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The Greeks and their Mythology
Like the Germans, Slavs, Celts, Celtiberians and Italians, but in an even smaller area, it was as an influx of many different tribes, and probably by slow degrees, that the gifted people whom we call the Greeks came to settle in the lands that were to be their own. Perhaps one day, when the prehistoric remains have been investigated, we may have a more precise idea of the kind of inhabitants they found there. Strabo (7.7.1) and Pausanias (1.41.8) both offer the opinion that Hellas was once entirely or almost entirely inhabited by barbarians.
In time the Hellenes assumed the foremost place among the Greek races. All who could do so joined them and wished to belong to them, while some tribes of closely related origin, such as the Leleges, Carians, Dardanians, Dryopes, Caucones and Pelasgians were excluded as semi-barbarians. These peoples gradually split up into small groups or vanished completely, if only because no-one wanted to be counted as belonging to them any longer (Pausanias 4.34.6).
Perhaps all this is generally taken too seriously. Were the Hellenes an exceptionally active section of the nation, superior in physical, military and religious qualities as well? Or did their name gain pre-eminence only by chance? In the fifteenth century of our own era a group of allies in the Alpine foothills became known as the Swiss (Schweizer) only because, in a long war, the people of Schwyz had been in the forefront of the group. Had the Hellenes some reason not to reject those who sought to join them? Did they give themselves this name or was it given them by others? There seems to have been an earlier collective name, the Graeci, which was revived in Roman times. Was this no longer adequate? And why not? These are all questions to which we have no answer. All we know for certain is that in its earliest occurrences the name Hellas refers to two northern provinces, Thessalian Phthiotis and (according to Aristotle) the region around Dodona in Epirus; and that it was later extended first to the whole of Thessaly, then to everything north of the Isthmus at Corinth, and finally to the Peloponnese and the islands, till at last the name Hellenes applied to all nonbarbarians.
How the Hellenes proper then became subdivided into the well-known four tribes [Aeolians, Achaeans, Dorians, Ionians] is extremely obscure. The name of one, the Aeolians, was very probably used as a collective name for the whole nation, and another, the Achaeans, is of course so used by Homer; while the other two, Dorians and Ionians, were never anything but names for parts of the nation, though as time went on they acquired important connotations of contrasting customs, thought and language. The celebrated genealogical table which tells us that Hellen's sons were Aeolus, Dorus, and Xuthus, and Xuthus's were Ion and Achaeus, is totally worthless and inconsistent; and this illustrates some particular difficulties of Greek ethnography.
In traditional accounts, early Greek times appear as a succession of migrations; one tribe drives out and supplants another until driven out in turn by a third, and this process may have lasted many hundreds of years. Not until the so-called Dorian migration of the eleventh century did the location and distribution of the Greek people begin to take on its final form, in a series of thrusts by which Thessalians, Boeotians, Dorians, Aetolians, Achaeans and Ionians, among others, acquired new homelands on both sides of the Aegean Sea, while new states were founded and a few old states disappeared. Often these migrations must have brought about a general upheaval. We see this clearly in the double or multiple names of so many places of which it was said that the earlier name was taken from the language of the gods. In one case, however, that of a famous island, the new name too is of divine origin. `Once the eternal gods named this island Abantis, which Zeus now called Euboea, after a bull.' Successive populations seem to have renamed the places for themselves.
It is certain that the legends about the earlier migrations, before the Dorian, contain a quantity of historical facts. These are related so fragmentarily, and chronologically so much at random, that they are hardly of any use in themselves; what is old, and what is oldest of all, are indistinguishable, and it is thus impossible to trace the movements of the peoples. Or the same expressions are used to describe both swift conquests and slow advances lasting for centuries. The wealth of genealogies of reigning houses seem, at first sight, informative about the migrations and destinies of peoples, but eventually we come to understand just what this kind of help is really worth.
For myth has swathed all this in its fine shimmering veil, embracing the terrestrial and the cosmic, religion and poetry, unconscious observation of the world, and experience distilled. The images that arose from it all were accepted as having a bearing upon the remotest times, but in a very free and flexible way. The wildest variations and contradictions, inevitable when the origins of the things recounted were so different, were not found at all disturbing. In addition, free invention was used to help out, particularly in genealogical matters. Authors of every period, even when they appear to lay claim to exactitude, always served an apprenticeship to myth, and saw everything in a mythical way; but apart from this they invented and elaborated in a manner completely alien to the modern world.
To a certain extent there was an awareness of this state of affairs. Tradition, originally the province of the rhapsodists and composers of theogonies, was later taken over by the so-called logographers, those collectors of regional and popular legends of whom Thucydides (1.21.1) says that they wrote more to give pleasure to their hearers than out of regard for the truth. Later we find in Strabo (8.3.9): `The old writers recount many things that never happened, having grown up among the lies of the mythographers.' He says this in connection with Hecataeus of Miletus, perhaps the most important of the logographers; but Hecataeus himself had written, five hundred years before Strabo: `The stories the Greeks tell are many and absurd.' Ephorus, in the fourth century B.C., the first to venture on linking a general history of the Greeks with that of the rest of the world, had good reason to begin no earlier than the Dorian migration.
Here we must take account of a general assumption which coloured the whole Greek viewpoint. It is extremely probable that the Greeks came to their country from somewhere else, whether we suppose their previous habitation to have been in the Caucasus, in Asia Minor or in Europe; but it is certain that as a nation they had lost all awareness of this. The migrations which were still part of common knowledge were not thought to have originated outside the country but to have been movements within the Greek lands; the few recognized exceptions (Cadmus, Pelops, Danaus etc.) had to do only with royal houses, not whole peoples. So while the whole nation considered itself an original autochthonous population, a few Greek communities also took a very special pride in the claim that they were still living on the very spot where long ago the human race itself had come into being with them. True, the words autochthon, gegenes (aboriginal, sprung from the soil) sometimes have only the negative sense that beyond a certain person nothing earlier is known, and may elsewhere be applied merely to the non-refugees who in mythical times were almost in the minority, since migrations, expulsions and flights from persecution were so much the rule. But there are many unquestioned sources to prove that in the main these epithets were taken literally and bestowed as a title of honour. A very early poet (Asius) sang of the first man and king of Arcadia: `The dark earth allowed the godlike Pelasgus to come to life in the thickly wooded mountains, so that there might be a race of mortals on earth.' On uninhabited Aegina Zeus answers the prayer of Aeacus by causing men to rise from the ground, or ants to turn into men. On Rhodes there once lived an autochthonous people under the ruling house of the Heliads. In Attica there was true pride in autochthony, and here we also learn how it was symbolically expressed. Cecrops -- according to the account of him as a native, not Egyptian-born -- had a snake's body in place of his lower limbs. The Greeks held many and various views as to the origin of the human race, but all agreed that mankind first arose in Greece and nowhere else. When credence was given to the later view that Prometheus had formed human beings out of a block of clay, then blocks of the same clay, which even had the odour of human flesh, were still to be seen at Panopeus in Phocis (Pausanias 10.4.3). On the other hand, if men were descended from the gods, then the Greeks possessed in their own country the birthplaces of these gods, their myths, the scenes of their battles with the giants, the famous natural cataclysms and finally the legend of the Flood, most of these localized in several different places. Linked with the legend of the Flood was that of the second Creation of Man through the agency of Deucalion and Pyrrha, safely established as having occurred in Greece.
It was in Greece itself, and before all other nations, that mankind was believed to have been given those aids to life which were particularly seen as the gifts of the gods. Thebes was the home of viticulture (Pausanias 9.38.3); pruning had been learned in Nauplia from the example of an ass, which ate the shoots and caused the vines to bear more fruit (Pausanias 2.38.3); but it was Attica which claimed to be the home of the more important plants. The field of Rharus near Eleusis, with the threshing floor and altar of his son Triptolemus, was the first sown field on earth. On the Acropolis in Athens there survived for many centuries the sacred olive tree, the gift of Pallas Athena; on the Sacred Way to Eleusis they would still point out the spot on which Demeter, after being hospitably received by Phytalus, thanked him by causing the first fig tree to grow; in the district of Acharnai, where Dionysus Kissos was worshipped, the first ivy grew, and even the bean was perhaps native to the country (Pausanias 1.31.6, 1.37, 2-5, 1.38.6).
Several inventions too were Greek in origin. The Argo was the first ship to sail the seas; in Alesiai, near Sparta, Myles (the miller), son of the first ruler, Lelex, had the first mill (Pausanias 3.20.2), and the Athenians even boasted that it was they who had taught men to make fire (Plutarch, Kimon 10). In general, though, the Greeks easily accepted the idea that things redolent of human toil and of the banausic were borrowed from abroad -- in strong contrast to the modern world, in which industrial inventions are thought to be the greatest achievement of the nations that lay claim to them, so that priorities of this kind lead to serious disputes.
Thus the Greeks conceded that Tyrsenus the Lydian had invented the trumpet, that the shield and helmet, the war chariot and geometry had come to them from Egypt, the drapery of the statues of Pallas Athena from Libya, the alphabet from Phoenicia, the sundial and the division of the day into hours from Babylon. They were quite content to be the centre of the world and to be able to show the `navel of the Earth' on their own sacred soil in the temple at Delphi.
To return to the migrations, then, the mythological expression is in some cases quite transparent. If the heiress to a throne is given in marriage to a foreign prince who has perhaps to prove himself by military conquest, or if the princess is got with child by Poseidon and her son comes to the throne later, it is easy to deduce a change of dynasty or of the ruling population, in the second instance by invasion from the sea. The kinship of two peoples is symbolized by a river flowing under the sea and coming up as a spring in another country. The famous example of the Peloponnesian Alpheus reappearing as the spring of Arethusa on the island of Ortygia (Syracuse) is not the only one, and Pausanias, who reports several (2.5.2) seems in no doubt that it is a physical possibility. Pride in the possession of excellent land, scorn for the less fortunate neighbouring people with a reputation for stupidity, may be expressed in legends of the region's having been acquired by successful deception. As late as the Dorian migration, the Aetolians who joined it had managed to secure a better piece of land (Elis) than the Dorians acquired anywhere, and Cresphontes was supposed among the Dorians themselves to have won his fertile region of Messenia from the Spartans by trickery at dice. It was often believed that a duel between the opposing leaders had decided the ownership of a piece of land: They came out to fight in single combat in accordance with an old custom among the Hellenes' is the formula. A popular touch is given to the story when the favourite weapon of one tribe wins the victory over that of the other. Pyraichmes the Aetolian and Degmenos the Epeian confronted each other, and Degmenos, a bowman, thought his long shot would easily beat the Aetolian, who was a hoplite, but he came with a sling and a sackful of stones. The sling had recently been invented by the Aetolians, and had a longer range than the bow; Degmenos fell, and the Aetolians kept the land and drove the Epeians away. The commonest way of expressing a claim to a parcel of land was to say that someone had received as a gift, or managed to acquire, a clod of earth from the land in question. Such legends however give little positive result if presented piecemeal in their chronological isolation.
The personification of a whole people in a hero is understandable enough, too, since the unsophisticated mind attributes every deed only to an individual. It is also easy to see the reason for the firm conviction that the people are named after their hero and not the other way round, and for the universal belief that each city was once founded, and must be called after its founder. Closer investigation makes matters seem less simple, as not only a people, but localities too -- a river, a mountain or a whole region -- may appear in the genealogical tables as personalities. Things become really complicated with the numerous cases of heroes' names which mean things that have somehow played a part in the destiny of the country, whether these are particular actions or occupations or ways of living. When we read that Teos was colonized by one Apoikos (the colonist) or that Paralos and Aigialeus (both meaning coast dwellers) populated Clazomenae and the coast of Sicyon, we tend to suppose that these are very late inventions. But even Herodotus (5.68) believes that the Aegialeans were called so after the hero Aegialeus, while in fact they and the hero undoubtedly took their names from the coast (aigialos). Everyone knows what the Greeks were like as etymologists, and this last case is easy to elucidate; so it is also when Pausanias (8.26.1) derives the name of Heraia in Arcadia from a founder Heraios, though it is quite obviously the city of Hera.
If only the many names of whatever origin were to some extent handed down in a serious attempt at genealogical order, we could take them as first-hand evidence of what was believed about race and the migrations. But besides the familiar figures of the heroic age, each with their characteristic adventures and exploits, whole troops of people are brought into the genealogies solely on the strength of their names. The conviction begins to grow that we are dealing with brazen fiction of a completely arbitrary nature, a total indifference to what actually happened. If, for example, in the case of Apollodorus we were prepared to accept the great genealogical tables of the first book as an actual excerpt, a vestige of epic poetry, he has still other genealogies, such as that of the royal house of Troy (3.12) the Tyndaridai (3.10) and so forth, in which the names -- in part those of localities (districts, rivers or mountains) -- are obviously grouped at random. They might just as well be arranged in a completely different order in the tables, up, down or sideways. The same is often true of Diodorus and of Pausanias, for instance in his great genealogy of Arcadia (8.3.1). To give another example, Conon and Parthenius, in recounting the myth of Pallene, introduce as human actors in the story a number of places on or near the well-known peninsula of the same name. One look at such degrees of kinship is enough to show that we can give up any idea of discovering in them a true time sequence or actual blood relationships, or any chronological account of the founding of towns here named as if they were human beings. Even among the feuds referred to, we seldom feel inclined to recognize an ancient rivalry that really existed. Gaps in continuity are often stopped up with the most disreputable makeshift padding.
It may seem tempting to ascribe the enormous number of arbitrarily invented family trees to the idle scribblers of post-Alexandrian times, or even to much later forgers. Still, they had illustrious predecessors. In Suppliants (312 ff.) Aeschylus blithely improvises a family tree (taken over from him by Apollodorus) that goes like this: Epaphus is the son of Zeus and Io, and the father of Libye, whose son is Belus the father of Danaus and Aegyptus. And in fact the classical epics were no more particular. In the Iliad a hero's name is often followed by a rapid account of his ancestry that sounds strikingly like an improvisation. This is why we remarked earlier that even the account of the relationship between Hellen and his sons is not to be taken seriously. In modern times genealogy is a laborious critical undertaking, while for the Greeks it was a diversion, and even mythical animals were not left out: there was a general conviction that the sow of Crommyon, slain by Theseus, was the mother of the Calydonian boar.
Besides, not all ancient peoples resembled the Greeks in this. The genealogical table in the tenth chapter of Genesis, whether its contents are of Hebrew origin or, more probably, borrowed from a Phoenician source, is the result of the most earnest endeavour to collate everything there was to tell about the links between different peoples. How clear it is that Babel is the forerunner of Nineveh, that Sidon is of great antiquity compared with the tribes of the interior; the descendants of Abraham are treated favourably or critically according to their closer or remoter degrees of kinship -- and what an impression of documentary exactitude it all makes! There is probably not a single superfluous name mentioned.
For the Greeks, though, quite apart from genealogy, the improvization and recitation of a multitude of names had a strong charm of its own. Cataloguing, which is nowadays, like genealogy, the object of serious and painstaking study, used to fill the epic and theogonic poets with pure delight. Once this lesson has been learned we shall not only ignore the family trees of Apollodorus but also perhaps cease to take the Catalogue of Ships in the second book of the Iliad too seriously. Yet for all this we cannot deny the probability that where old dynastic lists and genealogies survived, they occasionally contained the literal truth.
It is known that the later Greeks also sought to provide chronological support for their mythological past, and, as many of them believed themselves descended from gods and heroes, there may well have been a demand for a historical account of ancient times; but the genealogies, for what they were worth, were still available, and Hecataeus of Miletus believed himself to be descended from a god in the sixteenth generation (Herodotus 2.143). In Greece however there was no one caste traditionally charged with responsibility as chroniclers; writing long remained a rare accomplishment, and the official year was calculated variously and often inaccurately in different places. In these circumstances the information from which the reckoning by Olympiads (starting in 776 B.C.) was eventually worked out must have been far from reliable -- even with the help of old lists of the Argive priestesses of Hera, the kings and archons of Athens, Sicyon, Argos and so on. So people resorted to reckoning by generations, and it is no doubt by this heroic means that Herodotus arrived at his conclusion (2.145) that Dionysus lived 1600 years before his own time, Heracles 900, and Pan (here the son of Hermes and Penelope) 800. (He was calculating a generation as about thirty-three years (2.142) although he knew of a case (1.7) in which a sequence of twenty-two generations had yielded an average age of twenty-three.) He found no difficulty in reconciling mythical acts of procreation with the average span of a generation, although they were often only a disguise for the relation of cause and effect, and in any case beyond any conceivable system of reckoning. Another example, which shows the humorous possibilities of this subject, is provided by Isocrates in his Busiris (8.36 f.) where he floors an opponent with the chronological demonstration that Heracles cannot have killed Busiris since Heracles was four generations later than Perseus, Busiris more than two hundred years earlier. We know now that Heracles was a divine being while Busiris was simply a bogeyman of Greek fantasy. Isocrates nevertheless crushes his antagonist with the words `But you have no regard for the truth, and repeat the blaspheming of the poets.' Again and again we must overcome the temptation to assume that a people as clever as the Greeks must have had something resembling a critical approach to the past. It is true that they were passionately attached to the particular and the local in their ideas of primeval times, but their antiquarian sense did not extend much beyond the mythical sphere.
It seems to have been from sources and methods like these that the so-called Parian Marble Chronicle was put together about the middle of the third century B.C. It was the work of a private scholar, and presents many mythical events and persons from Deucalion onwards, all complete with dates, such as Ares and Poseidon before the Areopagus, Cadmus in Thebes, the Danaids in Greece, Erichthon, Minos, Demeter and Triptolemus teaching agriculture etc. Not much later, Eratosthenes in his Chronography worked out the year of the capture of Troy, which he placed, as we know, in 1184 B.C., as well as a few other important dates down to the start of the dating by Olympiads. He too, in spite of his modest aim, can scarcely have avoided the division of time by generations, and others calculated the years from the fall of Troy quite differently.
Their only source of information about their antiquity was myth and its voice, the epic; the calamity, scientifically speaking, began later on, with the refusal to recognize this fact, and the insistence on treating Homer as a document, even when he was in conflict with some old piece of ethnographical information from elsewhere. These other sources must either be reconciled with him or be made to yield to his authority. Strabo, who is forever `Homericizing', and tells us very little of the post-Homeric age until the Persian Wars, succeeds in one passage (9.5) in producing a grand confusion between the ancient ethnography of Thessaly derived from other sources and the reign of Achilles according to Homer. It is Strabo who makes us particularly aware how strong was the belief in Homer's exactitude, how every little town cherished the ambition to be mentioned in the Iliad as a `well-founded citadel' and how, when it suited them, they would correct Homer until he provided the desired information. Those antiquarians who kept closest to Homer were then called Homerikoteros (more Homeric) as a title of honour. The problem of a large number of events which refused to be fitted into mythical times was coolly solved by attaching them to the official ending of that period, that is to the Nostoi, the legends of the heroes' wanderings after the conquest of Troy. Not only Odysseus and Diomedes, but also Menelaus, Calchas and the Trojans Aeneas and Antenor were believed to have gone wandering far and wide about the world, and could thus be credited with founding many towns. The very ancient dispersion of Greeks along the Italian and Asiatic coasts was undeniable, but it was myth that formed the great universal spiritual background of national life, and to have no part in it was, it seems, considered a misfortune. Thus Diomedes became the lord of the Adriatic, and Achilles lord of the Black Sea; and if all else failed then Heracles, `lord of the West', must once have landed in the relevant spot. So it was in such outlying lands that the cult of the heroes was particularly prevalent.
According to the poets, geography too seems to strive towards the condition of myth, although plenty of exact information was available. When the Black Sea had long been swarming with Greek colonies, quite close to the time of Herodotus and the masterly ethnography of Sicily in Thucydides (6.2.3), Aeschylus gives us in his Prometheus the most extraordinary fabulous geography, a perfect mythical dream world. The same charming fables that in Greece animated hill, dale and seacoast with their figures and stories also created the image of the people of the outside world, beginning with the Amazons, who, with Antiope, Hippolyta and Penthesilea, make such marvellous irruptions into the lives of the Hellenic heroes. It was to this magnificent or awe-inspiring fringe of their world that the Greeks clung longest.
However questionable their actual knowledge of ancient times may have been, myth was a powerful force dominating Greek life and hovering over it all like a wonderful vision, close at hand. It illuminated the whole of the present for the Greeks, everywhere and until a very late date, as though it belonged to a quite recent past; and essentially it presented a sublime reflection of the perceptions and the life of the nation itself.
Other nations, too, have possessed a similar representation of themselves in the shape of their stories about gods and heroes. Whether the relation of the Indians, Persians and Germanic races to their myth was ever comparably intense is a question for experts in these fields. Possibly the great dominating orthodoxies of the Orient and of Egypt, all resulting from later developments, effectively sucked the lifeblood from more ancient legends of gods and heroes, and reduced popular fantasy to the level of fairy stories. In any case the Greeks enjoyed enormous advantages. They were still in the first phase of their history; as yet they had no experience of a great catastrophe overtaking an already developed culture -- neither migration, for the migrations we know of took place within the Greek nation itself; nor invasion by another people, which might have led to a break in the old way of life and obscured the memory of it; nor religious crisis leading to a rigidifying of belief, an orthodoxy; nor, finally, any secular enslavement. More positively, there was the remarkable good fortune that Hellenic myth, having come into being in a wholly unsophisticated period, yet survived in its full richness into a literate, indeed a highly literary age, and was consequently recorded in astonishing completeness.
In Plato's Timaeus (22B) the aged Egyptian priest says to Solon: `You Hellenes are always children; there is no Hellene who is truly an old man ... you are all young in soul because you have no ancient lore, no old learning, no age-old knowledge.' It is quite true that the Greeks, instead of the bookish lore and erudite knowledge that bedevilled the Egyptians, enjoyed a true empathy with their past that was almost without parallel. Later, of course, when they too had become a learned nation, myth became the subject of erudition and controversy and lived on as a kind of secondary history. There were quarrels about the family connections of this or that hero and who killed whom in battle, and the variants were compared; even very late [Byzantine] scholiasts such as Eustathius, Tzetzes etc. were still distinguishing better and lesser authorities. And the Romans, who took over Greek myth as though it were a world they had received as a gift, learned it all by heart in the sweat of their brows and loaded their poetry with it. The Emperor Tiberius, half in earnest and half in mockery, pestered his grammarians with pedantic questions such as `Who was Hecuba's mother?' what name did Achilles bear among the maidens of Scyros?' and asked what song the sirens sang. Tiberius could in fact have found a not much younger contemporary who would not have been at a loss for an answer; Ptolemy Hephaestion claimed to know five names that Achilles used on Scyros and the names of the teachers of Odysseus, Achilles, Patroclus and others, with much else of the same kind. In very late times, indeed well into the Christian era, when the mythical figures no longer appeared on the stage and had almost ceased to be represented by painters and sculptors, these themes were still used in the erudite poems of Nonnus. Above all it was the rhetoricians of the schools who refused to give up this substratum of material. Comparisons would be drawn between the fame of Odysseus and that of Nestor; eulogies or condemnations of them would be delivered, speeches composed for and against mythical figures in court proceedings; pathetic declamations on crucial occasions were put into their mouths; we hear what Cassandra would have said when the wooden horse entered Troy, or Agamemnon at the moment of being murdered, Heracles as he prepared to ascend the funeral pyre, Menelaus at the news of his brother's death, and many similar things.
The dominance of myth must have been much reinforced by the polis as the pattern of national life, and by the bards. Among the German-speaking peoples, as they settled down after the migrations, besides belief in the gods and various tribal stories, a dark saga of heroes may well have dominated mental life to a certain extent as an imaginary national history, and in this legend the chief figure was no doubt Dietrich von Bern. Here too, minstrels were very likely the principal means of spreading such legends, and may have been welcomed in noblemen's castles from very early times. Rural people, as these almost exclusively were, did not pass on such things with the elasticity of the urban population of the poleis, but contented themselves with the general imaginative stimulus provided by accounts of great men and fabulous happenings. The Greek audience consisted mostly of city dwellers with, undeniably, extraordinary gifts for the understanding and elaboration of what they heard, as well as with the will and the capacity to devote themselves to it continuously; such an audience gave an ideal reception to the art of the bards, without whom the dissemination of the legends which now became universally known in Greece would have been unthinkable. The local city myths attached to ancient temple cults might well have survived on their own. Without the minstrels, though, it is hard to imagine how the voyage of the Argonauts, the Calydonian hunt and the story of Oedipus, which have no historical basis, or hardly any, could have become accepted as historical events by all Greeks equally; and moreover have continued to arouse much greater interest, and for far longer, than anything that really took place, even much later. Thus the war against Troy, a common national experience of not too remote antiquity, was made to yield the foundation and solid basis for this whole world of imaginary figures. Compared with Theseus, Meleager, Pelops and the house of Atreus, all historical personalities were little known and regarded with indifference by the Greeks, and another factor in this indifference may have been that any given historical figure would belong to only one polis which was hated by all the rest. This would be equally true of most of the mythological personalities, and yet through epic poetry they became universally known.
Thereafter, for hundreds of years, throughout the time of the so-called `epic cycle', the accumulated store was revised and elaborated; that is, wherever actual history might have established itself, it was thrust down and overcome by the proliferation of legend, or fiction, gradually filling up all the interstices through which historical accuracy might have taken a hold. Even such factual knowledge as did survive was envisaged and recounted exclusively in the spirit of myth; even what was really history was subjected to the laws of a tradition that long remained solely oral and poetic. A genuine genealogy may have been handed down only to be rendered suspect for critical purposes by being embroidered with fictitious genealogies, often the work of later local antiquaries. In the same way genuine ethnographic information is overlaid by the introduction of purely fabulous races such as the Centaurs and Lapiths, and every possible means is used to sustain the fabulous ethnography and geography. Indeed the surprising thing is not so much that myth was capable of standing up to history, as that it could stand up to itself, that is that mythological tales were not constantly supplanted by other myths -- in other words that a consensus was arrived at, with the bards joining on their narratives where a predecessor had started, or where he had left off.
Myth is the underlying given factor in Greek existence. The whole culture, in everything that was done, remained what it had always been, developing only slowly. The mythological or sacred origin of many outer forms of life was known, and was felt to be very near. The whole Greek nation believed themselves the rightful heirs and successors of the heroic age; wrongs suffered in prehistoric times were still being avenged much later. Herodotus begins his account of the great battle between East and West with the rape of Io, and the Persian War becomes a continuation of the Trojan War. Later, indeed, (in 396 B.C.) when Agesilaus once more took up arms against the Persians, he went to Aulis on purpose to offer up a solemn sacrifice in imitation of Agamemnon, though his intention was severely frustrated by a surprise attack of Theban cavalry. Ancestral exploits in remote antiquity were employed as gambits in official negotiations. Thus, before the battle of Plataea, the Athenians argued very seriously that they had a better right than the Tegeans to wage the preliminary engagement on the grounds that they had formerly protected the Heraclids, vanquished the Amazons, given burial to the seven heroes who went out against Thebes, fought bravely in the Trojan War and, only as an afterthought, that they also won the battle of Marathon (Herodotus 9.27). Athenian funeral orations for the fallen made use of such themes over and over again as a matter of course; only Pericles, in his funeral oration, dared to leave out these mythical exploits and confined himself to the real powers of Athens then existing.
When the people of Megara voted honorary citizenship to Alexander the Great he laughed; but they said they had never before bestowed it on anyone except Heracles. The Spartans too called upon Heracles as their ancestral hero and upon his sons, the Heraclids, both in war and in official decrees. Traditional costumes and customs enjoyed effective protection through the emphasis on their mythical origins.
How seriously such traditions were taken may be gathered from the fact that even in historic times a family still remained under a curse drawn down upon them by mythical forefathers. The great clan of the Agiads in Sparta, descended from the royal house of Labdacus in Thebes, suffered the deaths of all their offspring; in obedience to an oracle they built a sanctuary to the Erinyes of Laius and Oedipus, and then their children stopped dying. Pindar offers to console Theron, tyrant of Acragas, who traced his descent from the same ill-fated family, with the reflection that what is done is done, justly or unjustly, and our mother Time herself cannot undo it, but by the blessing of Fortune we find help in forgetfulness (Olympian Odes 2.15). But where it was not a case of particular families a different view prevailed, and cities which were the scenes of the most appalling myths would not have given them up at any price.
The earliest history of Athens is especially instructive as showing the double flow of myth so clearly; on one hand it reaches down of its own accord into the present, while, on the other, historical development intrudes violently into myth. Attica had a heritage of ancient traditions; for example nearly all the seats of judgment in Athens were still associated with the legendary world, beginning with the Areopagus as the scene of Ares' conviction for the murder of Halirrhothius, and a large number of hereditary priesthoods boasted of their prehistoric origin. Besides this, an ancient prehistory of the region survived, which was in part clearly a cultural myth, connected with the names of Cecrops, Amphictyon, Erichthonius, Pandion, Erechtheus, the Metionids and others. However all this was interwoven with, and in a way rendered superfluous by, the figure of Theseus.
For Theseus is on one hand a genuine mythical hero of Panhellenic legend, and on the other a concept symbolizing the evolution of the Athenian state, quite late features of which were transposed to form elements of his life and his deeds. It is generally agreed that two of Plutarch's Lives are essentially condensations of the later experiences of whole peoples; these are the lives of Lycurgus and Theseus. But long before Plutarch, Xenophon had used the portrait of Lycurgus as a summation of Spartan evolution, while that of Theseus was the mirror of Athenian evolution as early as Thucydides (2.15), Isocrates and Aristotle. Theseus embarks on his political career by creating the preconditions for that very same state which according to other legends had already long existed. He destroys dangerous wild beasts and criminals. Then he assembles the population of Attica, who, living scattered in separate villages, have never till now met for counsel and have even fought among themselves. He unites them in one polis and institutes the solemn celebration of this new citizenship, the Panathenaea. But just as he was supposed earlier to have slain the bull of Marathon to ingratiate himself with the people, so he was now the first to woo the masses by abdicating as king. While he is held captive in Hades another demagogue, an Erechtheid called Menestheus, leads a revolution, and Theseus returns to find everything changed and the demos completely spoilt; so he attempts to seize power again, gets into great difficulties, vainly engages in counterdemagogy and at last, angrily cursing -- on a cursing spot which used to be pointed out to visitors -- he goes off to Scyros, where Lycomedes huffs him from the clifftop. When in later times anyone asked the origin of an institution or a custom (even that of the two obols the souls of the dead had to pay the ferryman) the answer was likely to be `Theseus decreed it so.' The dance called Geranos, with its serpentine weavings, is a reminiscence of the windings of the Labyrinth, and was first danced by Theseus and Ariadne with the rescued youths and maidens after the Minotaur was slain. And in the same way, everywhere in Greece, everyday life was artistically linked with remote antiquity.
In later antiquity, too, there was a perception of a deeper, an ideal unity in the collective life of a city or a people. Plutarch's essay Of the Delayed Vengeance of the Gods is a collection of deeds from mythical times which were expiated or suffered for by descendants, some well into the writer's own day, and to some extent it is only additional evidence of the tendency to explain present-day phenomena by reference to the dim and distant past. But, somewhere in all this, Plutarch pronounces this weighty dictum: `for a polis is one and indivisible!' -- and all Greeks knew that the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children.
Given the fixed intention of linking the present with the remotest past, it would be foolish to expect that any precise and detailed knowledge of that past could flourish. No criticism is capable of analysing into its component parts this whole, brought together by the youthful nation's powerful vision; and in fact this need cause us no anxiety. Not only mythical events, but some that were historical too, were transformed by long retelling until they took on a typical and characteristic resonance. Our recognition of this has its own value for our understanding of the Greeks.
Here, then, was a nation which vigorously defended its myth as the ideal basis of its existence, and tried at all costs to make connections between that myth and practical life. It was not only this that made history difficult; this people tolerated no historical drama on its stage and paid little attention to the historical epic, that is, the literary treatment of the relatively recent past.
This same people is now regarded as `classical' in opposition to any kind of `romanticism'. If, however, Romanticism can be equated with a continuous focusing on the relationship between things or points of view on one hand, and a poetic vision of the past on the other, then the Greeks had, in their myth, a tremendous Romanticism as the presupposition of their spiritual life. Can we say that the heroic sagas of the Germanic or Celtic peoples were anything like so powerful a force in the later Middle Ages?
There are few sites in our own Western Europe about which any reminiscences of our heroic sagas can be said to cling, and without the aid of learned antiquarians we would know almost nothing about the Untersberg, the Horselberg, the Eckartsberg or the Wasgen Rock. Hauntings no doubt still occur in many places, but the legends told about them belong only to popular superstition, or show only slight links with our ancient myths of gods and heroes. In Greece it is quite different; the country was full of classical sites and well-preserved visible reminders either of general Hellenic mythology or of local myth.
Besides, in every part of the country the local, often very elaborate, cult was always intent on making its origins as old and venerable as possible, and was celebrated in conjunction with the countless cults of local heroes, headed in each place by the supposed founder of the particular city. Everywhere, too, were signs of the polydaemonism that animated the whole landscape, even if it were only the love story of a stream and a sea nymph.
It was felt to be essential to know the spot on which each mythical incident had occurred, and Pausanias saw it as his duty to record the testimonies of local antiquaries on such points. In Athens itself he can point out where Boreas abducted Oreithyia and Aegeus threw himself from the rock, where Silenus rested on his first visit to Dionysus, and so on through the whole city; on Salamis he knows the boulder on which Telamon was sitting as he gazed after his sons departing for Aulis and Troy. In Thebes, at Amphion's grave, the rough stones at the base were the very stones that had once followed the sound of Amphion's lyre. Orestes' memory lived on in a true Via Dolorosa between Megalopolis and Messene; at one place, it was said, he lost his reason, at another he bit off one of his fingers, here he was cured and there he cut off his hair after his recovery. Pausanias finds it surprising, at Mount Cithaeron, that nobody knows the place where Pentheus went mad and where the infant Oedipus was exposed (9.2.3). Heracles, the Argonauts, Oedipus, Odysseus and Aeneas had turned up all over the country, and things of great or little importance were connected with their visits; the same Heracles who dug the pits at Pheneus in Arcadia had also uprooted the thistles in the gymnasium at Elis. For each and every striking natural phenomenon some mythical explanation was forthcoming; if the water of a spring had a bad smell, a centaur must have washed his wounds at it. Other authors too give a wealth of such information; Strabo knows the spring at Corinth where Bellerophon captured Pegasus as he drank, and Aelian (3.1) traces the precise course of the sacred Pythian route from Delphi to the particular bay tree in the Vale of Tempe where Apollo was purified after slaying the Python. There were even some associations which retained a baneful influence. The Leucadian rock, from which in mythical times the lovesick Cephalus leapt into the sea, was later fatal to other unfortunates; each year the Leucadians hurled a criminal from it and then tried their best to save his life. No doubt the reason for this was to prevent the magic of the place, which was dreaded by the inhabitants, from breaking out in an epidemic of suicides, and yet as it were to ensure that the spell received its due victim.
A natural consequence of this tendency to strong localization of myths was that the same myths were often given a home in different places, and especially those of the birth and upbringing of gods -- which in turn, whatever the real reason for it, helped to multiply classical associations. Apart from the island of Delos (traditionally the birthplace of Apollo) there was in Boeotia, not far from Tegyra, a temple of Apollo near which the god was said to have been born. A mountain near this place was called Delos, and `Palm' and `Olive tree' were the names of two powerful cold springs of sweet water behind the temple, which had also once been an oracle. Not far off was the Ptoon, where the goddess Leto was terrified by the apparition of the he-goat; and the place also linked the legend of the Python and of Tityos with that of the god's birth. Various places, too, were said to be the scene of the birth of Zeus and of Athena, the nurture of Hermes, the Battle of the Giants, the rape of Kore, the fetching up of Cerberus, the disappearance of Amphiaraus and other events. Later local antiquarians can hardly have been responsible for all this. It was rather that myth was omnipresent; the whole people thought in this way and were long confirmed in their belief by the epos.
History was quite another matter. Reminiscences of great deeds in historical times were virtually nonexistent, with the exception of a few battlefields where the offerings for the dead on the warriors' graves reminded people of what had happened there. No-one gave a thought to the places where Solon, Pericles or Demosthenes had appeared on crucial occasions, yet everyone claimed precise knowledge about the sites of classical legend. It was just the same with the relics. True, there were certain historical relics, like the stringed instruments, writing tablets and stylus of Euripides, which the elder Dionysius bought from the heirs for one talent and offered up with suitable inscriptions in a temple of the Muses. Similar tokens may have found their way into the temples as offerings from famous men themselves, who wished to be commemorated in this way; but in these same temples it was certainly the relics of mythical times that everyone wanted to see. The eighth chapter of the Liber memorialis of Ampelius, where the altar of Pergamon is mentioned, lists a whole mass of weapons, utensils, garments and other mementos from mythical times which could be seen in the temples of Greece, possibly even as late as the reign of Theodosius. Pausanias himself saw the spear of Achilles (3.3.6), Memnon's dagger (6.19.3), the sword of Pelops, the horn of Amalthea; but in one passage (9.41), making a great critical effort, he declares that, of a large number of surviving works of Hephaestus, only the Sceptre of Zeus in Chaeronea is really a work from the divine forge. Near the celebrated pine grove of Poseidon at Corinth could be seen the decayed but constantly restored Argo, the ship on which Jason and the Argonauts sailed. Magna Graecia (southern Italy) could also show such treasures -- the arrows of Heracles in Apollo's temple at Thurii, the blacksmith's tools used to construct the Trojan horse in the temple of Athena at Metaponrum. In a temple of Athena in the territory of the Dauni (northern Apulia) they had the bronze axe and weapons of Diomedes, who seems to have held sway in those parts like a god; and in a temple of Artemis among the Peucetii (further south) was the bronze neckband which he had fastened on a stag. At least the Greeks did not convert such antiquities (except perhaps the Trojan statue of Athena called the Palladion) into res fatales, on whose magic the destiny of a state might depend, as the Romans did with the paraphernalia, imported partly from Greece, and kept in the temple of the Vestals. However even the Greeks had a superstition connected with the possession of the bones of heroes, sometimes because oracles had commanded them to be brought to a particular place, and anyway because of their reverence for graves. Apart from these considerations the wrath of a dead hero was to be feared if he were offended, and his blessing on the whole state might be hoped for if his remains were safely preserved. Not everything was sacred; many things were merely interesting souvenirs, as for instance the bones of giants and Amazons, and the hide of the Calydonian boar preserved in the temple of Athena Alea in Tegea -- though his teeth had unfortunately been taken to Rome.
Rather more attractive, and still organically alive, were the ancient sacred trees. Among these were the olive tree brought into being by Athena in the Erechtheum in Athens, and another bent by Heracles' strong hand near Epidaurus; at Troezen one that had sprung from his club, and another, carefully fenced, on Attic soil, from which he had taken a twig to plant in Olympia. Then there was what remained of the plane tree in the temple at Aulis, which had seen the departure of the Greeks for Troy, the plane tree Menelais near Caphyae in Arcadia and so on. Even some animals were believed to have survived from mythological into historical times. Thus a general of the Achaean League had had an ancestor nine generations back -- that is about the fifth century B.C. -- who was supposed to have seen at Lycosura [in Arcadia] a doe, weak with age and sacred to Despoina, wearing round its neck a band inscribed with the words `I was still a fawn when Agapenor lay before Troy.'