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Ideology and Mythology: Esther Eidinow and the View from Classics

Dr Esther Eidinow discusses the relationship between Myths and Ideology.
Hello. Welcome back. I’m here with Esther Eidinow today, who is from the Classics Department at Nottingham. And she is an expert in ancient Greek myth and ritual and religion. We’re here to talk about the relationship between myth and the study of ideology. So Esther, why should students of ideology care about myth? So myth and ideology meet in the arena of belief. Our word “myth” comes from the Greek word “mythos.” But we actually use the words very differently. So in our use of myth, we use it to refer to widely held beliefs that are wrongly held. But that wasn’t what it meant for the Greeks. So what are the key characteristics of myth for the ancient Greeks? There’s no one definition.
But there are three characteristics that come up regularly. So myths are generally held to be traditional. They pass down through communities. They are narrative, so they are stories, tales, that are told. And they are socially relevant. So they encapsulate social beliefs, social principles and ideas. And I’d actually add a four which is that they are adaptable. So one of the reasons why myth is so sticky down through time is the way in which it responds to other cultures’ myths and also to current events among the people where the myth is being told. So if I understand this correctly, they involve much more than just religion, right? Yes. Absolutely. There is a close relationship between myth and religion.
In part, that’s because of the content of myth, which is often about gods and monsters, nymphs, those kinds of things. And you often find that religious ritual and myth relate to each other. But they don’t directly map. So you get myth without ritual and rituals without myth. But myths are about much more than just religious aspects. They describe the world around us fundamentally. They are ideologies. They give reasons for why the world is the way it is, so why a territory is the way it is, the birth of the gods, relationships between men and women. And specifically to the point of ideology, they also often are used to legitimise power. OK. So most of the myth we know are stories.
Can you tell us a little bit about the kind of narrative form of myth? Well, stories. Yes. Stories, it’s an instinctive human approach to explaining our world to do it through a narrative form. And stories are very interesting. And one of the reasons why myth is so sticky is because of the narrative form that it uses. It also makes it very powerful. A myth as the story is able to communicate information. But it also makes us feel. So stories can divide communities. They can bring them together. They can promote particular ideas. And we see this idea actually used by Plato in The Laws and The Republic, two dialogues that he wrote.
And there he actually says that myth is a very powerful form of persuasion. And he legislates for the kinds of myths that he wants people to be allowed to tell. That sounds very much like an ideology. Do are myths a form of ideology? Oh, yes. Yes, I think we can certainly see that. For example, in the Athenian use of the myths around Theseus, we see that very clearly. There are lots of ways in which the Athenians and Theseus relate to each other. But one of the clearest is around the relationship between the Athenians and the Persians. So when the Persians– there’s a series of wars between the Greeks and the Persians.
We can see the myths about Theseus changing emphasis according to whether the Athenians are invading Persian territory or the Persians are invading Athenian territory. We also can see how widespread that belief is from the stories that were told, for example, about the Athenians believing that Theseus was fighting alongside them. That’s the story told about the Battle of Marathon. And then later we actually see, at the beginning of the battle of Plataea, when the Athenians are arguing about where they should stand in the Greek lineup, they use that myth, that Theseus defended Attica against the Amazons, to explain why they should be in a particular position in the lineup to defend Greece against the Persians. So we know these stories.
But do we know whether the Greeks really believed in them? Or were they just convenient stories? That question is a long-running debate in scholarship on this area. And it is, in fact, the title of a book by a man called Paul Veyne. And it’s quite an interesting question in the sense that it helps us to think not just about Greek myth but also about our relationship with Greek myth and our relationship with beliefs more generally. So Veyne argues that over time we create cultural programmes of truths that we’re allowed to believe in, that we restructure. And each era recreates that structure so that they have a different set of beliefs. They adapt their beliefs over time.
This doesn’t mean that anything goes. But it certainly means that myth, that beliefs in general, can shift and change in response, as we’ve talked about with myths specifically. But I don’t think that we should therefore think that beliefs, that myths specifically, are being cynically manipulated. One of the reasons that they’re so long lived is that they’re very sticky. But that’s because they encapsulate truths. And this is something that, again, we can actually go back to a Greek writer to think about– Pausanias. He’s writing during the Roman period, but in Greek. And he goes around Greece writing about what he sees and hears. So we get a lot of information about myth.
And he says at the beginning of his travels he thought all these myths were just full of foolishness. But now, as he gets towards the end of that travel, he’s realised that they are, in fact, hard to understand but full of wisdom. Thank you very much, Esther. So in the learning steps that follow, we will be exploring the theme whether myths contain particular forms of wisdom that are perhaps difficult to express in other ways and to what extent this is still true of political discourse today.

Dr Esther Eidinow was an Assistant Professor in Ancient Greek History at the University of Nottingham. She is now a Professor in Ancient History at the University of Bristol.

In this conversation with Maiken, she discusses parallels between ancient myths and modern ideologies. She suggests that the story form is what lends political, moral and religious ideas credibility and persuasiveness, and that this narrative form, originating in ancients myths, still matters to the way we organise our political beliefs today.

Do you agree? When and where do political actors use narrative to convey political ideas? And what about your own beliefs? Do you ever resort to story-telling when you are asked to explain why you support particular political ideas or principles?

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