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When Did Greek Mythology End and Greek History Begin?

Greek Gods mythology, Greek History
When did the age of Greek mythology end and Greek history begin? Credit: Flickr/ Ganimedes Costagravas CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

There are countless myths and legends about ancient Greece. Of course, there are also countless historical records about it, too. So when did ancient Greek mythology come to an end, being replaced by pure history?

Many people believe that most of Greek mythology is set in the Mycenaean Era, such as the myths of the Trojan War and the Odyssey. After the Dark Ages that followed, Greece entered the Archaic Era, which started in c. 750 BCE. Is this when we finally enter the era of Greek history, with the age of mythology having ended? In reality, things are not so simple.

The Mythological Founding of Taras, Italy

The Greeks had an incredible number of foundation stories. Historically, they founded countless settlements across the Mediterranean, so they obviously had many stories to tell. Much of the time, foundation stories involved mythical elements.

One clear example of this is the legend of the foundation of Taranto, a Greek city in southern Italy. The ancient Greeks called this city Taras, and they believed in a founding figure of the same name. As Pausanias records, Taras was believed to have been the son of the god Poseidon and a local nymph of the country.

According to the story, he was shipwrecked, but then his father sent a dolphin to save him and brought him ashore. Taras then founded the city on that spot.

By any standard, this is absolutely a mythological account. Taras is presented as the son of a god and a nymph, and his story involves fanciful activities. This is clearly a part of Greek mythology, but when was it set? Significantly, the city of Taras was founded in the late eighth century BCE. This was within the Archaic Era, long after the end of the Mycenaean Era usually associated with Greek mythology.

The Mythological Founding of Byzantium

The famous ancient Greek city of Byzantium (later Constantinople) is another clear example of mythology much later in Greek history than most people would expect. A figure named Byzas allegedly founded this site, naming it after himself.

There is a variety of contradictory information about Byzas, but most of it portrays him in thoroughly mythological terms. For example, one tradition makes him the son of a woman named Ceroessa, the daughter of Zeus and Io. Another tradition positions Byzas as the son of a nymph named Semystra. A third tradition makes him a contemporary of the Argonauts, the men who searched for the mythical Golden Fleece.

Yet, when did Byzas supposedly live? He allegedly founded the city of Byzantium in the year 658 BCE. This is well within the Archaic Era, the era that we commonly view as Greek history.

The Mythology Behind Arion of Greek History

A figure named Arion lived even later in Greek history. He was a contemporary of Periander, a tyrant of Corinth who ruled in the late-seventh, early-sixth century BCE. Thus, Arion post-dated the composition of Homer’s famous poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Some accounts make Arion the son of Poseidon and a nymph named Oncaea. Allegedly, he was attacked by pirates while at sea. He played his kithara to appeal to Apollo, who then sent dolphins to help him. After throwing himself in the sea, one of the dolphins took him to shore.

Once again, this is a clear example of mythology. It is not merely a distorted, legendary account. It makes Arion the son of a god, and this is placed firmly in the realm of Greek mythology. It is not simply a legend.

The Homeric Myth of Etruscan Pirates

Even later in history, we find a myth about Etruscan pirates. This account comes from one of the Homeric Hymns. It appears to have been written in the latter part of the sixth century BCE.

According to the story, some Etruscan pirates came across a boy or young man on the shore of Greece. They seized him and took him aboard. As it happened, this boy was actually the god Dionysus in disguise. As punishment, he turned all but one of the pirates into dolphins.

This was recorded towards the end of the sixth century BCE, and it appears to be set in that era too. Scholars usually understand it to have been written in response to what was common in that era—that is, Etruscan piracy. Therefore, this is a mythological account set after the time of such historical figures as Pythagoras and Solon.

Greek Mythology in the History of Alexander the Great

Remarkable as it may seem, the age of Greek mythology was still ongoing in the time of Alexander the Great. In 332 BCE, Alexander engaged in his famous siege of Tyre, near Lebanon. Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the first century BCE, wrote an interesting account about what happened during this event.

Diodorus explains that while the Greek soldiers were nearing the island city, ‘portents were sent by the gods.’ The historian explains that an enormous sea monster leapt out of the sea and landed on the causeway that the Greeks were building towards the city. It remained there for some time and then managed to fall back into the sea to swim away.

It is entirely possible that this was a real event, and that the ‘sea monster’ in question was a whale of some kind. Of course, numerous mythological accounts likely have their origins in real events. That does not change the fact that Diodorus’ account explicitly presents this event in a mythological way.

When Greek Mythology Ended and Greek History Began

As we can see, Greek mythology continued for many, many centuries after the Mycenaean Era. There is no reason to assume that any given Greek myth is necessarily from that early period of Greek history. In fact, we continue to see tales that are clearly part of Greek mythology through the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, and even down to the fourth century BCE in a more limited sense.

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