Those Great Old Greek Myths

All cultures have their myths, but I suspect that few are as beloved in the West as those of the Greeks. Tomorrow I am scheduled to perform an hour of Greek myths for 90 middle-schoolers at a Greek restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. While preparing these stories, I realized how well I already knew them, and how I have inhabited their world for such a large portion of my life.

The reason the West is so enamored of Greek myths dates back at least to the Renaissance, when humanistic ideals were resurrected from Ancient Greek culture, and Europeans “went Greek” in a big way. In my youth in the U.S., children devoured the stories of Hercules, Pandora, the Minotaur and Medusa in much the same way we enjoyed the Little Mermaid or Cinderella. I remember checking out a book or two on Norse myths from the elementary school library, but those tales never took hold in my imagination.

According to schema theory, there is a kind of feedback loop that perpetuates our desire for certain types of narratives even as it reflects those narratives we pursue. In other words, do we go to see the newest James Bond movie because we love that character or have we come to love that character because that’s what has been fed to us for as long as we can remember? I purposely use the word fed, by the way, because our taste in art is a lot like our taste in food. Why do I love Jewish food while my husband, who did not grow up in a Jewish household, does not? Most likely because I associate it with my grandparents and happy holiday memories. So I seek out more of it because it was what I grew used to.

Whatever the reason, Greek myths seem to speak to Americans. Interestingly, so do the stories of the Arabian Nights. The two genres are very different, as narratives go. Greek myths are the sacred, ontological stories of a culture, while those of the Thousand and One Nights are decidedly earthy, hale from Persia, Iraq and India, and are quite often obscene . (Not that the myths don’t have their share of rape, kidnapping, lying and murder as well.) Yet most middle-aged Americans would be able to identify Aladdin and Sinbad in a Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit game. 

Why? I suggest that the answer is very simple. They are great stories. And a great story is compelling whatever the subject, whatever the source. Period.

Wish me luck tomorrow! Not that I expect to need it. The stories will do all the heavy lifting. I just have to get out of their way.

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  • Irene Savarese  On December 9, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    I think that is why I always been interested in Carl Jung and his theory of the collective unconscious. He talks about how archetypes (stories) are a part of the collective unconscious, and that we all have asses to these stories. In a way like we today have assess to so much information on the internet!
    Just a thought! Irene

    • publicstoryteller  On December 9, 2010 at 10:50 pm

      There are two theories of why the same folktales are told around the world, and one of them has to do with the collective unconscious. There is so much overlap between psychology and folklore….

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