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The Place of Greco-Roman Mythology

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    The Place of Greco-Roman Mythology

    I am hoping you can help me think something through.

    My country is in the process of releasing a new, national curriculum, that includes the study of indigenous mythology. Depending on where you live in the country, this is done in different ways - looking at it as mythology or as religious studies. This spurred a conversation between myself and another homeschoolinng friend about the study of mythology in general.

    Her argument was that my children study Greek myths and also read some Norse mythology. Why does it matter where the myths come from? Why not do Chinese mythology? Or these indigenous myths? To me there feels that something does not quite sit right with this argument. I believe there is a certain profound wisdom in Greek mythology, that aligns with our values and how we see the nature of a person (perhaps that they value wisdom and the cardinal virtues?) They certainly feel very different to the values in Norse mythology, although I feel that these are also important due to the influence on my ancestors (Ireland/Scandinavia/Britain).

    Am I missing the boat? Is there more value to what my friend says? If so, what is it? If not, how can I argue you the point?

    Thank you.


    Her question can be reduced to a simpler one: is mythology worth studying, or is a particular mythology worth studying? Is there something intrinsic to mythology itself that is valuable to us? Or, are there traits of some mythologies that are valuable beyond the realm of mythology? If the former, then theoretically, any sufficiently-understood mythology will do. If the latter, then the unique qualities of a mythological tradition recommend its own study for the sake of those qualities, regardless of its mythic nature.

    I suggest both are the case, but that the former value pales in meaningful comparison to the latter. Regarding myth in general, while a cognizance of one's cultural roots is a good enough thing to seek, that it should be a topic of dedicated study in school is not obvious in a way that I think recommends it to a national curriculum without some justification. Regarding Greco-Roman myth, no matter what your cultural connection is to the Mediterranean is irrelevant to the body of thought that proceeds from its mythology. Without Greco-Roman myth, an elaborate system of metaphor and symbolism running throughout the whole of English and European literature goes dark. Without Greco-Roman myth, centuries of moral philosophy that make the human condition make better sense fall silent.

    In short, Greco-Roman myth is the foundation of a greater body of intellectual innovation that is not (known to be) present in other mythologies, and to which the study of other mythologies is not an indispensable prerequisite. A case can certainly be made for how some mythologies do have their own concomitant philosophies connected to them; I can easily imagine an argument for the role Chinese mythology plays in Confucian thought and the centrality of Confucianism to the modern East Asian ethic. In that case, however, the value of a course in Chinese myth is validated by further study of said philosophy and ethics, not by itself as a mere anthropological trifle.

    In the absence of a comprehensive and scholarly body of thought that rests on indigenous mythology, such myth cannot be thought of as a course of study in the same category as that of classical myth. Ethnocentric as this might seem, there is no such thing as a scholarly criticism of Algonquian political discourse or an apologetics in Mapuche moral philosophy. To study nearly any mythology means to learn merely that it is; to study classical myth is to learn that it is true - at least symbolically, or at least in some deep sediment of the ancient layers of truths that compose the classical tradition. One can celebrate the value of a culture without conceding that its study is valuable in the same way as that of Greece and Rome, and both what it says and what is said about it offer testament as to why.

    - Jon