chapter  6
Pages 12

For the Greeks of the classical period a myth was a traditional story, set in the distant past, which focused on the exploits of supernatural beings such as heroes or deities. There was, however, an element of doubt as to the veracity of such tales. Their essential components, the characters and events, could not be conclusively proved as a consequence of the antiquity of their setting. As a result, any story based on a traditional narrative (mythos) was considered by certain writers of the classical period, such as Thucydides, to be less reliable than narratives based on investigative research (historia). Although both myths and histories described the past they came to be seen as opposites: the fictitious past stood in opposition to the facts of the historical past. Yet myths were much more than simple stories. They played a vital role in allowing Greeks of the classical period to form perceptions about their own past and in enabling them to explain the construction of their society and culture in the present. Myths gave expression to certain beliefs about the past. They offered a lens through which the relationship between past and present was explored and rationalized. The power of myth as a means to explain the past or justify the present made it difficult to avoid in historical narratives. Despite his misgivings about the value of traditional stories, Thucydides, in the History of the Peloponnesian War, attributed the development of the first navy to the legendary King Minos (1.20) and believed absolutely in the historicity of King Agamemnon and the Trojan War (1.9-12). In this chapter I wish to explore the role that stories about the past play in the construction of past and present histories. Myths, in the guise of beliefs about the past, have justified and continue to add authority to political, social and religious discourses. These, in turn, have created and maintained divisions in our approaches to the classical past, preventing the

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importance to any community were notions of their origins, their genesis as a race. These origins were found by reference to the distant past and to the historical or mythical point at which the group could be clearly identified. In the ancient world, stories of the development of social and racial groups were essentially mythical. The purpose of these myths was to justify the rights of the political and social community. The Athenians explained their origins through myths about early kings such as Kekrops, who was half-man and half-snake (Euripides, Ion 8-27), and Ericthonius, born when Athene threw to the ground a piece of wool stained with the semen of Hephaestus (Euripides, Ion 265-74). These stories reinforced the Athenian belief in their antiquity as a people. They enhanced the Athenians’ perception of themselves as a unique social group by providing common ancestors that were linked to the sacred pantheon and they gave authority to Athenian claims of autochthony, justifying their possession of the land of Athens. Myths of origin allowed the members of a race, or social group, to construct an identity for themselves based on perceived common origins and geographical location.