Greek city-states and emplaced myth

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The foundation myths of city-states were crucial to the morale of the citizens, binding patriotism and common interest with a thread of divine authority. When we think of the mythology of the ancient Greeks, we think of a pantheon of gods and a sequence of stories about them. But to the Greeks themselves, myth was intensely local. Pausanias's Guide to Greece chronicles all kinds of local cults, from the bronze nanny-goat worshipped by the vine-growers of Phlious, to the sanctuary of the rural god Melampous at Aegosthena. 

The Greek polis, or city-state, of which there were over a thousand, was built on myth. Each had a ktistes, a civic founder, whose deeds were achieved with the help of a god, who became the city's patron and protector. The guardian deity of the city of Mantineia, for instance, was Poseidon Hippios (Poseidon the horseman). His image was on the city's coinage; his sanctuary-forbidden on pain of death to all but his priest-was at the city's gates. As the god of both underground water and of horses, Poseidon-conventionally thought of as the god of the sea-was a good choice of patron for a horse-breeding people living in an inland city with problematic drainage.

The topography of a city's site, its setting in its environment, is always an element in its mythology. The founding myth of the polis of Megara is a good example. Pausanias tells us how:

The Megarians have another akropolis named after Alkathous. . . . They point out a hearth of the gods of "Before Building", and tell you that Alkathous was the first to sacrifice to them, when he was going to begin building the wall, Near this hearth is a stone on which they say Apollo put his harp when he helped Alkathous with the building. . . . When Apollo was helping him build the wall, he laid his harp on a stone, and if you hit this stone with a pebble it twangs like a struck harp-string.

The myth explains the musical stone; the stone proves the myth; and both establish Megara as a city of harmonia-harmony, well-constructedness.

In every Greek city, geological and geographical features, ancient tombs, temples, buildings and boundaries interconnect in a web of myth that animates the city's sense of identity and uniqueness. In terms of the desire to create a universal, pan-Hellenic level of accepted myth-which is achieved in the works of Homer and Hesiod-these local, parochial myths could be a stumbling block. Many cities might compete, for instance, for the honour of being the birthplace of a particular god, and when one was chosen as the "official" birthplace, the others were not simply snubbed, their very sense of their own importance was impaired. Megara had a long-standing tradition that the Greek forces gathered to fight the Trojan war had set off from Megara. When the text of the Iliad reached its final form, the pan-Hellenic consensus was that the expedition was launched from Aulis. Megara continued to assert its claim, but with damaged confidence.

Athens was the city of the goddess Athena, and its most important temple, the Parthenon, was dedicated to Athena Parthenos-Athena the virgin. Olympia was the city of Zeus, and held the Olympic games in his honour. Corinth was under the protection of the sea god Poseidon; Argos of the goddess Hera; Epidaurus of the god Asclepius; Delphi of the god Apollo. In each of these cities, the relative importance of the gods of the Greek pantheon was skewed in favour of that city's special protector, and his or her alliances and enmities among the community of gods.

One significant role of the major competitive games such as the Olympics, or the Panathenaia in Athens, was that although dedicated to the patron gods of the host cities, Zeus and Athena, the festivals themselves were pan-Hellenic events, tying all the city-states into communion with each other.

Just as the overarching pan-Hellenic myths of Hesiod and Homer are modelled on the template of the myths of the individual city-states, so the myths of the polis were enlarged versions of the essential unit of Greek mythology, the myths of the family or kinship group. The loyalty to family and blood-kin before everything else is stressed by Plato in the Laws. To secure the favour of the gods of birth, a man must honour and respect "his family and all who join in the worship of the family gods and all who share the same blood." In other words the whole structure of Greek society and Greek mythology is composed of a series of widening ripples outward from the smallest unit; individual and local beliefs shaped the grander pan-Hellenic beliefs, rather than the other way round. This element of Ancient Greek thought remains in the modern concept of parea, for which there isn't really an adequate English translation. It means something like "intimate community".

Greek mythology is in fact much more similar to the "emplaced" mythology of the Australian Aborigines than would appear from a cursory comparison of the grand sweep of the Iliad with the intensely local nature of an Aboriginal Dreaming. The way in which kinship systems enmesh Aborigines with their human ancestors and their Dreaming ancestors, and with the Country they belong to and have responsibility for, and the songs and stories and dances and rituals that belong to that Country, is not all that different from the way the myths of the polis sustained and empowered the people. For the citizens of a Greek city-state, locally-based myth offered a pattern of being and a way of thinking that tied past, present, and future into a single powerful knot, located precisely in the akropolis where offerings were made to the gods. And these were not just pan-Hellenic gods such as Apollo, but locally recognised gods such as the gods of "Before Building" honoured at Megara.

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