In the last couple of posts I’ve been discussing local myth in ancient Greece, as found in The Guide to Greece, a travel guide written by Pausanias back in the second century AD. I’ve been trying to show that the local version of a myth can be quite different from the Panhellenic version that was generally known in the ancient world and is still known today. There are all sorts of good reasons to pay attention to the Panhellenic versions; they served an important function, and they still serve a function today. But if you want to get a sense of how the myths functioned in the daily life of ancient Greece, you have to look at the local versions as well. In this post I want to look at some local myth and local ritual.
There has been a long debate about the connection between myth and ritual. Some scholars have argued that ritual grows out of myth; others have argued that ritual comes first, and the myth then is developed to explain why the ritual is performed. Other scholars have argued that a myth can stand on its own and a ritual can stand on its own, that neither one needs the other. I don’t want to get into this argument; I will say, however, that local myth is often attached to local ritual in some way or other, but when a myth gets abstracted from its local context, when it becomes Panhellenic, it may lose its connection to ritual. The local myths in Pausanias are often attached to a local ritual. If we had more information about ancient Greece we probably would find even more pairings of local myth and ritual.
Here is one from a town called Plataea. As Pausanias comes through the city, he sees an image of Hera, called the Bride (9.2.8–9.3.5), and he tells the following story to explain why this image was called the Bride. Hera was mad at Zeus and she went away to Euboea. Zeus, advised by Cithaeron, the despot of Plataea, made an image of wood, and he drove it in a wagon and said that he was celebrating his marriage with a woman named Plataea, the daughter of Asopus (who was either the river Asopus or the first king of the city.) Hera heard the news; she came running and tore the dress off the image, and when she realized that it was a wooden image and not a real woman she became reconciled to Zeus. To commemorate this reconciliation, every six years (or perhaps more frequently) the people of Plataea celebrate a festival called the Little Daedala. (The word “deadalos” is an adjective usually applied to a work of art, such as a statue, and it means “cunningly or curiously fashioned”; the same word is the name of the mythic figure Daedalos, who contrived the labyrinth and wings for himself and his son Icarus.) Pausanias then gives a long description of some of the details of this festival; here I will just say that they select an oak tree, cut it down, and make an image, which is called a daedalon. The images from successive festivals are saved to be used in another festival, called the Great Daedala, which is celebrated only every fifty-nine or sixty years. The various images are set on a wagon along with a bridesmaid, and they are driven to an altar at the top of the mountain, and then there is a sacrifice to Zeus and Hera.
This little story seems to be an aetiological myth, an explanation for the festivals of the Little Daedala and the Greater Daedala. I don’t claim that the recitation of this story was part of the festival, and I don’t make the larger claim that a myth is always related to a ritual and that every ritual is related to a myth. But often enough we find stories that seem to be connected to rituals, and we should understand this kind of connection as a regular, but by no means necessary, aspect of Greek myth. Many of these stories are local rather than Panhellenic, just because the rituals themselves were local. There was no particular reason that an Athenian, for instance, would be interested in a story about a Plataean ritual. Now and again we see traces of these aetiological stories outside of their locales, but there must have been many local aetiologies that have been lost along with the rituals they explained.
Another interesting feature of this Plataean story is the names of the characters. When Hera stomps off in a huff, Zeus goes to ask Cithaeron for advice; Cithaeron is the name of the mountain where the festival culminated. The woman Zeus was supposedly marrying was Plataea, after whom the town itself was named, and Plataea was the daughter of the river Asopus. Pausanias, however, does not think that Plataea was the daughter of a river. In his view, these names designate people: Cithaeron was the first king of Plataea, Asopus was the second king, and Plataea was his daughter; the mountain, the river, and the town were simply named after these members of the royal family. But no matter what the names designate, the local geography carries reminders of mythical history. The connections between myth and topography are also likely to be of local rather than Panhellenic interest. Local myth often is concerned with locale.
Here is another story which seems to be the aetiology of a ritual. This is based on the story of the Danaids, the fifty daughters of Danaos. Danaos had a twin brother named Aigyptos, and Aigyptos conveniently enough had fifty sons. The fifty daughters of Danaos were supposed to marry the fifty sons of Aigyptos, all on the same day, but Danaos ordered his daughters to kill their husbands on their wedding night. All the daughters obeyed their father except for Hypermnestra, who spared the life of her husband, Lyncaeus. There’s more to the story, of course, but that’s enough for my purposes here.
When Pausanias was travelling northwest of Argos he came to a place called Lyrkeia (2.25.4). He says, “The story is that to this place came Lyncaeus, being the only one of the fifty brothers to escape death, and that on his escape he raised a beacon here. Now to raise the beacon was the signal he had agreed with Hypermnestra to give if he should escape Danaos and reach a place of safety. She also, they say, lighted a beacon on Larisa as a sign that she too was now out of danger. For this reason the Argives hold every year a beacon festival”. In this instance I would suggest that the festival came first, and then the myth was adapted to explain it. Beacon festivals are common in many places all over the world. In the nineteenth century, for instance, Thomas Hardy’s great novel The Return of the Native begins with an annual beacon festival celebrated every year on November 6th on Guy Fawkes Day, and I’m sure it would be easy to find many others.
In a place called Kondylea near Kaphyai in Arcadia there is a grove of Artemis. According to a story told there, once some children were playing around the sanctuary and found a rope; they tied the rope around the neck of the statue and said that Artemis was being strangled. The people of the town saw what the children had done and stoned them to death. The women of the town then contracted a disease which caused their unborn children to drop out of their wombs; the Pythian priestess declared that they must bury the children and burn annual offerings to them. The Kaphyans still carry out this practice, so says Pausanias, and they call the goddess Strangled Artemis. (8.23.6–7). Farnell suggests that this story derives from the custom of hanging masks of the goddess on a tree; there is a similar custom in Rhodes, where Helen is hanged. There may also be connections to swinging rituals, in which swings are attached to the branches of trees for young people, usually girls. An example is the Athenan Aiora, which commemorates the death by hanging of Erigone, the daughter of Icarius.
In Letrinoi there is a statue of Artemis called Alpheian Artemis, and there is a story to explain the epithet: a certain Alpheios fell in love with Artemis (the verb is erasthenai) and since he knew he could not persuade the goddess to marry him he decided to take her by force at an all-night revel Artemis was holding with her nymphs. Artemis suspected that Alpheios was plotting against her, so she and all her nymphs smeared their faces with mud; Alpheios was unable to tell which one was Artemis, and so he left with his purpose unfulfilled. So the people of Letrinoi call the goddess Alpheian because of the love of Alpheios for her. Frazer in his commentary suggests that there may have been some kind of festival in which women smeared their faces with mud; such practices are in fact quite common around the world. (6.22.8–10).
Pausanias gives many more examples of local myths connected to local rituals. He reports examples one by one, as he comes across them in his travels. If you read through The Guide to Greece from start to finish, as I’ve done now several times, you will gradually get a sense of a culture full of stories and rituals. But the book, frankly, is kind of a mess, and most people won’t want to read through it, even once. So I’m gradually collecting interesting passages and putting them into some kind of order. Taken all together these passages give a fascinating and detailed picture of the importance of these stories and these rituals in ancient Greek society. This is a picture you won’t get from the way the myths are presented in the epics or Greek tragedy or in Ovid’s versions of the stories in the Metamorphoses. In another post I will continue with some of the most curious and interesting rituals described by Pausanias, but next time I will consider the question of belief—Did the Greeks believe their myths?