One of the characteristic features of myth is variability. A novel has an author, and the author has the authority to say, “This is my novel, and you can’t change it. You can’t have Elizabeth Bennet run off with Mr. Collins. She marries Mr. Darcy, and that’s it.” A living author has legal rights to prevent such changes; and if a novel by a dead author is reworked in a modern version, we make a distinction between, say, the original Pride and Prejudice, written by Jane Austen, and the adaptation, written by someone else.
A myth, however, doesn’t have an author who can control how the story is told. A particular version of a myth may have an author, as Sophocles is the author of a play we call Oedipus the King, and he has the authority to say that his version is his version. (Authority in drama is complicated, since actors and directors have a habit of changing scripts, but I will ignore that complication for now. As for movie adaptations, don’t get me started.) In Sophocles’ version of the story, when Oedipus and his wife/mother Jokasta find out the awful truth, she hangs herself and he puts out his eyes and leaves the city. And that’s the way most people today think of the story.
But that’s not quite the way Homer tells it. In Book Eleven of the Odyssey, Odysseus is telling the Phaiakians about his trip to the Land of the Dead; one of the people he saw there was a woman he calls Epikaste (Lattimore’s translation, and his spelling):
“I saw the beautiful Epikaste, Oidipodes’ mother,
who in the ignorance of her mind had done a monstrous
thing when she married her own son. He killed his father
and married her, but the gods made it all known to mortals.
But he, for all his sorrows, in beloved Thebes continued
to be lord over the Kadmeians, all through the bitter designing
of the gods; while she went down to Hades of the gates, the strong one,
knotting a noose and hanging sheer from the high ceiling,
in the constraint of her sorrow, but left to him who survived her
all the sorrows that are brought to pass by a mother’s furies.”
The change of name from Jokasta to Epikaste is just a detail, but it’s more important that in Homer’s version of the story there is no mention that Oedipus (or Oidipodes) blinded himself, and it’s clear that he continued to live in Thebes and rule there. So if you ask me if the ancient Greeks believed in the story of Oedipus, I would ask in turn, Which version of the story do you mean?
Many stories have different versions. There are some really wild stories about Odysseus, for instance, in which he has a child by Circe, a son named Telegonos, who later on accidentally kills his father. Then Telegonos marries Penelope, while Telemachos, the son of Odysseus and Penelope, marries Circe. Then, according to Apollodorus, a second-century AD mythographer, “It is said by some… that Penelope was seduced by Antinoos [one of the suitors] and sent away by Odysseus to her father Icarios, and that when she reached Mantinea in Arcadia, she gave birth to Pan, as a son of Hermes. Others say that she was killed by Odysseus himself because of Amphinomos [another of the suitors], for they claim that she had been seduced by him” (Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, Epitome 7.36).
Sometimes a writer will directly reject one version of a story in favor of another. A famous example is found in the First Olympian Ode of Pindar, an important poet of the first half of the fifth century BC. There was a traditional story that Tantalus, one of the great sinners of early Greek myth, carved up his son, Pelops, and served him up to the gods in a stew, to see if they could be deceived. The only one who fell for the trick was Demeter, who was distracted because she was worried about Persephone. Demeter ate Pelops’ shoulder, and when the gods put Pelops back together again, they had to substitute an ivory shoulder. But Pindar rejects this story: that’s not what happened at all. No god, he says, is a savage. Yes, Tantalus invited the gods to a feast, and when Poseidon arrived and saw the young Pelops he fell for him and spirited him away. It was jealous neighbors, so Pindar says, who spread the story that Pelops disappeared because he had been made into a stew and then reconstituted. It’s clear that this version of the story was made up by Pindar for this particular poem; it certainly didn’t enter the tradition as a variant. But evidently Pindar felt completely free to alter a myth to suit his own purposes.
Some ancient Greeks did find some of the myths hard to believe, at least if they were taken literally. One response was to allegorize the myths—to interpret the gods as divine forces, so that Athena, for instance, was the representation of wisdom; Demeter was the representation of the fertility of the earth; Poseidon was the representation of the power of the sea or earthquakes. The ancient Greek pantheon (going back to Hesiod’s Theogony) included divine abstractions, such as Memory or Fortune or Fear or Peace. If you think of abstractions as gods, it’s easy to think of gods as abstractions. (Some of the following I have discussed at some length in Chapter Twelve of my book, Exploring Greek Myth, and I will feel free to plagiarize myself here and there.)
Another way to approach a story you find incredible is to rationalize it in some way. In the mid-fifth century BC, Herodotus began his Histories with rationalized versions of the stories of Io, Europa, Medea, and Helen of Troy, leaving the gods entirely out of the events. In the second half of the fourth century BC, a writer known to us as Palaephatus produced a collection of 45 rationalized myths. For example, he rejects the story that Kallisto was turned into a bear. Instead, he says, Kallisto went into a grove of trees where she was eaten by a bear. When her companions saw that only a bear came out of the grove and Kallisto had disappeared, they thought that she had been turned into a bear.
Socrates, as Plato represents him in the Phaedrus, had an interesting view of the myths and their rationalizations. Socrates and Phaedrus are taking a walk outside the city, and they pass the place where, so the story goes, Boreas, the god of the wind, seized the Athenian princess Oreithyia. Phaedrus asks Socrates if he believes this story, and Socrates says he would be quite up to date if, like the sophists, he did not believe it. He could give a rationalizing explanation in which the girl was simply blown off the cliff by the wind.
Such rationalizing explanations, Socrates says, are attractive, but then you have to give explanations for the Centaurs and for the Khimaira and Gorgons and other monsters. All this would take a lot of time, and Socrates says that he would rather spend his time trying to understand himself. So he doesn’t bother about such matters (Phaedrus 229b). By the later fifth century, evidently, many Greek thinkers rejected the myths, at least the incredible parts of the myths.
Did the ancient Greeks believe their myths? I don’t think there’s a simple answer. The ancient Greeks, for the most part, took religion very seriously, and if the myths are not quite the same thing as religion, myth and religion were closely connected. But myth by its nature is variable, and there was no scriptural account of the myths anyone was expected to believe. It was perfectly acceptable for different people to tell different versions of a story. Those versions could include allegorizations or rationalizations which would get rid of whatever a particular teller or thinker found hard to believe.
In my next post I will look more closely at Pausanias and his feelings about the credibility of the stories he reports; then I will take a break from this topic for a while and turn to other aspects of my current projects.