14

In Greek mythology, there are all kinds of historical stories. Fire from Mount Olympus, founding of Thebes, not to mention actions of the gods.

First, is it safe to assume that there was a time in history when Greeks tended to believe Greek mythology as historical fact?

Second, if so, when did the overwhelming majority of Greek historians realize that it was not true?

20

By definition, a historian is a scientist. Herodotus is generally considered the "father of history" and he distinguishes myths from historical facts, or at least tries to. At least the gods to not interfere in his history directly (except by pronouncements of the oracles which in his and in the later Greek accounts are always relevant, but this is not related to the myths). Homer is not considered a historian, of course, and was not considered one by the Greeks.

So the short answer is that Greek historians always distinguished myths from historical facts.

  • 6
    +1. It is only really modern people who get the two mixed up. Ancients all knew the important part of a story was the lessons behind it. The concept of recording past events in a dispassionate logical factual way is relatively new (and really not even conceivable without writing) – T.E.D. Mar 31 '16 at 13:12
  • 5
    I am afraid that is this far too simplistic. I will not downvote but as it stands this answer is rather misleading. – Felix Goldberg Mar 31 '16 at 15:32
  • 3
    @Felix Goldberg I have read it and I can say that Homer carefully keeps people and gods separate from each other. In many cases it is transparent that "gods" are used as a metaphor. For instance, in the beginning it is said that Appollon attacked Greeks with his arrows, but immediately it is evident that an epidemic of a desease is meant. In another case Achilles is stopped by Athena when he wanted to kill Priam at a council. But Homer says she was visible and heard only by Achilles, so it is again a metaphor for self-constraining. – Anixx Mar 31 '16 at 15:41
  • 3
    This has ceased to be a discussion of historical sources and methods. – Mark C. Wallace Mar 31 '16 at 16:44
  • 5
    Although this answer has been warmly received, I agree with @FelixGoldberg. Firstly, I don't see how calling historians scientists helps anything. Many Western historians until recently believed the Bible to be true, and many religious historians still believe, for example, that the Jews were slaves in Egypt based upon Biblical mythology. So this doesn't convince me all Greeks were able to sort myth from fact. I know the rise of Christianity all but ended Greek religion, but can you tell me with expanded support that in the year 1 CE nothing from Greek mythology was commonly believed? – A L Mar 31 '16 at 20:44
7

To speak to the first question: we are usually led a bit astray by the term "myth," by which we tend to mean a story somewhat akin to a fable that is (to us) obviously not true. To the Greeks, "myth" just mean "story" or "plot." Their religion was in part made up of a lot of stories, but so is every religion. That doesn't mean they didn't believe them or that they didn't have a flexible understanding of their literal vs. figurative truth (i.e. you don't have to believe everything in Bible to believe in God, etc.). Generally, Greeks were fairly religious well into Roman rule.

Also, a fifth century Greek's understanding of the concept "history" is hard to pin down. While someone like Herodotus (and especially Thucydides) tried hard to distinguish fact from fiction, they didn't really engage in some of the central methodological practices that we do (periodization, scrutiny of sources, primary sources), so although we can talk about ancient historians as historians, it is useful to keep in mind that "history" had much different connotations to them than it does to us.

For example, it would be fine back then to say "The Trojan War definitely happened, although I have no evidence, and it happened some time a long time ago."

I also want to second @Gracie K's point: till recently, it was standard to incorporate the bible into historical works. And still, there are plenty of popular history writers who take religious content as fact.

  • I am more inclined to accept this answer, but first, I think it needs better sources and more detail. I do think the Wikipedia article on Greek Mythology is a good place to start. Also, I am asking about Greek historians and when did they all reject the myth as history more than I am asking if some Greek people were Homer literalists. Prior to Hellenization, say, it seems myth as fact was institutionalized, and afterwards it wasn't as universal. Under Christianity and even until recently it was illegal, and I would even want to know if there are any modern Greek cult holdouts who believe it. – A L Apr 1 '16 at 23:49
2

Yes they did. There are specific instances of historians or philosophers being ostracized for criticizing not even the existence of the gods, but just the powers of the gods. An example illustrating their literal belief is that when Tiberius found out that the god Pan had "died", he had an investigation launched as to the cause of his death. Christians understand this to be the allegorical death of paganism since Pan was known as the most "sinful" god (our depiction of the devil derives its image from Pan), but Greeks at the time believed him to have physically died.

Pan is dead though and it need not matter beyond personal intrigue whether the ancient Greeks believed in the literal gods; for the educated are now Christian.

According to the Greek historian Plutarch (in De defectu oraculorum, "The Obsolescence of Oracles"),[29] Pan is the only Greek god (other than Asclepius) who actually dies. During the reign of Tiberius (A.D. 14–37), the news of Pan's death came to one Thamus, a sailor on his way to Italy by way of the island of Paxi. A divine voice hailed him across the salt water, "Thamus, are you there? When you reach Palodes,[30] take care to proclaim that the great god Pan is dead." Which Thamus did, and the news was greeted from shore with groans and laments.

  • "for the educated are now Christian" Really? Where I live the educated are atheist, or at least agnostic. – RedSonja Feb 19 '18 at 11:19
  • Like Ben Shapiro and Jordan B. Peterson? I think you are self-selecting for atheistic and agnostic colleagues. – Pieter Geerkens Feb 20 '18 at 12:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.