Ancient History & Civilisation


Lost in Translation

There is no shortage of legendary heroes who travel far and wide in early Greek myths, but there are three who have so far been linked by modern scholars with eighth-century Euboean travellers and their journeys in the real world. One is winged Daedalus, another is labouring Heracles and the third is the unfortunate Io whom Zeus seduced and turned into a cow. We can follow Daedalus to Sicily, Heracles to southern Spain and Io to Syria, Egypt and the Adriatic sea. Each of them shows how history can be inferred from a myth’s locations at particular sites, but whether that history includes early Euboeans or a fertile contact with non-Greek stories in the east and west remains to be seen.


In Greek myths Daedalus is not just a travelling hero: he is the greatest travelling craftsman. We meet him on Crete, although the Athenians, patrons of arts and crafts, claimed that he had originated in Athens. It was on Crete that he built wonders for mythical King Minos, the puzzling labyrinth in which the monstrous Minotaur lived, half-bull, half-man, and especially the wooden cow in which the love-crazed Pasiphae waited on all fours for sex with her lover, a bull. King Minos was so very angry at this awful commission for his queen that he imprisoned Daedalus, at least until his prisoner built wax wings and flew to safety, followed by his son Icarus. Icarus flew too near the sun and went into ‘meltdown’, falling, some said later, into the Aegean near Euboea.1Daedalus flew on west to Sicily where the local king Kokalos received him on the island’s south coast and put him to work once again with his technical skills. Minos pursued him, but without success, and Daedalus ended up working in Sicily.

This story has to be pieced together from Greek sources of varying dates and places, including images on pottery which remind us that our texts do not amount to the totality of Daedalus-stories at any one time. It is in images, not texts, that we first see Daedalus associated with wings, but images do not fix the items and stories to particular places on the map. For this fixing, we depend on surviving texts and in them the earliest location of Daedalus is indeed on Crete. Already we meet him there in Homer’s Iliad when the lame craftsman-god Hephaestus adds a few last scenes to his wondrous shield for Achilles. He decorates it with a superb scene of the dancing of finely dressed young men and girls on a ‘dancing-floor’, says Homer, ‘which once in broad Knossos, Daedalus crafted for fair-haired Ariadne’.2 On his first appearance in poetry Daedalus is plainly not Homer’s invention: he is a point of comparison and so he belongs in stories which Homer’s audience already recognized. Grounded in Crete, he then travels in epic poetry to a western site linked to Euboeans: the sculpted doors of Apollo’s temple at Cumae in Italy. They were confronted, eight centuries later, by Virgil’s hero Aeneas on a terrace which looked out to Pithecussae and the Bay of Naples. It stood, Virgil tells us, on ‘Euboean rock’ beneath a ‘Chalcidian citadel’, and Daedalus had sculpted its golden doors. At Euboean Cumae, Daedalus had depicted scenes from his own life, his help for the princess Ariadne on Crete and the story, twice attempted, of his own son Icarus’ fall from heaven, an event too painful, says Virgil, with typical pathos, for Daedalus’ hands to succeed in carving its image.3

From eastern Crete to western Italy, Daedalus thus flies on the finest wings of epic poetry and with Virgil he stops at a Euboean site in the west. His myth has been upheld as the perfect story for the travelling Greek craftsmen who are attested for us in the west by archaeology at Pithecussae. Daedalus’ works were precious and cleverly crafted, like the meaning of his own eloquent Greek name. In Homer’s Iliad, objects which are called daidala are mostly items of armour, but they include fine bowls, furniture and, once, the ‘bronze-working’ (the word is used only here in Homer) of ‘clasps, twisted brooches, earrings and necklaces’ by the god Hephaestus while hiding with goddesses of the sea. These ‘daedalic’ items of bronze jewellery overlap with bronze-worked items which have been found in the metal-working zone of eighth-century Pithecussae.4 If their workers had heard Homer’s songs, Daedalus and ‘daedalic objects’ were allusions to which they would relate. Did these very same craftsmen, many of them Euboeans, locate Daedalus in the west, the story which Virgil later accepts?

At the other end of the flight-path, Daedalus’ name has been traced, on one view, to Near Eastern inspiration as far back as the thirteenth century BC. On the north Syrian coast, just south of the future Al Mina, the Bronze Age residents at Ras Shamra had a god of craftsmanship whose connections almost certainly extended to Crete. This god, Kothar, was later identified by the Greeks with their own craft-god Hephaestus, the associate of Daedalus. Kothar’s name and the epithets which attached to it had the meaning of ‘Skilful and Wise, or Cunning’.5 Was ‘Daedalus’, then, created from a Greek translation of these Near Eastern titles for the god of arts and crafts? In Cretan texts of the Bronze Age, we also find a da-da-re-jo which was a place at Knossos, evidently a place of worship.6 Here, some seven hundred years before Homer, do we have early evidence of Daedalus’ location at Knossos on Crete, exactly where Homer refers to his work? Did he, perhaps, take root here after Cretan Greeks’ contact with the Near Eastern coastline and its ‘crafty’ Kothar, god of crafts?

These connections are not convincing. We do not know what da-dare-jo meant in these early Cretan texts or even that the word was Greek: we certainly cannot say that it was a place of worship for the Daedalus known later to us. As for the suggestion of a Near Eastern origin for his name, the problem is that the supposed translation is not very clear: daidalos in Greek has the meaning, rather, of ‘finely worked’ or ‘elaborate’. No Greek source ever connects Daedalus with the Levant, although such connections are sometimes credited in other Greek figures of myth. There is a simpler alternative origin. Metal-working and well-crafted objects were known in Greek for being daidalosldaidala. As so often, Greeks then invented a namesake for them, a ‘Mr Daidalos’: the proper name derived from the Greek adjective. In the tenth and ninth centuries Crete was a prominent centre of elaborate, well-crafted daidala. Perhaps ‘Mr Daidalos’ was invented there, a mythical master of craftsmanship.

If he was, his name soon spread more widely and he became connected with Athens too, like the craft-god Hephaestus whose role in the city and its festivals was old and deep-rooted. By the eighth century Daedalus was probably at home already in Athens and in Crete.7 We then find him in the west in early Etruscan company, thanks to a recent find of their grey-black figured pottery at Cerveteri on the west coast of Italy, nearly 300 miles north of ancient Cumae. A winged figure, captioned ‘Taitale’, is shown on one side of a jug, and on another, a figure who is captioned ‘Metaia’ (the Greek Medea). This find has put the Greek Daedalus securely on the Italic map and its linking of these two mythical figures is unparalleled.8 The link was probably based on their wondrous, miraculous art. Magically, Daedalus could fly and, magically, Medea was able to rejuvenate the old (the scene on the jug seems to show her doing just this). The imagery is datable to c. 630 BC, and implies that stories about Daedalus were already well known locally. The jug is an Etruscan one.

Even without this Etruscan image, there were Greek texts which fixed him quite early to specific western sites in Sicily. In the 680s Greeks began their important settlement of Gela on Sicily’s south-east coast: we are told, but only centuries later, that their heirs then seized statues sculpted by Daedalus from a nearby settlement of the non-Greek Sicans, the Greeks’ predecessors in this part of the island.9 To the west of them lived the Sicels, also non-Greeks, whose king, the famous Kokalos, was celebrated at the ancient capital of Kamikos. By c. 560 BC, yet another work by Daedalus was believed to have been found there too.

The evidence for this daedalic object lies in one of antiquity’s most beguiling sources, the chronicle of the temple of Athena at Lindos on Rhodes. It was composed c. 100 BC and was prefaced with a list of ancient gifts to the temple’s treasury. According to the chronicle, the Greek tyrant Phalaris had donated a sculpted mixing-bowl (presumably of bronze) whose earliest inscription described it as ‘Daedalus’ gift of hospitality for King Kokalos’: on one side it showed the ‘battles of the Titans’, on the other ‘Cronos’ taking his children from their mother Rhea and swallowing them’.10 Phalaris ruled Acragas (Agri-gento) in the 560s and 550s, and some of Acragas’ Greek colonists could claim a kinship with Lindos, the site of the temple. There were good reasons why Phalaris believed in this well-contrived fake: Kokalos’ non-Greek capital, Kamikos, lay in territory controlled by his city-state of Acragas. Evidently an ingenious Greek had inscribed an archaic metal bowl with just the sort of pedigree and ancient imagery which Phalaris of Acragas would like to discover. Perhaps the forger sold it for money: Phalaris then presented it to his sister-shrine at Lindos, presumably in good faith. Whatever the object’s origin, it traded on the belief that Daedalus was located in the pre-Greek past on Sicily’s southern coast.

In the 480s BC, as Persian invaders threatened the Greeks, we have solid evidence that the story of Daedalus’ westward migration had become widely credited. In Herodotus’ Histories, the Cretans consulted the oracle at Delphi about whether to fight the Persians, but were reminded by the Delphic priestess of the wrath of their ancestral king Minos: he was angry because they had never avenged his untimely death in Sicily. Minos, Herodotus explains, ‘is said’ to have travelled to pre-Greek Sicily in pursuit of the fugitive Daedalus.11 The Delphic oracle cited this ‘wrath’ as a solid reason why the Cretans should not join the other Greeks in fighting against the Persian invaders. To us, the oracle is fascinating evidence of the living power of myth and divine anger among Greeks in their early classical age: it is also a proof of Daedalus’ Sicilian location which the Delphic oracle’s verses took for granted.

Daedalus’ role as a Greek craftsman in the west then grew in subsequent stories. All around them Greek settlers in Sicily encountered old or natural non-Greek wonders, marvels like the great temple-terrace at the non-Greek site of Eryx (a few stones are still visible), hot springs on the southern coast (still there at Sciacca) or non-Greek styles of monumental architecture (now vanished). They explained these sites as Daedalus’ ancient handiwork, an origin which made them part of their own Greek prehistory.12 On the south coast, between Gela and Acragas, we then find an ancient map-reference to a ‘Daedalion’, a ‘place of Daedalus’.13 Daedalus’ engineering was even extended to Sardinia, perhaps thanks to the histories of Timaeus, a Hellenistic rationalizer in the third centuryBC but a western Greek by origin.14 In Italy, however, Daedalus’ role in decorating the great temple at Cumae is only Virgil’s fiction, so far as present evidence goes. The first oracular temple at Cumae was Hera’s, not Apollo’s, and the Apollo-temple was probably not built until the sixth century BC.15 Virgil is vague about it, and Daedalus’ artwork on the doors is probably his own invention, at most imposed on stories which he had found in the learned Timaeus or in another Hellenistic source. Virgil’s flight of fancy is not sound evidence for a Euboean location of Daedalus at Cumae as early as the eighth century BC.

Rather, Daedalus’ roots, the sites in his main stories and his own first locations are Cretan, not Euboean. We know of historical Cretan settlers in the west, the Cretan settlers who arrived to found Gela in the 68os and helped to found Acragas, Phalaris’ city, a hundred years later. They saw big non-Greek buildings among the neighbouring Sicans and Sicels and they captured some fine archaic metal objects from the nearby non-Greek sites.16 Daedalus, they assumed, had been busy designing them and soon they helped to locate his pursuer King Minos too. In the later seventh century BC, Greeks at Selinus (Selinunte) in the far south-west of the island founded a headland settlement on their eastern borders and renamed it ‘Minoa’ after a place name in their own original mother-city’s topography back in Greece.17 In the early fifth century BC this ‘Minoa’ was then mistaken as evidence of the Cretan king Minos’ presence. From debris on the site, there emerged a long-forgotten tomb, plainly, therefore, the ‘tomb’ of King Minos, which contained the Cretan king’s very bones.18 Such interconnections of Cretan legend and local topography multiplied in the west, long before Timaeus and later historians helped to diffuse them across yet more sites on the island. It was, then, with Cretans, not Euboeans, that Daedalus’ flight became fixed in Sicily in the seventh (not the eighth) century BC. It was a good story, and the Etruscans might have picked it up anyway, but the Cretans’ support for it can only have helped its fame to spread. So we find ‘Taitale’ in Etruscan Italy c.630 BC.

At the other end of the Mediterranean, it is unlikely that Daedalus owed any debt to Near Eastern myths, let alone to a myth which had been transmitted to Crete in the remote Bronze Age. Euboean travellers did not invent him, either, through their contact with the East in the eighth century BC. From Crete, Daedalus flew west, but to sites with which the later Cretan settlers in Sicily identified him from the 68os onwards. They used him to make sense of the non-Greek world which they saw around them. Cretans had not been present with the Euboeans who settled earlier at Ischia or Cumae or in east Sicily. Their travelling hero’s air-miles were impressive but, on present evidence, he had not been on the first Euboeans’ minds.


The most awesome of all Greek travelling heroes cannot fly, but he can certainly fight. He is Heracles, ‘mighty, bold, lionhearted’ as Homer’s Iliad already well described him. He has an energy and range which make even Daedalus’ journey seem rather parochial. Homer alludes only briefly to stories of Heracles’ deeds and labours, but these allusions are proof that a wide variety of such stories was already current in Greek. He refers to Heracles’ visit to Troy before the Trojan War and how he sacked the city when its king denied him his promised reward of horses. He knows how his labours arose from the jealousy of Hera. There were ‘many’ of them and once, at Pylos, Heracles killed Nestor’s eleven brothers. Perhaps it was then, perhaps later, that at Pylos he wounded Hades ‘among the dead’ with a swift arrow. The story puzzled later ancient commentators, but it was probably then too that he hit the goddess Hera spectacularly in her right breast with another arrow, a barbed one. Nonetheless Heracles was still ‘dearest to Zeus’, although even he could not escape eventual death.19

‘Labours’ and ‘might’ are words which Homer already attached naturally to this hero. In Hesiod’s poems, we hear more about some of these labours: Heracles kills the many-headed snaky Hydra and the lion at Nemea and, above all, kills the giant Geryon, steals his cattle ‘in Erytheia’ and drives them home, ‘broad-faced cattle’, to Tiryns in Greece.20 To the eighth-century poets, Heracles’ ‘labours’ were already familiar, but they were not always the labours which later sources emphasized. In art and poetry the numbers of labours continued to vary before they eventually settled at twelve.

Undoubtedly, then, travelling Euboeans knew stories of Heracles’ prowess, even before Homer or Hesiod sang of them. We know of cults of Heracles on Euboea, some of which may be very old. Above all, we have a story of how he sacked the ancient city of Oechalia in Euboea itself.21 Heracles was also part of a common stock of stories in which he showed the elements of a popular hero, voracious, hefty, a great tamer of useful animals and a great killer of wildlife which was an unusable pest and a danger. His victories were not won by magic: they relied on his courage and cunning. He had various ‘addresses’ in Greece, at Thebes, Aetolia and above all Argos, and some of his animal-enemies were located there too. His pre-Homeric roots went back into the ‘Dark Ages’ and probably, though no linguistic proof exists, into the previous Mycenaean period.22

Nonetheless were some of Heracles’ stories adapted from stories which Greek travellers met in the Near East? There are parallels between some of Heracles’ deeds and the deeds of palace-demolishing Samson (in Israel), lion-slaying, westward-travelling Gilgamesh (in Mesopotamia) and, back in the third millennium BC, the exploits of the Sumerian god Ninurta (also in Mesopotamia) against a menacing bull, a bird and much else, spoils which were brought back as trophies to Ninurta’s temples. Across the centuries the old Sumerian tales about the deeds and trophies of Ninurta travelled and persisted. They became attached, we now know, to other Near Eastern gods and temples, more than a thousand years after Ninurta’s heyday.23 Greek visitors to the Levant could, then, have encountered them in the Bronze Age or afterwards, although the stories do not overlap exactly with the stories of Heracles which Greeks created. The Israelites’ tales of Samson are less likely as a Greek model, because Israel was on the margins of established Greek contact. Here, above all, we risk mistaking parallel stories for causes and origins. Culture-heroes do approximately similar things in different societies, fighting against monsters and wild nature and even penetrating to the edges of the world. Heracles’ animal enemies are not those of Near Eastern heroes, and the differences between theirs and his are more striking than the parallels.24

Heracles also laboured out west in ‘neverland’, in an enigmatic Erytheia, where he battled with monstrous Geryon, and in the gardens of the Hesperides, source of the golden apples. For Hesiod, Erytheia was far away by the very limits of western Ocean.25However, Heracles also turns up in great poetry at a specific western address, exploited in Virgil’s Aeneid. When Aeneas visits the early site of Rome he finds its mythical king Evander, his son Pallas and the ‘humble’ Roman senate about their religious business: they are paying solemn honour to Heracles and the gods in a grove before the city. They ‘were offering incense’, Virgil tells us, ‘and the warm blood (of animals) was smoking by the altars’. As King Evander explains, Heracles had once rescued Rome’s early residents from a great danger, the monstrous giant (‘Cacus’: Bad Man) who had lived in a deep dark cave in the nearby hills and had tried to steal the cattle which Heracles was driving home to Greece from one of his labours in the west. As evening falls, Aeneas watches in awe while members of a prominent Roman family, the Potitii, come ‘dressed in their customary skins, bearing torches’ and make a second series of offerings at the altars. Old and young members of a Roman priestly college sing hymns of the ‘glories and deeds’ of Heracles: ‘all the woodland rings with the clamour, and the hills resound’.26

This brilliant evocation of a simple Rome and its humble, impoverished senate played on the pastoral nostalgia of Virgil’s Roman readers, aware of the teeming, luxurious Rome which was the wonder and curse of their own day. Virgil’s scene is fiction, but it refers to a famous ancient rite. Throughout pagan Rome’s history, honours were paid to Heracles at the Greatest Altar, the Ara Maxima, by a crossing-point for travellers on the River Tiber. We know of some of its rules from later sources: women could not share in the cult (a ban which is known in several other cults of Heracles).27

Heracles and his deeds thus span a wide horizon from east to west: in the east he was also worshipped in due course at Tyre and was even said to have visited Egypt. Although Near Eastern stories have not shaped his own, changes occur in Heracles’ image and here the effects of contact between Greeks and Near Easterners can be traced more plausibly. In the later seventh century BC the Greek artists’ Heracles is no longer the helmeted warrior who fights enemies with his bow. He begins to be shown wearing a lion-skin whose head is his hat and whose teeth define his hairline: most probably this lion-skin had been a dress for Near Eastern champions. So far, the earliest known example of this new style is on a metal band found in the sanctuary of Hera on Samos and dating to c. 630BC.28 By c. 550 BC, however, another type had emerged in stone sculpture, a youthful, unbearded god who wears a lion-skin on his back and has the lion’s paws knotted on his chest. He tends to carry a club, not a bow, and to have one arm raised. This type is attested first on Cyprus and then, by extension, on the Levantine coast at the fine Phoenician site of Amrith (ancient Marathos). It is this type which was used in an early temple-sculpture of Heracles in Rome c. 530 BC.29

This new image appears to originate on Cyprus and is evidently due to contact between Greeks and a non-Greek cult on the island. The votive-sculptures from nearby Levantine Amrith, locally made c. 580–550 BC, are decisive evidence. The Levantines who offered them had not adopted the worship of the Greeks’ Heracles. For them, their lion-clad, club-bearing figure represented a Near Eastern god, although we cannot, strictly, give him his true Phoenician name.30 Which way, though, did the influence run? It is more likely, at present, that Cypriot and Levantine sculptors applied themes which Greeks had developed for Heracles. They used them, including the lion-skin with knotted paws, to represent a young god in their own culture. In due course other Greeks who came closely into contact with Phoenicians made another equation between their Heracles and a foreign god: this time, the equation was with Melqart. Melqart was the god of the great city of Tyre, where King Hiram, we are told, had built a temple of Melqart in the later tenth century BC. The kings of Tyre were priests of Melqart; Melqart was the ‘lord’ of Tyre, the god of the Tyrian citadel, ‘king’ (melq) of the ‘town’ (qart).31 When Greeks returned to the Levant in the tenth to ninth centuries BC, Melqart’s cult was already much in evidence: was Melqart equated with Heracles by the very first Greek visitors, those Euboeans whose pottery was present at Tyre by c. 920 BC? In their pre-literate world, evidence is necessarily lacking, but we know that the equation was made, albeit by much later Greek visitors. Herodotus accepted it as a matter of course when he visited Tyre c. 450 BC.32 The precise grounds for it are still unclear to us. Unlike Heracles, Melqart was a god, not a hero, and when we see his image c. 850 BC on a votive block of basalt near Aleppo nothing about it would suggest Heracles to a Greek eye. Melqart’s important civic role both at Tyre and in her colonies was also a weak reason for making the comparison: Heracles was not the founding-hero par excellence of early Greek settlements overseas.33 Instead, there were surely many stories about Melqart which we do not now know, some of which must have suggested Heracles somehow to Greek visitors to Cyprus and the Levant. Stories are the likelier point of connection than images, because there was almost certainly no image of Melqart to be seen in his Tyrian temple. Instead, there were two remarkable ‘pillars’ (stēlai), as Herodotus explains; one was ‘of refined gold, the other was of emerald which gleamed in the night’.34 Cults of Melqart were prominent in Tyre’s ancient colonies too, at Carthage and further west, at Cadiz. The cult and temple at Cadiz are known only in late sources of the Roman era, but here too there were two tall bronze pillars and no image. According to Strabo (c. 20 BC) sailors would make offerings at them after a successful journey.35

Despite the late date of this detailed evidence, Melqart’s cult at Cadiz was very old, as old, no doubt, as the settlement itself. When Greeks ventured into the west Mediterranean in the eighth century they would encounter these cults of Tyrian Melqart and as usual they would try to make sense of what they saw. They may already have understood the god as their own Greek Heracles, and as a result Heracles’ travels and labours in ‘neverland’ acquired precise far-western addresses. They then posed a further question: if Heracles had gone so far west, how ever did he come home to Greece? Their answers added yet more sites for Heracles’ exploits, even when Melqart’s presence was not there to guide them.

We can begin to trace their sitings in Greek poetry and travel-stories from the mid-sixth century BC onwards, especially those known to the forerunner of Herodotus, Hecataeus of Miletus, who told them in his Circuit of the Earth (c. 500 BC). The elusive Erytheia where Heracles had fought with the giant Geryon became fixed in south-west Spain by the ‘boundless, silver-rooted springs of the river Tartessus’, the Guadalquivir river which ran down from the mines on the ‘Silver Mountain’ (now the Sierra Morena).36From south-west Spain, therefore, Heracles was now considered to have driven off Geryon’s cattle and as he took them home, his route had to loop around the Mediterranean. Near Massilia (Marseille), the plain by the River Rhône was covered with a dense array of boulders: Greek travellers explained this curious geology as the very stones which Heracles had thrown against the hostile natives when he had run out of arrows on his way home from Spain.37 He drove the cattle, Greeks said, down through ‘Italy’, although the name of ‘Italy’ was reserved for what we now regard as southern Calabria, modern Italy’s toe. Heracles was then said to have crossed into Sicily where he fought at significant points in the island’s western, Phoenician zone. At Solous, west of modern Palermo, he killed the settlement’s namesake, who showed himself hostile to strangers.38 At Eryx, in the north-west, he wrestled with the local king, after betting his cattle for the king’s land. On the north-west coast, Motya was the island-site of a major Phoenician settlement, only half a mile off the coast. Here, Heracles was said to have learned from the local lady ‘Motya’ about people who had ‘stolen’ his cattle. No doubt he killed these raiders too.39

By c. 500 BC, therefore, Heracles was being credited with overcoming enemies at major non-Greek sites on the island. Perhaps in each case a local cult of Melqart had caused Heracles’ exploits to be sited at these places. These eloquent Greek stories implied that the Phoenician zone of Sicily had once been the scene of a Greek hero’s victories. There were implications here for future Greek efforts at conquering the ‘heritage of Heracles’ but there was more to them than conquest: Heracles was also a great tamer of uncivilized nature. In Sicily, he was the hero who reshaped the landscape, cutting courses for rivers through rocks, causing hot springs to bubble or marshes to become orderly lakes.40 We can date this important side of his career at least to the sixth century BC if we look at his similar role in northern Greece. By c. 500 BC a town called ‘Heracleion’ commemorated him up on the borders of Macedon and northern Thessaly just where Mount Ossa was split from Mount Olympus. The reason for the name was that thanks to Heracles, a major river there, the Peneios, was considered to have been allowed access to the Aegean sea.41

What, meanwhile, about the starting point of Heracles’ route home from distant Spain? He had left memorials there too, the famous ‘Pillars of Heracles’ which are first attested for us in the west by Hecataeus, who was drawing here too on the stories of Greek travellers.42 The site for them appears soon after in the poems of Pindar (c. 480–470 BC). For Pindar, the Pillars are the ‘Gates of Gades’ (Cadiz) and beyond Cadiz there is only the ‘gloomy dark which nobody may cross’ (to us, the Atlantic Ocean). Other travellers, followed by Herodotus, identified them with the Straits of Gibraltar. One pillar, they suggested, was the Rock, while the other was Ceuta on the coast of modern Morocco. Heracles, it was said, had either widened the straits to allow a route through to Outer Ocean or had narrowed them so as to block out Ocean’s sea-monsters.43

The oddity is that neither the Rock nor Ceuta looks at all like a ‘pillar’. The identification of Heracles’ pillars began, rather, at Cadiz where Greek travellers found the Phoenicians’ great shrine of Melqart. We know it only from much later poetry and coin-types, but like Melqart’s parent-shrine in Tyre, it was credited with two big ‘pillars’ (stēlai) of precious stone and a ban on women celebrants and the offering of pigs. When Greek traders penetrated this far west and found these pillars of Melqart, they must be the ‘pillars of Heracles’, they concluded, the western limits of the known world.44

Were any of these early Greek travellers Euboeans? It is from the sixth century BC that evidence for Heracles’ western travels survives for us, and by then the Greek travellers to the far west were above all Phocaeans, Greeks from the coast of Asia Minor. Earlier Greek pottery, specifically Euboean pottery, had been reaching sites in southern Spain and Morocco during the later eighth century, and it is wrong to explain it all as a cargo which Phoenician seafarers, but not Greeks, brought west.45 There may, then, be Euboean pioneers behind these western discoveries, people who recognized Heracles in the Melqart whom they had met at Cyprus or Tyre and who then ‘found’ him again in Carthage and with his pillars in the far west. But as yet we cannot prove it.

What we can say is that deeds of Heracles became sited on the western coast of Italy in the late seventh to sixth centuries BC, at or near the sites of existing Euboean settlements. Earlier, as we shall see, stories of the battles of Greek gods and giants were pinned down near Naples within the horizons of the Euboean settlers: Heracles was said to have participated in these heavenly wars.46 By the later sixth century BC there was a town of Herculaneum on the bay and a roadway past the Lucrine Lake was credited to Heracles as his route. But our evidence of these traces of the hero does not go back as yet into the eighth century.47

Can we, nonetheless, credit Euboean visitors with introducing the ancient cult of Heracles in Rome which was practised at the Greatest Altar and was supposedly seen by Virgil’s Aeneas? Although Roman sources later describe it as celebrated ‘in the Greek rite’, this Roman view of it does not mean that the cult actually originated with Greeks. Perhaps the Altar will one day turn out to have been a multi-ethnic cult-site of both Phoenician and Euboean visitors in the mid-eighth century, but as yet we do not know.48 On present evidence we have a Heracles who travelled from east to west, but not one whose origins lie demonstrably in the east. The sites of his labours, including his Pillars, seemed to be visible in the far west Mediterranean, but if Euboeans played a role in these sitings, it is still unknown to us. Like Daedalus, Heracles validates our model of mythical travel from one end of the Mediterranean sea to the other. Through these two heroes that possibility is at least assured and exemplified.


Direct contact with Near Eastern languages helped to shape Greek stories of a very different type of traveller: abducted women and the men who went after them. There were good reasons why mythical travellers were almost always men: female mobility was restricted in antiquity, and a free woman could not travel alone. Exceptions, however, were heroines who eloped with a male suitor, human or divine. Only one heroine travelled far on her own and even then she travelled under duress and in disguise. She was Io of Argos, the first woman to become a real cow.

The stories of Io’s travels as a cow take her from Argos to the Levant and even on to Egypt. As the ancients recognized, she was matched by another female, Europa, who travelled in the opposite direction, from the Levant to Crete. Europa travelled not as a cow but as a maiden on the back of a bull, the disguise of the god Zeus, who had desired and abducted her. Both these heroines attracted further travellers, male search parties who criss-crossed the Aegean to try to find them. These male searchers never succeeded, not even Cadmus, Europa’s brother and most famous searcher. In Crete, the citizens of Gortyn claimed to have the very palm-tree under which Europa had first dismounted and bull-like Zeus had first mounted her.49 It must have been a fascinating place for visitors.

Of these two travelling heroines, the cow-like Io is the one with local Euboean connections. In much later texts she is said to have resided on Euboea, at Argoura, even, a place which probably stood on the coast of the gulf near the former site of Lefkandi; she gave birth there.50 However tempting it may be to make Io a myth which originated in our Euboean heartland, these Euboean links are secondary: Io’s original domicile was Argos. By origin she was the daughter of a father from the Argolid: she was believed to have been a priestess of the great Argive goddess Hera; her search party and her descendants were all Argives, and Zeus, it was said, had desired her at Argos.51 In the fifth-century tragedy Prometheus Bound, Io is made to speak memorably on the dreams which had beset her, a virginal girl, and caused her to want to go out to the meadows and meet Zeus. In most versions of the story, Zeus then has sex with her, but denies the fact to his wife Hera. He breaks his vows, and as a result, the poets say, breaches of mortal lovers’ vows, the ‘oaths of Aphrodite’, are not punishable by the Greek gods.52 Among all these lies, Io is turned by Zeus (or Hera) into a white cow, although male vase-painters sometimes show her as a bull.53 She was tied to an olive-tree in a nearby ‘grove of the Mycenaeans’ where she was guarded by watchful, many-eyed Argos, at least until the god Hermes killed him. Hera then sent a notorious insect, the gadfly, which drove Io on frenzied travels through Greece and far away across the seas. In fifth-century texts, we find that Io’s final destination was Egypt. Here, she was said to have given birth to Epaphus, son of Zeus, who was brought about by the stroking ‘touch’ of the god (epaphē being the Greek word for ‘touching’).54 This turn to the story is manifestly later than the eighth century BC and its Euboean travellers.

In several Near Eastern poems, one of the gods mates with a handsome cow, but Io’s story is much more complex and is not Near Eastern in origin. Her disguise as a cow and its consequences are solely Greek inventions. Later artists, poets and thinkers recognized the playfulness in the story, but scholars have looked behind its developed form for a possible origin in cult and ritual. The Argive shrine of Hera was very famous and perhaps it had once had a rite involving male wearers of a bull-mask and a ‘cow-faced’ Hera who was perhaps impersonated by her priestess. On this view, the story of Io arose from a mimed religious ritual at Argos, to which tales of Hera’s vengeance and Io’s travels were later additions.55 Argos’s main temple-shrine to Hera, the Heraion, stood prominently at the east end of the Argive plain on a terraced hill which was some 400 feet high. Behind it rose a high bare mountain called Euboea, ‘good for cattle’. The rites for Hera at the cult-site probably preceded the building of the terrace, which dates only to the later eighth century BC.

There were obvious word-plays here which Euboeans could turn to their advantage. The Argive hill ‘Euboea’ could be claimed to be their own island Euboea; Io’s guardian ‘Argos’ could be transferred to their own town Argoura. We do not know when these transfers began, but they had made an impact on Io’s genealogy as it is known to us c. 550 BC. By then Io was said to have a grandson, Abas. Abas was a name with a very strong Euboean connection (Euboeans were known as ‘Abantes’). Was he inserted into Io’s family by a Euboean poet or was he inserted as the Argives’ response to tiresome Euboean claims to possess their own lo?56 On the latter view, which I prefer, the Argives annexed the Euboeans’ ancestor into their own ancestry and put him far down the line. If this explanation is correct, links between lo and Euboea were quite old, but were not original to Io’s pedigree. We do not know if they went back to eighth-century versions of the story, but if they did, lo was a particularly relevant heroine to Euboeans when they travelled east and west.

In the west, lo turns up in Virgil’s Aeneid as a figure who is shown in gold relief on the shield of the Italian warrior-king Turnus, a reminder that Turnus’ ancestry traced mythically back to the heroes of Argos. The device is only Virgil’s invention and this connection between Argos and Italy is a late fancy.57 Otherwise, lo went no further west in legend than our Adriatic sea, between Italy and north-west Greece. Its Greek name, the ‘Io-nian’ sea, was traced to her presence. This derivation is explicit in Prometheus Bound, whose ideas of the world are much older, going back to the previous century’s age of Greek travel. They may be even older still. In the early to mid-eighth century Euboeans had been active along the Adriatic coastline of north-west Greece and in due course stories of their fellow-Euboean ‘Abantes’ were located inland on what travellers called the ‘Mainland’ (in Greek, Epeiros). But as yet no early evidence connects these Euboeans with making a link between Io and the north-west Ionian sea.58

Eastwards, Io’s connections are more specific. Cow-shaped Io came to be located in Egypt when Greek visitors became aware of the Egyptians’ own cow-horned goddess, Hathor–Isis: because of the similarity they equated this goddess with their own cow-horned Io and from the 630s onwards gave their heroine a new Nilotic resting place in Egypt. In Prometheus Bound, it is predicted that this Egyptian connection will have a long future: by the Nile, Io will found an ‘extensive’, or ‘long-lasting’, settlement.59

If Io ended up in Egypt, it was only natural to ask, once again, how she came to be there. Myths of travel abhor a vacuum, so the gaps were filled and in due course the stopping-points were written down as Io’s itinerary. Stories of it take a most suggestive line. Searchers from Argos set out, we are told, to find her, led by the Argive hero Triptolemus. We would more naturally associate Triptolemus with Athens but he and his Argives passed, we are told, through Cilicia where some of them stayed to found Tarsus. Others passed on into north Syria and the valley of the Orontes, the heart of the triangle of early Greek contact. Triptolemus was eventually honoured with a hero’s shrine and a yearly festival, instituted at Antioch after its foundation c. 300 BC. This festival was known to the geographer Strabo; it was celebrated on the slopes of Mount Kasios, the great Jebel Aqra which rises steeply above the ancient site of Al Mina.60

In this historic area, Io continued to activate the local residents, as we can discover from a speech in praise of Antioch by its local orator Libanius (c. AD 385). He describes how the Argive search party arrived on the coast, ‘climbed the mountain’, ‘knocked on the doors’ of the residents and asked for Io’s whereabouts. The searchers then settled locally and founded ‘Ione’ beside ‘the mountain’, probably Mount Silpion, which stood inland near Libanius’ own Antioch.61 Another local author, the Christian John Malalas (c.AD 530), fills in some details. A settlement of ‘Iopolis’, he tells us, was indeed founded on Mount Silpion and people there ‘were still called “Ionitai” by the Syrians of the region’. Once a year, the local Syrians would knock on the doors of the Hellenes in memory of the ancient searchers who had come looking for lo, the abducted girl. The door-knocking, therefore, remained a fact of the city calendar for at least two hundred years.62

While bound for Egypt, lo was said to have found yet another home, on the coast of Palestine. Here, the non-Greek city of Gaza issued coins which showed lo shaking hands with the city’s goddess (we know of them from AD 131/2 onwards): Gaza was even said to have been called ‘Ione’. Inevitably, the sea between Palestine and Egypt became known as another ‘Io-nian’ sea, named after lo the traveller.63 How are we to explain these stopping-points for the abducted cow-girl and her seekers in Cilicia, north Syria and on the coastline down to Egypt? Herodotus’ histories and the author of Prometheus Bound know that lo reached Egypt, but they say nothing of the intervening stations. However, the late sources from Antioch presume that an ‘Iopolis’ had existed on their nearby mountain even before Antioch was founded (c. 300 BC): Io’s presence here is best ascribed to a linguistic muddle. In languages of the Near East, Greeks had long been called ‘Iawones’, or people from ‘Iawan’. By a typical word-play, the Greeks, it seems, took this name to allude to lo, and so at Antioch or Gaza they located lo on her eastern travels.64 The association persisted into the 530s AD, but when did it begin? One tempting answer is to trace it to the early Greek visitors, Euboeans of the late tenth to eighth centuriesBC. They lived, after all, at Al Mina, just below the very mountain on which the cult for Io’s searchers was later located. At home on Euboea they may already have been claiming Io’s presence and challenging her alternative address at Argos. In the Near East, they might then believe that they had found her in all the babble about ‘Iawones’ with which the local inhabitants greeted them between the Cilician and the north Syrian plain: lo and her searchers then turn up at sites in this very region. It is a possible answer, but as yet there is no early evidence for it: Prometheus Bound ignores it, and the safer answer, at present, is to trace it to later myth-making, perhaps after Alexander’s conquests, when the same name of ‘Iawones’ still circulated locally.

The travels of the second abducted heroine, Europa, are also best explained by confusions of language and local heritage. Already in Homer’s Iliad, she is the daughter of ‘Phoenix’, the namesake, as later poets assume, of the Phoenicians. Her home, then, was a Phoenician city, usually identified as Tyre in subsequent Greek texts, from where she, too, was abducted by Zeus. He took her to Crete, where local claims to her remained very strong. Apart from the palm-tree where Zeus mounted her, her ‘bones’ were escorted in festivals at Gortyn and elsewhere on the island, while a spring near Gortyn commemorated the very place where she took her bath.65 These local connections began early: Europa was already being shown on coins of Gortyn in the mid- to late fifth century BC. The tale of her seduction by Zeus existed even earlier. In his epic poem on Europa, the Corinthian poet Eumelus (arguably writing in the later eighth century BC) told how Zeus fell in love with Europa and abducted her.66 If only we knew more about his fragmentary poem, we would be better able to follow Europa’s early travels.

Instead, we have evidence for her search party, surviving from the sixth century BC onwards. The party was led from the Levant (usually from the city of Tyre) by Europa’s brother Cadmus, and later sources allow us to trace its route across the Aegean. It called at the island of Rhodes, at Melos and Thera, Thasos and nearby Samothrace where, on one view, Cadmus met Harmony and married her: ‘even now’, the historian Ephorus remarked c. 330 BC, ‘they search for Harmony in festivals on Samothrace’.67 Most famously, Cadmus also enquired at Delphi and then founded the city of Thebes in central Greece.

The names ‘Cadmus’ and ‘Europa’ have long been connected to two word-roots in Semitic languages which were audible in the Near East: qdm (‘east’) and ereb (‘west’). The connection has not been universally accepted, but it is attractive because basic terms of direction would be the words most likely to be known to local Greek visitors (as rechts and links are known even to Englishmen). By wordplay, they suggested to the Greeks their own Cadmus (evidently ‘Mr East’) and their Europa (plainly, a ‘Miss West’). As a result the Greek Cadmus (‘Mr East’) came from a Levantine address, searching for westward-travelling Europa, his sister, across the Aegean.68 He stopped longest at Thebes, perhaps the home of an independently named Cadmus, but his route conspicuously included places where we now infer from archaeology that there was a presence of Phoenician visitors in the eighth century BC. Perhaps some oral memories of these contacts encouraged stories of Cadmus’ local stops with his party of fellow-searchers. Among the searchers was ‘Phoenix’, the Phoenicians’ Greek eponym. Cadmus also stopped in Cilicia where the coast, we have seen, was a major point of Phoenician contact: one ‘Cilix’ was invented as a member of the search party.69 On the island of Samothrace, the existence of a non-Greek legendary ‘Kadmilos’ no doubt helped with Cadmus’ location there. Eventually he and Harmony were said to have moved north-west through Greece and to have come to rest on the borders of non-Greek Illyria. In the hinterland of the Greek city-state of Epidamnus, tombs of Cadmus and Harmony were eventually believed to be sited. Through the fields of scented Illyrian iris Cadmus and Harmony were said to move ‘in the shape of fearsome snakes’.70

What are we to make of these playful stories of travel? Neither lo nor Europa nor their searchers travelled west as well as east, to Sicily and Italy as well as to Egypt and the Levant. Possibly, our Euboeans believed that they had found their own lo among the babbling words for ‘Ionian Greek’ in north Syria; somebody, perhaps a Euboean, ‘found’ Cadmus and Europa in the two basic Near Eastern words for direction and thus gave these two heroes’ travels a new orientation. The discovery of the Egyptian goddess Hathor’s cow-horned images then brought cow-like lo to Egypt. Thanks to creative mistakes about foreign languages and foreign monuments there was a vast enlargement of the Greeks’ ‘family of peoples’. Cadmus and his kinsmen included ‘Phoenix’ and ‘Cilix’, namesakes of the Phoenicians and Cilicians; Libya and Egypt became involved in the same genealogy, while lo, as promised, turned the lands by the Nile into a long-lasting Greek settlement, if only after Alexander the Great’s conquest. This mapping and genealogy nowadays tend to be credited with stark consequences for colonial power and Greek territorial claims. But they also made foreign peoples part of the Greek ‘family’: such people were seen as akin to the Greeks, not aliens. Greeks who devised these kinships were not defining their own Greekness by opposing foreign ‘others’ to themselves. They were assuming that ‘others’ were more like themselves than they really were.

Across the bridge of the Greek lo or Cadmus, foreign ‘others’ then started to present themselves eagerly as the ‘same’. Non–Greek Tarsus and Gaza both claimed Io and her searchers as their Greek founders. When Alexander arrived at Sidon in 332 BC, he already found a shrine of Cadmus’ father, Agenor, in the city.71 In due course the images of Cadmus and Europa appeared competitively on the city-coins of both Tyre and Sidon. They had become yet another subject of rivalry between the two great cities in the Greek age after Alexander. By c. 200 BC, Sidon was even being represented as the mother-city of Cadmus’ famous foundation in Greece, the city of Thebes. But Tyre still had a decisive card: in the second century BC, she claimed, and established, a ‘kinship’ directly with the Greek people of Delphi. This surprising kinship did not arise because Cadmus, that contested figure, had once consulted the Delphic oracle. It was based, as the Tyrians recorded, on a syncrasis, a real merger.72 The grounds for it have not been understood, but they can only have been theatrical. In Euripides’ play The Phoenician Women, the chorus are nobly born girls who have been sent from Tyre to Greece in order to be ‘servants’ at Delphi, Apollo’s shrine. ‘May we become mothers, may we have fine children,’ they sing, rhetorically.73 Claims to a mythical ‘kinship’ required the citation of evidence and some very cogent advocacy before both partners would accept it: how could the people of Delphi deny the force of what the great Euripides had written? These Tyrian girls had given birth in Greece and were indeed the Delphians’ distinguished ancestors: Sidon, for once, had nothing to quote in reply.

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