The Greek Myths
William Harris, Prof. Em. Middlebury College
Chapter 12:Land and Climate in the Myths
It would indeed be surprising if the body of Greek myths did not make specific mention of the lands and countries in which the stories took place, or were supposed to have taken place. However, many of the myths show transposed place names, stories which are clearly set in the older Middle East, are titles with Greek place names, and told to Greeks as if they were in fact Greek stories. When an Athenian hears the name Erechtheus, and beside it Erichthonius, he has little idea that there is a connection between Athens and the name of one of the royal house of Troy, even less that this name goes back to a Sumerian tradition. Many myths show a functional type of transposition of locale; for example, if Achilles is connected with the Euxine area and tamed horses, he can equally well be put in a place more familiar to Greeks, like Thessaly, since it is also known for horse-raising. Not all such examples can be proven as to place of origin, but the process seems to occur repeatedly, and is natural at a time when populations are moving around. In the United States one finds not only many Burlingtons and Bristols and Yorks, buts also Athens' and Romes, with a thread of cultural connection, thin but still intact. So was it in Greece, which seems the beginning of our Western tradition; it was equally well the tail end of a much older Near Eastern tradition.
Atlas was punished for his participation in the revolt of the Titans (which were underground, volcanic forces) against Zeus god of the sky, and as punishment sent to the far West where he was to hold apart heaven and earth. Mount Atlas, reaching up into the sky, was the later geographic reification of this story. The interesting thing is that the same phrase "holding apart heaven and earth", occurs often in the Vedic literature. Apparently the physical base of this story is the fact that the clouds, sun, planets, and stars do not fall down, that is, they do not obey the law of gravitation which we see working everywhere around us. "What hold the heavens up" is a perfectly reasonable question if one assumes that what is up there has mass, and that gravity operates at all distances. A counter force equal to the mass of what is up there would be required, and an early thinker constructs the figure of a "being" of infinite strength. Later this is tied to the story of Heracles, the man of great strength, and the two stories are conflated.
Not only do volcanoes cast fiery material up into the skies, they also slowly form great mountains, of which flowed lava is the significant reminder. Strata uplifted at distorted angles in ancient times tell the same story, that there are forces under the ground which are trying to push up, and presumably eventually take over heaven. Atlas holds heaven up, while Zeus pushes the volcanic disturbances down, actually the relationship and balance between these two forces amounts to what modern geologists term "isostasy". Atlas in his humble way is only trying to maintain isostasy.
The Cyclopes are the traditional smiths and artificers of Zeus' fiery thunderbolts. In the encounter of Odysseus with Polyphemus, whose name literally means "he who speaks much, the loud talker", the identity of Cyclops with volcanoes becomes clear. Odyssey puts out the one eye of the monster, which is patterned on the red rim of an active volcano, with a burning brand. When Odysseus is on ship again he taunts the monster, who roars and hurls huge stones at him, clear evidence of his volcanic origin.
The sheep of the Cyclops compare directly with the sheep of the god Indra in the Vedic myth cycles, which represent rain clouds and are of prime importance to the whole country. When stolen they must be found and brought back. The stolen sheep of Apollo mentioned at the beginning of the Odyssey must be of similar origin, and those emerging from volcanic eruptions seem to present certain similarities with the Vedic storyline. In any case there are many correspondences between Vedic and early Greek myths, as MacDonnell noted years ago in his work on Vedic Mythology. The volcanic and chthonic deities stand in general opposition to the celestial divinities of the open sky, which are assumed to have come into Greece with the Dorian invasion. But until we know more about the materials still couched unread in the Linear A Mycenean-Minoan tablets, it seems safer to leave the matter open. If Rhys Carpenter's theories about desiccation of the Aegean area after the l4th century B.C. are correct, the incursion of Indo-European speaking Dorians who conquered the autochthonous population(which is still not identified) is likely to be a guess and nothing more.
The underworld realms of Hades call to mind two facts: first that there are more than l5,000 linear miles of caves underlying the greater part of Europe, and also that during the various glacial periods these caves were the home of man as well as a variety other animals. We find at the present time that a surface temperature of about zero Fahrenheit contrasts with subsurface temperatures in the forties at a depth of less than a dozen feet. Inhabitants of our planet older than Man have observed this difference, and profited by it, from the semi-active rabbit and bear to the fully winterized woodchuck who has developed a metabolic rate suitable for true hibernation. All this is dependent on the relatively sharp temperature differential between the surface and the earth a few feet down, and early Man was not likely to miss this important fact. The documentation for this historical phase of Man's domiciling lies in the myriad cave-paintings which underly Europe. It has been estimated that there are at least l75,000 separate figures painted in the caves, and the configuration and organization of the painting may eventually prove to be a sophisticated form of communication, equivalent to writing. Man's dwelling in caves is natural, life-preserving, efficient in glacial times, and well documented.
The world of Hades is drawn graphically from the world of the caves. "Ghosts" live there, the spirits of the dead, but when we look more carefully at what Homer calls the "forceless heads of the dead" which flit by Odysseus in his underworld venture, we note the similarity to the flight of sonar-guided bats who whirr past modern day spelunkers as unerringly as they did two thousand years ago. Two ounce bats are "forceless" indeed, but their flight is even more remarkable in its accuracy. They seem unreal, like ghosts, which is what the Greeks thought they were. The "hateful" rivers of the underworld, with Styx as a literal example (Gr. 'styg-' ="hate"), are the dead, unoxygenated waters which flow beneath the earth. Cerberus of the three mouths is probably nothing more than the triple echo of the sounds of cave-dwellers calling out to each other in the infernal darkness. Lacking physical understanding of sound waves, reflection and echoes, ancient men would naturally infer a real agent, so that a muted, echoing roar would be taken as the sound of the Dog of Hell. The less known river, Pyriplegithron "the burning, fiery one". may show knowledge of underground coal-gas or methane conflagrations, spontaneously combusted.
The spirit of life can be thought of as going upwards as life ceases, joining the gods and merging heavenward with the smoke of cremation. But if bodies are buried, it would be clear that water washes the deteriorated human remains downwards, eventually to the aquifer. (When Dido dies at the end of Book 4 of the Aeneid, part of her goes down and part goes up, a concession to both burial systems.) Wealth lies below, as discovery of metals proves, and the god Ploutos symbolizes the wealth of the underworld.
Mushrooms which grow saprophytically without need for sunlight are consonant with the culture of the underworld life, but when the glaciers withdraw and Zeus makes the overworld fertile again, men come out of their caves and take advantages of what chlorophyllic plants can do for them. Strangely, there seems to be a clear line of demarcation between the modern mycophobic and mycophilic peoples of Europe, which might well be explained by knowing who left the cave world last. But even later, when men live in the sunlight again, they retain the images and folk-memories of their underworld sojourn, and from this material they create the mythology of the "other" world, the world which they feel obtains after death. Rather than thinking of Western man's underworld mythology as figurative, we should recall that after living for millennia in caves, people would naturally retain some memory of his cave-life. Using this as a shadowy backcast to above-earth living, they create the kind of duality of existence which human minds seem to favor. Recall that this process has a foot in history, and analysis of the underworld myth s should be aware of this point.
The Song of the Sirens presents something of a puzzle, since music is generally thought to be pleasing and soothing, not threatening and destructive. The evidence concerning the appearance of the Sirens is twofold: On the one hand they are said to be birdlike with the faces of women. (Sailors in the last two centuries have averred that they actually saw mermaids, fish with womens' heads, which modern oceanographers take to be the way porpoises and seals might have looked to the eyes of sex-starved men too long at sea. Could a similar visual phenomenon be involved with the ancient Greek accounts?) On the other hand, we might well consider the reactions of men who lived in a simpler acoustic world than ours, who would have been far more profoundly affected by auditory stimuli than we can imagine. The whistling of wind through narrow passages in the rocks may have had a totally different acoustic value to them, and it is this matter of acoustic susceptibility which may tell us something about the song of the Sirens. We know from drama and poetry that Greeks were far more susceptible to suggested visual imagery than we are, it may well be that their impressions of a poem or a play approach the immediacy and dynamism we find in a well crafted cinematic performance, which makes the audience feel it is actually "there". Music seems to have impressed the Greeks just as deeply, and this continued well into the Classical period; different scales or "modes" suggested excitement, quiet, contemplation, or even frightening ecstasy. With a wider acoustic-psychological range, the Greeks may have felt a broader spectrum of emotions from music than we know.
It should also be noted that the word "Siren" means in Greek "twinkler", if it is correctly derived from the rare verb 'seriazein' "to twinkle".(The word is also applied to the planets after the notions of the Pythagorean school.) Perhaps it was the "twinkling" or accelerated beats of the music which seem so absorbing to the Greeks, much in the way that the musical third-interval, which produces about twenty beats per second, seemed un-calming and frenzied to l4 th century Church officials, who outlawed it from official church use. This suggests that music is indeed a social variable, and that our way of dealing with sound strictly as an acoustic-phenomenon is unsatisfactory when we are dealing with peoples at different cultural levels. Whatever the Greek material shows is extremely valuable, both because of the Greek society's early date in Western history, and also in the light of the relative fullness of their recording of personal, human reactions. The fact that we have less than a half dozen fragments of musical score from l500 years of Greek history, and know only rudimentary facts about Greek music as an art, makes it all the more important to sift data pertaining to sound and music very carefully.
The name of Nausicaa calls to mind a young princess of great charm, that elegant young lady who met Odysseus early one morning as he crawled out of this thicket that was his shelter for the night. The literary world has always been charmed by the freshness of this remarkable encounter, but there are details which we are likely to miss in our esthetic enthusiasm. Nausicaa leads Odysseus directly into the city. There are no guards, no walls, no city gates to open, they walk right into the palace of her parents, who are the rulers of the island. What could be more reminiscent of the sea-kingdom of Minos which Evans so carefully outlined as the result of his archaeological research at Cnossos? This is a thalassocracy, protected by the broad seas, without need of the usual defenses again land enemies, such as we find around the walled town of Mycene. The ruler to whom Nausicaa introduces her guest is the queen, Arete (perhaps meaning "she who is to be prayed to"; there is no connection with 'arete" "honor")), the king is clearly sitting beside her as a modified consort.. The majority of the people whom Odysseus meets there are ship oriented, most of their names are palpably sea-fictionalized, like "Fast-sail", "Mr. Quick",and so forth. When the games begin, the lightness of limb of the natives is contrasted with the stalwart heaviness of our Greek hero, they even mock him lightly as a ship's captain with his eye on profit. He can't play at their dancy games, instead he hurls a huge rock past the mark as his kind of feat, which is reminiscent of the Scottish hammer throw.
This and other details, which correspond to what we know of the Cretan thalassocracy, and are portrayed in some detail in the remarkable (but heavily reconstructed) Cnossan wall-paintings, suggests that the author of the Odyssey had access to information about Crete as a living culture. The court of Nausicaa may not actually be located on Crete at Cnossos, but it is probably not far away. Homer even has a strange locution about "the present home of the Phaeacians", which implies that they had migrated to the small island of Phaeacia from somewhere else, `perhaps from Crete. ()
The Etesian Winds (from Gr. 'etos' "year", hence annual winds) blow out of the north over the Aegean area in July August and September. It is related that at one times the Cyclades island group was drought-stricken for a long period. They summoned Aristaeos to come to their aid, he did and made offerings to Zeus and Sirius, whereupon the Etesian Winds came and relieved the drought.
Several details must be noted. Aristaeos was the son of Apollo by the nymph Cyrene, whom Apollo carried off and relocated at the Cyrene in North Africa, a city named after her. This connection with North Africa suggests a familiarity with problems of drought and desiccation. Aristaeos was named as a deity presiding over beekeeping. This area of husbandry would be especially sensitive to climatic changes, since bees father the entire supply of their nectar from the flowering plants of Compositae in a period of a few weeks in springtime. Anything that affects flowering plants, touches beekeeping, under which heading Aristaeos is consulted as a suitable authority. The priests of the Cycladic communities would have had two reasons to call on Aristaeos: He knew about bees, and the drought had already shrunk their honey flow. Furthermore he was connected with Cyrene and knew about North African wind circulation, and could thus aid them.
At the core of this story is knowledge of a time when the islands were affected by a severe period of drought. After consultation, praying and a presumably a great deal of waiting, the winds did come and continued to come year after year, so that the country did not have to be abandoned. This subject leads us to take a look at the remarkable theory of Rhys Carpenter which touches on this problem.
In his slim volume Evidences of Discontinuity......... () Rhys Carpenter proposes a radical explanations of some occurrences in the second millennium B.C., which he feels influenced history dramatically. The books is so short and compressed that it seems inadvisable to give a summary of it here, other than to mention the explosion of Santorini which indirectly caused changes in the cross-European wind-cycles. All of Greece was affected by a climate shift in the direction of desiccation, which made the country uninhabitable by the time of the Trojan expedition. The various burned archaeological sites, he feels, are the result of desiccation and accident, in fact they had been abandoned long before the fires, since the inhabitants had fled to the north, perhaps as far as Hungary and Southern Germany, where rainfall was more plentiful.
There are many problems connected with a theory which is of so ancient a time and so sweepingly general. But if it proves itself with the climatologists of the ancient Mediterranean, it can explain many things. First, the flourishing Minoan and Mycenean communities of the second millennium B.C. simply disappeared from the face of the earth. If they were conquered by invaders, the invaders disappeared also, which is very odd. Second, Herodotos speaks of the "return of the descendants of Heracles", which historians have felt was a statement referring to the so-called Dorian invasion (of Greek speaking Indo-Europeans). But since we know from the Linear B documents that Greek was used for many centuries before, and the word "return" is ignored, we can understand Herodotos' statement to mean: "Some long time after the Greeks had left Hellas, their descendants did return to the country, wearing bearskins and using crude Neolithic weapons like clubs, which accorded well with the description of Heracles... "
Interpretation of the Heracles myth adds material to Rhys Carpenter's contention, which is far too important to be discussed in a summary manner. A review of his book and study of what we know about ancient climatology is suggested for anyone who finds this crossing of the Heracles myth and the disappearance of the Minoan population an interesting subject.
Aeolus is described as the son of Hellen (ancestor of the Hellenes, Hellenic etc.) as the founder of the Aeolian or Eastern-Greek ethnic group. In the Odyssey he ties up adverse winds in a leather bag which he gives to Odysseus to assure a safe home-voyage, later myths refer to him as controller or king of the winds, in which role he persists through the ages.
Magical control of the winds only becomes important when seafaring is an critical part of a nation's life. If Aeolus is representative of the Aeolian islands and western Asia Minor, and also controller of the winds, he must be pivotal in some major trade route, probably the passage of ships from the Mediterranean into the economically valuable Euxine Sea. He is thus the priest who performs wind-magic, as well as a king who has the power to manipulate naval trade routes, possibly less a mythic symbol than a real figure in the historical record.
The Oedipous story is not without spiritual meaning, but it terminates in a different place and a different way from what we anticipate. After years of wandering, blind and guilt ridden, Oedipous does find release at the sanctuary of (Athenian) Colonos. What we have failed to notice is that the sign of his release is evidenced in Sophocles play, which is presumably following and ancient tradition, by the 'tri-kumia', a "triple wave". This is the exact mark of the tides reversing, a phenomenon well known to mariners, modern and ancient. Current manuals on tides list this triple-wave as the sign which marks the reversal of the tidal flow, and we can assume that this would not have been unknown to a seafaring people as observing as the ancient Greeks. However the tidal effect in the open parts of the Mediterranean is hardly noticeable, although in long and narrow bodies of water (such as the Adriatic Sea) it is clearly identifiable. A detailed study of tide measurements in various Aegean waters should give us a roster of which places are and which are not suitable for this scene.
As the flow of this life ebbs, and the beginning of another force of flow starts, Oedipous (exactly at this moment) leaves life and enters into the mysterious, uncharted waters of the next world. The suffering of his lifetime is understood to be only part of the greater order of things, and Oedipous embarks on another journey which we can divine but never map. Yet we suspect, as the Greeks surely knew, that it is there!
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