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Arethusa, Volume 48, Number 3, Fall 2015, pp. 283-311 (Article)


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I n the last article of Arethusa, I took up the question of how the highly
polished nature of Greek mythic narrativesthe vivacity and expressive
power that earned so many of them an enduring place in the pleroma of
world literature and artcontributed to the creation and sustenance of
belief in the gods, heroes, and a divine world more generally. In that article, I focused particularly on how the characters in Greek myths evoked
emotional and cognitive responses from their audience members that were
virtually indistinguishable from those evoked by people in the real world,
and on how the ancient modes of narrating myths (which typically treated
them episodically and through a variety of different media), helped to keep
the stories and their characters alive in an audience members mind and
heart long after a narration was over, thus further sustaining the beliefs
that the stories had encouraged.
One issue that I temporarily set aside in that article was why the
narration of a wide variety of myths focusing on a wide variety of characters was appropriate for recitation at a wide variety of festivals dedicated to
a wide variety of gods. In many cases, of course, there is an obvious link
between the myth and the festival: the story of Apollos foundation of the
Delphic Oracle makes intrinsic sense for performance at a Delphic festival
in honor of Apollo (as in Aristinouss paean to Apollo and, probably, the
second part of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo). In other cases, thematic or

1 I thank audiences at the New York Classics Club and Princeton University, as well as Fritz
Graf, Tom Hawkins, and Arethusas anonymous referee for suggestions they made as this
article was in developmental stages. I am also grateful to Eric Rudolph for a comment
he made long ago, starting me off on a new line of thought that led to the ideas I present
here. The diagrams were designed and executed by Pelham Johnston.

Arethusa 48 (2015) 283311 2015 by Johns Hopkins University Press


Sarah Iles Johnston

contextual considerations provide a key: performing a story about Theseuss

youthful exploits in honor of Delian Apollo (as in the case of Bacchylides
seventeenth dithyramb) would appropriately draw attention to the gods role
in protecting young men. In still other cases, we feel tempted to guess that
the tastes of the poet or the patron led to the choice of myth (as in, perhaps, Pindars second Olympian ode). Yet there is a stubborn remainder of
myths that resist all such scholarly gymnastics: how did Bacchylides story
of Heracles accidental murder at Deianeiras hands, performed in honor
of Dionysus at Delphi (B. 16), help to sustain belief in anyone other than
Heracles? Why perform it to celebrate Dionysus? What was the point of
narrating that particular myth at that particular place at that particular time?
Our general answer must be that the Greeks cared less about
always making tightly logical connections between festivals and myths
than we have imaginedor to put it otherwise, that the contributions that
mythic narratives made to creating and sustaining belief in the gods and
heroes could be more broadly based than we have previously acknowledged. More specifically, I suggest that an essential element that enabled
this breadth of applicability was the tightly woven story world that was
cumulatively being created on a continuous basis by the myths that were
narrated. The closely intertwined nature of this story world validated not
only each individual myth that comprised it but all the stories about what
had happened in the mythic past, the characters who inhabited them, and
the entire worldview upon which they rested. Because it was embedded in
this story world, a skillfully narrated myth about Heracles, for example,
had the power to sustain and enhance belief not only in Heracles himself
but in the entire cadre of the divine world of which he was a member,
including those divinities to whom the festival at which the myth was
performed was dedicated.
I will begin with a discussion of what makes story worlds in general coherent and credible and will then move on to ask whether the story
world created by Greek myths fulfilled those criteria or, rather, drew its
coherence and credibility from other characteristics it possessed. Along
the way, I will discuss some characteristics that Greek mythic narratives
share with narratives familiar from more recent centuries, which will
further heighten our appreciation of the way in which the Greek mythic
story world created and sustained belief. Of course, an important backdrop
to my project as a whole, as I present it in this article and its prequel, is
the very fact that the places and times in which Greek mythic narrations
were publicly performed were, in themselves, conducive to creating and

The Greek Mythic Story World


sustaining belief: the narrations were frequently performed in sanctuaries

dedicated to the gods and heroes, during festivals dedicated to the gods
and heroes. The audiences were primed by these conditions to open their
minds to the ideas that the myths conveyed, and thus the two, festival and
myth, mutually supported one another.
One of the first scholars to theorize about how story worlds are created
was himself the creator of a very famous story world: J. R. R. Tolkien.
In an essay entitled On Fairy-Stories, which was delivered in 1939 as
the annual Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of St. Andrews and
then published in a 1947 festschrift for fantasy writer Charles Williams
that was edited by C. S. Lewis, Tolkien introduced the term Secondary
World, which he contrasted with Primary World, the world in which
we live. The virtue of these terms, he suggests, is that they allow us to
avoid real world and fantasy worldterms that obstructed an idea that
Tolkien and a number of other authors and scholars wanted to emphasize
(including Lewis, in his own essay in that collection2). Namely, that a
well-constructed fictional world elicits responses from us that are almost
indistinguishable from the ways in which the real world affects us, even
if that fictional world has fantastic elements. Samuel Taylor Coleridges
well-worn phrase, willing suspension of disbelief, which he invented to
discuss poems that included elements of the fantastic such as his own Rime
of the Ancient Mariner (1817.chapter 14), misses the mark completely as
far as what well-constructed fiction does to readers according to Tolkien.
What really happens, he says, is that an author makes a Secondary World
which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is true: it accords
with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it while you are, as it
were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic,
or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the abortive little Secondary World from outside . . . then disbelief
must be suspended. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the
genuine thing (Tolkien 1947.60).
Media scholar Michael Saler recently coined the term willing
activation of pretense (2012.28) to describe this process that Tolkien

2 Lewis 1947; cf. remarks made in the essays collected in Lewis 1966.


Sarah Iles Johnston

sketched, but I think that Tolkien means something more than that: a truly
well-constructed story world requires no conscious decision at all on the
part of audience members who participate in itneither the suspension
of disbelief nor the activation of pretense. It immerses readers or viewers
so completely, yet so subtly, that they pass into it without even noticing
that they are doing so.
In addition to credibility, a Secondary World requires something
else. As media scholar Mark Wolf puts it (2012.25), what it needs is a distinct border partitioning it from the Primary World, even when it is said
to exist somewhere in the Primary World, or when the Primary World is
said to be part of it, as in the case of the Star Trek universe containing
earth. It is connected to the Primary World in some way but also set apart
enough to be a world unto itself. Partitioning with a distinct border
refers to devices such as wardrobe doors, rabbit holes, deadly deserts over
which cyclones carry houses, and distances that only warp-speed vehicles
can traverse, but it also refers to giving the Secondary World a sufficient
number of sufficiently striking featuresgeographical, botanical, zoological, technological, etc.to make it different from the Primary World. For
example, the world in which the Oz stories are set has Munchkins, flying monkeys, Kalidahs, talking trees, Mangaboos, and a queen who can
change her head as easily other women change their hats (to name just a
few of its oddities).3 Wolf argues, in fact, that one cant really be said to
have created a truly Secondary World if one simply introduces a single
elementvampires or aliens, for instanceinto a world that in all other
respects aligns with our Primary World (2012.33).
One might nonetheless have created a gripping story; after all,
Bram Stokers Dracula essentially does what I just described: it introduces
vampires into a world that is otherwise identical to that of late nineteenthcentury Europe. One might even be able to make that story coherent and
credibleStoker did this through the introduction of diary entries, letters written by one character to another, and newspaper clippings. But it
is doubtful that the original readers of Dracula, who were, after all, the
same sorts of Victorian folk who populated the novel, felt that they had

3 Kalidah: a vicious beast that has the body of a bear, a head like a tiger, and claws sharp
enough to tear a lion in two, first featured in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and
appearing in other Oz books thereafter. Mangaboos: an underground race of people made
of vegetable material, introduced in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1908).

The Greek Mythic Story World


entered a wholly new story world in the same way that readers of the Oz
books or the viewers of the Star Wars movies do.
That takes care of the word Secondary in Tolkiens term: a Secondary World must be different enough from the Primary World to merit
the adjective. But what about the word World? When we talk about a
story world, we typically mean something that goes beyond the narratively
constructed space in which a single story is setsomething that constitutes
a space where many stories, whether they be directly connected to each
other or not, can be set, and something that is perceived by its audience as
consistent and coherent. The story world of Oz, which slowly developed over
the course of more than sixty volumes, is again a good example: it includes
not only the country of Oz itself but also some neighboring lands such as
Ev and Ix that were explored both in some of the later Oz books and also
in books that formally lay outside of the Oz canon. Characters travel from
one book to others, sometimes travelling from one country within the Oz
world to another as they do so.4 Tolkiens story world, including the land
called Middle-Earth, is the setting for not only The Hobbit and The Lord
of the Rings, but also for stories narrated in the Silmarillion that take place
in lands contingent to Middle-Earth, all of which are contained in a world
called Arda that is itself part of a cosmos called E.
There are story worlds outside of fantasy and science fiction,
too. William Faulkners Yoknapatawpha County, in which twenty-two of
his novels are set, qualifies, for instance, as does Garrison Keillors Lake
Woebegone. These latter two worlds are not distinctively secondarythat
is, they do not differ significantly from the Primary World in their geographic, botanical, zoological, and technological featuresbut they are
fully enough described to hold together as discrete places over the span of
the different stories. You can even map them, as Faulkner himself did.5 (In
fact, the creation of maps and other paratextual materials to accompany a
series of storieslexicons of invented languages, timelines, genealogies,

4 Fourteen books about Oz were written by L. Frank Baum between 1900 and 1920; after his
death, his publishing house, Reilley and Lee, commissioned twenty-six more. In addition,
Baum published eleven books that many consider canonically part of the Oz World, and
others published an additional six books and two short stories. A complete and accurate
list, so far as I can establish, is to be found at: http://oz.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_Oz_books
(last accessed May 14, 2014). Potentially more complete, but also more confusing, is the
information at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Oz_books (last accessed May 14, 2014).
Vidal 1977a and 1977b are helpful and insightful.
5 First printed on the end papers of Faulkner and Cowley 1946.


Sarah Iles Johnston

bestiaries, and other guides to its infrastructure6 is a sure indication that

a story world has taken on an existence of its own.)
With these two sets of guidelines in placewhat it takes to make
a story world a world and what it takes to make it secondarylet us turn
now to Greek myths and consider what kind of story world underlies them.
My first question is whether we find strong characteristics of a Secondary World in Greek myths. Are there a sufficient number of sufficiently
odd geographic, botanical, zoological, and technological features, etc., to
qualify? Let us take stock, trying to be representatively inclusive without
becoming pedantically exhaustive. In our bestiary, we have some remarkable creatures: gorgons, griffins, Harpies, sphinxes, centaurs, Cyclopes,
Sirens, Typhoeus, the Hydra, Scylla, Pegasus, the Chimaera, the Minotaur,
a couple of dragons, and Cerberus. But many of the other creatures who
appear in myths are just larger or more vicious versions of creatures found
in the Primary World: the Nemean Lion, the Erymanthian and Calydonian
Boars, the Crommyonian Sow, the Mares of Diomedes, the Cretan and
Marathonian Bulls, the Python, and Scirons giant turtle. Botanically, there
is very little going on at all: from the Odyssey we get moly and lotuses,
but I cannot think of other examples. Technologically, we have the various automata built by Hephaestus, Perseuss (or rather Hermes) winged
shoes, and Hades cap of invisibility. As for unusual geographic features,
I can offer only the Planctae, Charybdis, and two floating islands: the one
on which Aeolus and his family dwelt and Delos, which stopped floating
after Leto gave birth to Apollo upon it.
Aside from the zoological catalogue, this is not a particularly
strong record of weirdness. And we must remember that the catalogue I
just presented is a pasticcio gathered together from different works. In their
single episodes, myths usually introduce only one remarkable featurea
monster, most often. This amounts to a seriatim introduction of vampires
and aliens into an otherwise Primary World. Sometimes ancient authors
seem relatively uninterested in a monsters remarkable features, mentioning

6 Wolf 2012.15397. Other examples are Noel 1980 and Furth 2012, which includes a dictionary of characters, magical objects and magical forces, maps, and appendices on such
topics as Mid-World Dialects and Gilead Fair-Days. Many editions of John Galsworthys The Forsyte Chronicles include an extensive family tree in the front material.

The Greek Mythic Story World


them only briefly. Consider this passage from the Iliad in which the story
of Bellerophon and the Chimaera is told (Il. 6.17183):
So off went Bellerophon to Lycia, under the excellent
escort of the gods. And when he reached the river Xanthus,
the king welcomed him and honored him with entertainment for nine solid days, killing an ox each day. But when
the tenth dawn spread her rosy light, the king questioned
him and asked to see the tokens that his son-in-law Proetus
had sent. And when he saw the evil tokens, he ordered
Bellerophon to kill the furious Chimaera, a creature that
was not human but divine; a lion in front, a serpent in the
rear, and a goat in the middle, and breathing fire. Bellerophon killed her, trusting in signs from the gods.
(trans. Lombardo, slightly modified).
Homer does not fail to mention the Chimaeras triple physiognomy
and fiery breath, but he does not take full advantage of their narrative possibilities (nor does Pindar, for instance, who allots to her a single adjectival phrase, fire-breathing, at . 13.90). In this and many other cases,
moreover, that which is marvelous is situated squarely within familiar
activities or against a familiar backdrop: Bellerophon departs to fight the
Chimaera after a series of feasts such as Homeric kings typically serve to
important visitors; in Pindars narration of Jasons exploits on Colchis, the
sheer physical strength that the hero displays while yoking Aeetes oxen
and guiding their plow merits more attention than the oxens fiery breath
and brazen hooves (P. 4.23238). Similarly, Theseuss visit to the marvelous undersea palace of Poseidon and Amphitrite, as narrated by Bacchylides in his seventeenth dithyramb, is well integrated into an eventful but
otherwise realistic voyage across the Aegean.
This is not to say that Greek authors could not focus more closely
on the wondrous or the horrible when they wished to: Aeschyluss portrait of the unnamed goddesses who invade Apollos Delphic Oracle, for
example, is detailed and chilling: black and utterly abominable, they snore
forth repulsive breath and foul ooze drips from their eyes. But that is the
point, after all: the epiphany of these dreadful goddesses is meant to be
understood as a sudden irruption of maddened rot into a space of reasoned
light; the contrast needs to be striking. Similarly, if for a different reason, Odysseuss own narrations of the monsters he encountered and their


Sarah Iles Johnston

dreadful modes of attack are hair-raising; what else would we expect from
a talented, self-aggrandizing storyteller?7
Yet overall, the monstrous and the marvelous are treated with relative restraint by ancient authors. The effect is much like that produced in
the modern genre of magic realism, where elements that, in isolation from
their narratives, might stand out as magical or fantasticghosts conversing
with the living, telepathy, and extraordinary longevity, for instanceare
integrated into the everyday world in such a way as to be accepted by audience members unhesitatingly. This does not rob them of their marvelousness; rather, it enables them to contribute to an expansion of the narrative
worlds possibilities. We should note the contrast between this way of narrating the marvelous and that found in many examples of fantasy writing
in which remarkable elements are accentuated by vivid description, such
as this passage from Neil Gaimans Neverwhere (2001.214):
Upon [Hunters] arrival, it comes through the underbrush,
a fury of brown and of white, undulating gently, like a
wet-furred snake, its red eyes bright and peering through
the darkness, its teeth like needles, a carnivore and a
killer. The creature is extinct in the world above. It weighs
almost three hundred pounds and is a little over fifteen
feet long, from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail. As
it passes her, it hisses like a snake and, momentarily, old
instincts kicking in, it freezes. And then it leaps at her,
nothing but hate and sharp teeth.
This giant weasel-creature enhances the strangeness of a subterranean
world that Gaiman has already painted as weird, dangerous, and utterly
disconnected from normal existence above ground.
My initial conclusions, then, are that the story world of Greek
myths is not a strongly secondary one, that the secondary qualities that it
does possess focus upon single, circumscribed events or characters, and
that those events or characters are often integrated into descriptions of the
Primary World in such a way as to expand possibilities within the latter
rather than highlight the extraordinariness of the former. This is not because
the Greeks werent able to imagine a sufficient number of sufficiently odd
7 We know, too, that visual representations of the monstrous could be striking, not only from
what remains to us but also from ancient reactions embedded in literature (e.g., Eur. Ion

The Greek Mythic Story World


features or introduce them into tales: two examples that prove they could
are Lucians True History and the latter parts of the Alexander Romance.
We would probably not call either of these myths, however, they are
wonder tales: deliberately constructed fantasies into which a remarkable number of remarkable things have been purposefully incorporated,
somewhat with tongue in cheek.
But two other examples that we probably would call myths are
those portions of the old Argonautica that are set in Colchis or on the
journeys to and from Colchis, and Books 9 through 12 of the Odyssey.
Each includes strange creatures (Cyclopes, Sirens, Harpies, fire-breathing
bulls, and Scylla, to name a few), odd geographic features (the Planctae,
Charybdis, the floating island of Aeolus), technological wonders created
by Hephaestus (Talus in the Argonautica and the Phaeacians gold and
silver dogs in the Odyssey), and humans (or at least humanoids) who do
strange things (the Laestrygonians, the Lotus-eaters, the Lemnian women).
Notably, however, the reception history of these two examples once again
demonstrates the Greek preference for keeping the story world of their
myths closer in nature to the Primary World than to a Secondary World.
For over time, the fantastical lands that Jason and Odysseus visited began
to be pulled back into the category of the unremarkable as the Greeks
repeatedly tried to map them onto the world that they knew. The Phaeacians Scheria became Corcyra,8 the Planctae became small islands called
the Cyaneae at the Bosphorus,9 and the island of the Cyclopes became
Sicily, for example.10
We should note as well that, leaving aside the travels of Odysseus
and Jason, when Greek heroes come from or journey to exotic places, they
typically are places that nonetheless had a firm location in the world as the
Greeks knew it: Cadmus and Europa came from Phoenicia, Theseus went
to Crete, Bellerophon journeyed to Lycia, and Iphigenia ended up among
the Taurians in Scythia. Perseus and Heracles travel to more fantastical
lands for some of their laborseach of them go to the Garden of the Hesperides, for instance11but Hesperides, after all, is nonetheless a firmly
8 E.g., Hellanicus FGrH 4 frag. 77, Th. 1.25 and 3.70, Call. frag. 12 Pf, and Ap. Rh. 4.1209.
9 Hdt. 4.85. From at least the fifth century, the Planctae were identified with the Symplegades, which were themselves located at the Bosphorus: Soph. Ant. 966. Apollonius of
Rhodes later tells of two separate groups of problematic rocks that the Argo negotiates on
its way to Colchis and then on its way back (2.31745, 4.92261). Cf. Heubeck 1989.121.
10 Th. 6.2, Eur. Cyc. 2024, etc.
11 Heracles in the Garden of the Hesperides: Pherecydes FGrH 3 F 16 and 17. Perseus in
the Garden of the Hesperides: attested by a vase dated to 34030 B.C.E. showing the hero


Sarah Iles Johnston

geographic name. Even if no one who told or listened to these myths had
themselves been there, the very word Hesperides insisted that the heroes
had gone west and thereby kept them within a world articulated by the
familiar cardinal points. The name of the longest running fantasy land
that the Greeks inventedHyperboreareveals a similar determination to
keep exotic realms tethered to the known world, even if on a longer leash.
Perhaps, as Pindar once said, you couldnt get to Hyperborea by ordinary
means such as walking or sailing (P. 10.2930), but you could pin Hyperborea to a spatial relationship that was essentially no different from that
to which you would pin Oropus if you lived in Athens. If you found the
right mode of transportation and just kept going north, north, north, you
would eventually arrive there.
Greek myths, then, cling to familiar geographic templates and
limit the degree to which other strange elements are allowed to intrude;
the world of the myths does not comprise a strongly Secondary World in
Tolkiens terms. Nonetheless, I suspect that many of us feel in our bones
that Greek myths do, collectively, have a distinct story world. One reason
for this is that we grew up surrounded by books that corral individual myths
into anthologies. Translated or re-narrated by the voice of a single author,
illustrated by the pen or brush of a single artist, and then bound between
two covers, the myths are perforce given cohesiveness. The practice has
a long history: Ovid and Apollodorus were already doing it, as were predecessors such as Pherecydes and Hellanicus. Centuries of European art
cemented the idea, not only insofar as the artists took particular pleasure
in illustrating Ovid, the greatest of all unifiers, but also insofar as there
was a tacit agreement that Greek mythsvirtually any Greek myths,
whether they came through Ovid or notwere among the few appropriate
subjects for upper-class dcor. Walking today through a museum gallery
in which such works have been gathered together is like strolling through
a mythographic handbook.
But another, and more important, reason that the Greeks seem to have a
mythic story world is that the gods, heroes, and monsters whom we meet

with three nymphs, a dragon, and an apple tree (LIMC Hesperides 62). Pindar has Perseus
travel to Hyperborea: P. 10.2936.

The Greek Mythic Story World


in the individual stories are always part of a network.12 There is no such

thing as a Greek mythic character who stands completely on his or her
own; he or she is always related to characters from other myths, and the
narrators take some pains to tell us that (and, one assumes, to invent such
relationships when they need to). The monstrous Python may have been
new to some people the first time they heard the Homeric Hymn to Apollo,
but the narrator ties her into the larger family of mythic monsters by mentioning that the Python had been the nursemaid of Typhoeus, a dreadful
creature about whom Hesiod had a lot to say. And the narrator makes
Apollo himself tell us a few lines later that the Python was a pal of the
Chimaera, who first appeared in the Iliad and whom Hesiod said was the
child of Typhoeus (as were Cerberus and the Hydra).13
The branches of heroic family trees are at least as entangled as
those of the creatures that they kill or subdue: Heracles was the descendant of Perseus; by killing a gorgon, Perseus played midwife to the marvelous horse Pegasus upon which Bellerophon rode to kill the Chimaera,
and Bellerophon was the ancestor of the Trojan ally Glaucuswho was
the first to tell us the story of Bellerophon and the Chimaera.14 Cadmus,
meanwhile, searched for his sister Europa, who had been kidnapped by
Zeus to start a dynasty on Crete, which eventually led to the birth of the
Minotaur, whom Theseus killed.15 Theseus journeyed to the Underworld to
help his friend Pirithous kidnap Persephonea favor in return for Pirithous
12 Cf. the remarks of OFlaherty 1988.27, whose definition of myth includes: A myth is a
story . . . that is part of a larger group of stories; and 31, where she clarifies that a myth
cannot function as a myth in isolation; it shares its themes, its cast of characters, even some
of its events with other myths. Cf. also Doty 2000.3437, who talks about a network
of myths in a different sense from what I mean; he discusses the way in which different
myths may share elements or mythemic units, and notes that a collection of interlocking
stories is necessary to present a cultures complete worldview. (He draws on the work of
Scheid and Svenbro 1996, which I have applied myself at Johnston 2009.) My approach
here resembles social network theory as recently used by Eidinow 2011 and Malkin 2011,
for example, to analyze aspects of ancient civilization, but with the important difference
that social network theory describes the way in which individuals or groups actively forge
connections that facilitate the transmission of materials and knowledge and the establishment of social prestige, whereas my model concerns characters whose connections (to our
post-classical eyes, at least) were forged by authors, artists, and their audiences.
13 HH Apollo 35354, 368, Il. 6.17982, and Hes. Th. 30425.
14 Gantz 1993.xxxix, Hes. Th. 28083, and Il. 6.17982.
15 Hellanicus FGrH 4 F 51, Musaeus frag. 100 Bernab, Pherecydes FGrH 3 F 88, and Gantz
1993.46768, Il. 14.32122, Il. 12.292 with scholia = Hes. Cat. frag. 140 and Bacch. frag.
10 SM, Pherecydes FGrH 3 F 89, Hes. Cat. frags. 141 and 145, Bacch. 26, Sappho 206
LP, and Gantz 1993.26068. See also Gantz 1993.811.


Sarah Iles Johnston

having helped Theseus kidnap Helen (who was later kidnapped again by
Paris, thus starting the Trojan War in which Glaucus fought). Failing in this
quest and trapped in the Underworld, Theseus was rescued by Heracles,
who, while he was down below, also met the ghost of Meleager, whose
sister Deianeira Heracles later married . . . and by whom he subsequently
was murdered, with the result that Odysseus met Heracles ghost in the
Underworld.16 To get back to Cadmus: teeth from a dragon that he had
slain while looking for his sister were carried to Colchis, where they later
caused problems for Jason, who was aided by Medea, who later tried to
kill Theseus and subsequently married Achilles after they both were sent
to the paradisiacal White Island, where the elite of the heroic race hung
around after their lives were over.17
Gods were notoriously intertwined with one another, too, not only
in the sense that during the early epochs of creation, there was no one else
with whom they could dally and reproduce, but in other ways as well:
Aphrodite fought with Persephone over Adonis, who had been killed by a
boar sent by Artemis, who was angry with Aphrodite for having contrived
the death of Hippolytus, son of Theseus.18 Hera wheedled Aphrodite into
lending her a magic charm under the pretense that she wanted to settle
a quarrel between their grandparents, Tethys and Oceanus, and then she
used that charm to seduce Zeus so that Poseidon could cause trouble on the
battlefield while Zeus was taking a post-coital nap. Hermes stole his big
brother Apollos cattle and then won forgiveness by singing a song about
how the whole family of gods had come into existence in the first place.19
Gods were intertwined with monsters and heroes as wellas their parents
and lovers, impeders and helpers. Athena helped Bellerophon put a bridle
on Pegasus so that he could kill the Chimaera. Zeus made love to Io (thus
becoming the great-great-grandfather of Cadmus and Europa, to the latter

16 Od. 11.63031, Paus. 9.31.5 and 10.28.3 (citing early works now lost), Hes. frag. 280
and Gantz 1993.29195; Hellanicus FGrH 4 F 168a, Alcman 21 PMG, Stesich. frag. 191
PMG; Bacch. 5; Hes. Cat. frag. 25 MW; Od. 11.60127. Note that there is also a tradition
of Theseus meeting Meleagers ghost in the Underworld according to Hes. frag. 280 MW.
17 Pherecydes FGrH 3 F 88 and 22, Pherecydes FGrH 3 F 112 and 31, Pi. P. 4.22042, and
Call. frag. 233 Pf, but the story is much earliersee Gantz 1993.25556, Ibycus 291 PMG,
and Lyc. Alex. 174 and 798.
18 Apollod. Bibl. 3.14.4, but artistic representations suggest this part of the story is older:
Gantz 1993.73031, Eur. Hipp. 142022, Theocr. 3.4648, Sappho 140 LP, Apollod. Bibl.
3.14.4, and Hyg. Astr. 2.7.3; cf. Gantz 1993.10203.
19 Il. 14.153360 and HH Hermes.

The Greek Mythic Story World


of whom he eventually also made love), and as a favor to Zeus, Hermes

killed Argus, the 100-eyed monster that Hera had sent to guard Io.20
The last three paragraphs were far easier for me to compose than
anything else I have written. As a child, I read almost nothing except Greek
mythology books, and by the time I was ten, I was an expert at my own
private version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon: if you gave me two figures from myth, I could find a way to link them together (and in fewer than
six steps, usually). Such mental gymnastics have a long and respectable
pedigree: starting already in late antiquity, scholiasts and mythographers
reported fully on the loves, hates, and other connections amongst gods,
heroes, and monsters. Earlier still, Ovid sewed his Metamorphoses together
with the threads of such relationships, some of which he may have invented,
but still, they sounded real. He said, for example, that Arachne was a girlhood friend of Niobeand if readers are mythically well informed, they
get frissons when they read that line, knowing that the two girls are also
linked by shared hubris (6.14849). The Hellenistic poets played such complex versions of this game that even my precocious talents were at times
confounded. Whom did the poet Lycophron mean when he referred to the
five-times-married frenzied descendant of Pleuron? Helen, of course,
as A. W. Mairs footnotes to the Loeb edition so kindly informed me: the
great-great-granddaughter of Pleuron, Helen was kidnapped by Theseus as
a girl, properly married to Menelaus, kidnapped again by Paris, married to
Deiphobus after Paris death, and then, finally, after the end of her earthly
life, married to Achilles, on the White Island. (But waitdidnt I just say
that Achilles married Medea on the White Island? Well, Lycophron mentions that, eventually, too: Alex. 143, 17179, 798.)
But the weaving of the net with which these later poets played their
games began much earlier, and it was not meant exclusively for the erudite.
Even if we cant assume that every ancient individual could have played Six
Degrees as adeptly as I do (or Apollodorus did), the cumulative knowledge
of an ancient adult, particularly an adult male, must have been substantial,
given that many of the narratives articulating the relationships amongst
the characters in myths were composed for public performance and then
were later re-performed in either private or public settings. The Hesiodic
Catalogue of Women, for instance, includes such morsels of information
as the fact that the daughters of Pelops and Hippodamia married the sons

20 Pi. O. 13.6392, Hes. Cat. frags. 124 and 126, and see Gantz 1993.199 and 811.


Sarah Iles Johnston

of Perseus and Andromeda. Its from one of Bacchylides epinicians that

we first learn about Heracles meeting Meleager in the Underworld, and
its from the end of Euripides Hippolytus that we learn about the tangled
web of relationships amongst Artemis, Aphrodite, Adonis, and Hippolytus.21 The comic poet Antiphanes complained that tragic poets had a great
advantage because their audiences already knew the basic plot of a play
the moment its characters names were announced (frag. 129)and if we
look at a list of tragedies known to have been produced, we realize how
prodigious the mythological knowledge of someone who regularly attended
the theater must have been.
Those who wished to create new myths, moreover, understood
the importance of tying their threads securely into the familiar, existing
tapestry: when the ritual bricoleurs behind the new mysteries of Dionysus decided, at some point in the late archaic period, that they needed
an aition for their cult, they created what was essentially a sequel to the
well-known story of Demeter and Persephone, turning the famously kidnapped daughter into the grieving mother of a kidnapped child herself
(Graf and Johnston 2013.6693). Theseus, who seems to have been a fairly
low-key hero until the sixth century,22 was groomed for the bigtime by
being linked to such stars as Medea (who became his evil stepmother)
and Heracles (who became his rescuer).23 Even Orpheus, a character
who in most ways stood aloof from the great mythic families and from
the mythological network itself (and properly so, singers were by nature
marginal characters in Greek society), was drawn into service as an
Argonaut (Graf and Johnston 2013.167). Indeed, the voyage of the Argo
more generally is a perfect example of a story that grew through a type
of agglomeration encouraged by the mythic network: over time, almost
every hero of the generation that lived before the Trojan War (including
one woman), ended up on that ship. The Calydonian boar hunt is a similar

21 Hes. Cat. frags. 133 and 134, Bacch. 5, and Eur. Hipp. 141622.
22 Kearns 1989.11724 and Gantz 1993.24845, but see also Fowler 2013.47072 for a different view.
23 Medea: our first mention of her involvement in Theseuss story is Call. Hecale frags.
232 and 233 Pf; vases from the mid-fifth century seem to show her attempting to poison
him (details at Gantz 1993.25556 and see also Sourvinou-Inwood 1979). Heracles: the
earliest evidence is a shield band relief from Olympia dated to about 560 (discussion at
Gantz 1993.292 and Fowler 2013.48788). Theseuss attempt to kidnap Helen seems to
be alluded to at Il. 3.14344, where Theseuss mother is Helens servant, and a scholium
A to Il. 3.242 says the story was told in the epic cycle.

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case (and it recruited the same womanbut then there werent so many
to choose from).24
Studying this network for its own sake is pretty boring. Few
people read Timothy Gantzs Early Greek Myth straight through from
page 1 to page 743, valuable though it be as a reference work, and few,
I suspect, actually study those schematized wall charts that trace every
mythic character back to Chaos in exquisite detail. Until we hear or see
the stories behind the relationships and meet the personalities connected
with the names, the relationships themselves just arent very interesting.
But when embedded in myths, the relationships not only come to life but
help to create a coherent story world that serves to anchor and validate
each individual myth in an infinitely reciprocal way. That is, effective
narration of Theseuss adventure with the Minotaur also lends credibility to Perseuss defeat of Medusa or to the birth of Erichthonius as a
creature half-snake and half-human, because all of these figures are presented as inhabiting the same realma realm that is thickly crisscrossed
by the relationships that I have been talking about. Each story stands as
a guarantor of the existential rules underlying the others and is, in turn,
guaranteed by them. Each of them contributes to a completely furnished
world from which audience members may subsequently break off pieces
to use as a situation demandspieces that still refract the authority and
allure of the whole (cf. Eco 1985.198). This is one reason that figures and
incidents from myths are so powerful as symbols: even when we regard
them singly, they are never actually alone.
In a sense, what I am describing is a sort of hyperseriality: an
extended version of the seriality common to Greek myths that I described
in my earlier article. In simple seriality, the tale of Odysseus and Polyphemus is but one episode in a closely linked set of tales narrating Odysseuss
travels home, but in hyperseriality, any individuals cumulative story is also,
implicitly, an episode within a far larger story that stretches vertically
from the very first gods (Gaea and her shadowy siblings, if you believe
Hesiod; Phanes or Protogonos, if you believe Orpheus), through to the
children of the heroes who fought at Troy; and stretches horizontally to
connect each individual to characters in other mythic families or groups
(thus Odysseus, for example, is connected vertically to Hermes, through

24 Atalanta: Apollod. Bibl. 1.9.16 and Apollod. Bibl. 1.8283, probably derived from Euripides lost Meleager.


Sarah Iles Johnston

his grandfather Autolycus,25 and horizontally to other warriors who fought

at Troy and to the strange people he met on his way home).
This sort of hyperseriality is very familiar from soap operas, but
we find it in plenty of other extended narratives as well: John Galsworthys
The Forsyte Chronicles is an example, as are C. P. Snows Strangers and
Brothers series, Stephen Kings Dark Tower octalogy (and the other novels
and stories with which King intertwines it), and Robert Graves I, Claudius
and Claudius the God (the fact that the Julio-Claudians really existed does
not exempt them from being prime fodder for the sort of hyperseriality
that I am talking about). Within such a hyperserial, an individuals story
can be enjoyed on its own, but it is more resonant, credible, and just plain
interesting as part of the bigger picture that is always shimmering behind
it. Our knowledge that Fleur Forsytes father had once been married to Jon
Forsytes motherwhich Fleur and Jon do not know when they fall in love
with each other in the third book of The Forsyte Chroniclesgives their
relationship a pathos it would not otherwise have. Similarly, knowing that
Deianeira will later murder Heracles gives the scene at the end of Bacchylides fifth epinician, where Meleagers ghost promises Heracles her hand
in marriage, an extra pathos, too.26 And these are just single examples from
among many other relationships in which, mutatis mutandis, both Fleur
Forsyte and Heracles engage.
Some hyperserials come into existence when someone (it may even
be the original author) gloms onto a good thing and expands it by creating sequels, prequels, midquels (previously unnarrated episodes from the
middles of established stories), and paraquels (previously unnarrated stories
that take place at the same time as an established story but that focus on
different characters, some of whom may have already appeared in more
minor roles in the established story: Wolf 2012.20512). These -quels are
not necessarily poor relations to the original. Each of the eleven novels
in Snows Strangers and Brothers (which span five decades in the life of
their narrator, Lewis Eliot), stands as a paraquel to some or all of the ten
other books (confounding the very idea that there is an original story
among them), and draws from a common cast of characters. And yet The
Light and the Dark (which falls fourth in the series internal chronology),

25 Od. 19.39498 says that Hermes taught Autolycus thievery and the art of making slippery
oaths in return for generous sacrifices; Pherecydes (FGrH 3 F 120) says that Hermes was
Autolycuss father.
26 Deianeiras accidental murder of Heracles is attested already at Hes. frag. 25 MW.

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immerses us so completely in Roy Calverts development into one of the

first scholars of Manichaeism that we may be surprised, in Chapter 4, to be
reminded of how Calverts irresponsible homoerotic behavior (an episode
for which he is brought on stage very briefly near the start of the second
book) once wreaked havoc in the lives of other characters.
This kind of movement of a character back and forth between
relative prominence and unimportance is essential to hyperseriality as I
understand it here: characters fade in and out of one anothers stories in a
manner that begins to dissolve any single story into something much larger.
Sometimes it can be difficult to decide whom a given story is even about.
Is To Let, the third book of The Forsyte Chronicles, still about Soames
Forsyte, on whom the first two books centered, but more specifically about
Soames problems with his daughter, Fleur? Or is To Let about Fleur and
her problems with Soames? Or to return now to Greek myths, is the tale of
a certain love affair about Jason, who, according to the tales internal chronology, already had begun his career as a hero, or is it really about Medea,
whose career as an enchantress and all-around bad woman would continue
well beyond the demise of her relationship with Jason? Does Pegasus really
belong to the story of Medusa and was he only borrowed by the story
of Bellerophonor is it vice versa? At what point, exactly, does Europas
story turn into the story of Cadmus? Has Sophocles hijacked a story that
is really about Philoctetes and made it into a story about Neoptolemus? Is
a certain tale set in the Caucasus about Heracles releasing Prometheus or
is it about Prometheus being released by Heracles? Whose story trumps
the other? Who is incidental to whom?
The specific answers to these and similar questions (which depend, in part,
on who is telling the stories and who is hearing them), are beside the point
for my purposes and, in the abstract, they matter very little anyway except
to people such as Apollodorus, who strove to organize his stories according to a single, coherent plan that avoids repetition (Apollodorus abruptly
truncates the story of Prometheus with his arrival in the Caucasus mountains, concluding with the words: This was the penalty Prometheus paid
for stealing fire until Heracles later released himas we shall show in the
chapters concerning Heracles, 1.7.1).
Yet I ask them nonetheless in order to suggest that we should
revel in the impossibility of settling such matters. I want to highlight,


Sarah Iles Johnston

once more, the dense intertwining of characters and their stories in these
sorts of narratives and the difficulty of completely disengaging any one
of them from the much larger network of which they are a part. Although
my description of the mythic network in the previous section was perforce
linearverbal communication is always linearI want to emphasize that
the Greek mythic hyperserial, like all hyperserials, constitutes a network
that stretches in many directions at once, thickly intertwining its participants with one another. Were we to diagram all of the relationships that I
mentioned in the first three paragraphs with which Section 3 began, representing each relationship as a line between the two characters involved,
we would end up with a diagram like the first one that I provide: the lines
cross thickly. Were I to add lines representing just some of the other relationships amongst these characters that could not be easily inserted into
my linear narrative (e.g., Odysseus received moly from Hermes, Poseidon
sent the bull that frightened Hippolytuss horses, Apollo and Artemis were
twins, Paris killed Achilles), the lines would cross more thickly still.27 Some
characters, such as Zeus and Achilles, are particularly well connected to
other characters (twelve and six links respectively), and even Pegasus has
four. A few paragraphs ago, I suggested that such intertwining lends credibility to the stories in which these characters participate simply because
they all are understood to inhabit the same expanding and yet bounded
story world; each guarantees and is guaranteed by the others. One might
argue, in fact, that it is exactly this intertwining of characters and their
stories that cumulatively constitutes the story world of Greek myth.
But intertwining brings us to another, more specific and often
deliberately deployed, technique to which I want to draw attention as well,
27 The additional lines represent the facts that: Apollo helped Paris kill Achilles (Il. 21.27678
and Procluss summary of the Aethiopis 3); Achilles married Helen in the afterlife (Lyc.
Alex. 143 and 17179, Paus. 3.19.13); Odysseus won the armor of Achilles after his death
(Procluss summary of the Little Iliad 1); Athena aided Odysseus during his return home
(Od. 1.4463, etc.); Athena and Hermes helped Perseus (Pherecydes FGrH 3 F 11 and
even earlier in art: Gantz 1993.30405); Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Heracles, Perseus, and
Helen were children of Zeus (Hes. Th.886900 and 92426, 91819, 94344, Hes. frag.
135 MW, and Pi. P. 12.1718, Il. 319, 418, etc.); Zeus fell in love with Medea, but she
refused him out of respect for Hera (Schol. Pi. O. 13.74g, probably taken from Eumeluss
Corinthiaca); Hera aided Jason (Ap. Rhod. 3.6673 and cf. Gantz 1993.34243); Hermes
and Aphrodite had a child, Hermaphroditus (D.S. 4.6.5); Poseidon sired Pegasus and Bellerophon (Hes. Th. 27881 and frag. 43a MW); Poseidon cursed Pasiphae with the lust
that led to the birth of the Minotaur (Eur. Cretans frag. 82 Aus., D.S. 4.77.14, and further
at Gantz 1993.26061); Poseidon thwarted Odysseuss return home (Od. 1.2021, etc.);
and Heracles killed the Hydra and brought Cerberus up from Hades (Hes. Th. 31318, Il.

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Diagram 1

Diagram 2



Sarah Iles Johnston

namely, the crossover: the appearance of a character who is familiar from

one context in the middle of another.28 Twenty-nine years after introducing
Father Donald Callahan as a main character in Salems Lot, for example,
Stephen King crossed him over into The Dark Tower, where the priests
deep knowledge of evil was an important backdrop against which a new
battle against different monsters played out in a different universe. There is
also a mode of crossing over that works on the all-star principle, bringing
many established characters together into a single new venue. Alan Moore
and Kevin ONeills League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is probably the
best-known example from recent years; I am not the first to suggest that
the Argonautica is the grandfather of them all.
The line between crossovers and what I have been calling hyperseriality can be exceedingly slender, but I would like to focus on one
difference that is important for my purposes. As I just emphasized, hyperserials, either by authorial intention or through evolution, tend to obscure
the priority of any original or dominant narrative and its characters (and,
in fact, the last type of crossover I just described, the all-star gathering,
may better be understood as a special form of hyperseriality for this very
reason, given that all of the borrowed characters typically meet on narrative
ground that is new to some or all of them). The use of crossovers, in contrast, thrives, at least initially, on the unexpected introduction of someone
from outside. The surprise of meeting a familiar character where we dont
expect to generates an additional level of interest in the story. If we are
right in guessing (along with Pausanias) that it was Sophocles who invented
the story of Oedipuss death and burial at Athens,29 then this is a perfect
example; the ancient audience of the Oedipus at Colonus would have been
intrigued to discover him wandering in an Athenian suburb and eventually
meeting Theseus. Crossovers may also reward audience members with a
sense of having special knowledge that makes them feel complicit with the
narrator and thus further encourages them to buy into the narrativeas
in the case of Heracles meeting Meleagers ghost in the Underworld. The
unexpected encounter between the two in and of itself rewarded listeners
who were familiar with mythological genealogies: they could pride themselves on knowing that Deianeira, who later became Heracles wife, was

28 On crossovers, see, for example, Mittell 2010.28, 46, etc., and Mittell 2012/13.chapter 8.
29 Paus. 1.28.7. Others conjecture that this part of Oedipuss story was introduced by Euripides in his Phoenissae; the answer depends on how one judges some controversial lines:
Gantz 1993.29597 and Kearns 1989.20809.

The Greek Mythic Story World


Meleagers sister. But the final lines of the myth as Bacchylides narrates
itin which Heracles asks Meleager whether he has an unmarried sister
at home and Meleager says that he does, and that she is beautifulmust
have sent a chill down their spines. Similarly, for an Athenian audience,
Euripides introduction of a friendly Corinthian encounter between Aegeus
and Medea would have been chilling as well,30 given that Medea was on
record as having later tried to murder the very heir that she promised to
help Aegeus sire.
But crossovers frequently serve another important purpose: by
evoking a story world that is already familiar and accepted, a crossover is a
powerful way of giving verisimilitude to a new tale and its characters. The
most familiar application of this principle is probably the television spin-off
where a character from a well-established show is sent out to start a new
show, transporting parts of the old familiar story world into the new one so
as to give it instant credibility. The sci-fi story world of the British series
Torchwood (20062011), for example, had already been well limned by
the older series Doctor Who before the character Jack Harkness crossed
from the latter into the former. This meant that some of the more fantastic
aspects of Torchwood (such as rifts in the time-space continuum) were
simply accepted by the new shows audience as givens. Similarly, when
the bricoleurs behind the mysteries of Dionysus incorporated Persephone
into the story that underpinned their new cult, she carried with her, from
her existing role in the Eleusinian mysteries and their myths, a stamp of
eschatological authority that helped to validate the new cults claims. Sometimes a crossover confirms or reorients a character by bringing him or her
into contact with one or more characters who are already well established.
I have already mentioned how mythmakers brought Medea and Heracles
into the emergent story of Theseus to confirm his place amongst the great
heroes. Another case is the revision of the local Athenian myth of Erigone
that wove characters from the House of Atreus into her tale. Immediately,
this relatively little-known Attic heroine had panhellenic potential (Johnston 1999.21920, with notes).
There are subtler uses of the crossover as well. The opening lines
of C. S. Lewis The Magicians Nephew (the sixth entry in The Chronicles
of Narnia) read:

30 Eur. Med. 663762. For the story of Medea threatening Theseus dating at least as early as
the mid-fifth century, see Gantz 1993.25556.


Sarah Iles Johnston

This is a story about something that happened
long ago when your grandfather was a child. It is a very
important story because it shows how all the comings
and goings between our own world and that of Narnia
first began.
In those days Mr. Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for
treasure in the Lewisham Road.

Lewis first anchors his story with a reference to the preceding five Chronicles (through the word Narnia), but given that this new installment will
be set two generations before the others, he additionally anchors it with
crossovers from Victorian fiction with which his readers were sure to be
familiar: Sherlock Holmes and the Bastable children, whose adventures,
narrated by E. Nesbit at the turn of the century, were still popular in the
1950s. These crossovers will not again appear in Lewis story, but they create a climate in which it will unfold. Notably, it is a climate that is decidedly rational (Holmes) and quotidian: although Nesbit had written many
successful books about children who have magical adventures,31 Lewis
chooses to refer to the Bastables, whose story takes place in a London that
is firmly realistic. Lewis uses these crossovers to lay down a solidly rational and believable outer story world in which he can then nest the magical story world that begins to appear in Chapter 2by extension helping
to make that second story world believable as well.32 Along somewhat the
same lines, by renaming local Athenian goddesses Erinyes, Aeschylus
and Sophocles gave epic flavor and thus epic authority to the local cults
whose foundation myths they were re-fashioning in the Eumenides and
the Oedipus at Colonus.33

31 Including one in which a girl passes through the wardrobe in a spare room of her aunts
house and enters another world: The Aunt and Amabel (included in Nesbit 1912; original pagination is not available to me).
32 The trick is an old and enduring one. One of our earliest versions of the legend of Saint
Sisinnios and his brother Saint Senidorus, which was popular from the Byzantine period
onwards, begins with the statement: Under the reign of Trajan there was a woman by the
name of Melitene, who gave birth to seven children, whom the accursed Gello snatched
from her . . . Trajan lends the authority of age and the historicity of a well-known figure
to what will quickly become a remarkable tale of how the two saints battled a notorious
demon to rescue their sisters babies; see Greenfield 1989.
33 Lardinois 1992 and Johnston 1999.27987.

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Sometimes a crossover character lingers longer in a myth in

order to establish climate. Formally, Pindar brings Chiron into the tale of
Apollos love affair with Cyrene as an advisor and a prophet of what will
result from the tryst should Apollo pursue it (P. 9). Thematically, Chiron
instantiates a balance between the wild and the civilized that the rest of
the poem explores as well. Compositionally, his speech breaks the linearity of the poem (Calame 2003.68). But as a figure who had been associated
with the nurture and training of young heroes since the earliest stages of
mythic narration, Chiron (like Holmes and the Bastable children, but at
greater length) also establishes an atmosphere within the myth. This is no
longer just one of many stories about Apollos pursuit of nubile virgins
or just one of Pindars many tales about a colonys foundation; Chirons
presence subtly helps to make this a narrative about maturation that helps
to set the proper ambience for an epinician ode in honor of a young victor
who seems to be poised on the verge of adulthood himself (P. 9.99100).
Crossovers, to sum up, can do a number of things very efficiently:
establish the existential, ethical, and operational rules of a new story, lend
it credibility and authority by their mere presence, and establish a particular climate or mood by gesturing towards other myths. And, sometimes,
they do one more thing. By inventing the conversation between Apollo
and Chiron about Cyrene, Pindar not only creates an opportunity to forecast the entire span of Apollo and Cyrenes courtship, the birth of their
son, and the foundation of her eponymous Libyan colony, he also tells us
how the god and the nymph crossed paths in the first place. Similarly, by
inventing the conversation between Heracles and the ghost of Meleager,
Bacchylides tells us how the seeds of Heracles marriage and death were
planted. Both stories, in other words, implicitly claim to reveal how it all
came abouta perennial object of human curiosity.34
Filling such holes often does more than simply satisfy curiosity;
by borrowing characters, information, and episodes from other established narrations, these backstories (some of which are extensive enough
to qualify as prequels, sequels, midquels, or paraquels) become yet another
way of weaving a tale more tightly into the mythic network. How did it
happen that both Cadmus and Jason had to fight armed men who sprang
from dragons teeth sown in the soil? Because (Pherecydes answers) after
34 The holes that narrators leave in stories inevitably prompt others to fill them, either formally
or informally. The world of contemporary fan fiction, which I use as a comparandum for
certain aspects of Greek myths in a forthcoming book, thrives on such opportunities.


Sarah Iles Johnston

Cadmus slew the dragon, Athena and Ares collected its teeth, giving half
to Cadmus to sow immediately and half to Aeetes, who used them to cause
trouble for Jason many years later. And thus, events from the Theban cycle
were woven into the story of Jason. How did Apollo manage to convince
the Moirai to trade Admetuss life for that of another? By getting these
famously abstemious goddesses drunk (answers Aeschyluss chorus in the
Eumenides). And thus, events from a Thessalian saga were evoked in a
newly emerging Athenian myth. How did Creusa end up possessing gorgons blood with which she could try to kill Ion? Because (Euripides tells
us) Athena gave it to Creusas ancestor Erichthonius, who passed it down
through the royal line.35 And thus, a parade of kingly Athenian ancestors
springs to life behind Creusa, further legitimating the son she is about to
reclaim as an heir to the throne. Everything can be made to fit together;
everything can be understood as part of a single, bigger picture and thus
ratified, if only you know where to look for the missing piecesor how
to fashion them yourself. As H. P. Lovecraft put it when responding to the
question of how he felt about fans using materials of their own construction
to caulk the gaps in his Cthulhu universe, even artificial mythology (his
term) can be given an air of verisimilitude if it is widely enough cited
or, I would add, if it is provided with enough citations to other works.36
I concluded earlier in this article that the story world of Greek myth is
relatively short on the sorts of oddities that typically set a Secondary World
apart from the Primary World, but if I am right that its coherence and
credibility rests on the thickly crisscrossing network of gods, heroes, and
monsters that I have been describing in this article, dont I need to revise
that conclusion? Arent gods, heroes, and monsters by definition things
that dont belong in a Primary World?
This is where we most clearly see the difference between a story
world created by myths and story worlds created by genres such as fantasy
and science fictionor to put it differently, between story worlds inhabited by characters in whose existence a society encourages its members to
believe and story worlds inhabited by characters who are not intended to
35 Pherecydes FGrH 3 F 22, Aes. Eum. 72728, and Eur. Ion 9851010.
36 In a letter to Robert E. Howard, dated August 14, 1930, as cited at: http://www.hplovecraft.
com/creation/necron/letters.aspx (last accessed on November 26, 2013).

The Greek Mythic Story World


become objects of belief (even if they later do become such objects). The
myths representations of gods, heroes, and monsters existing in a world
that looked very much like the Primary World is a reflection of two things:
a belief that the gods and heroes continued to exist in, and to affect, the
world in which those myths were being narrated (a belief that was sustained
by the ways in which the myths were narrated, as I explore in my first
article), and the Greek understanding that ta palaia (the things, people, and
events of an earlier age during which the actions of the myths were set37)
had melted into those of the present age without an abrupt change. There
was no single moment at which the mythic world decisively changed into
the world that we know today, and, therefore, the deeds described by the
myths existed on a continuum that flowed uninterruptedly into the time of
the listeners. This latter point is made well by Greek histories that embrace
within a single document both figures such as Cecrops (a half-snake, halfhuman early king of Athens) and figures such as Peisistratus, for example; or
that closely analyze the manner in which Agamemnon acquired his wealth
and power as part of the deep background of the Peloponnesian War; or
that record gifts made to Athena by Cadmus, Minos, Heracles, and Helen
alongside those made by Phalaris, Darius, Alexander, and Ptolemy.38 The
point is also made by off-hand remarks such as those that Socrates and
Phaedrus exchanged as they strolled along the Ilissus river: Isnt this the
place where they say that Boreas snatched away the princess Oreithyia?
asked Phaedrus; No, I think it was about a quarter-mile further along,
where you cross to the sanctuary of Agra, replied Socrates, and there
is, I believe, an altar dedicated to Boreas close by (Pl. Phdr. 229b4c3).
Walking through an ancient city, especially if you were a native, meant
being constantly reminded by the monuments and landmarks that surrounded you of what was said to have happened there before. (And if you
werent a native, there were always natives from whom you could learn
the local lore as you strolled. Pausaniass many descriptions of places that
evoke mythshere is the well where Demeter sat disguised as an old
woman; there is the chasm through which Heracles dragged Cerberus up

37 Discussion of ta palaia at Calame 2006 and 2011.

38 Marm. Par. entries 1, 2, and 45; Th. 1.313; IG XII,1 Lindos II.2 = SEG 39. Cf. Th. 2.29.3
and Dem. 60.30, both of whom treat the story of Procne and Philomela as an established
part of Athenian history. Cf. also Hdt. 1.14, which relates a popular account of the origin
of the Persian Wars (dismissed by Herodotus himself) that traces the enmity between the
Greeks and eastern nations back to the abductions of Io, Europa, Medea, and Helen.


Sarah Iles Johnston

from Hades; this is the city founded by Lycaon, who later turned into a
wolfare particularly meticulous examples.39)
According to such a view, although it might not be reasonable to
expect to encounter more nine-headed snakes in Lerna or three-bodied
monsters in Spain (the passage of time was understood to have changed
some things, after all; while they still dwelt on earth, Heracles and the other
heroes had cleared the land of such creatures), or to expect gods to transmogrify people into new animals and plants (the natural world had been
holding steady for some centuries),40 it would be reasonable to expect the
heroes and the gods to remain an active part of the contemporary world.
And so it was: Heracles warded off evil from houses that displayed an image
of his club and a phrase, Heracles dwells here, claiming his protection.
Asclepius and Amphiaraus regularly worked cures in their sanctuaries while
their clients slept, and sometimes even met their patients face-to-faceon
one occasion, Asclepius arrived dressed in shining golden armor. Pan spoke
to Phidippides in the mountains and Apollo fought alongside his worshippers against the barbarian Gauls in 279 B.C.E.helped by local heroes and
perhaps his sisters Artemis and Athena.41 Athena manifested herself to her
worshippers several times in Lindos, as her temples chronicle recorded; in
490 B.C.E., she brought rain to the thirsty people when they were besieged
by the Persians. Other gods and heroes, on many other occasions, were
seen, heard, or felt by their worshippers.42
Greek myths provided templates against which such manifestations of gods and heroes could be shaped and measured. The myths
also, as I suggest in this article, provided a story world that bound their

39 Paus. 1.39.1, 2.35.11, and 8.2.14. Some of the monuments that our ancient sources
describe provide tantalizing glimpses of myths that we no longer have in any narrative
form: Philochorus tells us about a tomb in the Delphic precinct on which was inscribed
Dionysus, son of Semele (FGrH 328 7)how we wish we knew more about the story
behind that.
40 In a chapter of my forthcoming book, I discuss in more depth metamorphosis in myths
and how it is to be read against the real world.
41 For an overview of Asclepius and Amphiaraus, see Johnston 2008.9095. Meeting Asclepius face-to-face, e.g., Isylloss paean to Apollo and Asclepius 6776. Pan: Hdt. 6.10506.
Apollo: Cic. Div. 1.37, D.S. 22.9, SIG 398, Pomp. Trog. 24.8, Paus. 10.2324 and 1.4; cf.
Call. H. 4.17184.
42 Lindian Chronicle = IG XII, 1 Lindos II.2 = SEG 39.727. The description of Athena bringing rain is at D 159. Generally on the Lindian Chronicle, see Higbie 2003, and generally
on manifestations of the gods (epiphanies), Henrichs 2010, Graf 2004, Bravo 2003, and
Versnel 1987.

The Greek Mythic Story World


protagonistsdivine, heroic, and humaninto a larger network. Each

bond of this network was tight enough to secure, and be secured by, the
other bonds; each story could thereby accredit, and be accredited by, the
others. Yet the bonds were also supple, allowing the sort of revision that
kept Greek myths in step with changing beliefs about the gods and changing practices in their honor (Dionysus could become Persephones son and
thereby underwrite a new mystery cult). Supple enough, too, that interesting prequels, sequels, midquels, and paraquels could emerge, keeping the
stories and their characters vigorously alive (it was by getting the Moirai
drunkof all things!that Apollo won back Admetuss life). The story
world of Greek myth, in sum, was the ideal companion for a religious system whose conceptualizations of divinity were never anchored by sacred
texts or canons of doctrine, but rather by shared beliefs created by the
exchange of opinions.
The Ohio State University
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