Below is a glossary of basic terms necessary for a properly studied Christian view of classical mythology. Lacking a broad understanding of the concepts at work “behind” the myths, Christian critiques of pagan thought run the significant risk of being mere projections of a simplistic kind of “worldview thinking.” Such critiques tend to foster what is sometimes called a “hermeneutic of suspicion” that teaches students (albeit not necessarily deliberately), to be cynical about ancient texts, and so to be primed for deconstructing the Western Tradition itself and retreating to fideistic defenses of Christianity rather than a really robustly classical Christian orientation to the world.
Athanatoi – a Greek term meaning “deathless” and referring to the gods; in mythology, being athanatoi is the key distinction between the gods and human beings
Catharsis – “purging”; the goal of the dramatic form of tragedy (see below), especially as we see it in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Through participating (by viewing) the tragic plays, the audience could symbolically encounter terrible sins or taboos, of which they themselves might, by common human nature, easily become guilty, but instead “purge” themselves of negative and even violent emotions resulting from such evils.
Fate(s) – see Moirai, below
Hermes Trismegestus – A semi-legendary figure that seems to have been an amalgamation of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth. The purported author of the Hermetica, he is often held to be the founder of the hyper-spiritualized (i.e., “gnostic”) Hermetic tradition. Among other famous utterances, we are told that he said, “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing.”, and again, “As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul.” These remarks function as expressions of the analogous philosophical concepts of the macrocosm and microcosm (see below). Hermes Trismegestus was often criticized by Christian Church Fathers, most especially St. Augustine of Hippo, for illicitly attempting to unite God and creation.
Logos – a Greek term with a variety of related meanings, including “reason,” “plan,” “reckoning,” “account,” and “word”. In distinction to mythos, “story,” logos conveys the idea of a systematic explanation of phenomena carried out by human reasoning powers. As Greek mythology and philosophy advanced, and particularly as the latter increasingly “rewrote” mythology to expunge its viler “literal” elements, Logos in the sense of Reason came to be seen as that which underlies and holds everything in the world together as an ordered, coherent, intelligible whole. See also macrocosm, microcosm, and mythos below.
Macrocosm – “great world” or “great order”; the Greek philosophical term for the universe as a whole, encompassing all smaller, particular things which are, thus, its constituent parts. The idea is frequently dualistic in the sense of positing that the universe is made up of both matter and soul (though “soul” in this sense doesn’t necessarily mean what it does for Christians). See particularly Plato’s Philebus (28d–30d) and Timaeus (29d–47e) for detailed explanations of both this term and its corollary, microcosm. Both concepts are closely related to the distinction between the One and the Many (see below).
Microcosm – “little world” or “little order”; the Greek philosophical term expressing that a whole (say, the universe) can be understood by looking closely at a much smaller version of it (say, the soul of an individual human being). The comparison is, therefore, a kind of analogy: the human being is a microcosm, a “little world,” all to itself, and if this smaller world can be rationally understood, by extension the larger world of which it is a part (the macrocosm) can be rationally understood as well. See particularly Plato’s Philebus (28d–30d) and Timaeus (29d–47e) for detailed explanations of both this term and its corollary, macrocosm. Both concepts are closely related to the distinction between the One and the Many (see below).
Moirai – three Greek goddesses: Klotho, “the Spinner,” spun the thread of each man’s life; Lakhesis, “the Apportioner of Lots,” measured each thread, and Atropos, or Aisa, “She Who Cannot Be Turned,” cut each thread at the apportioned end. Frequently Christians criticize Fate / the Fates as being totally arbitrary, but it is noteworthy that in some sources Zeus, the supreme god, appears as either the executor or even the leader of these three – which gives rise to the significant question whether Fate really is a multiplicity of divinities or an overarching unified (and possibly in some way personal) force guiding and directing all things toward an ordered and intelligible end. By the time of the Roman Stoics Fate will be identified with Reason itself, the very “soul” of the all-encompassing universe, which also leads to interesting theological connections to the Christian doctrine of Providence explored by the Medieval poet Dante in the Divine Comedy.
Mythos – a Greek term meaning “report,” “tale,” “story; does not necessarily mean a falsehood, for it encompasses a wide variety of stories, including true ones; but the term is often used in distinction to logos (see above)
One and the Many – This is a key Greek philosophical concept that expresses two important truths about the world: (1) we experience a great deal of diversity of existing things (the Many) in the world, but somehow all of it contributes to a single, unified whole (the One). Many myths are attempts (focused on various aspects) to engage or explain the interplay between the One and the Many, and the concept also relates to those of Macrocosm and Microcosm (see above).
Ontology – “the study of being,” or, “the study of existence.” Things that exist share the quality of “existing,” and ontology studies what it means to say that a thing “exists.” The term “ontology” comes from the Greek words ontos (being) and logos (the study of). Ontology answers questions like these: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is a “something” in the first place? What kinds of “somethings” exist? How can we organize, or classify, the kinds of “somethings” into groups so we can better understand them? What happens to a “something” when it experiences a change? How much can you take away from or change “something” before it becomes “something else”?
Orphism – This was a systematic religious tradition that emerged in the 6th century B.C. which based itself on the myth of Orpheus, the demigod singer (son of Apollo and the Muse Calliope). Orphism was initially an attempt to grapple with the Problem of the One and the Many (see below) by focusing on the idea of the human relationship to the divine in terms of seeing the human being as the “microcosm,” or a “little cosmos.” The religious ideas associated with Orphism tend to be rather complex, and their relationship with the mythology that represents a much simpler, and much more widespread and politically-important mode of religion, deserves much more serious thought in Christian accounts of pagan culture.
Problem of the One and the Many – Building on the constituent concepts of One and Many (see above), this pivotal Greek philosophical conundrum involves attempting to discern exactly how diversity and unity relate to each other. Among the early options the natural philosophers held (which came down to Plato and Aristotle, who each modified them in their own ways), were the idea that (1) there isn’t any actual unity because, as Heraclitus put it, “You can’t step into the same river twice,” or (2) there isn’t any actual diversity because, as Parmenides put it, distinctions are illusory because all things are simply One.
Supernatural – Despite the popular tendency to simply equate anything dealing with “gods” with the supernatural, this is not the case in the pagan myths because all the divine beings are themselves part of the natural order, just like stars and humans and animals and plants and rocks and all the rest. In other words, unlike in Christianity, there is no actual supernatural activity in the myths, a fact that helps to qualify both the nature of the myths and their general function of non-rational, almost certainly symbolic and allegorical mode of explanation of the world.
Tragedy – a term that has several relevant meanings to Christian engagement with pagan mythology: (1) as used by Aristotle, a story in which someone neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally evil (e.g., Oedipus, Agamemnon, Hecuba), but average and relatable to the audience, comes to a bad end through a significant character flaw. (2) a dramatic part of annual performances, particularly in Athens, during the Festival of Dionysius; tragic plays served a crucial political function by allowing the citizenry to symbolically, through the safe distance of drama, encounter terrible sins or taboos and “purge” themselves (see catharsis, above) of negative and even violent emotions resulting from such evils.