Myth – Classical origin stories from the ancient cultures which explain how our world came into being, and mankind’s relation to the gods.

Mythology – This doesn’t mean “the study of myths.” Rather, a mythology is a collection of a culture’s stories and beliefs.

Mythography – The academic study of myth.

What is mythology?

Joshua J. Mark writes

Mythology (from the Greek ‘mythos’ for story-of-the-people, and ‘logos’ for word or speech, the spoken story of a people) is the study and interpretation of often sacred tales or fables of a culture known as ‘myths’ or the collection of such stories which usually deal with the human condition, good and evil, human origins, life and death, the afterlife, and the gods. Myths express the beliefs and values about these subjects held by a certain culture.

Myths tell the stories of ancestors and the origin of humans and the world, the gods, supernatural beings (satyrs, nymphs, mermaids) and heroes with super-human, usually god-given, powers (as in the case of Heracles or Perseus of the Greeks). Myths also describe origins or nuances of long-held customs or explain natural events such as the sunrise and sunset, the full moon or thunder and lightning storms.

Every culture has some type of mythology. The classical mythology of the ancient Greeks and Romans is the most familiar to people. The same types of stories, and often the very same story, can be found in myths from different parts of the world….

Mary Magoulick writes:

The classic definition of myth from folklore studies finds clearest delineation in William Bascom’s article “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives” where myths are defined as tales believed as true, usually sacred, set in the distant past or other worlds or parts of the world, and with extra-human, inhuman, or heroic characters. Such myths, often described as “cosmogonic,” or “origin” myths, function to provide order or cosmology, based on “cosmic” from the Greek kosmos meaning order (Leeming 1990, 3, 13; Bascom, 1965).


Pantheons we will focus on: Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Norse


The Myths of Greece and Rome, H. A. Guerber, Dover Publications

Greek Mythology, Sofia Souli, Toubis (Athens)

The Macmillan Book of Greek Gods and Heroes, Alice Low and Arvis Stewart, Simon and Schuster


Family tree of the Norse Gods – Ymir, Thor, Loki, Odin, Freya , etc.



Family Tree of the Egyptian gods



Family tree of the Hindu gods




Family tree of the Greek gods


Did the ancient Greeks believe their own myths?

Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?: An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination, by Paul Veyne  (Author), Paula Wissing (Translator)

Also see the review of this book by Dana L. Burgess, Philosophy and Literature, Volume 13, Number 1, April 1989, pp. 184-185


Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical, Walter Burkert, Wiley-Blackwell

The Matter of the Gods, Clifford Ando. Ando says that the existence of the gods was accepted as an empirical reality.

“Roman religion was thus founded upon an empiricist epistemology: cult addressed problems in the real world, and the effectiveness of rituals–their tangible results–determined whether they were repeated, modified, or abandoned. Rome religion was in this strict sense an orthopraxy, requiring of its participants savoir-faire rather than savoir-penser; and knowing what to do–scientia colendorum deorum, the knowledge of giving the gods their due–was grounded upon observation.” Clifford Ando, The Matter of the Gods (2008), p.13.

Did the Romans Believe Their Myths? N. S. Gill



Some of the ancient Greeks and Romans were skeptical that their gods existed.

Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all sorts of things which are matters of reproach and censure among men: theft, adultery and mutual deceit. But if horses or oxen or lions had hands or could draw with their hands and accomplish such works as men, horses would draw the figures of the gods as similar to horses, and the oxen as similar to oxen, and they would make the bodies of the sort which each of them had. (frag. 15)

– Xenophanes, c. 570—c. 478 BCE

National personification: modern god-like figures

Many Western nations independently developed an anthropomorphic personification of their nation or people. Some were modeled after the goddess of wisdom and war, Minerva/Athena.  Others were modeled after the goddess of liberty, Libertas.

The names of these figures often took the Latin name of the ancient Roman province.

These personifications in some ways serve the same role as the ancient Greek or Roman gods, and are ceremoniously displayed and referred to in much the same way. The critical difference is that moderns don’t believe in the literal existence of these figures; rather they were understood all along as personification.

Here we see Britannia of Great Britain, Marianne of France, and Columbia of the USA.

Britannia Great Britain Marianne France Columbia USA


Libertas is depicted on the Great Seal of France, created in 1848.

Marianne of France – TBA

United States of America

Libertas on the Great Seal of France later influenced French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi in the creation of his statue of Liberty Enlightening the World.

Columbia of the U.S.A. – TBA

United Kingdom/Great Britain

Britannia of Great Britain- TBA

Other European nations

Germania is the personification of the German nation or the Germans as a whole, most commonly associated with the Romantic Era and the Revolutions of 1848, though the figure was later used by Imperial Germany.

Hibernia is a national personification of Ireland. She appeared in numerous cartoon and drawings, especially in the nineteenth century.

Helvetia is a national personification of Switzerland.

Polonia is a national personification of Poland.



Special topics

From myths to physics

Planets are named after the Roman gods

Ancient Gods: BC vs DC

How some mythology was inspired by finding fossils

The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times, Adrienne Mayor

Griffins, Cyclopes, Monsters, and Giants–these fabulous creatures of classical mythology continue to live in the modern imagination through the vivid accounts that have come down to us from the ancient Greeks and Romans.

But what if these beings were more than merely fictions? What if monstrous creatures once roamed the earth in the very places where their legends first arose?

This is the arresting and original thesis that Adrienne Mayor explores in The First Fossil Hunters. Through careful research and meticulous documentation, she convincingly shows that many of the giants and monsters of myth did have a basis in fact–in the enormous bones of long-extinct species that were once abundant in the lands of the Greeks and Romans.

As Mayor shows, the Greeks and Romans were well aware that a different breed of creatures once inhabited their lands. They frequently encountered the fossilized bones of these primeval beings, and they developed sophisticated concepts to explain the fossil evidence, concepts that were expressed in mythological stories.

The legend of the gold-guarding griffin, for example, sprang from tales first told by Scythian gold-miners, who, passing through the Gobi Desert at the foot of the Altai Mountains, encountered the skeletons of Protoceratops and other dinosaurs that littered the ground.

Like their modern counterparts, the ancient fossil hunters collected and measured impressive petrified remains and displayed them in temples and museums; they attempted to reconstruct the appearance of these prehistoric creatures and to explain their extinction. Long thought to be fantasy, the remarkably detailed and perceptive Greek and Roman accounts of giant bone finds were actually based on solid paleontological facts. By reading these neglected narratives for the first time in the light of modern scientific discoveries, Adrienne Mayor illuminates a lost world of ancient paleontology.


Further reading on Herdotus and fossils:

2007 The Winged Snakes of Arabia and the Fossil Site of Makhtesh Ramon in the Negev. Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 97 (2007) 353-365



The ancient Greeks told stories of giants, describing them as flesh-and-blood creatures who lived and died–and whose bones could be found coming out of the ground where they were buried long ago. Indeed, even today large and surprisingly human-like bones can be found in Greece. Modern scientists understand such bones to be the remains of mammoths, mastodons, and woolly rhinoceroses that once lived in the region.

But ancient Greeks were largely unfamiliar with these massive animals, and many believed that the enormous bones they found were the remains of human-like giants. Any nonhuman traits in the bones were thought to be due to the grotesque anatomical features of giants.


Learning Standards

Common Core ELA History . CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.1

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework
7.8 Identify polytheism (the belief that there are many gods) as the religious belief of the people in Mesopotamian civilizations. (H)

7.32 Describe the myths and stories of classical Greece; give examples of Greek gods and goddesses, heroes, and events, and where and how we see their names used today. (H)

Common Core ELA. Standard 10: Range, Quality, & Complexity » Range of Text Types for 6-12

Common Core ELA Fiction Mythology

AP Art History Curriculum Framework

ENDURING UNDERSTANDING 2-2. Religion plays a significant role in the art and architecture of the ancient Near East, with cosmology guiding representation of deities and kings who themselves assume divine attributes.

Essential Knowledge 2-2a. Artists created fully developed, formal types, including sculptures of human figures interacting with gods and stylistic conventions representing the human form with a combined profile and three-quarter view. In these combinations, important figures are set apart using a hierarchical scale or by dividing the compositions into horizontal sections or registers, which provide significant early examples of historical narratives.

Essential Knowledge 2-5b. The Greek, Etruscan, and Roman cultures shared a rich tradition of epic storytelling (first orally transmitted, later written) that glorified the exploits of gods, goddesses, and heroes. The texts recorded a highly developed rhetorical tradition that prized public oratory and poetry.


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