Greek Society and Mythology

How mythology was essential in Greek society, politics, and culture

As representatives of the will of the gods

The purpose of mythology

Imagine living on an island in the Mediterranean in 1000 BCE. You’ve met a few dozen people in your entire life. The study of science hasn’t even been conceptualized yet. Even if you are one of the very small number of people that can read, printed books would not be invented in the West for another 2500 years.

What would be your source of information? If one of your sheep suddenly falls ill, you’d have no way of knowing why. When you first fall in love with someone from your village, you have no way of understanding why you feel that way. Infant mortality is around 40%, but you don’t even know what diseases are, so these children seem to just be picked by chance.


This is the world that gave birth to mythology – stories passed orally from person to person, providing practical rules and a moral framework for living in this dark, dangerous, baffling world.

Surviving in a world without science

The concept of science – the rational study of nature – did not exist in Greek society until the 6th century BCE. Even then, it was extremely rudimentary, and much about the universe remained unknown.

But agricultural civilisations such as ancient Greece needed ways of comprehending nature. This is where mythology helped people.

Picture an olive farmer, who needs to know what time of year will be best for harvesting his olives. But he doesn’t know that the earth rotates around the sun, or that the year is 365 days long. He has no clock or calendar.

Instead he relies on stories. Since his childhood he’s been told the story of Hades and Persephone, beloved daughter of Demeter, goddess of agriculture.


Persephone was abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld. Demeter was so heartbroken that she refused to let any crops grow until her daughter was returned to her. After much negotiation, it was agreed that Persephone would spend six months of the year with Hades and the other six months with Demeter.

When Persephone was with Hades, the earth became barren and cold, representing the fall and winter seasons. When she was with her mother, the earth became fertile and abundant again, representing the spring and summer seasons.

Understanding the universe

As well as providing a practical guide to surviving in a pre-scientific world, mythology also gave answers to great questions about the universe.

Across the many tales of Greek mythology there are explanations for all sorts of existential questions: the origins of the universe, the rising and setting of the sun, and what happens when we die.

For a society to thrive, and for its people to live fulfilled lives, it needs to have some answers to these foundational questions. Greek mythology was able to answer these questions in a world where scientific observation could not.

The origins of the universe could be explained in the birth of Gaia and Uranus (Mother Earth and the sky father); the sun crossed the sky each day because it was pulled in a chariot by the god Helios; when we die we are ferried into the underworld by Charon, and our treatment there will depend on how well we behaved in life.


By providing answers to these great mysteries, mythology performed a valuable function – it helped people to stop fearing the unknown, and to get on with their lives.

Mythology and community

Mythology functioned not only as a way of explaining the universe, but also as a way for people to gather as a community.

Dionysia was a festival celebrated yearly around the winter solstice. This celebration was in honor of the Greek god, Dionysus, and involved drinking lots of wine and the performance of tragic and comedic plays.

Here the function of mythology was less practical – all that wine wouldn’t help any farmers to get their harvests in on time! Instead it was social – in other words, a good excuse for a party, and for the whole community to come together. This festival might also be considered the birthplace of theater as an art form.

The Dionysia was one of dozens of festivals that filled the ancient Greek calendar. Others included the Boedromia, celebrating Apollo in May, and the Adonia, an annual week-long feast – exclusively for women – celebrating Aphrodite and Adonis.


The function of these festivals went beyond recreation, though. Observing these collective rituals helped people to form deep social bonds with one another, in a world filled with conflict.

Mythology and Politics

The power held by the political institutions of ancient Greece was believed to be directly bestowed by the gods.

If you know anything about ancient Athens, you’ll know it as the birthplace of democracy. But unlike modern democracies, the idea of the right to rule was not based in the ‘will of the people’, but instead in the will of the gods.

When the electorate gathered to cast their vote, they did so in the belief that whoever won that election would do so because the gods willed it. They were acting collectively, because they believed that the gods would make their will known through their vote.

Elected rulers were seen as representatives of the will of the gods, holding a divine right to rule, rather than as representatives of the people.


Mythology was the backbone of Greek democratic institutions. The gods gave legitimacy to rulers, and those rulers aimed to appease them by maintaining law and order in their societies. If they didn’t, the gods wouldn’t look so kindly on them at the next election!

Myth and morality

As well as holding scientific, social and political functions, the Greek myths served as an ethical guide for ancient Greece.

Many of the great written works of Greek myth could be thought of as moral stories first and foremost.


To take a famous example, Homer’s Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus’s struggles to return home on an epic 10-year sea voyage. Many of the episodes in the story tell clear moral lessons.

Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, stays faithful to him despite hundreds of suitors knocking on her door. Odysseus’s men are caught stealing from the witch Circe, and are turned into pigs as a result. When passing the sirens – seductive witches known for tempting sailors to their doom – Odysseus begs his men to take him ashore. They refuse, having plugged their ears to avoid the siren’s call, and save his life as a result.

All of these are valuable moral lessons – remaining faithful, not stealing, and understanding that looks can be deceiving. Teaching these lessons was a vital function of Greek mythology.

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