In 2005 the Greek Ministry for Tourism published an advertisement that urged: LIVE YOUR MYTH IN GREECE.
The text at the top of the advert provides a gloss:
Greece: a land of mythical dimensions. Where the spirit of hospitality welcomes you as a modern god. And the siren song draws you into its deep blue waters. Where a gentle breeze through ancient ruins seems to whisper your name. And a dance until dawn can take on Dionysian proportions. In Greece, the myths are still very much alive. And in amongst them sits your own … patiently waiting for you to live it. Live your myth in Greece. Ask your travel agent.
We might think that the advert has scant respect for mythological tradition. To be drawn down into deep blue waters by a siren song was to meet with certain death (which is why the hero Odysseus plugged up the ears of his crew and tied himself to the ship’s mast before sailing by the seductive singers). And a dance that takes on Dionysian proportions is probably best avoided (as Pentheus, the tragic king of Thebes, discovered when he was ripped limb from limb by his mother, one of Dionysus’ dancing worshippers). But to respond to the advert with academic pedantry is to miss the point. What it is selling is a particular image of Greece – and of
myth – one of prestige and pleasure, mystique and fantasy. ‘Myth’ functions in the advert in three different, but related, ways. The blurb and mermaid-like creature allude to myth as lore: the stories, the nuts and bolts of who did what to whom. The myth of Dionysus tells how he invented wine and incited women to ecstasy, for example. But there is another version of myth at work here: myth as ideological projection. It is a myth of modern Greece (whether true or not) that its past confers prestige upon its present. It is a story that Greece tells itself about itself repeatedly, in different contexts, and to different audiences. It is a myth that was projected in the entertainments that Greece put on when it was host nation both of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006 and of the Olympic Games in 2004. When the advert urges us to ‘live your myth’, yet a further meaning of the word ‘myth’ is being used. This is myth as escapism, as thrill. LIVE YOUR MYTH means LIVE YOUR FANTASY.
This Very Short Introduction is concerned with all of these dimensions that together add up to what we call ‘myth’: lore, ideology, and pleasure. Scholars have produced as many defi nitions of myth as there are myths themselves. This book will discuss various defi nitions of myth as it goes along, but it is interested in myth as a process as much as a thing. I shall argue that the best way to answer the question of what classical mythology is is to look at what classical mythology does. What this book isn’t is a series of potted retellings of myths, partly because this is a very short introduction, partly because there are many books that do that already (what one critic has called ‘the paraphrase industry’), and partly because the aim of this book is to understand classical myths not as fossilized entities, but as living agents.