The Greek Myths

William Harris, Prof. Em. Middlebury College

Chapter 7: Man the Tool Maker

The ability to invent new devices, techniques and ideas is one of the most basic characteristics of Mankind. Other animals, especially some of the most advanced primates, do invent new approaches to problems which confront them, but nothing in the biological world that we are aware of has the almost compulsive drive to invent which Man displays. As Sophocles foretold , sometimes this turns to good, sometimes to ill, but the trait of inventive thought continues through the ages. Greek mythology records Man's talent for inventiveness, but there often appears a strange twist which leads to a bad end. Men had relatively recently evolved from the older hunter-gatherer stage, and many innovative notions which we take for granted must have seemed new and dangerous. It is of such a transitional world that the Greek stories speak.

Daedalos is the earliest Greek example of 'homo faber', the contriver, artificer and craftsman who invents, rather than inherits, the techniques of his craft. He is said to be descended from Hephaistos, who is his parallel person among the gods. At some point, when threatened by the achievements of a nephew who invented the potter's wheel and the saw, he killed him and had to flee from Athens under the curse of murder. The potter's wheel is of much older Near Eastern origin, certainly as old as the lathe of which it is a vertical adaptation; or possibly the woodturning lathe was developed from the potter's wheel. The saw also has an ancient pedigree, the Egyptians had copper saws with hammer hardened teeth at an early date, and neolithic men embedded animal teeth in wood with a hardsetting resin to make saws at am earlier date. Connecting Daedalos and his nephew with Mycenean Athens is completely out of kilter with the history of technology. Leaving Athens, Daedalos went to Crete where he designed the labyrinthic maze for Minos, when himself locked in the maze, he decided to fly out and glued onto his son Icaros wings, which melted in proximity to the sun with well known results, this being the earliest attested splash-down. Daedalos is mentioned several times in Homer as being the designer of all sorts of objects and garments, his name apparently is used to cover the work of several millennia of steadily advancing craftsmen. In later Greek times various shrines possessed roughly made statues of wood, which were said to be the work of this master craftsman; the wooden statues point to a very early date for Daedalus, since proficiency with working marble, as well as the increasing scarcity of wood since Minoan times, soon turned artists toward stone which was readily available everywhere. Even the palace-gates at Cnossos point to a scarcity of wood, since gatesways plastered over a wood armature in the l4th c. are replaced by an all plaster structure a hundred and fifty years later, as Evans noted in the descriptions of his work on the site.

It has been stated that the hand is the cutting edge of the mind, if so Daedalos clearly marks the earlier level of Greek society's awareness of this proverb. Strangely in Greece as it developed after the Dark Age, the handcrafts were downplayed as abstract thought developed and asserted itself, with the result that in the Classical Period "homo faber" became a low-ranking servant of the rich, and much of his work was done by slaves.

Prometheus is the semi-divine personage who was said to have fabricated mankind out of clay. When Zeus became enraged with men and deprived them of fire, Prometheus stole fire from Hephaistos in heaven and gave it to men, thus incurring Zeus' eternal wrath. Since clay can become pottery only by the application of fire (l500-2200 degrees F.), Prometheus' work would be meaningless without fire. Clay like man, is earthly and available everywhere, but fire comes from heaven in the form of lightening, hence it is the property of Zeus, and its use must be regulated by the priestly guild of Zeus' temple, not by mere craft-oriented potters! Prometheus needs more than clay if he is going to make durable pottery, and since fire is obtainable only through appropriate channels, he "steals" fire, which means he gets it in an unauthorized way, and therefore must be punished. A society like the Minoan-Mycenean,which early in the second millennium B.C. had created the complexities of organized administration, would understand the meaning of this punishment.

It was noticed long ago on linguistic grounds that the name Prometheus cannot come from Gr. 'pro + meth (manthano)' "knowing aforehand" (as Classical scholar had long believed) but it must be connected with the Sanskrit proper name Pramanthas, which belongs to a Vedic family of fire-worshipping priests of Agni, god of fire (cf. Lat. 'ignis'). The fake brother Epi-metheus ("hindsight", as against "foresight") is a later transparent addition to the myth. Vedic and Greek thought have a way of coinciding on unexpected levels, we must become a great deal more aware of the role of Indic thought in our interpretation of Greek ideas. It is not only in the early period that this is important, since Heracleitos, Pythagoras and even Plato leave questions which the Indic evidence may help to understand.

As punishment Zeus ordered Prometheus to "make" out of clay a woman into whom the gods would breathe every necessary charm and skill, including Hermes' gift of lying and flattery. She was sardonically destined not to be a wife for Prometheus but for his brother Epimetheus. Her name was Pandora (Gr. 'pan + dora' "all gifts") and she brought to her mate the infamous box which contained all mankind's' ills, flying like insects from the box as soon as it was opened. Hope alone remained in the container as the sole, sad solace for mankind. Knowing but refusing to reveal the secret about the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, Prometheus was chained to a rock forever, with an eagle tearing at his liver daily, as Aeschylos portrays him in the Prometheus Bound. (This has been discussed under Medicine in Chapter 5).

In this story a Pygmalion-like artificer "makes" a woman out of inert material, but she becomes alive to confer terrible woes upon the world. If Pandora were a woman from another country, turned into an acceptable proto-Hellenic lady by Prometheus, the artificer who could make anything (in the manner of Wendy Hiller's film conversion at the hands of Rex Harrison), her final gift to her newly adopting country could easily be an epidemic resulting from new pathogens,. This would explain all the flying things that issue forth when her "brides' box" is opened, and it is most interesting that diseases are imagined as vicious "bugs", much in the manner of colloquial 20th century parlance. Combined with this may be the ancient notion, expounded in the story of Adam and Eve, that women are curious at discovering new things, which (like the fructose-laden "apple" with its resultant dietary imbalance to hunter-gatherers) always lead to trouble. It may be that women's thought is in some modes different from men's', recent work on brain function points to some general mental differentiations between the sexes; if this were intuitively recognized by men, some sense of dangerous difference might well arise. One cannot simplify complex situations of this sort, but more is certainly involved in the story of Prometheus that initially meets the investigating eye, since there must be a moral in the fact that Pygmalion gains a wife from a marble model, while Prometheus loses everything fashioning a woman out of clay. The difference in luck between the two may be the difference in the social standing of the medium. At the time of Prometheus' fabrication, clay is an ubiquitous and a cheap material, out of which you can not make anything valuable. (The same notion is found in the proverb about not being able to make a silk purse out of a pig's ear.) But by Pygmalion's time, marble is already being carved with realistic detail, it is considered valuable, and so the sculptor gets the prize of a fine wife. (In a similar way blacksmithing was an honorable and necessary profession in Colonial America, yet it was considered old-fashioned and completely bypassed in the l920's by electric and oxy-acetylene welding. But by l970 it was restored to an honorable position among the historically minded cognoscenti as an ancient and revivable craft. Woodworking and cabinet making have faced a similar turnaround in their social prestige since l970.) Different crafts occupy different prestige niches at different times, as a society develops and then discards the new in favor of still newer technology.

Gordius, a Phrygian peasant, was chosen king of Phrygia in Asia Minor when he was the first man to drive his wagon up to the temple of Zeus, this being the condition proposed by the oracles for selecting a new king. But the knot by which the yoke was connected to the draw-pole of the wagon was tied by a curiously intricate knot in a rope of cornel bark, and another oracle declared that whosoever could untie this knot would be king over all Asia. (Many years later Alexander the Great is supposed to have sliced the knot with his sword, thus generating the proverb about "cutting the Gordian knot". But the story is not well attested, and in any case would be an histrionic act made up for a celebrity on a well known situation.)

As in the case of Gyges, who was also a shepherd and hence socially a nobody, Gordius appears with but a one asset, his special knot. He tied the knot and presumably could untie it, but the oracle-priests were impressed by the fact that none of them could comprehend its construction, so their amazement and respect must have come from an intellectual rather than practical base. The story marks the superiority of the mind of a man who can devise a knot that nobody else can untie, and this knot is taken to be of such original inventive quality, that the simple shepherd immediately is made king.. There can be only one reason for this: Gordius represents a new level of thinking, which is symbolized by the invention of the special knot, which the state cannot comprehend, and hence accepts as proof of leadership.

Knots seem a simple exercise in BoyScout ingenuity to most of us, for l9 th century sailors they were more complicated and more interesting, and to many other peoples they have developed into an art involving difficult mathematical craftsmanship. Asian decorative knot tying of ritual religious objects and Greek makrame represent a special class of ingenuity, and one most not forget the Incas' use of knots tied in complex string arrangements to serve as tallies and ledgers for the extensive administrative procedures of their large empire. Perhaps Gordius' knot symbolizes something of immediate use to his society, which we are totally unaware of.

The choosing of the Dalai Lama from the children of the people at large, the test being coordinated with a proof of special thinking capabilities, is too similar to this story to be dismissed as historical coincidence. This process avoids the consequences of what might be called intellectual, as against genetic inbreeding. As we find more threads of connections between East and West which go back into the second millennium B.C., we will find is more natural to consider the possibility of historical connections of this kind. Note that Gordius' son was Midas, whose inventive touch turned everything to gold, the story demonstrates the utility as well as the intellectual worth of the family's intelligence.

At this point we turn to cases in which inventiveness produces evil results for the inventor, or point to the evil machinations which twisted although inventive minds seem so adept at concocting. Ixion, whose name has been connected with the mistletoe (Gr. iksos),since oak was Zeus the sun god's tree and mistletoe grew on it, has also been connected with a blazing wheel carried by peasants over lands needing the sun's warmth, and finally he has even been considered to be a byform of Zeus ! A fresh start can be made by examining the myth-history of Ixion's life. Having married, he murdered his father in law when he came to claim the usual bridal presents, by arranging that he should fall into a pit in which a charcoal fire was burning. Zeus apparently pardoned him and accepted him as a member of his society, upon which Ixion tried to seduce Hera and subsequently, by a phantom called Nephele ("cloud") substituted in her place, he fathered the Centaurs. Enraged, Zeus punished him by having him tied forever on a revolving wheel in Hades, which is how Ixion's name goes down in Classical mythology.

One can see in the history of Ixion the evolution of man from Neolithic hunter to clever, mechanical artificer. To kill his father in law, Ixion uses a device known for tens of thousands of years for its effectiveness with animals, the pitfall covered with carefully camouflaged greenery. Putting a charcoal or wood fire in the pit effective since it both makes sure that the animal is killed and at the same time starts the singeing process. But traps for animals are not considered proper when used for humans, as is witnessed by the severe laws which most modern countries have enacted against "man-traps" of every sort.

After this episode, Ixion "produces" (actually he is said to beget) Centaurs, horsemen riding so closely connected with their mounts in swift motion, that unsuspecting peasants believe this is a new cross-bred animal of fearsome proportions. proceeding from Neolithic pitfall trapping, Ixion has appeared again on the forefront of the a new art, the taming and breeding of horses, and he presumably uses them for aggressive chase hunting. He replaces the passive-technology of pitfall traps with aggressive horse-borne hunters, and this provides a far greater range of operations.

By this time Ixion had advanced again by an innovative quantum leap to the invention and construction of the wheel, with which his story is connected in an unfortunate manner. What would be more natural for an angered Zeus to devise for punishment than tying Ixion to his own infernal contraption, rotating forever in Hell? We thus see Ixion on several levels,, spanning the pre-historical period from ice-age hunting traps, as a natural inventor, then taming the wild horse, and finally constructing the wheel, which when linked to the horse, would make possible the great emigration of exploding populations out of the wheatlands of Southern Russia southwards into India, and then westwards across Europe. The wheel must have been developed at a very early time in the Indo-European spectrum since the same root word persists from India to the British Isles: Skt. 'cakras' "wheel" on through Gr. 'kuklos' and Lat. 'circus/ circulus' to the Old Engl. 'hweol', all perfectly cognate forms. The same word consistency through a long period of time is also true of the companion invention, the cart, e.g.. Skt. vahati "he carries", Gr. '(w)ochos', Lat. veh-iculum', Engl. waggon.

We must remember that the wheel is a very complicated piece of machinery, involving intuitive engineering of the hub, spokes, rim and (sooner or later) metal tire, all which parts are made separately but must work as a unit. This is difficult because of the different shrinkage rates of the various parts, and we may be sure there were many wheels broken under load before men learned to make a really serviceable unit. The wheel was so well developed over the millennia, that ashwood wheels only disappeared in US automotive manufacture after l924 when the industry was faced with a shortage of suitable wood, and the pressed steel wheel was hurried into service to fill the need.

The fact that Ixion may be associated with these three levels of invention would, at least in our eyes, make him a hero. This is certainly the kind of thing which Euhemerus was considering in the third century B.C. when he propounded his myth-historical scheme. It is interesting that as society moves ahead, it generally faces a counter-cultural-motive force, which attacks with violent rage the inventor as purveyor of social disruption if not outright evil. Early in l9th century England, Mary Shelley fabricated the long-lived "Frankenstein" myth to warn the public of the dangers of surgical organ replacement. Soon after, the Luddites broke into factories with sledgehammers to smash English power driven machinery. Historians of the Industrial Revolution explain this rage as coming from fear for lost jobs, and this may have been partly true. But a more critical factor seems the apprehension of the dangers of the new, which will break up the old ways, introduce unwanted social change and anarchy. If this counter-reaction to innovation occurs as early as the prehistoric time of Ixion, then it may turn out to be part of inherited human nature, and not the warning voice of thoughtful men foreseeing social danger and economic disaster.

Philoctetes, whose story has been treated elsewhere, was a master- archer, perhaps inventor of some new type of bow, such as the bow with bent -back curvature at the tips for a secondary spring effect, which is a kind of bow that Homer mentions. But he is rejected by the army storming Troy, left on a desert island on the weak excuse that he had a badly infected foot which represented a curse, and only when the military realize that they need his weapon, is there any attempt to make a reconciliation with him. In Sophocles' masterly treatment of this story in his play, many other things are introduced which enrich the play but obscure the original story: The plot revolves not about honor and honesty, as Neoptolemos thought, but about ways to deal with the inventor of new tools (bow and arrows) which render the old ones (pitfall and club) obsolete. Inventors of new processes always seem to meet the same kind of angry opposition, which stems from the society's great satisfaction with what it has achieved, coupled with a guilty suspicion of what it has not been able to develop. Even the direst need for new solutions to pressing problems does not alleviate this ancient fear and hostility.

And then there are the genuinely evil uses of what in another situation would be clever and ingenious devices, things which man has always been eager to develop, from the medieval "maiden" and the thumbscrew, to this century's mechanical monstrosity at Auschwicz. Theseus, son of Aegeus the legendary king of Athens, can be tentatively dated by the style of his first three feats: he killed Sinis who tied men to bent pine trees, tearing them to pieces when the trees were untied and sprang back; he killed Sciron who had visitors wash his feet on a high precipice, upon which he kicked them into the sea to drown; and he finally dispatched Procrustes who on his famous mechanical bed stretched men to make them taller or lopped them off if they were too big. These episodes must come from a period of brigandage, which permits them to take place locally on a whimsical,sadistic impulse. The actors are not important kings or tyrants, but local minor criminal-barons, whose actions would seem most suited to the kind of unsupervised and isolated communities of Greece which flourished after the 9th century B.C. up to Hesiod's time in the 7th century B.C.

Ingenuity has always been associated with the Greeks, whether the intellectual cleverness of the philosophers or the less well known inventiveness of the technical writers, such as Euclid, Archimedes and the Hippocratic medical writers. With so much intellectual force working for them, the Greeks did not accomplish as much in the millennium and a half in which their thought was the only advanced thought available to dwellers on the north side of the Mediterranean Basin. Perhaps one of the reasons was a certain distrust of mind and what it can accomplish, coupled with a satisfaction with achievements of the past, and an unwillingness to face new ways of doing things. Greek society early became static, and the longer that it remained unchanging, the more faith people had in the tried and true ways of doing things. This is always the danger which presents itself to cultures which are content with their record, and the Greeks, amazing as they were in many respects, are no exception to this rule.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College