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A weekly show where we debunk common misconceptions. This week, Elliott discusses some misconceptions about the Greek and Roman myths!


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Hi, I'm Elliott, this is Mental_Floss video. Today I'm gonna talk about some misconceptions about the Greek and Roman myths. Get excited!

[Mental_Floss intro plays]

Misconception number one: Greek and Roman mythology are the same. As a lot of people know, the ancient Romans borrowed a lot of gods and mythology from the Greeks. Venus is essentially the Roman version of Aphrodite, Jupiter is their equivalent of Zeus, and there are tons of other examples. Because of this, many people believe that there are no differences between the two, but there are some. For instance, Romans believed that being good in this life would lead to living amongst the gods in the afterlife, and that often meant that they worshipped their ancestors as god-like figures. Ancient Greeks didn't focus as much on what happens after death, and they didn't worship lesser-known gods or non-heroes.

Misconception number two: all ancient Greeks believed in the same gods and stories. Like many religions, ancient Greek mythology evolved and changed over time. Scholars believe that the mythologies and stories started evolving around 2000 BCE and they probably came from other ancient religions like ones from the island of Crete. Then the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by Homer around 800 and 700 BCE and by that time the belief system had changed a lot. The empires that the ancient Greeks belonged to were very large places, too, so there wasn't necessarily religious consistency during the same time period. For instance, during the Hellenistic empire, people may have honored the founders of their cities, or nymphs might have been more important to people who lived near bodies of water. Plus, a lot of these stories were passed down verbally before they were ever written down, so it's inevitable that they changed over time.

Misconception number three: there are twelve Olympians. The twelve Olympians were the twelve gods and goddesses who supposedly lived on Mount Olympus, the problem is that different sources, including different ancient Greek texts, list different Olympians as part of the group, so there's no true twelve. Generally thought, there are Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and either Hestia or Dionysus, but various texts replace some of these with Hebe, Helios, Selene, Eos, Eros, or Persephone. So the concept of the twelve Olympians is real but an actual definite list does not exist.

Misconception number four: the Titans were evil. So the Titans are deities in Greek mythology who proceeded the twelve Olympians. Basically, the Greeks believed that there were a couple of generations of Titans who eventually gave birth to gods like Zeus, Poseidon, and Hera. It was said that those younger gods overthrew the Titans. Nowadays they're often portrayed as bad guys, like in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, but in the original depictions they had human qualities, both good and bad, just like the other gods.

Misconception number five: Zeus was an omnipotent god. So it's really easy to project aspects of modern religions onto ancient ones. For instance, a lot of people believe that Zeus was basically their version of a true, all-powerful god, but that wasn't actually the case. He was described as having many human qualities, and he could not control everything, including the other gods and fate. Like in the epic poem the Dionysiaca, it states that "[Zeus] had no thought of fighting against the threads of Fate."

Misconception number six: Hades was evil. A lot of people are under the impression that Hades was a villain of some sort, but that's not actually true, he just happened to be the god who guarded the underworld. Stop judging him, OK, it was a job that was actually given him by Zeus, he was just doi-- he was a good employee, you guys. And there are examples of him being kind like when Orpheus shows up to the underworld to bring his wife Eurydice back to Earth. Hades says he can bring her back as long as he doesn't look at her on the way out. Even though he does. It's not technically Hades's fault, OK, the rules were perfectly clear. He also wasn't totally perfect, like there was that time he Persephone. But that wasn't out of the ordinary for any of the gods, alright? So generally he wasn't considered an evil figure or devil-like.

Misconception number seven: gods were all fictional characters. Actually, in Greek mythology, the poets wrote about half-gods, who were not divine at all. These were often real people who were considered heroes so they were described as gods, and the Romans declared many real people to be demi-gods like Julius Cesar and Pompey.

Misconception number eight: Pandora opened a box, letting evil out into the world. The expression "Pandora's box" is very well known, but in the original story, there's no box, Pandora actually opens a jar. Bummer. The myth first appeared in a poem titled Works and Days by Hesiod, which was probably written around 700 BCE and in that version she opens a pithos, the Greek word for large jar, which is how evil enters the world. In the 16th century, a writer named Erasmus of Rotterdam translated the story into Latin and changed Pandora's jar into a box, like you do.

Misconception number nine: the ancient Greeks worshiped Ares, the god of war. Because one of the most epic poems out of Greece, the Iliad, is about a war, many people are under the impression that the god of war would be revered in ancient Greek mythology. Actually, he's on Troy's side in Homer's story and many people didn't have much interest in working with him because he was considered violent and difficult. In many myths, the other gods were described as not liking him including his own parents, Zeus and Hera. That's not fun.

Misconception number ten: these ancient myths died out a long time ago. The religions I've described over the course of this episode pretty much completely died out by around the 9th century CE, but it turns out that a lot of them live on in other ways, and not just in pop culture, though there are tons of great movies about Hercules, like one called "Hercules" from Disney. The Olympics were originally a festival held in honor of Zeus and some scholars see mythology's influence in Christianity. Jesus is often compared to Dionysus, a Greek god associated with wine, ritual and fertility. Many people actually believe that the stories in the bible about wine were the writer's way of showing that Jesus was better than Dionysus. Take that Dionysus.

Thank you for watching Misconceptions on Mental_Floss video. If you have a topic for an upcoming misconceptions episode that you would like to see, leave it in the comments and we'll check it out, maybe we'll do an episode on it. It'll be a lot of fun. I'll see you next week. Bye.