2020-01-14

Greek Gods and Heroes with Multiple Historical Eyewitnesses

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by Neil Godfrey

One response (though tongue-in-cheek) to the previous post about Greek gods and heroes appearing and acting in historical times should be addressed:

Oh sure but were there 500 anonymous witnesses?

At least one of the epiphanies in that post had (presumably) hundreds of eyewitnesses — the appearance of Apollo and his sisters Artemis and Athena routing the Gauls. Surely scores witnessed Vespasian’s miracles, too. But let’s look at some more.

First, however, here is an account that in some ways reminds me of the Book of Acts version of Paul being the sole witness to a god who blinded him. This is written “only” about 45 years after the event.

In the battle at Marathon about six thousand four hundred men of the foreigners were killed, and one hundred and ninety-two Athenians; that many fell on each side. The following marvel happened there: an Athenian, Epizelus son of Couphagoras, was fighting as a brave man in the battle when he was deprived of his sight, though struck or hit nowhere on his body, and from that time on he spent the rest of his life in blindness. I have heard that he tells this story about his misfortune: he saw opposing him a tall armed man, whose beard overshadowed his shield, but the phantom passed him by and killed the man next to him. I learned by inquiry that this is the story Epizelus tells. (Herodotus, Histories 6:117)

Battle of Salamis by artist Wilhelm von Kaulbach – Wikipedia

The next one had a whole army of witnesses and belongs to a battle (Salamis) only 35 years before Herodotus wrote about it.

Then the Hellenes set sail with all their ships, and as they were putting out to sea the barbarians immediately attacked them. The rest of the Hellenes began to back water and tried to beach their ships, but Ameinias of Pallene, an Athenian, charged and rammed a ship. When his ship became entangled and the crew could not free it, the others came to help Ameinias and joined battle. The Athenians say that the fighting at sea began this way, but the Aeginetans say that the ship which had been sent to Aegina after the sons of Aeacus was the one that started it. The story is also told that the phantom of a woman appeared to them, who cried commands loud enough for all the Hellenic fleet to hear, reproaching them first with, “Men possessed, how long will you still be backing water?” (Herodotus, Histories 8:84)

Or per Aubrey De Sélincourt’s translation:

There is also a popular belief that the phantom shape of a woman appeared and, in a voice which could be heard by every man in the fleet, contemptuously asked if they proposed to go astern all day, and then cheered them on to the fight.

Plutarch records the tradition that the hero Theseus personally turned up at the Battle of Marathon, a fact testified by many witnesses:

But in succeeding ages, beside several other circumstances that moved the Athenians to honor Theseus as a demigod, in the battle which was fought at Marathon against the Medes, many of the soldiers believed they saw an apparition of Theseus in arms, rushing on at the head of them against the barbarians. (Life of Theseus, 35:5)

Battle of Marathon, Georges Rochegrosse, 1859. Wikipedia

Pausanias documents more miraculous events at Marathon — and with masses of eyewitnesses!

They say too that there chanced to be present in the battle a man of rustic appearance and dress. Having slaughtered many of the foreigners with a plough he was seen no more after the engagement. When the Athenians made enquiries at the oracle the god merely ordered them to honor Echetlaeus (He of the Plough-tail) as a hero (Pausanias, 1.32.5)

Pausanias adds another hero’s appearance at the naval battle of Salamis:

In Salamis is a sanctuary of Artemis, and also a trophy erected in honor of the victory which Themistocles the son of Neocles won for the Greeks. There is also a sanctuary of Cychreus. When the Athenians were fighting the Persians at sea, a serpent is said to have appeared in the fleet, and the god in an oracle told the Athenians that it was Cychreus the hero. (Pausanias, 1.36.1)

Around 365 BCE during the Peloponnesian War when Arcadians invaded Elis, Pausanias informs us of another divine miracle before two entire armies:

The story is that when the Arcadians had invaded the land of Elis, and the Eleans were set in array against them, a woman came to the Elean generals, holding a baby to her breast, who said that she was the mother of the child but that she gave him, because of dreams, to fight for the Eleans. The Elean officers believed that the woman was to be trusted, and placed the child before the army naked.

When the Arcadians came on, the child turned at once into a snake. Thrown into disorder at the sight, the Arcadians turned and fled, and were attacked by the Eleans, who won a very famous victory, and so call the god Sosipolis. On the spot where after the battle the snake seemed to them to go into the ground they made the sanctuary. With him the Eleans resolved to worship Eileithyia also, because this goddess to help them brought her son forth unto men. 

The tomb of the Arcadians who were killed in the battle is on the hill across the Cladeus to the west. Near to the sanctuary of Eileithyia are the remains of the sanctuary of Heavenly Aphrodite, and there too they sacrifice upon the altars.” (Pausanias, 6.20.4-6)

Keep in mind . . . .

None of the above is a story relating far-off events in some remote “heroic age” when gods and heroes walked the earth fighting giants and monsters. They are all said to have happened in historical time and often to be supported by multiple eyewitnesses.

In the case of god Asclepius (see the previous post) we even have a personal eyewitness account by Isyllus. He writes of a personal encounter with the god when he was a boy. It was not a dream. It was an event that took place in the daytime. Asclepius was not some ethereal ghost, either, but in full battle armour and engaging in conversation.

How did the stories arise? 

Fritz Graf proposes one theory to explain how such miraculous events were believed to have happened in historical times. We begin with that story told in the last blogpost about the Gauls being sent in chaotic retreat by the god Apollo and his sisters Artemis and Athena.

Another historical epiphany concerned Delphi. When, in the winter of 279 B.C.E., a band of Gauls attacked the sanctuary with the clear intent of plundering it, the Delphians and their allies succeeded in defeating and driving them away. The defenders were greatly helped by a devastating snowstorm. The event is recorded in several inscriptions in which Greek cities accepted the summons of Delphi to a newly founded festival to commemorate the victory, the Soteria, and in several literary texts of later date. The oldest inscription is from Cos, and is almost contemporaneous to the event. The Coan inscription simply mentions that “the attackers were severely punished by the god,” and that the festival was announced “because of the epiphany.” Whatever happened (it might not have been more than a rather unexpected victory helped by a snow-storm), it was read as the result of divine intervention: the god, again, protected his sanctuary.

Some thirty years after the event, an inscription in which the Smymaeans react to the invitation replaces the “epiphany of the god” by “the epiphany of the gods.” It mentions sacrifices to Apollo alone because he had given the victory—but by now Apollo was no longer alone in defending his sanctuary. This could mean that the event had been embellished by eyewitness reports rather early and that its interpretation was supplemented by later elaborations that introduced several gods, whoever they were.

The later literary reports give more details. Pausanias tells how Apollo sent thunder and lightning; the god thus again manifested himself in meteorological phenomena. But Pausanias also narrates, in two similar accounts, the intervention of four apparitions (φάσματα), four local heroes who had their graves in the sanctuary, Pyrrhus, Hyperochus, Laodicus and Phylacus. He gives no witnesses who might have seen them; we have to assume that everybody did. Other authors were even more elaborate: Cicero and his younger contemporary Diodorus of Sicily heard about the intervention of “White Maidens.” Cicero makes it clear that he, rationalist that he is, understands this as a poetical or mythical allegory of the snowstorm. Pompeius Trogus goes even further than this: in the fray of the battle, the priests and prophets suddenly came forward, and announced that they saw the god jump into his temple through the open gable as a most beautiful young man, who was joined by two armed virgins emerging from the sanctuaries of Minerva (Athena) and Diana (Artemis) respectively. When the defenders took heart and attacked, they felt the praesentia (“the helping presence”) of the god through an earthquake, hail and a snowstorm.

Here, in this clearly fictitious account, the epiphany seen by several persons is followed by a natural sign that confirmed the correctness of the vision—provided that the viewers were already conditioned to read it that way, which they were by the first epiphanies.

(Graf, 121)

That “almost contemporaneous” inscription speaks of a festival (presumably a ritual celebration as a memorial of the event) that already opens up the imagination to seeing literally the god/s present in the battle and engineering the events: “because of the epiphany”. Over the ensuing thirty years, a single generation, we have the details being enriched.

But what does Graf have to say about that personal eyewitness encounter Isyllus had with Asclepius?

Perhaps the most impressive one is the report by Isyllus of Epidauros. In the later fourth century B.C.E., this otherwise unknown Greek dedicated a long and complex inscription to Asclepius in his Epidaurian sanctuary, with a paean composed by himself. He narrates how as a sick boy he had come to the sanctuary in order to obtain healing. The god, however, was busy (it was the time when Philip II attacked the Greeks), but he was gracious enough to explain to the boy what happened. On his way to the sanctuary, the boy met with the god in flashing golden armor. The god explained that he was on his way to Sparta to help the Greeks fight the Macedonians; the boy should just wait in the sanctuary until the god would be back for his cure. Instead of waiting, the boy himself rushed to Sparta and told the Spartans that Asclepius was out to save them. After they were saved, they instituted the festival of Asclepius Soter. The story reads like yet another Epidaurian miracle story, this time confirmed by a Spartan state festival. But whatever the realities, Isyllus remembered a personal epiphany of Asclepius in bodily form, the same form the patients must have been seeing in their dreams in the incubation hall. Only that this epiphany occurred during daytime: Isyllus was on his way and fully awake.Even if we should doubt the reality of this epiphany, more on grounds of cultural preconceptions that of any sound philological or historical argument, neither Isyllus nor his contemporaries did do so.

I think there is a sound historical argument to doubt the story but that’s another discussion. Graf’s point stands. How else is one to explain the origins of the Spartan festival in honour of Asclepius fulfilling his promise to the boy to save their city? It was the boy who disobeyed Asclepius’s command to wait and instead ran off to tell the Spartans that it was Asclepius who was about to save them.

Graf adds,

The epigraphical record thus more or less faithfully repeats the pattern we met in Herodotus. Inscriptions that talk about recent events record no collective epiphanies in the modem sense, they record phenomena, mainly natural, that contemporaries read as divine interventions. After a certain time, however, collective epiphanies of the gods in bodily form were invented. After so many years, no eyewitnesses could contradict the story. Epiphanies revealed to an individual are by their very nature verified only by this individual’s word; we have no better means than Herodotus had to judge their authenticity. 

“After a certain time”, we saw, means that within 30 years a new story has been established, so the collective epiphanies were being imagined well before 30 years afterwards. One has to ask, furthermore, how an “eyewitness” could have contradicted the story in the meantime. “I was there, I didn’t see the god, but …. maybe I did, now I think about it….”, or “Hey, it was just a snowstorm,” to which his neighbours — if they don’t simply ignore him — reply in disgust that what they like to believe is not accepted by all, “Godless atheist!”

In future posts, perhaps as part of my Litwa reviews, I hope to discuss a classicist’s understanding of why and how it was “so easy” for ancients to believe in the reality of their ancient Greek gods and heroes, even to the point of believing they acted not only in historical times but even in “the present day”.


Bravo, Jorge. 2004. “Heroic Epiphanies: Narrative, Visual, and Cultic Contexts.” Illinois Classical Studies 29: 63–84.

Graf, Fritz. 2004. “Trick or Treat? On Collective Epiphanies in Antiquity.” Illinois Classical Studies 29: 111–30.


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Neil Godfrey

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