The historical significance of storytelling. From ancient Greek myth to the modern blockbuster

Essay, 2016

12 Pages, Grade: A


Abbe Allen

HIS101: Introduction to Western Civilization I

22 November 2016

Lost in Translation?: From King Zeus to Zoolander, From Queen Hera to House of Cards

The historical significance of storytelling from ancient Greek myth to the modern blockbuster

Storytelling has been a prominent feature of civilization from the beginnings of prehistoric civilization. Whether these stories come to us in the form of ghost stories over a campfire, local urban legends, the newest netflix series, an age-old cult classic film, or classic literature; it is undeniable that a good story holds an immeasurable amount of power. The latest hit TV series or number one box office hit roots its’ success in their story’s ability to engage the viewer’s imagination, often by invoking a broad range emotion that imprints a lasting impression on the mind. However, there may be a deeper explanation to the appeal of a good story than its’ superficial value in providing entertainment. Through careful analysis of history’s most popular forms of storytelling in all its’ forms, from oral myth or legend to Disney films, one can find a common thread of latent meaning embedded between the lines that offer us aid in our quest to explain the world around us as is relevant to our time period (B. Rory).

Our first written record of storytelling is derived from ancient Greece around 500 B.C.E. in the form of mythology. The origins and function of this mythology (a word derived from the Greek word “mythos” meaning story-of-the-people and “logos” meaning speech) have long been debated by modern scholars relative to a broad variety of specializations including science, philosophy, psychology, theology, and sociology. According to Roger Schlanger, a cognitive scientist, “humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories” (B. Rory). With this in mind, one can begin to understand the true nature that lay beneath the superficial mask of Greek myths. “Myth(s) can be told with the intent of being allegorical, symbolic, rational, romantic, theoretical, or analytical” (Sailors 8). As proposed by Cohen, instead of, or perhaps in addition to, serving the purpose of entertainment, these myths served four further functions: metaphysical, cosmological, sociological, and pedagogical (Cohen). The metaphysical function speaks to the ability of myths to invoke awe and wonder about the world around us and include what is termed, creation myths, that explain the natural order of the world. The cosmological function of myths comes in the designation of power to the gods, giving them total control over all aspects of natural phenomena present in the universe at large thereby answering long-held questions of “why” and “how” the world exists as it does. Sociologically, myths function to demonstrate societal norms and proper social order, thereby giving root and reason to the political organization of Greek society. Finally, Greek mythology served a pedagogical purpose by defining acceptable behavior in an effort to give an individual guidance on how to live a happy and pious life (Cohen). It is through the exploration of these four greater functions of myth and storytelling as a whole, that one can come to understand the full impact that mythology held in ancient Greece. By making man laugh, cry, wonder, dream, and think; stories and myths teach us what it means to be human and grants order and logical to an often chaotic world.

The definition of myth in modern times has come to acquire a connotation of being untrue (Cartwright); but to the Greeks, these myths “gave accounts of what they believed to be their national, cultural, and familial histories, and they believed them to be no less “true” than accounts of famous wars and more recent events” (Makilson 55). This function of myth is termed metaphysical in Cohen’s theory, with these stories illustrating primitive man’s search to understand and explain the world (Theodore 44). “Myths are primordial and foundational, and … totalizing in that, unlike modern science, they offer an explanation for everything, the whole university and all that is in it” (Hansen 4). Greek myths were man’s pre-scientific attempt at explaining the world around them, quelling the insatiable desire for answers as to “why?”: why does the sun set, why do the seasons change, what causes crops to fail, what causes sickness and plague, what will be my fate at war or at sea, and ultimately for what purpose do I exist? (Sailor).

“That is the miracle of Greek mythology—a humanized world, men freed from the paralyzing fear of an omnipotent Unknown. The terrifying incomprehensibilities which were worshiped elsewhere, and the fearsome spirits with which earth, air, and sea swarmed, were banned from Greece. It may seem odd to say that the men who made the myths disliked the irrational and had a love for facts; but it is true, no matter how wildly fantastic some of the stories are. Anyone who reads them with attention discovers that even the most nonsensical take place in a world which is essentially rational and matter-of-fact” (Hamilton 8).

The culture of ancient Greece made intellect, logic, and reason a deeply integral part of society and as a consequence, individuals of Greece were often fraught with existential questions that brought mental anguish. However, through the transference of creation myths, these stories serve to establish a natural and social order. The universe starts with the creating of universe. After that, the myths show … the creation of human being[s]” (Bganegaonkar). The hierarchy of the universe is explained in Graves’ rendition of The Palace of Olympus whereby all of the Olympus deities are traced to part of “one large, quarrelsome family” with King Zeus as Father-god and Queen Hera as Mother-goddess (Graves 1). With Zeus holding absolute power over all members of his immediate family and the lesser gods ranking lower in the hierarchical “family”, each deity is assigned the power of a “higher force in the universe which determine[s] the fate of humans” thereby showing “that human beings are … powerless as they are swept away by [these] forces … that affect their destinies and change, or end, their lives” (Thury).

Greeks were able to maintain an illusion of control over their everyday lives and ultimate fate despite the constant threat of natural forces; for if an individual were able to appease the gods through pious action of proper worship, ritual, and sacrifice, he could be assured to attract good favor and fortune to protect himself against hardship (Mikalson 24). Specific gods were looked to based on the need of the individual seeking good fortune through prayer; he would look to Demeter for fertility of crops and animals, Aphrodite for human fertility, Hera for marriage, Athena for war, Poseidon for sea voyages and so on (Mikalson 23). The Greeks understood their role as subject of the deities, expected to follow the guidelines as outline in their myths in order to be deemed a pious individual; for if he were to engage in the proper prescription of worship, ritual, and sacrifice practices, he could attract good fortune and assure an “umbrella of protection” through good favor of the gods (Mikalson 24). Although the Greeks “recognized the importance of their own efforts” in the areas of economic prosperity, success of crops, good health, and fate at war; each area still held “a large element of the uncontrollable, and it was there that they sought the gods’ favor” (Mikalson 24).

The myth of The Titans details Prometheus’ bold decision to deliver coal to earth enabling the mortals he created to cook their meat, thereby giving man his first push towards civilization (Graves 23). However, Zeus became infuriated at the actions of Prometheus, vowing to punish him for his actions through an intricate plot that includes the creation of a foolish woman named Pandora. In brief, Pandora disobeys warning and opens a forbidden jar that releases “a swarm of nasty winged things called Old Age, Sickness, Insanity, Spite, Passion, Vice, Plague, [and] Famine” that “attack Prometheus’ mortals (who had until then, lived happy, decent lives) and spoil everything for them” (Graves 22-23). This myth, by illustrating the origin of plague and famine, is a clear example of the metaphysical function of myth; however, by detailing an example of the all-too-often conflicting nature of the divine family of Olympus, the myth further employs the cosmological function of myth (Thury).

During the age of ancient Greek mythology, “Greek science … portrayed the physical universe as made up of conflicting and complementary natural forces, like wind, water, air and fire. The myths … portrayed these forces as arising from differences in opinion between the gods” (Thury). Just as the conflict between Zeus and Prometheus caused mortal suffering, other issues of conflict similarly affected the fate of mankind. As philosophized by Empedocles of ancient Greek, the major gods of Zeus, Hera, Hades, and Persephone took supremacy over the four basic elements of the universe: air, earth, fire, and water respectively (Hansen 15-43). Through this model of conflicting powers, one can easily fathom how conflict amongst the four aforementioned dieties could give way to significant natural disasters (such as Deucalion’s flood) that promised immeasurable destruction for Greek civilization (Hansen 15-43).

While the metaphysical and cosmological functions of myth do overlap considerably, they vary in that the metaphysical function is concerned with stories that broadly cover the creation of the universe in hopes of invoking “awe and wonder” in the minds’ of the Greeks while the cosmological function covers the aspects of myths that personify nature into creature form so as to explain natural phenomena and give life to the cosmos of the universe: sky, earth, and Tartarus (Hansen 15). While many myths personified the forces of nature and explained the origins forces such as earthquakes (caused by Poseidon), the passage of the sun (credited to Helius) or the change of the seasons of Spring (belonging to Persephone); the most notable cosmological significance of these myths lay in their illustration of the unpredictability of these natural forces and the ultimate control that the divine held over the fate of man that was purely unavoidable (Graves). However, the Greek myth serves to contrast this natural fear of death by further personifying the very concept of fate into what is described as a nearly diplomatic decision-making trio: Clotho, Lachesis and Astropos; this granted the Greeks a notion of hope (which too, is personified as a creature in the myth of The Titans) (Graves 23).

Although the Greeks were rarely concerned with their fate after death, not believing in any real or meaningful conscious existence after mortal life; they sought to understand and come to peace with the natural forces that they were vulnerable to and the process of death that often resulted from the unpredictability of such forces. In The Underworld of Tartarus, Graves describes jury process of the soul by the hands of the three judges of the dead: Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Aeacus (Graves 25). “Those whose lives had been neither very good nor very bad got sent to the Asphodel Fields; the very bad went to the Punishment Ground behind Hades’s palace; [and] the very good, to a gate near the Pool of Memory, which led to a land of orchards called Elysium” (Graves 25). In the Asphodel Fields, ghosts were destined to wander aimlessly for eternity, in the Punishment Ground, “The Furies” invoked their wrath on cruel and immoral souls; but in the orchards of Elsyium, these ghosts “basked in perpetual sunshine” in a place where “flowers never faded; and every sort of fruit was always in season” (Graves 24).

The importance of the underworld was minuscule in relation to the Greek’s value of the world in which they lived in the here and now and so greater emphasis is placed on nature. Mythology makes use of “the language of metaphor and that metaphor is used by primitive man to personalize the forces of the natural world which he seeks to understand and control” (Cohen 339). The stories of Lyre, Orion, and Argo offer simple examples of the cosmological function of myth; however, better illustrations of this function lay in the depiction of “nature spirits” in myths wherein nymphs and other lesser gods, such as Pan, are personified (Hansen 41). These “nature spirit” creatures are employed to reign over various aspects of nature: the trees, springs, mountains, and the countryside (Hansen 41). The nymphs belong to “a distinct class of beings who are inferior to ordinary gods but superior to human beings” which serves a decidedly metaphysical function in bridging the gap between mortal and deity (Hansen 41). As a whole, these “nature spirits” are depicted as self-indulgent, lacking in self-control, and having qualities of “behavioral extremes” such as greed or lust that are further complicated by the sexually mischievous satyrs (male creatures that are half-man, half-beast) that they associate with (Hansen 41). The blasphemous activities of these creatures are seen in myths such as the Graves’ Other Gods and Goddesses, wherein Pan is seen “dancing in the moonlight with the nymphs” and described as spending each afternoon sleeping in a cave or forest grove (Graves 15). If Pan, god of the rural countryside, is infamous for his startled response to any passerby who dare awaken him from his afternoon slumber; how can an individual expect him to be vigilant to their pious attempts to appease him so as to attract his good favor over their countryside crops? It is due to the irresponsibility and over-indulgent lifestyle of the figures closely associated with nature that they neglect their divine responsibilities, consequently wrecking havoc on the mortal world (Hansen 41). With such unreliable figures being responsible over certain aspects of natural phenomena, it was not hard for the people of Greece to understand why nature was so unpredictable (Hansen 41).

While the two functions of myth discussed thus far: metaphysical and cosmological, engage man’s mind about the brilliance of the universe he lives in, the sociological function of mythology serves a stark contrast with its’ somewhat grave truths. This third function of myth (sociological) serves to reinforce and sustain the current societal order of Greek society without giving substantial rationale for its’ organizational structure (Cohen 344). Theorists such as Emily Durkheim and Malinowski attribute these types of myths as part of the Greek religious system that seeks to maintain social order and harmony by legitimizing the current social institutions (Theodore 43). By attributing the roots of Greek society back to a “mythical past,” sociological myths strengthened existing religious and political traditions of Greece and endow the inherent societal norms with “great value and prestige by tracing [them] back to a higher, better, more superior natural reality of initial events” (Malinowski). These institutions transcend fact and reason by rooting themselves in events that lay beyond the constraints of memory and ordinary time (Cohen 344). Simply, Greek myths anchor the present in the past (Cohen 349). In this way, mythology acted as a cohesive force that effectively bound its’ people together in a collectively shared set of beliefs, outlook, and understanding of life thereby creating a component of social cohesion and community that acted as a binding force within their society (B., Rory).

The sociological function of Greek mythology examines the societal, political, and religious themes that were omnipresent in both the myths and subsequently, presided over all of Greek life (Sailor). Myths “were to seen to be divinely inspired … meant to convey some important message about life or the gods to the people” and so they held a revered place within Greek tradition (Sailor 10). The divine connotation granted to such stories allowed them to dictate, in absolute terms, the religious structure that created the core of daily life in ancient Greece; serving to avert questioning of the existing systems by coining them a divine moral code, existing “as a construct beyond criticism or human emendation” (Thury). These myths further outlined rituals, sacrifice, and the proper calendar of worship “good Greek” citizens ought to follow and in this way, the collection of Greek myths can be understood as comparable to the bible of the modern Christian religion (Sailor). “To the Greeks religion was not just something that could be done once a week or several times a year. It was something that permeated every part of their life and every part of their day. Their whole lives centered on the polis and the god that protected it” (Sailor 41).

Patriarchal themes run rampant amongst these myths with gender based bias and discrimination against women apparent in the dialogue of the male gods whom, it was understood, held greater power than their female counterparts based simply on the difference of sex. Derived from Zeus being given ultimate authority over the immediate family of Olympus gods, this theme of patriarchy extends to ancient Greek society where it further dictates the proper roles of men versus women. This patriarchy only touches the tip of the iceberg for the power that the social implications of greek mythology held in “shaping individuals to the aims and ideals of their various social groups, bearing them on from birth to death through the course of a human life” (Thury). Through close adherence to the rituals dictated and moral lessons presented within the great myths of their times, Greek citizens were made loyal to each dimension of the political organization of the Greek empire and were able to comprehend the expectations relevant to each sphere (Makilson). The smallest social unit in which a Greek’s religious life included was worship in one’s own household with Greek religion requiring daily worship to the gods of that offered one protection and prosperity for his home and family (Makilson 51). At the next level of religious life, was the honoring of the deities of the Greek deme (township) on annual festival days and when required, in times of special need (Makilson 51). Worship of deme-specific gods served as an inclusive marker of membership into that community as demes were considered closed communities with local gods separate from the polis within which they resided (Makilson). Above the level of the deme, lay the worship of the deities of the larger city-states of Greece such as Athena and Sparta; and finally, at the top of the religious hierarchy structure lay the worship of the major gods of Olympus who reigned over the entire Greek empire (Makilson). However, for the average Greek citizen, this last level of worship was rare, “a few Greeks might, once or twice in their lifetimes, visit the sanctuary of the truly Panhellenic destinies of Greece, such as Apollo of Delphi or Zeus of Olympia but in his everyday religious life the largest pantheon of interest to a Greek would be the gods and heroes of his own city-state” (Makilson 50). With Greek religion residing so closely at the core of Greek society due in part, to the divine nature of the myths that prescribed these religious practice; the sociological function of myth is able to explain the cohesion and loyalty apparent among the communities of each city-state that had such a vast impact on defining the political and family order of their lives (Makilson).

Intertwined with the sociological function of myth, especially in reference to that of religious ritual, is Cohen’s final category: that of the pedagogical function of Greek mythology. This function explains the Greeks’ attempts, through the tradition of their myths, to teach morals in the form metaphorical stories that speak to the psychological experience of man and his need for guidance through his lifespan (Thury). Cahill gives a general overview of this function of Greek mythology, explaining that it broadly guided the Greeks, through godly example, of how the ideal greek citizen ought to fight, feel, “party”, rule, think, and artistically “see” the world around them (Cahill). While initially, the metaphysical function of myths helps man to understand and come to accept the natural forces operating upon him in his daily; the pedagogical function of myths speaks to a greater purpose of helping man face the hardships of daily life so as to successfully grow and develop as an individual (Thury). Myths that depict outlandish adventures of both the gods and mortals granted the divine title of hero, grant an anthropomorphic nature to these characters with their embodiment of an “idyllic form of what humans could be” thereby offering a higher purpose for the Greek individual to strive (Sailor 31).

As previously discussed, Greeks did not seek a righteous afterlife in reward for their moral behavior so the Greek Gods did little to enforce standards of ethical human behavior (except when this behavior infringed on the honor towards the gods); however, the gods were supremely interested in piety, the Greek tradition of honoring the gods appropriately through ritual, sacrifice, and worship (Makilson). A pious lifestyle was considered a matter of reason that all “good Greeks” should honor with piety consisting of the most crucial elements of “just behavior”: those “ concerning the gods, the fatherland and parents, and the dead” (Makilson 187). Pious behavior was so critical to the Greeks that it was believed that impiety on the part of just one individual could, by alienating the gods, affect the welfare of the entire community in which he resided. The state courts made certain that its’ citizens adhered to the guidelines as set forth in their mythologies, prosecuting such impious actions as the failure to believe in the gods worshipped by the state, introducing unsanctioned gods, and violating religious tradition of the state (Makilson 25). Religious traditions involved lengthy commitments that required strict adherence to ancestral laws and customs whilst maintains absolute loyalty to one’s country (Makilson 187). Although taxing and time-consuming, if an individual properly engaged in a pious lifestyle, he could be sure to be rewarded generously by the gods with material success, good health, and prosperity (Makilson 188). Conversely, to act impiously, would mean to bring on the hostility of the gods in the form of misfortune and ill fate (Makilson 188). In this way, Greek myths served as a type of social charter that outlined what a proper citizen of Greece ought to do and ought not to do.

However, the pedagogical function of myth does not only lay in the religious realm of ancient Greece. It is of crucial importance to examine also, the latent content of these mythologies; that is, the deeper underlying meaning behind the literal storyline (Theodore 49). Metaphorical and symbolic analysis of these myths reveal moral lessons that seek to present an ideal archetype of human behavior that is considered worthy of divine recognition (Bhanegaonkar). Myths such as Graves’ account of The Labours of Heracles are more forthcoming in this assignment of ideal behavior by carefully detailing the favorable heroic qualities possessed by Heraclesl however, other myths such as The End of The Olympians take a more subtle approach by conversely addressing the consequences of characters whom display immoral behavior and suffer punishment at the hands of the gods (Graves 75, 139). The question of what it means to be a “good person” and live a “good life” was not easily answered in ancient Greece for the definition held a fluidity that ebbed and flowed with the innumerable unknown variables that faced an individual over the course of his lifespan.

Myths are “an attempt to see the reality of human experience as a totality, both psychological (in its assessment of human motivations) and theological (in its assumption that heaven intervenes in human affairs). The results of human motivations and heavenly interventions make for preordained results, but preordained only in a way so complicated and with so many conflicting strands that no one but a seer or prophet could sort it all out beforehand and identify in the present the seeds of future results. This means that human beings—and even to some extent the gods themselves—are caught, like figures in a tapestry who cannot undo their thread, playing out their assigned roles of hero or king, loving mother or sexual prize, divine patron of this or that person or city, with only flickering insight into what result their character and needs will have upon the whole of the human enterprise” (Cahill 345).

Greek mythology was a necessity in the life of the Greek individual, granting order and much needed guidance to the complex and often chaotic world in which they lived. With the lack of existence of formal scientific theory, mythology allowed the Greeks to assign logic and reason to their lives by explaining the origins of sacred Greek places, religious rituals, and the nature of the gods’ expectations of them as mortals (Makilson 55). The story of Thesus explains his dominance in the worship of the city-state of Athens just as other stories similarly explain the importance of Perseus to the city of Mycenae and Kadmus to the city of Thebes (Cartright). Moreover, the story of Heracles provides historical insight of the founding of the Olympic Games (Graves 88).

Campbell described myth as a metaphor for the conflict that lay within the human psyche; an “outplaying of the various parts of ourselves that are in conflict with each other: our desires, hopes, fears and ambitions; the conflict between what we want in life and what we can get; between who we are and who we want to be” (B., Rory). The eternal struggle of maintaining moral righteousness and the temptation of acting mischievously to get what one wants is a common theme in the stories of Greek mythology with the gods being painted with human-like characteristics, complete with personality quirks and character defects that make them vulnerable to these temptations (Mikalson). Collectively, such myths show the consequences of acting upon selfish desire (Mikalson). Specific examples of this pedagogical function are numerous, including: King Midas’ wish of having “the golden touch” leading to his near starvation due to greed, Narcissus losing his will to live after becoming obsessed with his reflection due to overwhelming vanity, Pandora causing the suffering of mankind by giving into her curiosity and temptation, and Orpheus’ unfortunate fate after he attempted to manipulate fate (Cartwright).

It is clear from this paper’s arguments of the metaphysical, cosmological, sociological, and pedagogical functions of myths that the Greeks were more than successful in creating stories that served ample purpose in their lives and it is for this reason that Greek mythology has been attributed so much power by modern day scholars. The linked functions of these myths managed to give answers to existential conflicts that clouded the minds of ancient Greeks by appealing to the innermost realms of the human psyche, for they:

“contain[ed] levels of meaning which achieve an intuitively experienced correspondence, because myths are narratives with a time-anchored structure, because they deal simultaneously with the socially and psychology significant, [and] because they make use of what is perceived and available and link it to the primordial sense of a deeper level of reality” (Cohen 351).

But would the Greeks of the time have agreed with the success of these myths in fully explaining the world around them? Did they truly believe what they were told or was there still a certain amount of skepticism that lay underfoot? The truth seems to lean towards the latter option, with the development of Greek intellectual advancements quickly giving way to philosophy, art, and other written literature that quickly took the spotlight away from the primary collection of mythology; however, these new ways of thinking were simply the first step in the modernization of storytelling that do little to negate the impact that these initial myths had. For it is from Aristotle, Plate, Ovid, and Hesiod that we eventually were able to climb to the modern form of the tradition of storytelling as it stands today.

From Eve’s original sin in partaking of the forbidden fruit to the vanity of Narcissus; from “the boy who cried wolf” to Hermes’ lies; from tales of poisoned Halloween candy to tales of the Trojan war: man’s love of stories and myth has successfully spanned the ages from prehistoric civilization to today’s toddlers of the “generation alpha”. Although the Greek’s myths of divine gods and heroes have more recently given way to characters of The Walking Dead, the cultural and historical significance of storytelling remains a constant and it is clear that there is no end in sight for this beloved tradition. We have always and will always look towards popular sources of storytelling entertainment to cure our boredom; however, I suspect that there may be a greater psychological rational behind our societal addiction to fiction that when broken down, may not be too far from the reasons that the Greeks were so similarly captivated by their own stories. Entertainment, explanations of the magical, tracing ancestry, teaching moral lessons, invoking emotion; these interests are historical and cultural constants of the human condition. It is only natural that we flock to sources addressing these innate interests; whether it be the myths of Zeus or the movie Zoolander, whether it be the myth of Hera or the netflix series House of Cards; we, as social creatures, need storytelling to thrive.

Works Cited

B., Rory. “The Power of Storytelling and Mythology.” The Dreamlight Fugitive, Wordpress, Feb. 2015, Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.

Bhanegaonkar, S. G. “Meaning, Origin and Functions of Myth: A Brief Survey.” International Jour. of Social Science Tomorrow, vol. 1, no. 3, May 2012, Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.

Cahill, Thomas. Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter. Kindle ed., Anchor Books, Random House, 2004.

Cartwright, Mark. “Greek Mythology.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2012, Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.

Cohen, Percy S. “Theories of Myth.” Man, vol. 4, no. 3, 1969, pp. 337-353. New Series,

Graves, Robert, and Dimitris Davis. Greek Gods and Heroes. Kindle Ed., Doubleday, 1960.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Kindle Ed., Little Brown, 2002.

Hansen, William F. Handbook of Classical Mythology. ABC-CLIO, 2004.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. “Myth in Primitive Psychology.” Myth in Primitive Psychology. Doubleday, 1954, pp. 100-126, 145. Accessed 21 Nov. 2016.

Theodore, Jonathon. The Modern Cultural Myth of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Springer Nature, 2016.

Sailors, Cara Leigh, “The Function of Mythology and Religion in Ancient Greek Society.” (2007). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 2110. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.

Thury, Eva M., and Margaret K. Devinney. “Introduction to Myth.” Introduction to Myth, Drexel U, Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.


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