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"Is it True?"
Notes on Myth and History

8917: "Wry double face", attributed to "The expressionist" and dated "Gothic 13th century". Royal Cast Collection, Copenhagen. The original is at the museum Erkebispegården in Trondheim, Norway.

"For the mythological view of the world ... has this paradoxical trait: it was there before the poets, yet it is the poets who give it form." (Carl Kerényi, Prometheus, Archetypal Image of Human Existence, Ch. II).

I. The Relative Positions of Myth and History 

Some ask: "Is it true?", "Are the tales of mythology true?", or else: "Did the Trojan War really take place?", or "Did Heracles exist as a real person?"

The physical vocation of History

Those questions are justified ... After all the myths claimed to be true accounts, not fictions. No one attempts to prove the real existence of Don Quixote (not yet). For he was known from the start as a fictional character. But the distinction between fiction and myth still persists, having been reinforced by the archaeological discoveries of Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890). However, we may notice (and this is what we shall examine here) that such questions almost invariably refer to the heroic myths rather than to the divine myths. [1]

Why this preference? Obviously because the heroic myths allow, at least theoretically, the possibility of verification, whereas the "truth" of the divine myths cannot be based on verifiable "facts". The questioner realises that the divine myths contain philosophical and religious components. But since these cannot be attested, the question "Is it true?" cannot be properly applied to them.

Truth has a good reputation, and typically the questioner thinks that History, by building its account on the verification of facts, is the best fit to deliver it. And having realised that the divine myths are beyond verification, he limits his inquiry to the heroic myths or expects the divine myths to be treated as heroic[2], or else discards them as "symbolic".

For instance, he may be prepared to acknowledge that there really was a Trojan War and that a certain man Achilles actually fought in it. But he expects the myths' claim that Achilles was the son of a sea-goddess to be explained in factual ways. Consequently he may also expect History either to strip the nereid of her divine nature, or else ignore her "until new evidence surfaces". "If History cannot answer today," he reasons, "she might be able to answer tomorrow." Assuming this perspective, he never needs to feel discouraged by the uncertainties of History as he cherishes the hope that new research may eventually eliminate the doubts or turn them into proved facts. [3]

But the myths are not just the legends resembling History. They also address—among other things—philosophical and religious dimensions that cannot be apprehended in factual ways. The narrative of past events (including the details of social and political life with its rituals and superstitions) are interweaved with a theogony and a cosmogony, with emotional and ethical valuations, and with moral and ontological issues. The myths have physical and metaphysical sides. And it is not an easy task to remove divine presence from the tales of mythology: the heroic action develops in front of a divine background.

The broken egg

History, Philosophy and Religion are derivatives of the myths, and they appear as separate fields when the holistic mythical view breaks down about or before 800 BC.

Until then the myths were like and egg: they contained, in an unique blend, about all that was needed for life. When an egg breaks, anything may be done with its components except combining them inside the eggshell as they were before. Even if we had at our disposal all the original mythological material (but it is certain that the legacy of the myths is severely fragmented) still the myths could not be recreated (or rather we could no longer recreate ourselves under their aegis). The quality that kept the different parts together is, in AD 2004, irretrievable, and has been so since long ago.

It is not difficult to perceive traces of myth among the pre-socratic philosophers and in the work of Plato (427-347 BC), as well as in the "father of history" Herodotus (484-430 BC). Admittedly, those traces reveal the origin of these fields of inquiry, but the works of these authors reveal as well some fundamental differences between the mythical approach and their own.

Herodotus's attempts to base his discourse on verified or at least credible accounts resemble our own concept of "historical truth". In that sense, he is a representative of "the dawn of reason", and consequently he neither invokes the muse [4] nor is he particularly satisfied with the mythical accounts. Sometimes he found them "silly", and at other times he reduces them to plausible stories.

Both Herodotus and Thucydides (c. 460-399 BC) attributed historicity to certain ancient legends. But they had to reinterpret them in order to digest them. This new kind of intellectual task was summarized by Plutarch (AD 45-120) in his biography of Theseus:

"May I therefore succeed in purifying Fable, making her submit to reason and take on the semblance of History." (Plutarch, Parallel Lives Theseus 1.2).

The Broken Egg (illustration of an image)

The mythical egg is held together by the imagery of the tales which constitute one all-embracing tale that is expressed by means of poetry, music and dance within the frame of an oral tradition. The contents of that imagery is as important as its form: the myths mirror the world through both.

That imagery is first fixed by the visual arts and later by the alphabet, a device built with symbols that lack semantic meaning. The alphabet makes the egg swell until it cracks. Its components are then released, and the fields of Science, Politics, History, Philosophy, and Religion, are produced.

Politics represents the change of communal life: from rural to urban, from dispersion to centralization. Freedom is curtailed as the villagers are confiscated by a federalist polis which produces models for the visual arts, institutionalizes religion, legislates, etc. Politics, like Natural Science and History, has a "physical" vocation.

Philosophy and Religion represent the "metaphysical" side.[5] Religion is originally a sense of the sacred, deriving from a qualitative perception of the cosmos, seen as beautiful and significant. The institutionalization of religion (for instance through elaborate theology) suggests a diminution of the religious feeling (as "sense of the sacred"), but may as well contribute to preserve what is left of it.

Once the egg is broken, the myths are regarded as a separate field. Man ceases "to live in the myth" (Kerényi), and instead explains the myths, regarding them as external objects: he analyzes, interprets, classifies, elaborates theories, reveals allegories and symbols, identifies rational aspects, discovers historical roots, ritual connections, structural patterns, psychological meanings, social or moral implications, etc.

To a certain extent, however, the mythical tradition persisted in the world of art (literature, music, and visual arts).

The Alphabet

But why did the egg break? What caused the unified mythical view to break into pieces? Apparently, the main agent was the phonetic alphabet, an invention that appeared during the "Dark Ages".[6]

Before the arrival of this revolutionary technology, the "truths" (physical and metaphysical) about man and the world were transmitted acoustically, by metrical and rhythmical speech, that is by poems and music. Those creations (for poem means something made or created) were delivered (so we are told) by itinerant singers known as aiodoi and rhapsodes. But their accounts were orally delivered to a community which, having made their acquaintance with the myths approximately in the same way as someone learns his mother tongue, already knew the tales.

In which ways does the spoken word differ from the written? Marshall McLuhan (1911-80) reminds us that speech is "an outering of all our senses at once", that "the spoken word is more emotionally laden than the written", and that the oral man lived "in an integral world patterned by myth", leading "a complex kaleidoscopic life". His internal world "was a creative mix of complex emotions and feelings." But the phonetic alphabet, concludes McLuhan, having fallen "like a bombshell", committed man to its "visual linear values" fragmenting his consciousness through "the separation of both sights and sounds from their semantic and dramatic meanings."[7]

"Many a page of prose and many a narrative has been devoted to expressing what was, in effect, a sob, a moan, a laugh, or a piercing scream. The written word spells out in sequence what is quick and implicit in the spoken word." (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, Part II: The Spoken Word).


McLuhan's observations are somewhat echoed by Classical criticism in its description of the impact of writing on memory:

"This invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them." (Plato, Phaedrus 275b).

Herodotus, however, had opened his work thus:

"These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done ..." [1.1]

Those two quotations reveal different conceptions of memory. Plato refers to the individual memory, which is internal; Herodotus to the collective, which is external.

Generally we realise that memory is vital for the preservation of an identity, or for learning. And in the context of the myths, Memory plays a decisive role. For instance, when the poet says "Tell me Muse ... " or "Sing goddess...", he is addressing the daughters of Memory (Mnemosyne), whom he regards as the owners of all tales and the source of his inspiration. The Socratic notion of knowledge as recollection is akin to that of the myths, as is Plato's connection of knowledge to Forms.

The Truth of Illusions

The acquisition of truth depends on knowledge, and the latter on memory. The Greek word for truth (alétheia) literally means "that which is not forgotten" (léthe = oblivion).

For Philosophy, the implications of truth are many (see for instance Plato, Theaetetus 151e-152e, 161e-167a, and Aristotle Meta. 1027b-1028a). But History abides mainly by factual truth. In any case, what is outside truth or goes against it may be called lies or illusions. The Muses tell Hesiod (according to him) in a remembered passage:

"We know enough to make up lies which are convincing, but we also have the skill, when we will, to speak the truth." (The Muses to Hesiod. Hesiod, Theogony 25).

"Lies which are convincing" could be thought as plain lies leading to error and disaster, or else as illusions in the service of knowledge and memory. A typical example of the latter is provided by the members of the audience of a play:

"The tragedian who succeeds in enthralling his audience does more justice by the effect this has on his audience than the playwright who fails to captivate them: likewise the member of the audience who succumbs to the spell of the play will through that experience be a better, wiser man than the member who resists and remains unmoved." (Oliver Taplin: Emotion and Meaning in Greek Tragedy).[8]

In this example, to succumb to the spell is to come closer to truth, which cannot be completely separated from either fiction or the myths because there are other kinds of truth—different from empirical truth—such as psychological truths or those contained in ideal values.

He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.
He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images,
Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.
Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact,
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.
When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.
He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.
He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.
(Robert Graves, 1895-1985: In Broken Images).

Historical truth rests on facts more than religious or philosophical truths do. History is therefore more physical than Religion and Philosophy (which are more metaphysical), and therefore it may be more exact in its details, and more able to "show" them or "prove" them.

Also dogmatism—religious or philosophical—represents an aspiration to exactitude. But as far as we can see, very little was exact in the myths. Oral tradition seems to have little demand for exactitude. Such a demand appears later, growing since the introduction of the alphabet. Similarly, the performances of musicians were less exact before it became possible to record them.[9]

"To know a story" may mean, on a certain level, to be accurately acquainted with its details or facts, that is, with its surface. That knowledge may require some measure of exactitude. But it is precisely through the absence of exactitude that the myths could be retold and yet be new each time ("Homer is new, this morning...," says Charles Péguy). There was no definitive version, no canonization. And as also ancient Greek drama shows, the variations in the narrative content implied deepening moods, shifting the emphasis, suggesting new layers of meaning, etc. The truths of drama are different from the truths of facts.

If we discovered an ancient document proving the historicity of the Trojan War, and giving an account of it, that does not automatically mean that such a discovery would enhance our lives more than Homer has done. Still "the lies of the poets" do not enhance our lives for being lies, but because their spell leads us to deeper truths about ourselves and the world than the factual truths.

History has been called "raw material" whereas the representations of poetry are what has been refined by artistic means ("Je n'ai fait mon oeuvre que par élimination", says a French author). Therein lies their power, which even the historian needs in order to avoid being lost in "a jungle of facts":

" historian can be 'great' if he is not also a great artist ..." (Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History).


History's notion of Time resembles the linear, sequenced, and fragmented mode of the alphabet.[10] When applying the same mode to the myths, we obtain genealogies and chronology. Within these two the divine myths must be treated apart from the heroic since the gods are out of Time (or Time itself is a divinity, sometimes regarded as the brother of Memory).

Time does not appear as linear in the myths. Cause and effects may still be visible, but events are presided by Fate. The issue of the direction of Time also shows its connection with Fate. For Time, in personal terms (as even Spengler remarked), is life and purpose subject to direction, which connects to character and Fate. For the myths the future will not bring anything essentially new. They appear to form a close circle, or a woven tapestry already finished. The Hesiodic (and later Ovidian) Ages of Man suggest a cyclic idea of the world. What has happened is happening permanently, but it happens in the depths and heights of meaning and beauty (the attributes of Cosmos), rather than in the surface of facts or events (the "raw material"). Therein lies the relevance of the myths, their capacity to present and represent "imperishable issues".

Time is invisible, and some could ask (just as it is asked "Did the Trojan War really take place?"): Does Time really exist? Can we really measure Time? How does Time differ from "Sequence of Events"? Why do we imagine an entity presiding such sequences? Is Time inside ourselves or outside? Or both inside and outside? How much can we rely in our perception of Time before we get lost in formulae? And what about Time's direction: could it change and move from future to past?[11]

Time has a distinct metaphysical outlook that is not represented in the time-lines of History. But perhaps even the myths had to fragment themselves in order to convey the intelligible:

"But myths, if they are really going to be myths, must separate in time the things of which they tell, and set apart from each other many realities which are together, but distinct in rank of powers, at points where rational discussions, also, make generations of things ungenerated, and themselves, too, separate things which are together; the myths, when they have taught us as well as they can, allow the man who has understood them to put together again that which they have separated." (Plotinus, Ennead III.5.24).

II. The Pseudomyths of History 

Criticizing History?

The general feeling is that the myths—whether divine or heroic—could be a lie, and that History, relying on facts, could provide us with truth, hopefully a solid or exact one.

We are not going to criticize the "father of history" Herodotus. Many have done that, including Plutarch (AD 45-120). Nowadays Herodotus is also called "uneven and shallow". We are of course more exact, and we also boast about this virtue as we fill our own essays with lengthy lists of notes and bibliographical references. The ancients were not as good as we at it, but we feel that our many references somewhat prove our zeal and accuracy, serving too as evidence of the extension of our knowledge. In any case, we would not do without them! They are often a headache, and they could be monotonous in their repetitions, but nevertheless ... We are used to them.

It would not be realistic to criticize History. For History does not really exist; only historians do (or as R. W. Emerson says: "There is properly no history; only biography"). But if we nevertheless insisted in criticizing History, it would be fair to choose the best historian. But that seems an impossible task too (who could ever be the best historian?). A kind of solution could be to attempt, not a criticism of History but of a more vague historical perspective. But this is not easy either since this perspective is an integral part of our current conceptions. We can hardly attempt anything comprehensive in this respect, but still some generalities may be addressed:

Career starts with lies

First we may notice that the historical perspective, as it came to express itself before, during and after Classical times (c. 480-323 BC) is less concerned with facts and "historical truth" than anyone could expect. Indeed it is not impossible to say that dealing in lies became, if not more common, at least more official than in previous times.

"Spin doctors" and "clever guys" seem to have replaced "the lies of the poets" with all kinds of devices that linked their historical present to the legendary past by bettering heroes, genealogies, etc. We may still say that History comes later and finds "the truth" thus unveiling the historical lies of the past. But what is it there to tell us that History is not cheating today? Then again one may argue that the current frauds or errors will be discovered one day too ... Maybe so ... Yet, looking back to the human curriculum we might see that men and women would have lived more or less permanently in the midst of historical lies, and that these were denounced as such only by later generations which in turn lived under other lies, or under updated versions of the old ones.

This is not said to put in doubt the good intentions of historians. Yet we may notice that such falsifications are no longer the work of the myths, which, standing on a different ground, perhaps falsified much less. Indeed, it is not difficult to discover that the historical perspective started its career telling lies.


Was it because it was still influenced by "the lies of the poets" from which it would some day liberate itself? It does not look that way ... For he is not influenced by the myths who arranges the myths for purposes alien to them.

What is then behind the falsifications of the historical perspective?

Could it be guilty seduction? That is, that kind of seduction that works not for the spell itself and for what naturally comes from it but for ulterior motives? And which could these motives be? The variations could be many, but the themes are few and well known: mainly Power, Gold, and Fame, along with all combinations of the three.

Seduction tells a story, not for the values contained in it, but for purposes alien to it. For instance, it could tell a tale of love, but the purpose is not to gain insight in love: rather it could be to catch the fortune of a victim ... Or it may tell a story of heroism, not to gain insight in it (for example in the complex nature of courage), but to keep the citizens mobilized and alert; that would be propaganda ...

Most tales that are told, not for the tale itself, but having some gain in view, could be forms of guilty seduction: commercial advertisement, political propaganda, religious or philosophical indoctrination, scientific research that has been oriented to achieve preconceived aims ... All of them tell stories according to their field and jargon—perishable stories, no matter how many facts they contain. And the question remains: For what purpose? For in comparison, "the lies of the poets" are of an innocent kind ...

Genealogy and Archaeology

Let us take a typical example—genealogy—while bearing in mind the following:

1) In the myths genealogy shows that the world is not created but procreated through love and intercourse. Cosmogony and Theogony are one and the same; in this, like in other issues, the myths have an unified picture of the world.

2) Genealogy plays an important role in endorsing the mythical nature of a tale. The foundation of the myths lies in divine presence, which is often established through genealogy.

3) Genealogy appears as a sort of skeleton that helps to keep the mythical flesh together. From it a Mythical Chronology emerges.

While relating the myths to History, we are not concerned with (1) and (2) but with (3); and within the frame of (3) we are concerned with the heroic (human) lineages.

Modern scholarship tends to discover in the complicated genealogies of Homer, Hesiod and the aiodoi, both "systematization" and "rationality", although they also notice that "later historians were more exacting."[12]

More "exacting" in what? For example, in linking historical royal houses, and sometimes themselves, to the heroes and gods of the myths:

"Hecataeus the historian was once at Thebes [Egypt], where he made for himself a genealogy which connected himself by lineage with a god in the sixteenth generation." (Herodotus, History 2.143).

That's how the more exact sciences of Politics and History started their careers. But perhaps no one should deny the divine origin of Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 550-476 BC), or anyone else for that matter. Rather the difficulty seems to arise with the words "in the sixteenth generation", that is, with exactitude. This is the same man who wrote (fr. I): "I write what I believe to be the truth, for the Greeks have many stories which, it seems to me, are absurd."

Along with genealogy, there were also "archaeological" findings—solid facts—such as "the bones of Theseus" that Cimon, the son of Miltiades (victor of Marathon), recovered from the Island of Scyros, following instructions imparted by the Oracle of Delphi. The finding added to the popularity of Cimon—then head of the Confederacy of Delos—who was at the time engaged in a number of military operations against the Persians. The found stone coffin containing the bones of a tall man, with bronze spear and sword, were reburied in Athens. Cimon died in c. 450 BC. Before these events, the Athenians had claimed that the image of Theseus had helped them in the battle of Marathon (Plutarch, Theseus, 35.8).

Miraculous apparitions of this kind abound in historical times, and could be said to be more flagrant and childish than those found in the myths. For in the myths the gods often appear in disguise [13], or else we learn that the clear sight of a divinity may cause death (as the story of Semele shows).

Truth still linked to Wisdom

We have seen that it is possible to accept the existence of a man Achilles fighting in a war around Troy, but that it is more difficult to acknowledge him as son of a sea-goddess.

Conversely, King Croesus of Lydia is acknowledged as an historical character, and is said to have reigned from 560 to 546 BC. That is not discussed. But are the anecdotes told about him by Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus (80-20 BC), or Xenophon (430-357 BC), true (including the miraculous sections, or even without them)? And what about the many accounts of the Seven Sages, who are said to have visited that king (sometimes defying chronology)? Fortunately, several of these stories preserve the charm of legend, making us forget the matter of factual truth, though in this period the wisdom of the poet is replaced—in real life—by the impoverished wisdom of the sage. Fortunately too, we have been able to unveil the errors and frauds of such historical accounts, but as usual we do it a posteriori.

The Seven Sages incarnate the rise of the polis. They probably were, according to Dicaearchus (disciple of Aristotle):

"... neither sages nor philosophers, but merely shrewd men with a turn for legislation." (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 1.40).

Yet in this period, the issue of truth was still linked to wisdom, a wider concept and an internal one (truth has become increasingly external). Originally, wisdom was the treasure of the poet. But when his time had passed, wisdom was attributed to the sophoi, a sophós being a man that does not need to go in pursuit of wisdom—as philosophers did afterwards—because he is already wise. Truth separated from wisdom was yet to come, as facts became more relevant. Without attempting a definition, neither of wisdom nor of truth, we may still notice that wisdom is part of a living process of knowing or understanding, whereas factual truth resembles a petrified product.[14]

Myth-based politics

There is no doubt that the myths were used by the political power of historical times, assisted by its propagandists. The cult of the heroes of the past persisted for centuries—sometimes in ways reminiscent of the cult of the heroes of independence throughout the American continent.

Theseus came to be regarded as the founder of Athenian democracy, and his many deeds (which apparently increased with time) contributed to the creation of the Athenian self-image. This was a rather smooth process.[15] Also Robert Graves, in the introduction to his The Greek Myths, reminds that

"True myth must be distinguished from ... political propaganda as in Theseus's Federalization of Attica."

Yet the political usage of myths not always was smooth. Following Herodotus we learn that Cleisthenes of Sicyon (fl. 580 BC), disliking the Argive influence, put an end to the minstrels' contests and restored the tragic choruses to Dionysus 2, since they had, as theme of their songs, the prowesses of the Argives. Likewise he wished to cast out Adrastus 1's hero shrine, who was in the marketplace at Sicyon. Yet, not daring to do such a thing without authority, he sought it in the Oracle of Delphi, which utterly disappointed him by answering:

"Adrastus is king of Sicyon, and you but a stone thrower." (The Oracle to Cleisthenes. Herodotus, History 5.67.2).

As he could not find satisfaction in the oracle's answer, he introduced the cult of Melanippus 1, who had died defending Thebes against the SEVEN, after slaying Tydeus 2 and Mecisteus 1, brother of Adrastus 1. In addition Cleisthenes, being eager to remove the Argive influence, renamed their tribes in a ridiculous way, calling them Swinites, Assites and Porkites, and reserving for his own tribe the title Archelaoi—rulers of the people. This lunacy lasted for sixty years after Cleisthenes' death. Afterwards the Sicyonians, recovering their senses, changed the names into more respectable ones, and added one which they called Aegialeis after Adrastus 1's son Aegialeus 1.

The myth of the return of the HERACLIDES made possible one of the most perfect family-trees, that of the Royal Houses of Sparta:

Casting lots after victory, the Heraclides Cresphontes and the twin brothers Procles 2 and Eurysthenes 1 divided the territory they had conquered, Messenia being assigned to Cresphontes, and Sparta to the twins. The twins Procles 2 and Eurysthenes 1 were bitter enemies, but as they had won by lot the kingdom of Lacedaemon, they decided to rule with two royal houses, and this is why there were two kings in Sparta, also in historical times. The genealogical line of these houses runs directly from the historical kings up to Heracles 1, for Procles 2 and Eurysthenes 1 were sons of Aristodemus, son of Aristomachus 2, son of Cleodaeus 2, son of Hyllus 1, son of Heracles 1 (either by Deianira 1, or by Melite 2, a naiad). (See the complete line at Sparta.)

The "Return of the HERACLIDES" has sometimes been seen as a representation of the so called "Dorian invasions". Yet there's no certainty if there ever were "Dorian invasions", and it is not clear when this myth was combined, whether at an early date or later.

Roman self-image

After the failure of Periclean Athens, and the collapse of the Alexandrian world, the wisdom of Empire finally settled in the Mediterranean world, turning its heritage into a version that, if it was not any better, was indeed both gigantic and lasting.

When the Empire was young—that is, still a rather introvert Republic—it felt the importance of finding an explanation for the origins of Rome and the Romans. That explanation, we are told, was best provided by Virgil (70-19 BC) in his Aeneid, a poem that emulates both the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Borges has written that Virgil tried to repeat Homer's prowesses, and that he, strange enough, succeeded in his purpose. Others, however, have preferred to unveil the element of seduction that is present in the Aeneid, the "purposeful propaganda" that permeates Virgil's poem and that was aimed at proving that the Romans had a right—granted by Fate—to rule the world. They point out that Julius Caesar and Augustus claimed to be descendants of Aeneas's son Iulus (also called Ascanius, the founder of the Julian clan), and affirm that Augustus and Virgil exchanged favors—the Emperor as sponsor and the poet through a number of allusions, as for example Aeneas's visions of the future in Chapter 6, and the shield that Vulcan fashioned for Aeneas which featured the triple triumph of Augustus (Aeneid 8.714). Morford and Lenardon call the Aeneid a "supreme monument of Roman patriotism." [16]

But, as we know, Virgil based his account in previous sources. And there had been several references to Italy in the ancient Greek accounts. For example Latinus, the eponym of the Latins, is named by Hesiod (Theogony 1013), who identifies him as the son of Odysseus and Circe (Apollodorus, in Epitome 7.24, says he was the son of Odysseus and Calypso. Later sources say otherwise; for example, Hyginus in Fabulae 127 affirms that Latinus was son of Telemachus and Circe, whereas Dionysius of Halicarnassus [1.43.1] asserts that the parents of Latinus were Heracles and a Hyperborean girl). Also King Minos ended his life in Sicily while pursuing Daedalus, etc... Massimo Pallottino reminds us that in the testimonies of Virgil and Dionysius of Halicarnassus "there is a consciousness of the religious and cultural unity of the Greek and Italo-Roman worlds, that is, of classical civilization, whose first manifestations go back to the beginning of historical time."[17]

Still, a critical audience may distinguish the spontaneous poetical account from those creations—poetical or historical—stained by ulterior motives, noticing perhaps that the freedom that must have reigned during the "Dark Ages" of Greece had disappeared in the Imperial Age (and also in the Hellenistic and Classical times). That audience may also notice that inspiration had to be replaced by artificial constructions—the work, as they say, of a more "enlightened" time—increasingly concerned not so much with formation (what develops individual qualities) but with information--that is, the mere facts and utilities that entangle man--, and the seduction it often entails.

Historical Periods 


Years BC


Early and Middle Bronze Age

3000-1600 BC

Greek immigration 2200 BC
Cretan palaces: 1950 BC

Mycenaean Age (Late Bronze Age)

1600-1200 BC

Minoan collapse: 1500 BC

Dark Age

1200-800 BC

Homer, Hesiod, alphabet: c. 800 BC

Archaic Period

800-480 BC

First Olympiad: 776 BC
Foundation of Rome: 751 BC

Classical Period

480-323 BC

From the Persian Wars to the death of Alexander.

Hellenistic Period

323-31 BC

From the death of Alexander to the fall of Alexandria (but Greece became a Roman province in 146 BC).

All dates are approximate. See also these charts: Historical Context of the Myths, and Contemporaries


[1] The division of the myths into heroic and divine establishes that the divine myths consist of tales such as the creation of the world, the origin of the gods and other tales mainly related to them, as for instance the Castration of Uranus or the Titanomachy. The scene of these tales includes several places which we could call imaginary, such as Tartarus, although it also refers to visible places such as Mount Olympus. On the other hand, the heroic myths consist of tales related to kingdoms on earth, heroes and heroines, and the events in these tales are normally located in real geographical places such as Mycenae or Rhodes (although they may also include what we usually regard as imaginary locations). The term heroes is normally understood in a broad sense, which means that "heroes" could be "warriors, kings, founders, benefactors, questers, or even robbers and pirates." (Joseph Fontenrose. The Ritual Theory of Myth).

[2] Perhaps in the manner of Euhemerus (fl. 300 BC), whose fame rests on his having stripped the gods of their divine nature and turned them into kings of a remote past. An example of this is found in Diodorus Siculus 3.56.3ff. This author gives an account of the myths of the Atlantians (a people dwelling "on the edge of the ocean" in western Africa, around Mt. Atlas). Ther first king, he says, had been Uranus, father of 45 sons, among which 18 that were called Titans after their mother Titaea, who was deified after her death with a new name: Gaia. In addition, Uranus had daughters, Basileia and Rhea. The former reared all her brothers, and for that reason she was known as "Great Mother". Later Basileia married one of the Titans, Hyperion with whom she had a son, Helius, and a daughter, Selene. But the Titans conspired against this family, killing Hyperion and throwing Helius into the river Eridanus. Selene killed herself, and Basileia having disappeared, the crowd regarded all of them as deities. The story continues, giving an account of Atlas, Cronos, Zeus, etc. as men of the past.

[3] He forgets that what is "proved" through historical documents is not necessarily "true" in all respects. The victories of Pyrrhus against the Romans provide a typical example that became proverbial. It is said that he who wins a "Pyrrhic victory" has lost as much as he has won. But these campaigns were documented by the enemies of Pyrrhus. Were Pyrrhus losses as damaging for himself as the Romans asserted?

[4] That there is a muse protectress of history, or inspiring the historian, has no support in the most ancient sources, being a creation, or rather a rationalization, of later times—even reason has its inventions. The division of Herodotus' work in nine books—each book being given the name of one of the Muses—was not established by the author.

[5] When Friedrich Max Müller wrote his Mythology and Religion (1868), he believed that the "religious fables" or myths were a turbid addition to a previous existing religious system. He even compared the myths with a mental disease since they take possession of the whole of man's intellectual life. But Müller changed his standpoint at the time of writing the Preface to his Contributions to the Science of Mythology (1897), giving precedence to the myths in his sequence of historical stages: "There is nothing more ancient in the world than language. The history of man begins, not with rude flints, rock temples or pyramids, but with language. The second stage is represented by myths as the first attempts at translating the phenomena of nature into thought. The third stage is that of religion or the recognition of moral powers, and in the end of One Moral Power behind and above all nature. The fourth and last is philosophy, or a critique of the powers of reason in their legitimate working of the data of experience."

[6] We may assume the Dark Age of Greece (roughly between 1200 BC and 800 BC) to have been identical with the mythical era of Greek culture. This period is called "dark" because little is known about it, and not for other reasons. The Dark Age succeeds the Mycenaean (1600-1200 BC), and it comes to an end when the Archaic period (800-480 BC) begins.

[7] Interview in Playboy, 1969. McLuhan points out that the phonetic alphabet is radically different from the semi-alphabetic hieroglyphic, and (even more) from the ideogrammatic symbols. Also the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus (AD 204-270) observed the disadvantages of the sequential fragmentation engendered by the alphabet. Having said that the higher Forms of the higher worlds are not expressed in propositions, but through images, he writes: "The wise men of Egypt, I think, also understood this ... and when they wished to signify something wisely, did not use the forms of letters which follow the order of words and propositions and imitate sounds and the enunciations of philosophical statements, but by drawing images and inscribing in their temples one particular image of each particular thing, they manifested the non-discursiveness of the intelligible world, that is, that every image is a kind of knowledge and wisdom and is a subject of statements, all together in one, and not discourse or deliberation." (Ennead V.8.6.1, On the Intelligible Beauty).

[8] Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy, edited by Erich Segal, Oxford University Press 1983.

[9] See for example Arthur Rubinstein's autobiography: My Many Years.

[10] For us the "sequence of events"—which we perceive as causes and effects—constitutes the tissue of History as well as of Time. The objects of Time (for Time itself is invisible) appear as moving along a straight line and in a certain direction. They undergo change which, chronologically ordered, represent a "sequence of events" steered by causality and even by "chance". History usually represents Time with a straight line in which "the past" is found to the left and "the future" to the right, whereas "the present" may be shown either by a short segment or by an ideal point in the middle (depending on the practical purposes). In a time-line the present is often to the extreme right because the future is still unknown or only hypothetical. The present is in the edge, but we "move" ceaselessly along the line of Time, and what now is the right edge becomes soon "past". Still we may draw an hypothetical line representing the future beyond that edge, since experience tells us that it's likely there'll be a future. The historical line is collective in the sense that individual deaths, though they might be registered, do not prevent the line from projecting itself into the future (and into the past through "new evidence"). We see Time stopping for the individual (when he dies), but not for the rest. If Humanity were destroyed there would be no one to draw the line, but since facts seem to tell us that Time existed before Humanity, we also believe that it will also exist after the destruction of our race. Very little or perhaps nothing in this conception of Time could be conclusively proved.

[11] For the direction of Time, see for example Plato, Critias 113d et seq.

[12] Fritz Graf, Greek Mythology, An Introduction (1993)

[13] For instance, Athena as Mentor 4 [Odyssey], or as a herald, or as Laodocus 3 [Iliad]; Ares as Acamas 2 [Iliad]; Iris 1 as Polites 1, or as Laodice 3 [Iliad]; Poseidon as Calchas [Iliad], etc. Concerning apparitions of the gods, this was the main posture of the poets, later imitated by the mythographers. According to myth, there is an ample intercourse between gods and men during the Golden Age, and even in later times the gods consorted openly with certain mortals (for instance the marriage of Peleus and Thetis), but this appears to become less frequent.

[14] See the dualities discussed by Oswald Spengler in his Der Untergang des Abenlandes (1917): History/Nature, Time/Space, Culture/Civilization, Producing/Produced (das Werden/das Gewordene), Fate/Causality, etc. (Chapter II, The Problem of History). English edition: The Decline of the West ( Oxford University Press, 1991).

[15] For a useful survey of the increasing importance of the myths of Theseus in historical Athens, see for example Fritz Graf, Greek Mythology, An Introduction (1993), Chapter VI.

[16] See for example Morford & Lenardon: Classical Mythology (Ch. 24), or Barry Powell: A Short Introduction to Classical Myth (Ch.14)

[17] For a summary of references to Italy in early Greek myth see: Greco-Italic Traditions and Legends, from the Bronze Age to Virgil by Massimo Pallottino, in Roman and European Mythologies (compiled by Yves Bonnefoy, University of Chicago Press, 1991).

Related sections Getting acquainted with the myths
Basic aspects of the Greek myths
Brief history of the Greek myths
The Children of the Myths

See above.