2019-11-05

The Relationship between Myth and History among Ancient Authors

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by Neil Godfrey

Here I discuss ancient historians that are cited by M. David Litwa as part of his attempt to demonstrate that our canonical gospels conformed to a popular type of historical writing that included “fantastical elements”. (I will discuss Litwa’s comments on these ancient authors in a future post and refer readers back to this post.)

Diodorus Siculus

Heracles and Geryon

Diodorus Siculus (= of Sicily) belonged to the first century BCE. In Book 4 of his Library of History he informed readers that he would have to rely upon “writers of myths” for his account of the life of Heracles.

[W]e shall . . . relate his deeds from the beginning, basing our account on those of the most ancient poets and writers of myths. This, then, is the story as it has been given us . . . . .

(Book 4.8-9)

So was Diodorus blending myth and history here? Not really. Earlier Diodorus listed four reasons why myth was not genuine history:

For, in the first place,

  • the antiquity of the events they have to record, since it makes record difficult, is a cause of much perplexity to those who would compose an account of them;
  • and again, inasmuch as any pronouncement they may make of the dates of events does not admit of the strictest kind of proof or disproof, a feeling of contempt for the narration is aroused in the mind of those who read it;
  • furthermore, the variety and the multitude of the heroes, demi-gods, and men in general whose genealogies – must be set down make their recital a difficult thing to achieve ;
  • but the greatest and most disconcerting obstacle of all consists in the fact that those who have recorded the deeds and myths of the earliest times are in disagreement among themselves.

For these reasons the writers of greatest reputation among the later historians have stood aloof from the narration of the ancient mythology because of its difficulty, and have undertaken to record only the more recent events.

(Book 4.1.1-4. Formatting and bolding is mine in all quotations)

So why does Diodorus admit to using mythical sources for his biographical account of Heracles?

Diodorus uses mythical material but at the same time he clearly distinguishes it from the rest of his historical narrative. Mythical sources might be all he has for Heracles but Diodorus relates them in a way that indicates he is critically removed from the content. The reader can see immediately Diodorus’s change in rhetoric and understand that what he or she is reading is something Diodorus is merely passing on “for what it’s worth”.

Footnote 50 is a brief citation that leads us to a passage in another work that I will quote in full here.

Diodorus maintains a careful narrative manner both in his accounts of the Greek gods in Book IV and more generally in the first six books as a whole: long passages are given in indirect discourse governed by ‘they say’, ‘it is said’, ‘the myth writers say’, and the like. Such a manner shows Diodorus to be maintaining a critical distance (like Herodotus’ manner in his Book II) from what he relates; and although he does not usually call into question the material that he narrates, he nevertheless shows himself aware of the different nature of this material by a different and distancing narrative style; no other section of the preserved portions of the Library reveals the same narrative manner.

(Marincola, 121)

But, as the passages noted above show, Diodorus realizes that myth cannot be approached in the same fashion as history, and that a degree of uncertainty needs to be accepted about mythical tales. Occasionally he reminds his readers of this: “in general the ancient myths do not give a simple and consistent account; therefore it is no wonder if we should come across some ancient accounts which do not agree among all the poets and historians” (. . . 4.44.5–6). Accordingly, Diodorus is very careful throughout the first five books, and presumably in the lost sixth book, to indicate what he considers to be mythical material. In the process he also grapples with the problem of where “history” begins and myth ends in a universal history. When he wants to mark off a narrative as mythical, he places it in indirect discourse and introduces it with a verb, frequently μυθολογεῖν without a subject.50 This is especially important in the first three books, which mix “mythical” narratives with the ethnography and legitimate early history of “barbarians.” For example, at 1.9.6, as he begins the account of the Egyptian gods, he justifies his decision to start with Egypt on the grounds that “the genesis of the gods is said in myth to be in Egypt” (. . .  1.9.6). The Egyptian theogony that follows is then given in indirect discourse through chapter 29. In contrast, the historical narrative of the Egyptian kings (1.45–68) is given primarily in direct discourse.

(Muntz, 105-106)

To illustrate:

The beginning of the account based on mythical accounts (1.9 ff)

9. And since Egypt is the country where mythology places the origin of the gods, where the earliest observations of the stars are said to have been made, and where, furthermore, many noteworthy deeds of great men are recorded, we shall begin our history with the events connected with Egypt.

10. Now the Egyptians have an account like this: When in the beginning the universe came into being, men first came into existence in Egypt . . .

11. Now the men of Egypt, they say, when ages ago they came into existence, as they looked up at the firmament and were struck with both awe and wonder at the nature of the universe, conceived that two gods were both eternal and first, namely, the sun and the moon, whom they called respectively Osiris and Isis,” . . .

12 . . . And they say that the most renowned of the Greek poets1 also agrees with this . . .

13. And besides these there are other gods, they say, who were terrestrial, . . .

14. Osiris was the first, they record, to make man-kind give up cannibalism . . .

Similarly for the history in Book 4 of Heracles:

9. This, then, is the story as it has been given us . . . .

Compare the beginning of the historical narrative (1.45, 68)

After the gods the first king of Egypt, according to the priests [i.e. a specific source], was Menas, who taught the people to worship gods and offer sacrifices, and also to supply themselves with tables and couches and to use costly bedding, and, in a word, introduced luxury and an extravagant manner of life. . . .

Four generations after Psammetichus, Apries was king for twenty-two years. He made a campaign with strong land and sea forces against Cyprus and Phoenicia, took Sidon by storm, and so terrified the other cities of Phoenicia that he secured their submission . . .

-o-

Dionysius of Halicarnassus

Dionysius of Halicarnassus (another first century BCE historian) also spoke of “mythical” accounts in the context of history. After listing various lawgivers who claimed to have received their laws from gods Dionysius informs readers that he will not set out the details of such “mythical histories” (translated in Loeb 2.61.3 as “legendary histories”, but the Greek is μυθικών ιστορημάτων.)

Again, we might, therefore, assume that Dionysius, like Diodorus above, blended myth and history into a new whole, but again that would be a facile conclusion. Here is how Dionysius presents his accounts of Heracles from mostly mythical sources:

Hercules killing the fire-breathing Cacus, engraving by Sebald Beham (1545) – Wikipedia

Of the stories told concerning this god some are largely legend and some are nearer the truth.

The legendary account of his arrival [ό μέν οΰν μυθικός περί της παρουσίας αυτού λόγος] is as follows:

Hercules, being commanded by Eurystheus, among other labours, to drive Geryon’s cattle from Erytheia to Argos, performed the task, and having passed through many parts of Italy on his way home, came also to the neighbourhood of Pallantium in the country of the Aborigines; and there, finding much excellent grass for his cattle, he let them graze, and being overcome with weariness, lay down and gave himself over to sleep. Thereupon a robber of that region, named Cacus, chanced to come upon the cattle feeding with none to guard them and longed to possess them. But seeing Hercules lying there asleep, he imagined he could not drive them all away without being discovered and at the same time he perceived that the task was no easy one, either.

So he secreted a few of them in the cave hard by, in which he lived, dragging each of them thither by the tail backwards. This might have destroyed all evidence of his theft, as the direction in which the oxen had gone would be at variance with their tracks. Hercules, then, arising from sleep soon afterwards . . .  was puzzled to know how he should act in the matter, he hit upon the expedient of driving the rest of the cattle to the cave. . . . Cacus, therefore, when his thievery was thus brought to light, put himself upon his defence and began to call out to his fellow herdsmen. But Hercules killed him by smiting him with his club and drove out the cattle ; and when he saw that the place was well adapted to the harbouring of evil-doers, he demolished the cave, burying the robber under its ruins. . . .

Dionysius does not believe the story he wrote, entertaining though it may have been, and continues with a more prosaic account, a rationalization of the myth, if you like:

XLI. But the story which comes nearer to the truth and which has been adopted by many who have narrated his deeds in the form of history is as follows :

Hercules, who was the greatest commander of his age, marched at the head of a large force through all the country that lies on this side of the Ocean, destroying any despotisms that were grievous and oppressive to their subjects, or commonwealths that outraged and injured the neighbouring states, or organized bands of men who lived in the manner of savages and lawlessly put strangers to death, and in their room establishing lawful monarchies, well-ordered governments and humane and sociable inodes of life. Furthermore, he mingled barbarians with Greeks, and inhabitants of the inland with dwellers on the sea coast, groups which hitherto had been distrustful and unsocial in their dealings with each other; he also built cities in desert places, turned the course of rivers that overflowed the fields, cut roads through inaccessible mountains, and contrived other means by which every land and sea might lie open to the use of all mankind. And he came into Italy not alone nor yet bringing a herd of cattle (for neither does this country lie on the road of those returning from Spain to Argos nor would he have been deemed worthy of so great honour merely for passing through it), but at the head of a great army, after he had already conquered Spain, in order to subjugate and rule the people in this region ; and he was obliged to tarry there a considerable time both because of the absence of his fleet, due to stormy weather . . . .

XLII. . . . Among those who were conquered in battle, they say, was Cacus, who is celebrated in the Roman legend, an exceedingly barbarous chieftain reigning over a savage people, who had set himself to oppose Hercules . . . .

(Book 1, 39-42)

Far-fetched stories are told for entertainment but after the laughs, the serious information is given and the fantastical nonsense is purged.

-o-

Strabo and Theopompus

Strabo, a geographer, straddled BCE and CE and deplored “historians” who did not make the difference between history and myth clear in their prose works.

Those scholars who invent the explanation that the Erembians are some particular Ethiopian tribe, or, again, a tribe of Cephenians, or thirdly, a tribe of Pygmies—or a host of other tribes—are less deserving of credence, since in addition to the incredibility of their theories they betray a tendency to confound myth and history. . . . [T]here are some who transfer Ethiopia also to our Phoenicia, and who say that the adventure of Andromeda took place in Joppa, though the story is surely not told in ignorance of its local setting but rather in the guise of myth; and the same is true of the stories that Apollodorus cites from Hesiod and the other poets without even realising in what way he is comparing them with the stories in Homer. For he compares what Homer says about the Pontus and Egypt and charges him with ignorance, on the ground that, though he wanted to tell the truth, he did not do so, but in his ignorance stated as true what was not true. Yet no one could charge Hesiod with ignorance when he speaks of “men who are half-dog,” of “long-headed men” and of “Pygmies”; no more should one charge Homer with ignorance when he tells these mythical stories of his, one of which is that of these very Pygmies; nor Aleman when he tells about “web-footed men” ; nor Aeschylus when he speaks of “dog-headed men,” or of “men with eyes in their breasts,” or of “one-eyed men”; since, at all events, we do not pay much attention to prose writers, either, when they compose stories on many subjects in the guise of history, even if they do not expressly acknowledge that they are dealing in myths. For it is self-evident that they are weaving in myths intentionally, not through ignorance of the facts, but through an intentional invention of the impossible, to gratify the taste for the marvellous and the entertaining. . . But they give the impression of doing this through ignorance, because by preference and with an air of plausibility they tell such tales about the unfamiliar and the unknown. Theopompus expressly acknowledges the practice when he says that he intends to narrate myths too in his History . . . .

(1.2.35)

Theopompus was a fourth-century BCE historian whom Strabo commended for clearly distinguishing myth from history.

Theopompus (FGrHist 115 f 381) made his readers aware of the different nature of the μΰθοιµ he included by stating explicitly that they were myths and not passing them off as anything else.

(Marincola, 121)

-o-

Historians of the Hellenistic era generally avoided covering the mythical period — the tales of “long ago”, before written records were kept. The absence of written records was one of the markers of the “mythical age”. Strabo suggests that there were “hacks” in his day who wrote prose narratives in the guise of history but failed to sift the mythical from their discourses. The intent was solely to entertain. Strabo actually includes Herodotus among the guilty but we have seen that that is not a fair charge but presumably there were worse than Herodotus on the landscape. The tone of Strabo’s accusation, alongside what we see in the works of other historians such as those we have surveyed here, tells us that those “hack” myth-histories were for the less sophisticated audiences.

There are more historians and mythographers to cover in one more post before we resume the reviews of Litwa’s book.


Marincola, John. 1997. Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography. Cambridge University Press.

Muntz, Charles Edward. 2017. Diodorus Siculus and the World of the Late Roman Republic. Oxford University Press.

Dionysius, of Halicarnassus. 1937. Roman Antiquities, Volume I: Books 1-2. Translated by Earnest Cary. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Siculus, Diodorus. 1933. Diodorus Siculus: Library of History, Volume I, Books 1-2.34. Translated by C. H. Oldfather. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

———. 1935. Diodorus Siculus: Library of History, Volume II, Books 2.35-4.58. Translated by C. H. Oldfather. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Strabo. 1989. The Geography in Eight Volumes. 1 [Books I-II]. Translated by Horace Leonard Jones. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass; London: Harvard University Press.


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Neil Godfrey

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3 Comments

  • 2019-11-05 12:35:51 GMT+0000 - 12:35 | Permalink

    Diodorus is an interesting case, because he operated somewhat like Bart Ehrman and many modern Biblical scholars. He tried to get to the “truth” by pruning away elements of myths that seemed unbelievable, yet still accepted the general basis of the myths. He essentially accepted that the myths held some underlying truth, he then invented his own new narrative in a way that was “more believable”, but he was himself really just inventing history.

    But what these works also show is the degree to which myth was believed as history. These writers were trying to sort it out, but their act of doing so testifies to the fact that this was an existing problem to be sorted out. Likewise, we know that not everyone held to their schools of thought.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-11-06 01:07:05 GMT+0000 - 01:07 | Permalink

      A number of ancient authors held the same assumptions some moderns hold: if there is a story being told then it must have had some basis. (Where else would it have come from?) If the story is outlandish in its details then it has been exaggerated, embellished, over time, but one can assume a “historical core” beneath it all. The methods and assumptions of some modern theologians and biblical scholars have a very ancient heritage. Not only theologians, though. Others assume that there must be some historical core to the myth of Atlantis, for instance.

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