“It’s Greek to Me!”: Greek History, Culture, Language, and Mythology

by Haley Flanders and Katie Jarvis, dramaturgs

Χαίρετε (Chaírete)!

That’s “Hello” in Greek. This blog post provides more insight into our play’s setting of Greece and the wonderful world of Greek mythology. Since our story is based on a very popular myth about Jason and the Argonauts, perhaps these tidbits of Greek history, literature, and language will make Argonautika that more enjoyable for you. You’ll feel right at home on the Argo, especially since we have the Greeks to thank for a lot of our ways of thinking and the world in which we live.

Greece is at the center of western civilization origins. Our culture is strongly influenced by the ancient Greeks, particularly in architecture, politics, theatre, the Olympics, philosophy, literature, religion, to only name a few. Much of our systems and structures today in North America can be traced back to Greek beginnings. Thus Greece should feel commonplace and even familiar to us. Thus the irony in the following famous phrase:

“It’s Greek to Me!” 

When you do not understand what is being said or written, you can simply say, “It’s Greek to me!” Greece truly is everywhere we look! Even when we do not know what we are talking about, we are talking about Greece! Yet where did this phrase come from? This popular idiom came from the play Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, in a scene where Casca could not understand what an upset Caesar was saying. All things in a foreign language sound confusing, so it could all sound “Greek” to you…unless, of course, you know Greek! The myth of Jason and the Argonauts was originally told in Greek. Here are some words to help you get a taste for how the original myth might have looked and sounded. If you practice the Greek language and alphabet, perhaps mythology won’t be so “Greek” to you after all!

English: Argonauts        Greek: Αργοναύτες              Pronunciation: Argonáftes

English: Jason              Greek: Ιάσονας                   Pronunciation: Iásonas

English: Golden fleece     Greek: χρυσόμαλλο δέρας     Pronunciation: chrysómallo déras


Alpha, Beta, and Gamma to Omega…. Introducing the Greek Alphabet

The Greek alphabet was born when the Greeks adapted the Phoenician writing system to represent their own language by developing a fully phonetic writing system composed of individual signs arranged in a linear fashion that could represent both consonants and vowels.

(Reference: http://www.ancient.eu/Greek_Alphabet/)

Many of the English letters were inspired by Greek symbols and sounds. Today, these symbols are more popularly found in the titles of college fraternities and sororities. In the play, I often feel like Jason and his Argonauts of tough men (and woman) are quite the fraternity of brothers (and sister). What would the Argonaut fraternity be called? Pick three symbols and come up with your own fraternity name for the Argonauts.


Try your hand at the Greek font. Our play program is reflective of this type of writing, which is known as the Greek writing style. Can you spell out your name in this font? What about your phone number using the numbers?

The study guide program that Katie and I created is also full of the light blue and white color scheme, due to the Greek flag, featured below.


The Greek flag has nine horizontal blue and white stripes, with a white cross on a blue square field in the canton position (upper left corner by the flagpole). The white cross symbolizes Greek Orthodoxy, the established religion of Greece.

(reference: http://www.enchantedlearning.com/europe/greece/flag/)

Greek Mythology and Argonautika

The Greeks had a lot of gods! Specific gods ruled over the certain parts of the earth and watched over different human experiences. Some of their gods included Zeus (the leader of the gods), Athena (the goddess of war and wisdom), Hades (the god of the underworld), Poseidon (the god of the sea), Aphrodite (the goddess of love), and Hermes (the god of travel and cunning.)  Like most modern perceptions of deities these ancient greek gods were powerful,  immortal, but unlike most current belief systems these gods were also deeply flawed. The gods could sometimes be jealous, petty, selfish, lazy, promiscuous, inconsistent and violent. The Greeks had stories and myths about how the world was created, how the gods came to be, where they lived, the adventures they went on, and the way they interacted with humans.

Poseidon, God of the Sea

Ancient Greeks prayed to the gods and offered them sacrifices of food, luxuries, and wealth hoping for blessings and favors. Heros would often have a “patron” god or goddess that would protect them, help them, guide them and champion them. When things would go wrong, the ancient Greeks would assume that they had displeased the gods, and their bad moods caused the natural disasters, bad luck, etc. and they had to appease them before it would end, or resolve.

In the stories within Argonautika, Hera and Athena cause/incite most of the action, while Jason the Argonauts, and even the elements are just pawns that can be moved around at will. One gets the sense that the humans can only really choose one of the options that are offered to them by the gods. The gods are interacting with each other constantly throughout bargaining and fighting for their favorites, Hera and Athena clash with Boreas, persuade Aphrodite to help them, use Eros and his love darts, negotiate with Poseidon and generally have an entirely different agenda that the humans are only clued in to when absolutely necessary. This doesn’t mean that people couldn’t be complex and rebellious, but it does make any independent action deeply significant. Ancient greeks would seek direction and sanction from the gods for almost anything they did, and when we see that pattern we get a little more perspective about how ancient Greeks saw the world and experienced life, love and honor.
There you have it! We hope you enjoyed this look into the world of Greek culture, language, history, and mythology. Don’t forget to order your tickets to the show, June 2-17 in the Pardoe Theater in the Harris Fine Arts Center. http://arts.byu.edu/event/argonautika/2017-06-16/

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