I grew up on the Greek myths, starting with Gaea and reading all the way through Odysseus’ long trip home. They were so rich, and had so many stories, that they were the source of endless hours of entertainment. Consider the Titans and the gods each had a set of stories. There were living trees, half-beasts, women who cut off their breasts, and mysterious kingdoms. The gods had children with nymphs, too, and eventually their mortal descendants. That gave rise to an entire generation of heroes and demi-gods. The frightening thing is, each of the hundreds of stories have several variations. If you don’t believe me pick up a copy of Robert Graves; he once collected every one for his book on the topic.
I have read through Norse, Celtic, Japanese, Egyptian, Sumerian, Hittite, Roman, and many other mythologies and I have never come across anything so fully developed as Greek Mythology. I suppose its natural to assume that the Greeks were just better at developing the stories, more creative, in a deeper touch with the common consciousness.
Not at all! Think what happened in Greece. The first myths were written down in the eighth century. The Greek city-states were unconquered from about 1200 until Phillip II of Macedonia did it in the fourth century, and he considered himself a Greek. His son Alexander considered himself a descendant of Heracles and Achilles – very Greek. They were conquered again by the Romans – who worshipped Greek culture and had their children taught by Greeks. Both Roman and Greek culture were treasured throughout the Middle Ages, and their creations are still respected and preserved throughout the rest of the world.
So four things there – hundreds of years for dozens of independent city-states to develop myths without having to agree. Hundreds of years for those myths to be amalgamated. Over a thousand years of consistent efforts to preserve their stories. They were also written down early, when people believed in them. That’s not just a great culture, that’s a lot of luck too.
Let’s compare. According to the Japanese, their first emperor began his reign in 660 B.C.E. That’s not so long ago, and legends like that are notorious for extending the facts back in time. They were also one people for as long as anyone can remember. The Japanese never had different polities to create the rich and varied tradition Greece enjoyed.
The Irish have been conquered at least four times in the past three thousand years, and no conquering culture has respected those they’ve conquered. The Norse only came into northern Europe in the third century B.C.E. and Christianity destroyed most records of their myths. Neither the Irish nor the Norse had a writing system in place until after they turned Christian.
The Sumerians and Hittites both had shorter lives than that. And Egypt, though its history extended further back, was not as lucky with its conquerors. Nor did it have those independent city-states to give it diversity.
The Greeks have a wonderful and unique mythology, but it’s a safe bet that any culture could have managed that if they’d had Greek luck.