My attitude to myth—primarily, but not exclusively, of the Greek variety—has always been private, idiosyncratic, and out of step with current intellectual trends. As a child I found immense pleasure in Andrew Lang's Tales of Troy and Greece, which nudged me in the direction of the great narrative epic cycles: the voyage of the Argonauts, the Trojan War (including much matter not in Homer), the fratricidal battles over Thebes. These were reinforced by early discovery of Malory's Morte d'Arthur, Tennyson's Idylls of the King, and William Morris's Sigurd the Volsung. I thus became acclimatized, very young, to the creative paradoxes of that no-man's-land where myth and history intermingle. To the more psychological and static aspects of myth, from Oedipus's incest to various outré forms of metamorphosis, I was, and remain, relatively indifferent. To me the ancient myths that matter have always had a grounding in the actual past, have always retained a sense of diachronic actuality. One of the most enjoyable academic tasks I have ever had was directing Elizabeth Vandiver's doctoral dissertation, now published as Heroes in Herodotus: The Interaction of Myth and History (Frankfurt a.M., 1991): this was familiar and well-loved territory. No accident, either, that Herodotus early became, and has always remained, by a long way my favorite ancient historian.
Yet during over a quarter of a century as an active professor of classics I never once lectured on myth, and in fact took very great care to avoid doing so. I was attracted neither by the prospect of retailing a collection of exotic, and intermittently improper, Tanglewood Tales for the benefit of indifferent (or presentist) undergraduates (see Appendix A), nor by the various theoretical banners—Freudian, sociological, Marxist, even art-historical—under which the same material was currently being rehashed for uplift by my trendier colleagues. As MacNeice noted, "There ain't no universals in this man's town": early research on Greco-Roman magic had driven home to me the futility of going for parti pris general definitions. When my onetime teacher Geoffrey Kirk remarked, in The Nature of Greek Myth (Cambridge, 1974), on the way in which our understanding of Greek myth had been seriously distorted, not only by "learned Hegelian speculations," but also "by the primitivism of Sir Edward Tylor and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, the naïve comparatism of Sir James Frazer, the sociological exaggerations of Durkheim, Jane Harrison and the early Cornford, the ponderous neo-Kantian epistemology of Cassirer and the romantic functionalism of Lévi-Strauss" (286), I couldn't have been more delighted. Freud, too, I thought, having recently slogged my way through Philip Slater's The Glory of Hera (Boston, 1968): the historical reductionism of Eva Keuls's The Reign of the Phallus (New York, 1985) was still to come.
These two books, of course, and many more like them, served as a useful reminder that the mythification of the ancient world not only extended far beyond what was commonly thought of as the corpus of myth (roughly congruent with what Apollodorus included in his round-up), but has been going on non-stop ever since. The systematic deconstruction of actuality, truth, and objectivism popular among intellectuals since World War II (sometimes for highly personal reasons) has, of course, sharpened such awareness to a preternatural degree. From Rashomon (1951) on, art has reinforced the same conclusion: not only are there many perceptions of truth (something no one would deny), but, because of this, it follows that objective truth is a mere chimera. This fallacy is on a par with the grotesque human egotism apparent in the old limerick about the sycamore tree: that thinkers should seriously consider the possibility that when there wasn't someone around in the quad to look at it, it simply didn't exist. Such perceptions have, of course, spilled over into our thinking about myth, and have been strongly reinforced by propaganda techniques inherited from totalitarianism.
An easy, and obvious, example of this is the so-called Holocaust Myth, which embodies all the worst features to be found in these postwar developments. In particular, it demonstrates, in extreme form, both motive and technique for the rejection of objective fact as such. It so happens that the Holocaust was uncomfortably well-documented, not least by horrified Allied troops equipped with cine-cameras. But latter-day nationalists, racists, and totalitarians, to whom this public fact was totally unacceptable, had to find ways to reject it; and the first need was to relativize factuality as such, to create instead a smorgasbord of competing "truths," which in fact were no more than assertive opinions writ large. The entire history of our cultural evolution, from the heroic myths of the Mycenaean Age onward, shows a fascinating run-up to this kind of mass wishful-thinking: humankind, as Eliot noted, cannot bear very much reality, and has never been slow to rewrite the record by way of self-justification. Sometimes, as with Zeno's attempt, in his Politeia, to legislate social change by simple fiat (see p. 220), the attempt is naive, not to say childlike. More often it is complex and unconscious.
But in all cases, I think, what we see is a pursuit of some kind of truth, from an unknown absolute to the self-generated preferential dogma that nowadays is clearly the most popular version. What I find really astonishing—and, as a professional historian, should long since have accepted—is just how widespread this process is, how radically it invades every human record of the past, and how easy it is to neglect its influence. My heightened consciousness in this matter was caused, in the first instance, by the very considerable research required for the essay with which this book opens. The stubborn persistence of myth for centuries in the face of rational criticism, its retention (whether consciously or not) by whole areas of intellectual thought, the devices, from allegory to historicism, used to "save the appearances"—all this made me sit up and take notice. It wasn't a case of my having innocently posited a clear and direct transition from mythos to logos: leave that to German Idealismus. But I hadn't, until I really started digging, gauged the fierce intensity of the need for myth in the human psyche, of any age, or sensed the variety of motives dictating that need. Couple it with the intellectual passion for aprioristic universal theories, and to a very great extent the vagaries of deconstruction and postmodernism begin to explain themselves.
Having reached this point, I began to reconsider other topics I had explored in recent years, but now, specifically, with a view to isolating their potential mythic content. The result, again, surprised me. Rather like Molière's M. Jourdain, who found he had been speaking prose for over forty years without knowing it, I discovered that, again and again, I had been drawn to analyze individual instances of what (taking a leaf from William James) I suppose could be termed the variations of mythic experience. It didn't happen every time, of course; but in at least half the filed items I examined it formed a prominent leitmotif of my investigation.
Why did Daedalus turn east at Delos instead of continuing north to northwest, and why (equally intriguingly) had no one ever been bothered by the discrepancy? Just who was it that Hesiod was addressing in the beginning of the Works and Days, and how did this relate to early awareness of self and the use of autobiography and fiction in poetry? How much were the deep differences between Herodoteans and Thucydideans a matter of temperament rather than logic, and could a preference for inductive rather than deductive reasoning, not to mention a distaste for the banausic, be subsumed under that heading? What, exactly, does a phenomenon such as Panhellenism tell us about ethnic stereotypes, and the way they're adapted to meet changing circumstances? What causes the remarkable skepticism of scholars in the face of exciting or attractive new evidence? Why do some theories, per contra (e.g., that of the so-called penetrationists), catch on with all the virulent infectiousness of an epidemic? What was in Alexander's mind when he built Alexandria, and why have so many Alexandrias of the mind been propagated ever since? What factor is it that has so strikingly led scholars to aporia when faced with the deification, much less the catasteral enskyment, of ancient rulers? Why should the Stoa be saddled with the myth of democracy, or myth-as-literature with the documentary fallacy? Was magic effective or affective, designed for control or performance?
These are among the problems discussed in the essays that follow. I cannot pretend to have solved all the questions that I ask. But (as we are so often reminded nowadays) perhaps it is at least as important to ask the questions as to expect conclusive, or even wholly rational, answers. Between mythos and logos there is no clearly delimited and specific distinction (though the differences are, I think, greater than Kirk allowed), no boundary-line to be established simply by taking thought. Least of all can we trace an orderly progression from "mythic thought" ([Greek text omitted]—perhaps itself a chimera?) to rational philosophic discourse.
Volumes of collected essays, we're told, need to justify themselves, preferably by presenting a unified thesis. We know today that non-rational (or, better, quasi-rational) modes of thought and perception have a far greater place, still, in our world than was conceivable even fifty years ago. But we also know (as I began by pointing out) that mythic expression as a vehicle for individual rewriting of the truth—on the erroneous assumption that all we have for a Rashomon situation are the accounts given, that there is no actual truth beyond their truths—has taken on some dangerous qualities in the last few decades. If this book throws even a little light on the first, and succeeds to any degree in combating the second, my efforts will, I feel, have been well worthwhile.
Finally, it may strike others, as it has often struck me, that modern attempts to rewrite or reinterpret the past can have their unintentionally comic side. Thus, as a species of light relief after more serious analysis, I have added two appendices, on the more risible aspects of the vulgarization of classical myth for profit and entertainment.