Heroic Myths

Demodocus’ songs reveal two strands of mythology. The first deals with heroes – mortals or semimortals – who inhabit and interact with the ‘real’ world. Archaeology confirms that these myths contain more or less accurate reflections of the late Bronze Age world (c. 1500 – c. 1200 bc). Towns and cities such as Troy, Mycenae, Sparta, Pylos, Calydon and Knossos were thriving in precisely the period when they are imagined as playing an important role in mythology. Since the decipherment of Linear B tablets in the mid-twentieth century we have even discovered that Bronze Age peoples spoke an early form of Greek, and that the place-names of mythology corresponded to those of real settlements. Sadly these tablets were used only for bureaucratic record-keeping, not literature, and give no real evidence even for the names of kings. Hittite tablets from Anatolia, however, do connect names such as Priam and Alexandros with Wilusa, which can reasonably be identified with Troy.

Heroic Myths Photo Gallery

Some myths resonate so closely with the evidence of archaeology that there are those today who passionately believe in their ‘historical’ accuracy. In antiquity, too, no one doubted that the Trojan War really happened. Historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides accepted it as fact, while from the fifth century bc it assumed even greater significance when it was seen as a precursor of the Greeks’ victory over the Persians. As a result, historical figures such as Xerxes and Alexander the Great made sacrifices at Troy – the one praying to avenge the Trojans’ defeat, the other to outvie it.

Prominent Greek (and, later, Roman) families traced their lineage back to heroes of the Trojan

War, just as some English people today boast of ancestors who came to Britain with the Normans, or Americans profess connections with the Founding Fathers. Thus Alexander claimed descent from Achilles (and Heracles), while Julius Caesar and Augustus counted Aeneas and Anchises among their forebears.

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