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Cosmogonies And Divinities In Greek Mythology

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G. S. Kirk (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "The Mythos of the Gods and the Early History of Men," in The Nature of Greek Myths, Penguin Books, 1974, pp. 113-44.

[In the following essay, Kirk identifies three categories of myths about Greek divinities: those dealing with the origins of the universe; those that concern the development of the Olympian gods; and those that deal with the creation of men, their place in the world, and their relationship with the gods. Kirk reviews the content, themes, and folktale-type motifs found in these types of myths.]

In considering Greek myths in detail my plan is not to attempt a complete survey, but rather to divide the myths into six categories and examine some outstanding instances in each. The first three categories are included [here].…

The categories are as follows: first the cosmogonical myths, secondly those that describe the development of the Olympian gods. These are the divine myths as a whole. Thirdly, myths concerned with the early history of men and the fixing of their place in the world, especially in relation to the gods. The fourth category contains tales of the older heroes—the heroic myths in the fullest sense; the fifth has tales of the younger and more imitative heroes, including those of legend and the great Panhellenic sagas. These are the heroic myths as a whole. Finally, the sixth category contains later inventions of the historical period.

First come the cosmogonical myths about the formation of the world; they concern the initial separation of sky from earth and the replacement of the older gods of nature by Zeus and his contemporaries. Ouranos, it will be remembered, will not separate from Gaia, Earth, until the young Kronos castrates him. Kronos becomes king, but continues swallowing his own children by his sister Rhea until the infant Zeus is saved by a trick and displaces him in his turn. These events are incomparably described by Hesiod, who is also our oldest source for tales to which Homer has occasion to make only the briefest allusion. Hesiod's account in the Theogony is as follows:

All that were produced by Gaia and Ouranos—-most dreadful of children—were hated from the beginning by their own begetter. He hid them all away, just as soon as any came into being, in an inward place of Gaia, and did not let them into the light; and Ouranos rejoiced in his evil deed. Huge Gaia groaned within, for she was crowded out, and contrived a crafty and evil device. Without delay she created the element of grey adamant and wrought a great sickle; then she addressed her dear children in encouraging tones, though troubled in her heart: 'Children of mine and of a reckless father, if you consent to do what I say, we could avenge your father's outrageous treatment; for it was he that first devised shameful deeds.' These were her words, but the children were all possessed by fear, and none of them uttered until great Kronos of crooked counsels after a while addressed his noble mother thus: 'Mother, I shall give you my promise and accomplish the deed, since I care nothing for my father of evil name; for it was he that first devised shameful deeds.' These were his words, and huge Gaia rejoiced greatly in her heart. She sent him into a hidden place of ambush, put in his hands a jagged-toothed sickle and instructed him in the whole deceit. Great Ouranos came, bringing on Night; desiring love he stretched himself on Gaia and spread all over her. And his son from his place...

(This entire section contains 22171 words.)

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of ambush stretched out with his left hand, and with his right hand he grasped the monstrous sickle, long and jagged-toothed, and swiftly reaped off the genitals of his dear father, and flung them behind him to be carried away. They did not escape his hand in vain, for all the bloody drops that flowed out were received by Gaia, and with the turning seasons she gave birth to the strong Furies and great Giants, gleaming in their armour and with long spears in their hands, and the Nymphs they call Ash-tree Nymphs over the boundless earth. And the genitals, once he had cut them off with the adamant, he flung away from the land into the turbulent deep; and so they were borne for a long while through the sea, and white foam rose up from the immortal flesh. In it a girl was nurtured, and first came close to sacred Cythera, then to sea-girt Cyprus … (154 ff.)

This, we learn was Aphrodite, and it is a typical aetiological and etymological detail, since her name can be interpreted in Greek as meaning 'she who came out of the foam' and both Cythera and Cyprus laid claim to be the centre of her worship. Similarly Hesiod goes on to say that Ouranos called his children 'Titans' because they stretched or strove (Greek titainein) to do the deed.

After the birth of sundry other beings the poet returns to Kronos, now full-grown:

Rhea was subjected to Kronos and bore him glorious children: Hestia, Demeter, Hera with golden sandals, strong Hades who dwells with unrelenting heart in his halls under the earth, the loud-roaring Earthshaker [that is, Poseidon] and Zeus wise in counsel, father of gods and men, under whose thunder the broad earth quivers. These were swallowed by great Kronos as each of them came toward her knees from out of their holy mother's womb; his intention was that no other proud descendant of Ouranos should have kingly honour among the immortals. For he had learnt from Gaia and starry Ouranos that he was fated, strong as he was, to be subdued by his own son through the will of great Zeus. Therefore he kept no idle watch, but keenly observing them he swallowed down his children, and Rhea was possessed by unforgettable grief. But when she was about to give birth to Zeus, father of gods and men, then she besought her own dear parents, Gaia and starry Ouranos, to devise a plan whereby she might bear her child in secret, and repay the avenging furies of her father and of the children great crooked-counselled Kronos kept swallowing. They listened carefully to their dear daughter and did as she asked; they told her all that was fated to happen with king Kronos and his strong-hearted son. They despatched her to Lyktos, into the rich community of Crete, as she was about to give birth to her youngest child, great Zeus; and huge Gaia agreed to nurture and tend him in broad Crete. Then Rhea brought him through the swift, dark night to Lyktos first; she took him in her hands and hid him in a steep cave under the recesses of sacred earth, on thickly-wooded Mount Aigaion. To Kronos, great lord and son of Ouranos, former king of the gods, she presented a great stone that she had wrapped in swaddling-clothes. He took it in his hands and deposited it in his belly, the villain, and did not notice how his son was left behind, unconquered and carefree, in place of the stone—his son who was soon to subdue him with the might of his hands and drive him from his honoured position and reign among the immortals himself. Swiftly then did the strength and shining limbs of that lord grow, and with the turning seasons, deceived by the wise biddings of Gaia, great Kronos of crooked counsels brought up again his offspring, defeated by his son's arts and strength. First he vomited up the stone, the last to be swallowed, and Zeus set it in the broad-wayed earth in fair Pytho, under the hollows of Parnassus, to be a sign in later times, a wonder for mortal men. And he released his father's brothers, children of Ouranos, from the destructive bonds with which their father had bound them in his infatuation; and they were grateful to him for his kindness, and gave him thunder and the smoky thunderbolt and lightning—huge Gaia had hidden them before; trusting in these he rules over mortals and immortals. (453 ff.)

A few points in both passages need explanation. In the first part of the myth, where exactly is Kronos' imagined physical position? Probably within Gaia's vagina and not just sandwiched between earth and sky. Then, even before his enforced separation, Ouranos 'brings on Night', which suggests that he is already separate. Lastly it is not clear how Zeus makes Kronos vomit up the children. Some such areas of vagueness or inconsistency reflect the combination of different versions, others the unreal fantasy that fills the two episodes. Several folktale-type motifs can be detected: the son destined to replace his father, the father's attempts to destroy him; the youngest is the bravest (Zeus has it both ways, since when his brothers and sisters are reborn he becomes the senior); swallowing a stone destroys a monster. The blood or seed of gods, if it falls on the ground, is nearly always fertile; Aphrodite's name, and the foamy appearance of both sperm and spume, suggest her as the product here, and her derivation from Mesopotamian Inanna or Ishtar, the 'Queen of Heaven', makes Ouranos or Sky the obvious male parent. Crete is suitably remote, but Zeus' removal there is mainly due to his relatively late identification with a Cretan dying-and-reborn god as well as to the prominence of Cretan cave cults. As for his uncles at the end, these are the Cyclopes and Hundred-handed Giants, and they are mentioned because they are needed as allies in his decisive fight against the Titans.

More important, this whole myth has a close Near-Eastern parallel, known from a Hittite version of a Hurrian tale of the mid-second millennium B.C.—the Hurrians being a non-Indo-European people spread across western Asia at this time.1 Kumarbi deposes the sky god Anu by biting off his phallus; he swallows it and becomes pregnant with the all-powerful storm god, parallel to the sky and weather god Zeus. The storm god is born in an unnatural way, then in a last fling Kumarbi generates the monster Ullikummi, parallel to Greek Typhoeus, who is eventually defeated. The details are so closely similar that the Greek and Hurrian versions must be related, probably by derivation from a common west-Asiatic model. Kumarbi bites off Anu's phallus, while Kronos cuts off his father's; in both cases the blood and seed fertilize earth and produce minor gods (Aphrodite being a special detail); both Kumarbi and Kronos end up with gods inside them (the former by becoming pregnant, the latter by swallowing); these are born in peculiar ways (through the phallus, perhaps, and by vomiting); Kumarbi generates Ullikummi by copulating with a rock, while Typhoeus is born from Gaia—but according to one version Kronos smears two eggs with his seed and places them underground.

A structural analysis, emphasizing relationships rather than surface details, increases the neatness of the whole pattern as well as the similarity of the two versions. There is an unnatural retention of children within a parent, in Greek sources in the mother's womb, in Hurrian in the father's belly; they are released by violent and unnatural means, castration in the one case and pseudo-abortion in the other. In the one case sexual excess leads to castration, in the other castration leads to sexual abnormality (the male mother, the unnatural birth). Swallowing is important in both versions, but in the one case it is the fertile member, in the other living children and the sterile stone that are swallowed.

Whether these balancing relationships imply a Lévi-Straussian mediation between contradictions (for example between sexual excess and deficiency) is not clear; some kind of interest in sexual norms and functions certainly lurks beneath the surface. Freudians find the castration of the father significant, of course—but then is Kronos swallowing his children a symbol not of penis- but of uterus-envy? We must remember that the continuing sexual theme originated in the analogy between rain fertilizing the earth and a male parent fertilizing a female. Once Ouranos and Gaia are so far personified, castration becomes a plausible means of usurpation. That still leaves Ouranos' refusal to separate as a curious feature, but herein must lie a reminiscence of other and less physiological versions in which earth and sky were originally conjoined. In any case the degree of nature allegory is limited, and only extends to earth and sky and the implication of rain as seed. Zeus is a weather god, but that does not emerge naturally from the progress of the myth, for Kronos, who has no clear association with cosmology, intervenes.

Kronos (as mentioned earlier) seems to have had agrarian functions, and perhaps these mediated between sky/earth and Zeus. Otherwise his role is rather mysterious, as indeed is that of his brothers and sisters the Titans. In Hesiod's listing they include pure nonentities as well as Okeanos, the freshwater river surrounding the circular earth, and abstract ladies like Themis, Custom, and Mnemosyne, Memory. These earlier gods may be related to Asiatic 'older gods', both Hittite and Akkadian. In the Babylonian Creation Epic there is war between the older gods, led by Apsu and Tiamat (salt and sweet primeval water), and their offspring who were disturbing them, led by Ea the developed water god and by Enlil 'lord of air', later replaced by the Babylonian city god Marduk.2 Here the younger gods irritated the older ones by behaving so rowdily that Apsu, encouraged by his vizier Mummu, planned an otherwise unprovoked attack. But these 'older gods' have clear associations with the elements, whereas most of the Greek Titans, and of course Kronos himself, do not. Possibly the Titans are unfavourably depicted in the Hesiodic version precisely because of the example of the Asiatic 'older gods'; and yet there is a strong tradition, followed by Hesiod himself in the myth of the Five Races, that Kronos was king during the Golden Age. There is undoubtedly some confusion of different mythical schemata at this point. Zeus is king of the gods in the present epoch, and has imposed justice and hard work upon men. Any Golden Age must have been before his time, and therefore in the reign of Kronos, for that of Ouranos was too primeval for there to be men or heroes. Kronos' association with agrarian festivals would not be inconsistent with this idea, since corn without labour was part of the Golden Age vision. From a completely different point of view, however, Zeus had to win his way to power by a struggle, and so his predecessor was also seen as an enemy of justice.

These cosmogonical myths, which certainly include themes of high antiquity, remain uneven in detail and rather mysterious. Unlike other Greek myths they have clearly withstood much of the long process of organizing and expurgation. The other divine tales, which form our second category, were not so fortunate. They touch mostly on the actual birth of the developed gods and goddesses and on the way they acquired their special functions and prerogatives. Apart from this they are rather thin in distinctive episodes, except where gods intervene in the actions of heroes, and even there their role tends to be secondary. The thematic variety of the heroic tales is one of the particular marks of Greek myths as a whole, and it seems plausible that in the course of development many themes originally attached to gods (for example the founding of cities and festivals, or the disposal of monsters) were displaced on to heroes. The gods, as a result, were left in majestic inactivity, comparatively speaking; nevertheless many of the tales of their birth and development are memorable enough to foster the inaccurate impression that there is a wide range of divine myths.

Zeus has defeated the Titans and established his rule among the gods, and he now embarks on a series of marriages of which the clearest account is once again Hesiod's:

Zeus, king of the gods, made Metis his first wife, she who is most knowledgeable of gods and mortal men. But when she was about to give birth to owleyed goddess Athena, then he deceived Metis with a trick, and through crooked words deposited her in his belly, following the advice of Gaia and starry Ouranos. This was the advice they gave him, so that no one apart from Zeus should have kingship over the everlasting gods. From Metis, they said, it was fated that children of surpassing intelligence should be born—first the Triton-born owl-eyed maiden [that is, Athena], equalling her father in power and careful counsel, but then a child that was to be king of gods and men. But Zeus, before that could happen, deposited her in his belly … (924) And out of his own head he gave birth to the owl-eyed Triton-born … (Theogony, 886 ff.)

'Metis' means 'counsel', and this part of the myth is allegorical and presumably not particularly ancient: Zeus becomes wise by swallowing wisdom. But the motif also corresponds closely to that of Kronos swallowing his children. Zeus in his turn is threatened by the problem of a powerful son destined to overthrow him, and he meets it, in a repetition that is unimaginative rather than structurally significant, by swallowing the mother and so preventing the child from ever being born. Inconsistently the other child, Athena, is born from Zeus himself—not from his phallus, as Hurrian Kumarbi probably bore the storm god, but respectably and allegorically (for Athena, like Metis, is clever) from his head. The craftsman god Hephaestus is shown in many vase paintings splitting Zeus' skull with an axe to allow the fully-armed goddess to emerge; it was a famous pictorial motif. Again there is a smack of sophistication and scholarship about this piece of theogony. In fact Athena was probably a Mycenaean house-and palace-goddess, and was earlier felt to be a permanent dweller in her city of Athens; she had not been 'born' at all. Perhaps that made her available for Zeus' head; incidentally yet another god, Dionysus, was born from Zeus—snatched out of Semele's womb, when Zeus was forced to blast her with lightning, and sewed in Zeus' own thigh until the proper time for his birth.

After Metis, Zeus marries Themis, another personified quality ('custom' or 'law'), who gives birth to the Seasons and the Fates. Next he marries Eurynome, one of the many daughters of Okeanos, who bears the Graces; then, in a return to older and more concrete material, he takes his sister Demeter to his bed and she bears Persephone. Mnemosyne, 'Memory', bears him the Muses (transparent allegory here), Leto bears Apollo and Artemis, and last of all he weds Hera, who remains as his often-deceived wife from then until, presumably, eternity. These are his divine consorts; there is a long list of human mistresses too, from Semele mother of Dionysus, and Alcmena mother of Heracles, to Danaë mother of Perseus, and Europa mother of King Minos of Crete and his brother Rhadamanthys.

Zeus' daughter Athena, as protector of the royal household, became associated with the fortunes of the city as a whole, in her case Athens, which either gave her its name or derived its name from her. When Homer listed the various Achaean contingents in the second book of the Iliad the Athenians were described as

those who possessed Athens, the well-founded city, the community of great-hearted Erechtheus, whom once Zeus' daughter Athena reared and to whom the life-giving earth gave birth; and she set him down in Athens in her own rich temple, and there the young men of the Achaeans propitiate him with bulls and with sheep as the seasons come round … (Iliad 2, 546 ff.)

Erechtheus was one of the early legendary kings of Athens, he is 'born from the soil' because the Athenians claimed to be autochthonous, not immigrants, and Athena's temple is virtually the same as his palace on the Acropolis. That we learn from an allusion in the Odyssey (7, 80 f.) in which Athena left the island of Phaeacia 'and came to Marathon and broad-wayed Athens, and slipped into the compact house of Erechtheus'; it is her own home too, because in a Mycenaean city the shrine of the god or goddess is set within the palace itself. Here, then, is Late Bronze Age religious realism as well as Athenian local patriotism. The tale of Athena's contest with Poseidon, in which she offers the city olive-trees and so wins its possession, elaborates the general theme. It is as Polias and Poliouchos, 'Holder of the City', that she comes to be associated with its warriors and craftsmen, especially potters and metal-workers; her protection of spinning and weaving, on the other hand, goes back to her function as goddess of the oikos, the household. The two contradictory sides of her are shown in the Hymn to Aphrodite, where she is one of those over whom the love goddess has no control:

For the works of golden Aphrodite do not please her, but rather wars and the works of Areas … it was she that first taught mortal joiners to make carts and chariots thick with bronze, and she too who taught shining works to the soft-skinned maidens in their halls … (9 ff.)

She has no consort and is not interested in love, she is Parthenos, the maiden. With Hera she was defeated by Aphrodite in the Judgement of Paris, and in a sense she is Aphrodite's antithesis, rather like Artemis in Euripides' Hippolytus. There is an element of reasoned symbolism here, since marriage (Hera) and the maintenance of the household (Athena) are inconsistent with love as a luxury (Aphrodite) and with countryside pursuits like hunting (Artemis). It is important to notice that, by the time this valuation originated, problems of fertility were already subordinate to those of advanced social organization.

Athena is not just an impersonal household and city goddess; from Homer onward, and probably much earlier too, she is a protector of individual heroes and intervenes in many of their pursuits. She helps Perseus, for example, to overcome the Gorgons, but it is Odysseus in the Odyssey that is her most obvious protegd. She meets him in disguise when he is set ashore in Ithaca by the Phaeacians:

Owl-eyed goddess Athena smiled at his words and stroked him with her hand; she was in the likeness of a woman fair and tall and accomplished in glorious works, and she spoke winged words to him and addressed him: 'He would be cunning and deceitful who could surpass you in all kinds of trickery, even if a god should come up against you. Wretch, cunning one, insatiably crafty, you were not going to desist from deceits and the lying words you love so deeply, even in your own land! But come, let us talk of this no longer. We both know how to get the better of others, since you are by far the best of mortals at giving advice and making speeches, and I am renowned among all the gods by reason of my intelligence and craftiness. Yet you did not recognize me as Pallas Athena, daughter of Zeus, who always stands by your side and guards you in every toil, and made you dear to all the Phaeacians.' (13, 287 ff.)

In this intimate scene Athena exaggerates her own reputation for cunning (which is not, usually, one of her most conspicuous qualities) in order to identify herself with Odysseus, for whom she seems to feel an almost lover-like sympathy. Odysseus in return is not above a mildly malicious ingratitude:

'It is hard, goddess, for a mortal who meets you to recognize you, even if he knows you well, because you take on all sorts of likenesses. But of this I am well aware, that in former times you were kind to me, when we sons of the Achaeans were fighting in the land of Troy; but when we had sacked Priam's steep city and were departing in our ships, and a god scattered the Achaeans, then I did not see you, daughter of Zeus, and did not notice you setting foot on my ship to keep grief away from me.' (Odyssey 13, 312 ff.)

I have quoted from this context not only to illustrate Athena's role as a personal protector of heroes but also to show the unusual subtlety that Homer can impose on a mythical scene. Odysseus may be a half-legendary figure, and Athena here may be doing little more than encourage him and act as informant. It is not a particularly memorable episode in narrative terms, but the description, which is leisurely and detailed and not merely allusive in the manner of so much later poetry, gives an extraordinary sense of divine epiphany and the ambivalent relationship between god and man. It is in the literary handling of mythical ideas, rather than the imaginative variety of narrative themes as such, that the Greeks as we know them were unique.

Other revealing examples of divine myths of birth and function relate to Apollo and then Dionysus, whom Nietzsche saw as symbols of opposing aspects—classical and romantic, controlled and ecstatic—of the Greek spirit. Apollo's birth on Delos is a favourite literary theme. Delos is a fascinating but arid little island, and the Greeks were evidently puzzled as to why such an important cult should have become established there in prehistoric times. The Hymn to Apollo is a relatively early (seventh century B.C.), if artificial, exercise in the Homeric style, compounded of two parts. The first relates how all other lands except the lowly Delos had refused to be the birthplace of the god; the second describes the foundation of his other great cult centre at Pytho (Delphi). Leto is pregnant by Zeus and has reached Delos:

When Eileithyia, goddess of the pangs of birth, set foot on Delos, then travail seized Leto and she longed to give birth. She cast her arms around the palm-tree and pressed her knees on the soft meadow, and the earth smiled beneath; and he leapt forth into the light, and all the goddesses shrieked in triumph. Then, divine Phoebus, the goddesses washed you with fair water, cleanly and purely, and wrapped you in a fine white newly woven cloth, and set a golden swaddling-band around you. His mother did not give suck to Apollo of the golden sword, but Themis with immortal hands gave him a first offering of nectar and lovely ambrosia, and Leto rejoiced at the birth of her strong archer son. (115 ff.)

The foundation of the oracle at Delphi is no less miraculous, for Apollo in the form of a dolphin leaps aboard a Cretan ship and diverts it to the bay of Crisa, where at last he reveals himself:

Strangers who dwell around many-treed Knossos—or did so formerly, but now you shall never again return to your lovely city and each to his fair home and dear wife, but here shall possess my rich temple honoured among many men: I declare to you that I am the son of Zeus; I am Apollo. I brought you here over the great gulf of the sea with no evil intent, but you shall possess here my rich temple held in much honour among all men, and shall know the counsels of the immortals and by their help be continually honoured for all your days. (475 ff.)

The Cretans are worried about their means of livelihood on this barren hillside, but the god assures them that they will be able to live off their share of the sheep that worshippers will bring for sacrifice. This mundane detail reminds us that the Hymn, in spite of its lyrical touches, is a priestly affair, clumsily aetiological in tone. Apollo Delphinios had an ancient cult in Crete—therefore let his priests at Delphi be of Cretan origin, and let Apollo appear to them as a dolphin. This kind of mythical detail does not appear very old, and probably developed as part of the established worship of Apollo at Delphi and Delos in historical and post-Mycenaean times.

For less cult-ridden attributes we can turn to a later source, Pindar, who for his royal patrons in the rich African colony of Cyrene sang of the nymph Cyrene and her wooing by Apollo on Mount Pelion. The god sees her wrestling with a lion and asks the Centaur Cheiron, in his nearby cave, who she is and whether he should make love to her. Cheiron replies with fitting humour and caution:

Your gentle temper has inclined you (for whom it is not lawful to touch untruth) to speak this word obliquely. You ask, lord, of the girl's family? You who know the proper end of all things, and every path? The number of leaves the earth sends forth in spring, of grains of sand in sea and rivers whirled by waves and rushing winds, and what shall come to be and whence—all this you clearly discern! But if I must contend even against one that is wise, this is my answer. You came to this glade to be her husband, and you intend to carry her overseas to the incomparable garden of Zeus; there you shall make her ruler of a city [that is, Cyrene], and shall gather an island people round her to the hill among the plains. (Pythians 9, 42 ff.)

Elsewhere Pindar lists the god's main functions:

It is he that assigns to men and women cures of harsh diseases; he brings them the lyre, and grants the Muse to whom he wishes, implanting in their minds a harmonious disposition that rules out warfare; and it is he that controls the oracle's hidden shrine. (Pythians 5, 63 ff.)

Apollo is god of prophecy and divination, of all kinds of inspiration, of poetry and music; from his oracle at Delphi he sponsors colonies like Cyrene itself. He is not always so unwarlike as Pindar implies, and in the Iliad is depicted as eager to defend Troy. As for his powers of healing, they probably depend on his identification with a local Cretan god called Paian. There is a shrine of Apollo Paian at Epidaurus, and a tale, again in Pindar's words, that Asclepius is really his son:

She (Coronis) had consented to another marriage, secretly from her father, when she had already lain with Phoebus of the unshorn hair and carried the god's pure seed … for she slept in the bed of a stranger who came from Arcadia, and did not escape the god's watching … and he knew then of her lying with the stranger, Ischys son of Elatus, and of her unlawful deceit, and sent his sister [that is, Artemis], rushing with irresistible might, to Lakereia … And many of Coronis' neighbours shared her fate and were destroyed with her… but when her kinsmen had placed the maid within the pyre's wooden boundary, and the fierce gleam of Hephaestus [that is, fire] ran all round, then spoke Apollo: 'I shall not, after all, endure in my heart the destruction of my own progeny by a pitiable death, at the same time as his mother's doom.' So he spoke, and with a single stride he reached the child and snatched him from the corpse, as the burning pyre made a way clear for him; and he brought the child and gave him to the Magnesian Centaur [that is, Cheiron] to be taught how to cure men's painful diseases. (Pythians 3, 12 ff.)

The gods do not normally tolerate the later adulteration of their seed within a mortal woman; if they do, there are twins, of which the elder is the semi-divine offspring (as Heracles was), the younger the mortal one. Apollo snatches the infant from his dead mother's body just as Zeus snatched Dionysus out of Semele, and in both cases, too, the woman is killed by the god himself. Apollo's son Asclepius grew up to be a great healer, and was worshipped both as god and hero; but he went too far (like his mother) and tried to raise a man from the dead—an impious act that earned a thunderbolt from Zeus. Apollo was annoyed at this highhanded act and took revenge, not of course on Zeus himself, but on the Cyclopes who supplied the thunderbolt.

One cannot help admiring Pindar's mythological learning and the instant recognition he expects in his audience. Allusiveness and scholarship were to become a disease in the poetry of the Alexandrian age; for the moment, given Pindar's genuine feeling for religion, they actively enrich the power of his narrative core.

All the same one does not feel that the main thematic structure of these Apollo myths is necessarily very ancient. The god's omniscience, the nymph Cyrene, the Arcadian stranger Ischys, even the snatching of Asclepius from the pyre, may well be comparatively recent elaborations, marking one stage in the constant process of mythical extension. What is assuredly old is Apollo's association with healing, as Paian, and with oracles in his Pythian aspect; also of course his birth in Delos and his kinship to Artemis. There are other episodes that I have not mentioned: he shot down the giant Aloadae that threatened to attack the gods by piling Pelion on Ossa; together with Artemis he killed the giant Tityus who tried to rape their mother Leto, and slaughtered Niobe and her children because of a foolish boast; he was servant for a year to a mortal, King Admetus, for killing the Cyclopes (the motif is similar to Heracles serving Queen Omphale to purge his killing of his own children). He had a habit of loving, but failing to win, mortal women, notably Cassandra daughter of Priam and Marpessa who preferred Idas; he was more successful with Hyakinthos at Amyclae near Sparta, but actually the beautiful boy must have been, with that name, a pre-Hellenic god whom Apollo merely absorbed into his own worship. When H. J. Rose writes that Apollo has an 'extensive mythology', this is the kind of narrative range that is actually meant; not so extensive after all, and much of it dependent on the elaboration of themes used elsewhere.

Finally Dionysus, the god who came down into Greece through Thrace, ultimately from Phrygia in Asia Minor, and became the focus of an ecstatic religion. His myths are often tales of obduracy. The Thebans refused his worship and were driven to madness and murder, and so were the daughters of King Minyas of Orchomenus and King Proetus of Argos, even perhaps Orpheus himself. Some interpreters have been tempted to take these as reflections of actual historical resistance to his cult (which reached Greece comparatively late, perhaps after 1000 B.C.), and that could be so. The myth of Pentheus at Thebes, after all, depicts a whole city at odds with the god in various ways. But there is also an individual, psychological level of meaning. Dionysus represents the irrational element in man, and his myths the conflict between reason and social convention on one side, emotion on the other. That comes out in the tale of Pentheus, to be described shortly. Homer pays little attention to Dionysus—not at all a god fit for heroes—but refers briefly to his birth from Semele and his arranging to have Ariadne killed by Artemis in Naxos once he had finished with her. His fullest reference is to another tale of resistance, one of several mythical instances of the unwisdom of opposing a god:

Nor did the son of Dryas, strong Lycurgus, last for long, because he strove against the heavenly gods. Once on a time he chased the nurses of raving Dionysus over holy Mount Nysa; and they all together cast their sacred rods on the ground, under the blows of manslaying Lycurgus' ox-goad, and Dionysus took to flight and sank into the waves of the salt sea, and Thetis received him terrified in her bosom, for strong trembling possessed him when the man threatened him. With Lycurgus the easy-living gods were afterwards enraged, and the son of Kronos made him blind; nor did he last for long once he became the enemy of all the immortal gods. (Iliad 6, 130 ff.)

This Lycurgus is a Thracian, and it is interesting that the opposition tales range from Thrace, in the very north-east of Greece, through Thebes and Orchomenus in its centre, to Argos in the Peloponnese. Here Dionysus is represented as a child, although his 'nurses' are also his female votaries, his Bacchants, and the rods they cast on the ground are the thyrsi, fennel staves with ivy bunched at the tip, that were the special implements of Dionysiac worship and ecstasy.

A number of tales show the impact of Dionysus on various Greek cities. The most famous is the tale brilliantly retold by Euripides in his Bacchae about the fate that befell King Pentheus of Thebes when he opposed the cult of Dionysus and his worshippers. First he tried to throw the god, disguised as a beautiful young stranger, into prison. Here is how Dionysus reports the incident to his Bacchants:

This was just the ignominy I subjected him to, that he thought he was binding me, but neither touched nor laid hands on me, but fed on empty hopes. He found a bull by the stalls where he had taken me and locked me up, and round his knees and hooves he cast his nooses, panting out his rage, dripping sweat from his body, setting his teeth to his lips. But close by I was peacefully sitting and watching. (Bacchae, 616 ff.)

No less powerful than the miracles (the palace of Pentheus was shaken by earthquake soon afterwards) are the songs sung by the chorus of Bacchants about the god they adore. They see themselves as bringing him from their native Asia Minor to Greece, and recall his miraculous birth:

Onward Bacchants, onward Bacchants,
bringing Dionysus,
Bromios, god and child of a god,
down from the Phrygian mountains
into Hellas' spacious streets,
Bromios the roaring one!

Bearing him within her, in forced
pangs of childbirth
when Zeus' lightning flew
his mother thrust him premature

from the womb, and left her life
at the lightning's stroke.
Instantly into chambers of birth
Zeus son of Kronos received him,
and hiding him in his thigh
confined him with golden
pins, secret from Hera.

He brought to birth, when the Fates
accomplished the time, a bull-horned god
and crowned him with garlands
of snakes; for this reason the maenads
twine in their tresses
the beast-reared prey.
(Bacchae, 83 ff.)

Dionysus is here 'the roaring one', a 'bull-horned god', because he so often manifests himself as a bull, rampant with fertility and power—which is why the deluded Pentheus had tied up a bull in mistake for the god himself. Dionysus' mother Semele, it will be remembered, was loved by Zeus and asked him to appear to her in his true form, which he did as lightning; he took the embryo from her womb as she died. The extract ends with a piece of minor cultic aetiology.

The god persuades Pentheus to dress as a Bacchant and spy on the crowds of infatuated women on Mount Cithaeron; he is instantly recognized and torn to pieces by his own mother and aunts. This is how the chorus exult, allusively as always:

Let us dance to the Bacchic god,
shout aloud the disaster
of the dragon's descendant, Pentheus;
who took female raiment
and the fennel-rod, Hades' pledge,
in its thyrsus-shape
with a bull to lead him into disaster.
(Bacchae, 1153 ff.)

Pentheus is 'the dragon's descendant' because he is descended from the Sown Men, the armed warriors who grew from the ground when Cadmus had killed the dragon that guarded the site of Thebes, and sown its teeth. The bull, again, is Dionysus himself. The disaster Pentheus suffered was a literal tearing apart, which is what the Bacchants regularly did to any young animal that fell into their hands during their crazy dances across the mountains.

The myths of Dionysus are part of his religion, and their power is derived as much from an exotic and thrilling form of worship as from their narrative themes as such. In that respect they may be unusual—although even those of Apollo, apparently more firmly rooted in Greek culture, are seen to depend for much of their apparent richness on the elaboration and nostalgic fervour of poets like Pindar.

The third category of myths is no longer divine, although it remains closely in touch with the life of the gods. It comprises tales that describe the emergence of human beings and the complicated acts by which their role, and in particular their exact relation to the gods, is established. Essentially it contains the myths about the Golden Age, Prometheus and the Fall of men. Hesiod once again is our main and for much of the time our only source, although the details he records (with the exception of the Five Races myth which is idiosyncratic in places) were probably familiar to many Greeks of his era.

The Greek conception of a Golden Age is rather imprecise, because it contains two separate ideas that were gradually conflated and then further complicated by later eschatologies from Italy and Sicily. The two ideas are as follows. First, there was a period in the past, often associated with the time Kronos was king of the gods, when a 'golden' race of men lived without toil and died as though in sleep after a happy life. Second, there is a distant land, called either Elysium or the Islands of the Blest, where divinely favoured humans live on instead of dying—especially the sons and daughters of one divine parent, like Peleus, Cadmus, Menelaus, Helen. They go there instead of Hades and live an eternal life of bliss, free from toil.

The first concept is represented by the golden race in Hesiod's schematic account (not an ordinary myth because it has no obvious story) of the Five Races of men:

First the immortals who have their homes on Olympus made a golden race of men; they lived in the time of Kronos, and he was king of heaven. They lived like gods with a spirit free from care, far from toils and grief; neither did vile old age come upon them, but with unwithering limbs they rejoiced in festivity, away from all evils, and died as though subdued by sleep. All good things were theirs; the life-giving earth bore its fruit freely and in abundance, and in contentment and peace they lived off their lands in prosperity. But when the earth covered this race, through the will of great Zeus they have become good daemons on earth, guardians of mortal men. (Works and Days, 109 f.)

The same kind of life is ascribed by Pindar to the Hyperboreans, a people especially favoured by Apollo and imagined as dwelling, as their name suggests, 'beyond the North Wind':

Everywhere are girls dancing and the noise of lyres and the shrill whirlings of flutes; with their hair bound with golden bay they feast in joyfulness. Maladies and destructive old age have no part in that sacred race, but they dwell without toils or battles, free from severe Nemesis. (Pythians 10, 38 ff.)

The second concept, of Elysium or the Isles of the Blest, is clearly described by Hesiod and applied to his fourth race, the race of heroes. They were killed off in the great expeditions against Thebes and Troy, and

then some of them did the end of death enclose, but to the others father Zeus, son of Kronos, gave a life and abode apart from men, and settled them at the limits of the earth; and they dwell with carefree spirit in the Isles of the Blest by the side of deep-swirling Okeanos—blissful heroes, for whom the life-giving earth thrice yearly bears its rich honeysweet fruit. (Works and Days, 166 ff.)

At this point some probably non-Hesiodic verses were appended in antiquity; they claim that Kronos was king of these blessed heroes, and that Zeus had brought him up from imprisonment in Tartarus for the purpose. Obviously this is designed to reconcile the two different concepts. Pindar, too, associates Kronos with a development of the Isles-of-the-Blest conception when he takes over the traditional picture of the blessed life, laces it with 'Orphic' and Pythagorean ideas from Italy and Sicily about the rebirth of the soul, and presents the result as a reward for those who have completed just lives on earth:

But all who have endured, while remaining in each world, to keep their soul three times apart from injustice pass over the road of Zeus to the tower of Kronos, where breezes born of Okeanos blow around the Isles of the Blest, and golden flowers blaze out, some on land from glorious trees, others nurtured by the water; and they weave necklaces and wreaths from them under the just rule of Rhadamanthys, whom the great father [that is, Kronos], husband of Rhea of the all-lofty throne, keeps ever seated by his side. (Olympians 2, 68 ff.)

Here (Pindar goes on to say) are Peleus and Cadmus and Achilles—one more detail that belongs to the strict conception of the Isles as a kind of Valhalla for semi-divine heroes.

So we can now distinguish three distinct but related ideas, each of which tends to give rise to similar language (the earth bringing forth its fruits without toil, and so forth). First, there was a stage in the past when all men lived in Golden Age conditions. Second, a few privileged members of the age of heroes survive death, in similar conditions, in Elysium or the Isles of the Blest. Third, such a life is still possible for the souls of the just, as a reward after death and after judgement in Hades. The third view is certainly a later adaptation of the second, the second possibly a later adaptation of the first. Curiously, Kronos tends to be associated with all three, and at one stage Greek myths must have had far more to say about him than they do now, or at least than Hesiod chooses to reveal.

A more specific idea of a Golden Age is implied in occasional mythical allusions to men having banqueted with the gods either regularly or on certain special occasions, in particular at the marriages of mortals to immortals. It was the marriage of Peleus, father of Achilles, to the sea-nymph Thetis, and of Cadmus, founder of Thebes, to Harmonia the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, that made the strongest mark in art and literature. Pindar uses both heroes to illustrate a moralism:

Neither Peleus son of Aeacus nor godlike Cadmus had a life without difficulties; yet they are said to have possessed the highest blessedness of mortals, for they heard the Muses with diadems of gold singing on Mount Pelion and in seven-gated Thebes, when the one married ox-eyed Harmonia and the other Thetis, renowned daughter of Nereus the good counsellor. (Pythians 3, 86 ff.)

Among others who were intimate with the gods was Tantalus, the father of Pelops who later defeated King Oenomaus of Pisa for the hand of his daughter and gave his name to the Peloponnese. Pindar refuses to believe the common form of the tale, which was that Tantalus invited the gods to dinner and served up his own son Pelops, freshly cooked, to see if they could tell the difference. Demeter, still distracted by grief because of Persephone, absent-mindedly ate a shoulder, but the rest of the gods immediately detected the crime. Poseidon brought Pelops to life, gave him a beautiful ivory shoulder and was later overcome by his charms. Pindar, however, protests that 'It is impossible for me to call any of the blessed gods a glutton; I stand apart!' and implies a different reason for Tantalus' disgrace (which resulted in his being eternally tantalized by food and water that lay just out of reach). Yet the important thing at present is that Tantalus

invited the gods to the most orderly of banquets in his own dear Sipylon, offering them a return for the dinners they had given him. -(Olympians 1, 37 ff.)

King Lykaon of Arcadia, in a thematically overlapping tale (see p. 238 ff.), invited Zeus to dine with him on Mount Lykaion and offered him human flesh. Again it is the idea of gods and mortals dining together—not always with such lurid menus—that interests us here, indicating as it does an era when gods and men were not so stringently separated as they were even in the developed age of heroes.

Somehow that era came to an end. The precise cause is not clear from the myths, and could have been the supplanting of Kronos by Zeus, or the crimes of Tantalus and Lykaon, or the general increase in impiety and bloodshed implied by Empedocles and the Orphics, of which more later. Somewhere here the flood must be fitted in …; it was sent by Zeus to punish mankind, and only Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha survived it. That is the commonest version, although others talk of King Ogygus as responsible, or connect the flood with the human sacrifice initiated by Lykaon or his sons. Deucalion and Pyrrha, at any rate, recreate the human race on purely etymological principles; they do so by throwing stones over their shoulders, and the stones turn into people—but that is because the Greek word for stone (laas) is similar to that for people (laos). From such trivial ideas are myths sometimes made, more generally in Egypt and Mesopotamia than in Greece (see p. 58 f.).

At some indeterminate period after the end of the Golden Age men were poor, defenceless and weak, and a great protector came on the scene in the person of Prometheus. Prometheus was a minor god, his parents the Titan Iapetus and the Oceanid Clymene. For everything that concerns him—and he is of the highest importance for this whole third group of myths—Hesiod is once again our prime authority. This is how he describes his birth and ultimate salvation:

Iapetus led away the fair-ankled maid Clymene, daughter of Okeanos, and shared his bed with her; and she bore stubborn Atlas as her son, also renowned Menoetius and subtle Prometheus of cunning counsel and foolish Epimetheus, who from the beginning was a disaster to industrious humans; for it was he that first received the fabricated maiden from Zeus. Wide-seeing Zeus sent insolent Menoetius down into Erebus by striking him with smoky lightning … Atlas holds the broad sky at the ends of the earth through strong necessity … and Zeus bound subtle-counselled Prometheus with harsh inescapable bonds, driving them through the midst of a pillar, and sent a long-winged eagle upon him; and it used to eat his immortal liver, which grew back to its full size during the night, as much as the long-winged bird might eat during the whole day. The strong son of fair-ankled Alcmena, Heracles, slew it, and warded off cruel pain from lapetus' son and released him from his grief, not without the will of Olympian Zeus who reigns on high … (Theogony, 507 ff.)

Menoetius is rather obscure; Atlas is well-known because he was envisaged as holding up the sky (a probably archaic concept parallel to the Egyptian idea of a sky supported on pillars); Epimetheus ('Afterthought', invented to match Prometheus which seems to mean 'Forethought') is known simply for his presumably lustful folly in receiving the first woman as a gift; but it is Prometheus who is the key figure. His imprisonment by Zeus, in the Caucasus mountains as we learn elsewhere, comes as climax to a series of clashes between the two, Prometheus begins the quarrel by trying to cheat Zeus over the division of sacrificial meats once the era of dining together had come to an end:

For when the gods and mortal men were making a settlement at Mecone, then Prometheus with eager spirit divided up a great ox and set it before him, trying to delude the mind of Zeus. For in the one lot he placed the flesh and guts, rich with fat, inside mere skin, covering them with the ox's stomach; in the other he placed the ox's white bones by an artful trick, putting them in order and covering them with shining fat. Then did the father of gods and men address him: 'Son of lapetus, most famous of all the lords, how one-sidedly, my dear fellow, have you divided out the portions!' Thus spoke Zeus of undying cunning in rebuke, but crooked-counselled Prometheus addressed him in reply, gently smiling and not forgetting his crafts of deceit: 'Most glorious Zeus, greatest of the eternal gods, take whichever of these your heart and mind bid you.' He spoke with deceitful intent, and Zeus of undying cunning recognized and did not overlook the trick, and he devised evils in his heart for mortal men, that were destined to be fulfilled. Then with both hands he took up the white fat; he was enraged in his mind, and anger possessed his spirit, when he saw the ox's white bones as a result of the artful trick. Because of this the races of men on earth burn white bones to the immortals on their fragrant altars. Then in great wrath cloud-gathering Zeus addressed him: 'Son of lapetus, cunning above all others, so you did not yet, my dear fellow, forget your art of deceit!' Thus did Zeus of undying cunning speak, and from this time forth, always remembering the trick, he withheld from the ash-trees the power of unwearying fire for mortal men who dwell upon earth. But the good son of lapetus deceived him by stealing the far-seen gleam of unwearying fire in a hollow fennel-stalk, and he angered high-thundering Zeus in the depths of his spirit, and Zeus was enraged in his heart when he saw among men the far-seen gleam of fire. Immediately he made an evil for men in return for fire; for the famous cripple [that is, Hephaestus] moulded out of earth the likeness of a reverent maiden through the will of Zeus. The owl-eyed goddess Athena girded her and adorned her with a silver robe, and with her hands she hung down from her head an embroidered veil, a marvel to see … (Theogony, 535-75)

I consider first the deceit over the sacrifices and the theft of fire, and continue with the creation of woman. The story of the division at Mecone (said to be near ancient Sicyon, not far from Corinth) is of fundamental importance, both because it treats a crucial question of the relation between men and gods and because it shows, more clearly than any other Greek instance, a myth that is working towards the resolution of a real problem. To say that it is simply aetiological in the most superficial sense, that it offers a pretty story to divert men's attention from the apparent anomaly that the gods are given the worst bits at a sacrifice, is the reaction of most people and is, I am afraid, rather inadequate. It does that, as Hesiod indicates, but it also goes deeper. The deceptive choice offered by a god to a mortal or vice versa is a widespread folktale motif often used to account for the fact of death: man was offered a choice between death and life, as in the Akkadian tale of Adapa, and through trickery or misinformation he made the wrong choice. The Prometheus tale is more complex. It is the mortal, or rather the defender of mortals, that offers the choice to the supreme god, not the other way round. Whether the god is fully conscious of the deceit remains doubtful; Hesiod's account vacillates and suggests the conflation of different versions. Not the least interesting implication of the myth is that the practice of making sacrifices is itself a relic of a Golden Age when gods and privileged mortals dined together.

Sacrifice was a crucial act of social and religious life, but men simply had to retain the flesh and the most edible parts. Meat was even rarer and more expensive than in Greece today, and sacrifice was in one sense a by-product of the profession of butchery. It was essential for the Greeks to offer some of their meat to the gods, but it had to be a token. Actually it was a perfectly logical one, since the only part that could pass from the sacrificial burning up into the sky, where the gods could receive it, was the smoke and savour, and that emanated best from the fat and not the flesh. From another but no less important point of view what was symbolically offered to the gods was the whole animal, this too was best represented by the bones, especially if they were 'put in good order' as Hesiod says near the beginning of the text last quoted—the intention being to reconstruct the animal symbolically.

On this occasion, then, the mythical justification of an apparent contradiction (that the gods are given the worst bits rather than the best) is rather inept; indeed a better defence of the practice could have been made in rational and quasiphilosophical terms. And yet such a defence might not in the end have been emotionally satisfying. It could easily fail to remove the guilt men felt over keeping the best parts of the animal for themselves. Guilt is a cardinal feeling, and much of the lifetime of ordinary mortals is consumed in suppressing it by one means or another. Some such feeling demanded that men should be made to pay for the offending practice, and that is where the myth came in. First, Zeus withdrew fire itself, which was thought to reside above all in ash trees, a reference to kindling from special kinds of wood. Its withdrawal was a cunning move, directly related to the practice of sacrifice, as though Zeus had said 'All right, if you're not going to give us gods the share of the burnt meats we deserve, there shall be no burning at all. We shall be no worse off, but you will have to eat your appetizing portion of flesh and innards all raw. Just try that!'

In the later tradition Prometheus developed into a general technological benefactor, one who brought men the arts not only of healing, mathematics, medicine, navigation and divination, but also of mining and working metals; that view of him is best seen in Aeschylus' Prometheus Vinctus, 436-506. No doubt his recovery of fire was part of the same conception, but in all probability this extension of his functions is not much older than the sixth century B.C., when interest in the evolution of men from a crude and savage state—an idea that directly contradicts the mythical scheme of a decline from the Golden Age—first became prominent.

The Hesiodic account continues with Zeus' second act of revenge, the creation by various gods and goddesses of the first woman. Incidentally the Greeks seem to have had no commonly accepted myth about the creation of man, who undoubtedly came first. This was credited in later sources, as one might expect, to Prometheus himself, who became patron of the potters in Athens and no doubt elsewhere, and was envisaged as making men, after a common Mesopotamian pattern, out of clay. At Panopeus in central Greece visitors were shown lumps left over from the work.3 … Even the creation of woman exists in two versions, and Hesiod gives both, one in the Theogony and the other in Works and Days. In the former, Hephaestus completes his creation …, and leads her before gods and men:

from her are the destructive race and tribes of women, who dwell as a great misery among mortal men, as suitable companions not of deadly poverty but of surfeit. (Theogony, 591-3)

The theme of women's extravagance and ill-nature is developed in what follows. It is widespread all over the world, and its unfairness is one of the less feeble testimonies to the idea of a male conspiracy against womankind. But Hesiod, who was no fool, could see beyond the one-sided viewpoint of folktale motifs, for he added that Zeus established a complementary evil, namely that the man who refuses to marry has a dismal old age with no one to look after him and no family to inherit his possessions; while the man who happens to get a good wife (and it is eventually conceded that this is possible) has at least a mixture of good and evil.

The Works and Days version, on the other hand, gives a different and more familiar story. After a similar process of manufacture Hermes filled the woman with deceit,

and placed in her a voice, and named this woman Pandora (because all that have their halls on Olympus gave her a gift), a misery to industrious men. But when he had brought to perfection this drastic and irremediable deceit, the father sent the glorious slayer of Argos [that is, Hermes], swift messenger of the gods, to Epimetheus, bringing her as a gift; and Epimetheus failed to remember that Prometheus had told him never to accept a gift from Olympian Zeus, but to send it back lest it should turn out to be some evil for mortals, but accepted her and recognized the evil only when it was his. For, before that, the tribes of man lived on earth far removed from evils and hard toil and harsh diseases that bring doom to men. But the woman with her hands took the great lid from the jar and scattered them, and contrived baneful cares for mankind. Only Hope remained there in its unbreakable dwelling-place, under the lip of the jar, and did not fly out; before that could happen she replaced the lid of the jar by the will of aegis-bearing cloud-gathering Zeus. But ten thousand other banes wander among men; for the earth is full of evils, and full the sea, and diseases come upon men by day, and others of their own accord by night, bringing ills to mortals in silence, since Zeus took away their voice. (Works and Days, 80-104)

The aetiological details (the etymology of Pandora, literally 'all-gifts' or 'all-giving', and the silent diseases that arrive unnoticed during the night) and the rather self-conscious allegory about Hope may be relatively new embroideries, but the jar looks like a great Mycenaean or Minoan affair, and the tale as a whole is old. Once again it probably relies on an essentially folktale theme that Hesiod has suppressed, for presumably what made Pandora take the lid off was meddling curiosity. At this point the poet is even more cursory and allusive than usual. The jar is not explained, but is simply assumed to be familiar to his audience—an assumption that aided its transformation into Pandora's box in the Renaissance tradition.

Immediately after the myth and its moralizing conclusion that 'thus it is in no way possible to escape the intention of Zeus' comes the semi-mythical account of the Five Races, beginning with the men of the golden race … who were still free of all the diseases Pandora released. So Hesiod presents in his two poems an overlapping, quite complex and ultimately rather subtle picture of the Fall of Man from a condition of divine privilege and sodality to his present one of misery, disease, family trouble and old age. Some parts of the organization and a few of the details probably belong to Hesiod or his immediate sources, but most of the mythical complex, and certainly its main tendencies, seem traditional. In the end it transpires that the apparently avoidable aspects of man's condition—not death itself, for that is inevitable, but disease, painful old age, poverty and the need for unremitting toil—are the indirect result of the first quarrel between Zeus and Prometheus. The quarrel arose out of the division of the sacrifices, and that may be held to symbolize, in a way, the whole dilemma of the relation between men and gods. Ultimately it is something myths cannot explain: what they do is to suggest that things were once all right, but that men were too demanding. If they had shown self-restraint, or if Prometheus and Epimetheus had done so on their behalf, the quarrel with the gods would never have begun and women could have been accepted in a less extreme form.

Even that is pressing the myths too hard. Women are a fact of life, the human race could never have started without them. What seems to be happening is that a dilemma at the folktale level (involving the conflict between the peasant's princess-dream and his brutal assessment of actual wives by their economic value) became connected with a more basic contradiction in the human condition, that between men's immortal longings and the harsh facts of human existence. Something similar seems to have happened with the theme of the quarrel over sacrifices, since that too must once have existed independently. Yet its relevance to the question of the decline was obvious, and it became woven into the mythical texture in a way that gave a deeper and more complex meaning to the whole. Indeed the entire sequence of myths in Hesiod—Prometheus, the sacrifice, the theft of fire, the creation of women, the punishment of Prometheus, the five races of men—might be said to leave one with a feeling that things are not quite so unfair as they were, that evil is more equable than it seemed, that old age and disease are in some ways our own fault, even that things might improve if only we learned to behave better. Prometheus remains mysterious. Why he champions men is never made clear; probably he dropped into the role by the accident of being a trickster figure, one suitable to undertake the futile but engaging contest of wits with Zeus. In the end he matches Zeus—that too makes one feel that fate is not necessarily relentless, for (as we learn from Aeschylus) he knows something that Zeus does not, namely that whoever marries Thetis will have a son greater than his father. Zeus and Poseidon were both, as it happens, competing for the honour at the time, and Prometheus' secret had to be bought at the price of his release by Heracles. Even the gods have to temper the wind on occasion.

In the end it was Peleus who married the dangerous Thetis. Like all sea deities she changed her shape to avoid capture, but he ultimately caught her and their son was Achilles, greater than his father but no danger to the gods. Even this tale has its underlying relevance to the Hesiodic group, because Peleus grew old while his divine wife remained eternally young. Eventually she left him, and he ended, after much sorrow, in the Isles of the Blest. Another mortal lover, Tithonus, was not so fortunate, as the Hymn to Aphrodite (composed probably in the sixth century B.C.) relates:

So too golden-throned Eos [that is, Dawn] ravished god-like Tithonus of the Trojan race; and she went to ask the black-clouded son of Kronos that he should be immortal and live for all the sum of days, and Zeus nodded in approval and accomplished her prayer. Yet she was foolish, for Lady Eos did not think in her heart of asking for youth and of stripping off destructive old age. As long as lovely youth possessed him, he dwelt by the streams of Okeanos at the limits of the earth, rejoicing in early-born golden-throned Eos; but when the first grey hairs poured down from his fair head and noble chin, then did Lady Eos keep away from his bed, but cherished him still in her halls with food and ambrosia, and gave him fair raiment. But when finally hateful old age overpowered him, and he was unable to move his limbs or lift them up, this seemed to her in her heart to be the best plan: she placed him in a chamber and closed the shining doors upon him. His voice flows on unceasing, yet there is no strength in his bent limbs such as once there was. (218-38)

The Greeks were sensible about old age, passionately though they resented it, just as they were about emulating the gods or trying to become immortal. Odysseus, who rejected the chance of living on with the nymphs Circe and Calypso and insisted on returning to the admirable but ageing Penelope, was the counter-paradigm to Tithonus. The myths not only reflected that attitude to age, they even helped to define it—particularly those among them that bore directly on the relations between men and gods. It is for such reasons that I have spent so much time on them, despite Hesiod's verbose and often clumsy style. For it is here, in this relatively early but still literary form, that Greek myths come closest to the pointed functionality of their oral predecessors, a functionality that responds at times to the aetiological, structural and psychological interpretations discussed in earlier chapters. Even more important, perhaps, it is here that we are left with the strongest sense of myths as a part of life itself.


1 H. G. Gtiterbock in Mythologies, 155 ff.; Myth, 214 ff.

2ANET, 60 ff.; Mythologies, 120 f.; Religions, 69-71

3 Pausanias 10: 4, 4

Edward F. Edinger (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Cosmogony," in The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology, edited by Deborah A. Wesley, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1994, pp. 1-17.

[In the following essay, Edinger offers a psychological reading of the Greek creation myths, noting the prevalence of the idea that when a being is brought into consciousness, a split into opposites results, followed by conflict between those opposites.]

A consideration of Greek mythology must start with at least a brief look at the myths of creation or cosmogony. There are several versions of how the cosmos came into existence. The simplest is that first there was Chaos, and out of Chaos earth, or Gaia, emerged. Gaia gave birth to the sky, or Uranus, and then Gaia and Uranus produced a great progeny. So from Chaos a pair of world parents emerged and separated, who then created all the rest that exists.

What would that mean psychologically? For one thing it is an image of how the personality or the prefigurations of the ego (we can't speak of the ego yet) first begin. One can also think of it as representing how each new bit of psyche is created. After all, it is a creation myth, and it does fit our psychological experience that the creative act itself involves exposure to chaos. Creation means that something new comes into the world that did not previously exist. And if so, from whence does it come? The only place it can come from is the void region of nonbeing characterized in the myth as Chaos. That is the womb, the unbegotten womb of all things yet to be, and hence the experience of creativity commonly has as a forerunner or an accompaniment the experience of chaos. Nothing new can emerge unless one is willing to dip into chaos and pull it out.

Once it is out, it promptly splits into two, into earth and sky in terms of the myth. This is something we see whenever something is coming into awareness: the very process of achieving consciousness involves a split into opposites. Things can remain in their state of oneness only as long as they are unconscious. When they reach consciousness, they must divide into opposites and then we have the experience of conflict. When things are seen in twos in dreams, there is the suggestion that they are achieving a conscious status for the first time.

The myths tell us that Uranus and Gaia were the first king and queen in the divine kingdom. There were wars for the kingship, and a series of dethronements took place in this very early mythology. The king did not want to let anything survive that was threatening to him, so he took certain repressive measures, which then called forth counteractions. These early dethronements, can be thought of psychologically. Humankind had not yet appeared at this stage of the story; hence, if we take the human being to signify the ego, the ego did not really exist. These ancient deities can be seen as prefigurations of the ego or as the primordial Self in conjunction with the ego germ. They were undergoing a certain transformative evolution, signified by the early dethronements.

Uranus got into trouble because he imprisoned certain of his children. The two major branches of his offspring were the Titans on the one hand, and the Cyclopes on the other. The Cyclopes, giants that had a central round eye—the word means "wheel eye" literally—were confined in the earth. Upset at Uranus' imprisonment of them, the mother, always the more merciful of the two parents, stirred up her son Kronos to revolt against Uranus. Kronos lay in wait for him and castrated him; the drops of blood that fell on the earth generated the Erinyes, the Furies, and the genitals fell into the sea and are said to have given rise to Aphrodite. One could say that the Cyclopes, since they were characterized primarily by their one round eye, represent a psychic aspect that has not split into doubleness. The roundness suggests a certain primordial wholeness that was being repressed by Uranus. The consequences of Uranus' castration might be thought of as the birth of desire (Aphrodite) and the birth of punishment (the Erinyes).

The castration of Uranus was taken by Freud as a mythological example of the castration complex, the son wanting to supplant the father and in effect castrate him but fearing like treatment from the father. The episode can also be thought of in a more general sense. In the case of both Uranus and Kronos, a principle that is in power seeks to perpetuate itself and to eliminate all threats to its authority. This is an image of what can happen within the psyche: an old principle must die if development is to proceed, and it has to be overcome by the emerging new principle itself. That was the case with Uranus, and it happened as well when Kronos, who succeeded him, behaved no better. It was prophesied that Kronos might be deposed by one of his offspring; he reacted by swallowing all his children—a primordial version of the devouring parent, an image universally encountered. Ultimately Kronos, a Titan, was cast out in a war between the gods and the Titans and was replaced by Zeus, who belonged to the race of the gods. A whole dynasty of psychic authorities was being overthrown and replaced by a new one. There was a real Götterdämmerung in the ancient Pantheon.

The Titans who were vanquished served some very useful purposes. Two outstanding ones were Atlas and Prometheus. Atlas' punishment for losing the war, so to speak, was to be condemned to hold up the earth, which he has been doing ever since. In a certain sense, the Titans became sacrifices for humankind's well-being. The archetypal contents that they represent went into the service of the ego.

The primary example of this is the story of Prometheus. Even though the Titans had lost the war, Prometheus was still present and still against the gods, and at that stage opposing the gods meant being on the side of humanity. Prometheus' story begins when he was assigned to supervise the separation of the sacrificial meat to determine which part went to the gods and which to humankind. Previously, gods and humans had eaten together, but now they were to eat apart, signifying a separation of the ego from its archetypal origins. Prometheus deceived the gods by wrapping up bones and skin for them in a very enticing package and leaving all the nourishing meat for humankind. In punishment for this, Zeus deprived humanity of fire.

Prometheus proceeded to steal it for the benefit of humankind, and for that crime he was chained in the Caucasus Mountains. There, his liver was eaten away each day by a vulture, but the wound would heal each night. In this way, the process repeated endlessly.

Prometheus' story gives us profound images of the nature of emerging consciousness. First there is the process of separation, which determines what belongs to the gods and what belongs to humankind, the ego gaining increments of meat, or energy, for itself. Then humanity is provided with fire, one could say with light and energy: consciousness and the effective energy of will to carry out conscious intention are created. However, there was a fearful price for this, because the acquisition of consciousness was a crime, as described in the myth, and its consequence was to generate in Prometheus an unhealing wound, the wound inflicted by the vulture by day—during the time of light and consciousness. This particular detail indicates that consciousness itself is the vulture, the wound-producer. Prometheus pays for the consciousness of humanity with his suffering, much like Christ. As a Titan, he belongs to the divine realm; he is not human but an archetypal or non-ego factor, which so loved humankind that it put itself in humanity's service, that is, in the service of the ego, in order to promote its development.

The image of Prometheus has fascinated the poets and led them to identify with him—a dangerous identification. Goethe was one. He declared, "The fable of Prometheus came alive in me. I cut the old Titan rope to my own size." Shelley and Byron were both preoccupied with the image of Prometheus. Longfellow has some lines in his poem "Prometheus" that express a quite widespread feeling about the Promethean quality in the creative artist:

First the deed of noble daring,
Born of heavenward aspiration,
Then the fire with mortals sharing,
Then the vulture—the despairing
Cry of pain on crags Caucasian.

All is but a symbol painted
Of the Poet, Prophet, Seer;
Only those are crowned and sainted
Who with grief have been acquainted,
Making nations nobler, freer.

In their feverish exultations,
In their triumph and their yearning,
In their passionate pulsations,
In their words among the nations,
The Promethean fire is burning.…

Though to all there be not given
Strength for such sublime endeavor,

Thus to scale the walls of heaven,
And to leaven with fiery leaven,
All the hearts of men forever;

Yet all bards, whose hearts unblighted
Honor and believe the presage,
Hold aloft their torches lighted,
Gleaming through the realms benighted,
As they onward bear the message!1

Another consequence of Prometheus' acts was the punishment meted out to his brother Epimetheus, who can be thought of as a variant of Prometheus. He received the gift of Pandora. In a certain sense we could say that Pandora and fire are equivalent. Fire is energy and one of the aspects of energy is desire: Pandora, the beautiful woman, is the object of desire. As the ego is given the powers of desire and will and longing, it also receives the contents of Pandora's box, the sufferings of human life. This is a very close parallel with the myth of Adam and Eve. Both signify the painful aspect of being born into egohood. As these myths describe it, the unconscious state is paradise and the birth of the ego is paid for by suffering.

Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound pictures how Prometheus was regarded by the Greeks of the fifth century BC. He was a culture hero and hence we can say he was the incarnation of the consciousness-bringing principle itself. In Aeschylus' play, Prometheus says:

[L]isten to the sad story of mankind, who like children lived until I gave them understanding and a portion of reason; yet not in disparagement of men I speak, but meaning to set forth the greatness of my charity. For seeing they saw not, and hearing they understood not, but like as shapes in a dream they wrought all the days of their life in confusion. No houses of brick raised in the warmth of the sun they had, nor fabrics of wood, but like the little ants they dwelt underground in the sunless depths of caverns. No certain sign of approaching winter they knew, no harbinger of flowering spring or fruitful summer; ever they labored at random, till I taught them to discern the seasons by the rising and the obscure setting of the stars. Numbers I invented for them, the chiefest of all discoveries; I taught them the grouping of letters, to be a memorial and record of the past, the mistress of the arts and mother of the Muses. I first brought under the yoke beasts of burden, who by draft and carrying relieved men of their hardest labors; I yoked the proud horse to the chariot, teaching him obedience to the reins, to be the adornment of wealth and luxury. I too contrived for sailors sea-faring vessels with their flaxen wings.…

If sickness visited them, they had no healing drug, no salve or soothing potion, but wasted away for want of remedies, and this way my greatest boon; for I revealed to them the mingling of bland medicaments for the banishing of all diseases. And many modes of divination I appointed: from dreams I first taught them to judge what should befall in waking state; I found the subtle interpretation of words half heard or heard by chance, and of meetings by the way; and the flight of taloned birds with their promise of fortune or failure I clearly denoted, their various modes of life, their mutual feuds, their friendships and consortings; … And the secret treasures of the earth, all benefits to men, copper, iron, silver, gold—who but I could boast of their discovery? … Nay, hear the whole matter in a word—all human arts are from Prometheus.2

He was the bringer of consciousness. Although many figures carry this quality, Prometheus must have been profoundly meaningful to the ancient Greeks, to be described in this way by their chief dramatist.

The parallel to Christ is obvious. There are also similarities to the Biblical "suffering servant" passage in Isaiah, except that Prometheus is defiant, where the suffering servant is described as meek. We read in Isaiah this description of the suffering servant of God:

He grew up before the Lord like a young
whose roots are in parched ground;
he had no beauty, no majesty to draw our
no grace to make us delight in him;
his form, disfigured, lost all the likeness of a
his beauty changed beyond human semblance.
He was despised, he shrank from the sight of
tormented and humbled by suffering;
we despised him, we held him of no account,
a thing from which men turn away their eyes.
Yet on himself he bore our sufferings,
our torments he endured,
while we counted him smitten by God,
struck down by disease and misery;
but he was pierced for our transgressions,
tortured for our iniquities;
the chastisement he bore is health for us
and by his scourging we are healed.
We had all strayed like sheep,
each of us had gone his own way;
but the Lord laid upon him
the guilt of us all.3

This clearly echoes the story of Prometheus. Surely it is significant that a basically similar figure appears in each of our three major scriptural sources, the Greek, Hebrew, and Christian. The psychological meaning is difficult to encompass, but two aspects seem clear. One is that consciousness is accompanied by suffering, and the other is that the ego does not have to do all the suffering. There is an archetypal advocate or benefactor that supports and assists the ego. Whether we call him the suffering servant of Isaiah or Prometheus or Christ, there is an advocate in the archetypal realm. Prometheus is perhaps the first and one of the finest expressions of this archetypal fact.


1 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Prometheus," lines 11-25, 56-65.

2 Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, trans. E. D. A. Morshead, in The Complete Greek Drama I, ed. W. J. Oates and Eugene O'Neill (New York: Random House, 1950), lines 437-504.

3 Isa. 53:2-6 (New English Bible).


Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound, trans. Paul Elmer More, in The Complete Greek Drama I, ed. W. J. Oates and Eugene O'Neill. New York: Random House, 1950.

Richard Buxton (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Imaginary Greece: The Contexts of Mythology, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 250 p.

[In the following essay, Buxton examines the characteristics of Greek divinity and discusses such prevailing themes of the divine myths as violence, deception, negotiation, power, and honor.]

Relating the landscape and the family of the Greek imaginaire to the world behind and beyond them involves … considerable methodological complexities. When we focus on narratives about gods, matters become more problematic still, since the world which the stories transform may be seen as either (1) the whole fabric of social life, or (2) the practices of ritual, or (3) 'ordinary' beliefs about divinities. Later I shall have a little to say about (2)—a subject which has exercised a perhaps excessive dominance over recent scholarship—and rather more to say about (3), which has, by comparison, been neglected. But I begin by recalling some general features of the Greeks' narratives about gods, in order to raise certain issues relevant to (1).

The nature of divinity

The first general characteristic of the divinities of Greek mythology is that they are neither good nor evil, but powerful.1 Their powers range over the entire field of experience: whatever a human being is doing—being born, fighting, stealing, sleeping, getting married, committing adultery, dying—his or her activity is related to a structure mapped out at the divine level.2 Even Ares and the Furies, for whom it is quite possible to express hatred or revulsion, represent activities which are part, perhaps even a necessary part, of human experience: brutal warfare, and vengeance upon kinmurderers.3 The second characteristic is that divine activities, interrelationships and behaviour towards mortals are to some extent modelled on the institutions and customs of Greek society. But only to some extent: some divine activity is, as we shall see, beyond human comprehension, incommensurate with any pattern of real intra-human behaviour.

The presentation varies, of course, according to context. The most detailed picture appears in epic, since it was a convention of the genre that the action unfolded on two levels, to both of which the narrator claimed to have access. As a first illustration we may take the Iliad, not because it was typical, but because it was uniquely authoritative.

Relations between the Iliadic Olympians are based on a combination of violence, deception, negotiation and reciprocity. The violence is evident already in Book 1, when Hephaistos ruefully reminds his mother Hera that

   It is too hard to fight against the
There was a time once before now I was
  minded to help you,
and he caught me by the foot and threw me
  from the magic threshold,
and all day long I dropped helpless, and about
I landed in Lemnos, and there was not much
  life left in me.

But there are more ways than one of cooking a goose. The use of trickery is famously exemplified in Book 14, when Zeus's wife outwits him 'with deceitful purpose' (300), aided by the irresistible power of Aphrodite. More subtle still is the situation at the beginning of Book 4. Hera wants to enforce the sacking of Troy, a city hateful to her. Acquiescing, Zeus nevertheless retorts that, if ever there is a city which he wants to sack, Hera is not to stand in his way. Hera's reply is complex:

Of all cities there are three that are dearest to
  my own heart:
Argos and Sparta and Mycenae of the wide
  ways. All these,
whenever they become hateful to your heart,
  sack utterly.
I will not stand up for these against you, nor
  yet begrudge you.
Yet if even so I bear malice and would not
  have you destroy them,
in malice I will accomplish nothing, since you

  are far stronger …
Come then, in this thing let us both give way
 to each other,
I to you, you to me, and so the rest of the
gods will follow.

Within the general framework of the imbalance of power in Zeus's favour, there is room for movement. Even one of the humblest figures in the divine power-hierarchy, Thetis, can rely on the mighty argument of reciprocity to support her case:

Father Zeus, if ever before in word or action
I did you favour among the immortals, now
  grant what I ask for.

Again, although Zeus is the most powerful, each divinity has a sphere which the others may not infringe:

[Hera] went into her chamber, which her
  beloved son Hephaistos
had built for her, and closed the leaves in the
  door-posts snugly
with a secret door-bar, and no other of the
  gods could open it.

In relationships between Iliadic gods and mortals, imbalance of power is always the decisive factor. The mortals sweat, bleed and die, but Athene can protect Menelaos from an arrow 'as lightly as when a mother brushes a fly away from her child who is lying in sweet sleep' (4.130-1). This is not to say that the gap is unbridgeable. The gods can be emotionally involved in the mortals' actions, as when Zeus weeps tears of blood over Sarpedon, whom he is—Hera has convinced him—powerless to save from death (16.459); and Thetis' tenderness for Achilles frames the poem.5 Yet in other contexts the relationship is more dispassionate, as with the distancing image of Zeus's two urns, from which derives mankind's fate (either a mixture of good and evil, or unrelieved evil) (24.527ff.). This oscillation between divine involvement and divine aloofness constitutes the uncomfortable and unpredictable setting within which Iliadic heroes act. If a god's protégé is insulted, intervention will follow, as with the priest of Apollo in Book 1. If the gods' honours are skimped, there will be consequences: the Greeks' walled ditch, constructed without proper sacrifices, was not to stand for very long (12.8-9). Yet at the crucial moment, mankind may be alone (22.208-13). In the end divine power asserts itself by re-emphasising the boundary with mortality. Although Diomedes is given temporary permission to see the difference between gods and men, and even to wound Aphrodite, his attempt to go too far is rebuked:

Take care, give back, son of Tydeus, and
  strive no longer
to make yourself like the gods in mind, since
  never the same is
the breed of gods, who are immortal, and men
  who walk groundling.

When the horses which the gods had given to Peleus, and which had seen the death of Patroklos, weep for their dead master, Zeus remarks conclusively:

    Poor wretches,
why then did we ever give you to the lord
a mortal man, and you yourselves are
  immortal and ageless?

Features of the Iliadic picture recur throughout Greek mythology in respect both of god/god and god/mortal relations. As to the former, relationships continue to operate at a variety of points on the scale which leads from violence to negotiation. The use of force in the constitution of the universe is a central theme of Hesiod's Theogony; in the same poem, the mode by which wily Prometheus chooses to circumvent Zeus is deception. But negotiation was another option. An amicable arrangement is reached in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, where the honour-dispute between Apollo and Hermes is resolved through Zeus's authoritative arbitration; in Aischylos' Eumenides the differences between Apollo and the Furies are settled without violence—though Athene has the keys of Zeus's thunderbolt if her persuasion fails (827-8). A more bitter boundary-dispute forms the plot of Euripides' Hippolytos. Artemis maintains (1328-30) that on principle the gods avoid confrontations with each other (which has indeed been true of Artemis and Aphrodite in this play). The balance will simply be restored by the wronged divinity taking it out on a human favourite of the wronger (1420-2). As usual, cookery varies with context. In Pindar, when Helios is accidentally omitted from an apportionment of lots, Zeus helpfully offers to hold the draw again, though Helios gets what he wants anyway (01. 7). Even violent Ares warms his heart to Apollo's lovely music, and conflict is resolved in the harmony of choral song (Pyth. 1.10-12).

The immortal/mortal boundary, so fundamental to the Iliad, is explored elsewhere in a variety of ways (though never with greater poignancy than in that work). A typically Pindaric version of the relevant similarity and difference is set out at the beginning of Nemean 6:

There is one
race of men, one race of gods; both have

of life from a single mother. But sundered
holds us divided, so that the one is nothing,
  while for the other the brazen sky is
their sure citadel for ever. Yet we have some
  likeness in great
intelligence, or strength, to the immortals,
though we know not what the day will bring,
  what course
after nightfall
destiny has written that we must run to the

Herakles gained Olympos after hard effort; Asklepios raised the dead, and was thunderbolted; Cheiron was agonisingly wounded and wanted to die, but could not unless he found someone (Prometheus) willing to take over his immortality; Tithonos, blessed with immortality but not with immortal youth, shrivelled up beside his eternally young bride: myths about heroes explore the perilous interface between mortality and immortality.

An important area in which this is true is that of reciprocity. Humans nowadays owe the gods certain things; the implications of these debts are examined through myths. One thing humans owe is sacrifice. The reason why Hera supported the expedition of the Argo was that Pelias, Jason's foe, forgot her when making offerings to the gods; when Admetos failed to sacrifice to Artemis on the occasion of his marriage, the bridal chamber turned out to be full of coiled snakes.6 A related debt concerns giving the gods due honour and respect. In Euripides' Trojan Women, Athene's wrath towards the Greeks derives from Ajax's crime of dragging Kassandra from her temple in Troy; she urges Poseidon to wreck their fleet 'so that in future the Achaeans will learn to respect my power and to worship the other gods' (85-6). At an earlier stage in the history of Troy, King Laomedon failed to pay the wages of Apollo and Poseidon, who had fortified his city for him; he got a plague and a sea-monster for his reward.7 Another kind of respect is due acknowledgement of superiority. Here again, heroic myths narrate what happens when proper distances are elided: Thamyras, Arachne, Marsyas and a host of others fail to appreciate the riskiness of competing with those who are, by definition, hors de concours.8

Many of the themes noted above—power, violence, deception, negotiation, reciprocity, conflicts over interests and honour—have obvious echoes and models in the human sphere. Yet there are striking differences. One has been highlighted by John Gould in a paper which stresses the alien, uncanny and horrific dimension of divinity.9 This is exemplified in the narrative in Euripides' Hippolytos in which the messenger relates the overthrow of Hippolytos on the appearance of the monstrous bull from the sea, despatched against him by Poseidon in response to the curse invoked by Theseus. The gods here exceed all human analogy, inhabiting a territory which can best be indicated through the Greek word deinon, 'terrible', 'awesome'.

Another quality shared by many mythical narratives is their laying bare of motives and explanations which in the superficial traffic of everyday life remain hidden. What mortal could know as much about the causation operative in his or her existence as the Homeric narrator claims to know about his subject matter? What human being could see with the clear eyes of the gods in Euripidean prologues? Once more, we can see myth as a device for making explicit, for highlighting what is behind life. But, paradoxically, one of the aspects of the world made explicit in myths is the incompleteness of human understanding of the world, and the insufficiency of human models of behaviour for comprehending divinity. This is above all true of tragedy, in which certain key episodes and scenes are simply inexplicable, certain divine actions baffling, because the drama either provides too few clues to reconstruct a coherent pattern of motivation, or incorporates too much, because conflicting, information. A classic example of the former is the notorious question of why, in the version of the tale given in Aischylos' Agamemnon, Artemis grew angry at Aulis before the departure of the Greek expedition to Troy. While explanations of her wrath are easy to find in other versions, this particular account shrouds the matter in mystery. On the other hand, Euripides' Herakles positively overflows with explanations for the reason for the downfall of the great hero, to such an extent that, here too, providing a coherent account involves disregarding some information at the expense of the rest.10 The purposes of the gods are sometimes opaque, their voices silent or beyond interpretation.

Telling and acting

In twentieth-century scholarship, the aspect of Greek social behaviour which has most frequently been juxtaposed with myth is ritual. The history of myth-and-ritual approaches is complicated, not least because it is inseparable from the larger question of the shifting relationships between the disciplines of anthropology and classics.11 But from Jane Harrison to Walter Burkert a golden key to unlock the meanings of 'what is said' has been found in the investigation of 'what is done'. The terms of the enquiry have varied enormously, as have conclusions about, especially, the priority of one of these modes of symbolic expression over the other. There has even been an attempt (by C. Calame) to undermine the polarity altogether by calling into doubt the conceptual identity not just of myth but also of ritual, both being seen as products of western anthropological thought.12 However, collapsing both into a general category of enonciations de la pensiesymbolique'13 would seem to leave us with an excessively blunt analytical tool, and in the brief remarks which follow I have, along with virtually all scholars, kept ritual as a potentially useful concept.

That the narration of a Greek myth might actually form part of a ritual is certain. At the mysteries of the Mother Goddess, observes Pausanias apropos of a bronze near Corinth representing Hermes with a ram, a story was told: 'I know it, but will not relate it' (2.3.4). Circumstantial details are often lacking, as here; usually we have to make do with suggestive parallels between myths and 'their' festivals, rather than with fully documented accounts which would enable us to describe in proper contextual detail the nature of the integration between the two. Even suggestive parallels have their fascination, however, and they can sometimes generate plausible guesses about a close symbiosis between myth and festival. The inhabitants of Lemnos celebrated a rite of New Fire, when for a nine-day period all fires on the island were extinguished, to be relit afterwards by fire brought from over the sea.14 Corresponding to this is a myth, according to which the women of the island incur the wrath of Aphrodite: they are afflicted with a bad smell which drives away their husbands and puts a stop to normal conjugal relations.15 The motif of the disruption of the everyday repeats itself in even more emphatic form when the husbands, who have consoled themselves with some Thracian slavegirls, are murdered by their wives. But eventually life begins again, as—from across the sea—Jason and the Argonauts sail in to rekindle that which had been extinguished.16 The structure of the mythical narrative corresponds to the rhythm of the festival, and confirms the observation of one ancient source that the fire was extinguished epi tōi ergōi, 'in consequence of the [murderous, Lemnian] deed'.17 Story and festival go together, even if we are not aware of any role which narration of the myth might have played in the ritual.

In cases where correspondences between narrative and ritual make it reasonable to talk of symbiosis, we can frequently observe the now familiar process of clarification and making-explicit, whereby mythology expresses openly or in extreme form that which in ritual remains hidden or disguised. Jan Bremmer has argued convincingly that, in rites enacting the expulsion of a scapegoat, the victim, typically a person of low status who becomes temporarily the focus of attention, is chased alive out of the city; in the corresponding myths the victim is a person of high status who is killed.18 Myth translates ritual: to leave one's city is—if you spell it out—to die. Again, the women who worship Dionysos at the oreibasia return to their normal lives after the conclusion of the rites. By contrast, the corresponding myths express the disruption of family life in irreversible terms, as in the tale of Agaue's murder and dismembering of her son Pentheus. Temporary, ritual disruption of the family is translated mythically into permanence.

If the women who took part in the oreibasia had actually killed their kin as opposed to merely abandoning them temporarily, they would have been committing, in addition to murder, an unforgivable category-mistake. It did occasionally happen, or was said to have done; with predictable results.

They say that the daughters of Minyas, Leukippe and Arsinoe and Alkathoe, became frenzied and craved for human flesh, and drew lots about their children. The lot fell upon Leukippe and she gave her son Hippasos to be torn in pieces … And up to the present time the people of Orchomenos give this name to the women of the family descended from them. And once a year at the Agrionia festival there takes place a flight and pursuit of them by the priest of Dionysos holding a sword. And when he catches one of them he may kill her. And in our own time Zoilos the priest did indeed kill one of them. But this resulted in no good for the people; for Zoilos fell sick of a chance ulcerous wound, and after it had long festered, he died.19

The myth recounts cannibalism and the catastrophic destruction of a family. The corresponding ritual should dramatise a symbolic pursuit of women escapers, which should in turn lead to a return to normality after the ritual. By a mischance, the behaviour appropriate to myth has invaded ritual, bringing death upon the agent responsible as well as upon his innocent victim—innocent, because only in the symbolism of the ritual was she guilty. The return to normality has been blocked, the essential temporariness of ritual cancelled.

A further, related difference between mythology and its festival context is worth introducing here. Rituals are designed to fulfil their objectives.20 They set up dramatic situations, enact them, and at the end return participants and observers to undramatised reality: from Fest to Alltag. Sacrifice, for example, is a procedure by means of which proper relations with the gods and solidarity between humans are achieved through correct apportioning of cooked meat. The rules of the game are carefully prescribed; if they are followed, the ritual, by definition, works. But myths are, or may be, rather different. They may reach an 'end', as with the finale to Aischylos' Oresteia, or the eventual arrival of the Argonauts at Lemnos in order to ensure a future. But they may also draw attention to the open-endedness and ambiguity of action, to dilemmas without solution and wounds without healing. In tragedy, above all, we regularly find that the shapes into which myths cast experience are baffling and contradictory. Rituals set themselves achievable goals; some myths remind their hearers that any hope of tailoring reality to suit human desires is bound to fail.

We spoke earlier of the symbiosis which can exist between myth and festival. But this is not the only possible relationship between the two. Some deities worshipped in cult are unimportant or even absent from extant mythology.21 Again, many myths, while drawing on ritual, are not tied to one kind of ceremony, let alone to a particular cult at a particular time and place. Neither epics nor victory songs nor tragic dramas can be reduced to the status of libretti for ritual action, although the festival context undeniably affects the narrative perspectives adopted in those genres. The Odyssey, with its complex structure and its remarkable exploration of Greekness as contrasted with the behaviour of the diverse peoples visited by Odysseus, cannot be boiled down to a ritual pattern; yet its recitation at the Panathenaia must have lent it a special resonance, given the narrative's persistent opposing of Athene to Poseidon—the two rivals for the patronage of Athens.22 No more can Pindar's odes, rich and intricate and full of subtle allusion, be explained away as mere reflections of ritual action; yet the prevalence in the poetry of agonistic imagery and of myths about returning demonstrates a significant link between context and content. Nor, finally, have attempts to shoehorn tragedy into a ritual pattern won lasting assent. As the Greeks' phrase 'nothing to do with Dionysos' should not mislead us into ignoring the link between this god of changing identities and the masked drama put on to honour him, no more should we mistake the regular exploitation of ritual themes in drama (supplication, laments for the dead, sacrifice) for some hypothetically all-pervading ritual structure.

Believing in myths

Paul Veyne's short book Les Grecs ont-ils cru a leurs mythes? was published in 1983; several translations soon followed, including one in English.23 Having achieved the status of savant, Veyne declaims from beyond the Flannel Barrier; but, if you persevere through the style, you are rewarded. The argument is in two parts. Only one is directly relevant here; I confine discussion of the other to an extended footnote.

The first part of the case can be stated simply: believing in Greek myths, indeed believing tout court, is essentially plural. This is already implicit in the Preface, where Veyne cites Dan Sperber's Rethinking Symbolism. The Dorze of Ethiopia believe that leopards, being Christians, observe the fasts of the Coptic church on Wednesdays and Fridays. However, a Dorze protects his livestock on all days of the week, including Wednesdays and Fridays. 'Leopards are dangerous every day; this he knows from experience. They are also Christians; this is guaranteed by tradition.'24 Beliefs, that is, are plural: persons and communities may hold, without strain, apparently incompatible beliefs. Veyne's Christmas parallel (stockings are filled both by Mum and Dad and by Santa) is perhaps too close for comfort to the Tylorian equation of the primitive with the childlike; a better example is Veyne's reference to his own views about ghosts: 'For my part, I hold ghosts to be simple fictions but … I am almost neurotically afraid of them.'25

More relevant for us are Veyne's discussions of plurality of belief in relation to Greek stories; or rather, plurality in expressions of belief. He is more concerned with the Hellenistic and Roman periods than with the Archaic and Classical, and cites telling examples from Galen and Pausanias. When Galen has a philosophical hat on, he refers at one point (siding with Plato in order to pour scorn on Stoic attempts to make sense of mythology by rationalising it) to 'Hippocentaurs' and the Chimaira; 'and a multitude of such shapes comes flooding in, Gorgons and Pegasuses and an absurd crowd of other impossible and fabulous natures'.26 But elsewhere, when seeking to persuade, to proselytise, to give an account of medicine within a more generally accepted framework, Galen mentions, with no explicit statement of incredulity, such traditional figures in the early history of medicine as 'the Centaur Cheiron and the heroes of whom he was the teacher', and Asklepios.27 So belief can figure differently in different works by the same author. But more than that: Pausanias, within one and the same work, refuses to give credence to the myth of Medusa, yet accepts the authenticity of the tale about the werewolf Lykaon: '… I believe this legend, which has been told in Arkadia from ancient times and has likelihood on its side'.28

Emphasis on the problems involved in deciphering Greek expressions of belief is by no means original to Veyne. In a beautiful article written in 1976, Tom Stinton showed how expressions of disbelief can function as 'signifiers' whose 'signifieds' are by no means what they seem.29 For instance, Herodotos tells a story about men living beyond the Scythians who are bald from birth; beyond them are mountains inhabited, according to the bald men, by a goat-footed race, 'though I do not regard this as credible'; and beyond them are men who hibernate for six months: 'but this I totally refuse to accept' (4.23-5). The effect is both to convince us of Herodotos' general trustworthiness (for he is so sensitive to gradations of likelihood) and to encourage the reader to accept the existence of the bald men as going without saying—or with saying.30 Knowing how to take expressions of belief depends on our assessment of the context and of the strategy of the writer; since Stinton, assumptions about Euripides' famous scepticism have needed very careful handling. Veyne is stylistically a million miles from Stinton, but he too leads us to recognise just how intractable some of the apparently straightforward evidence about belief actually is.31

Let us turn to some of this evidence. Scholars sometimes tend to operate, half-unconsciously, with a model which goes like this. Archaic Greeks, with the exception of odd-balls like the Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes, on the whole believed in myths. In the fifth century, more sceptical voices were raised, for example by Euripides. In Hellenistic times a still greater distance opened up between myths and belief. And as for the ultra-knowing Ovid … This model cannot, I believe, be dismissed as a straw one. Oswyn Murray was perhaps being over-optimistic when he alluded to 'one of the most dubious and insidious of all nineteenth-century postulates, [namely] the idea of social development from the primitive and religious towards the complex and secular'.32

What do we do with this model? First, we have to distinguish between belief in myths, that is in stories, and belief in gods. It is quite possible to disbelieve in certain stories about Artemis while still believing in her existence. This may seem to be merely a trivial debating point, but it is in fact of considerable relevance when we think about what might count as evidence for belief. Whether belief is conceived of as a mental occurrence or a disposition, and whether we are concerned with believing in or believing that, establishing the nature of a belief held by someone else often entails making inferences from actions as well as utterances.33 If we want to establish whether X believes in socialism, Y in free love, or Z that charity begins at home, we shall need to canvass their actions as well as what they profess. Of course, there is a potential gap between the two: people may fail to act upon their beliefs, or be obliged to act against their beliefs; but their actions will still count at least as relevant evidence. Now religion would seem to be one area where actions ought to be taken into account in assessing the extent and strength of beliefs: it is a matter of ex votos as well as credos. So when Robin Osborne points to the rapid spread of the cult of Pan in Attica after 500 BC as evidence for a changing perception of the countryside, we may well be tempted to describe this process as a development in religious belief34 Indeed, this is the more so because of the nature of Greek religion. Jean Rudhardt, and more recently Marcel Detienne, have argued that to 'believe' in the Greek gods just is to honour them in cult: to sacrifice to them, pray to them, sing and walk in procession for them: these are ta nomizomena (things 'thought', things 'customary').35

But assessing belief in stories is a rather different matter, since in many cases it is not clear what kind of action could count as evidence for or against the presence of a particular belief—say, the belief that the madness of Herakles followed his Labours. In such cases we have characteristically to rely on the evidence of utterances—the fact, for example, that a narrator opts for this version of a tale rather than that. The bulk of our evidence, that is, will consist of explicit statements about, or expressions of, belief, together with mythical narratives from which belief-states have to be inferred. Of course, it would be absurd to deny all relevance to what we might inelegantly call the worship-situation: this would, presumably, figure in some way in the account we would want to give of a twentieth-century opera which included, say, Dionysos as a character. But in practice, in an ancient Greek context, we rarely find ourselves well enough informed about the extent or absence of relevant practised religion to limit our uncertainties about belief in myths.

So: utterances: texts in contexts. And the plurals should be emphasised; because the crucial element in the situation is contextual plurality.

Age and gender could be thought of as factors shaping attitudes to the stories. A passage from Plato's Laws makes the point in relation to the young:

' … yet it proved easy to persuade men of the Sidonian story [= the myth of Kadmos], incredible though it was, and of numberless others.'

'What tales?'

'The tale of the teeth that were sown, and how armed men sprang out of them. Here, indeed, the lawgiver has a notable example of how one can, if one tries, persuade the souls of the young of anything.'36

Old men too are sometimes seen as subject to an intensification of belief. I quote two voices. The first is that of Kephalos, a very old man with whom the Platonic Sokrates likes (he says) to converse. Asked about how life is when one is so near the brink, Kephalos relates how he and other old men often meet together, and talk. They chin-wag about the past, of course, some regretting it, others bidding it good riddance. They speculate too about the future:

… when a man begins to realise that he is going to die, he is filled with apprehensions and concern about matters that before did not occur to him. The tales that are told of the world below and how men who have done wrong here must pay the penalty there, though he may have laughed them down hitherto, then begin to torture his soul with the doubt that there may be some truth in them.37

The second voice belongs to the lyric poet Anakreon.

My temples are already grey,
my head is white,
delicious youth is here no more;
my teeth are old, and I no longer
have much time of sweet life left.
So I sob, often, in fear of Tartaros.
For Hades' house is terrible:
the way down is hard, and once you follow it,
there is no return.38

True reflections of talk in the leschē? Perhaps. But we should remember that Plato is the greatest ironist of antiquity, while Anakreon is another Ovid for self-mockery.

Women are presented as another credulous group. According to Polybios, they are characterised by a love of the marvellous (12.24-5). Not only are they tellers of old wives' tales: they are also said to be particularly susceptible to them. Referring to the myth of Theseus' abandonment of Ariadne on Naxos, Philostratos observes that '[nurses] are skilled in telling such tales, and they weep over them whenever they will'.39 It goes without saying that these ascriptions of degrees and kinds of credulity need not correspond to anything which an ancient opinion survey amongst children, the elderly or women might have come up with: we have the familiar problem of evaluating utterances—and it is (to say the least) no easier to evaluate a 'they believe' than an 'I believe'.

If age and gender constituted two kinds of relevant plurality, a third concerned a different sort of social division. We may take Martin Nilsson's views as representing a strong form of this approach. For Nilsson, the Greek 'folk' was one thing, the urban sophisticates, especially atypical intellectuals who might go so far as to embrace atheism, quite another.40 This is an important point to make, in particular in relation to the Hellenistic period—it is easy to forget that the Kallimachean attitude to tradition is contemporary with a huge proliferation of popular recitation and festival performance, at which myths were also retold. Yet at the same time Nilsson's dichotomy has to be subjected to massive refinement in relation to varying historical contexts. It is evident that analysis of the difference between 'the people' and 'the sophisticates' is going to look very different depending on whether we are dealing with Alkman's Sparta or Lykophron's Alexandria.

But there is another and more interesting kind of plurality which needs to be confronted: plurality of context for a single individual at any one time. Take the case of an Athenian adult male living at the end of the fifth century. His recent experience of mythology includes: looking at temple friezes, vases and coins; being present at a rhapsodic recital which presented excerpts from the Odyssey; singing one of Alkaios' hymns at a symposion; attending performances of the Bakchai and the Frogs; and holding those vague, basic, unfocused, lowest-common-denominator views about divine intervention and the afterlife which Jon Mikalson discusses in Athenian Popular Religion.41 Mikalson's essay is like a breath of fresh air in a room usually filled with methodological perfumes that are pungent, contrasting and not always expensive. But it does, quite deliberately, base its conclusions about Athenian belief on a very restricted type of evidence: oratory, inscriptions, Xenophon. And matters are perhaps not quite so clearcut as Mikalson implies when he maintains that 'in the study of popular religion the need now is for some descriptive work; a theoretical bias would only impede this work'.42 On the contrary, the really taxing question seems to me to be precisely: how were such lowest-common-denominator attitudes (taking 'little interest in the bleak and uncertain prospect of the afterlife'; having views about daimones that were 'quite vague and imprecise')43—how were such attitudes integrated with those implicit in the artistic-performance contexts? Or were they integrated? For I suggest that we have no idea how, or whether, most people reconciled the perspectives implied by the various ways in which they might confront mythology. Few Greeks will have felt the need to work out for themselves, in the manner of a Plato, an explicit reconciliation between or hierarchisation of the alternative modes of access to the sacred. They will simply have accepted as normal the fact that different ways of imagining the gods were appropriate to different contexts. To ask which constituted their real belief is to miss the point.44

All this does not mean that we must rule out entirely the possibility of making generalisations about Greek belief in myths: for example, it would seem that no ancient author denies the existence of, say, Theseus, Meleager, or Agamemnon. Nor, needless to say, should we minimise the importance of relating the different kinds of myth-telling that we find in Pindar, Euripides or Kallimachos to the societies for which they composed, or of noting developments in attitudes towards the mythological tradition implicit in their works. The point is, rather, that to describe those changes in terms of strength or weakness in belief, or of the size of the credulity supply in circulation at any one time, needs at the very least to take account of the complicating factors just mentioned.

But there is another way out of the belief maze. For to ask about the extent of belief in stories is in fact to ask one of the least rewarding questions about them. Let us return to four images of mythical women which we discussed earlier: Penelope before her web; Polyneikes persuading Eriphyle; Tekmessa tending the dead Ajax; the abduction of Hippodameia by Pelops. These are paradigms, types, models of behaviour—sometimes extremely ambiguous models—from which human conduct may diverge or to which it may correspond. The question of the extent of belief in such powerful, persistent images seems not just unverifiable, but irrelevant. It might be argued that the belief issue becomes more pressing in relation to verbal narratives in the past tense: 'Zeus hid fire'; 'Oidipous solved the riddle'. But even in such cases the crucial point in relation to functional importance is that the stories are told, retold, and gradually stop being told, to be replaced by other narratives.

A potentially fruitful analogy here is that between myths and proverbial expressions.45 The analogy might seem flawed from the outset, since myths are narratives, while proverbs are not. However, in a Greek context at least, proverbs very often depend on narratives, which have to be supplied if the force of the proverb is to be understood. Moreover, many of these implied narratives are mythical. A few minutes' browsing in the standard collection of ancient maxims yields references to the nemesis of Adrastos (applied to those formerly happy but later unfortunate), the fiery robe (sent by Deianeira to Herakles; refers to those who inflame quarrels), the cap of Hades (which conferred invisibility on the wearer; said of those who practise concealment), the laughter of Ajax (manic laughter, recalling that of the crazed hero), the glare of Atreus (a baleful look like that on the face of the betrayed husband plotting a ghoulish revenge), the sleep of Endymion (applied to sleepy-heads: Endymion slept for eternity), the sufferings of Io (woe upon woe), not to mention a Kadmeian victory, a Troy of troubles, 'not without Theseus', the madness of Thamyris, Bellerophon's letters, and plenty of others.46 Such expressions provided a ready-made way of 'locating' certain aspects of behaviour, by implicitly making generalisations about them. But these generalisations do not aspire to the status of universal truths: while a given maxim may work in one context, its opposite may be more relevant in another. That too many cooks spoil the broth does not mean that many hands don't make light work: what convinces in one context need not be required to convince in another. So too with myths, whose force, like that of proverbs, is essentially context-bound. (To repeat: myths are not the same as proverbs; they are, however, in one important respect analogous to them.) Hence the problem of 'reconciling', to which we referred earlier, is really not so intractable, since what are apparently contradictory propositions can happily coexist provided they are embedded in different contexts. Nor is the analogy with proverbs irrelevant to belief. If someone asks you how you can really believe that too many cooks spoil the broth, while at the same time really believing that many hands make light work, you may reasonably retort that they are barking up the wrong tree.

Greek myths were retold because they were authoritative: partly in virtue of the various authorities conferred on tellers by the context (women in the house, bards at the feast, poets at archon-sanctioned, polis organised dramatic performances); partly because of the authority which tellers created for themselves, thanks to the content of the tale and the manner of its telling; partly because the telling of similar tales in a variety of contexts and at all ages (from nursery stories to adolescent choirs to the old men's leschē) can hardly have failed to produce a reinforcing effect. But the authority of myths did not go without saying, in spite of the fact—perhaps even because of the fact—that tellers regularly claimed to be reporting the truth. An audience hears a poet maintain that he is inspired by the Muse; they find his song convincing. But they do so in the knowledge, not only that he is distancing himself from previous tale-tellers (as with Pindar in Olympian 1, where stories involving the gods in cannibalism are indignantly rejected), but also that the next poet in the tradition will tell his own tale, again inspired, again claiming the truth. Greek myths constitute a corpus of plausible, telling tales which aim, within their contexts, at achieving peithō, persuasion.…


1 This applies even to Zeus. Cf. Nilsson 1951-60, on the inconclusiveness of connections between Zeus and justice: 'Zeus war der einzige Gott, der, abgesehen von blutlosen Personifikationen, sich der Gerechtigkeit annehmen konnte, sie war aber nicht in seinem Wesen begründet, und schwer wog es, dass die Mythen viele ungerechte Taten von ihm erzählten' (p. 315).

2 The analysis of the structured division of divine power seems to me to be the aspect of the work of J.-P. Vernant and M. Detienne which is most likely—and most justifiably—to endure.

3 Hatred of Ares: Hom. Il. 5.890 (expressed by Zeus himself), S. OT 190ff. Revolting Furies: A. Eum. 52-4.

4 Cf. Od. 8.280-1: Hephaistos' workmanship is so fine that its products are imperceptible even to the other gods.

5 On the general capacity of Greek myths about immortal beings to be moving, one may note the remark of Rudhardt 1958, p. 76: 'La légende toutefois oublie l'immortalité des dieux en traitant un épisode limité de leur histoire; elle les soumet à la durée, à l'intérieur de l'épisode, et, dans cette limite, à la souffrance et au changement; elle achève ainsi de les humaniser.'

6 Pelias: A. R. 1.13-14. Admetos: Apollod. 1.9.15.

7 Apollod. 2.5.9.

8 See Weiler 1974.

9 Gould 1985.

10 Cf. Buxton 1988.

11 The best mise au point is Versnel in Edmunds 1990, pp. 25-90; see also Bremmer 1992.

12 See ch. 1 of Calame 1990b.

13 Calame 1990b, p. 50.

14 Philostr. Her. 207 (Teubner edn).

15 For the myth and the ritual, see the classic account in Burkert 1970.

16 Myrsilos of Lesbos records a custom on Lemnos according to which on one day in the year the women kept their menfolk at a distance 'because of their bad smell': the link between myth and rite is reinforced (FGrH 477 la; cf. Burkert 1970, p. 7).

17 Philostr., loc. cit. in n. 14.

18 Bremmer 1983a.

19 From no. 38 of Plutarch's Greek Questions (= Mor. 299e-f, trans. slightly adapted from that by W. R. Halliday; my italics).

20 Cf. Burkert 1985, p. 264: 'Ritual creates situations of anxiety in order to overcome them … '

21 Cf. Rudhardt 1958, pp. 82-5.

22 Panathenaia: PI. Hipparch. 228b, Lyc. Leocr. 102.

23 Veyne 1988.

24 Sperber 1975, p. 95.

25 Veyne 1988, p. 87.

26De placitis Hippocratis et Platonis 3.8.33 (KUhn v, p. 357; de Lacy p. 231). Trans. by P. de Lacy.

27Introductio seu medicus I (Kuhn XIV, pp. 674-5); cf. Veyne 1988, p. 55.

28 Medusa: 2.21.6-7. Lykaon: 8.2.4 (trans. P. Levi). Cf. Veyne 1988, pp. 96 and 99.

29 Reprinted in Stinton 1990, pp. 236-64. The Saussurian terms are not Stinton's, but seem appropriate to his argument.

30 Stinton 1990, p. 237.

31 At this point I include some comments about the second stage in Veyne's argument. This consists in holding that we must talk, not just of a plurality of beliefs, but of a plurality of truths, or of criteria for truth (p. 113). 'The Iliad and Alice in Wonderland', declares Veyne, 'are no less true than Fustel de Coulanges' (p. xi). (What shall we say? Finley's Ancient Economy? Hammond's History of Greece?) Now the nature of this plurality of truths is, intriguingly, itself multiple, or at least dual. At times it seems to be a matter of chronological succession, of one Kuhnian paradigm being replaced by another ('Once one is in one of these fishbowls, it takes genius to get out of it and innovate' (p. 118).) But at other times Veyne writes as if at all times a range of strategies—but, as far as one can see, the same range of strategies—has existed towards belief (scepticism, total credulity, rationalisation, etc.)—a view in apparent contradiction with the fishbowl approach. These and other inconsistencies have been highlighted in Meheust 1990. (To add another paradox, this time an authorial one, when I telephoned M. Veyne to ask him what he recommended that one should read about his work in general and Les Grecs ont-ils cru in particular, he immediately cited Meheust's rather critical article.)

If we are to assign a consistent view on the truth question to Veyne here, I think it should be done in the terms expressed by C. Brillante (in Edmunds 1990, pp. 116-17), who maintains that for Veyne 'any reflection, whether qualified as mythic or rational, is shown to be the creation of an imagination constituante, that is, of a reason that need not account for its own affirmations, except to itself. If Brillante is right, this is a road down which I have no wish to follow Veyne. However, in the light of recent notorious attempts to deny the genocide practised by the Nazis during the Second World War, it is important to note this observation: 'It is clear that the existence or the nonexistence of Theseus and gas chambers in one point in space and time has a material reality that owes nothing to our imagination … [However] the materiality of gas chambers does not automatically lead to the knowledge one can have about them' (Veyne 1988, p. 107). Even the most pachydermatous of epistemological relativists must (fortunately) think twice before espousing views compatible with a denial of that particular historical reality. (Parenthetically, we may observe that those who do follow an extreme 'no closure of historical interpretation' line risk getting into bed with some pretty dubious company.)

32 In 0. Murray and Price 1990, p. 6; my emphasis.

33 See H. H. Price 1969, for a philosophical analysis of belief.

34 Osborne 1987, p. 192.

35 Rudhardt 1958, p. 142; Detienne and Sissa 1989, pp. 191-2.

36 663e-664a (trans. adapted from that by R. G. Bury, Loeb edn).

37R. 330d-e (trans. P. Shorey, Loeb edn).

38PMG 395 (my translation).

39Imag. 1.15.1.

40 E.g. Nilsson 1940.

41 Mikalson 1983.

42 Mikalson 1983, p. 7.

43 Mikalson 1983, pp. 82 and 65.

44 Mikalson himself has subsequently attempted to integrate the evidence of tragedy with that of popular religion (Mikalson 1991), but with only mixed success; cf. the review by H. Yunis in CR NS 43 (1993), pp. 70-2.

45Muthoi as similar to yet distinct from proverbs: PI. Lg. 913b9-c3; cf. Brisson 1982, p. 124, Detienne 1986, p. 95.

46 Leutsch and Schneidewin 1839-51.


Passages from Homer are usually cited in the translations by Richmond Lattimore (The Iliad: University of Chicago Press, 1951 by The University of Chicago; The Odyssey: Harper & Row, 1965, 1967 by Richmond Lattimore). For Pindar, I have drawn on the versions by (p. 118) C. M. Bowra (Penguin Books, C. M. Bowra 1969), and, again (pp. 149 and 176), Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press, 1947 by the University of Chicago Press). For other authors, in cases where I have taken over or adapted existing translations, I have tried always to acknowledge the fact. Otherwise, the version given is my own.…


Classical Quarterly
Classical Review
Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, ed. F. Jacoby, Berlin, 1923—
Harvard Studies in Classical Philology
Poetae Melici Graeci, ed. D. L. Page, Oxford, 1962


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Sperber, D., 1975: Rethinking Symbolism. Cambridge University Press. (A near-equivalent French version came out in 1974.)

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Weiler, I., 1974: Der Agon im Mythos. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.


Origins And Development Of Greek Mythology


Heroes And Heroines In Greek Mythology