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Origins And Development Of Greek Mythology

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18510

Martin P. Nilsson (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: "How Old Is Greek Mythology?," in The Mycenaean Origin of Greek Mythology, University of California Press, 1932, pp. 1-34.

[In the following essay, Nilsson argues that Greek epics and the heroic myth cycles they include (rather than elements or motifs found in individual myths) can be dated to the Mycenaean age (1950 to 1100 B.C.).]

The question: How old is Greek mythology? may at first sight seem idle, for Greek mythology is obviously of many different ages. For example, many genealogies and eponymous heroes created for political purposes are late, such inventions having been made through the whole historical age of Greece; yet most of them are earlier than the very late myths like the campaigns of Dionysus, or the great mass of the metamorphoses, especially the catasterisms, which were invented in the Hellenistic age. The great tragic poets reshaped the myths and left their imprint upon them, so that the forms in which the myths are commonly known nowadays often have been given them by tragedy. Similarly, before the tragic poets, the choric lyric poets reshaped them. The cyclical epics also are thought to have exercised a profound influence upon the remodeling of the myths. In Homer we find many well-known myths, often in forms differing, however, from those in which they are related later. Finally, it cannot be doubted that myths existed before Homer.

Our question concerns, however, not the reshaping and remodeling of myths, which often consists only of an imitation of current patterns, but the real creation of myths, especially the creation of the great cycles of myths. From this standpoint, the Hellenistic and many earlier myths may be put to one side. The tragic poets hardly invent new myths but do reshape old ones, often in a very thorough fashion, and the same is to be said of the choric lyric poets. For the glory and fame of ancient poets depended not, like that of modern poets, on their invention of something quite new and original, but rather on their presentation of the old traditional material in new and original fashion.

Consequently our question concerns the old stock of mythology after all secondary inventions have been discarded and is really not so idle as may appear at first glance. In fact various attempts have been made to give an answer, although the question has not been put so simply and straightforwardly as it is here, but has been enveloped in inquiries and reasonings having other purposes. The point, however, which I wish to emphasize is the importance of the principles which underlie our research and determine our procedure.

I pass over comparative mythology very lightly, because it began to lose favor in my youth, thirty years ago or more, and nowadays is very little reckoned with in scientific discussion. But I should like to draw attention to one point of some interest in this connection. Comparative mythology was so called because it compared Greek myths with those of other Aryan peoples and by this means tried to discover the original myths and religion of the Aryan people from whom the peoples of Europe and some peoples of Asia are descended, just as comparative philology discovered by similar means that the languages of these peoples were derived from the language once spoken by the old Aryans. The underlying supposition was clearly that the Greek myths were pre-Greek in the sense that the Greeks had taken them over from the Aryans and brought them with them when they immigrated into Greece. Comparative mythology overlooked, however, the very important distinction between divine and heroic mythology and thought erroneously that the heroic myths were derived from the same source as the myths concerning the gods. This source it found in the phenomena of nature. If the view of comparative mythology were right, these lectures would really be pointless, for then it must needs be admitted that Greek mythology existed not only in the pre-Homeric age but also before the Greeks immigrated into Greece. But since the seventies of the last century the whole problem has been extraordinarily deepened and complicated. We have learned to distinguish between religion and mythology and we have learned to know a new epoch of Greece which cannot be considered as wholly prehistoric in the usual sense of the word—the Mycenaean age.

Max Müller and his followers condemned Euhemerism, but this theory has come to the fore again in recent years. In my opinion the reaction is just but goes too far. Certain English scholars take mythology as reproducing actual historical facts, just as the logographers did when they brought the myths into a historical system. They do not, of course, overlook the fabulous elements of the myths but think that the mythical persons and such exploits as are not of a fabulous character are good history, and they go so far as to accept without question the mythical genealogies and the mythical chronology. I am unable to do this. I know and appreciate the tenacity of folk memory, but I know also how popular tradition is preserved—and confused and remodeled. The remodeling affects especially the chronological relations of the personages, which are changed freely.1 In so far as epical tradition is concerned, the right analogy is not the traditions which have an historical aspect but the Nibelungenlied and the Beowulf and similar epical traditions which I shall characterize later. We know how badly historical connections fared in them, how history was confused and mixed up with fabulous elements. If good historical tradition is to be preserved, an undisturbed life both in regard to settling and to civilization is an absolute condition, but the downfall of the Mycenaean civilization was a most stormy and turbulent age, and its turmoils, which mixed up the Greek tribes and changed their places of settlement, mixed up and confused their traditions, too. The historical aspect of Greek mythology and especially the mythical chronology are products of the systematizing of the myths by the poets of cyclical epics and still more the product of rationalization and historification by the logographers.2

A very different standpoint is taken by German scholars, whose preoccupation is a historical treatment of the myths; in opposition to the theories of comparative mythology, this school is called the historical school. The answer given by this school is not so simple as that proposed by nature mythology. I must therefore try to clear up the underlying principles to the best of my ability, although the numerous works of the school often are contradictory in details and it is very difficult to do full justice in a short analysis of principles.

The historical school acknowledges that elements of myths existed in an early period, before the development of epic poetry, but supposes that these rather simple elements were brought into connection with one another and composed so as to form more complex myths through the agency of poetry. From this process a very deep-going reshaping and even creation of myths resulted. The poetry to which this creative expanding of mythology is ascribed is the epic poetry; viz., the Homeric and post-Homeric epics, the cyclical epics, and many lost epics of which we have only a scanty and fragmentary knowledge. Further, it is reasonably inferred that epics existed also before Homer and were used in composing the extant Homeric poems.

The historical school assumes not only a remodeling and reshaping of myths but indeed a creation of cycles of myths—and that is what concerns us here—for it is supposed that the mythical cycles came into being through the union of various simple mythical elements. If this process were ascribed to the Mycenaean age, I should have little to say against it; but as it is ascribed to the Homeric and the immediately preceding and following periods, I must disagree. I shall use a few examples to illustrate the methods of the historical school and the discrepancies to which they lead.

Several years ago Professor Friedländer tried to trace the development of the Heracles cycle.3 According to his theory, the fundamental fact is the belief of the Tirynthians in their helpful hero. From the Peloponnese, Heracles emigrated to the island of Rhodes and here new adventures were added to those which had been brought from the Peloponnese. Thus the cycle of the twelve adventures was developed and formed on Rhodes.

The most comprehensive and significant example, however, is Professor Bethe's attempt to explain the origin and development of the Trojan cycle.4 He finds the old kernels of this cycle in the duels between heroes who, according to him, were originally localized on the mainland of Greece. These simple and unconnected myths were brought to Aeolia by the different tribes to which the heroes belonged when these tribes immigrated to northwest Asia Minor shortly before or in the seventh century B. C. The Aeolians brought their Achilles, the Locrians their Aias, the Arcadians Aeneas, and the Troes, who originally were a tribe living in the mother country, the name of the Troes (Trojans), etc. The various myths of the various immigrant tribes met and were fused in Aeolia and were attached to the ruins of the city of Ilion. In this manner the Trojan cycle was created. The destruction of the sixth city of Troy is ascribed to barbarians immigrating from the north. If this view of the development of Homeric poetry were right, it would of course imply not a reshaping but an actual creation of myths, for the fundamental idea of the Trojan cycle would be due to the epic poets of the seventh century B. C. Although space forbids my entering upon a criticism, I cannot but point to the improbability involved in assuming three different waves of immigration into Aeolia about which tradition is absolutely silent. They are invented only in order to suit a hypothesis which is very artificial and has not succeeded in gaining approval.

Another great scholar, Professor Wilamowitz, differs from Professor Bethe in the analysis of the poems but takes the same point of view in regard to the development of the myths. In a recent paper5 he states briefly that Phthiotians and Magnesians who emigrated from Thessaly to Aeolia brought Achilles with them; that the house of Agamemnon originated at Cyme and in Lesbos, whilst his appearing as king on the mainland of Greece is due to epic poetry; and that lonians, in whose towns descendants of Glaucus and Sarpedon were rulers, introduced these heroes into the epos. But, and in this he differs essentially from Professor Bethe, who takes the Trojan war to be an invention of the seventh century B. C., he gives voice to the opinion that the historical fact underlying the Homeric story of the Trojan war was an old one, a vain attempt of the Greeks to gain a foothold in the Scamander Valley.

The underlying presumption is an echo of the tribal mythology of K. O. Müller, the founder of the historical school. The leading idea is that the myths were transferred to other regions with the wanderings of the tribes and that, as the tribes met and mixed, their myths met and were fused. If this leading principle were applied to Teutonic epics, we must needs date the Scandinavian invasion of England two or three centuries earlier than it actually took place, for Beowulf tells only of Danes, Swedes, and Geatas, nothing of the English. And we must needs assume an immigration of Teutonic tribes from the Continent to Scandinavia before the ninth or tenth century A. D. in order to explain the fact that the myth of Sigurd appears in the Edda songs. I omit the Russian bylinas and their wanderings. I cannot but think that in regard to the wanderings of myths and songs, conditions in Greece were not altogether dissimilar to those in other countries. Consequently I cannot but suppose that even in Greece myths and songs wandered independently of the wanderings of the tribes. As soon as we know anything of the minstrels, we find that they are wandering people. The localizations of cults and heroes must be regarded with a critical eye and must not be used as arguments unless their reliability is tested, for they are often due to the influence of epics. The localizations of Agamemnon are illuminating examples to which I shall recur in another place.6

All that we know of other epics tends to show that the fundamental principle, the doctrine that the wanderings and the amalgamating of the myths depend on the wanderings and the amalgamating of the tribes, is erroneous. With this presumption another is connected which, according to my view, is the fundamental error of the method; namely, that two things are identified which must be distinguished—the development of the myths and the development of epic poetry. Moreover, epic poetry is taken into account only to the extent to which it can be reached through an analysis of the extant poems and fragments. It has very often been said that a lost epos of Heracles created the cycle of Heracles, and this may seem not improbable in this case where we do not have the epos but are free to reconstruct it according to our fancy. The attempt to carry through the same idea in regard to the Trojan cycle proved to be a failure and showed the frailty of the principle, for in this case we have the epos and can use it as a control. To take another instance, Professor Wilamowitz contends that the bravery of Diomedes is the oldest song of the Iliad and an imitation of the Thebais.7 If this is true, it is extremely remarkable that the Theban myths in Homer and Hesiod differ so markedly from the common version.8 The unavoidable conclusion would be that the Thebais, supposed to be earlier than Homer, has not been able to impress its version either upon Homer or upon Hesiod. Wild shoots of the myth have lived in spite of epical cultivation.

The fundamental but hardly expressed principle underlying the work of the historical school is that a mythological cycle is created and developed through the agency of and contemporaneously with the development of epic poetry; and furthermore, only that epic poetry is taken into account of which we have some knowledge through literary sources. But this principle does not stand the test. The opposite alternative also must be considered; namely, that a cycle of myths existed in its chief outlines and was the store from which the Homeric poets drew, of course not without remodeling the material, in composing their chants. If this view is accepted, the epic poets followed the same line as the choric lyric and the tragic poets, who took over and utilized the old store of myths, remodeling them, sometimes profoundly. This is the case with epic poetry in countries where our knowledge of its development is fuller than is our knowledge of the development of the Greek epics. Neither of the two alternatives is strictly demonstrable, but it ought to be evident that both are to be taken into consideration.

The view of the development of mythology which I have tried to characterize here is, however, closely bound up with the methods of Homeric research prevailing among the scholars who have adopted it; namely, with the literary analysis of the poems. In England and America this method is now little heeded, and Homeric research follows different lines. I think in fact that full justice has hardly been done to this method and the many works produced by its adherents. In spite of the apparent discrepancies in their results, they have brought about a profounder apprehension of Homer and Homeric problems and have obtained important results. But literary analysis is not the last word in the Homeric question. To shut our eyes to a further development than that which can be traced through literary analysis leads us astray, if the earlier development is regarded as irrelevant because it is hard to unravel. Such a standpoint is unjustifiable, but it is in fact taken up by those who ascribe the development of the mythical cycles to the Homeric and post-Homeric periods, neglecting what may have happened in an earlier age of which no literary records are preserved. The Homeric question must be widened so as to be the epic question. The proverb says: vixere etiam ante Agamemnona fortes viri; I think: vixere etiam ante Homerum poetae. Homeric poetry is an issue of countless generations. That is recognized, generally speaking, but we must try to work out in earnest the implications of this thesis.

The gap is apparent if the two following questions are put side by side: How far can literary analysis be carried back? and How old are the oldest elements in Homeric poetry which can be dated with certainty?

Literary analysis discovers earlier poems which the Homeric poets utilized and partly took over in composing their poems. Not even the most zealous unitarians deny that such poems may have existed. Nobody will of course believe that these earlier poems were written down, so that they could have been preserved for a long time. But if they were preserved by the memory of the minstrels and handed down by oral tradition, it is difficult to imagine that they survived more than two or at most three generations. However, I have nothing against granting them a life of four or five generations, although that they survived so long seems extremely unlikely. The unavoidable conclusion is that the earliest poems incorporated in the Homeric poems and utilized in their composition cannot be more than a century or a little more older than the Homeric poems themselves. That is the limit which literary analysis cannot transgress.

Archaeology affords means of dating certain elements appearing in Homeric poetry. The latest of these elements belong to the Orientalizing period; here we are concerned with the oldest. These go back to the Mycenaean age and moreover, what is most remarkable, many of them to its earliest phase.9 At this point a few hints concerning this important subject must suffice. Homeric arms have given rise to a vast literature, and Nestor's cup is often mentioned; yet the body shield was already superseded by the small shield in late Mycenaean times—the attempts to vindicate it for later periods are proved by archaeology to be futile. Nestor's cup was found in the fourth shaft-grave at Mycenae, one of the earlier group. To this another most remarkable observation is to be added; namely, that these Mycenaean elements appear not only in the earliest and earlier parts of the Homeric poems but in the latest and later parts also. For example, the boars' tusk helmet which we had been unable to understand until aided by the Mycenaean finds is described in one of the very latest parts, the lay of Dolon.

Archaeology is, however, not the sole means of dating some elements of Homeric poetry; there are also references to conditions of history and civilization which may serve the same end. When we meet the Phoenicians as masters of the sea and traders who bring the most appreciated and valuable articles to Greece, we recognize of course the end of the Geometric and the beginning of the Orientalizing period. On the other hand, Homer hardly mentions the Dorians although at his time they had already long inhabited the Peloponnese. The king of Mycenae is the overlord of the Greeks, and the other heroes are his vassals. Mycenae rich in gold is the foremost city of Greece and its king the mightiest monarch of Greece. The attempt to derogate these facts10 is vain, for it is inconceivable that an Ionian minstrel of the seventh century B. C. should have happened on the idea of ascribing such a position to the town and the king of Mycenae, which at that time was in fact a rotten borough. Nor has Agamemnon any real existence except in the Trojan cycle, although the contrary often is asserted.11 Attempts to deny these facts can only lead us into error and to the erection of frail hypotheses. Here we ought also to speak of the really kingly power of Agamemnon, but as this is not so evident I shall recur to it in a later place.

In regard to these elements in Homer, derived from widely differing times and civilizations, scholars have divided themselves into two parties engaging in a tug of war. One party tries to put as much as possible in a time as late as possible; namely, into the developed Geometric and the Orientalizing periods, and to treat the elements which it is impossible to fit into this scheme as irrelevant survivals. The other party treats the elements which undoubtedly belong to a late age as irrelevant additions and takes Homer on the whole to be Mycenaean. It appears that neither of these two methods is the right one. We have to concede without circumlocutions that Homer contains elements from very differing periods and to try to comprehend and explain this state of things, not to obliterate it and get rid of it through artificial interpretations.

The gap between the earliest and the latest elements in Homer comes nearer to a whole millenium than to a half-millenium. Literary analysis of the extant poems can reach only the time immediately preceding the latest elements and so can cover only a very small part of this gap, say a century or at most a little more. Some scholars who think that we cannot attain a well founded opinion of the stages preceding the literary evidence have confined themselves to literary analysis. The unitarians by principle are still less interested in the preceding stages. But this voluntary restriction makes them shut their eyes to more far-reaching vistas and vitiates the fundamental problem. The epic question has been unduly limited to the Homeric question. The extant Homeric poems are, however, the final achievement of a lengthy development—-fuere etiam ante Homerum poetae; the epic question, i.e., the problem of the origin and development of Greek epics from their beginnings, cannot be put on one side.

It can be understood why some scholars have done so, for they are of the opinion that all means are wanting for attacking a problem which goes so far back into an unknown age. That is not literally true; for there is a method which may be utilized. Since, however, it is neither strictly philological nor strictly historical but is comparative in a general sense, it is viewed with undue diffidence by many who know it only from the outside.

Many years ago Professor Steinthal tried to introduce a comparative study of epics, but his attempt had no decided success, chiefly because he was hampered by the romantic presumption of collective popular poetry. A comprehensive study of this vast subject has never been taken up, only hints and minor attempts have been made. Professor von Pöhlmann drew attention to living epic poetry and pointed to the failure of Homeric research in not taking this into account,12 but in vain. Professor Drerup gave a survey of various popular epics13 but seems to have been forgotten, perhaps because these materials were not utilized by him in their true bearing upon Greek epics. English works are one-sided, and that is true not only of Professor Andrew Lang's more cursory comparison of Homeric epics with the chansons de geste14 but also of Professor Chadwick's important book, in which he institutes a detailed comparison between Greek and Teutonic epics.15 It is self-evident that a comparison ought to be instituted on the largest possible basis, and that everything which is accidental and not essential ought to be discarded.16

It is impossible here to give an account of the numerous instances of popular epics. I simply enumerate them. We have, in the first place, Teutonic epics in their branches: old German, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian epics. Their off-shoots are, at least in part, Finnish-Esthonian, Russian, and even old French epics (bylinas and chansons de geste). In Serbia popular epics are still living; in Asia we find epics among several tribes, the Kara-Kirgizes and the Abakan Tartars in Siberia and the Atchinese on Sumatra. The historical incidents underlying Greek mediaeval epics (Digenis Akritas) are too little known. From a comparative study of these epics the following statements may be deduced. Epics do not originate in collective popular poetry but are the creation of a heroic age, a fact which Professor Wundt stated and Professor Chadwick developed at length. They originate in an aristocratic or even feudal society, praising the deeds of living men and describing contemporary events, but mythical traits and folk-tale elements may be attributed even to living men. The exaggerated praise of heroes and the still undeveloped intellectualism of the age, from the very beginning, open the doors for the supernatural. Epic poetry is composed not by the people in general but by certain gifted individuals, who live as minstrels and often as court minstrels in the entourage of some great man. But there is no intellectual cleavage between persons of higher and of lower standing; the lower classes share the warlike spirit and the admiration of valorous deeds and take up epics enthusiastically.

This is the original stage, which usually is short-lived. It is impossible to confine the subsequent development within a scheme, as Professor Chadwick has attempted, but two alternatives are to be considered. The heroic age may continue; epics chant ever fresh materials which change according to circumstances. Or the heroic age may come to an end and the people settle down to a less eventful life. But the interest in great deeds and the zeal for epic poetry do not die out immediately. Epic poetry is preserved but it sings now of the deeds of a past age and shows a tendency to limit itself to one cycle or to very few cycles of adventures, from which the minstrels choose their subjects, although fresh songs are invented, additions made, and changes devised. Under such conditions epics may be still more popular than before and may spread among the common people but they are in a certain sense stagnant.

This state of things may be interrupted by a new heroic age and by new epics dealing with contemporary men and events, but the stagnant conditions may also continue until epics are abandoned for other kinds of literature or obliterated by a higher culture. The epics may also wander far abroad and be received by people who lead a monotonous life on a low cultural plane but love poetry and preserve the epic chants. Of course epic poetry will undergo many and varied changes under such varying conditions.

Epic poetry is a floating mass confined within certain limits. This it is essential to know and to understand, and to this end the art and technique of composition must be considered; they seem to be similar everywhere. The art of singing is always exercised by certain gifted persons; but talents vary, and the most gifted become craftsmen, minstrels who chant in the courts or to the people according to circumstances. Everyone learns through hearing, consequently family tradition is important. Families, even schools, of minstrels appear.

The art of singing and of composing epic poetry is learned, and hence a question of fundamental importance is, how this art is learned. First, it is to be stated that every one learns through hearing; but that a poem is never learned and repeated word by word, even if a minstrel takes over and repeats a chant, as occurs frequently. In fact the forms of a poem are just as many as its recitals. The variability differs considerably, however, according to time, individuals, and other conditions.

For that which is learned is essentially not single poems, even though a successful chant may be learned and repeated by others, but is the epical technique, the poetical art by which the material is formed; the subject may be taken from the usual store or a new one may be chosen. Every chant is in its form more or less an improvisation, so that the minstrels may claim divine inspiration as Phemius does in the Odyssey. Such an art of singing is possible because the minstrel through lengthy practice possesses a language which puts words and phrases on his lips.

In the epical language of all peoples occurs a store of stock expressions, constantly recurring phrases, half and whole verses and even verse complexes; and repetitions are characteristic of the epic style. E.g., when a message is delivered it is repeated word for word. Of the 27,853 verses in Homer, 2,118 verses occur two or more times making a total of 5,162 repeated verses, or one-fifth of Homer. Furthermore, typical descriptions are characteristic of all epics. Though they are not repeated in identical words, they are substantially identical. These are the elements which the epical technique delivers ready for use to the minstrel forming his chant. What is said of the Kara Kirgiz minstrels is applicable to all: The singer has a large store of poetical parts ready, and his art consists in coordinating these parts according to the course of events and connecting them by the aid of new-made verses. A skilled poet is able to improvise a poem on every subject.17

If we consider the effect of this traditional technique, we understand why epics which sing of by-gone days always archaize both in contents and in language. The stock expressions and typical descriptions preserve the old elements, even if they are no longer understood, and introduce them into even the latest chants. The old background of events is kept because the singer is conscious of chanting the past and not his own time, but with the naivete characteristic of his cultural stage the minstrel mixes up the old elements with new taken from his own time.

These general statements agree completely with what Greek epics themselves, especially the Odyssey, say as to the art and manner of the recital of Greek mistrels, and we may surmise with certainty that it was not otherwise in the pre-Homeric age. The fact that the stock expressions often are philologically very old-fashioned and that their meaning was no longer understood by the minstrels themselves proves a great antiquity in the epical technique and in the epics themselves. If this high degree of antiquity of epical tradition is considered earnestly, a natural explanation ensues of the fact that Homer contains elements which differ in age by more than half a millenium, in fact by nearly a whole millenium. This long lapse of time is not amazing though it may seem so; Russian epics vegetated nearly a millenium, preserving reminiscences of the empire of Kieff and the age of the Vikings.

To this view that the origins of Greek epics must be carried back into the Mycenaean age a serious objection may be made. For the Mycenaean civilization is essentially Minoan, and it is an acknowledged fact that the Minoan civilization sprang from a non-Greek and not Aryan people at all. Consequently Sir Arthur Evans himself and many scholars take the Mycenaeans to be Minoans who have established themselves on the mainland of Greece and subjugated the indigenous population. He admits the view that epics go back into the Mycenaean age and supposes consequently that they were at first chanted in the Minoan language and afterwards, in a bilingual society, transferred into Greek.18 A similar process took place elsewhere, but the result was in reality new epics, and such a process would of course invalidate the above reasoning concerning the preservation of old elements through the epical technique.

Like epics, mythology, too, would consequently originate among the Minoan people. But this seems to be disproved through the fact that almost all mythical names are clearly Greek; those which are certainly Minoan are extremely few. One would of course expect a considerable number of Minoan mythical names if the epos descended from the Minoans. In spite of the great authority of the scholar I have mentioned, I am firmly convinced that the Mycenaeans were immigrated Greeks who took over the Minoan civilization. It would take too long to set forth my reasons and I refer the reader to previous writings in which I have dwelt upon this question.19 This view is prevailing nowadays. Younger archaeologists are prone to throw back the commencement of the Greek immigration to the end of the Early Helladic age or earlier, whilst I find it probable that it began at the end of the following Middle Helladic age. Thus I take it for granted that the Mycenaeans were Greeks, and I hope that the following exposition will corroborate this view.

Epics praise heroes and originate in a heroic age. They belong to a social milieu in which certain persons become prominent through power, wealth, or deeds, and desire to be praised and chanted. Such an age was the Mycenaean age; for although opinions differ, it was admittedly an age of great wanderings of tribes and peoples, and its wealth and power are proved by the treasures of the shaft-graves of Mycenae, and of the bee-hive tombs at Dendra, Vaphio, etc., not to mention the bee-hive tombs themselves, the palaces, and the mighty walls of the cities. To this age the oldest elements in Homer go back, and I hesitate not the least in stating that in this age Greek epics originated. The minstrels chanted their songs at first to the princes and their retainers, but the people, who shared this admiration for valorous deeds, took over the epics and preserved them.

The stormy Mycenaean age came to an end and the subsequent transitional period between the Mycenaean and the Geometric ages is the poorest and darkest in all Greek history and pre-history. Conditions were poor and straitened; people were attached to the soil; and Greece was split up into a great number of cantons without much intercommunication, as the marked local varieties of Geometric ceramics prove as contrasted with the uniformity of Mycenaean pottery. Moreover, the Phoenicians became masters of the sea. It seems unthinkable that epics originated in such a time, but epics which already existed may very well have been preserved, stagnant and vegetating, just as they were, e.g., in Russia or Finland. The subjects were limited to one or two cycles, to the Trojan and perhaps even the Theban cycle. Why these were preferred to others is just as difficult to say as why the unimportant skirmish of Roncevaux was put into the foreground of French epics. How epics were transmitted we have already seen. The elements were at hand and they were repeatedly composed anew and mixed up with new elements.

In the ninth and the following centuries a fresh life cropped up in Greece; wealth commenced to increase; the Greeks began again to sail the sea and to make expeditions on a large scale; the period of colonization began, which in a certain sense is another heroic age; but aristocracy preserved still its social and political privileges. Thus the ground was prepared for a renascence of epics, but the old tradition was so vigorous that the old cycle was kept and the new elements incorporated with it. The really new creation is the Odyssey, which does not deny the stamp of the age of colonization which it glorifies. The salient point was, however, the appearance of a great poet, whom I should like to call Homer. He infused new life and vigor into epic poetry, putting the psychology of his heroes into the foreground and planning a comprehensive composition under this aspect.

I may seem to have given an only too dogmatic exposition of my opinions of the Homeric question instead of entering upon the subject of the Mycenaean origin of Greek mythology. But this exposition could not be passed over, because some scholars neglect the previous stages of Homeric poetry, and others adhere to the opinion that before the time which on an average may be called the Homeric age only single and disconnected myths existed and that these myth elements were composed into cycles of myths by the poets whose chief representative is Homer. If this were right, my thesis that the cycles of myths go back into the Mycenaean age would evidently be wrong.

In opposition to this view I have tried to prove two things: The first is that the development of epics lasted much longer and that epics go back into an early period of the Mycenaean age, a fact which is proved by the Mycenaean elements imbedded in the epos. It is clear that this first point must be still more valid for mythology than for archaeological objects or for elements of civilization and social life, because both the latter are much more liable to be altered and changed through assimilation to the conditions prevailing at the time when the poems were composed. Thus we have a great general probability that the myths occurring in Homer go back into the Mycenaean age, though nothing is proved in detail for specific myths.

Secondly, it appears that the background of the Greek epos, i.e., the Trojan cycle in its chief features, the power of Mycenae, and the kingship of Mycenae, cannot possibly have come into existence through the joining together of minor chants and myths, but that it existed beforehand, being the cycle from which the minstrels took their subjects. A cycle of events with certain chief personages invariably appears in all the epic poetry of which we have a more definite knowledge than we have of Greek epics as the background from which episodes are taken and to which episodes are joined; it is a premiss of epics, not their ultimate result. I refer to the tale of the Nibelungen in German epics, to that of Roland in old French epics, to the narratives of Vladimir the Great and his men in the bylinas, of Marko Kraljevitch and the battle on the Throstle Field in Servian epics, of the Islamic prince Manas and the heathen prince Joloi in the Kara Kirgiz epics, etc. In the same manner the background of the Homeric epos—the story of the war of Troy between the Trojans and the Greek heroes under Agamemnon's leadership, or, in other words, the chief features of the Trojan cycle—must be the primary fact and originate in the Mycenaean age. From this the minstrels chose and to this they added episodes. It is of course in detail uncertain and questionable what is of ancient origin and what is added later; here we are concerned with the fundamental idea, which we call the Trojan cycle, and we have tried to prove that this idea originated in the same age as the epos, the Mycenaean age.

I have drawn attention to the fact that the minstrels limited their choice to one or two cycles of myths. Other myths may have been chanted at an earlier age and have gone out of fashion. It may not be inferred that other cycles did not exist or were quite forgotten. We have to take account not only of epics but also of plain tales told in prose and preserving a great number of myths which lyric and tragic poets made famous in a later age. Such prose epics are not unparalleled. The cycle of the Nartes, heroes of the Ossetes and other peoples of the Caucasus, is told in prose.20

It can be demonstrated that numerous other myths and cycles of myths go back into the Mycenaean age. I begin by referring to an acute philological observation which proves that a number of mythical heroes must go back to an age much earlier than that of Homer. Professor Kretschmer drew attention to the fundamental difference between two series of heroic names.21 The names of the older series have the ending -eus and are generally abbreviated forms; the names of the sons of these mythical personages are on the contrary chiefly common compound names; e.g., Peleus, Achilleus, as compared with Neoptolemus; Odysseus—Telemachus; Atreus—Agamemnon, Menelaus; Tydeus—Diomedes; Neleus—Nestor; Oeneus—Meleager, etc. The names of the older series are often difficult to explain etymologically; those of the younger series are clear and explicable. It is evident that the heroes whose names belong to the series ending in -eus go back to earlier times than the heroes with common names, and to this philological fact corresponds the mythological fact that the latter are said to be sons and descendants of the former. But the latter are quite current in Homeric poetry; their ancestors must consequently go back to much earlier, pre-Homeric times. That this time is the Mycenaean age is of course not demonstrable through philology solely, but the span of time necessary for the development of this difference must be supposed so great that these heroes are thrown back some centuries and very probably into the Mycenaean age. And if the names are so old, the myths attached to them must also be so to a certain extent.

It may be rightly objected that hereby only the great antiquity of isolated myths is demonstrated, but it can also be proved that the great mythical cycles are very much older than Homer, that, in fact, they go back to the Mycenaean age. I have briefly given the proof of this in earlier writings22 and a detailed discussion will be the chief content of my subsequent lectures; here I dwell only on the question of principles. We know that mythology was the guide which led to the discovery of the Mycenaean and Minoan sites; it conducted Mr. Schliemann to Troy and Mycenae and Sir Arthur Evans to Cnossus. In these cases myths served as a heuristic means and the success of the investigations thus induced proved a connection between mythological centers and Mycenaean centers. My proof is nothing but a consequent application of this principle, a thoroughgoing comparison of the cities to which mythological cycles are attached with the cities where finds from the Mycenaean age have been made. If the correlation is constant; i.e., if we find that the cities to which the mythological cycles are attached were the centers of the Mycenaean civilization also, this constant correlation cannot be considered as accidental; it will prove the connection between the mythological cycles and the Mycenaean civilization; i.e., that the mythological cycles in their chief outlines go back into the Mycenaean age.

The proof however goes much further. For a close inspection shows that the mythical importance of a site closely corresponds to its importance in Mycenaean civilization. The mythical importance of a city is, to use a mathematical term, a function of its importance in Mycenaean civilization. This close and constant correspondence precludes any thought of casual coincidence. There are additional proofs also, elements inherent in certain myths which are of Mycenaean origin, but as these are less frequent and sometimes doubtful, they must be discussed separately.

To the application and elaboration of this principle of the close relationship between mythology and Mycenaean sites the following exposition will be devoted. But I am well aware of the difficulties and pitfalls of the detailed discussion and therefore it will be to the purpose to add some methodological remarks.

In regard to the Mycenaean remains, it may be objected that they are known only incompletely and that they have not been methodically explored all over Greece.23 That is true, for every year new discoveries are made. In time their distribution will certainly be much better known than now, but on the other hand it seems not likely that the picture will be changed essentially. The primacy of Argolis and next to it of Boeotia will remain. And so much is already known concerning other provinces that it is hardly to be expected that new discoveries will greatly change their relative importance. The map of Mycenaean sites and civilization will be completed, not turned upside down nor even substantially altered. Certain irregularities exist which will be treated in due course.24

In regard to mythology, certain points ought to be emphasized. We have noted that myths were remodeled in late and even in very late times. The science of mythography sets forth the development of the myths as far as it can be traced with the aid of literary and monumental evidence. As mythographic research is concerned with the historical period of the development of the myths, we have here only to accept its results, when it proves that certain forms of myths are developed or added in historical times. Far-reaching deductions concerning the development of the myths have often been connected with the reconstructions of lost epics or of those preserved only in fragments, but these reconstructions are very hypothetical and conflicting and must be regarded with a certain diffidence. The form in which a myth appears in Homer is often treated with a certain disesteem; nevertheless it must be considered thoroughly because it is the oldest recorded form, although of course not always the oldest form which has existed.

Further, a distinction is to be made between myths of different kinds and especially between divine and heroic mythology. The divine mythology consists of myths concerning the gods, and cult myths. I cannot dwell here upon this important distinction; we are little concerned with divine mythology and only casually with cult myths. Nor are we concerned with the many minor and isolated myths which crop up everywhere. For every town had its heroes or made them, and eponymous heroes were created freely. We are chiefly concerned with the cycles of heroic mythology and our aim is to test to what extent their distribution and varying importance correspond to the Mycenaean remains.

Well marked differences appear even in heroic mythology, since it incorporated very different elements, beginning with folk-tales and ending with incidents having a rather historical appearance. Motifs of the folk-tale are, e.g., prominent in the myths of Perseus and of Achilles, whilst on the contrary the Pylian myths seem very little mythical, but rather almost historical.

This is intelligible in view of the lengthy development of myths and of epics. The Pylian cycle is a late creation referring to the deeds of princes who were very little mythologized, whilst Perseus and Achilles are older and more popular heroes. The Oedipus myth is in its kernel a folk-tale, but the War of the Seven is an historical myth and the same seems to be true of the Minyans of Orchomenus.

I am quite aware of the difficulty of the subject and I am prepared to be met with objections. It will perhaps be said that I resuscitate the old and justly condemned method of eliciting history from myths. There are certainly historical facts underlying heroic myths to a certain extent, but mythology can never be converted into history, and we can never attain a knowledge of these historical facts if there is not an independent historical tradition as there is, e.g., in the case of the Nibelungenlied. For myths are always myths and largely fiction; the underlying facts have been reshaped and confused by fiction. For Greek myths no historical tradition exists which can serve as a control. There is only archaeology, and control by archaeology does not suffice for proving historical events but serves at most to present the cultural milieu. This cultural background, however, carries weight. If details in my reasoning may be contradicted or proved to be erroneous, this does not ruin the whole. The historical background of Greek heroic mythology is amply proved by its close correspondence to the geographical distribution of Mycenaean civilization.

That the thesis of the Mycenaean origin of Greek mythology has not been set forth and recognized earlier is due to some peculiar circumstances. Although numerous works of art and various sculptural or pictorial representations from the Mycenaean age have been discovered, mythical scenes seemed to be wanting in these works. They have been eagerly sought for, but those representations which until lately were claimed to have mythical contents are very doubtful. One is the so-called Scylla of a Cretan seal impression depicting a man in a boat who seems to fight with a marine monster rising up from the sea. The monster is not like Scylla and it is very doubtful whether a mythical incident is here represented.25 The second instance is a gold ring from a find near Tiryns, the engravings on which represent a ship and two couples, each consisting of a man and a woman. The scene is called the abduction of Helen, but this interpretation has never been taken in earnest; it is quite arbitrary; the scene may as well be a scene of salutation or of congee. It belongs probably to the scenes of daily life which sometimes occur in Mycenaean art.26 I prefer to pass over the famous treasure from Thisbe in silence.27

In the light of these facts one must needs reason as follows: the Minoan art, which had no mythical but only cultual representations, was taken over wholly and without change by the Mycenaeans. It is practically certain that Minoan artists worked for the Mycenaean sires; as mythical representations were absent from their art, Mycenaean myths were not depicted although they were related. Even elsewhere Mycenaean characteristics were ousted by Minoan art and appear only rarely and hesitatingly. It seems, however, somewhat astonishing that the Mycenaeans had a rich supply of myths but did not depict them in spite of their high standard of art, although such a fact would not be inconceivable. The same thing occurs in Geometric art, which loves to depict men, women, horses, and ships but does not represent mythical scenes—though there are one or two exceptions belonging to its late phase. But the Geometric period is the Homeric age, which had plenty of myths.

Quite recently, however, a new discovery has put it beyond doubt that myths were represented occasionally even in Mycenaean art. Among the very rich and beautiful contents of the bee-hive tomb at Dendra, near old Mideia, which was excavated in 1926 by Professor Persson, were eight plaques of blue glass, evidently made in a mold, for they are identical. They show a woman sitting on the back of a big bull.28 The representation is very similar to that of the well-known metope from Selinus, and if it had belonged to classical times everybody would have immediately recognized Europa on the back of the bull. I am unable to see why we should not accept this identification, even if the object is Mycenaean.

Among the same finds there are also another glass plaque and fragments of two others which represent a big standing lion and before it a man.29 From the back of the lion a head seems to grow up; the lion's tail is very long. The plaques are in a bad state of preservation so that details are uncertain, but it cannot reasonably be doubted that this is another mythical representation, the Chimaera and Bellerophon. It may seem astonishing that of the two myths illustrated the scenes of both are laid in foreign countries—I shall recur to this topic later.30 A third representation referring to a Greek myth is that of two centaurs, each with a dagger in his hand, on a steatite gem found by Dr. Blegen in a Late Mycenaean tomb during his excavations at the Argive Heraeum.31 Here I wish only to stress the fact that Mycenaean representations of Greek myths actually have come to light. If it is proved that the myths of Europa, of Bellerophon, and of the Centaurs go back into the Mycenaean age, the view will be still more justified that the great mythical cycles also which are attached to the Mycenaean centers go back into the Mycenaean age.


1 See my article "Ueber die Glaubwulrdigkeit der Volksüberlieferung bes. in Bezug auf die alte Geschichte" in the Italian periodical Scientia, 1930, pp. 319 et seq.

2 The lectures of one of my predecessors in the Sather professorship, Professor Myres, came into my hands through the kindness of the author after my lectures had already been written down. Professor Myres thinks that heroic genealogy makes up a fairly reliable chronological scheme. My different standpoint I hope to justify in the following pages. I have tried to take justly into account the circumstances of time, of popular tradition, and of the transmission of epic poetry.

3 P. Friedländer, "Herakles," Philologische Untersuchungen, H. XIX (1907).

4 E. Bethe, Homer, I-III (1914-27; Vol. II, ed. 2, with only slight additions, 1929).

5 U. v. Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, "Die griechische Heldensage, II," Sitzungsberichte der preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1925, p. 241.

6 Below pp. 148 et seq.

7 U. v. Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Die Ilias und Homer (1916), p. 339.

8Il. xxiii, v. 676 et seq.; Hesiod, Erga, v. 161 et seq.

9 H. L. Lorimer, "Defensive Armour in Homer," Liverpool Annals of Archaeology and Anthropology, XV (1928), pp. 89 et seq.; and "Homer's Use of the Past," Journal of Hellenic Studies, XLIX (1929), pp. 145 et seq.

10 Bethe, Ioc. cit.; cp. below p. 45.

11Vide below, pp. 46 et seq.

12 R. v. Pöhlmann, "Zur geschichtlichen Beurteilung Homers," Sybel's historische Zeitschrift, LXXIII (1894), pp. 385 et seq.; reprinted in his "Gesammelte Abhandlungen," Aus Altertum und Gegenwart, I., pp. 56 et seq. What he says, p. 59, is true to this day: "Es ist ein wesentlicher Mangel der modernen Homer-Forschung, dass sie dieses gerade für die geschichtliche Seite der homerischen Frage so überaus wichtige Material bei weitem noch nicht in dem Umfang herangezogen und verwertet hat, in welchem es uns jetzt vorliegt."

13 E. Drerup, "Homerische Poetik," I., Das Homerproblem in der Gegenwart (1921), pp. 27 et seq. Cp. the brief survey by John Meier, Werden und Leben des Volksepos (1909).

14 A. Lang, Homer and his Age (1906), pp. 297 et seq.

15 H. M. Chadwick, The Heroic Age (1912).

16 I hope to be able to give a fuller exposition of this subject in a forthcoming book with the title Homer and Mycenae, the basis of which is a series of lectures delivered in the University of London in 1929.

17 W. Radloff, "Die Sprachen der nördlichen Türkstämme," V, Der Dialekt der Kara-Kirgizen (1885), p. xvi.

18 A. J. Evans, Journal of Hellenic Studies, XXXII (1912), pp. 387 et seq.

19 In my Minoan-Mycenaean Religion, pp. 11 et seq.

20 G. Dumézil, Légendes sur les Nartes (1930).

21 p. Kretschmer, in the periodical Glotta, X (1920), pp. 305 et seq.

22 See my article, "Der mykenische Ursprung der griechischen Mythologie," '[Antidōron] Festschrift für J. Wackernagel (1924), pp. 137, et seq. and my History of Greek Religion, pp. 38 et seq.

23 A good but very summary review of the prehistoric sites and find-places is given by Dr. Fimmen in his book, Die kretisch-mykenische Kultur (1921). The second edition (1924) is merely a reprint with very slight additions. In particular, a better map is needed than the rather poor one which has been added; moreover, the Mycenaean sites ought to be sharply distinguished from the pre-Mycenaean sites. A summary of the reports on excavations and finds with very rich illustrative material is given by the late Professor 0. Montelius in his work, La Gréce préclassique, I, II:2 (1924-28). It is to be regretted that this posthumous work has not been brought up to date.

24 Cp. below pp. 128 and 182.

25 British School at Athens, Annual, IX, p. 58, fig. 36; the latest treatment by S. Marinatos …

26 See e.g. my Minoan-Mycenaean Religion, p. 44, n. 3.

27 A. J. Evans, "The Ring of Nestor, etc.", Journal of Hellenic Studies, XL (1925), pp. I et seq. The genuineness of this most amazing find is vigorously contested; I have given some objections in my Minoan-Mycenaean Religion, pp. 304 et seq.

28 A. W. Persson, Kungagraven i Dendra (1928), p. 123; cp. below p. 38, n. 6.

29Loc. cit., p. 125.

30 Below pp. 53 et seq.

31 Dr. Blegen has kindly shown me a design of this gem, which will be published in his forthcoming work, Prosymna, and has given me his permission to mention it.

Richard Caldwell (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Texts and Contexts," in The Origin of the Gods: A Psychoanalytic Study of Greek Theogonic Myth, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 71-93.

[In the following essay, Caldwell reviews early Greek history to Hesiod and examines similarities between Greek and Near Eastern creation myths.]

Before Hesiod

Shortly before the end of the eighth century B.C., a Boiotian Greek named Hesiod wrote or dictated a poem of some one thousand lines on the beginning of the world, the emergence of the first gods, and the conflicts between generations, which resulted finally in the permanent seizure of power by Zeus, ruler of the world and king over gods and men.1 We do not know what name, if any, Hesiod gave to his poem, but it has always been known as the Theogony, the "Origin of the Gods" (the Greek word is theogonia, from theos, "god," and gone, "birth" or "offspring" or "generation"). The Theogony is also literally a cosmogony, an account of the beginning of the world (from kosmos, "world"), but since in Greek myth as in many creation myths the component parts of the universe as it gradually came into existence were also gods and goddesses, the two terms are here synonymous.

Hesiod and his contemporary Homer stand at one of the great dividing points in Greek history, as authors of the earliest surviving works of Greek literature. Although most modern scholars regard Homer as somewhat earlier than Hesiod, this is not certain; the earliest ancient authorities seemed to think that Hesiod was earlier than Homer, and they may be correct. The very fact that priority is disputable shows that there is no incontrovertible evidence that either Homer or Hesiod knew the works of the other. What similarities exist between the two poets should not be taken as borrowings or references, but rather as signs they both were composing within a long-established tradition of oral poetry, which now, for the first time, could be preserved in writing.

Hesiod and Homer invented neither writing nor literature, but their works were the first committed to writing in the alphabetic script the Greeks borrowed from Phoenicia, probably during the eight century.2 Once before the Greeks had possessed a method of writing, the syllabic script known as Linear B, which the Myceneans adopted from Minoan Crete. The use of Linear B, however, seems to have ended with the destruction of Mycenean civilization 500 years before Hesiod, and in any case the surviving Linear B material contains nothing literary or mythological except for the names of a few gods, some of them familiar.

It is not only literature that began to receive definite form at the time of Hesiod; Greek history itself can be said to have begun during the eighth century. Everything before this time, despite the brief presence of Mycenean writing, is prehistoric in the sense that virtually all we know about the way people lived, including their religious beliefs and myths, is based on the physical remains studied by archaeologists and not on written records. For this reason almost everything said in the following survey of Greek prehistory is probable at best; the present state of our knowledge does not allow certainty in most matters, and in some of the most important does not even guarantee probability. This is not true, at least to the same extent, of the ancient Near East, where written records and literature existed long before the arrival of the first Greek-speaking people in Greece, starting at the end of the third millennium. Nevertheless the question of influence and exchange between Greece and the East during the prehistoric period is still largely a mystery.

The Greek language is Indo-European; that is, it belongs to the large family of languages derived from a single language spoken by a hypothetical people who lived in northeast Europe or northwest Asia during the Neolithic period. In irregular waves of migration from the beginning of the third millennium to the middle of the second, descendants of this people spread throughout Europe and into central Asia as far east as India. One branch of these Indo-European nomads, who spoke an early form of the language we now know as Greek, entered the mainland of Greece around the beginning of the second millennium. They presumably brought with them both poetry and a polytheistic religion in which the chief god was associated with fatherhood and the sky, since these are elements of the general Indo-European tradition. In Greece they met, probably conquered, and merged with a native people, the early Helladic culture of the beginning of the Greek Bronze Age; before the coming of the Greeks, metallurgy had been introduced into Helladic Greece from the east, just as argiculture, the domestication of animals, and the painting of pottery had come earlier to Greece from Mesopotamia through Asia Minor. We know hardly anything about Helladic religion, of which only a few figurines have survived; whether it may have resembled the religion of nearby Minoan Crete remains a guess.

When the first Greeks entered Greece, one of the great civilizations of the ancient world was already flourishing on the island of Crete to the south. This culture, known as Minoan after Minos, the mythical king of Crete, had been in contact with the Near East and Egypt during the third millennium; thanks to these contacts (which were to increase greatly during the second millennium), a favorable climate, and a protected location, the Minoans had developed a prosperous civilization with large unfortified cities, great royal palaces, and spectacular refinements in art and architecture. The Minoans also possessed writing in the form of a pictographic or hieroglyphic script, which developed later into Linear A, the syllabary that the Myceanean Greeks adopted to write Greek. Since neither Minoan scripts have been deciphered, all our evidence for Minoan religion is pictorial and conjectural. A goddess (or probably goddesses, who may yet represent different aspects of one goddess), presumably associated with the earth and fertility, seems to be the dominant figure; male figures who may be gods appear, and later myths such as Hesiod's story of the infancy of Zeus on Crete (Theogony 468-84) may point to a Minoan myth of a son or consort (or both) of a goddess.

Within a few centuries of their arrival, the Greek rulers of the mainland came squarely under the influence of the Minoans. The power and cultural sophistication of the mainland increased rapidly through the Middle Helladic period and reached its height during the late Helladic period, the sixteenth through the thirteenth centuries. Meanwhile the Minoan civilization, at its greatest during the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries, went into decline after the destruction of the palaces, caused perhaps by the eruption of the volcanic island Thera around 1450.

The Late Helladic period, the final phase of the Bronze Age on the Greek mainland, is most commonly named the Mycenean period, since the city of Mycenae in the Peloponnese seems to have been the most important Myceanean center (an assumption strengthened by the pre-eminence of Mycenae and its king Agamemnon in the myths of the Trojan War). The chief Mycenean cities—Mycenae, Tiryns, and Argos in the Argolis, Pylos in Messenia, Thebes and Orchomenos in Boiotia, lolkos (modern Volos) in Thessaly, Eleusis and Athens in Attika, as well as Knossos on Crete, which was taken over by the Myceneans during this period—all play a significant role in later myth, and it is this period that provides the setting for much of Greek myth as it was later known to Hesiod and Homer.

Minoan influence on Mycenean civilization is so extensive that the few exceptions stand out clearly. There is nothing in Crete like the battle scenes in Mycenean art, or the enormous Cyclopean fortifications that protect the Mycenean citadels (the archaeological term is derived from myths crediting the one-eyed giants called Kyklopes with building these walls; post-Mycenean Greeks did not believe that ordinary mortals could have lifted the great stone blocks). Mycenean frescoes, jewelry, pottery painting and shapes, and architecture (with such exceptions as the distinctive Helladic room-style called the megaron) imitated Minoan models so closely that it is often difficult to tell them apart. Whether the same assimilation applied to religion and myth is impossible to say; the iconographic evidence shows great similarity, but the absence of literary records makes these pictorial data difficult to interpret. The figure of a bull, for example, appears everywhere in the Minoan remains—on buildings, frescoes, pottery, and jewelry and in sacrificial, ritual, and athletic contexts—and the bull is very prominent in later Greek myths concerning Crete, but the exact connection between artifacts and myth is impossible to establish. In the case of Mycenean culture we have the advantage of written records in a known language, but since the Linear B tablets are almost entirely inventories and accounting records of the religious and political bureaucracy, all they can tell us are the names of some deities and the facts that sacrificial cults existed and that the religious system was highly organized.

Names on the Linear B tablets that correspond with gods and goddesses in later Greek religion include Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hermes, Enyalios (a double of Ares), Paiaon (an epithet of Apollo), Erinys (an epithet of Demeter, as well as the singular form of the three Erinyes or Furies), Eleuthia, and perhaps Athena, Artemis, Ares, Dione, and Dionysos. In addition, there is a goddess, or many goddesses, called Potnia ("lady" or "mistress"), a name occurring usually but not always with some qualification: Potnia of horses, Potnia of grain, Potnia of the labyrinth, and so forth. Finally there are several deities whose names do not appear later, such as Manasa, Drimios the son of Zeus, and Posidaija (a feminine form of Poseidon). The tablets, on a few of which these names appear, were found in great number at Knossos and Pylos and in smaller quantities at Mycenae and Thebes; they were preserved by the fires that accompanied the destruction of these sites during the fourteenth through twelfth centuries.

The end of Mycenean civilization coincided with general disruption in the eastern Mediterranean area and may be due, at least partially, to the raids of the mysterious Sea Peoples, who appear most prominently in Egyptian records. A major role may also have been played by the movement into central Greece and the Peloponnese of new groups of Greek-speaking peoples from the northwest, the Dorian invasion. Only Athens and its surrounding area, and a few isolated places in the Peloponnese, escaped destruction. Most survivors of this turbulent period probably remained in Greece under the new Dorian regime, but the level of culture changed radically; writing, building in stone, and representational art disappeared, and cultural depression and poverty were widespread, especially in the century or two immediately following the Mycenean collapse. A Mycenean group fled to the island of Cyprus soon after the Dorian invasion; they were followed, toward the end of the second millennium, by large-scale migrations from the Greek mainland to the eastern Aegean islands and the coast of Asia Minor. Aiolians from Boiotia and Thessaly moved into the northern part of this area, lonians (a mixed group chiefly from Attika and Euboia, but perhaps including temporary refugees in Athens from other parts of Greece) occupied the central section, and Dorians settled in the south, including Crete. A cultural revival began in Athens around 1050, marked by a distinctive pottery style called Proto-Geometric, and gradually spread throughout the Greek world. Other than changes in the Geometric pottery series and a great increase in the use of iron during the eleventh century, however, there is little we can say about Greek higher culture during the period 1200 to 800, appropriately called the "Dark Age" of Greece.

The Question of Influence

The poetic tradition in which Hesiod wrote has obvious connections not only with the Minoan-Mycenean world but also with the Near East and western Asia. The end of the Dark Age and the beginning of the Archaic period is marked by an increase in population and prosperity after an extended period of relative calm and stability. Prosperity both brought and benefited from rapidly expanding trade relations with the Near East, especially Syria and Phoenicia. A wealth of new ideas poured into Greece, including the Orientalizing style in pottery and, of course, the alphabet. But this is not the first time that Greece came into contact with the great civilizations to the east. The Minoan and Mycenean civilizations both traded actively in the eastern Mediterranean, the Minoans especially with Egypt and the Myceneans especially with the Ugaritic cities of Syria and the Hittite empire in north Syria and the interior of Asia Minor. The island of Cyprus, located much nearer to Syria than to Greece, must have been a favorable place for the exchange of goods and ideas; after early contacts with Asia Minor and Syria, it was colonized by Myceneans from the fifteenth century through the massive migrations of the thirteenth and twelfth centuries, and seems to have received Syrian and Phoenician colonists during the ninth century.

These are merely the most obvious times and places for Greek acquaintance with the Near East. In fact, there is no time throughout and even before the entire Bronze Age and early Iron Age at which such contact can be absolutely ruled out. Furthermore, a still more complex network of diffusion and transmission existed within the Near East itself. The situation is summarized by Kirk:

The Near East and western Asia in the third and second millennia … were a cauldron of customs and ideas that passed from Mesopotamia to Egypt and occasionally back again, to Syria and Asia Minor and into the Aegean, to Cyprus and Crete and the Greek mainland. Semitic tribes absorbed concepts from Indo-Iranian ones and vice versa. Indo-European-speaking Hittites derived their theology from the non-Indo-European Hurrians, the Semitic Akkadians from the non-Semitic Sumerians. The Aegean peoples were in contact during the second millennium with Trojans and Hittites in Asia Minor, with Egypt through casual trade and mercenaries, with the Levant through Cyprus and trading posts in Syria and Palestine.3

West notes that "Ugarit [or Ras Shamra, the most important city of Canaanite Syria from 1450 to 1350] was an extremely important center of trade—no less than seven languages are represented on the tablets found there."4 Nor was Ugarit unique in its cosmopolitan connections; a similar situation and the same number of languages existed at the contemporary Hittite capital of Hattusas, where tablets have been recovered written in Hittite, Akkadian, Sumerian, Hurrian, Hattite, Luwian, and Palaic.

No other subject has attracted the attention of scholars working on the Theogony as much as the question of how, and how much, his subject was influenced by the myths of the Near East. There are several instances in which it is clear that the Hesiodic theogony is derived from Near Eastern sources, and many for which such derivation is claimed by some and denied by others. In order to demonstrate derivation, it is not enough to point out separate characters, functions, and ideas in Hesiod that have identical or rather similar parallels in Asiatic literature, and then to select the most probable means by which these concepts traveled from East to West. If this approach were valid, little in Hesiod could be regarded as a Greek original, since an Asiatic parallel could be cited for most single and separate elements. Kirk attributes "the apearance in different places of vaguely similar or very general ideas (like those of a mother goddess, a storm god or the moulding of mankind out of clay)" to the continual and widespread diffusion of customs and ideas throughout the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia; the direct influence, however, of one culture upon another cannot be demonstrated by parallels such as these, but "only when a rather complex and specific motif occurs in two distinct places and not elsewhere."5 Kirk's argument that derivation can be shown only by the similarity of complicated patterns instead of isolated elements is quite true (despite the facts that single elements can be and certainly were transmitted from one people to another, and that, as Kirk admits, the determination of how much complexity is sufficient to prove derivation is always a subjective judgment). A similar argument could be made by comparing Greek myths with those of cultures the Greeks could not have known directly or indirectly. Parallels can be found outside of Europe, Asia, and north Africa for many of the elements in Hesiod; to take Kirk's three examples, the notions of a mother-goddess, a storm-god, and creation from clay appear regularly in the myths of Africa, Australia, and the Americas (as well as the ideas of an original void, the theft of fire, and many others), and there simply were not enough intercontinental land bridges around in the prehistoric era to explain all these parallels as the result of diffusion and influence.

The Enuma Elish

Two Eastern myths are most frequently cited as examples of Hesiod's dependence on non-Greek sources. First is the Akkadian-Babylonian creation epic, called the Enuma Elish (the first two words of the poem), a ritual text that was recited annually to the god Marduk on the fourth day of the New Year's festival. Although no texts written earlier than the end of the second millennium are known, the epic was once generally regarded as having been composed during the Amorite or Old Babylonian dynasty (nineteenth-seventeenth centuries), the age of the famous law-giver Hammurabi. More recent opinion, however, has tended to reject this early dating and to place the composition of the epic during the Kassite period (the four centuries following the Old Babylonian period) or even later.6 Precise dating is not as important in regard to possible influence on Greece as some have thought; even if a late date is correct, the epic is based on earlier Akkadian and Sumerian material, and presumably the theogonic material at the beginning of the poem would be oldest and least resistant to change, as opposed to the detailed accounts of Marduk's new dispensation. The epic is written in the Akkadian dialect and, like most Babylonian mythological texts, is greatly dependent on Sumerian myths.

The Sumerians, whose language was neither Indo-European nor Semitic, were the first great civilization of Mesopotamia. They dominated the area throughout the third millennium, except for two centuries (about 2340-2150) during which Mesopotamia was ruled by the Semitic kingdom founded by the legendary Sargon, king of Akkad. The Sumerians regained dominance during the Third Dynasty of Ur (2125-2000), but disappeared as a separate people after another defeat by Semitic armies. The Sumerian language was no longer spoken, but continued to be written as an official language of some religious, political, and literary documents. Sumerian achievements in religion, literature, architecture, law, astronomy, and economic organization were adopted by succeeding Semitic peoples, and Sumerian culture remained the leading influence on the civilizations of Mesopotamia. When the Old Babylonian empire, perhaps Hammurabi himself, set out to validate their rule and that of their god Marduk, the Summerian creation myth was rewritten to make Marduk the ultimate ruler of all the gods and the Enuma Elish, or an earlier version, was composed.

The Enuma Elish7 begins with the union of primal waters, Apsu and Mummu-Tiamat; Apsu is male fresh waters and Tiamat is female sea waters (the epithet Mummu probably means "mother"). Within their waters were born the first gods: Lahmu and Lahamu, then Anshar and Kishar, then their son Anu (Sky) and Anu's son Ea, chief of the gods. The new gods disturbed Apsu and Tiamat by their "loathsome" and "unsavory" behavior within the body of Tiamat, and Apsu decided to destroy the gods. Tiamat protested, but Apsu persisted with his plan. Then Ea, the "all-wise," learned of Apsu's intention, cast a spell upon him, and killed him. Ea now married Damkina and their son was Marduk, a giant with four eyes and four ears.

Some of the gods complained to Tiamat about Marduk and persuaded her to avenge Apsu. With the help of "Mother Hubur" (perhaps the earth goddess), who produced eleven monstrous children, Tiamat appointed Kingu, one of the "older gods," as commander, gave him the "Tablet of Destinies," and prepared for battle. Ea went to Anshar for help and Anshar sent Anu to confront Tiamat, but Anu (like Ea before him) turned back in fear. Anshar then sent for Marduk, who agreed to fight Tiamat if the assembled gods proclaimed him as supreme ruler. They granted Marduk his wish and, armed with a bow, mace, lightning, a net, eleven winds, and a storm-chariot, he went to face Tiamat. At first sight of the "inside of Tiamat" and "Kingu, her consort," Marduk and his followers were temporarily confused and alarmed, but he quickly recovered and engaged Tiamat in single combat; first, however, he accused her of having caused a situation in which "sons reject their own fathers," of having given to Kingu the rightful position of Anu, of plotting evil against Anshar, and of not loving those whom she should.

In the combat Marduk snared Tiamat in his net; when she opened her mouth to swallow him, he sent in winds to hold her mouth open and her stomach distended, then shot in an arrow and killed her. All her helpers, including Kingu and the monsters, were captured and imprisoned, and Marduk cut Tiamat's body in half to create the sky and the earth. He then gave to the great gods (Anu, Ea, and Enlil) their proper places, arranged the weather and the heavenly bodies, and created the features of the earth from parts of Tiamat's body. Finally Ea created mankind from the blood of the rebel Kingu, for the express purpose of serving the gods. The epic ends with the building of a great temple in Babylon for Marduk, where a banquet is held at which the grateful gods recite the fifty honorific names of Marduk.

There are clear similarities between the Babylonian and Greek theogonies, and there are also many differences. Both begin with a primal couple (Apsu and Tiamat/Ouranos and Gaia) from whom the other gods are descended; children remain within the body of the first mother and are hated by their father; a solution is found by a clever god (Ea/Kronos) who defeats the father; the son (Marduk, who replaced Sumerian Enlil/Zeus) of the clever god then becomes king, but first must defeat monstrous enemies (the older gods and the monsters produced by Hubur, who seems functionally equivalent to Gaia and Rhea/the Titans, the Giants, and Typhoeus, all of whom are children of Gaia); mankind is created either by the clever god or during his reign.

Differences between the two epics, however, are more obvious than similarities, as a few examples will show. The first Babylonian couple are both water-gods, while the first Greek couple are Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (Sky); the clever god Ea overthrows Apsu (Fresh Waters), not his father Anu (Sky), while Kronos overthrows his father Ouranos—in fact, the Babylonian Sky and his son (Anu and Ea) are allies against their common enemy Apsu; likewise Zeus overthrows his father Kronos and Kronos' brothers, while Marduk succeeds his great-grandfather Anshar, who is called "king of the gods," and defeats neither his father Ea nor Anshar, but is their champion against Tiamat.

It is unnecessary to extend the comparison, since it is clear that both myths share the same very general pattern, and that there is not much correspondence in details, especially the family relationships of characters to one another. Another recently discovered Babylonian theogony also displays a pattern similar to the Greek succession myth, but with characters different from either Hesiod or the Enuma Elish.8 In it the first couple are Hain and Earth; Earth commands her son Amakandu to marry her, which he does and kills his father Hain; Amakandu then marries his sister Sea and their son Lahar kills his father and marries his mother; the unnamed son of Lahar and Sea kills both his parents and marries his sister River; their son kills his parents and marries his sister Ga'um; their son kills his parents and marries his sister Ningeshtinna; at this point the tablet becomes unreadable, although the same cyclic pattern of violence and incest seems to continue. While this theogony can hardly be a model for the Hesiodic version, it is nonetheless closer to it than the Enuma Elish in its insistence on father-son conflict and incest (both mother-son and brother-sister) as primary motives. On the other hand, incest is found (and is often logically necessary) in creation myths from around the world; this is especially true of the earliest cosmogonic myths of India, although it should be remembered that Hindu myth is Indo-European and therefore shares a common background with Greek myth.

Walcott has made an elaborate and impressive attempt to derive Hesiod's Theogony primarily from the Enuma Elish and other Babylonian material with which the Greeks became familiar at the beginning of the Archaic period, but his views have not met general acceptance.9 It is probably best to say that the Enuma Elish, whatever its date (Walcott would put it around 1100), represents a common theogonic pattern in the Near East during the second millennium, which regularly was subject to local adaptation (as Marduk could replace Enlil, his Sumerian equivalent, or the Assyrian god Ashur could replace Marduk), and that the Greeks could have learned of this pattern at any time, the most probable guess being during the Minoan-Mycenean era.

"Kingship in Heaven"

Our second example, regarded by most as the closest Near Eastern parallel to Hesiod, is the Hurrian-Hittite myth called "Kingship in Heaven" with its sequel, the "Song of Ullikummi." The Hurrians were a non-Indo-European, non-Semitic people (as were also the Sumerians) who moved south into Assyria at the beginning of the second millennium and eventually migrated across northern Mesopotamia into Syria. They adopted many aspects of Mesopotamian culture, and it may be through Hurrian versions for the most part that the Greeks came to know Sumerian and Babylonian myths. The Hittites were an Indo-European tribe who appeared in Asia Minor about 1800; by the fourteenth century they had won control of Syria, and during the New Kingdom (about 1450-1200) they were one of the great powers of the Near East. The Hittites were approximate contemporaries of the Myceneans, and their two languages are our earliest examples of a written Indo-European language (in both cases in a borrowed script—the Myceneans used the Minoan syllabary and the Hittites used the Babylonian cuneiform). Some of the more than 10,000 texts found at the Hittite capital Hattusas are mythological and religious, and most of these are Hittite versions of Hurrian myths, which had themselves been influenced by Mesopotamian precedents.

"Kingship in Heaven"10 begins with the reign of Alalu in heaven; after nine years, he was overthrown by Anu (Sky) and went down to the "dark earth"; Anu ruled for nine years and then was attacked by Kumarbi and fled to the sky; Kumarbi pursued, seized Anu by the feet, and then bit off and swallowed Anu's genitals; when Kumarbi began to laugh, Anu told him that because of what he had swallowed he was now pregnant with three gods: the Storm-God Heshub (the chief god of the Hurrians and Hittites), the river Aranzaha (the Tigris), and Tasmisu (an attendant of the Storm-God); Anu now hid in the sky and Kumarbi spat out what he could (later Aranzaha and Tasmisu will be born from the earth), but the Storm-God remained inside him; Anu now spoke to the Storm-God and the two had a long debate about how the Storm-God should escape from Kumarbi's body; Kumarbi became dizzy and asked Aya (Ea) for something to eat; he ate something (variously read as "stone" or "son"), but it hurt his mouth; finally the Storm-God, after being warned not to exit through other orifices, especially the anus, came out through Kumarbi's "good place," evidently his penis;11 at this point the text becomes unreadable, but the Storm-God must defeat Kumarbi and become king.

In the "Song of Ullikummi" Kumarbi plots revenge; he had intercourse repeatedly with a huge female rock, who gave birth to a stone child, Ullikummi; the child was hidden from the Storm-God and placed on the right shoulder of Ubelluri (the Hurrian Atlas), where he grew at the rate of an acre per month; the first battle between the Storm-God and Ullikummi, who was now 9000 leagues high, ended with the Storm-God's defeat; the gods were upset and threatened by Ullikummi, and Ea ordered the "old gods" to bring out the ancient copper "cutter" with which heaven and earth had been separated, and to use this to cut through the feet of Ullikummi; the Storm-God again came to fight Ullikummi (and must defeat him, although the final lines cannot be read).

The parallels between the Hurrian and Hesiodic myths are clear once we eliminate the reign of Alalu: Anu is equivalent to Ouranos, Kumarbi to Kronos, and the Storm-God to Zeus; Anu and Ouranos are both castrated and various gods are born from their severed genitals; Kumarbi and Kronos castrate their fathers and have children inside themselves; the Storm-God and Zeus win the kingship of the gods, then must win a second victory over an enormous monster (Ullikummi/Typhoeus).

The parallels cannot be pressed too far. For example, is the Storm-God the son of Kumarbi, from whom he is born, or of Anu, whose genitals make Kumarbi pregnant, or of both, with Anu as father and Kumarbi as mother? Also, Zeus, unlike the Storm-God, never shares his siblings' fate of being inside Kronos but is rescued by the trickery of Rhea and Gaia. As for the similarity between the monsters Ullikummi and Typhoeus, the Hurrian myth seems closer to the much later version of Apollodoros (1.6.3) than to Hesiod's (but according to Apollodoros it is Zeus, not the monster, whose feet are cut through).12

Kirk's use of a structuralist model to show that the Hurrian and Hesiodic versions are independent of one another is no more plausible than his discovery on the basis of this model that the underlying message of Hesiod's succession myth is a combination of "an eye for an eye" and "crime doesn't pay."13 Nevertheless Kirk's conclusion that "the Greek version may be ultimately derived from a pre-Hurrian koine account"14 is as likely a conjecture as the limited evidence available to us will allow and coincides with West's suggestion that the Greek and Hurrian myths "represent common descendants of a version itself derived from Mesopotamia."15 Where the Babylonian Enuma Elish would appear in this line of derivation would depend on its early or late dating, and in any case is not as important as the recognition that the Greek Theogony occupies a relatively late position in a complex, widespread, and interrelated theogonic tradition encompassing western Asia and the Mediterranean.

Fire and Water

The project of identifying or refuting lines of connection between myths of successive or separate cultures, by far the major occupation of scholars who have studied Hesiod cross-culturally, takes on a much different (in fact, almost diametrically opposed) aspect when the subject is approached from a psychoanalytic viewpoint. The accusation of "reductionism" so often made against psychoanalytic studies would seem more applicable to an approach that reduces the explanation of cross-cultural similarities in myth to one of two possibilities: culture A copied X from culture B, or culture A did not copy X from culture B (in which case the similarity is explained by a suspiciously Jungian reference to "general" or even "universal" concepts). Chinese and Americans both enjoy Chinese food, but to show how America learned of Chinese cuisine is not the same thing as explaining why it was adopted or why it is enjoyed.

The proposition that one (perhaps the most important) reason why myths are invented, borrowed, and retained is their success in responding to the emotional needs of a culture leads to certain conclusions:

  1. The similarity of isolated elements in the myths of different cultures is potentially as significant as the repetition of complex patterns. Either case is as likely to reveal a common response to a common need.
  2. The complexity of similar patterns in different cultures is a major determinant of the possibility of transmission from one to the other, but transmission only occurs freely (that is, without compulsion) when the transmitted myth responds to the needs of its adoptive culture better than other alternatives. This may help explain why a conquering people so often assumes the myths of the conquered.
  3. The appearance of similar elements or patterns in cases where transmission is impossible does not happen by chance (nor because of a "collective unconscious"), but may result from the existence of independent but similar psychocultural situations. This is one reason why theogonic elements similar to Hesiod's version appear in such distant areas as subsaharan Africa, Polynesia, and the Orient.
  4. That there is more similarity than difference in myths worldwide follows from the fact that there is more similarity than difference in virtually all cultures in regard to the conditions of growing up in a family with acknowledged parents and of attempting to establish satisfactory relationships with other persons within the cultural framework.
  5. Like the apparently insignificant detail in a manifest dream that clarifies or reveals the latent meaning, an element, motif, or pattern in the myths of one culture may throw unexpected light on the meaning of myths in another culture. This is not a license for the Jungian attribution of any meaning to any concept anywhere—cultures are different, and even if the primary emotional concerns embodied in myth are similar for all humans, the modalities in which they are expressed are largely culture-specific—but cross-cultural reference is valuable when it supplies a missing link to, or verifies or illuminates, an argument already probable on the basis of internal considerations.

An interesting example of the occurrence of a similar mythic pattern in two cultures that share a common background is found in the comparison of Greek and Hindu concepts of ambrosia, a special food eaten by the gods and providing them with immortality. Both cultures are Indo-European and the original idea of a magical food of the gods must be derived from an early common source; the concept is ubiquitous in Indo-European cultures, and the Greek word ambrosia is cognate with Sanskrit amrta (the literal meaning of both words is "immortality"). Nevertheless it is unthinkable that the complexity and force of these concepts as they developed independently can be explained by derivation or influence.

There are actually two Sanskrit words for ambrosia, amrta and soma. Soma is the name of the moon and of a god, but both of these usages are derived from its two primary meanings: the name of a plant whose juice is offered (and sometimes drunk) during the Vedic oblation ritual, and the name of the elixir that provides immortality.16 What men offer in sacrifice is carried to the gods by fire and smoke and becomes what gods eat; amrta and soma are usually synonymous, but if a distinction is made between them it is that amrta is soma after the sacrificial transformation has occurred. Amrta and soma are thus, respectively, the narrow and broad definitions of the same thing. It might be said that amrta represents a particular form of soma, but this is probably too limiting; the two words share certain extended meanings and associations (for example, with milk or rain).

The god principally associated with soma is Agni, the Hindu god of fire. As the fire that consumes the sacrifice, whether liquid or solid, Agni is called the "Oblation-Eater," and as the "Oblation-Bearer" he is the smoke rising from the sacrifice to feed the gods and give them immortality. But in addition to carrying the sacrificial offerings up to heaven, he also makes the journey from heaven to earth, sometimes in the form of a bird, carrying fire or soma in his beak or in a hollow reed.

The elemental opposition of fire and water that appears in the oblation sacrifice is conspicuous throughout the myths of Agni and soma. Agni seems most at home in water, as in the many myths in which he flees from the gods and hides in water, often in order to dictate to the gods a redistribution of the sacrificial portions. The notion of fire-in-liquid is balanced by that of liquid-in-fire, especially the soma sacrifice, which must pass through fire to reach the gods but retains its liquid nature so that it can be drunk by them (but not by mortals). In the several versions of the "submarine mare" myth we find liquid-in-fire-in-liquid: when a great fire threatened to destroy the universe, Brahma put the fire in the body of a mare with fiery ambrosia in her mouth and then put the mare in the ocean to be kept until the final flood. Soma itself is first created from the ocean, when all the gods and demons churn its waters with the uprooted mountain Mandara; a huge fire caused by friction from the churning burned the herbs on the mountain, and their juices (called "liquid gold") flowed into the ocean which, mixed with the soma juice, turned first to milk, then to clarified butter (the two usual oblation liquids), and finally produced for the gods a white bowl of ambrosia.

The underlying meaning of fire/water and ambrosia is its analogy with semen, an equivalence that appears explicitly on many occasions, especially in the earliest Hindu myths (written versions of the Rg Veda, Brahmanas, and Upanishads are generally dated 1200-700). In a Rg Veda creation myth, with Sky as father and Earth as mother, Agni makes the semen of the creator god. In the Brahmanas, the semen of Prajapati, lord of creatures, is cast into the sacrificial fire in place of the usual liquid oblation (or, conversely, Prajapati produces milk and clarified butter and fire through manipulating his own body by "rubbing" or "churning"); in another variant, found in the Jaiminiya Brahmana, Tvastr throws soma into the sacrificial fire and Vrtra is born. The most explicit statement occurs in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad: "Now, whatever is moist he [Brahma, the Creator] created from semen, and that is soma. All this universe is food and the eater of food [i.e., soma and fire]. For soma is food, and Agni is the eater of food."17

Semen is the combination of fire and water, a liquid that contains the spark of life.18 The semen of the gods is always fiery: in the Kalika Purana, the earth conceives from the "fiery semen" of Vishnu; in the Shiva Purana the burning semen of Shiva is passed from Agni to the gods, the wives of six of the Seven Sages, the mountain Himalaya, and the river Ganges, none of whom can bear its "feverish burning" until finally the son of Shiva is born.

Tantalos and Prometheus

Even this brief sketch of the Hindu concept recalls many Greek parallels. Most obvious is the function of Zeus' rain and lightning, water and fire, as the two means by which the sky god impregnates the earth goddess.19 Or the nine years' sojourn of Hephaistos, the Greek Agni, in the cavern of Thetis under the ocean.20 But we should begin with the actual occurrence in Greek myth of ambrosia, the equivalent of amrta and soma.

The key Greek myth concerning ambrosia is the story of Tantalos, who lived in that early time (perhaps the golden age) when men lived and dined together. Tantalos wanted to prove himself equal or superior to the gods, and the close relations then of gods and men provided him with the opportunity for a great crime, as a result of which he was punished with eternal hunger and thirst in Tartaros. He is said to have revealed the gods' secrets, or to have served his cooked son Pelops to the gods when they came to his house for dinner, or to have stolen ambrosia. The usual explanation of these crimes is quite general and obvious: men who want to be like gods, men who overstep the boundaries between men and gods, are guilty of hybris, and so the crimes of Tartaros are variant violations of the Delphic prescription "nothing in excess."

We can be more specific, however, about this "infringement of Zeus' prerogative."21 From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, the crimes of Tantalos are oedipal transgressions,22 similar to the offenses of the other three sexual criminals who receive special punishment in Tartaros. Sisyphos also was guilty of revealing the gods' secrets, and in his case the sexual and voyeuristic nature of the crime is clear, while Ixion and Tityos each tried to have a sexual relationship with one of Zeus' wives, either Hera or Leto. The second crime of Tantalos is both oedipal and counter-oedipal; like Ouranos and Kronos, he tries to kill his potential successor and furthermore he does this in order to prove his superiority over Zeus,23 who, we should remember, is the real (as well as symbolic) father of Tantalos.

Tantalos' third crime, the theft of ambrosia, fits this general pattern, as an hybristic and oedipal attack on the prerogative of his father Zeus. At this point it would seem both appropriate and justifiable to introduce the Hindu analogy; soma and ambrosia, the food of the gods and the source of their immortality, are also symbolic manifestations of paternal sexuality, as the Hindu myths explicitly state. What Tantalos wants, when he steals ambrosia (and in his other crimes as well), is to acquire the sexual power and freedom of his father Zeus.

This interpretation can be argued by a Greek analogy as well as by comparison to the Hindu myths. The other great example in Greek myth of the usurpation of a divine (that is, paternal) prerogative is the theft of fire from Zeus by the Titan Prometheus. We would already expect, from the Hindu parallels, that the divine fire signifies paternal sexuality, and this meaning is repeatedly confirmed in Greek philosophy and myth (to cite just one example, when Zeus is deceived into making love to Semele in his true form, the hapless girl is consumed in the god's fiery sexuality).24 The theft of fire is a sexual crime, and therefore Prometheus receives virtually the same punishment as the giant Tityos received for his attempted rape of Zeus' wife; both are bound in chains while birds (an eagle or two vultures) eat their livers. Thus the sexual nature of Prometheus' crime, like the overtly sexual crimes of the other sufferers in Tartaros, confirms the sexual nature of Tantalos' crime, and the Hindu associations of soma and fire with semen and with each other further strengthen this interpretation.

The similarities between Tantalos and Prometheus extend beyond the obvious connection between ambrosia and fire, and supplement their roles as oedipal pretenders. In Hesiod's account (Theogony 507-616), the quarrel between Zeus and Prometheus began at Mekone, where gods and men met to make a decision concerning the distribution of sacrifices. Prometheus cut up a sacrificed ox and placed before men the meat covered by the skin and stomach, while before Zeus he put the bones "rightly arranged and covered with shining fat" (541). Although Hesiod says that Zeus "recognized the trick" (551) but acted as if he did not, commentators agree that in the original version Zeus really was deceived and that the Hesiodic account is an attempt to rescue Zeus from the charge of being duped.25 In his anger Zeus took back from men the gift of fire, but Prometheus again deceived him by stealing fire and carrying it to men in a hollow reed. As a result Zeus punished mankind by the creation of Pandora, the first woman, and condemned Prometheus to be tortured by the eagle eternally.

The meeting at Mekone, as West notes, "must be the one that took place at the end of the period when men and gods lived and ate together."26 Kirk agrees that men and gods "met at Mekone for the last time," adding "Their decision to separate must have been caused by the end of the golden age, the displacement of Kronos and the new rule of Zeus," and he also connects the meeting at Mekone with the dinner of Tantalos (along with the weddings of Peleus and Thetis and Kadmos and Harmonia) as examples of the relationship between men and gods in a golden age.27 All three of Tantalos' crimes could only occur in the hypothetical conditions of a golden age if, as Kirk indicates, one of the characteristics of this era was the intimate association of gods with men. The same is true of the criminal Ixion, who conceived his passion for Hera during his frequent visits to Olympos.

Neither Kirk nor West notices, however, the similarity that exists between the deceptions employed by Prometheus and Tantalos. Each of them chooses the communal meal for his crime, and each conceals something beneath the surface of the food in an ambiguously successful attempt to deceive the gods; Zeus may recognize Prometheus' trick but chooses the wrong portion anyway, while the other gods recognize Tantalos' trick except for Demeter, who eats a shoulder of Pelops.

The myths of Prometheus and Tantalos, then, are virtual doubles of one another; each of them is punished for having stolen the sexual possession of the gods and also for having deceived the gods by a meal with hidden contents. The difference between them lies in the permanent punishment of the mortal Tantalos and the eventual victory of the god Prometheus, a victory, moreover, that consists precisely in reminding Zeus that only by a limitation of his sexual activity (in fact, by giving up a desired female to another male) will he avoid being overthrown by an oedipal rival, the son who is destined to be greater than his father."28

At this point we could once more turn to the Hindu myths for comparison. The theft of fire from the gods, as we have seen, is often accompanied by a dispute concerning the distribution of the parts of a sacrifice; a Rg Veda version in which Agni claims for himself the "nourishing part of the offering"29 is particularly reminiscent of the Promethean division. The punishments of both Prometheus and mankind also have Hindu parallels. Although the conception of the liver as the organ of desire does not appear in Greek literature until 200 years after Hesiod, this does not mean that it did not exist before Aeschylus; if it did, the particular torment of Prometheus may be compared to Agni, who appears "tortured with desire" in the Mahabharata and is punished with "feverish burning" of a clearly sexual nature for having stolen the semen of Shiva in the Shiva Purana. Mortal men, on the other hand, are punished by Zeus through the creation of Pandora, the first woman and the source of all evils for men; similarly we read in the Mahabharata that "there is nothing more evil than women" and that God "created women by a magic ritual in order to delude mankind."30

There is, of course, not much in those sections of Greek myth concerned principally with the gods that cannot find a parallel somewhere in the interminable Hindu myth cycles. Still I cannot resist mentioning one more, in connection with Hesiod's account of the birth of Aphrodite from the severed phallus of Ouranos, which Kronos threw into the ocean. Aphrodite's name means "born from foam," and the phallus of Ouranos is surrounded by foam; as West notes, "Aphrodite is formed in foam to explain her name."31 Association of the goddess of desire with the phallus is not difficult to understand, but why the connection with foam? Hesiod may put Aphrodite in foam because he found foam in her name, but how is foam connected with Aphrodite in the first place? The association must result, I would think, from a prior connection with the phallus and consequently from a visual similarity between semen and the foam excreted by the sea.

Again in the Mahabharata, soma, a mythic counterpart of semen, is created by the gods in the form of the foam produced by churning the ocean with an uprooted mountain; the sexual symbolism of this cosmic penetration is obvious. The Sanskrit verb that means "churn" is manth, a word that embodies many of the associations we have been discussing. Its primary reference is "vigorous backwards and forwards motion of any sort"; it also refers to the production of fire from fire sticks, sexual activity, and stealing (especially the theft of soma), it is related to the name Mandara (the mountain used for churning soma), and it is cognate with the Greek Prometheus.32 In addition, the name "Prometheus" could be related to the Hindu culturehero Prthu, who steals the cow of immortality from the gods to help a mortal, and "restores food and establishes civilization."33

The derivation of both Greek and Hindu myths from a common Indo-European tradition in neolithic times helps to explain some of the striking similarities of symbolic patterns in the two cultural systems. However, the lapse of more than two millennia between the neolithic period and the early Iron Age, when the first written versions of these myths appeared in both India and Greece, makes it impossible to trace either the descent of separate traditions or connections between different traditions. Mesopotamian influence certainly affected both Greek and Hindu myth, and the pre-Aryan Harappa culture of the Indus valley must have influenced Hindu myth in much the same way as Minoan/Mediterranean myths were incorporated into Greek myth, but any specific certainty about these matters cannot be attained.

Worth noting, however, is a non-Greek, non-Indian myth that seems to predate Hesiod and has striking associations with the mythic configuration we have been discussing. A. Olrik collected and analyzed myths from the region of the Caucasus that tell of the punishment of an impious giant, chained to a mountain while a vulture eats his "bowels."34 His crime is an attempt to steal the "water of life" (that is, immortality), and in his punishment this water flows just beyond his reach (like the punishment of Tantalos) or is swallowed by him but then removed from his bowels by the vulture. A connection with the myths of Tantalos, Tityos, and Prometheus is clear, but there are also similarities with the myths of Agni and soma. The water of life is equivalent to Tantalos' ambrosia, Prometheus' fire, and the soma/semen of Hindu myth; the bird who removes the swallowed "semen" is comparable to Agni, who frequently swallows the "seed of the gods" or, in the form of a bird, steals the semen swallowed or produced by others. Also the giant of the Caucasus, if ever freed from his punishment, will destroy the whole world in his rage, and a cosmic cataclysm by fire or flood figures importantly in Hindu, Norse, and Near Eastern myth and, in a muted form, in Greek myth. If Olrik is correct about the dating and precedence of the Caucasus myth, we may possibly see here a point of intersection in the mysterious journey of an involved mythic pattern.

At the level of psychological significance, it is of course unnecessary to demonstrate diffusion or dependence; the same emotional concerns appear in the myths of Japan and New Guinea as well as in Greece or India. It is the similarity in the specific modality of these appearances, in the mythic circumstances that embody these concerns, that we may attribute, at least in part, to the influence of one group upon another. Yet even in cases of elaborate similarity in myths we cannot leave out of account the possible impact of cultural similarity between groups—not only societal and familial universals and similarity in the current level of cultural development, but also similarity in the vicissitudes of past history.

The Theogony of Hesiod

Although Hesiod's Theogony may be the oldest written Greek literature we possess, there was probably a theogonic tradition in Greek myth as old as the myths themselves. Striking similarities between the Theogony and various earlier Near Eastern theogonies suggest that Hesiod's version goes back in some parts at least half a millennium, to contacts between the Minoan-Mycenean world and eastern cultures, and in some cases the ultimate source may lie even earlier, in the largely uncharted migrations of the Indo-Europeans. Other theogonic poems almost certainly existed in Greece before Hesiod's, but these were oral literature and we know next to nothing about them.

Other Greek theogonies may still have existed at the time of Hesiod, but we cannot know whether the story of the world's beginning told in the Theogony represents the usual view held at the time, or whether it was merely one of several competing views. The scant hints we do have of a genuine mythic alternative to Hesiod's version amount to only a few scattered lines and passages, particularly in the Iliad. Whether the theogonic tradition before Hesiod was fluid or relatively fixed, and whatever the competition may have been like, the Theogony became for almost all later Greeks the true story of how the world and the gods began. The theogonic summary found at the beginning of the Library of Apollodoros, for example, differs from the Theogony in only a few details, although it was probably written almost a thousand years after Hesiod.


1 The indebtedness of Sections 1-4 of this chapter to the summary of Greek prehistory in Burkert (1985) and to the discussion of Hesiod's relationship to Near Eastern myth by both West (1966) and Kirk (1970, 1974) will be obvious.

2 Although it has been argued, on the basis of comparative letter-shapes in Semitic and Greek alphabets, that the Greeks adopted an alphabet as early as the eleventh century, no examples of alphabetic writing in Greece earlier than the eighth century have survived.

3 Kirk (1974) 255.

4 West (1966) 30.

5 Kirk (1974) 255.

6 Pritchard (1969) 501.

7 Pritchard (1969) 60-72, 501-3.

8 Pritchard (1969) 517-18.

9 Walcot (1966).

10 Pritchard (1969) 120-25.

11 Kirk (1970) 216.

12 See Walcot (1966) 12-18 and Ch. 3, p. 124.

13 Kirk (1970) 218 and Ch. 1, pp. 4-5.

14 Kirk (1970) 215-16.

15 West (1966) 30.

16 O'Flaherty (1975) 15.

17 O'Flaherty (1975) 15.

18 LaBarre (1980) 110.

19 See Ch. 4, pp. 138-139.

20 See Ch. 4, pp. 171, 184.

21 Guthrie (1950) 121.

22 LaBarre (1970) 447-48, 472 n. 58.

23 See Ch. 4, p. 137.

24 See Ch. 4, pp. 138-39.

25 See West (1966) 321.

26 West (1966) 318.

27 Kirk (1970) 228, 197.

28 See Ch. 4, pp. 169-70.

29 O'Flaherty (1975) 99.

30 O'Flaherty (1975) 36, 37.

31 West (1966) 212.

32 O'Flaherty (1980) 333, citing Adalbert Kuhn, Mythologische Studien, vol. 1 (Guetersloh, Germany, 1886) 15-17, 218-23.

33 O'Flaherty (1980) 330, 332.

34 Olrik's research is summarized with approval by West (1966) 314-15.

35 The translation follows the Oxford edition of West (1966). Bracketed passages are, in West's view, later interpolations.

36 The translation follows the Loeb edition of Frazer (1921).


Burkert, Walter (1985). Greek Religion. Trans. J. Raffan. Cambridge, Mass.

Guthrie, W. K. (1950). The Greeks and their Gods. Boston.

Kirk, G. S. (1970). Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures. Berkeley.

Kirk, G. S. (1974). The Nature of Greek Myths. New York.

LaBarre, Weston (1970). The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion. New York.

LaBarre, Weston (1980). Culture in Context: Selected Writings. Durham, N.C.

O'Flaherty, Wendy (1975). Hindu Myths. Baltimore.

O'Flaherty, Wendy (1980). The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley.

Pritchard, James, ed. (1969) Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, with Supplement. 3d ed., Princeton.

Walcot, P. (1966). Hesiod and the Near East. Cardiff, UK.

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Cosmogonies And Divinities In Greek Mythology