To Cite This Work

Review of Robin Lane Fox, Travelling Heroes: Greeks and their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer (London: Allen Lane, 2008)

Gregory Nagy
[This article is a draft of a review later published in Journal of Hellenic Studies 131 (2011) 166–169 (DOI: Page numbers for that publication have been added in curly brackets. For instance, {166|167} indicates the break between pages 166 and 167.]
For the author (hereafter LF), the ‘epic age of Homer’ is the 8th c. (here and hereafter, all dates are BCE). The word ‘travelling’ refers to the transmission of myths in general and of myths about heroes in particular. And the agents of transmission are Greeks from ‘Long Island’, that is, from Euboea. These myths, LF argues, are linked to the wide-ranging travels of the Euboeans in the Mediterranean world, especially during the 8th c. A solid foundation for his argument is his thorough understanding of the relevant topography, history, and archaeology (the excavations at the Euboean site of Lefkandi loom large). According to LF (p. 299; hereafter I will dispense with ‘p[p].’), the myths transmitted by the Euboeans can be seen as ‘travelling’ because the Euboeans themselves were well-travelled. And, just as they travelled, their thinking travelled as well.
LF (3) compares the passage in Il. 15.78-83 where the speed of the travelling goddess Hera is compared to the speed of the thinking (νόος, 80) of a man who, having travelled far and wide, thinks to himself (νοήσῃ, 81) ‘I wish I was here, or I wish I was there’, as he ‘longs for many different things’ (verse 82). Such is the power of Euboean ‘lateral thinking’ (as LF [376] calls it).
How does Euboean mythmaking move laterally? A case in point is a myth well known to us from its retelling in the Hesiodic Theogony (176-82), where we read that Kronos castrated his father Ouranos with a sickle (ἅρπη, 175 and 179). As LF (283-4) shows, there were analogous myths about divine succession in Hittite texts dating back to the second millennium, and the Euboeans would have made contact with offshoots of Anatolian civilizations already in the early eighth century or even earlier, especially around the island of Cyprus and the facing mainland in the Near East. So, in terms of LF’s argument, the Euboeans borrowed a version of this Near Eastern myth and travelled with it throughout the Mediterranean, especially in the West.
Before this review leaves the East behind and travels toward the West in pursuit of the travelling Euboeans and their borrowed myths, I pause for a {166|167} moment to contemplate one of the high points of the whole book. It is a lively eyewitness description, quoted by LF (292), of an ‘emergence’ seen by the archaeologist J. L. Myres in the winter of 1913 off the coast of Paphos in Cyprus. As he is watching the incoming waves break, suddenly, the south-west wind forces two breakers to collide. ‘When the angle of impact is about 90o,’ he writes, ‘the “break” is both concentrated within a small width of swell, and very violent, so that the breaker shoots up in a column like a water-spout, 10-15 feet high, and falls back in an outward cascade of foam which may be carried some feet to leeward by the wind. It looks exactly like a human figure literally “rising from the sea” and spreading long hair and dripping arms.’ So also in the Hesiodic Theogony (188-200), Aphrodite emerges from the foam (ἀφρός, 191 and 197), which may be seen as the semen of the castrated Ouranos.
But what about the sickle that Kronos used to castrate Ouranos? Well, around 30 miles up the coast from the city of Paphos in Cyprus, which was sacred to the goddess Aphrodite, there is a promontory shaped like a sickle and actually named Drepanon, another Greek word for ‘sickle’ (LF 292). And, when the Euboeans travelled to the West around 730-720 and founded a settlement at the northeast tip of Sicily, at a place we know as the city of Messina, they saw that the promontory overlooking the natural harbour of their settlement was shaped like a sickle: in fact, the name of that settlement was originally Zancle, which was the word for ‘sickle’ in the language of the pre-existing population of Sicily, the Sicels (LF 284).
Around the same time, the Phoenicians were also founding settlements. At the northwest tip of Sicily, for example, these Near Eastern rivals of the Euboeans founded the city of Eryx, sacred to the goddess Astarte, who was the Phoenician counterpart of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. And the harbour city of this Phoenician settlement was a place we now know as Trapani, which was ancient Drepanon for the Greeks, that is, ‘a place with another sickle-shaped harbour which earned it its name’ (LF 293).
Exploring the rivalry between Phoenicians and Euboean Greeks in appropriating the myth about the castrated sky god, LF (291) notes a similar rivalry between Greeks from the Euboean city of Chalkis, who were the primary settlers of Zancle in Sicily, and Greeks from the rival Euboean city of Eretria, who were early participants in settling the island of Corcyra. Underneath that island, according to local myth (Apollonius of Rhodes 4.982-6, with scholia; Callimachus, Aetia F 43.57-75) was the sickle of Kronos. As LF (368) sees it, ‘Independently, Eretrian Euboeans on Corcyra and Chalcidian Euboeans at Zancle had found the very sickle which had once parted Heaven from Earth’.
Such a perspective is based on the idea that the different myths we find in different places concerning the sickle of Kronos originated from the travelling Euboeans and Phoenicians. For example, LF (293) says about the version of the myth as transmitted by the Phoenicians in north-west Sicily: ‘In their separate sphere they may have started a story which Euboean Greeks had also started in theirs.’
The term ‘started’ leads to a question. What if these different myths in different places already existed in these places even before the Phoenician and Euboean travellers ever reached them? After all, as LF observes (284 and n. 22), there were many places throughout the Mediterranean that had names meaning ‘sickle’. Also, there were local myths about the sickle of Kronos that had nothing to do with Euboeans. A case in point is a myth that was linked with a cape near Argyra on the coast of Achaea in the Corinthian Gulf: according to this local myth, as reported by Pausanias (7.23.4), it was offshore from this cape that Kronos threw his sickle into the sea after castrating Ouranos. Although LF (288, 291) may be right in attributing this local myth to travelling Euboeans, I see no local political motivation that would justify a Euboean attribution in such a case.
This is not to say that Euboeans could not have been transmitters of the myths at Zancle and in Corcyra and in other places where they settled. It is only to say that they need not have been the originators. There could have been local myths that resembled closely the myths already known by the Euboeans—closely enough to be amalgamated with the travelling myths of these newcomers. And we have already observed some traces of such local myths, as in the case of the name Zancle: the Sicels who were already in Sicily before the coming of the Euboeans already had a name for the place of the sickle. And the place could have been already linked with a local myth about a local storm god who castrated a local sky god.
Relevant is the concept of ‘transplanting’ as mentioned in passing by LF (328, with 444 n. 50). When a myth gets transplanted from one place to the next, such transplanting in a new place {167|168} takes root within the historical context of the pre-existing myths and rituals of that place. Myths about divine successions, like the story of the castration of Ouranos by Kronos, were not just stories being told for the sake of telling stories. Rather, such local myths had a ritual significance in the life of a local population. Pausanias (8.8.3) makes a point of expressing his appreciation of such ritual significance in the course of examining a local myth of the Arcadians about divine succession: at one point in the narrative of this local myth as recorded by Pausanias, the goddess Rhea tricks Kronos into swallowing a foal that she substitutes for the newborn god Poseidon.
LF (293) rejects what Pausanias says about the ritual significance of this and other such myths about divine succession: ‘Pausanias [8.8.3] was mistaken. The stories were not allegories: they were imports, taken into Greek culture by Greeks’ contacts with specific places and other cultures. They were not taken up in connection with a cult or a religious ritual’. But the connectedness of such succession myths with ritual is visible, I think, even from the retelling we find in the Hesiodic Theogony: at one point in the narrative, the goddess Rhea tricks Kronos into swallowing a stone that she substitutes for the newborn god Zeus (verses 485-91). This stone, along with the divine siblings of Zeus whom Kronos had already swallowed, is then vomited up by Kronos after he is overthrown by Zeus (497). The victorious Zeus then deposits this stone for display as a cult object at Delphi (498-500).
How do we account for the presence of such a succession myth in Hesiodic poetry? Clearly there are close parallels in Near Eastern traditions, where we see comparable succession myths attested in Hittite and other sources dating back to the second millennium. As LF (367) argues, however, ‘there was … no “hotline” between Hesiod here and a source in a non-Greek language: the relevant message from such eastern hotlines had already been adjusted by Greeks long before his lifetime, first on Cyprus, then on Crete, from where Cretans from Knossos carried it west to Delphi.’ In terms of this argument, Delphi is a key to finding the sources for the Hesiodic retelling of the succession myth. According to LF (364), Hesiod himself went to Delphi and saw on display there the cult object that the priests there claimed to be the stone that Kronos had swallowed and then vomited up. To borrow from the wording of LF (293), I think we see here indications of ‘a cult or a religious ritual’.
For LF (364-7), another key to finding the sources of Near Eastern elements in Hesiodic poetry is the first-person narrative in the Works and Days (647-60) about Hesiod’s victory in a poetic contest held at the funeral games for Amphidamas at Chalkis in Euboea (655). According to LF (364-5), the humnos or ‘hymn’ that Hesiod performed at Chalkis (W&D 657), was the Theogony itself, and his primary informants were the Chalcidians of Euboea, whose wide-ranging travels had made them conversant with myths of the Near East.
According to LF (36), Hesiod lived in the late eighth century. So the scenario for Hesiodic transmission of Near Eastern traditions by way of Euboean lore learned at Delphi and Chalkis must be dated to that period as well (LF 361-2). Accordingly, LF (182-3) argues that the original text of the Theogony ended at some point before the mention of Agrios and Latinos, children of Circe and Odysseus (verse 1013), since the dating of that tradition points to a later period of mythological transmission. But there are other ways of accounting for the presence of later traditions, Euboean or otherwise, in Hesiodic poetry. In G. Nagy, “Hesiod and the Ancient Biographical Traditions,” Brill's Companion to Hesiod (ed. F. Montanari, A. Rengakos, and C. Tsagalis; Leiden 2009) 271–311, I offer sustained argumentation for the presence of seventh- and even sixth-century traditions in Hesiodic and also in Homeric poetry. In terms of such argumentation, both Homeric and Hesiodic poetry can accommodate a wider range of Euboean and other comparable features.
In the case of Euboean features, I highlight the model of a ‘matrice euboica’ as formulated in the thoroughgoing work of A. Debiasi, L’epica perduta: Eumelo, il Ciclo, l’occidente (Hesperìa 20; Rome 2004; LF 420 n. 56 mentions this book but does not list it in the Bibliography) and Esiodo e l’occidente. (Hesperìa 24; Rome 2008). Of special relevance is the Contest of Homer and Hesiod tradition if we treat it not as a late fifth-century ‘fiction’ (as does LF 365) but as an earlier myth reflecting the politics of Homeric and Hesiodic transmission (Nagy [2009]).
In any case, the views of LF on Homeric and Hesiodic poetry invite further debate. I would welcome, for example, more engagement with the sensible ‘neoanalytic’ methodology of K. Dowden (‘Homer’s Sense of Text’, JHS 116 [1996] 47-61, mentioned by LF 391 n. 24). {168|169}
That said, I conclude with an overall comment about the book: it is a most valuable introduction to the travelling Hellenes of the eighth century.