In recent posts I’ve been considering whether or not the ancient Greeks believed in their myths. The answer, I suppose, is Well, yes, sort of, but in a complicated way that varied from person to person and situation to situation. In this post I want to look at a more specific question. I’m engaged in a project about myth in the travel guide written by Pausanias in the second century AD, and I thought I should write something about his attitudes to the stories he tells. What did Pausanias believe?
Pausanias lived and wrote in the second century AD. Homer’s dates are probably around or a little before 700 BC—about 900 years before Pausanias. Socrates died in 399 BC, about 450 years before Pausanias. If we think of our time, around 2000 AD, then 450 years before us was 1550 and 900 years was 1100. The beliefs of our time are not generally the same as the beliefs of people in 1550 or 1100, and we can’t just assume that what Pausanias believed is a good index to what classical or archaic Greeks believed. But his historical period is just as interesting as earlier periods, and his beliefs matter just as much. Pausanias was an intelligent and educated person of his time; he was also intensely curious. He was not, however, a deep thinker, and that’s okay, because deep thinkers don’t always represent their times very well.
Pausanias seems to have been devout, insofar as we can understand what that meant for him. He knew about some of the mystery cults, and that almost certainly means he was initiated, because only initiates knew the mysteries. Very briefly, a mystery was a group of people who shared secret rituals and beliefs which were not open to the public. The most famous of the mysteries was the cult of Demeter at Eleusis. Thousands of people belonged to this mystery, and its affairs were managed by the city government of Athens, so it wasn’t a fringe phenomenon. There was a well-known story about how Demeter established this cult—there is a detailed account in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter; Pausanias directly refers to and quotes from this poem. It was also widely believed that Demeter had given the gift of grain to a prince of Eleusis, Triptolemus. That much was public knowledge. But exactly what went on during the celebration of the mysteries was not public knowledge; to this day we don’t know and we probably never will.
When Pausanias was in Athens he saw two temples above a spring near the Odeum, one to Demeter and the Maid (as he calls Persephone) and another to Triptolemus. He tells a rambling (but interesting) story about Demeter and her gift of grain to Triptolemos. Then he says, “After I had intended to go further into this story, and to describe the contents of the sanctuary at Athens, called the Eleusinium, I was stayed by a vision in a dream” (Book I.14.2). Later he refers to the same or a similar dream: “They say that the plain called Rharium was the first to be sown and the first to grow crops, and for this reason it is the custom to use sacrificial barley and to make cakes for the sacrifices from its produce. Here there is shown a threshing-floor called that of Triptolemus and an altar. My dream forbade the description of the things within the wall of the sanctuary, and the uninitiated are of course not permitted to learn that which they are prevented from seeing” (I.38.7). Later he makes a similar comment about another story: “The story told at the mysteries of the Mother about Hermes and the ram I know but do not relate” (II.3.4.). These passages suggest that Pausanias was himself an initiate in these mysteries, and that he was careful not to break the rules of the cult. (See also I.37.4).
Pausanias typically does not vouch for the truth of the stories he tells. Instead of saying “Such and such happened”, he usually says, “They say such and such happened”—“they” being the people in the region he is visiting. Now and again he indicates that he doesn’t believe a story that he tells. Here’s an example: “Now the swan is a bird with a reputation for music, because, they say, a musician by the name of Swan [Kuknos] became king of the Ligyes on the other side of the Eridanus beyond the Celtic territory, and after his death by the will of Apollo he was changed into the bird. I am ready to believe that a musician became king of the Ligyes, but I cannot believe that a bird grew out of a man.” (I.30.3).
In another passage Pausanias describes the precinct of Hera not far from Mycenae, where he sees a statue of Hera, who is holding a pomegranate: “About the pomegranate I must say nothing, for its story is something of a holy mystery. The presence of a cuckoo seated on the sceptre they explain by the story that when Zeus was in love with Hera in her maidenhood he changed himself into this bird, and she caught it and made it into her pet. This tale and similar legends about the gods I relate without believing them, but I relate them nevertheless” (II.17.4). Here we see both his scruples about revealing mysteries and his skepticism.
Pausanias remarks that there were different and inconsistent versions of many of the myths. In Book VIII he says, “The legends [logoi] of Greece generally have different forms, and this is particularly true of genealogy” (VIII.53.5). In Book II he says, “I know that most of the traditions concerning the Philasians are contradictory, but I shall make use of those which have been most generally accepted” (II.12.4). In Book I he notes two different stories about Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter; the usual story is that she was sacrificed so that the Greek army could sail to Troy. But Pausanias says that he has heard “another account of Iphigenia that is given by Arcadians, and I know that Hesiod, in his Catalogue of Women, says that Iphigenia did not die, but by the will of Artemis is Hecate. With this agrees the account of Herodotus” (I.43.1). In Book II he sees “a fire which they keep burning, calling it the fire of Phoroneus. For they do not admit that fire was given to mankind by Prometheus, but insist on assigning the discovery to Phoroneus” (II.19.5).
Sometimes Pausanias judges that one version of a story is more likely than another. In Laconia, in a place named Limnaeum, he saw a wooden image which the people say is the one that Orestes and Iphigenia stole from the Taurians. This story, he says, is more probable than the Athenian story that Iphigenia left the image at Brauron (III.16.7-8).
Sometimes Pausanias is skeptical about a story he tells. He describes a ritual at Potniae, “one part of which is to let loose young pigs into what are called ‘the halls.’ At the same time next year these pigs appear, they say, in Dodona. This story others can believe if they wish.” (IX.8.1)
Pausanias mentions the story that Apollo unintentionally killed Hyacinthus, who was then turned into a flower, but adds, “we must be content with the legends, although perhaps they are not true history” (III.19.5). In Book VI he describes some statues of Olympic victors and tells a little about some of them. “As to the boxer, by name Damarchus, an Arcadian of Parrhasia, I cannot believe (except, of course, his Olympic victory) what romancers say about him, how he changed his shape into that of a wolf at the sacrifice of Lycaean (Wolf) Zeus, and how nine years after became a man again” (VI.8.2). I will have more to say about this sacrifice below.
In my previous post I mentioned that an unbelievable myth can be made believable either through allegorization or through rationalization. Pausanias uses both methods. In Book VIII he tells a story about the birth of Poseidon: “Rhea, it is said, declared to Cronus that she had given birth to a horse, and gave him a foal to swallow instead of the child, just as later she gave him in place of Zeus a stone wrapped up in swaddling clothes. When I began to write my history I was inclined to count these legends as foolishness, but on getting as far as Arcadia I grew to hold a more thoughtful view of them, which is this. In the days of old those Greeks who were considered wise spoke their sayings not straight out but in riddles, and so the legends about Cronus I conjectured to be one sort of Greek wisdom. In matters of divinity, therefore, I shall adopt the received tradition” (VIII.8.3). That is, he accepts unbelievable stories about the gods as riddles or allegories.
According to a well-known myth, the hunter Actaeon accidentally saw the goddess Artemis bathing. As a punishment she turned him into a stag, and he was torn apart by his dogs. But Pausanias has a different story. “My own view is that without divine interference the hounds of Actaeon were smitten with madness, and so they were sure to tear to pieces without distinction everybody the chanced to meet” (IX.2.3). In Book III Pausanias comes across a cave in a promontory at Teuthrone. “Some of the Greek poets state that Heracles brought up the hound of Hades here, though there is no road that leads underground through the cave, and it is not easy to believe that the gods possess any underground dwelling where the souls collect. But Hecataeus of Miletus gave a plausible explanation, stating that a terrible serpent lived on Taenarum, and was called the hound of Hades, because any one bitten was bound to die of poison at once, and it was this snake, he said, that was brought by Heracles to Eurystheus” (III.25.5).
According to a widely known story, the inventor Daedalus made wings for himself and his son Icarus so they could escape from Crete, where they were being held by King Minos, but Icarus flew too close to the sun, and fell into the sea when the wax holding his wings melted. But according to Pausanias, Daedalus and Icarus fled in ships: “he devised for the ships sails, an invention as yet unknown to the men of those times, so as to take advantage of a favourable wind and outsail the oared fleet of Minos. Daedalus himself was saved, but the ship of Icarus is said to have been overwhelmed, as he was a clumsy helmsman” (IX.11.4) In Athens he sees a representation of “the fight which legend says Theseus fought with the so-called Bull of Minos, whether this was a man or a beast of the nature he is said to have been in the accepted story. For even in our time women have given birth to far more extraordinary monsters than this” (I.24.2).
In Book VIII, Pausanias tells the story of Lycaon, the legendary king of Arcadia, who sacrificed a baby on the altar of Lycean Zeus and was immediately changed into a wolf. He adds a long commentary to this story and explains much of his thinking on these questions. He says he believes this story, because it has long been a legend among the Arcadians. It has the additional merit, he says, of probability. In those legendary times, humans were righteous and pious, and therefore humans and gods feasted together. The gods openly honored the good and punished sinners. In those times, some humans were actually changed into gods (Aristaeus, Britomartis of Crete, Heracles the son of Alcmena, Amphiaraus the son of Oicles, and Polydeuces and Castor). Thus, he says, “one might believe that Lycaon was turned into a beast, and Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus, into a stone.” But the situation is different now; because of human sin, people no longer turn into gods, and gods reserve their anger “until the sinners have departed to the next world.” The truth has become discredited “because of the lies built up on a foundation of fact. It is said, for instance, that ever since the time of Lycaon a man has changed into a wolf at the sacrifice to Lycaean Zeus, but that the change is not for life; if, when he is a wolf, he abstains from human flesh, after nine years he becomes a man again, but if he tastes human flesh he remains a beast forever. Similarly too it is said that Niobe on Mount Sipylus sheds tears in the season of summer…. Those who like to listen to the miraculous are themselves apt to add to the marvel, and so they ruin the truth by mixing it with falsehood” (VIII.2.2–6).
To sum up, Pausanias was devout. He clearly believed in the gods, and he was almost certainly an initiate in at least one mystery. His attitudes may sometimes seem odd or inconsistent to us, but we shouldn’t judge him by scientific standards which didn’t exist in his day, and he was probably as consistent as many people are today. He was not a philosophic skeptic, but neither was he simply credulous. He doesn’t generally believe that people can be changed into animals, at least in the present state of the world. He doesn’t vouch for the stories he tells. He is very aware that some stories come in different and conflicting versions, and sometimes he is willing to say which version he thinks is most likely. Sometimes he gives a rationalized explanation for an implausible story. He also believes that the stories, properly interpreted as riddles or allegories, are a repository of ancient wisdom—as many liberal Christians believe about the Bible. All in all, he was nearly the perfect reporter of these stories, and we are very lucky to have his account.