Learned Mythography: Plato and Martianus Capella

Winthrop Wetherbee

in The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Literature

Published in print January 2012 | ISBN: 9780195394016
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks

 Learned Mythography: Plato and Martianus Capella

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  • Classical Studies
  • Religion in the Ancient World
  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)


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Latin mythographic tradition came to fruition in the twelfth century. Medieval mythography assumed the universe of Plato's Timaeus as its implicit context. Within this cosmic framework, the Olympian gods of the classical poets coexisted with a host of personifications, philosophical concepts, natural forces, or attributes of the divine, giving rise to the tradition of “learned” mythography. From the Timaeus, the middle Ages learned a distinctively Platonic conception of myth and its function: myths need not be borrowed from the poets, but can be created for a philosophical purpose to translate the truths of intellect into sensible terms. Thus, the poetic and philosophical uses of myth were perceived as largely complementary. The text most immediately responsible for ensuring that perception was the De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii of Martianus Capella. The De nuptiis is a manual of the Liberal Arts in which cosmology and mythology are precisely correlated, and mythographical analysis involves no more than translation from one set of terms to the other. Under Martianus's influence, the Olympian gods, the Muses, and other mythical beings descended to the medieval schools invested with a rich orthodoxy of cosmological, pedagogical, and ethical associations.

Keywords: Plato; mythography; cosmology; Martianus Capella; Timaeus

Article.  9625 words. 

Subjects: Classical Studies ; Religion in the Ancient World ; Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)

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