The Greek Myths
William Harris, Prof. Em. Middlebury College
Chapter 4: Development of Agriculture
Agriculture is developed and animals are being tamed and bred at the same time. However myths about plants are much less precise in meaning than those about animals, probably because of man's greater perception and appreciation of the mammals as being nearer to his own nature. An important source of information about early agriculture is the story of Alcmaion.
Avenging his father by killing his own mother, he is pursued by the Furies in a manner remarkably similar to the history of Orestes. Just at that time the crops fail, and it is assumed that this is a divine act connected with Alcmaeon's unholy state, so he sets out to discover new lands on which the sun had not shone at the time when he killed his mother. (To fulfill this condition exactly, he would have had to know that the earth was a globe, and he would have to travel halfway around its periphery. Alcmaeon apparently has an intuitive idea of this, since he assumes that when the sun shines on one place it will not be shining on a distant land. However he is realistic and goes only a short distance to the west.)
It is interesting to connect crop failure with royal guilt, but it is more pertinent to consider the failure of land which has been overused without provision for manuring and letting it lie fallow If drought occurred, responsibility would only not normally be referred to human agents, but sheer lack of knowledge about basic agricultural economy would certainly be within the responsibility of the king or landowner. Going to the west and finding new, unused land, does point to the latter situation. Rotation of crop fields was tried at various times in the ancient world, but it was not until the l7 th century that English experimenters put the whole matter on a secure footing. Until that time responsibility for failure other land would have to rest upon human shoulders, and that seems to be the critical part of Alcmaion's story.
In a very different vein, the stories of Attis and Heracles' young friend Hylas, which have been discussed already, point to fusing human histories into ancient vegetative cycles which antedate man's agriculture. Being turned into a pine tree (Attis), becoming a flowering bulb (Narcissos), or becoming part of a pond (Hylas), these minor heroes return to nature unscathed by societies concerns with agriculture, since they belong to an older stage of human existence which predates the domestication of plants.
The myth of Attis, although set in Asia Minor, repeats the pattern of the vegetative cycles that we saw in the story of Adonis. His mother conceived him while gathering almond blossoms from a tree which contained the blood of Agdistis, a female Phrygian deity more commonly known as Cybele (or Cybebe) the Great Earth Mother. Cybele loved Attis, opposed his seeking a mate, and drove him mad enough to castrate himself, upon which he died. By Zeus' intervention his life-force passed into the pine tree, while his blood grew into violets. The connection of Attis, who like Adonis is a handsome young man beloved of a goddess, with plant life is clearly established in the story.
Hylas is the handsome young friend and companion in adventure to Heracles, who was lost on the Argonautic expedition to Colchis at the far end of the Euxine Sea when water nymphs drowned him out of love for his beauty. Heracles stayed at Mysia looking for him, a cult of Hylas was established there at a sacred spring, in which ritual he is incorporated in the life-rhythms of plants, water and nature.
The Apples of the Hesperides, listed as the eleventh labor of Heracles, seem to be an exotic fruit coming from the far West, possibly from Spain. We are not able to identify this fruit from the myth, although one thinks immediately of the modern Spanish orange trade. Importation of fresh fruit from any western point to Greece would imply relatively fast naval transport, considering the short life of fresh fruit, but if the fruit were citric, its shelf life would be relatively long, while its color and smell, whether orange, lemon or any other member of the same family, would be arresting. We should remember that citric fruit are a primary source of Vitamin C, which is the immediate cure for the disabling disease we call scurvy, so the "Apples" may have had a medical use in Greece, although this is not insinuated in the myth. In any case, an imported fruit of some distinctive form or probably coloration seems to have come to the attention of the Greeks, who could not produce it at home.
Ceres is the Roman goddess of grain, identified by the Romans as the counterpart of the Greek deity Demeter. There is an basic connection of both goddesses with the production of grain, which is still the staple of diet for the greater part of humanity. Having the ten grains at hand, we forget that the production of the "grains" as such, which was only effected by millennia of purposeful hybridizing of some of the natural grasses, took place only after the last glacial period, and was the main factor which made possible the sudden rise of human population. Conversely, when grain became a major harvested comestible, large numbers of people were required for sowing the seed and reaping the harvest, so increasing populations went hand in hand with grain production. Civilization as we know it owes more to the development of the grains than to any single factor beyond human genetics. Grain deities are always to be treated with respect. Note that the Greek name 'Demeter" is analyzable into the rare 'de', meaning "earth" according to Hesychios' gloss, and the common noun 'meter" "mother". It is reasonable that an agricultural deity should be so named.
The rare Latin adjective 'cerritus' means "frenzied, possessed by Ceres, mad" , and is found in only six Latin texts, three in Plautus, one from Cicero and one each from Horace and Suetonius. All the uses clearly point to a state of insanity. It has been known for a hundred years now that "ergota" (or Secale cornutum) is a stage of the fungus Claviceps Purpurea, found in the pistils of many grasses, but predominantly growing on rye (Secale Cereale). The drug ergot was extracted and purified during the l9th c. and used intravenously as well as orally as a hemostatic agent, since it is a powerful vaso-constrictor. In the last thousand years various epidemics of "ergotism" have been attested, especially among poor peasants who subsisted mainly on bread products. The fungus progressively takes over the structure of rye, so that the more that people eat to assuage their hunger, the more of the ergot they ingest, which leads to itching, loss of sensation, amblyopia, loss of hearing, finally involuntary spasms, mental failure and even death. (Enc. Brit. llth ed. IX 737 f. Anon.)
No such symptomatology occurs in the words associated with the Greek divinity Demeter, but when she revealed her divinity at Eleusis, she instituted the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were characterized by trances and hallucinopathic states of mind, from the earliest period on through Roman times. Gordon Wasson thought that the active hallucinogen involved in these Mysteries may have been mushrooms of the Amanita family, basing his views on parallel developments in modern and ancient Mexican drug cults. However the Eleusinian Mysteries turned out, their origin may have been based on ingestion of ergot, since this is related to grain and hence to the grain-goddess Demeter. Selective doses of this fungus as an essential reagent in a hallucinogenic-religious cult could account for the trance-like states associated with the developed Eleusinian Mysteries. Peyotism among the American Indians assumed a similar role, and persisted in and alongside of the society without ill effects, much as did the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Two facts emerge from this discussion: First that ergot and ergotism poisoning were already known in the ancient world of the first millennium B.C., and second that the use of ergot could easily be incorporated in a religious rite. This means either that the fungus was less pronounced in its effects than in l8l6, when the last general European "poisoning" occurred, or that a way was found to administer selective doses, in such a manner as to produce religious illusions without the possibility of lethal effects.
An intimate view of what a thriving Mycenean agricultural community was like can be drawn from the story of Aeacos. Aeacus is son of Zeus (the older sun-god, cf Skt 'dyaus') and Aegina, a nymph who is eponymous with the island Aegina which lies in the Saronic Gulf. Aegina is of triangular shape, with only about 4l square miles of area, apparently a well developed Mycenean site, which may have retained its old Mycenean culture for a while after the Dorians invaded, according to Evans' interpretation of the archaeological evidence (A.J.Evans JHS l3, l95). Under Aeacus' rule the population was decimated by a plague, but quickly repopulated, in fact so fast that the myth arose that people (after that called Myrmidones), were actually created like ants (murmekes), which is the ethnic name for the island's inhabitants used by Homer.
The highly social behavior of ant colonies would not be ignored by clever and imaginative people living close to the land, and the use of this insect appellation implies that the island of Aegina was heavily populated before and after the plague, which was probably the result of invasion of foreigners carrying new pathogens. Aegina is described early in the present century as free from marshes and hence from malaria, the healthiest climate in Greece. A ridge divides it down the middle with very fertile plains on either side. The plains were well cultivated and produced "luxuriant crops of grain, of some cotton, vines, almonds and figs" (Enc. Brit ll ed., l, 25l, a description which although modern is valuable since it antedates the economic developments and resultant polluting changes of climate which the later part of this century has produced).
The situation resulting from isolation of the island, lack of malaria and fertile croplands would be the ideal setting for a dense population;which is what the "ant metaphor" connotes. We can thus outline an early chapter of Aegina's history, on the basis of increasing population becoming active with agriculture, rather than through trading and shipping across the Aegean Sea in typical Mycenean fashion..
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