The Greek Myths

William Harris, Prof. Em. Middlebury College

Chapter 6:Discovery of the Metals

If we ask what things (rather than ideas or processes) civilization as we know it is most dependent on, we would probably start out list with the metals. Copper, especially in its alloy bronze,. and iron are the metals which are useful for making tools and weapons, while gold and silver are the "decorative " metals, all these metals have high value in themselves, whether for use of show, and they raise the value-level of the society mightily, since the purchasing power of the metals is high. Clay and fired ceramics might seems second choice, but there is a major difference: clay is found everywhere, its forming is done by simple handicraft and requires only basic equipment, firing it requires some organization of labor but on a simple level, and the final product is cheap. Working ceramics is an important industry in the developing world, one which produces objects which are parallel to our plastics, since they are cheap and disposable. But the net effect of a general ceramics industry does not do much to change the nature of the society, whereas the use of metals transforms into one which is moving forward at an accelerated rate. Since the middle l9th century electricity has had similarly dynamic effects on modern Western society, and since the middle of the 20th century electronics has been in a similar position. The important thing to observe is that the society develops special myths about its state of acceleration, which completely occupy its mind for the time. Later we may look back and think that the move forward was not great, compared to what followed, but this has nothing to do with the imagery of progress which dominates times of change. By l9l6 the bicycle industry seems absolutely remarkable, the thirty years' growth from a novel toy to a major world-product with new standards of production and dedicated specialized machinery impressed every person concerned with industry, but looking back we find the bicycle interesting mainly as a sample of the mechanized production that was to follow. The early history of the metals, which were being developed before the 4th millennium B.C., certainly fostered this dynamic kind of optimism for progress

The history of metals and metal fabrication has an important place in the development of Greek civilization. The intense heat of volcanic action suggests the myth that the volcanoes are the smiths of Zeus' fire, but his lightning is of course a static electric discharge, quite a different form, but still a state of energy. Hephaistos represents the original smith and bronze caster, but before the myth-history of the metals is completely written, we start to hear a strong note of warning, danger after disaster accompanies the development of metal technology, and one can well wonder if the Greeks felt the same fear of high tech techniques which our modern world is so apprehensive about.

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 connection of Cyclops with volcanoes becomes clear. Odyssey with a burning brand puts out the one eye of the monster, which is patterned on the red ring of an active volcano, he slips out of the cave, hanging under the belly of the sheep of the Cyclops, who, blinded now, feels over their backs for escaping riders but never thinks of their underside. When Odysseus is on ship again and taunts the monster with the deceit play on him, he roars and hurls huge stones at him, quite in keeping with his volcanic origin.

The sheep of the Cyclops are interesting since they compare directly with the sheep of the god Indra in the Vedic myth cycles. These represent rain clouds and are of prime importance to the whole country, when stolen they must be found and brought back. The stolen cattle of Apollo mentioned at the beginning of the Odyssey may be of similar origin, and seem to present certain similarities with the Vedic story-line. 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 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 better to avoid final answers. If Rhys Carpenter's theories about desiccation of the Aegean area after the l4th century B.C. have any truth in them, the incursion of Indo-European speaking Dorians who conquered the autochthonic population (which has still not actually been identified) is likely to be a guess and nothing more. Comparison of Greek with Vedic myths must proceed from the written materials as they stand, we cannot work outward from history since the patterns and dates of westward migration are not secure. Nineteenth century historical linguistics started from the written materials in just this manner, and the results of a century of research indicates the correctness of this approach, which took documents as fact, and reserved theory for an expanded stage of study.

The god Hephaistos was said to be the son of Zeus and Hera (or perhaps just Hera), he understood the use of fire in relation to the forge, and was celebrated as the earliest metal-worker and smith. He was lame, either because Hera cast him down from heaven in disgust at his deformed foot, or according to another story, because Zeus threw him out when he interfered in a quarrel between his parents and thus lamed him. It is easy to see imagine division of labor in a primitive society on the basis of physical disqualifications, so the poet will be the blind man, and the smith, who has no great need for running, can be lame, but this is a bit too neat an argument to be convincing. To work intelligently with fire, to develop the techniques necessary to cast copper based alloys, and later hammer-weld iron which has been smelted out of un-metallic looking ore.... these things demands great knowledge and a wide ranges of techniques. To assign the role of ironworker to a disabled person primarily because he is disabled is unlikely, although in a later age when metalworking had become available and cheap technology, such a story could easily be back-formed.

Hephaistos at an early date was paired off with Aphrodite in marriage, and the nature of their relationship is discussed in detail under her role in another chapter. To summarize, Aphrodite could provide increasing population, while her husband Hephaistos contributed the metal tools which the larger population needed in order to increase its agricultural efficiency. But soon it is discovered that metal implements like ploughshares, can be turned into swords, and the practice of warfare becomes institutionalized. Ares is the leader of armies and war god, and subsumes the tool and weapon maker under his more aggressive role, incidentally having a publicly acknowledged affaire with Aphrodite. Hephaistos is no longer essential to the society, and (with his lame leg) becomes a comic figure as the sadly cuckolded husband. It is interesting to note that the conversion of metal implements used to till the land to new uses in military weaponry, the beating of plowshares into swords, is curiously paralleled in the l9th century. The Ostwald process, developed in Germany before WW I, made possible the oxidation of atmospheric nitrogen, and thus could produce on the one hand great amounts of cheap ammonium nitrate as a fertilizer, or on the other hand explosives such as nitrocellulose, nitroglycerine, and trinitroglycerine (TNT), which wreaked such havoc on the countries of Europe in the great artillery World War.

The Casseterides were islands in the West from which the Greeks imported tin, the Greek word for which is 'kassiteros". The word is borrowed in this exact form from Babylonian 'kassitire', from which it is assumed that Skt. 'kastiram' "tin" is taken. The importance of tin to the Greeks was its immense value in alloying copper, which was mined from ancient times in Cypros, whence the Greek name 'kupros' for "copper". Copper by itself is very difficult to cast, but with the addition of about ten percent of tin, it flows nicely in the molten state, and has greater hardness than copper. The "Bronze Age" was dependent on tin from its very inception.

It is strange that the Latin word for copper is 'cuprum', which is derived directly from Cyprus' mines, but the only word the Greeks used was 'chalkos', which originally meant copper (especially when specified as 'red chalkos), but could also be used for bronze. Probably the general use of bronze as a superior material rendered the original word "copper" obsolete, but it may be that the bronze casting guild kept their formulae for the processing of bronze from copper secret, and the public only knew the finished product as 'chalkos", whether soft like copper or hard like true bronze. Both are austenitic, that is they harden under working, bending or hammering, so part of the difference which we maintain may derive from our use of copper in the soft or annealed state as electrical wire or tubing. The ancients would have been interested only in work-hardened copper and especially in bronze for tools and weapons.

Ancient tin mining sites have been discovered in England, specifically in Cornwall, although tin was known from Roman times in Spain. The precise location of the Cassiterides or "tin islands" (which the insular location of the British Isles suggests) is less important than the fact that tin came from a great distance. This points to the early development of ships capable of carrying heavy loads of metallic ore the length of the Mediterranean. In l900 the only relatively pure tins available to industry in England were the island Banka tin and that mined in England, called grain tin because of the way it fractures under blows in string like or grainy structure. Since nothing approaching the refining procedures developed since l700 was unavailable to the ancient Greeks and the peoples of the Near East, they had to get supplies of fairly pure tin, and the only place from which to get such tin we know of is in England.

In Homer (Odyssey, Telemacheia) Athena in male disguise tells a fictitious story about her occupation as captain of a ship hauling "white iron" ('leukon sideron') to Cypros. There would surely be no reason to carry iron to Cypros, which is the home of copper and bronze, but a second look at the cargo reveals something more complicated. It is curious that although the word 'kassiteros' occurs half a dozen times in the Iliad and also in Hesiod, it never occurs in the Odyssey; if on the other hand the. 'white iron' of Athena is tin, then the absence of the regular word for tin ('kassiteros') would make sense, since in Odyssean speech tin is known only as "white iron". Tin (St) occurs in two allotropic forms, one is a white metallic state, the other, which occurs at -39 Deg. C. is a gray powder. The powder was felt to be inferior, the white form was most suitable for alloying with the copper found on Cypros. Although Athena uses the word iron (leukos sideron), it would appear that she is referring to the white metallic allotrope of tin, presumably mined in England. (Iron which has been decarbonated by open hearth firing will be whitish, hence the confusion of two metals which are not dissimilar in appearance.) Since the conversion from the one state of tin to the other occurs at -39 C.(or near -38 F.), we can assume either that all British tin was white metallic, or that at some point in pre- history the temperatures had fallen to below the critical temperature and it was converted into the less desirable gray powder. This low temperature probably did not occur in historical times in England, but might be evidence for low temperatures at a glacial period. Temperatures must have stayed generally above the critical temperature, or all the British tin would have been converted to the gray-powder form. These details do not concern ancient historians, but may be to be valuable for historical geologists.

In the Odyssey Homer remarks, just at the moment when Odysseus thrusts the red-glowing wooden spindle into the eye of Polyphemus to blind him (incidentally exploding the volcano), that the hot wood sizzled like red-hot metal plunged into cold water by the smith, "for that, at least (Gr. 'ge') is the strength of iron". Whether Homer is speaking for the eighth century in which he lived, or reminiscing about an earlier time is not clear, but the remark shows basic metallurgical knowledge, since when hot iron is suddenly quenched it becomes extremely hard. This is why he says "at least", that is "if you are speaking of iron.", but if on the other hand you are thinking of copper and copper based alloys, Homer reminds you that copper when given the same treatment,becomes completely soft, or annealed.

The fact that the Homeric line gives such summary treatment to a complex set of metal heat treating relationships shows that the process is well known in his world, and needs only a casual remark. But what we call "cast iron" with its high carbon content does not respond to this hardening process, nor does completely decarbonized iron (meteoric or heart-decarbonized Fe.), so we must assume that the use of heat-treatable steel was already known in the first millennium B.C. even to poets such as Homer, and the techniques were probably developed in the previous millennium. There seems now to be some opinion that true steel was known somewhat before 3000 B.C., and existed for a long time on a competitive basis with bronze, which was thought to be the superior material.

Talos, the bronze monster who patrolled the coast of Crete, grasping foreign visitors and clutching them in his hot and fiery grip, was said to have been fashioned by Hephaistos, and must have occupied the same niche in the Greek's awareness as the robot has in ours. The idea that technology, whether it is of the Greek metallurgical or modern electro-mechanical type, will create monsters dangerous to human life, must have been a part of ancient thought, but with the proviso that each such monster has a weak-spot and hence can be "killed" (Hal-like) by a hero with sufficient insight and information. Jason does this with the aid of the magical princess Medea, which proves to the Greek world that mystic human knowledge surpasses the wit of the machines!

The killing of the monster is effected by breaking the tube in his structure which carries the blood, which in Greek thought is the basic, life bearing material, whereas we pull the plug to cut the current, believing that electricity is really the primal force. But the stories have a great deal in common. The word "robot" was first used in a play by the Czech playwright Capek in l935, it is drawn from the Czech noun 'robotnik" which means "a serf". (Servants have a peculiar way of wanting to become masters.) The Greek story shows that our confrontation with robots is not the first occasion that men have had to face this kind of problem, the psychological roots of which are perhaps far deeper than the immediate confrontation of man with man-machine implies.

The "Golden Age" is the first of the metallic Ages of Man which Hesiod described in the introduction to his eighth century poem Works and Days The Golden Age for Hesiod parallels Eden in the Old Testament, a hypothetical age in which innocent man supposedly lived at his ease. Prehistory points to nothing like this paradisiacal existence, the very name of which is drawn from the Old Persian word 'para-deisas" or "walled around parkland (of a king) " via the Gr. cognate 'teichos' "wall"; "paradise" of this sort appears at a sophisticated state of historical development.

In an ensuing Silver Age innocence is lost and man starts to exhibit those criminal tendencies so well known in the annals of history, and this is followed by the Bronze Age. This is not our historical "Bronze Age", but an unrealistic, nightmarish time in which everything was made out of bronze, including the things the Greek normally made of ceramic and wood. A trace of such a story may be seen in Midas' wish for everything to be turned into gold; even his food and drink are suddenly made of metal, and hence are useless to him. Apparently metal when it first appeared was thought to represent a new social danger, much as plastics now are thought by many to be inherently bad. As we learn more about them,especially their non-biodegradable characteristics, we can easily begin to think of them as positively evil. Whatever the level of apprehension of evil to come to men through the use of bronze, men were supposed to have become evil and murderous in this time, according to Hesiod.

Next came the Age of the Heroes, which the Greek thought of as being in the second millennium B.C. since it encompassed the Trojan and Theban Wars. This seemed to them to be a better time that the previous two ages, probably because it came more clearly into historical focus and told about men and events which looked real and possible. This period contain a strong vein of historical optimism, such which is understandable, since it tells the Greeks about "men doing things" in a manner approaching their own sense of reality. But we should not think of this time as being restricted to one or two millennia, since many of the historical and pseudo-historical items relegated to this period point to a considerable antiquity, which goes back at times to the period immediately after the last retreat of the icecap.

Next came the Age of Iron, at which point the poet pauses to wish he had not been born here, but rather before or after, for men "work all day by the sweat of their brow, and perish miserably at night". It has been noticed that in Hesiod's world-view, which persisted throughout the next millennium and a half of Greek civilization, it is assumed that the world is degenerating, that times are consistently getting worse, and that a doctrine of automatic Regress (rather than our idea of automatic Progress) is based on the inherent nature of things. This point of view, which is widespread and long-enduring, casts a certain unhappy tone over the whole of the Greco-Roman culture, and unfortunately works against all advancements of human living conditions, as well as the development of technological aids for a progressing society. Our view, that the sky is the limit, and that science can answer all questions and also supply everything we need in order to live a perfect, paradisiacal life, is no more grounded in reality than the Greek idea of Regress, although neither we nor they would be able to accept criticism of an opinion so long and so firmly rooted in the society.

The intermixing of the story of the rise of civilization with the development of metallurgical technology is interesting, since it produces a separate metal-mythology of its own: Gold is pure and holy, because, as we know, it does not enter into chemical combination naturally, is found dripping in a pure, molten form out of ore bearing rocks when exposed to fire, and it stays perfect and untarnished forever, as a quick look at the unbelievably clean and shiny Mycenean gold goblets in the National Museum at Athens will show. Silver occurs in no such pure form, it must be smelted, early men burned over silver bearing areas to isolate metallic silver, which when it is purified, tarnishes quickly if exposed to air. Silver offers none of the magic of liquid gold oozing out of one's campfire rocks, it requires social organization and a modicum of metallurgical experience and knowledge, to extract silver from ore. Iron offers even more problems, it must be separated from contaminants, decarbonized to make usable steel, which in turn must be slightly recarbonized to be hardenable . An exception to this may be the small amounts if meteoric iron which were probably found as early as the fifth millennium B.C., since they were already decarbonized by entering the atmosphere red-hot, they would not rust, harden, or seem the same material as earth-found iron, which is in Greek 'sideron'. But these would be rare curiosities. (If this word is to be connected with Latin 'sidus, sideris' "star" the meteoric origin would have been already noticed in ancient times; the question is how good this etymology is, since Latin -s- represents IE -s-, which evaporates in Greek into the 'rough breathing", which is not found here.)

Hesiod's description of man suffering and sweating out a miserably short life, is probably only incidentally connected with metallurgy, but is rather the result of exploitation of the individual which was a followed expanding populations after the last glacial retreat. The new forms of social control which developed as part of the art of administration of multitudes were not designed to make men happy. Government designed to ensure happiness and the enjoyment of a humanly full life is only two hundred years old in first draft form, and less than a hundred years old in terms of its incorporation into society. Exactly the same phrases as Hesiod's described f the conditions of English miners and factory-workers in the middle of the l9th century, when the same parameters for getting the most work out of masses of workers existed. After that time, greatly increased reserves of capital, important discoveries in biology and especially in medical science, and a genuine humanitarian feeling toward workers as fellow-humans started to appear. We all know Aristotle's description of man as the 'zoon politikon' (whether we translate it as ''political being, 'social being', or 'the animal who lives in city-states'. ..), but it is surprising to most of us to hear his term for the slave: 'zoon automatikon', which means about the same thing as a " human robot".

It is surprising that Hesiod sees these levels of social and economic development so clearly, but we must remember that his era is not early or primitive in any way. He lived at a time which followed seven or eight millennia of continuous development, beside which the two and a half millennia which separate him from us, are much less important in terms of social development. The stage for much of what has come into being in the last thousand years was probably already set by Hesiod's time, long before the Greeks received the part that they were to play in the drama of man's history.

The story of Telephos was discussed under the heading of medicine, but since it concerns a metallic compound, it can be summarized here. Told he could be cured of Achilles' spear's wound by "what had hurt him", it seems that he deduced that copper sulphate (CuSo4) would cure his suppurating wound. That solution is found in copper mine water, and would be known from the mines in Cypros, but the story implies that copper sulphate was used somehow on Achilles' spearpoint. A saturated solution of CuSo 4 will deposit on a clean iron surface, which suggests that in Achilles' time rustable iron may have been considered an inferior material, and copper plating it gave the appearance of the copper based alloy bronze, while retaining the internal strength of iron. All too often we imagine that iron immediately replaced bronze, forgetting that bronze existed for a long time beside iron, and that it has certain advantages in its ease of casting, resistance to oxidation, and its work hardening or Austenitic characteristics. Even now high quality bronze castings and forgings are generally considered superior to cast-iron parts, which is likely to be used when cost rather than quality rules.. In the same way bronze, when it was first introduced into Europe, was considered inferior to the intensely hard flint and chert stone axe-heads which had given such satisfactory service for thousands of years, and bronze only became popular because of the low cost of casting vis a vis the very high labor costs of flaking and hand-grinding.

One example which is concerned with the technology of glass rather than metal, should be included here, since it is interesting for its economic implications. In Petronius' Satyricon a story is told of a man who claimed that he had invented a new type of unbreakable glass, which he demonstrated to the Emperor by knocking dents in glassware and hammering them out again. The emperor asked if anyone else knew of this secret formula, the man said he and the emperor were the only two, upon which the emperor had the man killed.

outside the strict time period of Euhemeristic interpretation, it has all the elements which a myth requires: a royal name, confrontation with a problem, the new idea (economic preservation of an existing market, rather than the slaying of monsters), and the focus on a single moment at which the story points to something more important than is immediately evident. We grasp the meaning of the story immediately, since we know this sort of thing has occurred in our time, and we are not surprised at the "new invention" which is supposedly too good to put on the market. Even now we hear "myths" again and again of the man with the car which will get a hundred miles to the gallon of gasoline, but it is kept off the market by the big car manufacturers, or the story of an engineer working for a major glass company which produced an undullable glass razorblade, which is duly researched, tested, patented and permanently;y shelved for a large price.

This story is placed in the early Roman Empire. Since we know a great deal about the politics and economics of the time,. we can envision among the Romans a brand of economics the main purpose of which would have been to maintain existing markets despite engineering advances. We know this process from in own society, we understand why it occurs and might well to call the process something like social economics. But if we had no inkling of what the story meant, and had no idea that such an occurrence could ever repeat itself, the story would be classified as obscure mythologizing, and we would probably search for an psychological or religious interpretation, which is exactly what generations of scholarly critics working with the Greek myths have done. (This material is discussed in fuller form in Chapter 8 under Economics.)

The development and use of metals marks a great forward lunge in any society, not only because they are so useful in a variety of ways, but because the stages which a metalworking society requires, involve a large array of workers with a variety of talents and knowledge. The work begins with the miners, whose products requires transportation by wheel or boat to the smelter, then the expert at alloying is called in, the factory hands pour or cast the molten material, which is then worked or recast, and when near a final form, ground and polished before it reaches the marketplace. Now we turn over the product to the salesman, the banker,, arrange final transport to the user (who may not be the last user at all). Even the scrap dealer does not end the chain of the metals trades, but recycles the scrap back to the foundry repeatedly, minus the small amount that gets lost. The specialized stages which the metals call into being are many, the market is vast, and there exist possibilities for repeated profits all along the line. In microcosm, we can see the idea of a mega-society conceived with the initial idea of metal, and turned into reality before much time has passed. The complexity of the whole process, from, mine to user, posits the existence of a complex social structure, and it is probably by some intuitive realization of this, that Hesiod projects his remarkable myth of the sequence of the Ages.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College