We may now usefully review some of the interpretations that have been made of those myths and legends which seem the least consonant with 'rational' knowledge and views of the nature of the material world in which human beings find themselves.
It is probable that the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries would not have seen so many and varied attempts to explain myths, magic and ritual had it not been for a reluctance to admit or even consider the possibility of real events as the explanation of stories about extra-terrestrial interference with what people were happy to imagine was the smooth, machine-like running of the world and the heavens. Kirk, in his book The Nature of Greek Myths, Penguin 1974, gives an account of the various explanations of the stories and actions, myth and ritual, put forward during the last two centuries. Myths have been seen as explanations of ordinary natural phenomena, with gods and monsters as personifications of natural forces. Thus in the 19th century Andrew Lang proposed that myths were explanatory, and a form of early science.
Malinowsky suggested that myths are practical devices for supporting social structures rather than attempts to discover theoretical truths.
Eliade holds that myths are an attempt to re-experience a remote past time of divine action and creation. Such a return is not mere nostalgia. It gives power and inspiration in the present; the past becomes alive and is felt to be present. Other writers, notably Jane Harrison, A. B. Cook, and Sir James Frazer [in The Golden Bough], proposed that myth is to be associated with ritual, primitive and savage fertility rituals being particularly significant.
In contrast to attempts to explain myths as being associated with nature, writers such as Freud and Jung have tried to explain myths as psychic phenomena. Myth has been compared to subconscious images and to dreams. Jung especially stressed the human need for myth and dreams to keep the psyche on an even keel.
Followers of Levi-Strauss see myth as important in a society because of its ability to set up bridges between contradictory views and needs. [Contradictions occur in Greek myths and legends between divine law and human law, as in the Antigone of Sophocles.] They also see a similarity between the contradictory workings of nature and the human mind.
Readers are referred to Kirk's book mentioned above for fuller information and comments on the various views.
When looking at the theories, two facts emerge. Firstly, no one theory is a complete explanation of all myths. Secondly, hardly any of them embraces the possibility that they should be taken, in the case of the cosmic myths with battles in the sky, as colourful accounts of something that actually happened.
Greek religion, from the point of view of the average Greek, seems to have changed from sacrifices and the recitation of stories and the performance of games and plays, e. g. muthos and dromenon, to mystery religions such as the Orphic and Eleusinian Mysteries. It became a matter of understanding and coping with life's major challenges, especially birth, sickness and death. Let us turn to a twentieth century A. D. opera. The interpretation made by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss of the story of Dionysus and Ariadne laid stress on the ambivalence of death. In their opera Ariadne auf Naxos, first performed in 1916, Ariadne decides that death is the only course left to her after Theseus has abandoned her. She welcomes the appearance of Hermes, the psychopomp, the escorter of souls to the underworld, as the one who will set her free. When the young god Bacchus enters, she welcomes him and experiences a transformation and feeling of enchantment. She thinks that she is giving herself up to death. In terror, she calls out "Theseus!". She then greets the stranger, the young god, as the beautiful, peaceful god. The music and words of a duet suggest her rebirth. Bacchus too is transformed, becoming a god through his love for Ariadne. To Ariadne, Bacchus is not only death, but life. He effects her transformation from a deserted maiden to a goddess.
It is apparent from the above summary that the opera is an example of the restatement and interpretation of a myth as a psychological experience, in terms adapted to the intellectual climate of the time and place. Death, for example, is presented not as physical extinction but more as a 'rite of passage'. It is the death of the love of Theseus for Ariadne which makes Ariadne, faithful to the end, long for death, and it is the new love, that of Bacchus, which brings her peace from her suffering, the joy and peace which she feels to be death, and which is the power that Bacchus possesses to be resurrected [after his affair with Circe] and to bring others to life again, as he does to Ariadne. It is interesting to compare him with his Egyptian equivalent, Osiris.
The apparent contradictions that von Hofmannsthal and Strauss portray in the behaviour of Ariadne result from the ambiguities in the character of the god Dionysus. He is thought by many today to be the god of life, of death, and of renewed life, not just psychologically, but in a physical and material sense, as living objects die and new life springs from them. But Dionysus is no mere vegetation god. It is not a matter of a plant, animal or human being dying, and new life being nourished by the decomposing remains. The fertility explanation is not adequate. Dionysus is an electrical god. He exists in every animal, in ivy, and in the vine, but he is greater than any one of them: he exists outside them as well, in the form of lightning. In a sense, he is divine life. He specialises in revealing the divine power to humans in their own experience as bacchants.
The power of the electrical force is such that it can both kill and bring to life. Moses was aware of this dual function when the brazen serpent was set up to heal those suffering from snake bites, whatever the exact technique and efficacy may have been. Radiation from the gods in the sky or electricity from the earth helped Osiris to rise. The Egyptian ankh was life, but could be used as a weapon. The ark could be used as a war machine, and Zeus saved the world from destruction when his thunderbolts destroyed the monster in the sky.
The electrical god could be seen rising into the sky, described by the Greek poet Alkman as a passage, poros, associated with creation, and described by Plato as a column of light which was the path for the souls of the deceased to return to the stars and await reincarnation. It was a god of inspiration, giving life, and, if one were struck by lightning, likely to give death as well.
According to Plato [Timaeus], the heavenly fire is to be found in the head and spine as well as in the sky, and Hermes is an important character in Ariadne auf Naxos. Poros, the path between the electrical source in the sky, and earth, was the father of Eros, and Hermes was a messenger associated not only with sexual attraction and life, but with death, marshalling souls with his kerukeion, his ka-controller, the caduceus of Mercury. [The Latin ducens means 'leading'; compare the name of the hoopoe king Tereus, which probably means 'observing'.]
In ancient Greek, an initial 'h', the rough breathing, is almost a
'k'. Hermes is basically hrm, or krm. Mercury is mrk; the two
names, Hermes and Mercury, superficially different, are the
same, as a result of confusion over the direction of writing,
probably in Asia Minor, where the Etruscans met speakers of a
Semitic language. This is just one of many instances of this