… One does not know what one does not have the right to ask (whence the sincere blindness of so many husbands and parents), and one does not doubt what others believe, if they are respected. Relationships among truths are relationships of force.
… This is the paradox: there were people who did not believe in the existence of the gods, but never did anyone doubt the existence of the heroes. And with reason: the heroes were only men, to whom credulity had lent supernatural traits, and how could one doubt that human beings now exist and have always existed? Not everyone, on the other hand, was disposed to believe in the reality of the gods, for no one could see them with his own eyes. As a result, during the period that we are going to study, the fourth century A.D., absolutely no one, Christians included, ever expressed the slightest doubt concerning the historicity of Aeneas, Romulus, Theseus, Heracles, Achilles, or even Dionysus; rather, everyone asserted this historicity.
… All of this changes in the Hellenistic period. Literature is intended to be learned.
… by the grace of the grammarians and rhetoricians, Myth is put into manuals, thereby undergoing a codification that will simplify it and cast the great cycles as official version and strand the variants in oblivion. It is this learned vulgate, meant to serve the study of classical authors, that constitutes the mythology familiar to a Lucian. it is the mythology that will be taught to the young scholars of classical Europe.
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… the human past was seen to be preceded by a wondrous period that formed another world, real in itself and unreal in relation to our own.
… In this civilization, nothing was seen beyond a nearby temporal horizon. People wondered with Epicurus whether the world was a thousand years old or two, no more, or, with Aristotle and Plato, whether it was not eternal but ravaged by periodic catastrophes, after each of which everything began again as before — which came down to thinking like Epicurus. Since the life-rhythm of our world is so short, the world could traverse considerable evolutions: the Homeric period and the heroic generations constituted Antiquity in the eyes of this ancient civilization. When Virgil wishes to depict archaic Carthage as it must have been eleven centuries before his own time, he gives ia a Homeric character.
… A true background lies behind every legend. Consequently, when the historians move from the totality, which is suspect, to the detail and to individual myths, they once again become cautious. They question myths as a group, but not a one of them denies the historicity forming the basis of any legend. The moment it is no longer a question of expressing his overall doubt but offering a verdict on a specific point and engaging his word as serious scholar, the historian begins to believe again. He clings to the task of sorting and safeguarding the true kernel.
… it is one thing to believe that in the past there were already kings and another entirely to believe that there were monsters, which no longer exist. The principles governing the criticism of traditions that would obtain for the next millennium were in place; they were already there with Plato.
So Strabo, as befits a scholar, can separate the true from the false. Dionysus and Heracles existed; they were great travelers and geographers; and so legend claimed that they had triumphantly covered the entire earth. Odysseus existed but did not make all the voyages that Homer attributed to him, for the poet had used this ploy to teach his listeners useful geographical details. As for Jason, the ship Argo, and Aeëtes, these are “things that are agreed upon by everybody,” and, up to that point, “Homer tells his story, agreeing … with matters of history.” Fiction begins when the poet claims that the Argonauts reached the Ocean. Other great voyagers, Theseus and Parithous, explored so much of the world that legend claimed that they had gone as far as Hell.
… Earlier the object of naïve credulity, hesitant skepticism, and daring speculations, myth is now treated with a thousand precautions. But these precautions are very calculated. When filling out the contours of some legend, the writers of the Hellenistic and Roman periods seem to hesitate. They often refuse to speak in their own name. “People say …,” they write, or “according to myth.” But in the next sentence they will be very definite concerning another point of the same legend. These shifts between daring and reserve owe nothing to chance. They follow three rules: state no opinion on the marvelous and the supernatural, admit a historical basis, and take exception to the details.
… These three attitudes tolerated one another, and popular credibility was not culturally devalued. This peaceful coexistence of contradictory beliefs had a sociologically peculiar result. Each individual internalized the contradiction and thought things about myth that, in the eyes of a logician at least, were irreconcilable. The individual himself did not suffer from these contradictions; quite the contrary. Each one served a different end.
Take for example, a philosophical mind of the first order, the physician Galen. Did he, or did he not, believe in the reality of Centaurs? It depends.
When he is speaking as a scholar and laying out his personal theories, he speaks of the Centaurs in terms that imply that for himself and his more select readers these marvelous beings had barely any present reality. Medicine, he says, teaches reasonable knowledge, or “theorems,” and the first condition of a good theorem is that it be perceivable by the senses. “For, if the theorem is unrealizable, in the manner of the following statement, The centaur’s bile relieves apoplexy, it is useless because it escapes our apperception.” There are no Centaurs, or at least no one has ever seen one.
… But when the same Galen no longer seeks to impose his ideas but to win new disciples, he seems to pass to the side of the believers. Summarizing his whole view of medicine in one hundred pages and determined to give the most lofty idea of this science, he offers an account of its high origin: the Greeks, he says, attribute the discovery of the different arts to the sons of the gods or to their familiars. Apollo taught medicine to his son Asclepius. Before him, men had only a limited experience with some remedies, herbals, “and, in Greece lay therein, for example, all the knowledge of the centaur Chiron and the heroes of whom he was the teacher.”
… This confusion corresponds to a sectarian politics of alliance. Regarding myth, the Greeks lived for a thousand years in this state. The moment an individual wishes to convince and be recognized, he must respect different ideas, if they are forces, and must partake of them a little. Now we know that the learned respected popular ideas on myth and that they themselves were split between two principles: the rejection of the marvelous and the conviction that legends had a true basis. Hence their complicated state of mind.
Aristotle and Polybius, so defiant when they are confronting Myth, did not believe in the historicity of Theseus or Aeolus, king of the wind, out of conformity or political calculation. Nor did they seek to challenge myths, but only to rectify them. Why rectify them? Because nothing that does not presently exist is worthy of belief. But then, why not challenge it all? Because the Greeks never admitted that the mythmaking process could lie to everyone about everything. The ancient problematic of myth, as we will see, is bounded by two dogmas that were unconscious, for they were self-evident. It was impossible to lie gratuitously, or lie about everything to everyone, for knowledge is only a mirror; and the mirror blends with what it reflects, so that the medium is not distinguished from the message.