By SARA ARTHURS
Thousands of years ago, people told stories to make sense of their world, and much of their mythology is still relevant to life today, according to Bob Cecire.
Cecire, who teaches history at Bluffton University and religion at the University of Findlay, holds a Ph.D. in ancient history focusing on Rome. He fell in love with mythology when he was a young boy.
For ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and those of other cultures, myths were created to explain the mysteries of the universe. But for Cecire as a boy, they were just great stories, “which is one of their values today, too. They’re dandy stories.”
Cecire studied Greek and Roman mythology and as a professor has devoted particular time to teaching “The Iliad,” an epic poem by Homer, who also wrote “The Odyssey.” “The Iliad” concerns itself with the Trojan War and “The Odyssey” with the journey of the Greek hero Odysseus after the war’s end.
In addition to Greek and Roman myths, Cecire has studied myths of other cultures including the Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Norse. A Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh is one students particularly like, he said.
Every culture is different but whether ancient or modern, people “ask a lot of the same questions,” Cecire said.
Cecire said we make reference to ancient gods every time we say the names of the days of the week, which come from the names of Norse gods. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are named after the Norse gods Tyr, Odin, Thor and Frigga. He said it’s one example of how ancient myths influence everyday life today.
Cecire said scholars have found certain commonalities between the gods of different cultures.
In Greece the gods represented natural forces and “the mysteries of life.” In ancient Greece, the focus was on living a heroic life while in Egypt “the biggest mystery for them was the afterlife,” and their stories illustrate it.
Ancient Greece was an aristocratic society “and Homer reflects that,” Cecire said.
In this culture, citizens had an obligation to honor the gods and practice piety, including giving sacrifices.
“And justice is doing the will of the gods and that means conforming to tradition,” Cecire said.
Cecire said in ancient Greece there were also local deities for specific regions.
“Every river had its nymph,” he said.
Greek and Roman mythology overlap in many cases with many Greek gods having a corresponding Roman god. For example, the goddess Athena in Greece became Minerva in Rome and Zeus became Jupiter. Cecire said this is because there were Greek colonies in Italy early on.
Greeks were always conscious of their identities as Greeks, the idea that they were Greeks and outsiders were “other,” Cecire said.
Cecire has read many myths from many cultures but his favorite is “The Iliad.” He said reading it is a chance to learn history, as the story is set during the Trojan War, but it’s also just a good story in its own right.
Cecire said what he enjoys about teaching “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” is just seeing students “interact” with the stories. Students explore “what insights Homer has to offer” and get a sense of what human beings are like.
The gods in ancient Greece have similarities to humans, he said.
“They’re human beings writ big,” he said.
He said it can be hard to get students interested in taking courses on Greek mythology, as students may see it as “remote.” But he sees many parallels to life today.
The stories make the student or reader aware of the personalities of the Greek gods who were “not always by our standards the most ethical,” Cecire said.
The gods as portrayed in these stories have wants and needs just like humans. In a sense, “they’re us,” he said.
The afterlife was “absolutely central” to the ancient Egyptians and much of their mythology focused on this. The idea was that this life is just a preparation for the next one. One message is that how a person lives his or her life affects their place in the afterlife.
The Egyptian gods are often pictured with the heads of animals, which ties the myths in with nature, Cecire said.
In Norse mythology there are many stories about the god Thor and his hammer, which he uses to carry out the will of the gods. Norse myths are “intensely interesting” but later musicians and artists created their own interpretations that have changed them somewhat.
Cecire mentioned the composer Wagner, who used ancient mythology but created his own stories in his operas.
Mythology has been the subject of art and literature from the time it was created and for centuries since. There were poets in ancient Greece such as Aeschylus, who wrote serious stories about the gods, but there were also comedies that made fun of the gods, Cecire said.
Cecire said ancient mythology can still be seen in art, such as the Venus de Milo, which he saw in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
“That face is unbelievable,” and the statue of the goddess Aphrodite of Milos, also known as Venus de Milo, seems like a person it would be interesting to sit across from, he said.
Much later, in the Renaissance, artists and writers rediscovered antiquity and ancient gods became subjects of statues and painting. Cecire said there are also operas that deal with myths as well as some modern movies and other popular culture. There are “a lot” of children’s books on the subject, he said. He particularly recommends Thomas Bulfinch’s “The Age of Fable,” which he said tells a somewhat cleaner version of stories that can in some cases be bloody and “a little raunchy.”
Cecire, 73, studied ancient languages including Greek, Hebrew and Latin. He has read “The Iliad” in classical Greek but when teaching it at the universities usually uses an English translation.
When Cecire was pursuing a Ph.D. in ancient history he had a particular interest in early Christianity and studied the political, economic and social structures of the time.
Even when Christianity was becoming more prevalent, there was for a long time a sense of people feeling an obligation to acknowledge their city’s gods.
“Every city had its gods,” Cecire said.
Cecire’s recommendations for people wanting to learn more about mythology include W.K.C. Guthrie’s book “The Greeks and Their Gods,” Walter Burkert’s “Greek Religion,” Michael Grant’s “Myths of the Greeks and Romans” and Robert Graves’ “The Greek Myths.”
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