Mainstream Theory of Myth

Categories: Ancient Learning > Myth & Poetry > Theory of Myth

1 Introduction: Myths and Tradition

It is often thought that the surface meaning of Greek myths represented the “traditional religion” of ancient Greek societies, whereas “the educated” or “the elite” stood above such irrational beliefs, either rejecting myths or radically reinterpreting them. Evidence for such acute polarization, however, is rather slim. As will be shown here, the mainstream Greco-Roman approach to mythical narratives – the one taught at ordinary grammar schools – was essentially in line with Stoic philosophy. A “traditional” education, in other words, was suffused with philosophy, just as philosophy itself became traditional. If there was ever a direct clash between tradition and philosophy (as can be argued for classical Athens), then the conflict ended peacefully, without either side suffering great loss. No one ever made good on Plato’s threat to ban Homer from children’s education; instead, they included the philosopher alongside the poet in school curricula.

Of course things might look different if, in the spirit of 19th-century Romanticism, we wished to locate the beating heart of tradition in the uneducated majority rather than the educated classes. But there is naturally little surviving data on what illiterate people believed, and, to the contrary, abundant testimony that the creation and curation of myths lay in the hands of educated men and women: poets, teachers, priests, politicians, and so on. And are we to believe that the masses swallowed the myths of those who held power in their hamlets, cities and empires, but never got wise to the fact that their peddlars used the word “myth” to mean a monstrous and impossible tale? It is more plausible to think that all, learned or not, were liable to credit those narratives that held some powerful meaning to them, while looking on others with detachment or disbelief. The advice that Pliny the Younger gave the governor-designate of Achaia (in a letter dripping with the ideology of Roman imperialism) would have held true for any visitor abroad: “You ought to have respect for their antiquity, the achievements of their history (ingentia facta), and even their myths” (Epistles 8.24.3).

2 Poetic Licence: Between Mythical and Physical Discourse

But let us leave aside these bigger-picture questions about the place of myth in society. Here, I will concern myself only with the grammarians, who, as the class of scholars with the widest cultural reach, have the strongest claim to represent something like a mainstream of myth interpretation. A crucial element of their success (it seems to me, at any rate) was the welding of what moderns wrongly believe to be two opposed approaches to myth: “traditional” concern with the surface meaning of mythology and “intellectual” rationalization. In the terminology of the ancient grammarians, these would be the “poetic” or “mythical” (Latin “fabulous”) and the “physical” (Latin “natural”) way of speaking, mythologia and physiologia, respectively. Although the former was the special province of poets, and the physical – that is, discourse about the true nature (physis) of things – more properly belonged to the philosophers, poetic licence permitted the use of both to the poets, and consequently to their interpreters, the grammarians. Crucially (as we will see), not just both in turn, but also both at once.

In its driest sense, ‘poetic licence’ or ‘freedom’ (gr. poiētikē exousia or adeia, lat. licentia poetica) means simply the use of non-standard grammar – anything a student should avoid in prose compositions, to put it bluntly. This is the usual meaning of the phrase in works of technical grammar (i.e., grammar in the modern sense) or rhetoric, like Julius Victor’s Ars rhetorica: “Firstly, we must take care that we do not use a word that is not in use, too bold a metaphor, obsolete by its antiquity, or derived from poetic licence” (cf. Quintilian 4.1.59).

In a broader sense, poetic licence could also refer to the sanction that poets had to use mythical discourse (mythologia), as opposed to provable truths such as would be expected from a historian. The contrast is clearly expressed by the Latin orator Mamertinus: “Now this is not a myth, derived from the licence of poets or the report (fama) of ancient epochs, but a manifest and proven fact (manifesta res et probata)” (Panegyric to Maximinian and Diocletian 1.3).

This freedom blends into another, that of original invention, as in Vergil’s description of the harbor of early African Carthage: “This is topothesia, that is, (the description of) a place invented (fictus) according to poetic licence. But in order that he would not seem to diverge much from the truth, he described the harbor of Spanish Carthage. It is an acknowledged fact (constat) that this place exists nowhere in Africa, but he used it, not inappropriately, because of the likeness of their name. By contrast, the description of (a place according to) the truth (res vera) is topographia” (Servius on Aeneid 1.159; cf. Servius auctus on Aeneid 3.349).

This freedom of invention was, as the last quote indicates, circumscribed by some sense of plausibility, and the more fantastical the invention was, the more it required justification. As Servius writes concerning another passage: “Although this is a poetic invention (figmentum), yet, because it is without precedent (exemplum), the critics find fault with it; this is why (Vergil) excuses it with a long preface, and says that it happened through the ancient manner of worship and by the beneficence of Jupiter that the ships (of Aeneas) were transformed into Nymphs – so that, on this account, or in some respect, it may be verisimilar” (Servius on the Aeneid 9.81).

The more interesting examples, in any case, do not involve pure inventions, but mythical fictions which indirectly express some truth. Such, for instances, is the judgment of an ancient commentator on Aratus’ myth of Justice (Dikē), who is said to have lived among mortals once, but was later received among the stars as the constellation Virgo. Our anonymous grammarian writes: “All who actually refer this to Virgo speak nonsense. The whole (account) was invented (pepoiētai) by the poet using poetic symbolic (ainigmatōdēs) licence, representing Justice as imperishable, haven forsaken the cosmos around the Earth because of the increase of wickedness, and occupying heaven instead. Just as Hesiod said somewhere (Works and Days 197) regarding Shame (Aidōs) and Reproach (Nemesis): ‘At that time (they passed) from the Earth towards Olympus’, and so on, in order to turn people back towards justice by his use of criticism” (Ancient Scholia on Aratus, Phaenomena 96).

1.227.1 nunc secundum Stoicos loquitur, qui deos dicunt humana curare, interdum secundum Epicureos, poetica utens licentia.

1.243 at illvm svb pedibvs styx atra videt m. q. p. axem: notion, id est australem, qui a nobis numquam videtur, sicut bo- rios, id est septentrionalis, semper videtur. et sicut variae philo- sophorum opiniones sunt, ita et hic varie loquitur: nam alii dicunt a nobis abscedentem solem ire ad antipodas, alii negant et volunt 5 illic tenebras esse perpetuas. mire autem ait quasi de inferis ‚Styx atra videt manesque profundi‘, ut ostenderet illud quod di- cunt philosophi, recedentes hinc animas illic alia corpora sortiri: unde et Lucanus ait „regit idem spiritus artus orbe alio“: quod verisimile est, quia dicuntur animae aut igni aut vento 10 aut aqua purgari, quod ut fiat necesse est, dum aut per frigidas plagas aut igneam transeunt. et licet alii hoc a Vergilio dictum per poeticam licentiam velint, tamen sciendum est, eum poeticae licentiae inseruisse philosophiam.

6.266 sit mihi fas avdita loqvi: de alta dicturus prudentia miscet poeticam licentiam.

Hyginus: … Atque ea quae Hyginus fabulose tradita de originibus apium non intermisit, poeticae magis licentiae quam nostrae fidei concesserim. …

! fertvr dicitur. et ingenti arte Vergilius, ne in rebus 1.15.1 fabulosis aperte utatur poetarum licentia, quasi opinionem sequitur et per transitum poetico utitur more.

1.142: sub poetica licentia physicam quoque tangit rationem. mare enim dicitur esse Neptunus, quem superius dixit graviter commotum, quia tempestas erat. nunc ait ‚placat‘, quia iam sedari coeperant maria.

6.295: tar- tarei acherontis Acheronta vult quasi de imo nasci Tartaro, huius aestuaria Stygem creare, de Styge autem nasci Cocyton. et 5 haec est mythologia: nam physiologia hoc habet, quia qui caret gaudio sine dubio tristis est. tristitia autem vicina luctui est, qui procreatur ex morte: unde haec esse apud inferos dicit.


historical: Aristarchos

the paradigm of the grammarians: mythical vs. natural

Be that as it may, a fairly clear picture emerges when it comes to the grammarians, those scholars who taught and explained the poets, both in schools and in books, which ranged from simplistic summaries of the myths to subtle commentaries on the most difficult poems. For these exegetes and commentators, there was, on the one hand, the “poetic” or “mythical” (“fabulous” in Latin) layer of discourse, in which monsters and bizarre occurrences abounded, and gods looked, behaved and procreated rather like human beings, suffering many of the indignities of our species. In myth, truth hardly mattered, but the authority of tradition weighed heavily. On the other hand, there was a “physical” or “physiological” mode or speech, which belonged primarily to the philosophers, but was also present to some degree in the poets; in this, things were described as they truly were by nature, either directly or through the use of symbols (ainigmata). In Latin, this latter discursive mode was called the “natural”, although the Greek terms were also used.

Now, it is important to understand that the grammarians – as well as the poets of the Hellenistic and Roman imperial period, who all studied under grammarians – did not see the physical and the mythical as two worked out, fully coherent systems. That is to say, firstly, they did not use that monolithic moniker, “Greek mythology”, but knew that on virtually any given point, such as the parentage of Cupid, there were divergent traditions to be found in different authorities. (Or else, no satisfying tradition at all, which would push commentators to invent their own, invariably divergent, explanations.) The grammarians’ squabbling authorities sometimes reflected local or regional differences, at least originally. However, they were only tangible to the mainstream of Greco-Roman learning by being turned into writing and incorporated into libraries and influential compendia, which circulated across the empire(s). In other words, there was neither a single dominant form of mythology, nor simply many parallel streams of local tradition. Rather, what presents itself to us as readers of ancient literature is a single reservoir of pluralized traditions – like a lake, too large for one beholder to survey, fed by and feeding into various rivers and rivulets – cultivated by grammarians across the Greco-Roman world in a shared project.

The physical mode of discourse was likewise a thicket rather than a coherent system. In many cases, it consisted in referring a deity or other being to some element or principle in nature – Kronos to time (khronos), for instance. The myth of Kronos devouring his children could thus be interpreted as an allegory: the apparent meaning is of an anthropomorphic god swallowing his children, the deeper meaning is that time eventually destroys everything it brings forth. But there was no obligation on either poets or grammarians to keep the physical meaning of myths consistent with each other. If, for instance, Kronos is understood as time in one passage, and his wife Rhea as the Earth in another, this does not necessitate an explanation of how time and the Earth are like spouses. A single god can be interpreted as one thing at one moment, and as another somewhere else, or even given multiple interpretations at once.

All this is ascribed to poetic licence, which firstly allows the poet to tell myths, despite their falseness, and to invent their own myths or new details in retelling an old one. A historian, by contrast, has to be sparing in their use of myths, disavow belief, and appeal to the sanction of tradition or custom as justification. Further, unlike philosophers, who subordinate myths to philosophical truth, a poet can freely mix passages of allegory and sections of purely mythical discourse. What is more, they can reflect Epicurean doctrine here and a contrary Stoic teaching there, and far from being regarded as inconsistent, they show themselves as especially learned in this way.


The dichotomy of physiologia and mythologia just outlined … history as a more positive term, history vs. myth, history as umbrella, what else?

do all this with more sources!!!

-examples of myth-only (sanctioned by implicit presence of physical)
-neutral passages/presence of history; historia as general term (including myth, but perhaps even physicon); Servius?
-triple system (Varro and the other guy; Augustine; Aetius; Eusebius)

-allegory, metonymy, Heraclitus vs. Cornutus vs. Seneca etc. What is the term (or terms) Porphyry used?

per inuentorem dominantemue inuentum subiectumue sic, «sine Cerere et Libero friget Venus»; uult enim per Cererem panem intellegi, per Liberum uinum, per Venerem concubitum: per inuentum subiectumue inuentorem dominantemue <sic>, «uinum precamur. nam hic deus praesens adest»

more sources for metonymy?

aenigma as ‚allegoria difficilis‘. subtypes of allegoria

Servius on Neptune

spelvncisqve lacvs clavsos l. s. i. ‚mirans‘ per omnia 4.363.1 subaudimus. lacus autem dicit fontium et fluviorum receptacula. haec autem non sunt per poeticam licentiam dicta, sed ex Aegyptiis tracta sunt sacris: {⁴³nam certis diebus, in sacris}⁴³ Nili, pueri de sacris parentibus nati a sacerdotibus nymphis dabantur. qui cum adole- 5 vissent, redditi narrabant lucos esse sub terris et inmensam aquam omnia continentem, ex qua cuncta procreantur: unde est illud se- cundum Thaleta „Oceanumque patrem rerum“.

stress how this mode survived into the latest periods

how do myth & physical relate? mutually constitutive

gaps of the mythical/physical dichotomy

more on poetic licence

In this case, the myth of Kronos devouring his children could be described as an allegory, with the mythical apparent meaning obliquely referering to a natural underlying meaning, i.e., that everything which arises in time is also destroyed in time. But allegory is not always the appropriate term.

When a poet refers to the sea by the name of Amphitrite (Poseidon’s wife), however, this is metonymy:

per inuentorem dominantemue inuentum subiectumue sic, «sine Cerere et Libero friget Venus»; uult enim per Cererem panem intellegi, per Liberum uinum, per Venerem concubitum: per inuentum subiectumue inuentorem dominantemue <sic>, «uinum precamur. nam hic deus praesens adest»

Servius; Aratus scholia; Varro/Augustine & Eusebius, Aetius

Plutarch, Fragmenta 157; Scholia on Pindar P. 3.177b.11

Also: historia as umbrella of myth (Sextus etc.)

Achilles Isagoga

Commentaria in Dionysii Thracis Artem Grammaticam, Scholia Londinensia p. 449: theory of poetry (!)

Varro and parallels (Placita; Strabo 1.2.8, 10.3.23; Themistius In de anima v. 5/3 p. 23,31: political; Eusebius; Stob.; Lydus and the Latin grammarians)

? Simplicius on Epictetus p.24, line 36 etc

Scholia on Euripides

Heraclitus the Younger