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Greek and Roman Myths and Historical Reality Essay

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Updated: Mar 30th, 2021

There are many ways of how people can study their culture, comprehend their traditions, and use their experience as the main source of inspiration and motivation. Powell admits that any story is a “universal ingredient of human culture, bringing relief from the tedium of everyday labor and reminding listeners of their values, beliefs, and origins.”1 It is impossible to imagine the modern world without traditions that were depicted in Greek and Roman myths. Even if it is not always easy to define the direct connection between myths and reality, a deeper evaluation is a chance to comprehend how people thought, used their abilities, and developed gender relations.

Greek and Roman myths contain many examples of how heroes started loving a woman and then changed their feelings demonstrating outrageous actions towards the chosen woman on the examples taken from the stories about Odysseus, the Trojan War, or the relations between Medea and Jason; these stories, as well as other examples and evaluations of mythology, tell the reader that Greek and Roman perspectives on the sexes and gender differences played an important role and influenced the results of the solutions made by men to meet the required social expectations and follow the orders.

Even today Greek and Roman people underline the difference between female and male attitudes to relations. Many men continue loving their women, still, some of their decisions can be hardly explained: betrayals, rape, divorces, etc. The same examples can be observed in almost all society around the globe.

One of the peculiar features of Greek and Roman myths is the attention to the details that can hardly be identified by ordinary people. For example, the myths help to realize that gender is a kind of cultural production that was created on the basis of roles and functions given to and by gods to people.2 Greek and Roman men thought they could take heroic actions and made powerful decisions using their demands and needs.

However, as a rule, they did something just in order to amaze women, protect their beloved women, or prove something to women. Despite the fact that the majority of Greek and Roman myths are about males and their achievements, the root of their actions remains to be a woman and the relations between men and women.

The best example of how gender relations were developed can be observed in the stories about the Trojan War. On the one hand, the war was begun and developed by men. Men created conflicts and made decisions. On the other hand, the root of the war was the woman, even if the woman was chosen by the man as a prize3 promised by family and by gods. The inability to understand a true reason of war does not weaken the myth.

It only proves that a human life is full of the decisions that cannot be understood. The relations between Odysseus and his women serve as another example of how beloved women were treated outrageously. Though Odysseus loved his wife, he found it normal to develop relations with Calypso, “the bewitching nymph, the lustrous goddess,”4 Athena, and Circe. The relations between Medea and Jason also show how difficult and inadequate the relations between a man and a woman can be developed. Jason’s intention to use Medea and get married to another woman introduced him as a tactical still vile man.

All these examples help to comprehend one simple truth – the connection between men and women described in Greek and Roman myths cannot be neglected in reality. Men wanted to prove their superiority by any possible means. However, the evident inferiority of females did not make them less important in mythology and reality. Their roles were crucial. Their words, looks, and actions promoted the development of the perspective that gender differences had to be considered and respected.

Even if men defined themselves as owners and rulers, their power had nothing in common with female sexuality and ability to provide spiritual support that made men make their solutions, break the laws, and even start the wars. Men want to become independent and powerful, still, they cannot guess that their achievements have to be evaluated by women. Even if they do not want to identify this truth, they cannot avoid it.

In general, Greek and Roman myths are based on the relations that can be developed between a man and a woman. It is hard to predict the outcomes of such relations, still, it is usually evident that even if a hero begins his story with a thoughtful love to a particular woman, he can easily change his attitude and demonstrate outrageously actions towards the same woman that could hardly be understood. Such examples prove that men have a desire to be independent and a number of abilities to rule, protect, and decide. Still, they remain to be weak due to their impossibility to live without women, who are used as the standards for men to live and treated as slaves and powerless features.

In Greek and Roman myths, much attention was paid to the development of the relations between a host and his guest-friend. A special law was created to promote the importance of such relations, and the inability to meet the conditions of the law could lead to unpredictable results. It was the law of xenia, the custom that defined the quality of relations that could be developed between a guest and a host.5 It is not enough to know some rules and follow them. It is more important to comprehend how to behave and identify the reasons for the chosen behavior. Myths are good sources of how such type of relations can be developed. They explain the essence of the issue and teach how people can invite people, accept them, and become good guests.

The events described in Odyssey and the Trojan War described in Iliad can serve as the examples of the law of xenia that governed the proper relationship between a host and a guest and the results if it was broken and explain the worth of hospitality that was inherent to the Ancient Greece and Rome.

Xenia was the law that defined the relations between two people, two groups of people, or even one person (usually, the leader of a group or the country) and a group of people6. Such law was important not only for a particular country and its ruler. It also provided travelers with a kind of protection and safety while visit new lands. Ancient people had to understand what rules and obligations they had to follow in a new place. In the myths, it is mentioned not to kill a host or the members of the host family, not to abuse the wife of the host, and not to rob. The host in his turn had to provide a guest with the guarantees not to kill the guest and not to rob the guest.

It was also expected to exchange the gifts and demonstrate the respect to a host and a guest. “They sprang from their chariots, grasped one another’s hands, and plighted friendship”.7 However, not all meetings were arranged according to this rule. The violation of xenia was a serious crime that could not be forgotten or forgiven.

The best examples of xenia’s violation were introduced in the Trojan War when Paris robbed the host and abducted his brother’s wife, Helen. Such serious violation led not only to the misunderstandings between the host and the guest. It caused misunderstandings between the gods and the destruction of Troy. The god, as well as people, could not accept the idea that a man could steal from another man his property.

Xenia was violated in one of the most unpleasant ways, and the outcomes were the war, many deaths, and the inability to live according to personal demands and expectations. More examples can be found in the story of Odyssey. There, xenia was violated many times. Still, the most terrible violation was done by the Cyclops when he ate several Odysseus’ people instead of providing his guests with food and drinks. Xenia was not followed; several innocent deaths could be observed. Travelers lost their feelings of safety as soon as they landed the island. They did not know want to expect, how to react, and if it is reasonable to follow the custom.

All these events and violations proved one simple truth: Ancient Greeks and Romans paid much attention to the issue of hospitality and the relations that can be developed between different people and different countries. Hospitality was developed not only to protect the guests or hosts. Xenia helped to communicate and choose the ways that were more appropriate for people regarding their traditions, cultures, and preferences.

Xenia was a chance to create a standard according to which all people could live as equals. Some aspects of xenia can be observed today in the way Greece try to develop good relations with different countries and sign numerous agreements that can regulate the development of the relations between guests and hosts. The situation in Troy proved that the violation of xenia may cause the anger of gods. People were afraid of the power of gods. They did not want to disappoint them. Still, that kind of unwillingness was based not on respect but fear. On the one hand, such dependence on god’s will was powerful and effective. On the other hand, such dependence made people weak and unable to believe in their own powers and abilities. The myths demonstrated that hostility was a crucial issue.

In general, the law of xenia governed the relations between a host and a guest in the most appropriate way. The Greek and Roman myths show how different heroes could support and violate xenia and which outcomes they had to experience after the decisions made. The virtue of hospitality was an integral part of a social life of the whole country. Today, the question of hospitality is not as urgent as it was described in the myths.

Still, people try to underline the importance of good and trustful relations regulated by the law. The ancient times were full of unpredicted travels and the inabilities to know enough about the hosts. Xenia was a chance for people to be safe, and its violation turned out to be the violation of human rights and freedoms.

Bibliography

Homer. n.d. The Iliad. Translated by Samuel Butler. Web.

Homer. n.d. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. Web.

Powell, Barry, B. Classical Myth. New York: Pearson, 2015.

Skinner, Marilyn, B. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture. Malden: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

Wilson, Nigel. Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Footnotes

  1. Barry B. Powell, Classical Myth (New York: Pearson, 2015), 24.
  2. Marilyn B. Skinner, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture (Malden: John Wiley & Sons, 2013), 1951.
  3. Barry B. Powell, Classical Myth (New York: Pearson, 2015), 65.
  4. Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles. Web.
  5. Barry B. Powell, Classical Myth (New York: Pearson, 2015), 160.
  6. Nigel Wilson, Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece (New York: Routledge, 2013), 370.
  7. Homer. n.d. The Iliad, translated by Samuel Butler. Web.
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