The greek myths



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Perhaps the real difference between Hellene and Amazon lies in the distinction between tame, that is socialized being and one who is "wild". Anyone who has raised children,or even dogs, will recognize that in the infant animal there are traits of a "wild phenomenon", which can be subdued by touching with the hands, petting, cajoling and finally threatening. Children and most domesticated animals respond well to this pacification if it is done in the period of early development, and wild animals can be dealt with in the same manner if the treatment is started early enough, although the results are never completely assured. Certain types of human criminal "psychopaths" seem not to have been influenced by these processes; in wartime men are "taught" to unlearn their peaceful training, which may not be recoverable later in the normal social world. Perhaps the Amazons represent nothing more than the way "wild" humans at a different level of development would appear to highly socialized Greek men.
l0) The Cattle of the Sun God, which were stolen by a monster named Geryon who fled with them to the remote western part of the Mediterranean Basin, refers to a western movement of colonization, which threatened the beef-industry of the East, much as the Australian sheep market has threatened the European and American lamb and mutton packers. If this is the meaning of this story, we must tie it to the thrust of Western expansion, which we generally date relatively late in the second millennium B.C. But on the other hand there are Indic myths of the cattle of the sun being stolen, but these are always sheep whose fleecy coats are identified with the rainclouds which must be returned if the country is to prosper agriculturally. The transfer from sheep to oxen is strange, but after the meaning of sheep (as rainclouds) vanished, the name of any prevalent herd-animal could easily be substituted. An interesting parallel is found in the myth of Helios the Sun God, the son of Hyperion and Thea, who each day rides his chariot across heaven and in the night is transported back again in a golden bowl.
Homer notes in Odyssey Book 11 that the sun-god has cattle and sheep in Trinacria, later renamed Sicily, which would certainly be a western frontier for the early Greek colonists. If archaeologists find many sheep bones and few ox bones in the western fringes of civilization, we can assume that the original meaning of the Vedic myth lay behind the Greek story, and that the desiccation which Rhys Carpenter has posited for the second half of the second millennium B.C. was the driving idea behind this myth: Someone had to go and get the rain back. If Heracles is one of the "Dorians" who went north into Hungary to escape the drought, and his people came back later with rainfall (in Herodotos' words) as "the return of the descendants of Heracles", then he would be a natural person about whom to center a story telling why the rainclouds went to the west. If climatologists find that the rainfall in Spain was plentiful through all this period, then Heracles may be assumed to be a "rainmaker". Identification of his name with the Pillars of Hercules shows that he was thought of as going all the way to the Atlantic Ocean in his search.
ll) The Apples of the Hesperides are fruit which Heracles found while on the previous adventure in the far West. If pollen indicating the presence of Seville Oranges or some similar fruit can be identified for this period, then we would have to look no further in the unravelling of this myth. In any case some exotic fruit seems to be involved, and it is either brought to Greece before it rots by fast shipping, or the plant has been successfully transplanted.
l2) In the final Labor, Heracles descends to the underworld to capture the three headed dog Cerberus; or in the Homeric variant of the tale, he tries to conquer Hades or Death himself This story is analogous to the less aggressive descent of Odysseus into the underworld, and furthermore to the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, which in its earlier Babylonian fragments points to a date before the second millennium B.C. (A full, if old summary of the provenance and detailed contents of the Gilgamesh material is to be found in the Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed. s.v.Gilgamesh, by the American Semiticist Morris Jastrow.) Here again what seems to be typically Greek, is clearly connected with the thought and history of a much earlier period in the NearEast. The fact that the Greek stories are so well known known to us all, while the NearEastern stories are fragmentary and obscure, makes it difficult see exactly what sections Greek mythology derived from the myth-histories of the eastern peoples.
A detailed inquiry into the parallels which exist between the Greek and Sumerian stories is beyond the scope of this chapter; the important thing to note is the existence of clearly parallel storylines, the Greek myth being the derivative version. All in all, the stories associated with the name of Heracles contain materials for the identification of a new type of semi-social man who is quite different from his late neolithic ancestors. He performs heroic deeds which pave the way for the requirements of civilizing man, opening up large tracts of land for profitable use. But he works alone, he is a singular figure and only for a short time takes on the apprentice Hylas, who soon disappears. The broad scope of these stories, as well as their regular development in later Greek mythologizing culture, places them at the center of any serious search for fact in myth.
A hero of quite different dimensions is the master archer Philoctetes. He has one special ability, he wields the bow that never misses its mark, and his ability with this remarkable weapon, which would make him a supreme hunter in a age which lived by hunting, makes him the object of illwill and hostility in an age which devotes itself to warfare. Needing his bow, but being unwilling to accept the pure and direct mind of the master hunter who owns it, the Greek leaders are unable to give Philoctetes recognition for his talents. On the other hand he cannot recognize their the legitimacy of their military purpose, which is foreign to the world from which his skills in archery emerged.
Isolation and tragedy are his reward in the original story, although Sophocles characteristically gives his play an ending worthy of the social aspirations of the Athenian 5th century, and has him willingly return to the world of men and the Trojan War.Heracles gave his bow and arrows to Poias on his death, they passed in turn to Poias' son Philoctetes who was one of the Greek warriors who sailed against Troy. On the way there, he was bitten in the foot by a snake, the wound festered, he screamed out in such pain that the superstitious Greeks shanghaied him on Lemnos where he lived for years, sick and lonely, living by the bow which could never miss its mark. Later it was revealed at Troy that the city could be taken only with the bow of Heracles, now the Greeks realized they had to reclaim Philoctetes, or kill him and get his bow, in order to conclude the long and costly war. But the story has other dimensions. The man who possesses and wields the unerring bow, is a hunting virtuoso in a primitive hunting world. Philoctetes uses the bow to hunt and provide his food for all those years at Lemnos, this is probably the original scope of the unerring-hunter tale. But it is now injected as an episode in the life of a military archer, which is what the Greeks expect Philoctetes to become. For some reason, circumstantially ascribed to his bad foot, Philoctetes cannot be drawn into the military expedition against Troy, his excellence remains entirely with his weapon and never involves social action in an organized army.
When it is revealed that the Greeks cannot win the war without the weapon, they send someone (Odysseus is just the man for such a job) to get it done at any cost. Sophocles creates a sophisticated story of honor and duty, finalized with an apocalyptic vision of the hero's patron "saint" as Heracles gives him instructions, and Philoctetes returns voluntarily with the bow, behaving as a as a good Greek soldier should. One suspects that the original of the story was less pleasing, that the soldiers killed the man and thus got the bow, thinking that they too would be able to use it unerringly. (The missing sequel would have been the efforts of Greek archers to bend the bow which only Philoctetes can use, in the manner of the story of Robin Hood's bow, but in a country not populated by a youth skilled in archery, such a sequence would pass unnoticed.) Archery in fact was more an Eastern than a Greek skill. To become a great archer is a life's work, the archery tradition in Japan makes this clear, and the remarkable account by Herrigel on the difficulties of learning bowmanship shows that only a dedicated and talented man, with more than a little monomania, can become a great archer. There was just such a Greek myth about Philoctetes, but it focused on his weapon rather than his skill. But when an effort is made to "hire" Philoctetes into the army, to use his proven skills at archery for a common goal, and no longer for the private and personal purpose that the hunter and archer have developed, it is doomed to failure. Philoctetes has powers that cannot be used socially, and for this reason they had to be rid of him. Needing the bow, they went back to him and probably murdered him; in Sophocles Fifth Century version an arrangement is made by which Philoctetes goes back to men and the world of Troy, just as the Elizabethan Prospero must also finally return to the world of men.
Early men of great power, inventors of new techniques and devices, as characters on the stage of man's early dramatization, seem to have great difficulty in accepting concerted social interaction. Heracles is the model for a man of great effectiveness, so long as he works by himself or with one companion, and Philoctetes inherits along with the bow this same social disability. Achilles' grandeur lies in the fact that he works alone and only for his own honor, this is his heroic mark and in social terms this is his fatal flaw. The earliest levels of Greek myth point again and again to a period before the regularized socialization of Man begins, and the tragedy of many of these early figures, especially in their death scenes, lies in their unwillingness or inability to involve themselves in social behavior. Note that the Classical Japanese samurai, who have many of the same traits of independence and individuality,were legally dispersed as a warrior class in the sixteenth century as the country progressed into a more unified, federally controlled state. They converted themselves quickly into leaders in the arts and crafts, and finally socialize under an entirely different professional guise. The Greek individual heroes, like Achilles, Heracles and Philoctetes, eventually disappear from the scene, and are replaced by willing social partners in the mould of the wily, venal Odysseus.
It seems that in the course of the development of a civilization, there comes a time when powerful individualists are no longer needed, when society assumes that it can get the same impressive results from the group-effort of many less gifted persons. The ants experimented with this problem three hundred million years ago, they developed societal goals so far as to completely eliminate individuality and even individual sexuality. They seem to have been correct for themselves in evolutionary terms, but whether this is also true for our breed remains to be seen.
A Greek wit remarked that there is a curious contradiction in the use of the Greek word 'bios' (which means both "bow" and also as a separate homonym, "life"), since the bow is the instrument which represents and at the same time destroys life. The weapon is a great advantage to humankind, but at the same time a deadly threat to life, situations of this kind are familiar to men of the twentieth century, the atomic energy which our society has pioneered can offer the greatest benefit to mankind, since it produces energy without the cumulative combustive pollution of wood, coal or oil, yet it presents the greatest possible threat to the survival of mankind. This is our modern "bow". It is worth noting that Robert Oppenheimer, the one member of the original pioneering group at Los Alamos who had serious doubts about the use and misuse of atomic energy, was singled out during the infamous MacCarthy period as "suspect", not on the count of a snakebitten foot, but because he may have carried a Communist card many years before. He was shanghaied, as was Philoctetes, not to Lemnos but to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, where certain political powers felt he would be rendered harmless. He fulfilled administrative duties there to consume his time, and died many years later, unheard and largely unknown. The society took his weapon away from him, they used it for their purposes, and they silenced this one serious opponent of unbridled use of atomic energy by an act of ostracism rather than by death. Some situations which confront men do not change a great deal through the centuries, apparently the critical and lethal weapon is still usable without the consent or advice of its owner. We have progressed greatly in the size and destructiveness of the weaponry, but not in our understanding of its control or proper use.
A striking example of the opposition of one individual to coercive social commands is the story of Antigone. In Sophocles' version, from which most of our portrayal of Antigone's character comes, the issue is between what one owes the "state", represented by Creon the king, as against what one owes the older structures of clan and family religion. There is more to the story than this skeletal outline, but the basic problem is simple and central: Does the state have the final say in this new world of social imperatives, or are there moral and personal roots which go back into the ancestral past? The drama of Antigone in its most elemental form, demonstrates the inability of a woman who is schooled in the traditional values inherited from her past, to comprehend, let alone obey, the orders which society presses on her through the agency of the King.
This is only part of the gist of Sophocles' drama, but it is probably an original part of the ancient myth, since this same inability to socialize is found in almost all the genuinely early hero-myths. The insistence of the Greeks in the 5th c. B.C. on the absolute value of social behavior may well be a last act in the difficult drama of the earlier Greek people in accepting any form of social enforcement. Even in the Greeks of the later Classical Period there remains a wild streak of intransigent individuality, which makes the process of democratic cooperation always difficult and often impossible. Each of the mythic figures which we have been examining has a striking and distinguished personal history, each reveals details which stem from centuries or possibly millennia of advancing human experience in the eastern Mediterranean world. But all show the same inability or at least unwillingness to act in social concert with others, their minds are entirely oriented to what they are doing and not what the others want. Hence they fail in what socialized and civilized men and women consider the core of civilized behavior. Yet there is something grand and independent which we recognize in their lives, since individuality is still prized among us, especially as vast social forces seem about to swallow up our remaining personal identities.
The real problem is certainly not a conflict between individual and social action as such, but an understanding of what each can do especially well in its own sphere. In our day when committees and think-tanks tend to be the socially approved modes of generating new ideas, we might well remember the effectiveness of thought and action which individuals have shown in the past. It is usually when the force of a social experiment is new, or on the other hand when times are especially desperate, that society tends to force one pattern onto us as mandatory. This is exactly what was happening in the first two millennia before Christ, and it is the inability of some ancient men of great force and ability to adjust to the new social ways that is so insistently recorded in the curious chronicles of Greek mythology.
As times went on, the Romans started to "create" myths of their own, to suit their own social needs. These are largely based on the form and general style of the Greek mythologists, with whom the Romans were well acquainted. If they could not read the large full-scale version of Greek mythology in the Greek of Apollonius they could read an abridged version more conveniently in the Latin of Julius Hyginus. The myths which they constructed should be considered "myths-of-the-second-level", or pseudo-myths. As examples of this phenomenon, one can note these: Aeneas is the sort of fabrication which every people develops for its own honor. It seems possible that the whole Aeneas myth was generated out of the archaic Latin word "trossulus" a cavalryman of the early period. The word has no known affinities and may be of Etruscan origin, but since "trossulus" would be interpreted by any Roman as a "little Trojan, descendant of Troy", or even more specifically "descendant of Tros (the fourth generation in the formal family tree of Troy, viz. Zeus, Dardanus, Erichthonius, and Tros), this would provide a convenient point of departure for a noble legend following the influx of Greek literature into Rome in the third century B.C. This view is by no means accepted by Classical scholars, however the fabrication of quasi-archaic figures is well known to Americans, who have acculturated a largely reshaped Santa Claus, a wholly new Paul Bunyan whose cycle dates only from the l920's, as well as a long series of Western style gunfighters who have only the slimmest connections with history.
There is a certain advantage in fabricating one's own national heroes, since they have an uncanny way of fitting the society perfectly. The one Roman who fits the pattern of the Greek hero tales is Romulus, and then only in one single matter, the confrontation of the pasturing and the farming ways of life. When Romulus built a wall for his city, Remus jumped over it with a sneer, to be immediately killed by his brother, who was not held guilty. We have here in a late form the old confrontation of the settling field-tender, who marks off land for cultivation, as against the free-roaming pasturer of flocks. The story is identical with that of Cain and Abel, and it is a foregone conclusion that the herdsman must die, which signifies that civilization must be allowed to go forward. Many of the young Greek hunters of myth faced death for similar reasons, since as hunters they crossed cultivated land (probably unbeknownst to themselves) and thus were a threat to agriculture.
For a very brief period in the middle of the l9th century the same confrontation was found among the Western settlers in the United States; the cattlemen detested the dirt farmers, and exactly the same kind of bloody antagonism prevailed as the earlier peoples had known. The cattlemen received a secure place in the society only because of the useful transportability of live meat by the newly developed rail lines to distant markets in the East, as well as increasing American consumption of meat, while agriculture proceeded at its own pace. A double-headed market can ensure compatibility between these two opposed groups. If we can reliably date Romulus as 8th c. B.C., then Cain and Abel would fall into a proper place some centuries earlier; this tells us something about the date of the advent of serious cultivation of the land for crops in the Mediterranean area.
At an early date there was a separate Latin divinity named Saturnus, "he who sows (seed for grain)" from the verb ''serere, satus'. Roman tradition states, in a virtually Euhemeristic tone, that he was an early king at Rome who introduced agriculture and was hence elevated to deity-status. (The later identification with Cronos is merely a part of the Greco-Roman equivalent identification of deities, a process which often obscures important, original details.) Here again we have a newly fabricated "doer-deity", with real social meaning for his society; he does not however have a historical pedigree going back into the time of the earlier cultures from which the Roman benefited. The socialization of man does not take place in a moment or in a thousand years. Despite the difficulties of early heroes in adapting to group behavior, the process of socialization goes on unrelentingly, since larger frameworks of social action are needed for larger populations and their daily support.
A transitional stage between the hero as isolated individual and the new hero as part of a societal effort, is to be seen in a curious inter-stage, which serves as bridge between the two patterns. We find as adjunct to lone hero, the hero-pair, consisting of the hero, a man of great power and experience, and an apprentice and companion, usually a younger man who is clearly in a subordinate position. This inter-stage marks the transition of the hero as individual to becoming group-member, it is clearly transitional and short-lived as a social phenomenon. Achilles relationship to Patroclos is typical of this kind of association. Patroclos is tent-mate, householding assistant, and a general purpose companion, but when he dies wearing the master's ill-suited armor, the full depth of Achilles' tragic feeling for him emerges. This is no mere apprentice to the trade, it may be a relationship which contains seeds of love and even homosexuality. But paramount is the fact that it is the kind of pair relationship which joins two unequals, as Aristotle will remark of a class of friends at a later time in the Nichomachean Ethics. There is no competition for honor or glory, so the two can be companions in a real sense, and useful to each other in dangerous situations.
The origin of this uneven-pair system apparently goes back in history as far as the story of Gilgamesh, whose friend and companion Eabani is fated to die, to the hero's great grief. Achilles and Patroclos fulfill similar roles, and in the Greek cycles of myth there are many examples of such relationships, including the popular story of the twins heroes Castor and Polydeukes. They are nearly equal, Polydeukes however is immortal and Castor perishes; the story that Zeus gave the mourning twins alternate days in Hades as a special favor may well be a later addition. At Rome Castor is the more popular figure, and Pollux (Polydeuces) is clearly subordinate. The story of Hylas fits into this hero-friend classification well. On the Argonautic expedition, Heracles took along the young Hylas, who was sent to fetch water for the sailors when stranded temporarily off the coast of Mysia (Asia Minor). The nymphs of the fountain at which he was drawing water fell in love with him, and sucked him down into their world. Heracles was stricken with grief, and only left the area when, at his behest, the natives instituted a ritual springtime sacrifice to Hylas, who thus appears retrospectively in the light of a vegetative annual-cycle deity. Hylas fulfills the basic conditions of companion to a hero: He is young, subservient, handsome, devoted, helpful, and at the proper moment he dies, leaving the hero free to go on his road of achievement alone, as was proper. This unequal but friendly working relationship between two men would seem to be one of the primitive stages of social development. Not only do the two men work and fight beside each other, but a sincere emotional atmosphere develops between them, so that the survivor mourns long and hard for his lost friend.
Humans seem to find it much easier to develop working relationships in pairs than to participate in the more complicated group activities, although the history of civilization in the West has relied on group efforts in the main. Even today the ancient two-man team persists, we still find it widespread in the modern world. Carpenters seem to get a great deal more work done if they have a helper, cement finishers generally work in pairs, and in the army and police force the two man "buddy system" is found useful. The single-combat, with one man fighting against another as portrayed in Homeric scenes, is a much older structure, which seems to have intellectually influenced a great deal of Greek military strategics in the historical period. By the time of the developing tactics of the Punic Wars we have genuine group tactics on both sides, and the modern concept of field-warfare is borne.



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