Food, games, rituals, and stories are all ingredients in the greater dish of human culture. Each human society has a distinctive set of customs and beliefs that mix and meld to make up a unique civilization. One of the heaviest influences on many societies’ culture is mythology. Myths and legends have the power to shape an entire nation’s values and actions, and often lead to advances in technology that have a large impact on both humans and their environment. In ancient Greek societies, for instance, mythological belief encouraged innovation to the extent that myth dictated the building of cities and spurred the Greeks to artificially alter their natural surroundings. The Aztec peoples similarly constructed their capital city according to mythology, leading them to make technological advances that also had a notable effect on the environment. Through numerous myths concerning the whims and outlooks of deities, Ancient Greek and Aztec mythologies imbued each society with an atmosphere of respect for innovation, allowing both civilizations to vastly modify their technologies as well as their environments.
In ancient Greece, technological developments were greatly influenced by the widely held belief that it was a deity that enabled humans to control fire, the first technology. In the myth, the deity Prometheus went so far as to steal fire from Mount Olympus in order to bestow it upon the human race, even though this act opposed the other gods’ wishes (Chant 74). As a result, technology was highly valued in ancient Greek culture, and inventors were treated as revered members of society (Chant 74). This atmosphere of admiration greatly encouraged the development of new technologies, including the ability to weld iron by pounding different metal fragments together after heating them (Chant 74).
Advances in metalworking spurred the development of natural land and the creation of cities, most of which were mapped out according to the advice of an oracle (Chant 63-64). Often, the oracle’s word dictated that each Greek city required an acropolis, which served as an important religious institution that warranted strong defense in wartime (Chant 63-64). Building their cities according to mythological belief thus led the ancient Greeks to settle largely in environments with hills tall enough to accommodate an acropolis. This endowed the Greeks with an advantage in battle as well, as it is easier to shoot down at enemies when defending a structure on top of a hill than it is to defend one located in an easily surrounded valley. The construction of cities and acropolises according to such standards of mythology prompted the development of even more technology. In the essay The Evolution of Greek Culture and Technology, classmate Lilian Lam suggests that the erection of religious temples in cities caused the Greeks to explore new ways to transport the large columns required for the construction (Lam). Carts drawn by livestock were soon replaced by the invention of cranes that operated via numerous pulleys and winches (Lam).
On another note, constructing cities in accordance with myth also involved making changes to the natural environment. For example, the acropolis of Athens was often plagued by storm water run-off stemming from the surrounding hills (Chant 78). In order to shield the architecture and religious monuments of the acropolis, the ancient Greeks dug drainage channels throughout the natural environment to re-direct the run-off (Chant 78). Ultimately, the atmosphere of encouragement surrounding inventing spurred by ancient Greek mythology resulted in technological advances that both raised the quality of living in cities as well as modified the the original, natural environment.
Mythology also played a large role in shaping the technology of the Aztec culture. The location of the capital city of Tenochtitlan, for instance, was almost exclusively determined through myth. Legend has it that the city’s founders arrived at Lake Texcoco after following directions whispered to them by an idol of the deity Huitzilopochtli they carried (Cartwright). Upon reaching the lake, a divine being named Copil, Huitzilopochtli’s nephew, instigated a rebellion, which the humans were able to quell with aid from Huitzilopochtli (Cartwright). After slaying Copil, Huitzilopochtli ordered Tenochtitlan’s founders to throw Copil’s heart into Lake Texcoco, and declared that the spot at which the heart hit the water would be the spot on which the Aztecs’ new capital city should be built (Cartwright). Just as the Greeks determined the layout of their city based on an oracle’s soothsaying, so too did the Aztecs determine the location of their city based on their gods’ whims.
Having a city positioned on a small island in the middle of a lake posed an interesting environmental challenge in regards to agriculture. Only a small amount of fertile earth was available for the purpose of cultivation. In order to compensate for this lack of land, the Aztec peoples modified their environment with the development of “chinampas” or “floating gardens” (Cartwright). Comprised of mud and timber fastened together with willow trees in order to make a floating raft, chinampas endowed the Aztec peoples with artificial land on which to grow crops (Cartwright).
The Aztec peoples also constructed many of their city’s buildings and monuments according to their mythology. Quetzalcoatl, one of the Aztecs’ most important deities, has an alternative identity as Ehecatl, the god of wind (“Quetzalcoatl”). As a result, Quetzalcoatl’s temple in Tenochtitlan was made to be round and circular so that it would not contain any sharp points that could block the wind (“Quetzalcoatl”). A number of other Aztec monuments were also built in a round shape in order to honor this deity (“Quetzalcoatl”). In addition, Quetzalcoatl was considered to be the creator of the Aztec calendar (“Quetzalcoatl”). This calendar recorded both a 365-day year and a 260-day cycle that determined when different religious celebrations would take place (“Aztec Calendar”). At the same time, it served as an almanac that dictated when Aztec farmers should manipulate the natural environment for agricultural purposes (“Aztec Calendar”). As an example, the calendar determined the occurrence of the New Fire Ceremony, a holiday that involved burning out every single domestic fire in Tenochtitlan (including barring its use in any environmental or agricultural manipulations) every 52 years (“Aztec Calendar”). Ultimately, Aztec mythology directed the development of a wide range of technologies that left a great impact on the both environment and the Aztec civilization alike.
The many myths of the ancient Greek and Aztec peoples led each society to adopt a culture of technological ingenuity and environmental manipulation. Welding, acropolises, cranes, and temples resulted from Greek innovation, while the hills surrounding Greek cities endured the digging of numerous drainage channels. Chinampas and rounded buildings can be attributed to Aztec inventiveness, as well as a sophisticated calendar system that doubled as an almanac that decided the terms on which the Aztec peoples manipulated their environment. In the modern day, belief systems still play a large role in determining the extent of human innovation. Rather than encouraging all innovation regardless of the natural consequences, modern ethics and beliefs encourage both the public and inventors alike to seriously take into account the morality of the technological path they have taken. The development and use of hydraulic fracturing in the extraction of fossil fuels, for example, has become controversial because many people are coming to realize the magnitude of the health risks, environmental pollution, and by extension, the immorality of such a hazardous act (“What is Fracking”). In all, the belief systems inherent in human culture had and still have a great influence on different societies’ attitudes toward and development of technology as well as technology’s life-altering environmental effects.
“Aztec Calendar.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 16 Apr. 2015. Web. 2 Oct. 2016. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Aztec-calendar.
Cartwright, Mark. “Tenochtitlan.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia Limited, 25 Sept. 2013. Web. 2 Oct. 2016. http://www.ancient.eu/Tenochtitlan/.
Chant, Colin. “Greece.” Pre-Industrial Cities and Technology. N.p.: Taylor & Francis, 1998. 48-80. Print.
Lam, Lilian. “The Evolution of Greek Culture and Technology.” Fubini.swarthmore.edu. Swarthmore College, 25 Jan. 2006. Web. 2 Oct. 2016. http://fubini.swarthmore.edu/~ENVS2/S2007/llam1/Greece2.html.
“Quetzalcoatl.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 16 Apr. 2015. Web. 2 Oct. 2016. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Quetzalcoatl.
“What is Fracking and Why is it Controversial?” BBC News. BBC, 16 Dec. 2015. Web. 3 Oct. 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-14432401.
Image 1: Prometheus Giving Fire to Humans https://classicalwisdom.com/prometheus-the-creation-of-man/
Image 2: Greek Acropolis http://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/ancient-greece/pictures/greek-architecture
Image 3: Tenochtitlan http://www.ancient-wisdom.com/mexicotenochtitlan.htm
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