpetually doing but never done.
III. The Influnences of Greek and Roman Mythology on Western Literature
3.1 The Value of Greek and Roman Mythology as Literature
Greek and Roman mythology is mainly about the stories of gods and heroes,which reflect the situation of the whole ancient society.In the stories we can see war between nations,conflict between father and son or even some affairs in marriage.also,there are countless stories about romantic love.In Greek and Roman mythology,the gods are just like human beings.Not only do they look like human beings,they love,hate,angry,cry,cheer just like every mortal person does.They can have all the problems we get. The only difference between gods and human beings is gods can live forever.In Greek and Roman mythology,gods have strong personality. They are not stoic at all,which is so different from what we see in other religion.Greek and Roman mythology influences the Western literature much.In Greek and roman mythology,both human and gods are independent and pursuing hapiness and freedom.When faced with difficulties,they show great courage to overcome them and never lose heart.They have the courage to fight through a way to change their destiny.Greek and Roman mythology show the greatness of human by potraying the pursuing of mortal values and conflicts between destiny and life.The awareness of life and humanist and concept of freedom is the basic spirit of Greek and Roman mythology,which latter becomes the core of Western literature.Here is table by Lord Ralgan showing the myth hero pattern:
1. Mother a royal virgin
2. Father a king
3. Father often a near relative of the mother
4. Unusual circumstances of the conception of the child
5. Reputed to be son of a god
6. At birth, an attempt is made to kill the child (by father or maternal grandmother)
7. Child is spirited away
8. Child is brought up by foster parents in a far country
9. Little is known about childhood
10. On reaching manhood, child travels or returns to his future kingdom
11. Defeats king and/ or giant/ dragon/wild bear
12. Marries princess, often daughter of old king
13. Becomes king
14. Rules for a time uneventfully
15. Sets laws
16. Loses favour with god(s) or subjects
17. Driven from throne or city
18. Mysterious/ strange death
19. His children do not succeed him
21. His body is not buried, but...
22. There are one or two small temples to him
3.2 Inluences on Western Literature
Western Literature is another area where Greek and Roman influence is notable. The ancient Greek and Roman culture was excavated in Renaissance Movement and was deeply studied and widely disseminated. As an important component part of the culture, Greek and Roman myths have exerted profound influence on European literature. As one of the representatives of European literature, British literature,together with American literature,has been deeply stamped with the mark of Greek and Roman myths.To have a better understanding and appreciation of English literature, American Literature,English language and culture,we must get familiar with Greek and Roman myths.Roman authors followed the famous Greek authors, often developing and building upon Greek writing. Many writers have been influenced by the Romans including Shakespeare, Robert Graves, Milton, Dante and James Joyce.Many writers used Greek and Roman mythology as raw material:
Period Author Works
Renaissance Shakespeare Troilus and Cresida, Venus and Adonis
Milton Paradise Lost
Byron The Prometheus
John Keats Endymion
20th century O'Neill Mourning Becomes Electra
James Joyce Ulysses
Robert Graves I Claudius
T.S. Eliot The Waste Land
3.3 How Western Literature is Influenced
The epic poems Iliad and Odyssey is the oldest known Greek literary sources. These two poems by Homer was about the war between Troy and Greece and the adeventures after the war. Myths also are preserved in the Homeric Hymns, in fragments of epic poems of the Epic Cycle, in lyric poems, in the works of the tragedians of the fifth century BC, in writings of scholars and poets of the Hellenistic Age and in texts from the time of the Roman Empire by writers such as Plutarch and Pausanias.
Greek and Roman mythology began to blossom in Western literature since the beginning of Renaissance. The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe.The objective of this movement is to revive the Greek and Roman civilization.Humanist is the centrual of this cutural movement.The spirit of human could be seen everywhere in myth,which had drawn much attention from writers during this period. Greek and Roman myth was widely used as raw material or allusion in literature works.Greek and Roman myth influenced medieval and Renaissance poets such as Petrarch, Boccaccio and Dante in Italy.
The 18th century was the time of Enlightenment in Europe. Greek and Roman mythology was still used as raw materials by many dramast and poets.
The Romantism poets of the 19th century also favoured Greek and Roman mythology.Whitman the great American poet thought mythology was great,while Yeats the British poet wrote a sonnet to express his love for the epic poem by Homer.
The 20th century witnessed the bad consequences of industrial civilization.The conflict in the society became acuter.People felt empty in their heart and were thirst for new and meaningful life.It was during this time when Greek and Roman mythology got its new meaning.Writers took it as a way to shout out their desire for change. “The Waste land” by T.S,Eliot was filled with plenty of myths.It descibed the Europe after World War I as thw waste land,in which way fully displayed the dispointment of the author. “Ulysses” by James Joyce revealed the lonliness and despair of the whole Western world after war.
3.4 Some Mythological Allusions in Literature Works
Greek and Roman mythology is not only used as the raw material of literature.Western writers from different periods also enjoy using lots of allusions in their works.From the table below,we can see some examples.
AUTHOR LINE ALLUSION WORKS
There let Hymen oft appear Hymen is the Greek god of marriage
That Orpheus' self may heave his head Orpheus is the most famous musician of Greek Mythology
Presenting Thebes, or Pelops' line Thebes and Pelops are subjects of Greek Tragedies Il Penseroso
Shakespeare Might raise Musaeus from his bower Musaeus is a poet in mythology
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn Mars is the Roman god of war, often portrayed as a warrior in full battle armor, including a sword and shield. In Greek mythology Mars is known as Ares
Shelley Where the old earthquake—damon taught her ruin? Damon is a kind of spirit in mythology Mont blanc
Melville Ishmael justifies his boarding the Pequod when he says, I should now take it into my head to go on a whaling voyage, this the invisible police officer at the Fates, In Greek and Roman mythology,the Fates are the three goddess who control life and human destiny
Edgar Allan Poe Hellen,thy beauty is to me Hellen is the most beautiful woman in the world in Greek myth To Hellen
During our English Studies,we may come across lots of cutural or language phenomenen associated with Greek and Roman mythology.In this situation,looking up the words in the dictionary just for the meaning is far from enough,the mythological allusion is also something we need to know.
All in all,Greek and Roman mythology has greatly shaped the language and literature in Western civilization.The lack of knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology does not only leads to the misunderstanding of Western cuture,it is more of a pity for us to miss such outstanding civilization created by the wise ancient people.