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Myth and Polis II: Did the Greeks believe their own myths?

Did the Greeks believe their own myths?’ This question, which was central to Paul Veyne’s 1988 book of the same name, is also important in this series on the deeper connection between myth and politics among the Greeks. After all, as I pointed out in the previous entry, to us it might seem strange that the citizens of Greek poleis unequivocally believed that Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos, had given birth to a being that was half man and half bull. Or that the hero Achilles was invulnerable – except for his heel, of course – because his mother Thetis had submerged him in the Styx to prevent him from dying at a young age. Yet Greek historiography and literature often refer to King Minos and Achilles in their narratives. Was the distinction between myth and history then so blurred to the Greeks? And more importantly, did the Greeks really believe in these – surely implausible – stories?

In general, the Greeks believed that the earliest stories about their heroes as we can find them in Hesiod or Homer were tantamount to their early history. After all, they believed that these figures were men who had effectively lived in the regions in which their descendants still roamed generations later. The idea of continuity between these mythological times and events so-called ‘historical’ events is a general tendency which can be found in both the literary and epigraphic sources. For example, the following excerpt can be read in the Parian Marble, a stele from Paros in which a chronological overview of Greek history is given: ‘From when there was a [shortage] of crops in Athens and, when [Apo]llo answered to the Athen[ers] who consulted the oracle that any [fine] should promise to Minos whom he considered just, 1031 years , when Aegeus was king of Athens.’ (r. 33-35) For the author of this stele, which was made after 264 BC, the story of Minos was as much a part of the history of Greece as Alexander’s battle at Issus in 333 BC or the Lamian War in which the Athenians took on Antipater in 323-322 BC.

The idea that myth was part of the earliest history of Greece can also be noted among Greek historians such as Herodotos or Thycidides. The first does not question the existence of Kekrops, the legendary half-serpent king of Athens (Hist. 8.44), while the latter mentions how surprising is is that it took the Greeks ten years to defeat the Trojans (1.11.).  So do I believe that Herodotus, as the father of history, really believed in the existence of snake people? Of course not. Indeed, after Herodotus gives an overview of various mythological events that contributed to the antagonism between east and west, he says the following: ‘Whether this last account is true, or whether the matter happened differently, I shall not discuss further. I shall proceed at once to point out the person who first, as far as I know, harmed the Greeks, after which I shall proceed with my history.’ (Hist. 1.5.3.) And even though Herodotos believed in the existence of Helen of Troy, he probably did not think that she was the daughter of Zeus and Leda. Apparently, he did not even believe that she spent the ten years of the Trojan War in Troy as he provides us with an alternative version of the story in which Paris and Helena had spent ten years in Egypt with the local priests (Hist. 2.113-120).

Diodoros also uses these stories in his history because he recognizes the importance of these stories for writing contemporary history. He also points out an additional difficulty these historians were faced with: the starting point of their story is so far away that they had to rely on these myths to a large extent. They could not, therefore, simply throw these stories away: if they did do so, very little of the Greek history before 800 BC remained. To solve this problem, the focus was placed on the less fantastic elements of these legendary stories and, as a result, some sort of truth could still be extracted from these stories. For even those who reject the stories of the Trojan War as written by Homer as complete fiction, cannot deny that archaeological finds at the site of Troy indicate that fighting took place there in the 12th century BC. This does not mean, of course, that we should be careful when seeking the “historical core” or an absolute truth in mythological stories.

Is it possible, then, to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this essay: did the Greek believe their own myths? Paul Veyne clearly thought so. After all, he stated that: “But of course they believed in their myths” and “They believe in them, but they use them and cease believing at the point where their interest in believing ends”! (1) So, according to Veyne, most Greeks believed their own myths, but only up to the point when it was no longer convenient to be convinced by these stories. Of course, there will have been Greeks who believed these stories literally, but for writers like Herodotos or Greek political leaders, these stories were the tools of choice to realize their some of their own goals: whether this was the writing of an account of all the deeds done by Greeks and Barbarians, or the funding of the construction of a city wall which had been destroyed by an earthquake as was the case in Kytinion in 205 BC. 

Further reading:

Dowden, K. en Livingston, N., ‘Thinking through Myth, Thinking Myth Through’, Dowden, K. en Livingston, N. (ed.) A Blackwell Companion to Greek Mythology, 2011.
Griffith, A., ‘Myth in History’, Dowden, K. en Livingston, N. (ed.) A Blackwell Companion to Greek Mythology, 2011.
Jones, C. Kinship Diplomacy in the Ancient World, 1999.
Patterson, L. E.. Kinship Myth in Ancient
Greece, 2010.
Veyne, P. Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination, ; translated by Paula Wissing, 1988.

(c) The header image shows ‘The Minotaur’ (1885) painted by Georg Frederic Watts (1817-1904) currently at the Tate in London. 

This is already the third post in a series of twelve which dives into the ways in which the ancient Greeks used their mythological past as a diplomatic tool in their relationships with others. This series is written in collaboration with Hippocrene – een Mythologisch Genootschap; where you can find a Dutch version of the post every month. Hippocrene a young association committed to bringing together academics, artists and interested parties to learn about mythology. Follow them on Facebook to keep up with their activities!


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