Myths contain stuff that has been transmitted from generation to generation, century to century, to some extent even millennium to millennium. But old doesn’t mean real. It doesn’t even mean inspired by something real.
|Note. This would be my main concern about the kind of model of oral history that Echo-Hawk 2000 proposes. Echo-Hawk’s ideas about oral traditions are, not exactly all-or-nothing, but they’re not fine-grained. Human bodies are real; eyes are real; but the fact you can put those two things together doesn’t mean you can say the Cyclops has a historical basis.|
But material culture, etiquette, military tactics, burial practices, legal and political framework, kinship, marriage, inheritance customs ... not so much. With just a couple of exceptions, what we have in these categories looks like contemporary practices, usually dating to the first half of the 600s BCE or a bit earlier, heavily altered by false archaisms to give them an artificial flavour of age. And while some of Homer’s place names are genuinely archaic, his geography and topography are a mess.
How about a historical Trojan War? Who knows. But in terms of popularity, in the Archaic period the Trojan War had a similar standing to the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. In terms of prevalence in the epic tradition, it was on a similar level to the war between the gods and the Titans. These comparisons aren’t encouraging.
With myths, just because some elements are old, that doesn’t mean any particular aspect of the myth is real. There’s no principled reason to infer, purely from internal evidence, that a myth originated in historical events. If the extant evidence shows a really good survival rate for some kind of stuff, as with Homer’s toponyms and language, it’s reasonable to expect that other toponyms and linguistic forms stand a decent chance of being old, even if we don’t have external corroboration. But if there’s an area where there’s no track record — like, um, almost everything else — then it’s bad methodology to assume it’s a faithful representation of anything at all.
Part 2. Euhemerism‘Myths are usually based on some version of the truth,’ Lara Croft says at the start of the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. Lara’s sentiment is a nice illustration of a deep-running human impulse: the drive to dig through fantastic elements from a myth, to find a kernel of historical reality buried inside.
|Note. Actually, in Lara’s specific case, her argument does potentially hold water. It’s her phrasing that’s the problem. She isn’t actually talking about myths, but about Yamatai, a place named in ancient Chinese historical records. And the Records of the Three Kingdoms may or may not be accurate, but it isn’t at all the same kind of thing as a mythological allusion like Callimachus’ Minotaur, or an allegory like Plato’s Atlantis, or even an anachronism like Strabo’s and Plutarch’s stories of inspired speech resulting from psychoactive gases at Delphi.|
The methodology is called ‘euhemerism’. Maya Georgieva, director of Total War Troy, explicitly invokes euhemerism for the game’s design.
Euhemerism and authenticityEuhemerus of Messene was the (probably pseudonymous) author of the Sacred Record, written sometime around the early 200s BCE. The book doesn’t survive, but we have second-hand reports. The Roman poet Ennius wrote a Latin version, the Sacred History, which was also very influential. On his travels, Euhemerus supposedly
One of the key pillars of Total War games is authenticity — the ambition of creating the game’s sandbox in a manner that feels natural and true to its source while also accommodating all the eventualities that didn’t necessarily occur in history.
Maya acknowledges this, saying: ‘It is an important challenge — to capture the spirit of the source while also providing the necessary gameplay freedom that allows for anything to happen. So it was quite a relief when I realised our grounded approach to myths is not alien to the classical Greeks’ understanding of their legendary past — to the contrary, it is actually very fitting with their own mindset.’
Maya Georgieva in interview, May 2020
saw a temple dedicated to Zeus that stood in the middle of an idyllic landscape (the whole island was exceptionally fertile). Inside the temple an inscription on a pillar told of the history of the cult of the gods of Olympus: these had been mortals who had been deified because of their extraordinary services to human civilization.It’s almost certainly Euhemerus that wrote about a gravesite of Zeus on Crete as well.
The basic idea of euhemerism is to take a myth, strip away the fantastic bits, and treat the result as history. It was a natural extension of earlier rationalisations of myths, and in particular of the gods. Here’s Aristotle on the subject:
It has been passed down from the ancients, even the most ancient, and left to later people in the form of a myth, that (heavenly bodies) are gods, and that divinity encompasses all of nature. And the other stuff got tacked on, mythically, to persuade the masses, and for the sake of laws and expedience: for example, they say that these (gods) have human shape, and are like other animals. The rest follows on from that and from other similar things. If we strip away this material, and take only the basic principle — that they consider the primordial beings to be gods — then we would regard that as a divinely inspired statement.Euhemerism, or more generally rationalising interpretations of myth, had an instant and universal appeal. Ancient Christians loved it too: they drew on Euhemerus to reject all pagan gods and myths as distorted pictures of ordinary mortals, not actual gods.
Aristotle, Metaphysics 1074b (12.8)
|Note. On Euhemerus and the grave of Zeus, see Winiarczyk 2013: 33–41. For a Christian writer playing Euhemerus as a ‘pagan gods are fake’ card, see e.g. Lactantius, Divine Institutes 1.11. (The irony of Lactantius trying to pull this was completely lost on him.)|
The assumption behind euhemerism is that, if a myth has been passed down, it must have started somewhere. There must be a source, a first mover, a seed. And that seed is supposedly still there under all the impossible elements.
And there’s absolutely no reason to expect that reasoning to work. In Euhemerus’ own case this is perfectly clear. The Olympian gods as fantasy-coated versions of historical kings may sound neat, but we, nowadays, know that ‘Zeus’ is a reflex of a Proto-Indo-European root *dyēus, meaning ‘sky, day’, and that his function as a sky god has analogues in several other ancient cultures who spoke Indo-European languages. He definitely wasn’t a mortal king, he didn’t live on the island of Panchaea, and there wasn’t a real gravesite on Crete. In a similar way, the classical Greeks believed Dionysus was a recent arrival in their pantheon from Thrace; now we know that isn’t true either, because he’s there in Linear B tablets. He was baked into the Greek pantheon all along.
There’s no need for a first mover, there’s no expectation that there’s a historical kernel. It can just as easily be encrustations all the way down. And it probably is.
Euhemerism means choosing any pseudo-historical explanation of a myth, rather than admitting that we don’t have good enough data to draw any conclusions. I’m not saying a myth is never based on historical events. For all I know, the Lelantine War may have been a real thing. As a matter of fact I think it probably was. But assuming the war happened, simply because we don’t have any competing high-quality evidence about relations between Chalcis and Eretria around 700 BCE, is garbage reasoning.
Euhemerism isn’t a tool for turning bad data into good data. It’s an excuse to carry on using bad data.
|People can go to great lengths to resist the idea that a story was just ... made up. This tweet (July 2020) treats an image from a 2013 Photoshop contest as evidence of a cover-up conducted by the Catholic Church and scientists. He gets very angry at the people pointing out that it’s a photoshop. This doesn’t bode well for the author’s state of mind, but it’s also unsurprising: it’s part-and-parcel of the human habit of expecting a kernel of reality even in material that’s totally invented. (Thanks to David S. Anderson for publicising this.)|
Phlegon on giant bonesThere are always going to be people who find the Trojan War appealing, simply because Troy is real — even if the same logic does imply that The Avengers (2012) is a docudrama. And Georgieva is absolutely right that euhemerism is in keeping with the way some Greeks saw their own myths. It’s just that it’s hopeless as a method for finding out anything real.
And that’s why I find it perplexing when I see bits of Phlegon of Tralles treated selectively as reliable reports. Phlegon, who worked for the Roman emperor Hadrian for a while in the 2nd century CE, wrote a short book called On Wonders which is full of truly weird stories. One part has attracted more attention than any other: a section where Phlegon reports on discoveries of giant bones.
Adrienne Mayor, in her 2000 book The First Fossil Hunters, documents widespread Greco-Roman interest in the remains of species that no longer existed in their environment. Many subsequent writers have taken that as licence to treat Phlegon’s account as true to reality — so long as he’s talking about giant bones.
The huge bones were evidently prehistoric fossils which, compared to the skeletal remains of normal size, were in antiquity identified as relics of extinct races, usually those of giant heroes.Just for reference, Phlegon also tells stories like:
Doroszewska 2016: 129
Unlike many of the strange phenomena Phlegon reports in Mir., the existence of such giant bones can be easily confirmed and explained. As Mayor has persuasively demonstrated after considering a wide variety of evidence, the bones interpreted as the skeletons of giants by the people of the ancient Mediterranean were actually fossilized bones of giant mammals left in Europe after the last Ice Age (e.g. mammoths).
Shannon-Henderson 2019 (on Phlegon, On Wonders §11–16)
- People return from the dead, and a decapitated head delivers prophecies in verse (On Wonders §1–3).
- Spontaneous sex changes of both mythical and contemporary figures (§4–9).
- Contemporary children born with multiple heads, extra limbs, and growing to maturity; women giving birth to a monkey, a dog-headed child, and snakes; men giving birth (§20–27).
- The king of Saune, supposedly a city in Arabia, captures a live centaur, which ends up embalmed and on display in a palace in Rome (§34–35).
|Giant bones reported by Phlegon, On Wonders 11–19. Immediately after this bit, Phlegon reports on a child with four heads ‘and a corresponding number of other limbs’ who grew to adulthood during the emperor Nero’s reign.|
One of Phlegon’s complete skeletons is far, far longer than any land-based species that has ever existed outside the Americas:
[T]here is a certain island near Athens, and ... the Athenians wished to fortify it. When they were digging the foundations for the walls, they discovered a coffin measuring a hundred cubits, in which was a skeleton as large as the coffin. Inscribed on the coffin was the following:A hundred ancient Greek cubits comes to 44.4 metres. The only land-based species ever to reach that length was Barosaurus, native to the Midwest of North America. No one should be imagining a complete Barosaurus skeleton in Greece. In a coffin, no less. And with an inscription in classical Greek. (Several others of Phlegon’s giant bones come in coffins too; one of them comes in a jar, labelled with the occupant’s name.)
I, Makroseiris, have been buried upon a large island,
after living five times one thousand years.
Phlegon, On Wonders §17 (tr. Shannon-Henderson)
I find it a bit perplexing that people can look at this, and still say ‘Yes Phlegon talks a lot of nonsense, but when it comes to these specific bits he’s actually based in reality.’ I mean ... why? If his material is that bizarre, why imagine any basis in reality at all?
As we saw above, the nature of the source makes a difference. When Lara Croft argues in favour of Yamatai, she’s drawing on sources that purport to be records of actual historical events. Even in cases like Ctesias and Megasthenes, who believed real dog-headed people lived in India, or Pliny the Elder, who believed the Alps were 75 km high, at least in principle there’s a possibility of sifting out material that reflects reality from distortions and misunderstandings.
Pliny, too, reports, on giant bones, and that should be taken much more seriously. But he doesn’t talk about ribs that are far bigger than any real rib bones that have ever existed. I think it makes no sense to take someone like Phlegon, seize upon the one bit that seems plausible (given a bunch of assumptions), and then say that bit is the one bit that isn’t completely made up.
Phlegon is an extreme case. But the point has a much more general applicability. Whenever you see a news-item on geomythology (myths supposedly based on geological events tens of thousands of years ago), or on Atlantis, or any claim that myths were once ‘true’ — well, that’d be a good occasion to stop and think to yourself:
OK, there’s a passing resemblance ... but why should we expect that the myth is based on anything real in the first place?
- Croft, Richard J. 2015. Truth behind myth. Osiris Publications.
- Doroszewska, Julia 2016. The monstrous world. Corporeal discourses in Phlegon of Tralles’ Mirabilia. Peter Lang.
- Echo-Hawk, Roger C. 2000. ‘Ancient history in the New World: integrating oral traditions and the archaeological record in deep time.’ American Antiquity 65.2: 267–290.
- Mayor, Adrienne 2000. The first fossil hunters. Paleontology in Greek and Roman times. Princeton University Press.
- Ogden, Daniel 2013. Dragons, serpents, and slayers in the classical and early Christian worlds. Oxford University Press.
- Shannon-Henderson, Kelly E. 2019. ‘Phlegon of Tralleis (1667).’ Die Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker Part IV. DOI link (retrieved July 2020).
- Winiarczyk, Marek 2013. The ‘Sacred History’ of Euhemerus of Messene. De Gruyter.