The meaning of “Myth” from the Greek “Mythos” is explained as being “traditionally a ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the world view of a person, as by explains aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology , custom or ideas of a society”1. It serves many more purposes than this, and its meaning has changed through time, as peoples attitudes to it have.
Myth is now generally applied to fiction, yet in ancient Greece it was used to define many aspects of there life and it can be used to uncover areas of Greek history, culture and experience. History is something different all together, history is not used to explain natural phenomenon’s or uncover aspects of daily life. History is fact that typically can not be augured. It has evidence, it is fact. Ken Dowden states “History is what myth isn’t . What history tells is true or else it would not be history, only failed history.
What myth tells us is in some way false or it would be history”2 Myths can be said to have graduations of credibility, Dowden uses the example of the myth of Athena being born from Zeus head and compares it to Agamemnon’s expedition to Troy to show that there are different levels of credibility in myth. As obviously there was never a women born from a mans head. Yet it is suggested that there was a Trojan War and Agamemnon’s expedition to Troy has a place in history.
In the example of Dowdens, we can see that myth can be a herald to history, as many believed that Homers epic poem, The Iliad, was based not on a historical reality, but on mythical heroes. Heinrich Schliemann held a different view, believing in Homers war, he combined studies of Homeric text and fieldwork and published observations about Mycenae and the location of Troy in 1869. Although Schliemann’s arcelogical techniques were brought under criticism by many, ( “Schliemann’s excavations at Troy were not a good model of archaeological technique.
Only solid structures were noticed and recorded, and they were rapidly demolished to reveal earlier features. “3) Schliemann’s aim was to identify the geographic setting of Homers Iliad only from literature and he brought the Greek Bronze Age and its antecedents to light for the first time. Not content with his identification of Troy, he also dug at Mycenae and revealed an unknown prehistoric civilization. Myth embeds material that may result from actual history and it can teach us something worthwhile about places and peoples, yet it still needs to be cross examined with other evidence for its motives.
In the “Mycenaean origin of Greek Mythology” Nilsson augurs that the mythical importance of a town corresponds to its importance in the Mycenaean age and civilization. Greek mythology, as organised by location and tribe in myth, showed the way for the mapping of Greece. This is one way in which we ca see myth as a precursor to history. For example the importance of Ithaca has been inflated by Homers focus on Odysseus, and Homers catalogue of ships (Iliad 2 484-760) reproduces the geography of Mycenaean Greece.
So myth can set the foundation for the history of the geography of a place. Herodotus was the first person to attempt an overview of Greek historical events; this presented him with a real problem, as there was no other written account. Yet Greek mythology offered him ideas, towns, kings, heroes etc. But the question is would he be able to compile a history of Greece, from colourful myths, because of course Myth is not hard evidence, there was no real documentation and different versions of a myth make for complication.
Even though some where sceptical, it was also believed that myths still represented actual real events and all Herodutes had to do was pick at the myth, removing the inventions of Gods and other fabulous creations to be left with the grains of history. Herodotus had to make a clear distinction between what he thought myth was and historical sources that you can test and sources that you can not, he stripped away the supernatural forces in the myths, to be left with the “history” behind it.
Yet this can still not be called history as although he is demythologising the story but he still leaves a narrative, a moral story. Even if Herodotus managed to take all the fabulous inventions out of myths then still we are not left with fact, only a possibility. It is not fact because it can not be tested it can not be proved. In book one Herodotus re tells the myth of Jason and the Argonoughts, but with the “facts” Herodotus changes the story from Jason going to fetch the fleece to him retrieving a women, he sets it out as a series of diplomatic events. Herodotus gives us a reconstruction of four myths.
They are more possible, more believable, yet they are still no more than speculation, there is still no prove. Ken Dowden states that “Myth establishes people, places and things, and gives them some sort of conceptual places by associations and contrasts”4 Greek mythology did not restrict itself to Greek populations, but when referring to other cultures , it is dangerous to take heed of what is said as, foreigners in Greek culture are there in order to define Greekness. So we have to be careful as to take myth as a foundation when dealing with Greek “foreigners”
Archaeology has its limits as a historical tool, it names important people of the past but it gives no narrative however desperate we may be for such information; myth is treacherous because it accounts of peoples and individuals are usually designed to construct identities and make statements. Myth can give us ideas about history. Plato states that myths were stories to keep children in line; possibly they were derived from real events. If this was true, then myth could not be any basis for history. History is something that can be proved, history is fact, myth is not, and trying to turn myth into history is just speculation.
Myth can set the foundations for history, but myth, at its most basic term is a story, and one can differ majorley from another, so when asking “can myth be a precursor to history” it is hard to give a “yes” or “no” as , as I stated before myths have different levels of credibility to them, and even though myths such as Homers Iliad , can give a definite yes to the question, myths such as Athena being born from Zeus head can give no basis for history . As Dowden states, we have to recognise that there is a deep yearning for us to connect with the world of myth, as we can see from the Truin Shroud and the multiple heads of St. Peter.
Each myth needs to be taken in isolation and studied for its motives. It is only satisfactory to see myth as precursor to history when there is a real foundation in its ends. If we look deep enough into anything we can make a connection to something else, yet this does not make it fact, it makes it speculation. “Greeks themselves viewed their mythology and the way they did not quite distinguish it from history. 5” This does not mean that we cannot, we no longer look to myths for explanations, we have science and logic.