What we call myths

When you google ‘classical myths’, or go to the library, you will almost certainly end up with a text that which claims it contains “The Myths of Greece and Rome”, or “Classical Mythology”, or “Legends of the Ancient World”. These books are lovely. They contain great stories. Like most future Classicists, I knew these stories nearly to heart before I came to university.

But then I came to university, and was presented with a version vastly different from the one I had read.

The idea that it is possible to know The Story of something is an inviting one. It offers security and the opportunity for self-congratulation. It is untrue. It is particularly untrue regarding myth and legend.

The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer are two of the most famous works of ancient poetry. They are a pair of epic poems – epic in length as well as in subject matter – concerning the great war between the Trojans and the Greeks at Troy, and the great journey homewards of Odysseus, one of the Greek warriors. If the name ‘Troy’ is ringing only the faintest of bells, you may be recalling this masterpiece of cinema:

The mainstay of every high school classics classroom.

The mainstay of every high school classics classroom.

Or, possibly, a long-forgotten classics lesson. In any case, intimate knowledge of the texts isn’t necessary today. You need only remember that the ancient Greeks -and Romans- considered these poems the greatest works of their own culture, and that they were also the earliest. These poems were written down when writing was invented, and existed long before that.

These works are products of the ancient oral tradition of epic poetry. Before writing, information and stories still needed to be preserved. So they were learned by heart by bards, and passed on to other bards, and then to others, and so on. They took the form of poetry because poetry, with its rhythm and rhyme, is easy to remember; so with a lifetime of learning and practise, the stories at any single bard’s mental disposal could reach astounding length, variation, and complexity.

Let us be clear; they did not relate entire poems by heart. They memorised stories, not texts; it is likely they also had a repertoire of ‘stock’ metaphors and passages of description which could be applied to various scenes. The words themselves were largely improvised, and the skill of composition was one of the most important ones a bard possessed. Each performance of a story by the same bard would be subtly unique, and the difference between each bard’s version of a story would be even greater. Bards would be inspired by and draw on the performances of others. But the oral tradition, by its very reliance on a network of individual minds, created a network of individual, though closely related, versions of the same stories.

Marble Figure of a harpist from the Early Cycladic. Metropolitan Museum of Art, AN 47.100.1

Marble Figure of a harpist from the Early Cycladic. Metropolitan Museum of Art, AN 47.100.1

We say that the Iliad was written by Homer because it is convenient to assign a single author to a distinct body of work. It has been a problem for scholars for centuries that both the poems are far, far too long for any single poet to perform in a single sitting. They are presented as complete narratives divided into chapters, but some scenes and passages also show evidence of different dialects of Greek than the majority.

The ancients revered Homer as the very greatest of the poets, and believed with dogged insistence both in the truth of the poems (despite gods and heroes being some of the main characters) and in Homer’s authorship. But it is certain that the works of Homer are not the works of a single author. They are generally now understood as compilations of versions of these stories from many different bards, edited together -with notable mastery – into two coherent narratives. Other versions undoubtedly existed, but have not survived. We do in fact have references in antiquity to other epic poems which deal with other aspects of these stories.

These additional stories are extra elements to the mythical tradition of the Trojan War. There may be more than one version of a story – differing perhaps in chronology, motive or characters -and these are known as alternate mythical traditions. The Homeric version of the great story of Troy is only one version of many, containing a selection of many different elements of the mythical tradition which it draws on. So it is with all our evidence of myth, be it poetic, dramatic, or artistic.

Homer and his guide, by W. A. Bouguereau, 1874.

Homer and his guide, by W. A. Bouguereau, 1874.

Mythical traditions may have many variations on the story, but each one also has a set of core elements – the parts of the story that just never change. The entire Trojan War is far too complex, so to demonstrate this I’m going to focus on the far simpler mythic tradition of one character in particular.

Ajax, outside of cleaning products, is a name that may or may not be familiar to you. He was one of the Greek heroes of Troy – alongside Odysseus, Achilles and Agamemnon, as well as many others. Like most heroes, one of the core elements all versions of the mythic tradition agree on is his genealogy. Ajax was the son of Telamon and father of Teucer. He was also a great warrior, both in bravery and in strength. The most complex story in Ajax’ mythical tradition is that of his death.

When Achilles died, the question of what should be done with his armour(which had been made by the god Hephaestus) arose. It was decided that it should be given to the second greatest hero of the Greeks after Achilles, but two of the warriors claimed the honour: Ajax and Odysseus. Beyond these ‘facts’, the mythic tradition begins to diverge.

One version sees the matter put to a vote among the Greeks; another holds that the Greeks, unable to decide, sent men to eavesdrop at the walls of Troy in hope of happening upon an answer. There they overheard some Trojan women and maids gossiping about who was the greatest of the Greek warriors. The women eventually decided upon Odysseus and so the listening Greeks carried back the conclusion to the camp. The alternate versions return to agreement upon the verdict: Odysseus was named victor.

It is then held that the humiliation drove Ajax mad, and so strongly did he desire revenge upon Odysseus and the leaders of the Greeks that he plotted murder. It is then said that Athena tricked him into believing a herd of sheep and cattle were the Greeks, so Ajax slaughtered them and herded others back to his tent. When he came to his senses, he was so embarrassed by his failure that he resolved to commit suicide. But this kylix vase:

Detail from an Athenian red-figure clay vase, c.5th century BC. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum © Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Detail from an Athenian red-figure clay vase, c.5th century BC. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum © Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Shows Athena presiding over the vote. Athena’s enmity towards Ajax is preserved both in her trickery of him and in literary texts – like Sophocles’ Ajax – but her reasons are never explained in our extant sources. But this vase is not the only example that depicts Athena’s presence earlier in the story. Preserved in the art is evidence of another part of the mythical tradition which does not survive to our own time.

We have so little of the past, particularly the elements of culture which flesh out history’s narrative of war and conquering – their religions and their stories, the lives of women and the poor, their proverbs and their pastimes. When it comes to the Greeks and Romans, we seem to have so much in comparison to other civilisations that it is easy to believe we can construct a full picture. But no ‘myth’ can express any more than a part of the net of traditions it is drawn from. Enough survives for us to know some details of alternate mythical traditions, but who knows how much we don’t even know we’ve lost?

It is impossible to know The Myth of something, even if it is only a side character in one of the most famous of ancient legends. The books you pick up entitled ‘Myths of Greece and Rome’ contain only lonely singular threads from a vast web. What we call ‘myths’ are only possible stories: they are enjoyable, but do no justice to their name.


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