The greek myths



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A parallel line of information concerning horse-breeding comes from another source. Erichthonius king of Dardania and heir to the Trojan line of royalty, is described as a wealthy horsebreeder. There seems to be some connection between his name and Erechtheus, the ancient legendary king of Athens, who was the grandson of Erichthonios, and so we are presumably dealing with influences which took place through migration, conquest or cultural influence from east to west. Homer knows only of Erechtheus of Athens, but the Trojan horse-breeding Erichthonios is well attested in other legend sources..
When we consider these two personal royal names, Erechtheus and Erichthonius, we should be aware of the existence of the ancient Sumerian city called in Biblical texts Erech, in the Babylonian inscriptions Uruk, and in later Greek references Orchoe. (The traditional etymology of Erichthonius into a hypothetical Ere- + chthon- "earth" is nothing more than modern folk-etymology, and should be forgotten.) Since we know that Babylonian sites and before them Sumerian cities had a continuous history back to the sixth millennium B.C.,, we must consider a westward migration of civilization in which Dardania and then Greece are late cultural colonies. Without a web of cultural techniques and artifacts, such a hypothesis at this point is only an educated guess, but with further investigation it should lead to an expansion of our knowledge of early history of the eastern Mediterranean area. In any case the striking similarities of the etymological pattern should be registered as having meaning, even if we are not sure of the historical succession of facts.
The sea-god Poseidon is often associated with horses, an oddity which can be best explained by the necessity of marine transportation of horses, not only when the horse is first introduced to a new area, but as specialized breeds are moved back and cross across the sea for breeding purposes. The development of totally tamable horses from stock which was originally wild, as well as the breeding of specialized types useful for ploughing, for wagon, carriage and riding purposes, was effected over a long period, during which access to the Mediterranean's whole equine gene-pool would have been necessary. Without genetic variants, effective horse breeding cannot be done, and without Poseidon's favorable winds you cannot get horses from place to place.
When man first began learning how to tame the plains-roaming wild horse, he was a primitive hunter, but by the time he had bred horses in large numbers and integrated them into the many usages of his society, he has clearly emerged as a civilized human being of the modern stamp. In the interval, he learned a great deal about dealing with animals, breeding them, caring for them with such basic medicine as he knew, fencing them in, harnessing them up, yoking them to the wagons which he could now make and use. When he discovered how manure multiplied the output of his newly sown fields, and how the fields could in turn feed the horse, he opened the door to agricultural expansion, which produced the modern type of cities and states. It is not the horse alone which is so important, but rather the difficulty of a hundred and fifty pound man learning to ride and regulate a fifteen hundred pound animal, which with the attendant skills which he must also face, which goads Man into developing a clever and persistent relationship with his environment.
But the horse was just one of the domesticated animals, sheep and goats were also being tamed and bred. Whether the horse or the bull was first tamed and domesticated is not clear; in this paper it has been assumed that the domestication of the horse came first, on the basis of the following argument:
The Centaur is familiar to all as a beast of fable, the half- horse half-man, who is represented by centuries of pictorial artists as a fused personage with part of equine and part of human anatomy, just as Angels have been represented as partly human and partly avian in appearance. We have become so accustomed to this item of Western thought, that we tend to gloss over the origin and the meaning of the Centaur. To the Greek, Centaurs were completely barbaric figures, which may be understood as referring to people residing completely outside the range of pre-Hellenic culture. Since horses originate in the New World, according to the detailed and very convincing fossil record, and migrated across the Bering Straits into Asia at a time when there was a land bridge between the two continents, it is not surprising that the horse slowly filtered down from Mongolia through China, and eventually reached the borders of Europe in the area of southern Russia. This would have been "barbaric" territory fortth Greeks, yet a good breeding ground for wild and semi-wild horses in view of the open grasslands. Hence the Greek view of the barbarism of the Centaurs may best be explained by their extra-Hellenic origins, rather than actual barbarism of character, which is the way the later Greeks took these Horse-Man beings.
The word "centaur" is interesting linguistically, since it embodies a familiar word-stem 'taur-os' meaning "bull, cow". The root occurs again in the compounded name of the Minotaur of Crete, it remains familiar in all phases of later Greek culture, so there seems no reason to doubt its meaning here. But why a word for Man+Horse should contain the root for the word "bull, cow" seems a mystery, and it is possibly a mystery just because the idea of a "centaur" has become so fixedly familiar in our cultural iconology.
If we accept the second part of the word Centaur as containing the Gr. 'taur-os', what can the first part mean? The only word in Greek that seems suitable is the verb "kent-o, kent-ein', which means "to goad, drive on (of animals)". If we put this verbal root together with the noun root for "bull, cow", we come up with a perfectly reasonable compound: "bull-goading, cow-driving".
At this point we should consider which was tamed earlier, the horse or the wild cow. Both are animals with strong herd-instincts, but the horse seems to have a stronger tendency for social bonding with humans, at least in the light of the subsequent history of equines in human societies. The intelligence of the horse, coupled with its capacity for imprinting on humans in early training, suggests the earlier domestication of horses. Only two animals that we know of, the horse and the elephant, can grow to maturity in the wild state, and yet when captured, becomes completely tamable in a matter of months. There may be genetic traits in both animals stemming from long period of human domestication before reverting to wildness, but there still remains a strong argument for the tractability of both breeds.
We now approach the cogent center of the argument. Assuming that the horse may have been domesticated first and tamed to the point of being rideable, what would the etymology of the name Centaur mean? If we accept the derivation outlined above, it could have a very clear meaning: "one who goads, directs, herds bulls and cows". With trained horses man can herd bovines effectively, without horses he can only hunt and kills them for meat. Herding them into enclosures, killing some and retaining the more tractable for breeding purposes, Man is well on his way to becoming a stockman. And the one indispensable piece of equipment he needs for this is the trained herdsman riding horse.
Watching the imaginative figurativeness of mythology, we have missed an important stage of historical development. The horse is named not for what it is (Man and Horse), but for what it can do: It can "drive bulls" in herds into enclosures. And with that starting point one of the major developments of civilization begins. But the development in agriculture are not a different path to civilization, since horses require large amount of fodder and especially grain; animal culture and agriculture proceed hand in hand, pari passu as it were.
If any proof were needed for the use of horses in herding, they can be found in the history of the American Western territories, which have been open range-land for more than a century. The dogs which have been useful in the smaller landscapes of Scotland and New Zealand cannot work effectively in the larger lands of the West, the horse has retained its mastery over herds into the present century, although it has in recent years been materially aided by the use of helicopters. But simply put, without horses you could not expect to get the range herd of steers to the market, it is that simple. And the pre-Hellenic peoples must have found it exactly the same. Hence we can say, first Man trained the horse, and with horses to aid him, he could go on to round-up and breed the bovine herds.
Both horse and cow have huge social impact on man's existence, they emancipate him from immediate locales and the restrictions of seasonal food supplies, and they both tax his strength and his ingenuity by the difficulties which both processes present. Perhaps the highly social dog was the first animal to join in man's history, the horse has social traits which may have brought him into human contact next, while the bull-cow is less liable to join in Man's efforts willingly, and may come into his sphere of influence last; however this is a very partial argument indeed.
Amalthea is the name of a nymph, or possibly of a goat who gave goat's milk to the infant Zeus, and he in return gave her the horn of plenty, a device which would produce anything desired. If there is any etymological meaning in the name, it probably connects not with Gr. 'amelgo' "to milk" (although to the Greeks this may have fostered the turn of the story), but with Gr. 'amala' or 'amalla ' "sheaf of wheat", which would be the food of choice for the goat who is preferentially a browsing feeder. We can tentatively if very roughly date Zeus' adaptation from India (where his name, in the Sanskrit form Dyaus, refers to a minor sun god in the Vedic literature) as contemporary with the breeding of goats on Crete, where this story is said to have occurred, which points to a date somewhere in the third millennium B.C.
In the essay on Air Waters and Places, Hippocrates specifically identified goats with Near Eastern peoples, saying that goats are not used in Greece, and he cites problems of disease in the Asian countries which do use goats. This comment is of a much later date, but diseases carried by animals have unusually long and persistent histories. In the historical period goats are found everywhere in Greece, since the mountainous land is suitable for their feeding habits and agile climbing. But the introduction of goats into Greek lands may be early, perhaps earlier (according to the tenor of this myth) than the introduction of bulls from Tyre and horses from an area possibly as far away as the steppes north of the Euxine Sea. Our only piece of evidence is that Zeus, an imported "Indo-European" Eastern deity, is connected in myth with a story about a nourishing goat. Since the cult of Zeus Xenios is of Cretan origin, we may reasonably expect early goat culture on Crete, although they do not appear in the formal Minoan representations at Cnossos. Country people on Crete still offer goat's milk as a friendly gift to the stranger.
The story of Ajax has been discussed before, as an example of a hero who cannot adjust to group decisions, more specifically the leaders' disposition of the arms of Achilles. Driven insane by his desire for the weapons which were given to Odysseus, Ajax slaughters a herd of sheep, maintaining that they were the evil Greeks who had deprived him of his due. When he recovers and sees what he had done, he kills himself but his sword. What is interesting is the fact that it is sheep that he slaughters, clear evidence that sheep were bred in herds at the time of the later heroes of the time of the Trojan War, and were sufficiently common on the Greek scene to serve as the chance object of a crazed hero's wrath.
On the other hand the story of Jason lies in an earlier stratum, since he was sent to the eastern end of the Euxine Sea to bring back the Golden Fleece, clearly a periphrasis for sheep, to be brought back for breeding in Greece proper. A fuller account of the Argonautic expedition is given in Chapter --- under the heading of heroes and their naval expeditions.
Europa was the daughter of Agenos, king of Tyre. Zeus, by way of wooing her, turned himself into a lovely bull, and persuaded her to climb on his back, upon which he swam away to Crete, where later she bore to him as sons Minos and Rhadamanthos. A less probable story is hard to imagine, unless we read it as a disguised account of the transfer of bull-breeding to Crete. Since the cow was cultivated much earlier in Mesopotamia, and in inscriptions and figurative tablets from that area was often associated with royalty, it may be assumed that Europa represented a cow, who was transported by someone from the East for breeding in the new land of Crete. This must be around 2000 B..C., since shortly thereafter the Minoan culture was well on the way to its independent development, and already depicts bulls on the wall-painting from Cnossos. The secret of the transportation, that a girl was carried over by a bull, rather than a cow carried over by a man, is possibly a token of the kind of the secrecy surrounding such a process, which would have been a most secret mission because of economic implications.
It is interesting to note that the story of Io is virtually the inverse of the story of Europa. Io, beloved by Zeus in Argos, is turned into a calf to hide her from Hera, who steals her and appoints Argos of the hundred eyes to guard her. Hermes, god of merchandising and none too savory in his general business dealings, kills Argos, then Hera send a gadfly to persecute the poor heifer Io, who flees madly over land and sea, settling finally in Egypt. If there is any fact in this second calf-myth, it would suggest that cows originated in the Semitic Near East, after which they were transported to Crete, whence they spread throughout the Minoan-Myceanean world. Egypt,. not having cows, or at least this special breed of cow, got its breeding stock from Greece, not from the cities along the Phoenician coast. A study of bovine bone remains in the various sites would probably make a good deal of this clear, or at least help us rearrange the facts.
Lest this seem completely unlikely from an economic point of view, we can consider the development of sheep-breeding in the l9th century. Rams and ewes were brought from Scotland where they had been highly bred, to Vermont, where a sheep-kingdom overran the state, with over ten million sheep in this small area by l840. Introduction of bred stock from Vermont, and also from Scotland, furnished Australia with the animals needed for starting an extensive sheep culture there, after which Vermont lost its sheep flocks entirely, with not more than five thousand animals carrying over into the 20th century. A future historian might find this as improbable as the story of Europa and Io.
The Bull of Crete can be considered in the first version, in which Europa, daughter of a Tyrian king, was persuaded to ride on the back of Zeus, disguised himself as a bull, thus coming to Crete. But there is also the variant version, according to which Minos, who was the son of Zeus and the Tyrian maiden Europa, married Pasiphae by whom he had two children; but when he refused to sacrifice to Poseidon a beautiful specimen of a bull, Poseidon in revenge had Pasiphae raped by the bull thus producing the "Mino-taur", part bull and part man. Whichever story one follows, it is clear that the bull was imported from the east, that it came over a sea-route, as is evident from the role of Poseidon in the story, as well as the insular location of Crete. Crete would be a convenient stop for a small ship with a large live load of several animals, it would also have been a major civilization at a time when mainland Greece was less developed, specifically in the first half of the second millennium B.C. or a little earlier.
When we speak of shipping, we must consider the deities who directly affect sea transport. Aeolus, "King of the Winds", the son of Hellen (ancestor of the Hellenes, Hellenic etc.) is described as the founder of the Aeolian or Eastern-Greek ethnic group. In the Odyssey he ties up adverse winds in a leather bag which he gives to Odysseus to assure a safe home-voyage, and later myths refer to him as controller or king of the winds, in which role he persists through the ages. Magical control of the winds only becomes important when seafaring is an critical part of a nation's life. If Aeolus is representative of the Aeolian islands and western Asia Minor, and also controller of the winds, he must be pivotal in some major trade route, probably the passage of ships from the Mediterranean into the economically valuable Euxine Sea. He thus fulfills the role of the priest who performs wind-magic, as well as a king who has the power to manipulate naval trade routes, and may be less a mythic symbol than a real figure in the historical record.
Aristaeus is a minor deity concerned with hunting, farming in general, and bee-keeping, which last regard would be especially sensitive to changes in the annual sugar supplies coming from the flowering plants or Compositae. Aristaeus sacrificed to Sirius, the "dog-star" who presides over the hot period of July, and to Zeus, ruler of the sky, who sent the Etesian Winds which came in from the moisture laden countryside of southern Germany and Hungary to ease the drought. Rhys Carpenter, in his suggestive book on climatological problems involving the Greeks of the second millennium B.C., maintains that during the period of prolonged desiccation, the inhabitants of Greece went north to the very regions from which myth says the Winds came, and returned centuries later when the climate had become more humid. In such an area it would seem wise to invite a panel of climatologists to discuss the general trends of climate in the Mediterranean over the past five thousand years. Problems of this sort need expert scientific information, which can be connected with the historical record only after serious conference. History can no longer afford to be a science which restricts itself to the spotty accounts of the ancient historians. Archaeology has done a great deal to reify ancient history, and the sciences can do a great deal more..
If the Minotaur represents a man-animal confusion, it would be parallel to the early Greek views of the Centaurs as having a similar double nature, but in reality both would have been nothing more than an animal ridden by a man. Castrating the normally savage and dangerous bull would have been necessary for such a venture, as well as for creating the ox as a sturdy draft animal, but still the image of a man riding on an ox would be powerful for someone who had never seen a bovine before.. The wall paintings from Cnossos attest the presence of bulls in Crete before the l3th century B.C., so it seems reasonable to push the original introduction of bull breeding stock back at least a few centuries before that time. The bull was bred and considered an emblem of royalty from remote times in the Near East, as regal sculptural tableaux from Assyria show. It was inevitable that the technology of bull-rearing should spread to the new lands in the west, the only obstacle being the sea. We can assume that boats capable of carrying several bovines were available at that time, since only one animal would obviously be useless for breeding, while one bull and three or four cows would be much better for experienced breeders' purposes. The story in the Old Testament of Noah stowing pairs of all animals into his "boat" during the flood, would seem to reflect knowledge of transmarine animal shipping, or at least an intuition that such a process could one day be useful.
Although the domestication of the horse and cow have many things in common, there is one thing which sets the bovine breed apart: Although sheep and goats do produce milk, the milk of the cow is far more plentiful, and the sheer volume of the milk which comes from a fair sized herd of cows makes the discovery of cheese, sooner or later, inevitable. Milk is perishable in hot countries, although its life is prolonged by introduction of the bacilli which make various kinds of yogurt possible. But cheese when dipped in a bath of melted beeswax to keep off the air, will last through a year's cycle, and thus provides, along with the grains, some elements of a year-round food supply. Only with a fairly even supply of victuals can large populations exists, this is one of the clearest pre-conditions for mega-societies and for civilization as we know it. The cow provides everything that the horse offers except riding, and it gives beside leather, meat, and glue, milk for the daily need and cheese for the needs of the coming winter. With horse and cow and sheep, man can now think of riding fast to distant places, eating regularly of meat and cheese, and clothing himself in a weave-able material called wool. These are among the basic necessities of life and of living, with these assets civilization can think of moving forward.
Chapter 4
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The Development of Agriculture
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Agriculture is developed and animals are being tamed and bred at the same time. However myths about plants are much less precise in meaning than those about animals, probably because of man's greater perception and appreciation of the mammals as being nearer to his own nature. An important source of information about early agriculture is the story of Alcmaion.
Avenging his father by killing his own mother, he is pursued by the Furies in a manner remarkably similar to the history of Orestes. Just at that time the crops fail, and it is assumed that this is a divine act connected with Alcmaeon's unholy state, so he sets out to discover new lands on which the sun had not shone at the time when he killed his mother. (To fulfill this condition exactly, he would have had to know that the earth was a globe, and he would have to travel halfway around its periphery. Alcmaeon apparently has an intuitive idea of this, since he assumes that when the sun shines on one place it will not be shining on a distant land. However he is realistic and goes only a short distance to the west.)
It is interesting to connect crop failure with royal guilt, but it is more pertinent to consider the failure of land which has been overused without provision for manuring and letting it lie fallow If drought occurred, responsibility would only not normally be referred to human agents, but sheer lack of knowledge about basic agricultural economy would certainly be within the responsibility of the king or landowner. Going to the west and finding new, unused land, does point to the latter situation. Rotation of crop fields was tried at various times in the ancient world, but it was not until the l7 th century that English experimenters put the whole matter on a secure footing. Until that time responsibility for failure other land would have to rest upon human shoulders, and that seems to be the critical part of Alcmaion's story.
In a very different vein, the stories of Attis and Heracles' young friend Hylas, which have been discussed already, point to fusing human histories into ancient vegetative cycles which antedate man's agriculture. Being turned into a pine tree (Attis), becoming a flowering bulb (Narcissos), or becoming part of a pond (Hylas), these minor heroes return to nature unscathed by societies concerns with agriculture, since they belong to an older stage of human existence which predates the domestication of plants.

The myth of Attis, although set in Asia Minor, repeats the pattern of the vegetative cycles that we saw in the story of Adonis. His mother conceived him while gathering almond blossoms from a tree which contained the blood of Agdistis, a female Phrygian deity more commonly known as Cybele (or Cybebe) the Great Earth Mother. Cybele loved Attis, opposed his seeking a mate, and drove him mad enough to castrate himself, upon which he died. By Zeus' intervention his life-force passed into the pine tree, while his blood grew into violets. The connection of Attis, who like Adonis is a handsome young man beloved of a goddess, with plant life is clearly established in the story.




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