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Natasha Nagle
Athenian and Theban Mythology
Professor Larson
8 May 2015

Out of the Pages

We continuously strive to evolve, to become of a mindset, of a body that we had not been

previously. We strive to evolve our world with ourselves, oftentimes ignoring the laws and rules

nature had set out for us millennia ago, using them as a benchmark to judge how far we have

come; how many of these rules we no longer have to abide. We have created many things in

order to help us on this path we choose to tread, the goal we have set for ourselves. With them

we attempt to bend the unbendable to our will, to serve us instead of the original purpose for

which it was placed. This does not make us evil by nature, nor does it make us righteous, oft

caring little for the things in our way destroyed or trampled upon, meant to greet its new master.

That which we create is only as much as we give to it, the balance of good and evil which

threatens to break apart the world as we know it, the very concept that consumes us will consume

the earth upon which we live. Our constant search for the validation of our actions, of this way of

life, seeming superior and acting as though we do not know a single event could bring us to our

knees, in the same position of that which we currently subjugate, leads us to more of our

creations. But rather than creations of the flesh, of that in this physical realm we inhabit, these

are creations of the mind an internal support system built by humanity, for humanity.

In this support system, we project that which we believe we appear to seem. We attempt

to validate our own actions with explanations of others who appear as we do, each one acting as

a separate part of our own consciousness. We attempt to explain the world around us, and the

natural phenomenon occurring within it, however, in doing so we must then also attempt to
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explain and understand ourselves and our own minds, the medium through which this

understanding must come. This is perhaps the scariest thing, to understand that we view the

world unlike any others. As a result we have created a support system in the form of the gods and

goddesses and given them attributes which correspond to separate parts of our own

consciousness. These gods and goddesses are often viewed as singular to their intended natures

within the traditional myths, however, it is within tragedy which we are able to express their

variations upon these natures, and in effect the natures that plague us, within tragedy. This is

perhaps an expression of the uncertainty of the human condition and our initial attempts to

explain why we choose to react to certain stimuli the way in which we do, thus validating our

own actions. This paper will explore how the gods and goddesses which the ancient Greeks

created are more closely connected to themselves than an initial glance might suggest, and how

they embody exaggerated forms of our own emotions and reactions.

The gods often come across as otherworldly, especially in the myths which represent the

major portions of the Greek pantheon, however, they are also often represented as appearing

humanlike in many instances in tragedy, where the usual pantheon myths are reinterpreted,

supported, destroyed, or even usurped. In the beginning of the play Ion, Apollo is portrayed as

the promiscuous god he typically is, reeling in beautiful women only to abandon them later. This

is made clear when Hermes states at the beginning of his messenger speech, There shining

Apollo/took Kreousa, King Erechtheus daughter, in wedlock,/raped her in a cave, under

Athenas sacred hill/.../Apollo wanted her/to bear the child, but in secret. (Ion 9-14). However,

also through Hermess messenger speech we can determine that Apollo has actually done what

he could for his son without making his parentage known, and has a plan in motion for restoring
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Ion to his rightful place in Athens, My brother Apollo called for me:/Brother, go to the

earthborn children of Athens,/the glorious sacred city. Go to that cave,/get the baby with its

swaddling cloths and cradle,/bring him to my shrine at Delphi, and leave him at the door./He is

my son. I will take care of everything. (Ion 25-30). He saved his, and Kreousas, son before his

true identity had been revealed to her. After she had been convinced to poison him in an attempt

to prevent him from becoming king of Athens instead of the children she hoped to have, he

alerted the boy to the poison in his cup through the misspoken word as a dark omen then sending

a dove to sip what he had poured out onto the ground as libations and had died as a result. By

instructing the Pythia to save the cradle and swaddling cloths in which she found the boy after

Hermes followed Apollos instructions and placed him on the steps of his temple in Delphi, then

giving her permission to reveal them to Ion as he and Kreousa argued inside of the temple he

helped coax Ion out of his rage towards Kreousa on account of her attempted actions, and

Kreousa to realize that the items the Pythia found him with were the ones she left with her son

when she exposed him in the cave all those years before.

Though Apollo acted according to the nature assigned to him as one of the twelve male

olympian gods and as the Bright One, god of oracles, prophesies, music, and healing, among

many other identities, when he seduced Kreousa and left her to fend for herself afterwards, he

also displayed his cleverness and care for the humans who he had affected with his previous

behavior. His ability to reveal the right amount of information at just the right time in order to

guide events in the direction he determined would achieve the desired result, while revealing the

entire tale only to those who absolutely needed the knowledge to complete his plan, underscores

the commitment and connection he retained with Ion and Kreousa throughout the years needed to
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see his plan come to fruition. This demonstrates long term planning and an attention to the world

in which we live, while successfully taking into account concern over the volatility of the human

condition and our behaviors stemming from it, as can be seen when the tutor convinces Kreousa

to kill the boy out of fear for her own position and those of the children she wishes to have. In

Ion, Apollo represents the person we wish we could be when we make mistakes, the one who can

almost anticipate where the line of events will lead and make the choices necessary in order to

ensure the safety and well-being of those we love.

Within the Oresteia by Aeschylus, it is not until The Eumenides that we are truly able to

see how the gods have influenced and manipulated events and those who have created them up to

that point. The knowledge carried through the myth of the family of Atreus and the ancient Greek

belief of a cursed family passing their bad blood, and therefore characteristics, down through the

generations does maintain its importance and weight within the storyline, however, it is now that

we are able to see the fascination which the gods often develop of a single individual or a family

line. In this way, it is demonstrated that to the immortal gods, we mortals on earth, while able to

accomplish great things in our lifetime and leave a legacy behind, are little more than playthings

and kingpins in the lives and entertainment of the gods. Due to this, it can be difficult for them to

withdraw themselves from such earthly concerns, continuing to meddle in our affairs and

oftentimes causing more problems than they might be trying to solve. Even so, they can also

create bonds between themselves and the people whom they are attempting to help, sometimes

even accepting direct responsibility for the aftermath of their decisions and actions, and the

things which they pushed the humans themselves to do. Such is the case when Apollo swears to

protect and aid Orestes in clearing his name, though only after being the direct cause of such a
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necessity, and even declares this directly to Athena during the hearing of Orestes in The

Eumenides. Apollo first declares his support for Orestes when he states, I will not forsake you, I

will protect you until the end,/I will stand by your side even when I am far, far away,/your

enemies will never receive comfort from me. (The Eumenides 64-66) again when he states, He

is in my sacred trust and I will protect him. (The Eumenides 232) and again in front of Athena

when he says, I have come to testify under the law./This man is my suppliant and sought

sanctuary/at my hearth, I purged him of his blood-guilt./I stand as his advocate and share the

blame/for the murder of his mother. I ask you/to decide this case. I seek your judgment. (The

Eumenides 576-581). In doing so Apollo keeps his oath to Orestes and does as much as is in his

power to protect the boy from the wrath of the Furies, bringing attention to his just side and the

importance he places upon protecting those who seek and deserve his protection. Athena herself

in continuing to champion the individual, and occasional group, rationality of humanity, uses the

opportunities presented by Orestess situation in order to establish the tradition of holding the

murder courts of Athens upon the Areopagus, as well as the traditions of their procedures. She

also takes this opportunity to bestow the power affiliated with the right to break a tied vote upon

herself, merely adding to her authority concerning the newly established peer centered justice,

which she also takes this opportunity to implement. This is clear when she states, Now you hear

my decree, people of Athens./You are the first to judge a case of bloodshed./And from this time

on, the race of Aegeus/will forever uphold this judicial assembly. (The Eumenides 681-684) and

later, Now my task is to make the last judgement (The Eumenides 734). In doing so, Athena

appears to begin to recognize that humanity is beginning to no longer blindly accept their role as
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the playthings of the gods and therefore no longer be stubbornly held under the strict and

outdated regulations of godly justice which the Furies were determined to uphold.

Unlike in the Oresteia, Athena is portrayed as exhibiting the negative, or darker, side of

the gods throughout the tragedy Aias. Oftentimes characterized as the champion of humanity,

placing her support behind our own champions, the demigods and heroes we placed on pedestals,

she is instead represented as being the powerful and vengeful beings the gods were often

depicted as within mythology. Throughout the play, her response to Aiass disrespect towards

her, through his starkly apparent belief that he was better than the goddess herself and could be

successful against the Trojans without her support, was to drive him into a bloody rage in which

he believed the animals he was brutally slaughtering were the Greeks under Odysseus,

Agamemnon, and Menelaus who had previously denied him Achilless armor. This highlights the

wavering and volatile egos of the gods which can and does parallel our own. In Aias the true

power and influence of the gods is explored, with the clear message that no matter how much the

gods may seem to be our friends, fortune is fickle and so is their nature, and if they are not given

the proper respect and deference they can turn on those who they at first supported. Athenas

obvious enjoyment over Aias essentially creating his own destruction at her bidding, not only of

his body and mind, but also of the legacy which he would leave behind for it is this foray into

madness and gory death which others would remember, making his battle prowess only a faint

memory comparatively, effectively shuts her out of the role as the protectress of all mankind

which she had filled in the Eumenides. Especially when she states, I stopped him. Spinning

illusions/of his most deadly joy. (Aias 60-61), and when she tries to force Odysseus to revel in

how far Aias had sunk, But I want you to see this sickness/with your own eyes and proclaim it/
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aloud to all the Greeks./Stay! Face him! What he has become/is no threat to you. (Aias 79-83)

later asking him, And is any laughter sweeter/than laughter at an enemy? (Aias 93-94). In

siding with strength instead of wisdom she manifests the perpetual struggle within ancient Greek

belief and action between mental and physical strength, the positive aspects of both, and which

would be victorious if pitted directly against one another. In Aias, the concept of the gods and

goddesses being both the supporters of humans, as well as their reckoning through doling out

punishment and their form of vengeful godly justice where they see fit is explored. Here, humans

are clearly in the submissive role, with those hastily making assumptions that they are as good as

the gods themselves being turned into their own worst enemy. The gods are seen as being placed

on a level similar to that of humans in their behaviors as they use their wrath to invoke what they

deem to be justice upon the transgressors, instead of the fair and even keeled peer justice they

champion amongst humans elsewhere in tragedy, as within the Oresteia. There they represent

humanitys wish to have the ability to take emotion out of the equation and make decisions based

solely on fact and the evidence provided, yet within the tragedy of Aias the goddess embodies

the worst aspects of human nature in encouraging the violence we so often resort to when we are

frustrated or beaten. This is also similar to the way in which the god Dionysus treats the Thebans

after their initial refusal to recognize him as a true god in the play Bacchae.

The play Bacchae by Euripides is interesting because throughout the god Dionysus

returns to his homeland of Thebes so as to acclimate the people of Thebes to the rites associated

with his worship and to punish them for refusing to officially recognize him as the son of Zeus,

and, therefore, a god. However, he does so while presenting himself as a human. Despite the

reasoning for this disguise being so that the people of Thebes do not recognize him as the god
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himself, passing for a supplicant of his he is able to confront Pentheus and attempt to convince

him of the necessity and importance of worshiping Dionysus, he allows himself to be seen as

such, and in doing so acknowledges the power which appearing the same within a group of

humans can have, often stemming from their inherent fear of the unknown and that which they

do not fully understand. Here humanity is seen as a tool, one through which a lesson is imparted

and one through which Dionysus will finally be able to obtain the respect and reverence he

deserves as a god. As is clear when he says,

And I have a longing o see him jeered in Thebes,/as hes led through the city looking

like a woman -/in return for those threats he made, trying/to be formidable. Now Im off

to get the fine clothes I will fit to Pentheus for his trip to Hades when/his mother kills

him. Then he will know the son of Zeus,/Dionysus, and realize that he was born a god,

bringing/terrors for initiation, and to the people, gentle grace. (Bacchae 854-861).

In Dionysus acting so, he is using the people of Thebes, specifically Pentheus, to teach others

that he is the true son of Zeus and that as such his rites should be honored as much as any other

god or goddesss. This is similar to Athenas use of Orestess situation to establish the murder

courts atop the Athenian Areopagus. Within the Bacchae, Dionysus is intended to be feared and

worshiped as one of the gods, enabling him to take his rightful place within the pantheon, and yet

he needs the people to worship him in order to do so. This demonstrates an interconnected

relationship between the gods and the humans in tragedy, where each needs something from one

another, humans need support, knowledge, and release from Dionysus and he needs them to

participate in the Bacchant rites, thus adding yet another angle to the interwoven successes,

downfalls, and self realizations of gods and humans.


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Throughout Athenian mythology, tragedy, and architecture the Athenians belief in their

close connections with their gods is clearly exhibited. The Parthenon Frieze and Architrave

blocks place humans within the sculpture of one of the greatest architectural feats of humankind,

where the space on other temples would be dedicated to the gods and goddesses only. In

addition, the frieze also depicts the gods speaking to one another and adjusting their clothing,

activities usually devoted only to humans and which make the gods seem more like us than had

been previously acceptable, an act bordering on hubris itself. In this way it can be determined

that the Athenians believe themselves to have a much closer connection with the gods than other

states. As a result, it is made clearer that the Athenians created their versions of the gods to

resemble themselves, even to the point of depicting how they wish others to view them. The

tragedies themselves into which the events and the gods were places were often used as a

medium to explore contemporary or historical events with an emphasis upon that which would

otherwise be difficult to discuss and the Athenians would be less willing to confront. This could

include anything from Solons reforms in moving all courts of Athens, except those concerning

murder, from the Areopagus into the Agora and validating these decisions, the colonization

efforts and slavery issues addressed within the concern over the struggle between mental and

physical strength, and Ion acting as the Athenian empire when giving Kreousa his ultimatum as

Athens would do before they forcibly overtook a region. Within these tragedies the events within

the plot act as catalysts for discussion about the actual events they parallel and can even

encourage some to consider different views of the situations than they might have otherwise.

This being said the parts into which the gods are placed serve to mirror the interactions we have

with one another and the viewpoints which are possible for us to hold. Thus, they interact with
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the humans as if they too were humans but with more exaggerated characteristics and reactions,

serving to warn us of the possible repercussions or the successes we could face if we err too far

on one side of the conflict, while constantly bolstering the Athenians claims to being children of

the earth and consequently more important than the citizens of any other Greek polis. Therefore,

the gods, being the creations of humans, are altered to fit the present needs of the humans, rather

than the other way around, and are acting as a tool through which the Greek peoples, particularly

the Athenians, are attempting to enact and explore the motif placed above Apollos temple at

Delphi; Know Thyself.. If the gods are present within their daily activities, then reflections of

themselves are also present, and as a result they are able to learn more about themselves through

the activities associated with daily life in ancient Athens.

Imagination, is not merely the fantastical musings of small children. Without imagination,

the heart and soul are gone. From imagination stems determination, creativity, and conviction.

What can be imagined can be changed, though it might take some work and, at times, a new

approach. The imagination allows humanity to see familiar problems in a different light, in the

hopes of improving. Imagination presents us with constant what ifs, it is a constantly changing

entity which does not allow complacency. Imagination is an invaluable tool, used to overcome

difficult periods within our lives, to share experiences, to encourage others. It opens new worlds,

and presents possibilities previously shrouded by the human unwillingness to accept change.

Through imagination has come humanitys proudest accomplishments. Imagination makes way

for desire, for dreams, for daring advances. Without imagining, there is no drive to better what is.

To imagine is the greatest strength of the human race. It brings to mind the silent grace of a
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shadow, the calm of a winter breeze, the possibilities seen through the existence of the stars.

Through imagination springs hope.

However, it is also through our imagination that we use the pantheon myths to show how

the gods were created to be like us, uncovering those sides of the human mentality we are

plagued by and wish to hide. Through the medium of myth we are able to explore these sides of

the human condition more closely, while feeling comforted in that the objects whos behavior we

wish to dissect is more of a remote phenomenon through the use of the gods and goddesses as the

subjects. Tragedy displays the many facets to those sides of humanity, showing no one is merely

how they are tended to be portrayed, no matter their commonly ascribed characteristics, and

display that even within those several frames of the human consciousness present in each of the

gods, there are many different interpretations of those frames which change depending on the

situations into which they are placed. In personifying the human condition, and the emotions and

actions which come as a result, we are able to explore the doubts we may hold about ourselves

and the world in which we live while remaining in the safety of the society with which we

already identify. The interactions between the gods and humans within tragedy enables us to

further explore our interactions with one another and thus act as a safety net through which we

can explain and understand our world and each other.


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Works Cited

Aias, by Sophocles. Translated by Herbert Golder and Richard Pevear

Bacchae, by Euripides. Translated by Paul Woodruff

Ion, by Euripides. Edited by Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro

The Oresteia, by Aeschylus. Translated by Peter Meineck