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Myth and Meaning



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Greek History and its Intersection with Myth and Literature
this illustrated lecture is one version of an introductory presentation I have honed over the years

In the classes we classicists teach, the ancient Greek world is not dead – we constantly celebrate its enduring spirit, which has seeped down through the ages in the literature and art that has shaped so much of our modern world. It strikes a reverence in us that approaches a kind of “religious” experience.

In the mind of an ancient Greek, history, literature, and mythology peacefully co-exist, no lines drawn between them. We tend to compartmentalize such things - but remember, even fifth century Greeks – cosmopolitan Athenians! - lived in a world where political leaders consulted religious oracles on matters of State, athletes competed at games dedicated to Olympian gods, and philosophers attracted cult followers. Going back even further in time, we’ll see how it is not so easy to distinguish myth from history, and who would want to? In fact, the Greeks, whose entire reality was closely connected to the natural world, cheerfully allowed the mythic and the real to intersect at will.

What is even cooler is that recent discoveries have allowed us to see that material evidence recently uncovered and conserved by archaeologists supports, clarifies and enlarges the world bequeathed two thousand years ago by their great literary history. Now we can do more than just walk through the same forests, swim in the same waters, climb the same mountains as did the ancient Greeks. Through the literature and the mythology of those Greeks we can hear the whispers and see the shadows of the very people we read about in their own haunts.

In this introductory lecture, originally called "Orestes' Trek" (but since expanded) we will travel the path from myth to history, from the Age of Heroes to the Historical Era, tracing the ubiquitous use of myth along the way, as we see it color our perception of significant ancient sites such as Mycenae, Athens, Delphi, and others. But we start our journey not on the mainland, but on Crete…

This red-figured amphora from 450 BC depicts Zeus' abduction of Europa. According to myth, they first made love in Gortyna under a plane tree which never lost its leaves thereafter. This sign in Gortyna, Crete proclaims this particular plane tree as THE sacred tree!  

Europa bears King Minos, ruler of Crete, who gives his name to the Minoan Age (coined by Arthur Evans as he excavated the ruins of Cnossos at the turn of the century). Here are some pictures of the reconstruction of the archaeological site of Cnossos: entryway, horns of consecration, queen's toilet, bull-jumping fresco...

This last image, a picture of girls and boys jumping over a bull as if in some sort of dangerous ritual, may have given rise to the story that a man-eating monster, half-bull/half-man called the Minotaur, lived in the bowels of the palace and was fed a steady diet of Athenian youths and maidens! The great King Theseus, before he became king, sailed to Crete and dispatched the creature, as this black-figure vase from the Louvre shows. There are many other myths associated with the island of Crete and the Palace of Knossos...  

The architect Zakharias Kanakis has made a wooden model of what the palace might have looked like, and indeed it looks like a labyrinth (can't publish it here but it is displayed in the Heraklion Museum in Crete). But the real architect of the original labyrinth was Daedalus, who escaped from the island of Crete with his son Icarus. He made wings for himself and the boy, but Icarus flew too close to the sun and his wings melted. He drowned.

When Theseus sailed from Crete (after killing the minotaur), he stopped off at Naxos, where he abandoned Ariadne (she in turn was picked up by Dionysos, who married her). Theseus "forgot" to exchange the black sails for white ones, as he promised to do to signal success to his father, who was waiting on Cape Sounion for news of his son. When King Aegeus saw the black sails, he assumed the worst. In grief, he plunged headlong from the cliff to his death into the sea that now bears his name. The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion is dated to 440s BC, same architect who built the Hephaesteum in Athens.

After the Heroic Age (Theseus) and before the Classical Age (Pericles) falls the Bronze Age of Greece (which roughly corresponds to the same time period as the end of the Minoan civilization on Crete).

Storied and well-preserved Bronze Age sites on the mainland include Tiryns, Pylos, and Mycenae.

Mycenae is the home of The House of Atreus, the cursed family that inspired so much fodder for the playwrights and (other) poets of ancient Greece. How does it fit in with our theme of the intersection of myth and literature and archaeology and history? First, the literary Agamemnon is specifically referred to as the King of nearby Argos, not Mycenae – Aeschylus is providing a mythic birth for the very real fifth century political alliance between Argos and Athens. But Mycenae is the archaeological site that corresponds to the mythic home of Agamemnon (as well as his father and son).

Mycenae: The Lion Gate is the oldest monumental sculpture in Europe (not in the world...just in Europe). We have always assumed that these are the same Mycenean lions known from over 600 other art works (perhaps their steatite heads, now missing, faced forward). Lion relief serves a structural purpose: it fills (and therefore masks) the triangular space created above the lintel in order to reduce the pressure of the tremendous weight of the stones. The forepaws of the figures rest on a row of blocks carved above a double plinth, which may represent altars. Their paws flank a single pillar, perhaps representing the propylon or entry room, symbol of the power they guard. Perhaps this was the heraldic symbol of the Royal House of Atreus. And note how the composition of the scene perfectly fits the space it is designed to occupy.

Grave Circle A: 6 shaft graves, which contained 19 bodies: 9 men, 8 women, 2 children. Five of these Royal Graves were discovered with their embalmed bodies and grave goods intact by Schliemann and their finds nearly fill the main gallery of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The "mask of Agamemnon" is so named because when the awed Schliemann found it he telegraphed to the King of Greece: "I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon." In fact, Schliemann had stumbled upon royal graves from a period even earlier than the Homeric Age he sought.

The stone ramp leading up to the megaron. The use of this part of the citadel dates back to Neolithic times (3000 BC); in 1350 BC the first walls of this citadel went up. By 1100 BC, it was all gone in the aftermath of the Dorian invasion. But at its heyday in the centuries surrounding the time of the Trojan War, Mycenae was the most powerful of Aegean citadels, giving its name to the entire Age and Culture. The megaron has a tripartite arrangement, in some ways reminiscent of Minoan palatial structures on Crete. The first two rooms serve as anterooms to the domos, or throne room. Here is a shot of the threshold block at the entry of the system of rooms constituting the royal quarters. Bronze fittings would have been set in the square holes hewn in the stone threshold.

The cistern has a corbelled rock entrance, path 18 meters deep; extension added in 1200 BC to protect water source

"Clytemnestra’s" tomb dates to about 1300 BC.

The Treasury of Atreus: also called Tomb of Agamemnon – dromos is 35 meters long, 6 meters wide -  tholos is 14.5 meters wide, 13 meters high – 33 concentric courses of corbelled rock – designed for natural camoflauge - One of the two lintel stones weighs 240,000 lbs and measures 8 x 5 x 1 meters – dated to 1350 BC.

Tiryns: birthplace of Heracles (note the Cyclopeian Walls). Homer Iliad 19: Zeus declared that a descendant of Perseus about to be born would rule over Mycenae and Tiryns, and Hera found a way to cause an outcome that didn’t involve yet another bastard son of Zeus’ from gaining power. Out of jealousy, she persuaded her daughter Elithyia to prevent Alcmene from giving birth to Heracles before Hera could contrive to hasten the premature birth of his cousin Eurystheus, also a descendant of Perseus.  LATER IN DELPHI – we’ll see how Heracles gets his name. He is a Panhellenic hero – will pop up everywhere

Pylos:  sandy Pylos (Homer) – Telemachus’ bath in Odyssey IV. HANDOUT

Back in Athens: 

The Theater of Dionysus: dates back to 6th century but the structure we see was designed between 342-326 BC, 64 tiers of seats, 17000 seating capacity.

Areopagus: site of first murder trial – of Ares, for killing a son of Poseidon for raping Ares’ daughter – fitting for the trial of Orestes the matricide, and the birth of democracy… Pausanias 1.21.7

Parthenon: Temple dedicated to Athena, patron goddess of the city. Elgin Marbles – 1816 - Elgin served as the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Court and systematically removed sculpture, architectural fragments and inscriptions from the Athenian acropolis while Athens was under Turkish rule.

Temple of Zeus at Olympia: Pausanias tells us Alkamenes was the artist  460s BC

Erechtheum: complicated site, temples/shrines built one on top of the other. wooden cult statue of Athena, sword of Mardonius (Battle of Plataea, 479 BC), a folding chair made by Daedalus, golden lamp of Kallimachus that needed new oil once a year, with a bronze palm-tree acting as a chimney...on the site of Athens’ Mycenean palace, built 421-406

Temple of Athena Nike: Nike Apteros The frieze of the Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis (built during the Peloponnesian War, 427-425) trumpets the Athenian victory at that very Battle of Plataea - it is most remarkable for the frieze of a Temple (especially one dedicated to Athena!) to relate a real - not mythological - battle. We are reminded that "Nike" means "Victory."

We leave Athens and go north...to Delphi.

When the world was first created, Zeus sent forth two eagles from far-flung corners of the earth in search of the center of the world, they met here, over Delphi. This omphalos, Greek for "belly-button," marks sacred Delphi as that center. The original omphalos sat in the adyton, or inner chamber of the Temple of Apollo. But before Apollo, the site was sacred only to the Earth mother-goddess Gaia. Then a great serpent laid waste to the land, and in the Hymn to Apollo, we learn how the god Apollo killed it in its den…here - where the gorge Arkoudorema divides the Phaedriades

The god established his cult here at Delphi and spoke through a priestess called the Pythia – the power of the sun (god) rotted away the carcass of the great serpent – the Greek word for “rot” is Puthein – thereby giving its name to both our Python and the Greeks’ Pythia.

Sacred City of Delphi - but the Sacred Way winds its way up the mountain in a series of serpentine turns, offering showcases at every turn for the votive offerings left behind by grateful city-states and island colonies. Delphi achieved the height of its fame during the 6th century BC, as Greece passed from the Archaic to the Classical Age. But stories from before and since abound: an old tale tells that Aesop met his death by being thrown from these very rocks, the punishment for mocking the gods.

Political nature of the site: The Sacred Way was once lined with tens of buildings called "Treasuries," literally "place where gold things are put," which housed the valuable and beautiful votive offerings provided by individual city-states and colonies. The Athenian Treasury: reconstructed by the French  - originally built as a votive commemorating their victory at Marathon in 490 BC. the metopes depicting Heracles' feats are outnumbered only by those depicting Theseus, the great Athenian hero, local boy done good. (Theseus' story was rewritten in the 6th century to be more Heraclean - to universalize the Attic hero). The rear  wall was covered with more than 150 inscriptions, including a hymn to Apollo complete with musical notation.

Compare metopes of the Athenian Treasury to those of the Hephaesteum (misnamed Thesion) in Athens. As a political oracle, Delphi served states, not individuals, and was rewarded by same. This frieze from the Siphnian Treasury (525 BC) survives and is on display in the Delphi Museum: it tells the story of how Herakles once came here and challenged Apollo for his tripod, the seat of his power. (The proscenium of the theater  also sports Heraclean motifs – dedicated at the time Nero visited since Nero fancied himself a modern day Heracles)

The Sphinx of the Naxians, 570-560 BC (right), towered into the air right next to the Stoa of the Athenians - the 8 foot tall (2 1/2 meter) sphinx sits atop a 44-flute Ionic column that towered 35 feet (11 1/2 meters) into the air. Which reminds us of that OTHER sphinx, the one whose riddle Oedipus solved on his way to Thebes after getting an oracle from Delphi. After hearing that he would murder his father and marry his mother, Oedipus  tried to run away from his fate, but instead ran smack into it – in the first recorded instance of road rage, Oedipus kills a stranger who turns out to be his father, meets and outsmarts the sphinx  at Thebes, and usurps his father’s role as both king and husband – as he married his mother.

Tripod of Plataea celebrated the defeat of the Persians by 31 Greek city-states and was financed by 1/10 their spoils. Three intertwined serpents made of gold supported a gold cauldron. Constantine the Great removed the monument to his Hippodrome, and fragments of it are still on display today in Istanbul. 

Of course, the site of Delphi also had great spiritual significance for the Greeks. Suppliants who came to seek the advice of the oracle ritually washed their hands and hair at the Castalian Spring before entering the sacred precinct. Orestes, as a murderer, had to wash the whole of his body. The archaic (590-600 BC) fountain house of the Castalian Spring was surrounded by benches, and the marble-lined basin collected the mountain spring water via its bronze lion-head water spouts. Even today, the water collected at this spot is said to have magical healing properties.

Temple of Apollo. The temple as it survives dates only to the fourth century BC, but the foundation is original to an earlier version from the sixth century, which replaces an even older seventh century version. There would have been two rows of Ionic columns forming an interior colonnade within the Doric peripteral temple (6 X 15 columns). The pedimental sculpture described by Pausanias has never been found. The Oracle: Source of inspiration, security, knowledge to Greeks...Political, religious, dramatic, literary significance. And although it was said to be housed in the Temple of Apollo, no evidence of it has ever been found.

The Rock of the Sibyl Herophile, immediately below the Temple terrace, marks the spot where Pausanias says the Sibyl Herophile composed the Hymn to Apollo - while under the influence of the god himself (10.12.1).

  • Literary Refs:

o        Apollodorus: It was the oracle of Delphi who named Heracles Heracles. Born Alcides, The priestess at Delphi renamed him Herakles (“Glory of Hera”) and ordered him to dwell in Tiryns, serving Eurystheus for twelve years and to perform the 12 labours imposed on him, and so, she said, when the tasks were accomplished, he would be immortal.

o        Euripides' Ion is set in front of the temple of Apollo

o        Orestes comes to this very temple in his flight from the Furies in the third play of Aeschylus' Oresteia

o        Pindar actually wrote his Hymn to Apollo while sitting inside on an iron chair.


  • “if Croesus attacked the Persians, a mighty empire would fall.” The irony is that it was his own empire of Lydia that fell.
  • Socrates: no man is wiser than Socrates
  • It is due to Themistokles' powers of persuasion that the Athenians suffered no loss of life when the Persians marched into Athens and burned it to the ground. The Oracle of Delphi had warned that everything Athenian would be burned to the ground except for what lay behind a wooden wall: some thought that meant that the populace should huddle within the walls of the Acropolis and try to outlast a Persian siege. But Themistokles rightly concluded that the "wooden wall" referred to the battleline of the great Athenian warships. So when the Persians did march into Athens and burn down the city, the women and children had already been transported safely  to the nearby city of Troezen (mythical birthplace of Theseus), the old men were taken to the nearby island of Salamis, and only those few who remained behind the walls lost their lives.  See Herodotus Book 8 and Aeschylus' play The Persians  for ancient accounts of this battle.

390s AD – Emperor Theodosius III eradicates the Oracle at Delphi, the Olympic Games, the Eleusinian Mysteries…all in the name of eradicating all things pagan.

Theater: We recall that the institution of theater grew out of a celebration of nature - all Greek theaters are sculpted into the side of a hill and offer a spectacular view so that the audience never forgets theater's roots. But few theaters can top this view of the Sea of Olives at Delphi! The theater is one of the structures used in the celebration of the Pythian games, established in 582 BC in honor of Apollo’s slaying of the Python. The poet Pindar will make the games famous in his collection of Pythian Odes. Another is the stadium.

The Pythian Games are the second pan-Hellenic Games established in honor of an Olympian god, the second of four: Olympia (776, Zeus), Nemea (573, Zeus), Isthmia (560, Poseidon).

  • Literary refs: In Aeschylus' Libation Bearers, Orestes: “And we both speak Parnassian, both try for the native tones of Delphi” (to deceive his mother into thinking he is dead). Orestes in Sophocles’ Electra  chooses the Pythian Games (Delphi equivalent to "Olympic") as the site of his made up death: in his made-up tale, he dies in a chariot race accident while pursuing the glory all Greeks would risk their lives for.

The xystos (covered track where the athletes practiced running), the palaestra (the outdoor track) survive of the training area for the athletes in the Pythian games. Surviving also is this bath, the best preserved Greek pool of the Classical period. Cold water ran down from the mountain, poured out through lion-head spouts (note the holes in the wall) into ten basins (along the wall), and the surplus water ran into the pool, where the athletes swam and bathed. Decadent hot baths were added later by the Romans but have not survived. 

  • The Athletes' Training Area lies to the NW of the Marmara, or the Sanctuary of Athena (1.5 km from Delphi) consists of the ruins of several buildings, most of which date to the early 4th century BC, including the Treasury of Massilia, our Marseilles.  This tholos (~390 BC) gets all the attention because it was partially reconstructed in 1938, but no one knows its true function. The original Temple of Athena Pronaia ("In Front of the Temple - of Apollo"), sometimes called Athena Pronoia ("Forethought"), was destroyed by the earthquake in 480 BC that scared the wits out of the Persians (Herodotus 8.39.2. Herodotus also tells us that when the Persians attacked, the gods punished them for their impiety by bringing the mountain down upon their heads – modern day Greeks are concerned about that too: hence these signs – danger: rock slides, and the international sign for no horn-beeping!

The Corycian Cave: high up Mt. Parnassos – Pausanias’ favorite cave! – worth seeing!

  • Religion: Sacred to Pan, Dionysus, nymphs (according to ancient inscriptions)
  • Literature: Line 22 of the Eumenides – orgiastic dancing in honor of Apollo
  • Archaeology: French one month in 1969. tremendous number and range of objects from all periods of antiquity: a rare Neolithic male steotopygous figurine, Mycenean shards, bone flutes, iron and bronze rings,  bronze statuettes, 50,000 terra cotta figurines from the classical period and 24,000 astragoloi, or "knucklebones" (used for astragolomancy, or "prophecy by knucklebones")
  • History: Locals took refuge in the cave from the Persians (Herodotus, 8.36) in the 5th century BC and from the Germans in 1943, and during the Greek War of Independence, too. King Otto and Queen Amalfia got a royal tour of it - with 100 torchbearers!
  • Mythology: it is not hard to understand why the ancients thought that Deucalion's boat grounded on one of these summits after the Flood. HANDOUT

To conclude: Mountains figure prominently in the legend and lore of the Greeks, but none so much as Mt. Olympos, where we will end our tour.

The giants Otus and Ephialtes tried to pile Ossa upon Pelion (here's a chunk) to reach heaven.

Olympos: sacred home of the gods, but apparently Homer never climbed it:

"Olympus, the reputed seat
Eternal of the gods, which never storms
, rains drench, or snow invades, but calm
The expanse and cloudless shines with purest day."
(Homer, Odyssey 6.41-46; trans: William Cowper 1791)

copyright 2001 Janice Siegel, All Rights Reserved
send comments to: Janice Siegel (jfsiege@ilstu.edu)

date this page was edited last: 06/29/2005
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