It's All Greek To Me: The Myths Behind the Theories

 

 

Edited by Oishiki Ganguly

 

It would be nearly impossible to find a field in which the Greeks have not left their mark. Be it philosophy, psychology, architecture, or physics, the list goes on. Almost every one of them owe much to Greek thinkers such as Aristotle, Socrates and Plato, among others who made invaluable contributions. 

To take the example of psychology; keeping with the true spirit of Greek pervasiveness, their myths and mythological characters prove to have been the inspiration behind a number of psychological theories and principles. Here are just a few:

 

The Myth of Psyche and Eros

In Greek mythology, Psyche was a beautiful mortal woman, attractive enough to make the goddess of love, Aphrodite herself, insecure. Wrought with jealousy, she sent her son Eros (you probably know him better as Cupid) to make Psyche fall in love with the ugliest man in the world by pricking him with the tip of his arrow. However, in an ironic turn of events, Eros accidentally pricked himself instead, falling madly in love with Psyche. The two lovers continued their happy relationship on the condition that Psyche could never see Eros’s face. However, curiosity and suspicion got the better of her, and she eventually betrayed her mysterious lover’s wishes to remain unseen. Due to this betrayal, Eros was forced to abandon Psyche. When she appealed to Aphrodite to reunite her with Eros, the goddess presented her with impossible trials to complete. Much to her chagrin, Psyche was successful, and so, she was reunited with Eros and ultimately transformed into a goddess herself. 

Psychology is made up of the words ‘psyche’ and ‘logos’ meaning the study of the psyche or soul. Thus, Psyche finds her place in the word ‘psychology’ itself. Sigmund Freud has used Eros to describe the life instinct. It is the drive of love, sex and creativity while Thanatos, its opposing counterpart, is the death instinct, driving aggression, violence, and destruction. 

 

The Myth of Narcissus 

So goes the legend, Narcissus was the strikingly handsome son of the river god Cephissus and of the nymph Liriope. It was foretold by a blind seer that Narcissus would live a long life on the condition that he never look at himself. He had numerous admirers, drawn by his beauty, but he viewed them with nothing short of contempt and disdain. One of them - a nymph named Echo - fell in love with him, and was so distraught by his rejection that she wilted away until all that remained of her was a whisper - or an echo, so to speak. All of this was witnessed by the goddess Nemesis who cursed Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection. So, Narcissus spent the rest of his days pining after his reflection at which he stared until his death (morbid, I know).  

He lives on today in the form of the Narcissus flower and of course, the Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Those who are diagnosed with NPD often feel superior to others and have a lack of empathy for other peoples’ feelings. However, this usually masks a low and fragile self esteem.

 

The Myth of Oedipus

I’m sure many are familiar with the play Oedipus Rex written by Sophocles, an adaption of the myth surrounding King Oedipus. The story, like most Greek tales, involves a prophecy. It was predicted that Oedipus would murder his father, Laius, king of Thebes, and marry his mother Jocasta. In an attempt to escape this fate, a Shepherd was ordered to kill an infant Oedipus. However, taking pity on the baby, the shepherd instead gave Oedipus to the king and queen of Corinth, who adopted him as their son. Mistaking them to be his true parents, when the adult Oedipus learned of his destiny, he left Corinth. As fate would have it, he ended up at his birthplace Thebes where he settled down and married a widow named - guess what? - Jocasta, who had lost her husband to bandits. It was revealed that Oedipus had, in fact, unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, fulfilling the prophecy after all. In a typical Greek tragedy, Oedipus went into exile after blinding himself and Jocasta, overcome with guilt, hung herself.

This story is tailor-made for the infamous Freud who based almost all his theories on sex and aggression. Who better to fit this mould than Oedipus, right? So, it is no surprise that Freud spoke of the Oedipus complex which occurs when a male child is in the phallic stage of psychosexual development. This complex involves love for the mother and hostility towards the father. Eventually, the child accepts his parents’ relationship and begins to view his father as a role model instead. Ultimately, the child gives up his sexual desire for his mother and starts to identify with his father. In girls, this takes the form of the Electra complex, but that’s a story for another day. 

 

Now you know, as unsettling and grim as some of these Greek tales may be, there is no doubt that they paved the way for some of the most embedded theories in the discipline of psychology. I could probably say the same for a study like physics, but seeing as I’m a psychology student, that would just be all Greek to me.