The purpose of this research is to examine the topic “Myth as History” as exemplified in the Greek Pantheon of the characters of Oedipus, Theseus, and Hercules. The structure of this study is bi-focal. It first analyzes the concepts of myth and mythology, perhaps from an anthropological point of view. Second, it compares and contrasts the mythical and possibly historical elements in the myths surrounding the three above nominated characters of that Pantheon:
The prime function of myth is to codify, support,
and validate the traditional belief and behavior
. . . knowledge of the mythical past gives incen-
tive and justification for rituals and moral action,
and also guides to the correct performance of sacred
Mythology includes the whole body of myths of a nation; myths are folklore stories, historic tales setting forth the processes of nature: “Folklore, as a term, puts the spotlight on older tale traditions of popular character. . . .” Myths are folklore stories, dealing with beliefs about religion, custom, tradition, heroes, and divinities. These differ from mere fable. Mythology is basically a religious development via the imagination, and because of this origin, such history as primitive man possessed soon became myth, and the myths assumed the form, approach, and intent of history:
Liberated by local independence, the religious
imagination of Greece produced a luxuriant mythology
and a populous Pantheon. Every object or force on
earth, or sky, every blessing, every terror, every
quality, even the vices – of mankind was personified
as a deity, usually in human form . . . the old
question, is religion created by priests?, is here
settled because it is incredible that any conspiracy
of primitive theologians should have begot such a
plethora of gods.
From his beginning, man has tried to reason, to explain the natural phenomena he lived with. Each of the Greek gods has a mythos, attached to him, and which accounted for his place in the city’s life, or for the rituals that honored him. These myths, rising spontaneously out of the lore of the place and the people, or out of the inventions and embellishments of rhapsodists, became at once the faith and the philosophy, the literature, and the history of the early Greek:
The Greek pantheon was established as early as
the Homeric epoch. The many divinities of which
it was composed generally appear in the Iliad and
the Odyssey, with their characteristic physiognomy,
their traditional attributes and their own time-
With the poems of Hesoid in the eighth century B.C., comes the Theogony, the oldest Greek attempt at mythological classification. It recounts the origin of the gods, recalling their chief adventures, and establishes their relationships, and also claims to explain the formation of the universe.
To understand the spirit of the myth, one must learn to live over again the age which produced it. Of course, the same is true to comprehend fully the work of Shakespeare, of all key literature. For without this, the minute analysis of myths and even history are of little value. The study of mythology, like that of history, requires the power of imagination coupled with patience and trained methods of the scientific mind:
However well the divisions of myths into classes
may serve the uses of scientific study, the farther
that investigation is carried into the past the
more all classes of mythological stories come into
contact and mingle or blend, with one another, and
reveal to us man trying to solve the primitive
problems presented to the race.
The ancient myths were at once religious, philosophical and scientific, in that they contained such knowledge of these subjects as the race had reasoned out. Many similar myths, in subject and detail, on the struggles of nature, are found in different parts of the world. In the realm of social ideas, the same hold true – in Arabia, Persia, India, Greece, Rome, Egypt. Ritual became a very vital part of mythology, in the belief and importance placed upon the literal rendering of ritual and all other ceremonial forms. This fact helped to preserve ritual myths in a pure form for many generations.
With the coming of Zeus and the establishment of Mount Olympus as the home of the gods, the Greek pantheon as it is known today took form from the work of Homer and Hesoid. In the progressive development of that pantheon, the bronze age was followed by the heroic age. It is to this heroic age that the three subjects of this study belong, Oedipus, Theseus, and Hercules:
The Greek hero was not always a supernatural being,
related to the gods . . . the hero could also be
simply a prince of an illustrious like Odysseus
. . . (Hesoid did believe heroes were the offspring
of the fourth generation of mythical men) . . . gods
and mortals often mingled.
The hero cults resembled the devotion which people devoted to their own ancestors. The hero was their most illustrious ancestor. The hero was a symbol of the superlative values of their race. The chief role of the hero was to act as intermediary between men and their gods. The heroes who were originally idealized men, became demi-gods and in the hierarchy occupied a position midway between men and the Olympians, the full measures of the mythological gods.
It is basic to maintain the concept of representation or illustration of certain qualities in these heroic figures; each has his own label or trademark. Hercules was the personification of physical strength, the god who sang of victory, the friend an counsellor of man.
Oedipus is examined first because his myth represents of much of the prior definitions. And that, even to this day,
The Greek legend of the patricide who married his
mother and sired children in incest is over 27
centuries old. In the form of plays written by
Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, it gained a
conspicuous place in the literature of the
The plot of Oedipus is too-well known to be detailed here. The earliest written reference to Oedipus the character or the legend is found in Homer’s Odyssey – probably put into writing early in the 7th century. However, the legend is much older than the play, which ranks as one of the highest peaks in Greek drama:
It seems to have been one of the primitive folk-
tales, and it eventually, in the hands of the
storytellers, became one of the earlier epics of
the Greek people. It is briefly but clearly
indicted in the Odyssey. It seems as a folktale
to have varied much according to the district and
It is Oedipus, even more than Dionysius or Appolo,
who is a mythological figure, born in the imagina-
tion of the bards.
Yet, the roots are deeper than bardic imaginations. As Velikovsky affirms, finding the time of the origin of the legend does not solve the problem of whether or not the origin had its roots in historical happenings. Oedipus offers the most provocative aspects of the conflicts between myth and historicity. But it is the human character of the Oedipus legend that is its strongest force. It is the portrayal of the mental agony in the conflict between must and must not – a conflict endemic to all mankind. The fate of man is the subject of the myth and the basis of the plot of the dramatic tragedy.
It is also the basis of Freud’s well-known psychoanalytic study, known as the Oedipus Comples. Here, it simply means that every individual has deeply buried within his unconscious certain tendencies which were once conscious but have by cultural represssion become unconscious and unthinkable. It has to do with unconscious thinking. To generalize it as the process of “son’s love for the mother” is erroneous. The premise is one of the broadest generalization of the psychoanalytic technique, and its discovery by Freud is one of the great psychological generalization of modern science. Later, it will be clear that the impact of the play upon Greek audiences owes much to the portrayal of unconscious thinking, based upon the events occurring in the plot.
To continue, in the time of the 18th dynasty of Egypt, in the city of Thebes, a son was born to Queen Thi and Amenhotep III, the son to be known as Amenhotep IV. But he so hated the God Amon, and his father’s workshop of that divinity, that he changed his name to Akhnaton, or “The Splendor of the Suns disk.” He left Thebes and chose a new capital, Tell-El-Amarna, and built a temple to his sun-god, Aton. This is known in history as the Amarnian heresy. His queen was Nefretete. Thus, he was the originator of monotheism against the polytheism of the established Egyptian religion – his god was RA, the sun-god.
Incidentally, all this had great effect on Moses. In Freud’s “Moses and Monotheism,” Freud puts Akhnaton ahead of Moss in the development of a religion of one all-powerful god.
Some seven hundred miles across the Mediterranean, in Greece, on an elevated plateau, stood the city of Thebes, the principal city of Boeotia:
The Oedipus legend is connected with Thebes
in Boeotia. Thebes, in Egypt, known to the
Greeks by this name, at least since the time
of Homer was the greater of the two, also the
Cadmus is said to have founded the Greek city by building the citadel called Cadmeia. The first recorded event in its history took place in 728 B.C., when Philolaus drew up a code of laws for the Thebans. The principal heroes of Thebes belonged to the family founded by that Cadmus. Laius, son of Labdacus, King of Thebes, married Jocasta. Warned by an oracle that his son would one day try to kill him, he took the child just born of Jocasta to Mount Cithaeron, pierced the infants’ feet with a nail, and tied them together. But, a shepherd found the child and took him to the King of Corinth, who adopted him and name him Oedipus (Oedipus in Greek – swollen legs) because of his damaged feet. Following the word of the oracle that warned Oedipus he would one day kill his father and marry his mother, he left what he thought to be his true parents and journeyed to Boeotia. There he did kill his father, accidentally, later, the Great Sphinx, and for a reward was given the hand of his real mother, Jocasta. Thus, he became the husband of his mother, and the tragedy unravels to the bitter end from this juncture.
As previously stated, the first written reference of Oedipus appears in Homer’s Odyssey. Akhnaton is held to have been born in 1466 B.C. Velikovsky hold the Greek legend of Oedipus is over 27 centuries old, or backwards from the 20th century, to be dated circa 700 B.C., thus, following the Akhnaton period by seven centuries. In that time, seven centuries, and, in view of the many crossings of the Mediterranean of known fact, and in view of archaeological finds in Greece or Egyptian artifacts, it is quite apparent there is no doubt to doubt that along with other imports, the Akhnaton legend was brought across the Sea and passed along to the Greek storytellers. It must also be remembered that to the Greeks of that time, Egypt was held to be the source of all great knowledge – its enormous antiquity was well recorded then and today to the modern world. In this manner, the Egyptian history became the source of the Greek Theban legend. If source be too strong a word, substitute mirror or image or format. The overlay of patterns, events, the superimposition of Egyptian fact upon Greek myth, produce heavy affirmation of this mixture, borrowing, or adaptation. It is known Akhnaton was historic – it seems doubtful the Egyptian fact would be wholly used, but rather used in part and added to certain histocity existing in the Greek myth.
Akhnaton effaced a memorial to his father. In the Egyptian code, this was equal to murder. Oedipus slew his father, even though by mistake, still murder – both characters seemed doomed to their self-destruction. Both had marital relations with their mothers. With these two, the ethics of antiquity were opposed to incest and when, in both cases, the truths were revealed, the eruption of discontent was not long in coming.
Both had similar physical ailments, Oedipus with his “swollen-feet” or legs, Akhnaton, as this description draws:
Never had a king been portrayed with such a narrow
chest, such a distended belly, and such swollen
thighs terminating in excessively thin calves. . . .
Both had “guardian angels,” in their youth – Akhnaton with Parennefer, Oedipus with his shepherd who took him to the King of Corinth. The legend of Oedipus tells of some disaster that came to the kingdom of the Greek Thebes – at the end of Akhnaton’s reign the land was plagued, seen as punishment for his sins.
Both were exiled, both became blind. A preponderance of Egyptian influence over the Sophoclean legend is found in the pre-occupation with burial and the importance of the kings last resting place, a concern not of paramount importance to the Greek code:
The Egyptian origin of the Theban cycle of legends
can be recognized in the fact that the question of
burial is no much in the forefront of the plot . . .
the great concern of Oedipus when he was king was
to be buried in Theban soil after his death, but
after his exile he would not return to Thebes . . .
he insisted his grave be hidden and its site remain
unknown to all except the king of the land of Attica,
in a manner not unknown in Egypt, where kings con-
cealed their tombs. . . .
To protect their tombs from desecration by political foes the Egyptian kings could only hide the tomb and leave a heavy curse against violators. Akhnaton knew the state of affairs in Egypt would not work toward security after his death:
The hold exerted on our imagination by the legend
of King Oedipus can be explained by the echo it
wakens in the dark recesses in the mind of so many
of us, independent of the fact that Oedipus is him-
self a mirror image of an historic personality.
That historic personality is Akhnaton. The image is Oedipus. Whether he was a human being or not is minor to the fact that the character of Oedipus, in legend, had a steel-trap hold on the minds and imaginations of the Greek people. A hold strong enough to create a man out of myth, in mental if not physical terms:
All these elements (the details of their
stories) are found both in the Greek drama
about what happened in the Seven-Gated Thebes
of Boeotia and in the Egyptian history of
what took place in the hundred-gated Thebes
on the Nile.
To discern the hold of “Oedipus” on the Greek mind, it is fitting to outline briefly the nature and form of the Greek drama of Sophocles time. The Greek theatre was not a “drop-in” place for entertainment. There were no “block-busters,” in modern parlance. The tragedies, or comedies, were presented in Athens at certain annual religious festivals. For a number of successive days, some 17,000 spectators would witness a cycle of dramatic performances, presented amid high civil splendor and religious ritual. These tragedies touched the deepest centers of man’s individual and corporate consciousness. To be presented, a play had to be passed on by a selection board, acceptance always conferring a high honor on the author:
At its roots lie not only the human instinct
for narrative and impersonation, but also
the instinct for the ritualistic expression
and interpretation of the power of natural
forces, the cycle of life and death, and
the nexus of past, present, and future.
There were few that were not reached by the “verities” of Oedipus. In this play, the prime function is the expression of the feelings and reasonings excited by man’s battle with the eternal forces that govern his life. Oedipus – a tale of the impact of quite fortuitous circumstances upon a man of no overwhelming faults or virtues – in fact, a man with whom most could identify. Were he first a flaming monster, he would be of little enduring interest, only a character on the level of a heavy in a “Western” motion picture. Absolute white or black. But, the play lays bare the pitfalls lying about the path of man, pitfalls that can be easily used to overbalance a normal structure. It is only “greatness” in the soul that makes a man a match for the eternal powers. Oedipus is driven to the summit of passion by his agony of body and soul. At the last he returned to humility and selfless resignation. The chorus at the end of the play sounds this message:
Sons and daughters of Thebes, behold; this was
Oedipus, greatest of men; he held the key to the
deepest mysteries; was envied by all his fellow-
men for his great prosperity; behold, what a full
tide of misfortune swept over his head. Then,
learn that mortal man must always look to his
endings, and none can be called happy until that
day when he carries his happiness down to the
grave in peace.
Should it appear that undue detail has been used to examine the Oedipus myth/history, this is so because the tapestry of Oedipus’ life, fact or fiction, is so rich and relevant to the basic intent of this study. The processes of theorizing behind, however, the study of Theseus and Hercules can confine itself to the most vivid contrasts in the see-saw of myth versus history. There are two theoretical premises that must be brought up, as the study of Theseus begins:
The legends of the Heroic age suggest both the
origins and destinies of the Achaeans. We must
not ignore these stories; for though a sanguinary
fancy enlivens them, they may contain more history
than we suppose. . . .
[I]t has been common in modern times to regard
these and the other heroes of this age . . . as
purely mythical creations. The later Greeks, in
criticizing the records of their past, had no
doubt that they were historical persons who
actually ruled in Argos and other kingdomes;
and after a period of extreme skepticism many
modern critics have begun to revert to the Greek
view as that which explains the evidence most
satisfactorily . . . the heroes of the tales,
like the geographical scenes in which they moved,
are real. . . . (Cambridge Ancient History, II,
478.) (We shall assume the major legends are true
in essence, imaginative in details.)
What, then, is the “theoretical evidence” that can be used to examine the Theseus story. As with so many of these heroes, Theseus’ origins date back to the Gods, as the descendants of Cecrops, half-man, half-dragon, ruled Athens as kings. Theseus, circa 1250, merged the twelve villages of Athens into a political unit, and gave order and power to the new community. Long after his death, Athens was to worship him as a God. As stated above (in footnote 25) the many exploits of Theseus – his encounter with the Amazons, the Trojan War, slaying of the Minotaur, and many other details – are echoes of the words, “true in essence, imaginative in detail; nonetheless, in geographic truth.
During a long absence from Athens on one of his many voyages, usurper seized the throne, stirring up the people against Theseus. He then retired to the island of Scyros, where he had ancestral estates. There, however, the local king is reputed to have pushed him over high cliffs, 400 feet down to his death. Another theory holds he slipped while out walking.
Theseus has been termed a “semi-historical” personage:
Although there is no concrete evidence of the
existence of a bronze age king, Theseus of Athens
actually performing the feats attributed to him
. . . we have seen that many of these exploits
. . . are matters of sober archaeological record.
The Theseus legend lay buried in Scyros until 475 B.C. At that time, Cimon, a known historical personage, (510-449 B.C.), was the head of the entire Greek naval force, and in 480 B.C. he fought against the Persians for the return of the Greek Colonies in the Aegean Sea:
He conquered the pirate-island of Scyros, sub-
dued all the cities on the coast of Asia Minor,
pursued the Persian fleet up the Eurymedon,
destroyed more than 200 of their ships.
Now history reverts to legend. At Scyros, Cimon remembered the
legend that Theseus had ended his days there:
To Cimon it must have seemed that nothing could
be more appropriate than for the son of the
victor of Marathon to bring back the relics
of the hero who had helped Athens win that
One of the Theseus legends is that he emerged from the ground to help the Athenians at that famous battle. So, Cimon began the search for Theseus’ bones. One day he was an eagle clawing at a mound of earth. This turned out to be a tomb with a skeleton of extraordinary size with a bronze spear and sword. To Cimon, clearly it was Theseus’ bones.
When he brought them home to Athens, (described in detail in Plutarch’s Theseus, 36), a temple was erected to Theseus and an annual festival, the Theseia, added to the state festival calendar. It may well be that Cimon championed the Theseus cause of his own benefit in his political and military career. In any event,
[A]s the Classical period progressed, Theseus
was gradually transformed into a very real presence
. . . whatever the factual truth may be, the world
perennial acceptance of this most human and fallible
of heroes has vested him over the course of the
centuries with a deeper reality than one man’s
historical lifetime could ever have achieved.
Hercules story has no value for this study. There is no conflict or evidence or any contrast in his life between myth and history. Hercules is entirely, purely mythic. Durant, in his The Life of Greece, offers a provocative comment on myth versus history:
A myth is often a bit of popular wisdom person-
ified in poetic figures, as the story of Eden
suggests the disillusionment of knowledge and
the liabilities of love; legend is often a
fragment of history swelling with new fictions
as it rolls down the years.
In Hercules’ story, myth rules all;
While the myth of Hercules is of Greek origin,
counterparts of the legend appear among many
Hercules was the son of Zeus, his mother, a mortal, Alcmene. This Alcmene had a husband, Amphitryon, of Thebes. Zeus, not reluctant at times to go wandering and tasting of the fruits of the earth, visited Alcmene one night when her husband was off to the wars:
”Zeus,” says Diordorus, “made that night three
times its normal length; and by the magnitude
of the time expended on the procreation, he
presaged the exceptional might of the child.”
A catalogue of Hercules exploits is not pertinent here. The point is he became a “culture hero.” He was the personification of physical strength, a matter of great pride to the Greeks. Not for nothing does the world today celebrate a festival, the “Olympic Games,” created by Hercules. As a hero, he played the role of protector, when men were in danger. He presided over all aspects of Hellenic and after being the god of physical prowess, he was the god who sang of victory. His cult was much more general than other heroes of the Age. All of Greece honored him and his exploits took place all over the Hellenic world.
None of these exploits have archaeological evidence. They remain only in the hidden mysteries of ancient God Age of Thebes.
Bulfinch, Thomas. The Age of Fable. Philadelphia: David McKay,
Clement, Clara. Egypt. Chicago: Werner Collection, 1895.
Durant, Will. The Life of Greece. The Story of Civilization
Series. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1947 Edition. New York: Americana
Keesing, Felix M. Cultural Anthropology: The Science of Custom.
New York: Rinehart and Co., 1958.
Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. New York: Prometheus
Montet, Pierre. Eternal Egypt. New York: New American Library,
Velikovsky, Immanuel. Oedipus and Akhnaton. New York: Doubleday, 1960.
Watling, E. F. Sophocles “King Oedipus.” New York: Penguin
Ward, Anne G. The Quest for Theseus. New York: Praeger, 1970.
Felix M. Keesing, Cultural Anthropology: The Science of Custom (New York: Rinehart and Co., 1958), 336. ↑
Ibid., 360. ↑
Will Durant, The Life of Greece, The Story of Civilization Series (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), 176. ↑
Larousse Encyclopedia Of Mythology (New York: Prometheus Press, 1960), 88. ↑
Encyclopedia Americana, 1947 edition, vol. 19, (New York: Americana Corporation, 1947), 671. ↑
Larousse, op. cit., 192. ↑
Immanuel Velikovsky, Oedipus and Akhnaton (New York: Doubleday, 1960), 19. ↑
Encyclopedia Americana, op. cit., Vol. 20, 591. ↑
Velikovsky, op. cit., 28. ↑
Encyclopedia American, op. cit., Vol. 20, 591. ↑
Clara Clement, Egypt (Chicago: Werner Collection, 1895), 142. ↑
Velikovsky, op. cit., 40. ↑
Encyclopedia Americana, op. cit., Vol. 26, 504. ↑
Larousse, op. cit., 207. ↑
Velikovsky, op. cit., 188-190. ↑
Pierre Montet, Eternal Egypt (New York: New American Library, 1966), 263. ↑
Velikovsky, op. cit., 82. ↑
Ibid., 112. ↑
Ibid., 185. ↑
Ibid., 197. ↑
Ibid., 204. ↑
E. F. Watling, Sophocles “King Oedipus.” (New York: Penguin Books, 1974), 8. ↑
Watling, op. cit., “Oedipus, lines 1523-30. ↑
Durant, op. cit., 38. ↑
Thomas Bulfinch, The Age of Fable (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1898), 190. ↑
Anne G. Ward, The Quest for Theseus (New York: Praeger, 1970), 27. ↑
Encyclopedia Americana, op. cit., Vol. 6, 678. ↑
Ward, op. cit., 158. ↑
Ibid., 30. ↑
Durant, op. cit., 31. ↑
Encyclopedia Americana, op. cit., Vol. 14, 32. ↑
Durant, op. cit., 44. ↑
Larousse, op. cit., 194. ↑