Sunday, 23 January 2022

The chronology of Greek myth

Is it possible to build a chronology of Greek mythology? Yes, kind of. It’s hopeless to expect full internal consistency, though.

We see different traditions in different parts of the Greek world, and they’re often incompatible with each other. In some traditions, the first mortal to be created was Pandora, and the first mortal couple were Deukalion and Pyrrha. But in Argos, the first mortal man was Phoroneus, the son of the water divinities Inachos and Melia.

A vision of the mythical Heroic Age according to Walter Leaf’s 1900–1902 edition of the Iliad

For some parts of the world, the important mortals in the earliest phase of Greek legend were Agenor and Belos, supposedly early kings of Phoenicia and Egypt. But elsewhere the most important ancestral figure was Hellen, who gave his name to the Hellenes (the Greeks), and his children and grandchildren Aiolos, Doros, Ion, and Achaios, who gave their names to Greek ethnic groups: the Aiolians, Dorians, Ionians, and Achaians.

And while most family trees go back to divinities, some go back much further than others. Herakles’ family tree goes back thirteen generations to the divinities Inachos and Melia (twelve, if you stop at Io); Achilles’ goes back only three, to Zeus and Aigina.

The big picture

Ancient Greek writers paint a picture where there’s a gradual transition from the heroic age to the contemporary world: a gradient from purely legendary material, to material that looks more like history. In mainstream myth this gradient looks something like:

Cosmogonic Age myths about gods only; creation of cosmos; Titans, Typhoeus, etc.; establishment of Olympian pantheon
Heroic Age legendary heroes and wars; Perseus, Herakles, etc.; ends with Trojan War
Migration Age transitional period to explain differences between the Heroic Age and the ethnography of the contemporary world: migrations of Dorian, Ionian, Achaian, and Aiolian peoples
Colonial Age mythologised events which may potentially have a genuine historical kernel: some 8th–6th century wars; legendary lawgivers; ancestors of aristocratic families; increased interest in wider colonial world
Historical Age historical settings; events that may have actually taken place similarly to how they appear in extant sources

It’s the ‘Heroic Age’ that gets the most attention. The Theban Wars, the Trojan War, Herakles, Perseus, Jason and the Argonauts: they all belong in that timeframe.

But beware: the word ‘timeframe’ is a trap. These Ages aren’t real historical periods, they’re how classical-era Greeks imagined the past. The mythical Heroic Age isn’t a real historical period any more than the Cosmogonic Age is.

Even in the Colonial Age, it’s hard to be sure that myths have any resemblance to historical reality. No modern scholars think there’s anything real about the First Messenian War (even though the Wikipedia article in my link gives no hint that it’s pure fiction!). Conversely, many scholars suspect that the Lelantine War in Euboia was real, though it’s far from certain. And then there’s the founding of Cyrene, in what is now Libya. It’s possible that most of the story is fictional, but still, there’s no doubt that Greek colonists really did found a city there in the 600s BCE.

The actual historical period of early colonisation, roughly 800–500 BCE, had an impact on Greek myth beyond providing the setting for Colonial Age myths. It caused the wider colonial world to be incorporated into legends of the Heroic Age too. Any time we see a legend set in Italy, the Black Sea, the Maghreb, or the Atlantic, it must be during that real historical period that the legends were either invented, or transplanted to those geographical settings.

Recently we looked at the setting of the Medusa story in the western Maghreb and/or the Atlantic. Where did the Greeks imagine Medusa lived, before the historical colonisation period? Or did they not devise the legend until that time? We don’t know. Where did the Greeks imagine the Argonauts travelled to, in the time before Greek colonies began springing up around the Black Sea? Where did they think Odysseus had his wanderings, before Greek colonies sprang up in Italy? We don’t know.

The chronology of the Heroic Age

The Heroic Age is an entirely fictional setting, so don’t go expecting too much internal consistency. Take the example of the Dorians, a subethnicity of the Hellenes (Greeks). Many groups around the Peloponnesos, Crete, and the south-east Aegean identified as Dorians.

The Spartans believed the Dorians came from central Greece to the Peloponnesos along with the Heracleids, 80 years after the end of the Trojan War. The Cretans thought the Dorians came there from the Peloponnesos with Doros’ son Tektamos, four generations before the Trojan War. Hesiod claims that the namesake of the Dorians, Doros, married his daughter to the Argive hero Phoroneus — but in Argos, Phoroneus was considered to be the first mortal man. We have at least three chronological contexts for the myth of Dorians coming to southern Greece.

Similarly, the exact length of the Heroic Age varies depending where you look. The timeline is framed around individual heroes’ genealogies. Here are two branches of the family tree descended from Io, her son Epaphos, and her granddaughter Libya (Libya is the mythical namesake of ‘Libya’, the ancient Greek name for the Maghreb, that is to say northern Africa):

  • In Herakles’ genealogy, there are 11 generations from Libya to the Trojan War. Herakles’ son Tlepolemos, a half-brother of Hyllos, appears in the Iliad as the leader of the Rhodian contingent. From Hyllos there are 3 more generations to the Dorian invasion.
  • By contrast the genealogy of Idomeneus, who appears in the Iliad as the leader of the Cretan contingent, has 5 or 6 generations to the Trojan War.
The genealogies of Herakles (left) and Idomeneus (right), descended from the brothers Belos and Agenor, the primordial kings of Phoenicia and Egypt respectively. This genealogy omits siblings. Divinities have their names in blue. Europa is the daughter of Phoinix according to Homer; later authors make her the daughter of Agenor.

A five generation discrepancy is pretty drastic, but these generations were never designed to be part of a coherent timeline. Hellenistic- and Roman-era mythographers did often try to take a more systematic approach to mythical genealogies. My point isn’t that they failed, it’s that their goal was artificial. This isn't a system. It's a muddle of variant myths from different times and places.

It is fun, though. Just as another taster, here’s three genealogies which, when you combine them, results in a six generation discrepancy for when the Trojan War takes place. These are the family trees of Phoroneus, the first mortal man in Argive myth (left); Hellen, the eponymous ancestor of the Hellenes (top); and the house of Atreus (bottom right).

The family trees of Phoroneus (left), Hellen (top), and the Atreids (bottom right). Names of divinities are in blue.

Now, of course, this mash-up is built by cherry-picking genealogical chunks from different places. The story that Phoroneus married Doros’ daughter appears in only one ancient source, the Hesiodic Catalogue of women (fr. 11 ed. Most). Pelasgos, Phoroneus’ grandson, comes from the fragments of Akousilaos of Argos (FGrHist 2 F 25a, F 25b). And the story that Pelops murdered the Arkadian hero Stymphalos comes from yet another source, the Library of pseudo-Apollodoros (3.12.6).

There’s no objective timeline. But there are chunks of timelines. The duration of the Heroic Age can extend anywhere from seven to thirteen generations, depending on where you look. And that’s enough genealogical space to accommodate any hero you want.

The Myth of the Races

I haven’t said anything about how the Heroic Age fits into the Hesiodic ‘Myth of the Races’, which appears in Works and days lines 106-201. That’s because the Myth of the Races is a totally different way of imagining the past.

The model I’ve been outlining so far is the framework that houses actual mythical stories. The Myth of the Races isn't a framework at all: it’s a parable. Hesiod has added a new element to the traditional format, the ‘Race of Heroes’, but that’s his only gesture at the Heroic Age. No one ever envisioned cosmogonic myths or migration legends in terms of the Myth of the Races. Hesiod doesn’t try that either.

Here’s how the Hesiodic version begins (tr. Glenn Most):

If you wish, I shall recapitulate another story,
correctly and skillfully, and you lay it up in your spirit:
how the gods and mortal human beings came about from the same origin.
Golden was the race of speech-endowed human beings
which the immortals, who have their mansions on Olympus, made first of all.
They lived at the time of Cronus, when he was king in the sky ...

Hesiod describes the Golden Race, who live with no toil, no care, and no old age; a Silver Race who spend a hundred years as a small child, then skip over adulthood to hit old age as soon as they reach adolescence; a Bronze Race who are violent, have massive bronze limbs with hands sticking straight of their bodies, and who have only bronze tools and no iron; a Race of Heroes who wage wars — Hesiod specifies the Theban Wars and the Trojan War — and who dwell on the Islands of the Blest; and an Iron Race, the present race, whose lives are full of suffering, and who will end in misery one day when babies are born with grey hair, sons fight against fathers, and injustice and envy rule the day.

In the mythical timeline we looked at above, the Golden Race could arguably have a place if we were to imagine them living in the Cosmogonic Age. The Iron Age might make sense as a depressing view of history since the Trojan War. But there’s no space in Greek myth for the Silver and Bronze Races.

That’s because the Myth of the Races was never designed as a framework for Greek mythology. Rather, it’s an independent trope, borrowed from older Near Eastern models. The earliest evidence of the ages = metals trope comes from Bronze Age Sumerian texts: the An = Anum god list, and the Lagash king list. The latter, dating to around the 18th century BCE, describes the period just after the Flood as follows (tr. J. A. Black):

In those days a child spent a hundred years in [?nappies?],
spent a hundred years in his rearing.
He was not made to perform (any) assigned tasks.
He was small, he was feeble/stupid, he was [with] his mother.

Here we don’t yet have any links drawn between metals and races, but it's extraordinarily close to how Hesiod describes the Silver Race.

From there, and presumably other contexts that are long since lost to us, the parable found its way into a range of later poetic and literary texts: the most detailed later ones are

  • the Hebrew book of Daniel (2nd century BCE), 2.31–45, which describes a vision of a statue made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and mixed iron and clay, representing historical kings or dynasties;
  • the Iranian Avesta (ca. 3rd–7th century CE) has a bit where Zoroaster sees ‘a tree with four branches of gold, silver, steel, and iron ore ... and Ahura Mazda explained to him that they were the ages of the world’;
  • there‘s a possible echo in the Indic Mahabharata and Laws of Manu, where eras are associated with die rolls, not metals, but the progressive degradation is similar to the other examples: ‘In the last age the law is ended, crops fail, sickness is rife. Men father children at the age of ten and are grey-haired at sixteen ...’

For further information on these parallels, how the Hesiodic version relates to them, and for source citations of the Sumerian, Iranian, and Indian quotations, see M. L. West, The east face of Helicon (Oxford, 1997), 312–319.

The Hesiodic version has the same overall sense: starting out in idyllic bliss and immortality, and each new race is worse than the last, until the last one ends in suffering and people dying young. The big difference is the Race of Heroes, which is a step up from the Silver and Bronze Races.

It’s pretty clear why: the Race of Heroes wasn’t originally part of the Myth of the Races. It’s an innovation, inserted just before the final race, that is, before the time of the now. And Hesiod has inserted it specifically in order to accommodate mainstream Greek myth and the Heroic Age.

There are other Greek versions of the Myth of the Races, and the scholarship on this subject is too extensive to sum up in a few sentences. Parts of the parable may go all the way back to Sumerian models, but there’s one element in the Greek, Hebrew, and Iranian versions that suggests that the parable as a whole has a more recent origin: namely, iron. Iron was in use before the end of the Bronze Age, but not in great quantity. It took time to develop the technology of smelting it. It seems likely to me that the parable as a whole ought to be later than the development of widespread iron smelting. That doesn’t rule out the possibility of older versions. But as things stand, Hesiod’s version is the oldest complete Myth of the Races that we have.


  1. Could you elaborate on the First Messenian War not being real, or drop a link to someone who's done so, since wiki is not helpful in that regard? I'm not a Hellenist and am curious now - where'd the Helots come from?

    1. Messenia did come under Spartan control of course, and this must have happened by around 700 BCE; that much is real. It's just that Pausanias' account of how it happened is all late fabrications. Just consider how no written documentation could have existed until nearly 2 centuries after that date.

      And the 'Third Messenian War' in the 460s is certainly historical.

      I don't know that there are any very good and up-to-date treatments of the subject online. The best I've found that's freely available is Grote's History of Greece on the Internet Archive - it dates to 1870, but he gives the basic reasons for not believing a word of it.

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  3. In some versions of the Argonaut saga, the bronze giant Talos is said to be the last survivor of the Bronze Age. Would this be a Hellenistic or later blending? (Possibly even made up by some twentieth-century reteller, without any genuine classical warrant?)

    Any theories as to why the Silver Age is so bad? In common parlance a Silver Age (e.g., of Latin literature) is supposed to be almost as good as a Golden Age, but in the original version there seems to be a sharp drop-off immediately, with the Silver Age arguably even worse than the Bronze or Iron.

    1. The story of Talos is older - it goes back certainly to Simonides, who described him as a bronze man made by Hephaistos who destroyed visiting ships by burning them - and possibly to the epic poet Kinaithon, but Kinaithon apparently makes him a normal man, part of Rhadamanthys' genealogy.

      The idea of Talos as part of the Bronze Race isn't purely modern, but it only appears in one ancient source, ps.-Apollodoros' Library 1.9.26 (ca. 1st cent. BCE). I'd be very sceptical that that idea is much older, because it seems to be only in the Hellenistic-Roman era that people got interested in the Myth of the Races -- you get new revised versions of the Myth of the Races in Antipatros (4th cent. BCE), Aratos (3rd cent.), Ovid, Juvenal, and Babrius (there's a good article on them here).

      In other words, the idea of Talos as Bronze Race looks much more like a retcon that ties in with Hellenistic versions, with Hesiod in the background, rather than an old tradition.

      I don't have any particular insight on the Silver Race I'm afraid. Hesiod doesn't actually say they were awful, just that they weren't as good as the Gold Race. His description of the weird ageing process just sounds like a bizarre eccentricity.

    2. Thank you. I thought he also said they were destroyed for impiety (yet also became blessed spirits, so there is a lot of contradiction).

  4. Being a Hellenist in modern times, I can appreciate this post, but nonetheless I will believe all of my stories and in the gods before I will acknowledge Christianity, considering the Christian movement practically stole everything from the ancient lands and beliefs. The great flood sent by Zeus and Poseidon with Deuclaion and Pyrrah surviving in their "ark," as well as Epitmetheos and Pandora with Pandora being the Bible's "Eve," and unleashing "sin and torment" across the earth. Either way, great post and educational, but I will still stick to all of the greek histories and myths being factual. :)