Palaiphatos’ Peri Apiston, a fourth-century BC treatise on mythic rationalization, has attracted some distinguished critics. Wilamowitz failed to see its value: "das elende Machwerk", as he called it, wasted great effort for little reward (Wilamowitz-Moellendorff 1895, 101 n.184). This assessment has frequently been echoed but seldom directly challenged. Given the recent revival of interest in Peri Apiston (esp. Stern 1996; Santoni 2000; Brodersen 2002), the time has come to reconsider Palaiphatos’ value as an indigenous critic of Greek myth. Palaiphatos’ infamy as a banal, simpleminded and unimaginative writer provides – somewhat unexpectedly – a promising starting point. This paper argues that Palaiphatos’ unique value resides precisely in his seemingly pedestrian qualities. The apparent simplemindedness of Peri Apiston obscures a strikingly distinctive way of understanding myth. As he works his way doggedly through the Greek myths, Palaiphatos gives us a rare, bold vision of hermeneutic consistency seldom seen elsewhere in antiquity. His rationalistic method is a discrete approach to the historicist problems posed by myth which shapes the stories themselves into the very concept of mythology.
The history of rationalistic myth interpretation is conventionally traced from its origins amongst the early prose writers, who grappled in various ways with the trustworthiness of stories about the past, to its culmination in Peri Apiston (most recently: Stern 1996, 10-11; Sanz Morales 1999; 2002, 205-14; Ramelli & Lucchetta 2004, 205-7). Palaiphatos is indeed indebted to techniques developed by Hekataios, Herodoros and others, but his text is a product of a different, more scholarly environment and does not fit easily amongst theirs. Whereas early mythographers and historians used rationalization as a tool to further larger arguments within more eclectic texts, Palaiphatos took the interpretative method itself as his theme. Peri Apiston comprises a Preface, which establishes the legitimacy of rationalization as an approach to myth, and 45 entries, each devoted to debunking and rationalizing a different myth in a highly repetitive manner. This structure reflects a typically Hellenistic concern with collating material and organizing it systematically. Palaiphatos’ innovation, then, was to transform a practical way of dealing with individual stories into something approaching a ‘science’ of interpretation.
The systematic dogmatism of Palaiphatos’ approach is underpinned by his distinctive understanding of the nature of Greek myth. Taking up the challenge of Detienne (1981), recent work on Greek myth has looked at how the Greeks constructed (or, more commonly, failed to construct) a native category of myth. Peri Apiston provides a unique, yet overlooked, perspective on this debate. Palaiphatos describes as muthoi recognizable traditional stories characterized primarily by their implausibility. Such a conception seems banal and simplistic to a modern reader, familiar with the meaning of ‘myth’ in popular parlance, but it is without parallel in extant Greek texts. This paper argues that Palaiphatos’ consistent projection of a discernible category of Greek myth is important in that it provides us with an example of a Greek writer who was able to dogmatically carve out a ‘mythology’ which functioned as both 'un ensemble d’énoncés discursifs' and 'un discours sur les mythes' (Detienne 1981, 15). Although the consistency of his viewpoint makes him a valuable curiosity, Palaiphatos is not an entirely isolated figure. He brings together two emerging ways in which myths could be understood as a distinctive object of study. Firstly, he collects his material in a mythographic environment: his myths are literary artifacts extracted from their poetic and cultic contexts and utilized as independent narratives. Secondly, he adopts the position of the historian and sets up this material as ‘mythic’ in the sense that it must be rejected by the appropriately skeptical critic.