OFTEN have I told my youngest daughter the legends of ancient Greece, and have found myself wishing that I could give her a book that would show her more of that magic world which was the delight of my own youth, and to which I love to return, now that I am older. But I have wished in vain. Then a while ago I heard of the plan of a publisher who had had a similar experience with his son, and I hailed his project. He had had the happy thought of preparing an English edition of Gustav Schwab’s Die Sagen des Klassischen Altertums, and at once I declared I was eager to help him realize this plan. Of course there are other books of this kind in English, but most of them, at any rate, fill a different need from the one I felt. They are intended to appeal primarily to children, though no one would deny that they are entitled to their share of these wonderful old tales. The Greeks themselves thought so. Plato wanted the future citizens of his ideal republic to begin their literary education with the telling of myths rather than with mere facts or rational teachings. This plan of the great philosopher of education mirrors the life of Greece as it then was, for there too the education of man—the paideia—began with the telling of myths, just as later, in the Christian era, Bible stories and legends of the lives of the saints were the basis of all education.
But in the life of a Greek of the classical age myths never ceased to be a subject of deep interest. In early childhood they were the first food for his spirit, which he sucked in, as it were, with his mother’s milk. And as he grew older, he returned to them again on a higher plane when he was introduced to the masterpieces of the Greek poets. Now it is true that even today millions of people learn the ancient Greek myths through reading Homer in modern translations; but at that time the mythical tradition reached Greek youth through hundreds of other channels, beside the stories of the Trojan cycle which survive in the Iliad and the Odyssey, for the poetry as well as the art of Greece was chiefly concerned with shaping the traditional legends. What the boy had eagerly absorbed as exciting stories, the youth found brought in its most perfect form in the art and poetry of his people. And later, when he grew to manhood, Homer’s characters passed before his eyes on the stage of the Greek theater, in the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, where their destinies no longer seemed a tale of long ago, but of immediate, dramatic interest. The audience which filled the benches at these performances regarded the events and sufferings they beheld as the most profound expression of the meaning of all human life.
Thus the entire humanistic education of the Greeks was welded into unity through the majesty and spiritual force which myths exerted on all stages of the inner development of the individual. And this continued to be so, even when—in the course of time—other branches of human knowledge and more and more applied arts were added to the traditional education. Ancient legends continued to be the source of all poetry and art for the nation, and the basic element of the literary education of the individual. They were also the point of departure for all philosophical thought, for the entire development of the Greek intellect. The fact that the Greek people was destined to be the nation of philosophers and the creator of western culture was certainly connected with its wealth of heroic legends and the overwhelming amount of its mythical speculation about the world, gods, and men. This tradition has been an inexhaustible mine of treasure for the poetry and philosophy of the Greeks themselves and of later centuries. Our completely rational civilization can boast of nothing comparable to this. Rome took over the legends of the Greeks because she had none of her own. And even in the Middle Ages, when new peoples came into the foreground of history, peoples who had national legends of their own, the Greek gods and heroes held their place and were no less popular than the new heroes of new nations. Thanks to their deep human significance which remains valid for all men, the Greek myths were universally recognized, and their characters live on to this day, either in simple tales or in the poetry of all the peoples in the cycle of western civilization. This survival of the myth—and it is by no means the only heritage we have taken over from the Greeks—reminds us that our so-called Christian civilization does not spring from Jewish-Christian sources alone, but is deeply rooted also in classical Greek and Roman tradition. The world of Greek myths is a constantly visible and effective symbol of this truth.
Realizing this fact, we want to reveal this world not only to the enraptured eyes of children but also to the more deeply searching vision of the young student, who is driven to probe for the universal significance of these tales beneath their poetic beauty. This was what Gustav Schwab had in mind when he went about retelling the legends of classical antiquity, simply but movingly. His book has delighted many generations, and no similar work has surpassed it. It owes its freshness and color to the wise restraint the author imposed on himself. He was neither the philosopher who expounds the meaning of myths, nor the scholar who investigates their source and ultimate significance and tries to restore them to their original form. Since this was not the author’s aim, his book is of little interest to the learned mythologists of our own day and age. He wrote for the average reader and wanted to convey the legends in the form they have come down to us from the classical period of antiquity. He was enchanted by the great art with which Greek and Roman poets—from the epics of Homer to the Heroides and Metamorphoses of Ovid—shaped and reshaped these myths; and whoever knows the texts he drew from, feels in every line of his book the profound effect they had on his imagination. Because of his naïveté and complete lack of scholarly ambition, the poetic power with which the poets of antiquity told these tales is preserved in Schwab’s retelling—often to an astonishing degree. He is, so to speak, the last of the mythographers of ancient times who retold the myths they found in the works of poets in their own language and style, and thus made them accessible to a wide circle of readers.
His close adherence to the models of the individual stories resulted in something the critical reader is sure to observe, in a change of tone from one tale to the next. To give a few examples chosen at random, the tale of Prometheus, which opens the book, is based mainly on Hesiod, the didactic Boeotian poet who probably lived in the eighth century B.C. To him mythical tradition was the source of all wisdom and all knowledge of the past. To him it provided the answer to all the enigmas of life. Prometheus, his favorite character, appears both in his Theogony, an epic on the dynasties of the gods and their origin, and in his Works and Days, a didactic poem full of wise sayings designed for all the days and all the exigencies of peasant life. In each of these works the poet is concerned with the problem of the origin of the evil from which the world suffers. The story of Prometheus provided him with an explanation for the otherwise incomprehensible fact that the life of man is full of sickness and need. The race of man shares in atoning for the guilt which Prometheus, the mythical helper of man, took on himself when he stole the fire from Olympus and brought it to helpless mortals. Hesiod’s attitude toward this myth is sober and devout reflection. He accepts it as an instrument for his own meditations on the origin of toil and suffering on earth, the “social problem” as we should call it. Obviously, Hesiod welded together a number of legends which were originally independent into a long drawn-out, carefully constructed story. The tale of the theft of fire and the fact that Prometheus was punished for this deed, which many people must have regarded as meritorious, had to be motivated by some previous fault which had called forth the anger of the gods and determined Zeus to withhold fire from man. Hesiod found the cause of this anger in the myth of the bone-sacrifice in Mecone, a tale which originally had nothing whatsoever to do with the theft of fire but merely served to explain an old religious rite. A certain type of myth, called aition, was devised to give explanations of this kind. The seams in Hesiod’s fabric are quite visible to the practiced eye: his style is not very smooth. His attempt to weave his scattered sources closely together and his superimposed theological interpretation of events are quite apparent.
The next story in our book is that of Phaethon, the son of the sun-god, who begged his father to let him drive the chariot of the sun for one whole day, and plunged headlong from the heights of heaven because he did not know how to manage the immortal horses. This tale is vivid and colorful, and told with brilliant technique, but with a tendency to rhetorical effect and a touch of the didactic. Here Schwab follows Ovid, who tells the story in his Metamorphoses, and we cannot fail to admire the sophisticated artistry of this Roman poet who wrote in the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, even though it is far removed from the naïveté and the gravity and devoutness of Hesiod. Ovid deals with the myth to suit himself; now he uses it merely as a means to exhibit his masterly style, now he is swept away by the charm of the story itself and succeeds in sweeping away his readers. The scholar cannot deal with the tales of Hesiod and Ovid on the same plane. In Hesiod’s telling, one still feels the living breath of an era which reshaped and expanded myths, an age in which myths possessed deep meaning; while in Ovid one sees only mythology. But aside from the fact that nowhere else can we find the Phaethon episode told as fully as in Ovid, no one else could have told it so fascinatingly; and so Schwab accepted what each poet had to say for the story in it.
Thus the author goes back to the most various antique sources. Many of the myths are taken from the dramas of the three great Athenian masters of tragedy: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (fifth century B.C.). Others are borrowed from later, post-classical writers of the Hellenistic age—the legend of the Argonauts, for instance, which is told according to the epic of Apollonius of Rhodes (third century B.C.). But Schwab has treated his material with the greatest freedom. Frequently he introduces episodes taken from various poets of antiquity into a story whose main outlines he took from another source. In other words, he does just what his predecessors of old did—mythographers such as Apollodorus, for example. An instance of this is the story of Prometheus. While it follows Hesiod in the main, the description of the hero is enriched by borrowings from other sources. Plato relates that Prometheus secretly stole fire from the smithy of Hephaestus; Aeschylus also has Prometheus steal it from Hephaestus and bring it to earth in a hollow fennel stalk. But Sappho knew another version of this incident. According to her, Prometheus brought fire from heaven to earth after lighting a torch at one of the fiery wheels of the sun chariot, and this is the version Schwab blended into Hesiod’s story. The concept of Prometheus, as not only the faithful aide but also the creator of man, he took from Aeschylus. This version of the role of Prometheus can also be found in other literary sources and in Greek vase painting. Schwab follows Aeschylus in making Hesiod’s story of the fire-thief symbolize the beginning of civilization. The author practiced the same eclecticism in the telling of other legends. For instance, the story of the Argonauts, as we already know, is based on the epic of Apollonius of Rhodes, but for the Medea episode the author drew largely on Euripides’ play Medea. We do not intend to enumerate all the sources Schwab used for one reason or another, but only to suggest to the reader that the many different themes his ear will catch in the development of the tales are all part of the rich symphony of the poets of antiquity.
We have already indicated that in classical antiquity myths were a part of poetry, and poetry was closely connected with myth. In later centuries this relation came to mean little more than a law of style. From the period of Greek enlightenment on, that is, from the fifth century B.C., the Greeks took myth to mean everything which was legendary and miraculous, everything which could not be proven as a fact or demonstrated through reason. And the word retained this meaning forever after. “Mythical” came to mean “unreal,” and with this the world of poetry became an imaginary world. That is why the poetry of the ancients, their gods, and their heroes, were tolerated by Christianity: to them they had merely aesthetic significance; they were not true. But this devaluation of the myth had begun long before the Christian era. It was initiated by the Greeks themselves as soon as they replaced mythical tradition by their own experience, and imagination by reasoning. The earlier ages accepted the myth as something true and actual. Then the word mythoi—if it was used at all—did not mean fables but merely tales, because these stories were transmitted by telling, by word of mouth. Other words for them were phemé, which indicates rumor, and kleos, which means glory. These names suggest the true nature of legend itself, for the legends of heroes, as well as those which dealt with the gods, were a message from the dark long ago. They preserved the memory of glorious deeds.
Even centuries before Homer there must have been singers such as Homer describes in his epics, who appeared at the courts of princes or in the market places of cities and celebrated in song the heroes of the past. This oldest poetry was known as “Praise of theDeeds of Gods and Men.” Homer himself tells us this in the verses of the Odyssey which deal with the calling of the singer and his place in his environment. Thus it was the “myth,” as it was later called, which originally constituted the essential content of epic song. The poet proclaimed the fame of heroic areté, that is of those powers and virtues of man which enabled him to attain to the highest achievements. This vocation of the poet’s made him the true carrier of tradition and the expounder of legend. These primitive songs in praise of heroes, then, were the precursors of Homer’s epics, which aimed at a more comprehensive vision of human life; but even later developments of Greek poetry still show the unchanged close relationship of the poet to mythical tradition. Not only was the glorification of the heroes of the past a fitting tribute due from the present generation, but it also provided a glowing example for imitation. The Greeks believed that the poet or singer whose words stirred the heart with a desire for glory was the true educator of men. Examples drawn from myths, especially when used as arguments in the speeches of the characters in the Homeric epic, clearly prove that this purpose of presenting noble models for emulation was inherent in mythical tradition from the beginning. In early Greece the myth had the value of factual truth and was accepted as the norm. By idealized pictures of heroes and their deeds and destinies the poetry of ancient times bodied forth those truths which later philosophical ages expressed as general ideas and precepts. That is why the poets of Greece were able to present all the problems of human life in the form of mythical happenings and characters. The memory of legend and the thought and feeling of each new generation were always indissolubly joined.
It is understandable that this dual character of the myth has given rise to extreme and one-sided interpretations of its essence. Either it was denied historical verity altogether and declared mere poetic fiction, or it was claimed to be history and nothing else. The truth of the matter is that the mythical tradition which we find in Greek poetry is a complicated structure made up of very different elements. It is easy to see that the heroic myth has in it much of the fairy tale, and that a portion of it is of a purely imaginary character. This also holds for another aspect of legend, the legends concerning the gods. These constituted a part of religion and sprang from the speculation on nature and the origin of the gods. But even these legends of the gods contain a germ of empirical reality, for they are connected with cosmic phenomena, such as the sky, the stars, earth, and sea, or they take for their point of departure religious rites and institutions and relate a mythical story to explain their origins. But the part of the myth of greatest interest to us here is that which is concerned with heroes. Many of the most famous legends of this kind are based on historical fact and go back to civilizations earlier than the Greek itself. It has often been stated that the body of Greek legend includes different legend cycles bound up with different localities. The legends which were rooted in the pre-Greek civilizations of Troy, Mycenae, Argos, Tiryns, and Thebes, throve in greatest abundance. Excavations in these places have brought to light pre-Homeric settlements and palaces of powerful kings. These discoveries prove the historical reality of certain legends, such as those which tell of the destruction of Troy by the Achaeans, coming overseas from Argos, or those of the campaign of the “Seven against Thebes,” which also started from Argos. Attic legend has preserved the memory of Minos, of Crete’s supremacy over the sea, and of the dynasts whose palaces Evans excavated in Knossos on Crete. In the course of centuries legendary happenings crystallized around such memories, and poetic fancy came to adorn the historical fact.
This process of poetic adornment began in the very earliest phase, when the wonder tales of the days of old lived only in the hearts of the people. The so-called historical core of the legend probably never existed pure of any alloy of imaginative interpretation, and whether one person or many were concerned in this process of admixture hardly matters. Legend remains legend whether individual singers or entire guilds of rhapsodists transmit it in the form of epic song. The only prerequisite is that this process through which “memory” is constantly being shaped and reshaped into poetry springs from the life of the people. Considered from this point of view, the poems of Homer and of the Greek tragic poets are genuine myths even when they alter the mythical tradition with the help of creative imagination and introduce into it new characters and motifs. But very early a tendency to compile and set down legends as a body of knowledge appeared alongside of this impulse toward molding legends through fancy, for they were, after all, regarded as true reports of the past. Taking over Homer’s style, certain poets wrote lengthy epics on those bodies of legend which had not yet been worked into poems. With these works, the so-called “cyclic poems,” they filled the gaps in the account of events before and after the Trojan War, or supplemented the picture Homer gave of the war since he only covered the last period of the struggle for Troy. Thus the epic and the legend along with it were made historical. Other post-Homeric poets invented genealogies for their mythical heroes, which they traced back to a divine ancestor or ancestress and on to a noble house with living scions. In this way they tried to bridge the chasm between the age of legend and the present. From this kind of poetry it was only a small step to converting these epics, which were more or less genealogies and catalogues, into prose books that form the transition to the beginnings of historiography. It is due to this scholarly preoccupation with myths that so many contradictory variants concerning the father or mother of famous heroes appear in Greek mythical tradition. These prose redactions of myths, which count among their best-known authors such writers as Pherecydes, Acusilaus, and Hecataeus (fifth century B.C.), do not exist except in a few fragments, which is true also of the cyclic poems which followed Homer’s work. But both served as sources for later mythographers of antiquity, such as Apollodorus, whose works have survived. It is evident that what these later books of legend took over from such genealogical works was not all true legend, but was partly based on the artificial and arbitrary constructions of these older pseudo-historians. In other words, it was, to some extent, a product of the rational thinking of the early redactors whose logic ironed out the incredible element of the tradition.
It is amazing proof of the inexhaustible vitality of legend that subsequent to, and side by side with this development whose external symptom was the decline of epic production, a great new form of poetry sprang up in Attica toward the end of the sixth centuryB.C., which woke the myth to new life. This new form was the tragedy. The powerful dramatic impulse which now leaped into being was born of the increased intensity of the spiritual struggle with the problems of actual life. But this life projected its reality into the world of ancient legend, just as at an earlier stage Homer’s era had projected itself into the epic. For the generation of Aeschylus and Sophocles this world of ancient legend became the ideal mirror of their own concept of man, the gods, and the world. Thus legend,dramatized in tragedy, experienced a radiant rebirth and proved its indestructible power to survive. The vase painting and choral songs of the sixth century were the first symptoms of the people’s new and increased interest in the old myths which formed the content of the epic. The manner in which the writers of Attic tragedy used these myths gave the characters of legend their final form. What constituted the tragic in tragedy? The passionate awareness of destiny, the sense of how freedom and limitation are mixed in life, and the way in which man reaches heroic stature under the impact of his appointed fate. The great masters of Greek tragedy found the outlines of this basically “tragic” attitude toward life clearly limned in the myths of their people. And so the tragedians gave the old vocation of the singer as a carrier of the tradition a new and deeper significance. Homer himself presented the poet as far more than a man who glorifies the deeds of heroes. To him he was an interpreter of human destiny, and this idea he embodied in his treatment of Achilles and Odysseus. Plato was, therefore, quite right in calling Homer the father of tragedy. This aspect of legend was brought to the peak of perfection only by the tragic poetry of the Greeks of the fifth century.
This development from legend to tragedy brings to light still another force latent in Greek myth, the inimitable plastic vigor of the characters of legend, which were shaped into living and acting persons by the tragedians. For the dramatist the characters of legend were a most fruitful subject. The heroes in Greek legends are not majestic but insubstantial apparitions, such as we sometimes find in the legends of other peoples. They are amazingly real, individual, and convincing. That was why, in his famous epistle on poetry, Horace advised the younger generation of poets in Rome to give up the ambition of inventing their own dramatic characters, for these so often lacked all individual life and were nothing but shadows. It would be better, he said, for them to utilize the characters in Greek legend, who were indestructibly actual. And no one can fail to agree with this Roman critic, at least in his evaluation of the myth as potential poetry, for even after so many centuries the heroes and heroines of Greek legend are still as clear, as three-dimensional to us, as though we had met them in the flesh: Achilles and Patroclus, Odysseus and Penelope, Oedipus and Antigone, Prometheus, Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra, Orestes, Iphigenia, Electra, Ajax, Medea. Jason, and many more. It is true, of course, that these figures are, in part, the creations of great poets; for us it is hardly possible to distinguish between their share in the formation of these characters and that of the mythical tradition. Still, though the myths do not give the fully developed features of these characters, they contain the seeds which flower later in tragedy.
The myth also contained another important trait of the characters of Greek tragedy: their universality. For not one of them is merely individual. They are convincing because they represent the coincidence of individuality and type. The Greek mind had the capacity of detecting the basic law, not only in all human beings, but in all things. They called this “idea” inherent in every thing and every human creature the “form of its being.” Aeschylus saw Prometheus as a creative genius, inspired by warm love for suffering humanity, always ready to help the weak but defiant toward the higher powers and egregiously self-confident. Antigone is the idealist who readily sacrifices herself to the claims of divine law. Full of tender love for her dead brother to whom his fellow-citizens deny the rites of burial because they regard him as a traitor, she is fanatically inflexible in her opposition to the laws of worldly power which claim her as their victim. Achilles, a character of heroic greatness, is essentially noble, and just because of this, he loves honor and is given to sudden anger against everyone who offends this sense of honor. Oedipus has an agile and penetrating brain and solves every riddle with the greatest ease; but he is nevertheless blind to his own share in the disaster he unwittingly brings upon his city and his people. Bellerophon is a great hero in his fight against all external dangers and resists every temptation devised by feminine shrewdness and desire. But a strain of melancholy in his blood separates him from his fellow men and finally drives him, the radiant hero, to go his lonely way sick and bewildered, like one who is hated by all the gods, and finally to destroy himself to no purpose. Thus the philosophic mind of the Greek people shaped the characters of legend into a series of ideal types which serve as significant examples for the understanding of human nature.
The great poetry of the classical period of Greek literature clung to the primitive myth because it was intimately related to it. The myth was its soul as well as its body. But the increasingly rational criticism which the fifth century directed against all traditionlikewise affected the myth, not only its gods and the picture it gave of the world, but also its heroes and its tragic concept of life. In the plays of Euripides, the last of these three great writers of tragedies, the rational doubting spirit invades even the shaping of the myth itself. His characters were modernized and in this process became less profound. These so-called “heroes” are unashamedly loquacious and discussed the everyday problems of the burghers of the poet’s own day and age. Under such circumstances it was difficult for them to maintain their heroic poise. It became merely a pose, and their words degenerated to empty declamation. The next step on this path was necessarily the abandonment of the myth. Drama became a mirror of modern middle-class life, and comedy with its happy ending carried the day against heroic tragedy. There were, to be sure, still some poets who in a highly artificial style wrote dramas based on myths, but they were ineffective. The only successful use of the tradition was the parodying of mythical content and characters which we find in the comedies of the time. Not until the post-classical period of Greek literature did serious poetry turn to the myth again to produce romantic and sentimental epics and elegies on mythical themes. But this poetry was academic, and the living myth had been converted into “mythology.” That was all the myth was to the Romans and to Roman poets.
It remained for the Romantic Movement of the nineteenth century to rediscover the true greatness of the mythical tradition. Since Romanticism was fundamentally opposed to the exaggerated rationalism of the preceding epoch, it tended to regard myths as a sort of primordial wisdom of mankind, a form of wisdom which modern man had impiously sacrificed in his arrogant pride of reason. It was in this spirit that a large part of modern research in the field of mythology was dedicated to the attempt to penetrate to the roots of mythical thinking and reveal its true meaning.
I have already pointed out that the book we have here is untouched by this speculative and symbolical conception of myths. The investigator of myths along the lines laid down by the Romantic School will think that the naïve teller of these tales has often ignored profundities. But this book is meant not only for children but also for the childlike spirit of the young and old alike. It conveys a breath of the imperishable strength of youth in Greek genius, which is perhaps most alive and beautiful in the myth. The Greeks felt this themselves. Plato called the mythical period of Greek poetry the flowering time of his people. In a certain sense this strength has never left the Greeks. “You Greeks are always children; there is no such thing as an old Greek,” said an Egyptian priest, the representative of an age-old civilization, to Solon, the sage of Athens, who came to Egypt by ship to see the wonders of the land of the Nile. These words of Plato’s are quoted from the Timaeus, the work of his old age, and Plato himself bears surpassing witness to the inexhaustible impulse of the Greeks to create myths in an era (the fourth century B.C.) in which the mythical tradition seemed to be dying off everywhere else. In his dialogues he invented a new kind of myth which blends old mythical elements of symbolic force with new philosophical ideas. Even Aristotle, Plato’s greatest pupil, the master of pure reason, once said: “The friend of wisdom (philosophos) is also a friend of the myth (philomythos).” That is how the most profound spirits among the Greeks thought at the zenith of their civilization. In a letter to an intimate friend this same Aristotle made a more personal confession. He wrote: “The lonelier I am, the more of a recluse I become, the greater is my love for myths.”