10

The myth of Prometheus is commonly understood to account for how humanity first came to possess fire. Likewise the mythic content of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter is commonly understood to account for how the cycle of the seasons first arose. And the ending of that same hymn, where Demeter teaches her rites to Triptolemos, is at least sometimes interpreted as accounting for how humanity first began to cultivate cereals—though the institution of the Eleusinian mystery cult might easily be the whole of that teaching.

Archaic-period sources oddly undercut these interpretations. In Works and Days, Hesiod sings that Zeus hid fire because Prometheus had deceived him. (How Prometheus deceived Zeus is not here specified, though in Theogony he tries and fails to deceive him concerning division of the flesh of sacrifice, between gods and mortals.) Zeus’s act of concealment is expressed by the verb κρύψε, at line 50, aorist in tense and indicative in mood, so it is clearly a specific one-time act—before which fire would have been unconcealed and thus presumably available. And in that same line Prometheus is said not merely to steal it but to steal it back.

The Theogony version is ambiguous regarding the previous availability of fire.

In the Demeter hymn, Demeter is addressed by Hecate as ὡρηφόρε, bringer of seasons (line 54). This occurs just after the abduction and well before the whole business of the mulberry or pomegranate seed, which accounts for Persephone’s annual migration between sunlit and underworld, which in turn is supposed to account for the alternation of the seasons. Granted that that is a formulaic epithet (cf. ll. 192 & 492), still it seems a thoroughly calculated formula for use in this myth. When Demeter resumes her divine form and tells Metaneira off (ll. 256–74), still before the pomegranate thing, she speaks of the circling seasons or years (ὥρῃσιν)—though of course that could be just divine foresight.

The hymn more directly undermines any implication that the story accounts for the very beginning of cereal cultivation; for when Demeter withdraws from both the society of gods and her divine duty, causing famine—and still before the pomegranate thing—cereal cultivation was clearly already an established practice:

Then she caused a most dreadful and cruel year for [hu]mankind over the all-nourishing earth: the ground would not make the seed sprout, for rich-crowned Demeter kept it hid. In the fields the oxen drew many a curved plough in vain, and much white barley was cast upon the land without avail. (ll. 305–09 trans. Evelyn-White)

My question is why this poetry is thus undercutting the myths’ etiological potential—that is, the potential for these myths to be answers to questions of how this or that state of affairs came about in the first place—like Kipling’s Just So Stories. Could this be in service to a worldview in which nothing can be new under the sun but all moves in cycles?

  • Thanks for a very interesting question. I haven't put too much thought into an answer yet, but I will say that epithets can be used anachronistically, since the narrative and the poetry are separate. – C. M. Weimer Sep 23 '17 at 1:54
1

In short, you're expecting too much. It's always a mistake to expect mythology to be internally consistent.

Mythology is not a fantasy novel or an RPG, with consistent worldbuilding and character development. What we have instead are a variety of fragments, the ones that have survived millennia of history, recopying, and reinterpretation through the ages, from different places, different peoples, different authors, with different motives.

Some of these fragments are sacred traditions, some are more literary, some are folktales, some are just good yarns somebody made up. Some of the authors (such as Homer and Hesiod) may be themselves be mythical. Misattribution is common (otherwise why would we now have to talk about "Second-Isaiah" or "Pseudo-Appollodorus")?

I recall one of my college professors telling us about a strange form of syncretism surrounding the myth of Herakles: Every city-state and village in ancient Greece had their stories of local heroes and their deeds, but as the years passed, and the cult of a deified Herakles grew, more and more of the acts in stories became attributed to Herakles instead of the people who may have originally done them. This was well before Joseph Campbell and his Hero of a Thousand Faces.

So again, you should expect (and embrace) contradictions as normal when studying mythology. They're part of the allure.

  • The variability/plasticity of myth is presupposed in my question, where I talk of the myths' etiological potential. – Brian Donovan Jul 25 at 21:31
  • @BrianDonovan By alluding to some sort of "missed potential", you're still gauging stories by your expectation of consistency. – Spencer Jul 25 at 22:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.