When we look at mythology, we often see stories that are either interesting or make us do a double-take because they’re so freaking weird, at least to us. When people hear the stories about Zeus and how he seduced a bunch of women by taking different forms, including a shower of gold and a swan (yes, a swan), we can sometimes just scratch our heads and wonder if the Greeks were toasting to Dionysus a bit too much. At the same time, we can also see what they were thinking simply by looking at the stories that we now call mythology.
What the sexual exploits of Zeus and the other Olympians reveal most is their view of heroes as divine. People were created by the gods, and so the greater people, who would automatically be our people, would actually have divine heritage. After all, people with divine heritage have a right to enslave people who aren’t divine, right? Yes, the Greeks had a lot of slaves, even the noble, democratic Athenians. The point is that many believed that, in order to have the right of rule, they had to have divine heritage, so their original king or patriarchal founder had to have a divine father, usually the king of the gods, Zeus.
The incident with the shower of gold was how Perseus was born. King Acrisius of Argos had received a prophecy that his grandson would kill him. To prevent it, Acrisius locked his daughter Danae in a tower, so she could never have a child. After all, if she was in a tower, she couldn’t get with anyone. Because he was such a horny beast, Zeus entered the room in a shower of gold and…well, Perseus was born nine months later. With the prophecy hanging over his head, Acrisius locked them both in a coffin and put them in the ocean. To make a long story short, they both survived and Perseus grew up to kill Medusa and kill a sea monster to save the princess Andromeda and her entire kingdom.
Oh, and Perseus then kills Acrisius with a discus by accident while competing in some games. By accident. Yeah, you can’t escape fate.
That’s really what the shower of gold incident is about. It’s not about Zeus loving the freaky (which he does), but about how you can’t outwit fate. The fact that the main part of the story is a hero who ultimately becomes the founder of an entire people means that, to the Greeks, he must have a divine father, and so the strangeness of his birth is really all a part of that.
When reading myths, we need to consider what they’re really trying to say. They’re not just simple stories for children, and many are most certainly not for children. In his most famous work The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell outlined the Monomyth that supposedly works through all myth. It has some merit, but not every religion or mythos stacks up to Campbell’s work. Another mythologist is Sir James George Frazer, who wrote The Golden Bough in 1890. Both men attempted to bring all the mythologies of the world under one primary mythos, but it simply doesn’t work.
Different cultures value different things, and so different mythologies will invariably reveal different values. We’re all human, yes, but we all have different ideas, dreams, and goals. The story I tell cannot be the same story that you tell, simply because we have different spins on life, different points of view. Even if you have two cultures that value honor, family, and respect, they’re going to interpret those values in different ways.
Two cultures have thunder gods. One of these is the king of the gods, and he wields his lightning to rain down torment on the heads of his enemies, regularly sending them to horrible fates in the underworld should they offend him all while fathering heroes and kings. The second of the thunder gods is a protector of mankind. He has a notorious appetite, able to devour an entire cow on his own, and yet he is also a god of fertile lands, as thunder brings rain. These two gods are Zeus and Thor, and the differences show how thunder and lightning are viewed according to the two cultures, as well as how they view their gods. The Olympians don’t really care about humans, not as a whole, at least. On the other hand, the Aesir and Vanir, the gods of the Norse, are the protectors of Midgard, hemming it in with mountains to protect it from Nifleheim, Muspelheim, and Jotunheim.
Apply these myths to a fictional world, and we can reveal what the cultures we make value by the gods they worship. Apply them today, and we can see how people tend to be the same way.
If I worship a god who is harsh, unforgiving, and openly willing to torment people for the slightest of infractions, I would most likely show those same characteristics, or I might even worship that god because I’m already like that. On the other hand, if I worship a god who is forgiving, loving, and willing to teach people, then those are the characteristics I would show. A monotheist would most likely believe that there is only one truth as epitomized by their god. A polytheist might believe that there are many ways of looking at the world, as there are many gods with many domains and personalities. The second is how I see the world.
When we’re making myths, whether in a story or an actual religion, we need to be mindful of what values we’re telling, because myth is more than just stories, and it is definitely more than lies. Myth is the story that holds the truth; deeper than allegory, it contains a truth that can only be witnessed within the fiction.
Oh, and about the Zeus-becomes-swan incident…Leda was the mother of Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra (who later murdered her husband Agamemnon), and the divine twins Castor and Pollux (we know them today as the constellation Gemini). Zeus approached her as a swan, and she ended up having four children later that year…by laying eggs.
Okay, so sometimes, the myths are just freaking strange.