August 2020 saw the release of A Total War Saga: Troy, a strategy video game where the player takes on the role of one of various heroes on either side of the Trojan War and leads their armies to victory. If you’ve ever wanted to play Penthesilea defeating Achilles, here’s your chance.
The game’s setting revolves around a mix of historical and legendary elements. On the legendary side, each hero has access to a unique set of mechanics and military units inspired by legend: Paris and Hektor compete to become Priam’s heir, Odysseus has superior seafaring capability, and so on. On the historical-archaeological side, some mechanics are based on Late Bronze Age realities: Agamemnon can appoint people to leadership roles with the titles lawagetas, telestas, and heqetas; Hector can build up the ‘Assuwa league’. (There’s a certain amount of material from popular culture too: Paris looks suspiciously like Orlando Bloom’s character in the 2004 movie Troy.)
One of the core design principles is euhemerism. The basic idea is to take a myth, strip away the fantastic bits, and treat the result as historical. This supposedly recovers ‘the truth behind the myth’. In May an interview with the game’s director, Maya Georgieva, was published under that title.
Georgieva talks at length about using euhemerism to devise military units and game mechanics by taking legendary material, and replacing impossible fantasies with feasible substitutes. So the ‘Minotaur’ isn’t a monster with the head of a bull. He is, in her words:
a rebel or bandit king who invokes the symbols of the past to make his claim for power — he uses the bull mask and the double axe as means to connect to the Minoan heritage and incite followers.
In a similar vein the Cyclops is a man wearing the skull of a dwarf elephant as a helmet, in line with the ideas of scholars such as Adrienne Mayor who have suggested that the legendary one-eyed monster might have been influenced by the nasal socket in dwarf elephant skulls, which were extinct by Homer’s time, but which had lived on Mediterranean islands until the mid-Mesolithic. Centaurs in the game are not half-horse, half-man, but skilled cavalry riders in shaggy barbarian clothes. Sirens are women warriors (depressingly scantily dressed) with special combat mechanics. And so on.
Figure 2: Elephant skull at Serengeti National Park (CC-BY-SA 2.0).
This principle is most famously associated with Euhemerus’ Sacred Record, dating to the third century BCE. At that time it was a natural extension of earlier rationalizations of myth. Aristotle had used a similar idea to explain how early humans had linked the stars to the gods (Metaphysics 12.8, 1074b):
It has been passed down from the ancients, even the most ancient, and left to later people in the form of a myth, that (the heavenly bodies) are gods, and that divinity encompasses all of nature. The other material got tacked on in a mythic fashion: in order to persuading the masses, and for the sake of laws and expedience. For example, they say that these (gods) have human shape, and are like other animals. The rest follows on from that and from other similar things. If we strip away this material, and take only the basic principle — that they consider the primordial beings to be gods — then we would regard that as a divinely inspired statement.
Earlier still, Theagenes of Rhegium and the author of the Derveni papyrus rationalized the gods as anthropomorphizations of natural forces. Xenophanes treated the gods as artefacts of the cultures that worshiped them. Euhemerism was a new flavor of rationalization, but rationalization itself was nothing new.
Figure 3: Display of the Derveni Papyrus (4thC BCE) at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki (CC-BY-SA 3.0).
And for a video game, euhemerism makes sense as a design principle. Georgieva makes the compelling point that it’s an authentically ancient way of approaching myth. And euhemerism has an enduring appeal in modern popular media: even the slogan ‘truth behind myth’ is an echo of the Tomb Raider series of games, which also make heavy use of euhemerism — for example, rationalizing the Midgard Serpent of Norse myth as a metaphor for tectonic plate movement (Tomb Raider: Underworld, 2008).
But don’t go relying on fiction for your historical methodology. Euhemerism has never been a tool for turning bad historical data into good data. It’s an excuse for carrying on using bad data.
The mantra of 'truth behind myth' stems from the idea that a myth is passed down, but it cannot always have been there. It must have a starting point: there must be a source, a first mover, a seed. That seed is supposedly still there, concealed and encrusted by fantastic elements. And we can recover it, if we find the right techniques.
Figure 4: Midgårdsormen (swedish:The Midgard Serpent) by Björn Therkelson is a sculpture that was erected outside the town hall in the small town of Floby in Sweden in 1996 (CC0).
And there is absolutely no reason to expect any step in that reasoning to work. In Euhemerus’ own case it is perfectly clear: his story is that he saw a temple of Zeus on the island of Panchaea, in which there was a pillar relating how the Olympian gods originated as mythicized versions of exceptional mortal heroes. But all of that is definitely wrong. Nowadays we know ‘Zeus’ is a reflex of a Proto-Indo-European root *dyēus meaning ‘sky, day’, and that his function as a sky god has analogues in several other ancient cultures that spoke Indo-European languages. Zeus wasn’t a mortal king, he didn’t live on Panchaea, and he didn’t have a real gravesite on Crete.
It’s easy to find similar fallacies elsewhere. Take Dionysus: ancient Greek writers were confident that his cult was a recent import from Thrace. There is no historical basis to that either. Since the 1960s we have known that Dionysus is there in the Linear B tablets. He was baked into the Greek pantheon all along: his recent arrival in Greece was an integral part of his myth: he had always ‘recently arrived’.
There’s no need for a first mover, there’s no need for a historical kernel. A myth can just as easily be encrustations all the way down. And it probably is.
I’m not saying a myth is never based on historical events. For all I know, the Lelantine War may have been a real thing — as a matter of fact, I think it probably was. But to assume it was a real event, simply because we don’t have any competing high-quality evidence about relations between Chalcis and Eretria around 700 BCE, is garbage reasoning. And as legendary events go, that one is pretty recent from the point of view of our earliest sources. The further back in the past a myth is set, like the Dorian invasion or the Trojan War, the greater the imperative to adopt a minimalist approach.
Myths undoubtedly contain traditional material, transmitted from generation to generation. But old doesn’t mean real. It doesn’t even mean inspired by something real.
In the case of the Cyclops, we cannot rule out the possibility that ancient Mediterranean cultures were inspired by the skulls of long-extinct dwarf elephants. But the nature of myth is that there’s no expectation that that must be the case. In fact there is some reason to doubt it: the folktale of a hero who escapes a cave by blinding a one-eyed giant can be found in many parts of Europe, as well as in Syria and Berber folklore in northern Africa. It is perfectly possible that it does not even originate in the Mediterranean. Some scholars even argue for an origin going back to the Palaeolithic.
The Pawnee historian Roger Echo-Hawk has influentially suggested some methodologies for determining when an oral tradition contains elements of historical reality — for when a dose of euhemerism might, after all, be justifiable. If there is something that humans have been talking about for a very long time, then it has been part of oral tradition for at least that long. In another essay he points to the oral tradition that ensures each generation learns the causal link between sex and pregnancy:
Let’s just say that we’ve all been talking about sex for a very long time. At least 40,000 years. And probably much longer than that. With this logic in mind, I believe that oral traditions have the arguable capacity to transmit topical information for at least 40,000 years.
Echo-Hawk’s ideas have a great deal of merit, but they also need to be fine-tuned where possible. In the case of the Cyclops, the monster is characterized by his human form and his one eye. Following Echo-Hawk, we might point out that talking about the human form and human eyes is trivially a part of oral heritage extending back indefinitely far into the past. But we wouldn’t say, based on that, that the Cyclops story goes back to the beginnings of language.
We must account for the fact that some material is better at surviving than other material. If you want to understand the potential of myths to preserve historical information, it matters which kind of information you’re talking about. Let’s consider this in the context of Homer and the Trojan War. Homer has a good track record for preserving elements of a distant past — in some respects — and a very poor track record in other respects.
For place names, Homer has an excellent track record. This includes at least one town that had been abandoned since the time of the Mycenaean palace culture: Eutresis, in Boeotia (TH Ft 140; Iliad 2.502). Others, like Troy itself, are also archaic but much more recent: Troy was inhabited until around 950 BCE, and Greeks had resettled the city before the Homeric epics were composed.
Some story elements and theological concepts also seem very ancient. Some are evidently inherited from Bronze Age Mesopotamia, via the Hittites or the Phoenicians. I mean things like the story of the gods’ conflict with the divine forces of chaos, represented by the Titans or by Typhoeus; gods receiving the smoke from sacrifices; a city captured by a spectacular device (the fall of Troy has something in common with the falls of Ebla, Jericho, and Joppa). One or two tale-types, like the Cyclops story, may be even older still.
Poetic devices and formulae also do impressively well, though very unevenly. Many linguistic forms are comparatively recent: Ionisms such as Ζηνός (‘of Zeus’) are recent. On the other hand, some formulae show evidence of syllabic /r/, which would suggest a pre-Mycenaean origin: Ἐνυαλίῳ ἀνδρειφόντῃ (‘like man-slaughtering Enyalios’). One famous phrase, κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται (‘his fame will be unfading’), could in principle go back to Proto-Indo-European.
But material culture, etiquette, military tactics, burial practices, legal and political framework, kinship, marriage, inheritance customs … not so much. With just a couple of exceptions, what we have in these categories looks like contemporary practices, mostly dating to the first half of the 600s BCE or a little earlier, heavily altered by false archaisms to give them an artificial flavor of age.
And a historical Trojan War? Who knows. But in terms of the story’s popularity, in the Archaic period the Trojan War had a similar standing to the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. In terms of the story’s prevalence in the epic tradition, it was on a similar level to the war between the gods and the Titans. It was certainly a popular story, but these comparisons are not encouraging. If we can doubt the reality of the Lelantine War or the First Sacred War, that goes tenfold for the Trojan War.
Myths and epics have elements that are old, but that has nothing to say about whether they are real. There is no principled reason to infer, purely from internal evidence, that a legendary story originated in historical events. If the extant evidence shows a good survival rate for some material, such as Homer’s toponyms and language, then yes, that suggests a decent chance that other toponyms and linguistic forms may be old, even if external corroboration is lacking. But most mythical material lacks that track record.
Header Image: Marble relief fragment with scenes from the Trojan War, Roman, 1stC CE (Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0).
Figure 5: Polyphemus receives a love-letter from Galateia, a 1st-century CE fresco from Pompeii. Via Wikimedia Commons.