How do myths and stories travel across space? And, perhaps more importantly, why do they change when they get there? Did the people hearing the stories misunderstand, and garble them in their own retellings, or did they deliberately adapt myths to fit better with their local beliefs, practices and institutions?
The Wandering Myths conference I attended at Somerville College, Oxford last week discussed all these issues and many more – but it was the issue of “misunderstanding” that particularly interested me. As many of the speakers discussed, this is often a key issue for how we understand contact between the Greek world and other cultures, especially in Italy. In the past, Etruscan and Southern Italian artists in particular have been criticised by modern art historians for misrepresenting or misinterpreting Greek myths in their work.
In her paper “From Mezentie to Mezentius”, Nancy de Grummond showed us a number of Etruscan mirrors. One showed a young man labelled as Alixentr (Alexander), facing three beautiful women. Immediately, this appears to be an image of the judgement of Paris – Paris (also called Alexander) was told to judge who was the most beautiful goddess, out of Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. But there’s a problem – the women depicted on the mirror are labelled too, with the names Ateleta (Etruscan for Atalanta), Helena and a third Etruscan name that doesn’t relate to any Greek goddess or woman. Did the artist misunderstand the story of the judgement of Paris, then? The picture on the mirror shown above is also said to show “the judgement of Paris”, but the figures aren’t labelled. Are they actually Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, or are they supposed to show another version of the story?
Similarly, the Minotaur is always killed by Hercules, not Theseus, when the story is depicted in Etruscan art. Is this just a mistake? Possibly, but quite a large number of people, many of whom knew a great deal about Greek culture, would consistently have to make the same “mistake” for these kinds of changes to be possible.
Even though a number of scholars still seem to use “mistakes” in transmission as a big factor in how these stories change, there are a number of other possibilities. People could be giving a local flavour to imported stories, making them match up to characters they already knew. But, more convincingly perhaps, there may have been many versions of these stories in common currency, and the “official” Greek version known to us may be just one of many competing versions that happened to be written down or made into a play. It might in fact be wrong to think of the written Greek (or Latin) text as the correct version, or even the main version, of a story, even if it is the most familiar.
This point doesn’t just apply to myths, but to anything that might be transmitted across cultures – law codes, magical formulae, and even alphabets themselves. There may be mistakes as they get passed from person to person, and there may be deliberate adaptations to local needs. But we also need to keep in mind that there may also be many versions that are completely invisible to us, because they don’t survive. When we study the influence of Greek culture on other groups, there are always a huge number of missing links.
If you want to see for yourself how the myth of Herakles/Hercules wandered across Greece, Italy, Northern Europe, the Middle East and South Asia, you can use the “Wandering Myths” gallery trail at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. This was put together by the conference organisers, and shows perfectly how one hero’s stories can adapt and change as they are represented by different artists. The trail took me about 30 minutes to complete, so it makes a good lunchtime break if you happen to be in Oxford soon – you should be able to ask for the leaflet at the museum.