|"The Rape of Europa" by Reni (1639)|
We must be cautious when we read myths – too many of them are the spun out creation of storytellers that risk reducing the Gods to characters in a fairy tale. The great, divine and essential nature of the Gods may thus be obscured. We should be mindful that the popularity of some myths in the ancient world may have contributed to the decline of polytheism – and may also impede contemporary comprehension of the Gods. Christian writers of the Roman era, such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Minucius Felix, invoked Greco-Roman myths to mock the Gods, and therefore belief in them. The Christian poet Prudentius went so far as to write “depart adulterous Jupiter, defiled with sex with your sister” (cited in Beard 2 at 361). If we were to accept myths at face value then the early Christian fathers could be occasionally convincing, in terms of eroding our belief in the Gods. If we understand that myths may be beautiful and instructive in some way, but that they should always be treated with caution and never treated as somehow equivalent to sacred scripture, then we get closer to the truth.