Greek Mythology

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H. J. Rose (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: Introduction to A Handbook of Greek Mythology, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1928, pp. 1-16.

[In the following essay, Rose reviews the various approaches that have been taken to interpret Greek mythology. He also distinguishes between several types of myth, including "myth proper," saga, and märchen (folktales).]

We use the word mythology to signify the study of certain products of the imagination of a people, which take the form of tales. These tales the Greeks called [mythoi], or myths, an expression which originally meant simply 'words'. The purpose of this book is to set forth what stories were produced by the active imagination of those peoples whom we collectively know as Greek, and by the narrow and sluggish imagination of the ancient inhabitants of Italy. It is well to begin by inquiring what manner of tales they were; for it is very clear that we cannot take them, as they stand, as historically true, or even as slightly idealized or exaggerated history. Full as they are of impossible events, it needs no argument to prove that they differ widely from Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War, or Hippokrates' discussions of the effect of diet on a patient. We may disbelieve some of Thucydides' statements, and we have come to consider many of Hippokrates' methods erroneous; but obviously both are trying to state facts and draw reasonable conclusions therefrom. What are we to say of the tellers of these quite unbelievable, although picturesque legends, and of those who heard and more or less credited them? It is here that opinions differ most widely, and have differed in the past.1

1. The Allegorical Theory.

One of the most ancient explanations is that these tales of wonder are allegories, concealing some deep and edifying meaning, which the wisdom of primeval sages prompted them to hide in this manner, either to prevent great truths passing into the hands of persons too ignorant or too impious to use them aright, or to attract by stories those who would not listen to a dry and formal discussion. As an example, I will cite the interpretation given of a well-known myth, the Judgment of Paris, by the so-called Sallustius.2 As he tells the story, the gods were at a banquet, when Eris (Strife, Emulation) cast among them a golden apple, inscribed 'For the Fairest'. Three goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, having all claimed it, the decision was referred by Zeus to Paris, son of Priam of Troy. Aphrodite having bribed him with the promise of the loveliest of mortal women as his wife, he decided in her favour. 'Here,' says our author, 'the banquet signifies the supramundane powers of the gods, and that is why they are together; the golden apple signifies the universe, which, as it is made of opposites, is rightly said to be thrown by Strife, and as the various gods give various gifts to the universe they are thought to vie with one another for the possession of the apple; further, the soul that lives in accordance with sense-perception (for that is Paris), seeing beauty alone and not the other powers in the universe, says that the apple is Aphrodite's.'

It needs no great amount of argument to show that such a view as this is wrong. It assumes that these early Greeks among whom the story of Paris originated possessed a systematic philosophy concerning the powers, both visible and invisible, of the universe, and also the moral duties of man. Now we know enough of their early history to be able...

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to say that neither they nor any other people in a similar stage of development ever had any such philosophy, which is the product of ages of civilized thought. Had any system of the kind existed in the days before Homer, we may be very certain that the long series of brilliant intellects to whom the organized thought of Greece, and ultimately of modern Europe, is due, would not have had to begin at the very beginning and discover for themselves the elements of physics, of ethics, and of logic. The myth cannot be an allegory, because its originators had little or nothing to allegorize.

Still, we can see how the idea originated. In the first place, the Greeks, like most peoples, had great respect for their ancestors, and were apt to credit them with much that later generations had produced. Hence came a tendency to try to find deep wisdom in anything they were reported to have said or done. Secondly, allegory is really very old in Greece; we shall find examples in Homer and Hesiod, for instance.3 Moreover, one of the oldest forms of religious composition, the metrical answers given at oracular shrines, affected a dark and allegorical language. Hence it is no wonder that this theory, although false, gained popularity, was widely used by orthodox pagans to explain away certain features in the stories told of their gods and heroes which seemed inconsistent with a divine or exalted nature, and was in turn eagerly adopted by Jewish and Christian commentators to read sublime meanings into puzzling passages of the Old Testament.

2. The Symbolic Theory.

After lasting in various forms through the Middle Ages, this view appeared in a modified form as late as the nineteenth century. Friedrich Creuzer (1771-1858), in a very learned but very cloudy and uncritical work,4 set forth a theory which may be interpreted as follows. The ancestors of the ancient nations whose history we know,—Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, Romans and others,—possessed, not indeed a complete philosophy, but a dim and at the same time grandiose conception of certain fundamental religious truths, and in particular of monotheism. These truths their priests set forth in a series of symbols, which remained much the same for all peoples, but were hopelessly misunderstood in later times. To recover the oldest ideas, according to him, we shall do well to take those myths which seem absurdest, and try to interpret them. For myths are not the result of the artistic activity of poets, but something far older. One specimen of his methods will be enough.5 Thus, it is stated that Talos' name meant 'sun' in Cretan. His legend, says Creuzer, signifies that the Cretans set forth the beneficent powers of the sunlight under the form of a divine guardian of their island; they also, like the Phoenicians with their Moloch, symbolized his destructive power, perhaps by a human sacrifice by burning; but also they gave a moral aspect to his nature, for is it not stated that Talos was in reality a man, who went about with bronze tablets containing the laws of Minos, whose observance he enforced?

All this is very ingenious, but falls to pieces at a touch of criticism. To begin with, there is the old difficulty which beset the allegorical theory in its cruder form; we have no right to suppose either that the early Cretans had an elaborate solar philosophy or that, if they had had one, they would have expressed it in allegories. Moreover, his account of Talos is a mere jumble, made up of tags from various late or lateish authors, which Creuzer has put together into a composite picture of what never existed in the Cretan imagination or any other, save his own. He goes on to make the jumble worse by adducing further supposed parallels with which the story of Talos has in reality nothing to do. And if we look at other interpretations of myths scattered up and down his work, or similar works by his followers and predecessors, we shall find many instances of just this uncritical handling of a myth, i.e., this mixture of older and newer forms, combined with absence of any clear recognition of how stories of this sort really do originate.

But for all his absurdities, Creuzer was right on one point. Schiller, to whom he owed much, had said that Art breaks up the white light of Truth into the prismatic colours; and the imagination works in a somewhat similar way, not setting forth facts clearly and sharply, as the reason does, but dealing in pictures. In a sense, myths are symbolic, though not as Creuzer supposed them to be.

Besides this truth which he recognized, and which entitles him to a not dishonourable place in the history of Mythology, there is another and a worse reason why symbolism continues here and there to have a certain popularity, and that is the childish fascination which anything mysterious has for certain minds. A story, or anything else, which is supposed to have a hidden meaning attracts some adults, just as a secret society with pass-words and so forth attracts children; and so there are to this day half-educated persons who read all manner of extraordinary meanings of their own invention into details of pictures by great artists, obscure passages in such documents as the Book of Daniel, or the measurements of ancient monuments, particularly, for some reason, the Great Pyramid of Gizeh. I have even come across one ingenious theorist who had found abstruse secrets hidden in the letter H and in one or two buildings the ground plan of which suggested that letter.

3. Rationalism.

There is a type of mind, which also existed in antiquity, which is utterly incapable of realizing how simple people think. To such a mind, certain facts of experience are so self-evident that every one except a fool must always have recognized them. It follows therefore that no one who thought at all can ever have believed, for instance, that a monster half-horse and half-man could exist, or that a woman was turned into a stone or a tree. If therefore stories of this sort are told, they must be the result of misunderstanding or trickery. There have come to us from antiquity several treatises which put this theory into operation, for instance a little work On incredible tales6, which bears the name of Palaiphatos. The author, after proving elaborately that there are no such things as Centaurs, gives the following reconstruction of the legend. When Ixion was King of Thessaly, the country was much plagued by herds of wild cattle. On his offering a reward for their destruction, certain enterprising archers from a village called Nephele went out on horseback and shot them down. Hence arose the tale that Ixion was the father by Nephele (the Cloud) of a race of beings called Kentauroi (prickers of bulls) who were a mixture of man and horse.

One example is enough of this sort of nonsense, which hardly needs to be refuted. It supposes such a state of mind as never existed or will exist in this world. People so blind to facts as to make a tale of wonder out of a commonplace event like the shooting by mounted archers of some wild cattle would have believed easily enough in all sorts of marvels, and freely invented them without any motor to set their imaginations at work. For savages and barbarians (and it is to be remembered that the origins of Greek and other myths go back to barbarism or savagery)7 have but a small range of experience, and therefore have generally no standard by which to try whether a tale is incredible or not; and even among civilized men there are to be found plenty who will believe almost any wonder if only it is far enough off in space or in time. But even the lowest savages are not as a rule so densely stupid as to misunderstand what is clearly visible to them, or simple statements in their own tongue about things happening to their neighbours; and Palaiphatos supposes the tale of the shape and parentage of the Centaurs to have arisen from a remark that 'the Bull-stickers from Nephele …; the phrase might be taken to mean "born of the Cloud") are raiding', and the supposedly novel sight of horses with men on their backs. Nevertheless, this feeble and irrational 'rationalism' still persists.

I have seen a children's book containing the story of Dick Whittington, which solemnly stated in its introduction that Whittington really laid the foundation of his fortune by a successful venture in a ship called The Cat. Among other things, this explanation neglects the fact that in Whittington's own day the story of the cat was at least two centuries old, for he died in 1423 and the story is to be found in the Annals of Albert von Stade, who died in 1264. Who first told it we do not know. Naturally the old story had been attached to the historical Whittington, as such tales often are to a well-known and popular man.

This miserable theory has not even the grain of truth which is to be found in the first two. Such origins of stories as it imagines simply do not exist. The nearest approach to the supposed process is that, as we shall see presently, legendary details are often enough added to historical facts.

4. Euhemerism.

Somewhat less absurd is the theory called after Euhemeros, a writer who lived not long after Alexander the Great,8 although it existed in a less systematic form before him. His ideas were couched in the shape of a romance, in which he claimed to have discovered evidence that the gods of popular tradition were simply men deified by those whom they had ruled or benefited. Thus Zeus became an ancient king of Crete, who rebelled against and overthrew his father Kronos, the former king, and similar biographies of the remaining deities were offered. Omitting the absurdities in detail,—for the events in these alleged lives of the gods were arrived at simply by rationalizing the current legends,—we may look for a moment at the kernel of the theory, namely that popular gods are nothing but deified men. Here at least we have a fact alleged as a cause, for there is abundant evidence that some men have been deified, from flattery or gratitude, in Greece and out of it. But to make a dead man into a god, one must believe already in gods of some sort; hence this theory will not do as an explanation of the origin of either religion or mythology. Even in its modified form, that the cult of gods arose from fear of ghosts, a view put forward by Herbert Spencer and others, it is unsatisfactory. However, in a book of this sort we are chiefly concerned to note, first, that it will not explain more than a small fraction of the existing mythical tales; second, that there is an element of truth in it, since no very sharp line of cleavage can be drawn between legends of heroes and myths concerning gods.

In antiquity the theory of Euhemeros had a great vogue. In particular, Christian apologists seized joyfully on a statement coming from pagan sources that the best-known pagan gods were nothing but men, for by that time the sense of historical reality was grown too faint for the absurdities of Euhemeros to be noticed, and apart from this particular development, numerous writers tried to discover in these venerable tales some reminiscence of early history, a proceeding which, however mistaken in its methods, was not irrational in itself.

5. Theory of Nature-myths.

We may distinguish here an older and simpler form of the theory from a later and more sophisticated one; but they are fundamentally the same, and both alike possess both truth and falsehood. It is admitted on all sides that the gods of Greek religion and of most if not all others are supposed to be able to control the forces of nature. It seems therefore a suggestion at least worth considering that the gods are these natural forces and nothing else, at least originally. Thus Zeus would be the sky, or the celestial phenomena; Hera, the ancients suggested, using an etymology which was hardly more than a bad pun, was the air, aër; Aphrodite was the moist principle in nature, Hephaistos the element of fire, and so forth, while in later times there was a decided tendency to make all gods into personifications of the sun9. Into these supposed personifications were read, of course, whatever physical theory the interpreter might happen to hold.

Obviously, the idea that gods are personifications cannot stand, for a personification is a kind of allegory, and therefore open to all the objections urged against the allegorical and symbolic theories. When Spenser personifies the virtue of chastity under the lovely figure of Una, or holiness as the Red-Cross Knight, he is merely putting into poetical form what he could have expressed in prose, namely a current theory, derived from Aristotle, of the virtues and vices, and adorning it with the flowers of his inexhaustible fancy. Had no ethical doctrine then existed, the Faerie Queene could never have been written; and in like manner, personified physical forces are unthinkable among a people who were not to learn for centuries that any such forces existed.

But it remains possible to suppose the gods, or some of them, to be the result, not of allegorizing known and understood physical forces, but of a sort of imaginative speculation about unknown ones. In this sense we may say, for instance, that a river-god (usually imagined, in Greece, under the form of a bull-headed man) is simply the river itself, the noise of whose waters is naïvely accounted for by envisaging it as a powerful, noisy beast. The early Greeks, we might conjecture, observed the apparent daily motion of the sun and were sharp-witted enough to see that it must move very fast, in order to get over so much ground in a day. They therefore fancied it as a charioteer, since a chariot drawn by swift horses was the fastest mode of locomotion they knew. The difficulty is, that there seems no very cogent reason why they should worship forces thus explained, and especially why, as appears on careful investigation of their religion, they gave so little worship to the most impressive of them, as the sun, the moon, earthquakes, thunder and lightning, and so forth. It is far more consistent with what we can see of their thoughts and what we know of the ideas of peoples still in the myth-making stage or very near it to suppose that they worshipped the gods whom they supposed to control these forces,—Zeus, who lived in the sky, and not the sky or its thunder and lightning; Poseidon, who lived in the sea, and not the actual seawater, and so forth. The problem of how the idea of divine beings really originated is very complex and far from being fully solved as yet; fortunately it is not necessary to solve it in order to discuss the myths concerning them.

The most famous exponent of the doctrine that mythology springs from imaginative treatment of physical forces is in modern times the great Sanskritist F. Max Müller. His theory was briefly this. Primitive man was filled with a vague feeling of awe and reverence, leading to ideas of divinity, to which, in his hesitating and imperfect speech, he tried to give expression. Of course, his effort to voice the ineffable was hopeless from the first, and the words he used were sadly lacking in precision, ambiguous and metaphorical. Thus, trying to find a name for the divine Being whose existence he dimly conjectured, he hit upon the word 'sky' as the least inadequate he could think of; but some at least of those who heard him could not understand his metaphor, and hence imagined that the literal sky was either the abode of God or God Himself.

Müller further imagined that he had come fairly near to this primitive stage of religion by studying the earliest Sanskrit documents, the Vedas, which undoubtedly are of venerable antiquity. Analysing these and comparing them with what he knew of the mythology of other peoples, he believed that he could trace back a number of names, and consequently the legends containing them, to the sort of primeval metaphors which he postulated. In particular, he held that numerous deities, indeed almost all of them, owed their being originally to the metaphorical use of language concerning the sun. Thus to him Athena, born from the head of Zeus, is the sky's daughter, Dawn, whose birth is helped by the young Sun (Hephaistos). She is called virgin, because her light is pure; golden from its colour; Promachos (Champion) because she does battle with the darkness, and so forth.10

It is not necessary to dwell nowadays on the many weak links in this chain, such as the true character of the Indian literature, which although old is very far from primitive, the badness of many of Max Müller's etymologies, his imperfect knowledge of Greek religion and mythology, and so forth. It is enough to remind ourselves that, firstly, Müller's picture of the primitive theologian is about as unlike that practical person, the savage, as possible; that examination of savage traditions and beliefs indicates that savages are but little impressed by such regular phenomena as sunrise, seldom worship the sun, and have not many legends about it; further, that their tales seem to deal with a very wide variety of subjects, which makes it highly unlikely that the ancestors of the Greeks confined themselves to imaginative and metaphorical talk about the weather; and also that the earliest and most primitive languages we know have a large vocabulary but are extremely poor in general terms capable of a confusing variety of senses, which makes it unlikely that the 'disease of language', as it has been unkindly called, postulated by Müller, was ever a reality. In particular, the more we study the different Wiro languages11, the more evident it becomes, firstly, that the peoples who speak them have many legends and beliefs which they share with their non-Wiro neighbours, and secondly, that the number of traditions provably common to all Wiros is very small; so that even if Müller's theories were proved up to the hilt for India, they would throw but little light on the state of things in early Greece. Incidentally, it seems now to be recognized by the best students of the subject that the supposed preponderance of sun-myths in the Vedic literature is the result rather of the theories of later commentators than of the true nature of the legends themselves.12

6. Modern methods.

The failure of so many theories may well make us hesitate before adopting another; and indeed, the best modern mythologists are as a rule none too eager to put forward a complete theory of the origin and primary meaning of any myth. There are, however, four things which we may do:

  1. We begin by carefully examining the source of the tale, and determining its date. This is not so easy as it sounds, for it is not enough to discover, for example, that one form of a story is found in Sophokles and another in Plutarch. We must find out, if we can, where Sophokles and Plutarch got the story, and it may turn out that the earlier writer invented a good deal of what he says, while the later one drew upon some very early source now lost. The first modern writer to lay emphasis, consistently and thoroughly, on this point was the most notable of the opponents of Creuzer, C. A. Lobeck (1781-1860; principal work, Aglaophamus, 1829).
  2. We may now try to determine, if we can, to what section of the very mixed population of Greece the story is due, i.e., whether it is Achaian, Dorian, lonian, or belongs to some other Greek people, or whether it is pre-Greek, or a later importation from Asia or Thrace. A great pioneer in this work was K. O. Müller (1797-1840).
  3. Next we may ask to what class the legend in question belongs, i.e., whether it is myth proper, saga, or märchen. This, as will be explained presently, may throw light on its ultimate origin. The distinction cannot be attributed to any one researcher, but its existence has become recognized largely through the work of the folklorists and investigators of medieval European and other non-classical legends during the nineteenth century, prominent among whom were the indefatigable brothers, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm (1785-1863 and 1786-1859).
  4. Lastly, when we have constructed a theory of the origin and continuance of a story, we shall do well to compare it with those tales which we can study in an early and undeveloped form,—the legends of savages and, to a less degree, of peasants. In a word, we may apply the Comparative Method, but with due caution, for nothing is more misleading than a false but plausible analogy. That this method is now part of the equipment of most scholars is due above all (if we leave out of account men still living) to one of the most learned and honest researchers Germany ever produced, J. W. E. Mannhardt, 1831-80, and one of the most brilliant and versatile of British writers, the late Andrew Lang.

7 Psychological analysis.

Since legends are the work, not of memory (as historical traditions largely are) or of the reason, but of the imagination, it is obvious that all mythologists must wish well to those who study the imagination, that is, to psychologists. Hence it is interesting to note that the school of psychological thought now most in fashion, that associated with the names of Freud and Jung, devotes considerable attention to myths and tries to explain their genesis. Thus far one can approve; but beyond general approval of endeavour in what may be a fruitful field I for one cannot go. Hitherto, even allowing the truth of the main positions taken up by the psycho-analytic school with regard to the composition of the human mind, I have failed to find in its writings a single explanation of any myth, or any detail of any myth, which seemed even remotely possible or capable of accounting for the development of the story as we have it. I therefore content myself with mentioning their methods, without going into a full account of them.13

We may divide legends, in a fashion which by now is almost traditional, into three classes. We have first the myth proper, concerning which a word of explanation is necessary. Man, brought face to face with the world about him, cannot help reacting to his environment in some way. Besides bodily actions, whether practically useful, such as chipping flints, ploughing fields, and making locomotives, or those meant to be practically useful, such as the various operations of magic, he has two mental processes open to him; he may reason about the world and the objects in it, or he may let his imagination play upon them. Speaking very roughly and very broadly, the more civilized he is, the more apt he is either to reason or, if not, at least to realize when he is not reasoning but imagining. Let us take as an example the phenomenon of rain. A man may busy himself collecting rain-water in a cistern or tank: he may construct a rain-gauge and observe the amount of rain that has fallen, and the season of year at which it falls most abundantly, and from these and other observations theorize about the cause of rain. These proceedings we may call applied and pure science respectively. Also, especially if he is a savage, he may work magic intended to make the rain fall abundantly, or to stop altogether. This, being in intention practical, is a sort of bastard sister of applied science. But there is a third set of activities possible. A poet or other artist may let the rain inspire him to production, and so give the world an ode, good or bad, to the rain, a picture such as Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed, or a pretty fantasy concerning the refreshment brought to the earth by a shower. But the imagination of the artist has also a half-sister, namely the less controlled but equally lively imagination of the myth-maker. He does not try to reason out the causes of rain, nor is he particularly concerned to make an artistic picture of it; he attempts rather to visualize the whole process, for the imagination of course works in pictures, or, if we like to use a favourite word of psychologists, in symbols. The result of this visualizing may be some such mental picture as of a being, or beings, who pour water out of a reservoir upon the earth. The nature of these beings and of their reservoir will vary enormously, and the myth may be anything from very grotesque and absurd to very beautiful, just as the picture made by the civilized painter might be good or bad; but an imaginative picture of some kind it will certainly be.

But now the myth touches upon science, for it offers a sort of cause for the rain-shower. Asked why it rains, scientist and myth-maker alike can give an answer. The former answers 'Because of such-and-such atmospheric conditions', and can give proofs of his statements, more or less cogent according as he is a better or a worse scientist. The myth-maker can reply, 'Because Zeus is pouring down water out of heaven', 'because Yahweh has opened the windows in the firmament', 'because the angels have poured water into a great tub in the sky which has holes in its bottom'. To any one who has dealt with inquisitive children it must be obvious that in many cases this kind of answer would be satisfactory; it gives a reason, and the hearers' minds are not developed enough for them to inquire whether it is the reason.

We see therefore that myths, in the proper sense, are a somewhat primitive form of those mental processes which, further developed, give us both art and science. Of the two sides, the more active is what we may term the artistic or imaginative and visualizing process. This consideration enables us largely to dispose of a question which often arises, namely, Did the myth-makers, in Greece for instance, believe in their myths? The absurdity of this will be evident if we transfer it to a higher sphere and ask, Did Michael Angelo believe in his Moses, or Swinburne in his Atalanta in Calydon? No doubt Michael Angelo believed that there had been a man called Moses, who had done the things recorded of him in the Pentateuch; Swinburne doubtless believed that one of the districts of classical Greece was called Kalydon, and probably did not believe that there had ever been a virgin huntress called Atalanta; but these are intellectual processes, and had nothing to do with the statue or the poem. So with the man who first thought of thunder and lightning as caused by Zeus hurling a celestial dart; it probably would be far truer to say that he imagined it than that he either believed or disbelieved it. It is, however, no doubt true that many people accepted his imagination as a sufficient reason for thunder-storms, while others in time grew doubtful, that is, set their reason, as well as their imagination, to work, perceived that there were other possible causes, and found grounds for preferring one or another of them.14

We may then define a myth proper as the result of the working of naive imagination upon the facts of experience. As a large proportion of these facts are natural phenomena, it follows that the nature-myth is a common kind; and as the imagination is commonly set going by an object which appears wonderful or puzzling, it follows that a very large proportion indeed of myths is of the kind known as aetiological, concerned, that is, with the causes of all manner of things from the apparent movement of the heavenly bodies to the shape of a neighbouring hill or the origin of a local custom. In the last case, the myth often tells what purports to be a history, and this brings us to the next form of legend.

The name saga (in origin, simply the Scandinavian word for 'tale, story') is commonly given to those legends which deal with historical events. To take common instances from the modern countryside: if a folk-tale attributes the formation of a peculiarly-shaped hill to the devil, that is myth pure and simple; but if an ancient earthwork is said to have been built by Julius Caesar, that, if not due to some local antiquary, is rather saga, and may contain a germ of historical fact. That is, the earthwork may really be part of a Roman camp, and we have but to substitute for 'Julius Caesar' the words 'some unknown Roman officer'. Excavation may enable us to find, if not the name of the officer and his force, at least their date, and so we pass from saga into history. There are instances of fragments of real history being preserved for an extraordinary length of time in legends of the peasantry.15

Few are so well-trained as to be able to see any event quite as it is without reading into it something which exists only in their own fancy; and this applies much more strongly to events which are not seen but remembered, and most strongly of all to those which are not remembered but told by another. A story handed down from father to son is rapidly altered in two ways; real details are forgotten and unreal ones are added. These additions, being imaginary, are almost invariably of a picturesque kind, attractive to the teller or the hearer, or both; and the omissions are especially of details which teller and hearer alike find dry, such as dates, geographical minutiae (except those of a well-known locality, which are generally found interesting), exact figures of all kinds, economic facts, and the doings and sayings of commonplace people. The Homeric account of the Trojan War is one of the best possible examples. The war was a perfectly real one, very likely caused by trade rivalries; it seems to have consisted in a blockade by the Achaians of the fortress of Ilion, be it Hissarlik or not, interrupting the Trojan communications with the neighbouring country; and it was apparently decided by the exhaustion, economic and military, of the Trojans, which led to the subjugation of the cities allied with them and at last to the fall of Ilion itself. In Homer, the cause of the war is the abduction of Helen by Paris, and the decisive factors are the personal intervention of various gods, together with the surpassing prowess of numerous heroic chieftains, the most prominent of whom is Achilles. Of trade jealousy we hear nothing at all, of the wearing down of the Trojan resources only a few casual remarks, and of the details of the tactics and strategy of both armies practically nothing whatsoever. The result is, at some cost to history, the greatest and most fascinating epic poem ever written, the Iliad, which is the product of a first-class genius finding a good saga ready to his hand.

There remains one form of legend, the märchen. This German word fits it better than the nearest English equivalent, 'fairy-tale', because it does not always deal with fairies or supernatural beings of any kind. It differs from the last two in an important particular. They both are intended to command, if not exactly belief, at least imaginative assent, and their aim is often to find or record a truth: but the märchen aims rather at amusement. It accounts for the cause of nothing, it records no historical or semi-historical event; it need not fit the hearers' notions of probability. It is a story pure and simple, and makes no pretence to being anything else.

This brief outline of the classification of legends must suffice. It is, however, to be noted that any given story may well combine two of these forms, or even all three. For instance, the tale of Herakles probably started as a saga, an imaginative telling of the adventures of a real man. But it combined at an early date with elements of aetiological myth; thus, the presence of certain hot springs was explained by the myth that they had sprung from the ground to provide Herakles with a hot bath after some of his labours, and a certain ancient sacrifice on Mt. Oite was declared to commemorate the death of the hero. Also, an element of märchen intruded here and there; for instance Herakles, like many other adventurers, goes forth to look for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, represented in his case by the golden apples of the Hesperides.

Another and a more important point to be remembered in the case of Greek myths is the way in which they reflect the national character. The Greeks at their best were sane, high-spirited, clear-headed, beauty-loving optimists, and not in the least other-worldly. Hence their legends are almost without exception free from the cloudiness, the wild grotesques, and the horrible features which beset the popular traditions of less gifted and happy peoples. Even their monsters are not very ugly or uncouth, nor their ghosts and demons paralysingly dreadful. Their heroes, as a rule, may sorrow, but are not broken-hearted; on occasion they are struck down by adverse fate, but not weakly overwhelmed; they meet with extraordinary adventures, but there is a certain tone of reasonableness running through their most improbable exploits. As for the gods and other supernatural characters, they are glorified men and women, who remain extremely human, and on the whole neither irrational nor grossly unfair in their dealings. Such tales as contain savage and repulsive elements tend to drop into the background or be modified. In short, the handling of the myths, even, it would appear, by unlettered Greeks, shows the spirit expressed in two famous sayings of famous poets:

'Winsomeness, by which are wrought all lovely things for mankind, lends its lustre to make even the incredible seem credible full often.'

'If I deal in falsehood, let it be such as may persuade the ears of the listener."16


(For the full titles of books cited, see General Bibliography.)

1 See, for a history of the subject from the end of antiquity to the year 1913, Gruppe 1921. Nilsson, GgR, i, 3 sqq.

2 Nock 1926, pp. 6, 7; Murray 1925, p. 245. See Chapter V, p. 106.

3Iliad, XIX, 91 foll.—a passage very likely interpolated into the original poem by a later hand, but nevertheless old—may serve as an example.

4 See General Bibliography.

5Symbolik, I, p. 37 foll. For Talos, see Chapter VIII, p. 204.

6De incredibilibus, I. The work we have is not that of Palaiphatos himself, who lived in the time of Aristotle, but a later epitome.

7 I have discussed the problem how much of their savage ancestry the historical Greeks retained in Primitive Culture in Greece.

8 For Euhemeros, see Jacoby in Pauly-Wissowa VI, col. 952 foll.

9 The Stoics were particularly fond of explanations of this kind, see, for instance, R.P. 8, 503, but it was by no means confined to them, see, for example, Plato, Cratylus, 397 C, and for many such explanations, Athenagoras, legat. pro Christ. 22. For the theory that all gods were in some way the sun, see Macrobius, Saturn., 1, 17, 2 foll. See, in general, Frazer, W.N. J. Tate in C.Q., xxiii, 41-5; 142-54; xxviii, 105-14.

10 See Lectures on the Origin of Religion (1882), Lecture IV; Introduction to the Science of Religion (new edition, 1882), pp. 49, 197.

11 By Wiro I mean the group of languages otherwise called Aryan, Indo-European, or Indo-Germanic, to which Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, etc., belong. By Wiros I mean the people or peoples who spoke the language from which all these tongues are supposedly derived. The word in the latter sense is due to Dr. Giles.

12 See Sten Konow in Chantepie de la Saussaye,4 II, p. 23 foll.

13 See, for instance, Jung, Psychology of the Unconscious (trans. B. M. Hinkle, London, 1922), Chapter VI.

14 For a deliciously funny sketch of the type of mind which is hungry for a reason and content with whatever is offered it, see Aristophanes, Clouds, 366 foll.

15 Excellent examples are given by van Gennep, 1910, p. 155 foll.

16 Pindar, Olymp., I, 32; Kallimachos, Hymn., I, 65.

Additional Note

For full accounts of the ancient authors quoted, the reader is referred to the many good manuals of Greek literature in English, French and German. It may, however, be mentioned that our sources in Greek are firstly the poets, of all dates from Homer and Hesiod down; and of these, especially those up to and including the great Attic dramatists of the fifth century B.C. Next in importance to these are the Alexandrian poets, such as Kallimachos, from the fourth century onwards, who often give us curious information not to be had else where, but who must be used with caution, as they often of set purpose confine themselves to very out-of-the-way stories, not forming part of what may be called the normal mythology of Greece; moreover, they not infrequently re-shape the legends or invent new ones, to suit their own purposes, a fault, from the modern mythologist's point of view, of which the older writers also are sometimes guilty. Next come the earlier historical writers, such as Pherekydes, who unfortunately are known to us only in fragments and excerpts; these, in dealing with early history, treated also of legends, which were indeed often their only source for events of other than recent date, and later compilers, such as Diodoros of Sicily, drew freely upon them. Finally, a great deal is due to the mythological handbooks, for these contain much of the learning of the Alexandrian critics, although in an epitomized form. Of these, one of the best is the so-called Apollodoros, whose work (first century A.D.?) contains much good old material. With these may be reckoned the scholiasts, or ancient commentators on classical authors, such as Pindar and above all Homer, and on Alexandrian poets such as Apollonios of Rhodes. As regards the Latins, even their earliest poets draw upon the Alexandrians, and may for our purposes be counted as late Greek authors. Here again, notably in the case of Ovid, the writers' own fancy is the source of not a little. Roman scholarship also is often of value; we have, for example, the so-called Hyginus, whose fabulae, although but an epitomized, mutilated, and very ill-copied treatise, yet often preserves in a not too garbled form some story otherwise lost, as told in a vanished work of Euripides or some other classical writer. Much can also be gleaned from Latin scholiasts, notably that commentator on Vergil who is conventionally called Servius. But there is hardly a writer in either language who does not somewhere mention a myth or saga, and on whom therefore we cannot now and then draw for information. This applies to the Christian writers, for they often, in order to show what absurd and immoral stories the pagans told, relate these stories at considerable length, thus preserving for us the erudition of sundry mythologists whose works have not come down, or of poets now lost.



A few editions and abbreviations are given here.…

RP8. Historia Philosophiae Graecae. Testimonia auctorum conlegerunt notisque instruxerunt H. Ritter et L. Preller. Editio octaua, quam curauit Eduardus Wellmann. Gothae, 1898.…


The following is a brief list of some of the books which the author has found particularly useful. A few moreare named in the notes

Chantepie de la Saussaye. Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte, begrundet von Chantepie de la Saussaye. Vierte, vollstandig neubearbeitete Auflage … herausgegeben von Alfred Bertholet und Edvard Lehmann. Tubingen, 1925 (2 vols.).…

Creuzer. Friedrich Creuzer, Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Volker, besonders der Griechen. Dritte, verbesserte Ausgabe. Leipzig und Darmstadt, 1836-42 (4 vols.).…

Frazer, W.N. Sir J. G. Frazer, The Worship of Nature. Vol. I, London, 1926.

van Gennep 1910. A. van Gennep, La Formation des Legendes. Paris, 1910.…

Gruppe 1921. Otto Gruppe, Geschichte der klassischen Mythologie und Religionsgeschichte. Supplement zu Roschers Lexikon. Leipzig, 1921.…

Murray 1925. Gilbert A. Murray, Five Stages of Greek Religion Oxford, 1925.…

Nilsson, GgR. M. P. Nilsson, Geschichte der griechischen Religion, 2 vols. Munich, 1955 (ed. 2,12), 1955.…

Nock 1926. Sallustius, Concerning the Gods and the Universe. Edited with Prolegomena and Translation by Arthur Darby Nock. Cambridge, 1926.…

Pauly-Wissowa. Paulys Realencyclopddie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft. Neue Bearbeitung begonnen von Georg Wissowa (etc.). Stuttgart, 1894—

Rose, P.C.G. H. J. Rose, Primitive Culture in Greece. London (Methuen), 1925.…

William F. Hansen (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Greek Mythology and the Study of the Ancient Greek Oral Story," in Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 20, Nos. 2 & 3, June-December, 1983, pp. 101-12.

[In the following essay, Hansen examines Rose's inclusion of märchen in his study of Greek mythology and argues that Rose fails to adequately treat the category of folktales. Hansen suggests that the idea that mythology encompasses "all Greek traditional stories" has not been fully explored.]

The late Professor Cedric Whitman of Harvard University told of an old sailor with whom, many years earlier, he had shared a ride on a train going to New York.

He was reading a comic book and I was reading Paradise Lost. Presently he began to read over my shoulder, then nudged me and asked: 'Hey, you like dat stuff?' I said I did, and a conversation began. I asked how long he had been in the Navy, and he said something like twenty-five years. I remarked that he must have liked it to have stayed in it so long. His answer was: 'Look, when I get out of dis Navy, I'm gonna put an oar on my shoulder and walk inland; and when somebody says, "Where'd'ya find a shovel like dat?" dat's where I'm gonna build my house.' He made no mention of a sacrifice to Poseidon; he was shamelessly secular about it all, but clearly the inland journey spelled release from, and forgetfulness of, the hardships of the sea, peace at last. I didn't ask him if he'd read the Odyssey, but I doubt it; he had not read Paradise Lost. He seemed, in fact, pretty nearly illiterate—perhaps a bard? Anyway, that's all I remember, except that the experience gave me a pleasantly creepy feeling that I was talking to One Who Was More Than He Seemed.1

Whitman had in mind of course the curious passage in Homer's Odyssey (11.121-137) in which Odysseus is told that after he reaches Ithaka he must walk inland with an oar upon his shoulder until he comes upon a man who mistakes it for a winnowing-shovel. There Odysseus is to plant the oar in the ground and make his peace with Poseidon, that is, with the Sea.2

The conversation of the classics professor and the sailor illustrates the impressive fact that many motifs and stories known from modern oral tradition were already in oral circulation in ancient Greece. Correspondence between modern oral narratives and their ancient Greek counterparts began to attract attention around the middle of the last century. In 1816 Jacob Grimm made the observation that the Greeks too had their Märchen, and in 1857 Wilhelm Grimm published "Die Sage von Polyphem," in which he compared Homer's Cyclops narrative with nine folktale texts of essentially the same plot (AT 1137) gathered from more recent tradition.3 Other scholars followed these two leads, especially as the subsequent collecting of oral tales made comparative materials more abundant.4 Accordingly, following Jacob Grimm, there have been quests for evidence of ancient Greek folktales, springing (at least in part) from a desire to demonstrate that the folktale as a genre existed side by side with the familiar Greek myths and legends. Consider Ludwig Radermacher's survey of traditional narratives in Homer's Odyssey, Wolf Aly's study of folktales and legends in Herodotos, Thaddaeus Zieliiiski's quest for folktales in Attic comedy, Otto Crusius's discussion of allusions to folktales in ancient Greek proverbs, Georgios Megas's study of Aesopic fables with modern Greek analogues, and, of course, the ancient Greek materials collected in the fourth volume of Bolte and Polívka's commentary on the tales of the Brothers Grimm.5 And, following Wilhelm Grimm, there have appeared comparative studies of individual Greek oral stories of any genre whatsoever for which analogues exist in modern oral tradition, such as Albin Lesky's study of the Alcestis story (AT 899) and, among more recent work, Justin Glenn's article on the Polyphemos tale (AT 1137), Lowell Edmunds's monograph on the Oedipus story (AT 931), Alex Scobie's article on the story of the Pygmies and the cranes, and my own investigation of the story of Odysseus and the oar.6 These are not the only kinds of studies that have been produced, but they show that the discovery of the folktale in the nineteenth century has made an impact upon Greek studies.

Where, then, has the folktale come to fit into Greek studies? To which subfield do traditional oral stories and oral storytelling belong? Histories of Greek religion inevitably do pay some attention to myth and legend, and Nilsson's history even devotes some space to a discussion of Märchen, but the interest in oral stories is not systematic, and such narratives clearly have not been central to the study of ancient Greek religion.7

Nor will one find much on the subject in the surveys of Greek literature. Lesky's History of Greek Literature, which is 900 pages long in its English translation, has no section devoted specifically to myth, legend, or the oral story in general. It does have a section devoted to the folktale, but the treatment is only four pages long and concerns itself mostly with Greek animal fables.8 Clearly, Lesky does not attempt any real treatment of the Greek folktale, let alone the Greek traditional oral story more generally. As a rule, historians of Greek literature do not include traditional stories in the category of literature, and so treat them only incidentally. An oral story is, after all, not necessarily also a written story, and literary histories are perhaps by definition concerned with written, not oral, literature.

That being so, the subfield to which these narratives belong must surely be Greek mythology, for it unquestionably takes as its subject Greek traditional stories. If, however, one scrutinizes the familiar lexica, handbooks, and other retellings of Greek (or classical) mythology, both scholarly and popular, one soon finds that not all genres of traditional narrative are included. The standard surveys of mythology, with the notable exception of Rose's Handbook of Greek Mythology, typically offer a selection of Greek myths and hero legends and, if one is lucky, the tale of Cupid and Psyche or the tale of Hero and Leander or the like. The four volumes of Ludwig Preller's and Carl Robert's Griechische Mythologie, for example, are devoted exclusively to the myths of the gods and the legends of the great heroes. Similarly, Mark Morford's and Robert Lenardon's college textbook. Classical Mythology, covers myths of the gods (in the course of which the story of Cupid and Psyche is told) and legends of the heroes, together with a chapter on Greek "local legends" (which paraphrases a variety of stories, including the romantic stories of Akontios and Kydippe, Hero and Leander, and Pyramus and Thisbe).9 In practice, then, Greek mythology means only certain kinds of oral stories, primarily fabulous stories of allegedly historical content, or, more precisely, the traditional oral history of the Greek world from its beginning through the generations of the heroes, with the optional inclusion of a handful of other well-known stories.10 One cannot count on finding the folktale here.

If Greek traditional stories are not classified as literature because they are oral, and if they only in part qualify as mythology, which does not embrace all genres of story, where does one look for a systematic treatment of the folktale or of the traditional story in general? The answer is that one looks in no single place, because there is none. If it is a myth one wants, or a hero legend, one consults the mythologists. If it is an Aesopic fable, one must consult the literature on the fable. If it is an anecdote about Plato or Aristotle, one looks in the scholarship on ancient philosophy.11 And so on. Oral narratives are not seen as the scattered materials of a single branch of study, for the prevailing view of the Greek oral story is not holistic; rather, myths and hero legends belong to the subfield of mythology, and the other hundreds of traditional oral stories, representing other genres of essentially the same phenomenon, mostly belong to the authors in whose works they are found.

Is it, then, worthwhile for us to continue to retain the ancient categories that we have inherited and preserved.12 or should we, for our own scholarly ends, devise our own categories? For without the benefit of a unified concept of the traditional oral story and of a single locus in the discipline, there is little exchange of ideas among the scholars of the various subdisciplines: mythologists study their own materials, Homerists study Homer, historians study Herodotos, fable scholars study the fable.13 No shared concepts have arisen; no common terminology has been developed; no general body of knowledge on the subject exists.14 If we desire to understand Greek storytelling, we must develop a more comprehensive view of the ancient Greek oral story.

There is another good reason for not retaining the ancient categories. Since a given story can be told in one place or time as a legend and in another as a tale, in many instances there are historical links between stories usually included in the category of mythology and those that are not. This phenomenon particularly affects the study of Greek mythology, since stories found in ancient Greek sources as myths or legends often appear in modern European collections as folktales. The legend of Odysseus and Polyphemos and the folktale of the blinding of the ogre (AT 1137) are examples at hand. Little is gained and much is lost as a result of our not having a general concept of the Greek oral story. We need not wholly give up all sensitivity to the ancient categories; we need only relate them to an all-encompassing notion of oral narrative.

Perhaps the simplest solution would be to modify what we already have, enlarging the familiar and closely-related category of Greek mythology to include all Greek traditional stories. In other words, let the well-established category of mythology accommodate the more recent category of the folktale. This idea is not wholly new. Its classical roots go back over one hundred years, when George Cox included Herodotos' famous story of the treasury of Rhampsinitos (AT 950) in his Tales of Ancient Greece in order to show "the existence of a common popular mythology relating neither to gods nor heroes."15 He also included several other traditional stories from Herodotos, as well as a retelling of the epic parody, The Battle of the Frogs and the Mice, a literary work that does contain a traditional animal tale (AT 278). The impulse to include these stories evidently came from Cox's acquaintance with contemporary collections of tales and legends, for he specifically mentions Scandinavian, German, and Arabic relatives of the Rhampsinitos story, and his phrase "popular mythology" is reminiscent of "popular antiquities" and other folkloric terms commonly employed in the last century.16 What is significant is Cox's slight stretching of the inherited parameters of Greek mythology by introducing stories that are realistic (Rhampsinitos) or make no claim to historicity (animal tales), so that he moved, however modestly, toward a holistic concept of the Greek traditional oral story.

In 1928, H. J. Rose, who was well acquainted with contemporary folk-narrative scholarship, published his Handbook of Greek Mythology. When he introduced the work with a division of Greek mythology into myth, saga, and Märchen, and even devoted an entire chapter of the book to Märchen, it was certainly revolutionary.17 The relatively young category of the folktale appears here to have been adopted into the established category of Greek mythology, which then became the corpus of all Greek traditional stories. And indeed, since the publication of Rose's Handbook, which is as close to being the standard survey of the subject in English as any work is, it has become common (but by no means universal) for the folktale to be acknowledged in some way in works devoted to Greek mythology, both scholarly and popular.18 As a result, classical scholars, like folklorists, sometimes employ or at least imply a tripartite classification of their materials, dividing the stories into three broad classes, or genres, usually named myth, legend (or saga), and folktale (or fairy tale or Märchen).19 Traditional cosmogonies and most of the traditional stories that are set in the early days of the cosmos or that feature gods as principal characters, or both, are usually classified as myths. By legends classical mythologists usually mean the traditional stories of the great heroes, such as Perseus, Oedipus, Jason, Achilleus, Meleager, Odysseus, and Herakles, or other traditional stories set in the heroic age. These two classes of story, according to Rose, are intended to command belief, or something like it, whereas "the Märchen aims rather at amusement. It accounts for the cause of nothing, it records no historical or semi-historical event.… It is a story pure and simple, and makes no pretense to being anything else."20

So we seem to have witnessed a happy marriage of the traditional mythological genres and the folktale. Is this not in fact the comprehensive category that I have argued is needed? Unfortunately, it is not, because nowhere can one find the notion realized, not even in Rose's own book.21

What exactly does Rose offer in his survey of the ancient folktale? We do not find tales that aim at amusement rather than at belief, tales that record no historical event, stories pure and simple. In other words, we do not find Greek jests, comic tales, fables, and the rest; rather, we find a collection of ancient stories of various genres few of them being Märchen by Rose's own definition. What they have in common is merely that all of them have analogues in modern oral tradition. For example. Rose lists the story (p. 294), told by Pausanias (10.33.9-10), about the city of Ophiteia. A certain man of Phocis once saw a serpent near his infant son, and, thinking that the serpent intended to attack the child, threw his javelin, killing both animal and baby. He then learned that the serpent had in fact been protecting the child from a wolf. In gratitude he buried them together. The city of Ophiteia was named after this very serpent (Greek ophis = "serpent"). The story does not fit Rose's criteria for Mairchen because, first, it is clearly a belief-story rather than a tale of pure amusement, and, second, it concludes with an etiology for the name of the city of Ophiteia and so does in fact account for something. This same story is known in modern oral tradition (AT 178A).

Elsewhere in his chapter (p. 288) Rose informs us that the story of Odysseus's return in time to prevent the remarriage of Penelope is in fact a Märchen, not a saga, although (Rose says) Odysseus himself is a figure of saga. But the story of Odysseus and Penelope is not obviously less historical and more amusing than the stories of other Greek heroes and heroines. Again, Rose's classification is not in harmony with his own definition of Mairchen; rather, what is significant for Rose is that the story of the returning husband and his faithful wife can be heard today as a folktale (AT 974). Rose promises us ancient folktales but he gives us ancient analogues of modern folktales and legends. The real loss in Rose's handbook is not that some stories are mislabelled as Märchen but that ancient folktales as such—Märchen in the sense defined by Rose in his introduction—find little place in Rose's book, just as they generally find little or no place in other surveys of Greek oral stories. Rose proposed to include folktales as a major branch of Greek mythology, but he did not really succeed in doing so. He was deceived by the variability of genre.

From Rose's own definition we might classify as folktales Greek jests, such as those found in the collection from late antiquity known as Philogelos; and the comic tales of extraordinary fools such as those told of Margites, who would not sleep with his wife for fear that she would tell her mother; and those told of extraordinarily lazy or sensitive folk, such as the cycle of tales about the Sybarites. And we can include many of the fables compiled by the ancient Greek fabulists. (We can include them all if Rose's criterion of "amusement" can be expanded to embrace also rhetorical and other functions.) We can probably include most of the oral stories often called novelle, such as the story alluded to by Aristophanes (Thesmophoriazusae 499-501) and known also from modern tradition (AT 1419C) of the woman who covered up her husband's eye or eyes with a garment and thereby allowed her lover to slip away. And we can also include the supposed Greek prototype of Apuleius's tale of Cupid and Psyche (AT 425A), as an example of the magic tale (German Zaubermärchen). The term folktale in fact must refer not to a single kind of tale but to a rather large class that actually comprises many different kinds of tale: jests, comic tales, fables, novelle, magic tales, etc.22 Rose does not include all these kinds of tale or even most of them, and neither does any other writer on Greek mythology. He does mention, in his chapter on Märchen, the tale of Cupid and Psyche (pp. 286-87), and he once states, without explanation, that "this work does not deal with fables" (p. 298), before discussing the single fable mentioned in the book. On the whole it is clear that he does not deliver what his own definition of the Märchen promises. His definition is larger than its application, and as a result many kinds of oral story are nowhere acknowledged.

Even if the category of folktale should be better appreciated than it has been, it does not follow that Greek traditional oral stories can be efficiently divided into three broad classes. That is, adopting the folktale as the third in a tripartition of mythology may not work. What, for example, are we to do with a story such as the report of the death of the god Pan, recounted by Plutarch (De defectu orac. 17)? A mysterious voice from an island told a voyager that when he passed by a certain island, he should announce that great Pan was dead. The voyager did so, upon which there was instantly heard from the island a great chorus of lamentation. The international nature of this story is proved by the fact that essentially the same story, told of other characters, is familiar in modern oral tradition, especially in northern Europe.23 It was evidently told to Plutarch, as it has usually been told to others in modern times, as a report of an actual event that occurred in the recent past; that is, it is told as a belief-story, not as a light tale of pure amusement in which the factor of belief or disbelief is unimportant. Clearly this story does not qualify as a legend (or saga) in the usage given above, where legend means hero legend, since it neither features a hero nor is it set in the age of heroes. Nor can it be classified as a Märchen, since it is reported as a wondrous but true event to which distinguished men, including the Emperor Tiberius, allegedly gave credence, and not as a mere piece of entertainment. In short, here is an excellent and famous Greek oral story which the usual categories of classification exclude.

What, moreover, shall we do with the familiar exemplum of the Spartan mother who instructed her son to come back from war either with his shield or upon it?24 Was this a belief-story, and thus properly classified as a kind of legend, or was it taken as ideal, and thus more akin to the Aesopic fable? And how are we to classify the apothegms and other anecdotes of famous men and women that ancient literature offers in such abundance? Are they minor legends? amusing fictions? both? neither? And, in a different vein, what about the traditional cautionary tales or bogy tales that were told to Greek children, such as those about Lamia and other ogresses?25 Who believed them? Who, if anyone, was amused by them?

I shall not draw out this list. The point is that many important Greek traditional stories do not fit into the familiar classificatory schemes that have evolved. In particular, it may be that a triadic classification, no matter how we define its parts, will never contain the data usefully, and that it reflects more our cultural fondness for tripartition than our need for useful analytic categories.

In sum, we have inherited from late antiquity a category of story-compilation which in time acquired the label mythology, and we have maintained this category both in scholarly publications and in popular handbooks. We publish and study the other traditional stories of Greek antiquity by genre, just as before us the ancients published fables in one place and jests in another. The Greeks did not abstract from all these kinds of traditional narratives a general concept of traditional oral story, and modern scholars of Greek studies have followed suit. When in the nineteenth century, interest in living oral stories became widespread among scholars, and studies on the folktale and its analogues were published, the notion eventually arose that all these stories were simply different genres of oral story, so that some scholars, with good intuition, added the folktale to the familiar category of mythology. And so the notion of Greek mythology as the class of all Greek traditional stories came into being; but the full implications of this idea have never been explored. It is time for Hellenists—as well as for scholars in other disciplines that have borrowed these categories from the Greeks—to free ourselves from this fragmentary view of oral story and to operate with one inclusive category of the oral story, whether we wish to call it mythology or something else, and however we may wish to divide it up into genres.


1 Personal letter (October 13, 1975).

2 On the ancient story and its modern counterparts, see Wm. F. Hansen, "The Story of the Sailor Who Went Inland," in Folklore Today: A Festschrift for Richard M. Dorson, ed. Linda Dégh, Henry Glassie, and Felix Oinas (Bloomington: Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies, Indiana University, 1976), pp. 221-30; idem, "Odysseus' Last Journey," Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica 21 (1977): 27-48; and Dietz-Rüdiger Moser, "Die Homerische Frage und das Problem der müindlichen Überlieferung aus volkskundlicher Sicht," Fabula 20 (1979): 116-36.

3 Jacob Grimm, in his preface to Liebrecht's translation of the Pentamerone (1846), cited by Wolf Aly, "Märchen," in Pauly-Wissowa 14:254. Wilhelm Grimm, "Die Sage von Polyphem," Abhandlungen der königl. Akad. der Wiss. zu Berlin, phil.-hist. Kl. (1857): 1-30.

4 For Greece, see Georgios A. Megas, "Märchensammlung und Märchenforschung in Griechenland seit dem Jahre 1864," Deutsches Jahrbuch für Volkskunde 8 (1962): 153-59, and, for the context, Michael Herzfeld, Ours Once More: Folklore, Ideology, and the Making of Modern Greece (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982).

5 Ludwig Radermacher, "Die Erzählungen der Odyssee," Sitzungsb. der Akad. der Wiss in Wien, phil.-hist. Kl. 178 (1915), Abh. 1 (despite the promise of its title, Denys Page's recent work, Folktales in Homer's Odyssey [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973], does not survey the tales of the Odyssey). Wolf Aly, Volksmärchen, Sage, und Novelle bei Herodot und seinen Zeitgenossen, 2nd ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1969. Th. Zieli ski, "Die Märchenkomödie in Athen," Iresione 1, Eos suppl. 2 (Leopoli, 1931): 8-75. Otto Crusius, "Märchen-reminiscenzen im antiken Sprichwort," Verhandlungen der 40. Philologenversammlung deutscher Schulmänner und Philologen (Nuremberg and Leipzig, 1890): 31-47. Georgios A. Megas, "Some Oral Parallels to Aesop's Fables," in Humaniora: Essays in Literature, Folklore, Bibliography, Honoring Archer Taylor on his Seventieth Birthday, ed. Wayland D. Hand and Gustave O. Arlt (Locust Valley N.Y.: J. J. Augustin, 1960), pp. 195-207 (see also Bengt Holbek, Æsops Levned og Fabler, vol. 2 [Copenhagen: J. H. Schultz, 1962]). Johannes Bolte and Georg Polívka, Anmerkungen zu den Kinder- und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm, 2nd ed. (Hildesheim: Georg Olm, 1963 [orig. ed. 1930]), 4:41-44, 108-22.

6 Albin Lesky, "Alkestis: der Mythus und das Drama," Sitzungsb. der Akad. der Wiss. in Wien, phil.-hist. Kl. 203 (1925), Abh. 2. Justin Glenn. "The Polyphemus Folktale and Homer's Kyklôpeia," Transactions of the American Philological Association 102 (1971): 133-81. Lowell Edmunds. The Sphinx in the Oedipus Legend, Beiträge zur klassischen Philologie 127 (Königstein Ts.: Hain, 1981). Alex Scobie, "The Battle of the Pygmies and the Cranes in Chinese, Arab, and North American Indian Sources," Folklore 86 (1975): 122-32. For the story of the sailor and the oar, see above, note 2. The present paper focuses upon ancient Greek stories, so that references to Roman narratives are usually not given; but the problems are essentially the same.

7 Martin Nilsson, Geschichte der Griechischen Religion (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1967), 1:17-23.

8 Albin Lesky, A History of Greek Literature, trans. James Willis and Cornelis de Heer (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1966), pp. 154-57.

9 Ludwig Preller, Griechische Mythologie, 4th ed., 3 vols., bearbeitet von Carl Robert (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1891-1926). Mark P. 0. Morford and Robert J. Lenardon, Classical Mythology, 2nd ed. (New York: Longman, 1977).

10 The modern collections of Greek mythology, with their severely limited range, do in fact possess an old pedigree. In ancient compilations of traditional stories, we find basically two different principles of selection, which could be called the generic and the historical. The former collections select for a particular genre of story, such as the anecdote or the jest on the fable. The historical compilations, on the other hand, focus on the traditional stories concerning the early history of the world and of the Hellenic people, selecting primarily for myths of the gods and for legends of the great families of Greece in early times. Thus, the Bibliothêkê ("Library") of Pseudo-Apollodoros (first century A.D.?) recounts Greek traditional oral history, starting with a mythical cosmogony and continuing to the end of the heroes. The Genealogiae, or Fabulae, attributed to Hyginus (second century A.D.?), likewise includes scarcely any stories that we would not ordinarily classify either as myths or as legends of the heroic age. In short, these two works are collections of what we today should label Greek mythology. Taken together, they show most of the features that are familiar in modern compilations. The former is recounted as a continuous narrative, like a universal history, and is ancestor to those compilations, such as Preller-Robert's Griechische Mythologie and Rose's Handbook, which opt for the panorama, whereas the latter consists of stories told briefly and discontinuously, the prototype of the mythological dictionary, such as Herbert Hunger, Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 6th ed. (Vienna: Verlag Brüder Hollinek, 1969), Pierre Grimal, Dictionnaire de la Mythologie Grecque et Romaine, 4th ed. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1969), Edward Tripp, The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology (New York: New American Library, 1974), and W. H. Roscher, ed., Ausfuhrliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 7 vols. (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1884-1893). By the time of Fulgentius (ca. 467-532 A.D.), if not before, this kind of compilation receives the label mythology, or, as Fulgentius has it, "mythologies." His Mythologiae also contains the story of Hero and Leander and the story of Cupid and Psyche, the latter retold from Apuleius, so that it is perhaps due ultimately to the influence of this work that these two romantic stories are often admitted into the company of Greek myth and family legend. The striking similarity of content in ancient and modern mythological compilations is presumably a consequence of the continuous tradition of Greek mythological compilation, stretching from antiquity to the present day, in which, without much fresh thought, compilers select again and again the same stories for inclusion. On the ancient compilations, see Carl Wendel, "Mythographie," in Pauly-Wissowa 16:1352-74; on Renaissance handbooks of classical mythology, see Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, trans. Barbara Sessions (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961). See also note 21, below.

11 Ingemar Düring, Aristotle in the Ancient Biographical Tradition, Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, Goteborgs Universitets Arsskrift, vol. 63 (Gothenburg, 1957). Alice Swift Riginos, Platonica: The Anecdotes Concerning the Life and Writings of Plato (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976).

12 See above, note 10.

13 The fragmented study of Greek traditional stories is in turn a microcosm of the fragmented study of mythology in academia in general; for a discussion, see Burton Feldman and Robert D. Richardson, The Rise of Modern Mythology 1680-1860 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972), pp. xix-xxii.

14 Nor do things seem to be appreciably better outside of Greek studies. When, for example, folklorists glance back at ancient Greece, they tend to see only those stories and motifs that are reminiscent of more recent tradition, and to ignore the rest; for the truth of this, pick up almost any modern survey of the folktale or the legend, and read the several pages devoted to classical antiquity. This view is just as partial as that promulgated by classicists.

15 George W. Cox, Tales of Ancient Greece (London and Toronto: J. M. Dent; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1915), p. 31. This extremely popular work has been issued in one edition after another since the first edition of 1868. I have been able to consult only two editions, one dated 1915, the other undated; both have the line quoted here, and both have the stories mentioned, gathered at the end in a section entitled "Miscellaneous Tales."

16 Cox's comparative notes are not wholly accurate by modern standards, but that is beside the point here. See further, Richard M. Dorson, "The Eclipse of Solar Mythology," in Myth: A Symposium, ed. Thomas Sebeok (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958), p. 42.

17 H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology (London: Methuen, 1928). "We use the word mythology to signify the study of certain products of the imagination of a people, which take the form of tales" (p. 1). "We may divide legends, in a fashion which by now is almost traditional, into three classes" (p. 10), which prove to be myth, saga, and Märchen (pp. 10-14). Rose refers to the tripartite division as "almost traditional," but it was not so in classical studies, and Rose no doubt borrowed it from folklorists. His immedite source was probably Charlotte Burnes's Handbook of Folklore, which Rose once mentions in passing (p. 286). Burnes introduces her chapter on stories as follows: "Traditional stories may be roughly classified as Myths, Legends (including Hero-Tales and Sagas), and Märchen or Folk-tales, with which last may be reckoned the minor varieties of Beast-tales, Drolls, Cumulative tales, and Apologues." See Charlotte S. Burnes, The Handbook of Folklore (London: Publications of the Folk-lore Society 73, 1913), p. 261.

18 Joseph Fontenrose, The Ritual Theory of Myth, University of California Publications in Folklore Studies 18 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1966), pp. 54-56. G. S. Kirk, The Nature of Greek Myths (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), pp. 30-37. Walter Burkert, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), pp. 1-2, 33. Michael Grant, Myths of the Greeks and Romans (New York: New American Library, 1964), pp. 72-76, 362-66. Cf. Michael Grant, Roman Myths (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), pp. 262-63, note 27. Morford and Lenardon (see above, note 9), pp. 1-3.

19 Fontenrose, pp. 54-56. Kirk, p. 31. Morford and Lenardon, pp. 1-3 (notice also their comment on p. 2: "The definitions set forth by Rose in his invaluable handbook have deservedly won wide acceptance"). William Bascom, "The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives," Journal of American Folklore 78 (1965): 3-20.

20 Rose, Handbook, P. 14.

21 Fontenrose, Ritual Theory, is a near exception here. He suggests grouping together myths, legends, and folktales under the term mythology, but only if they contain supernatural elements; accordingly, realistic tales are deliberately excluded (p. 55). While Fontenrose's definition succinctly expresses approximately what the ancient Greeks meant by mythologia, his concept (though larger than Greek mythology in its current usage) is smaller than the class of all Greek traditional stories, as he intends it to be.

The modern usage of the term "mythology" does not precisely continue the ancient Greek usage of the noun mythologia and its verb mythologein. Mythologia means a fabulous or fictional story, or the telling of such stories, and mythologein means to tell a (fabulous) story.

See Liddell-Scott-Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), s. vv. These words could be employed in reference to any fabulous story, including the Aesopic fable. Mythologies occurs in titles of collections of fabulous stories as early as Alexandrian times, as, for example, in Deinarchos's Mythologiai peri Kêtên ("Fabulous Stories about Crete"): see Carl Wendel, "Mythographie," in Pauly-Wissowa 16:1356.

22 Cf. Bengt Holbek, "Tacit Assumptions," Folklore Forum 14 (1981): 125-26.

23 Reidar Th. Christiansen, The Migratory Legends, FFC No. 175 (Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1958), Type 6070A, "Fairies Send a Message."

24 For the story, see Mason Hammond, "A Famous Exemplum of Spartan Toughness," Classical Journal 75 (1979-80): 97-109. The mother means that her son should either return alive and honorably (= carrying his shield) or dead and honorably (= carried upon his shield) but not alive and dishonorably (= without his shield, which a warrior might cast away in order to disencumber his flight from the enemy).

25 See Alex Scobie, "Storytellers, Storytelling, and the Novel in Graeco-Roman Antiquity," Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, N.F. 122 (1979): 245-50, and John Winkler, "Akko," Classical Philology 77 (1982): 137-38.




Origins And Development Of Greek Mythology