Ways of Interpreting Myth

Ways of Interpreting
Myths about Hercules
Ancient Theories
The Web of
Monolithic or
Euphronios 'Heracles and
Antaeus' c.515. Louvre
Interpreting myth is like Penelope at her loom. Thread upon thread of interpretation is
interwoven in myth. As one approach to myth goes out of favor and is unraveled from the
fabric, another takes its place. The result is that, like Penelope's shroud, the cloth of myth
interpretation is ever-changing and can never be finished.
See Sienkewicz on the Web of Myth
See also Michael Webster’s Ways of Interpreting Myths
Ancient Ways of Viewing Myth
Archaic 750-480 B.C.
Myth as Venerable Tradition
Questioning of Myths (Rationality)
Myths as Allegory
Classical 480-323 B.C.
Myths as Instructive Models
Myths as Inaccurate
Myths of Questionable Morality
Myths as Dangerous
Hellenistic 323-146 B.C.
Gods as Deified Heroes and Kings Euhemerus
Timeline: http://homepage.mac.com/cparada/GML/Contemporaries.html
Myths as Venerable Tradition
Homer. Odyssey 11.600ff.:
[582] "After him I saw mighty Hercules, but it was his phantom only, for he is feasting ever with the immortal
gods, and has lovely Hebe to wife, who is daughter of Jove and Juno. The ghosts were screaming round him like
scared birds flying all whithers. He looked black as night with his bare bow in his hands and his arrow on the
string, glaring around as though ever on the point of taking aim. About his breast there was a wondrous golden
belt adorned in the most marvellous fashion with bears, wild boars, and lions with gleaming eyes; there was also
war, battle, and death. The man who made that belt, do what he might, would never be able to make another like
it. Hercules knew me at once when he saw me, and spoke piteously, saying, my poor Odysseux noble son of
Laertes, are you too leading the same sorry kind of life that I did when I was above ground? I was son of Zeus but
I went through an infinity of suffering, for I became bondsman to one who was far beneath me- a low fellow who
set me all manner of labours. He once sent me here to fetch the hell-hound- for he did not think he could find
anything harder for me than this, but I got the hound out of Hades and brought him to him, for Hermes and Athena
helped me.'
"On this Hercules went down again into the house of Hades, but I stayed where I was in case some other of the
mighty dead should come to me.”
Xenophanes of Colophon
c.570 B.C.
Questioned the
Anthropomorphism of the Gods
#170 But mortals consider that the gods are born, and
that they have clothes and speech and bodies like their
#171 The Ethiopians say that their gods are snubnosed and black, the Thracians that theirs have light
blue eyes and red hair.
#172 But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or
were able to draw with their hands and do the works
that men can do, horses would draw the forms of gods
like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make
their bodies such as they each had themselves.
Hera Suckling the Baby
Heracles. Apulian Red-Figure
Squat Lekythos, c. 360-350,
From Anzi.
Myths as Allegory
Theagenes of
Rhegium (525 B.C.)
gods as symbols of
human qualities; e.g.,
Athena = wisdom
Anaxagoras of
Clazomenae (c.500-428
The misdeeds of the
gods are intended to
illustrate evil and teach
Athena, Hercules and Atlas
Metope from Temple of
Zeus at Olympia c.450
Myths as Instructive Models
(Paradigmatic Model)
Aeschylus (c.525-456
B.C.) used myth to teach
Athenians about the gods
and the their role in the
civic life of Athens.
Pompeo Batoni Hercules at the Crossroads,
v.1753, one of many paintings inspired text
allegorical of Prodicus of Ceos.
Myths as Inaccurate
Euripides on the birth of Dionysus:
Confusion between thigh (meron) and
hostage (hemeron), a reference to the
false image of Dionysus which Zeus
gave to Hera as a hostage.
Watch out for this in Euripides’ Bacchae (295)
Boston Museum of Fine Arts 95.39
Attic Red-Figure Lekythos
Heracles = Hera + kleos
Glory of Hera?
Infant Heracles and the
Roman, 2nd cent. A.D.
Capitoline Museum.
Herodotus on Heracles
[2.43] The account which I received of this Hercules makes him one of the twelve gods.
Of the other Hercules, with whom the Greeks are familiar, I could hear nothing in any
part of Egypt. That the Greeks, however (those I mean who gave the son of
Amphitryon that name), took the name from the Egyptians, and not the Egyptians
from the Greeks, is I think clearly proved, among other arguments, by the fact that
both the parents of Hercules, Amphitryon as well as Alcmena, were of Egyptian
origin. Again, the Egyptians disclaim all knowledge of the names of Neptune and the
Dioscuri, and do not include them in the number of their gods; but had they adopted the
name of any god from the Greeks, these would have been the likeliest to obtain notice,
since the Egyptians, as I am well convinced, practised navigation at that time, and the
Greeks also were some of them mariners, so that they would have been more likely to
know the names of these gods than that of Hercules. But the Egyptian Hercules is one
of their ancient gods. Seventeen thousand years before the reign of Amasis, the twelve
gods were, they affirm, produced from the eight: and of these twelve, Hercules is one.
Myths as Dangerous
Plato Banishes Poetry (=Myths) from his Ideal Republic
In Republic Book X Socrates banishes poets from the city as unwholesome and dangerous because:
•The poets pretend to know all sorts of things, but they really know nothing at all. The things
they deal with cannot be known: they are images, far removed from what is most real. By presenting
scenes so far removed from the truth poets, pervert souls, turning them away from the most real toward
the least.
•Worse, the images the poets portray do not imitate the good part of the soul. The rational
part of the soul is quiet, stable, and not easy to imitate or understand. Poets imitate the worst parts—the
inclinations that make characters easily excitable and colorful. Poetry naturally appeals to the worst parts
of souls and arouses, nourishes, and strengthens this base elements while diverting energy from the
rational part.
•Poetry corrupts even the best souls. It deceives us into sympathizing with those who
grieve excessively, who lust inappropriately, who laugh at base things. It even goads us into
feeling these base emotions vicariously. We think there is no shame in indulging these emotions because
we are indulging them with respect to a fictional character and not with respect to our own lives.
Hercules and Omphale. Detail of The Twelve Labours
Roman mosaic from Llíria (Valencia, Spain). Flintstone.
First half of the 3rd century. In the National
Archaeological Museum of Spain (Madrid).
On Euhemerus of Messene, see
From Diodorus Siculus:
Now Euhemerus, who was a friend of King Cassander [of Macedonia (301 to 297 B.C.)] and
was required by him to perform certain affairs of state and to make great journeys abroad,
says that he traveled southward as far as the [Indian] ocean; for setting sail from Arabia he
voyaged through the ocean for a considerable number of days and was carried to the shore
of some islands in the sea, one of which bore the name of Panachaea. On this island he saw
the Panachaeans who dwell there, who excel in piety and honor the gods with the most
magnificent sacrifices and with remarkable votive offerings of silver and gold.... There is
also on the island, situated on an exceedingly high hill, a sanctuary of Zeus, which was
established by him during the time when he was king of all the inhabited world and was still
in the company of men. And in the temple there is a stele of gold on which is inscribed in
summary, in the writing employed by the Panchaeans, the deeds of Ouranos and Kronos
and Zeus.
Does Euhemerism apply to Hercules?
Museum Collection: Antikensammlungen, Munich, Germany
Catalogue Number: Munich 2360
Beazley Archive Number: 215718
Ware: Attic Red Figure
Shape: Pelike
Painter: Attributed to the Kadmos Painter
Date: ca 410 BC
Period: Classical
Museum Collection: British Museum, London, United Kingdom
Catalogue No.: London B424
Beazley Archive No.: 301068
Ware: Attic Black Figure
Shape: Kylix, little master lip
Painter: Signed by the Phrynos Potter
Date: ca 560 BC
Period: Early Archaic