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To the Greeks of the fifth century, the heroes and heroines of myth, the villains and villainesses--even the sorcerers and monsters--were figures from history, or at least historical legend. Surely the sophisticated Athenian of the fifth century did not believe in a literal interpretation of Scylla and Charybdis any more than we do, nor that Odysseus actually underwent every single setback and adventure retailed in the Odyssey. But, just as surely, he believed that there had been an Odysseus, just as implicitly as we believe in George Washington or Richard the Lion-Hearted. Unlike us, however, he also had an intimate knowledge of the characters of his myth-history. Whereas not many Americans today could tell you more than three salient facts about the lives of Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, or (God forbid!) Charlemagne, virtually every fifth-century Greek would be utterly familiar with most, or at least many, of the details (and variants on each detail) of the lives of Herades, Agamemnon, and hundreds of others less renowned. Their emotional ties to these heroes were strong, too--partly in the same way as people of all eras feel attached to their best-loved storybook heroes and villains; but an extra dimension is added to their attachment by the fact that, before the Sophistic revolution in thought, traditional Greek education consisted to a great extent of moral admonitions to model one's life on those of the great heroes of myth, on the grounds that Virtue consists, for a boy, in being "like Achilles" or "like Orestes" (as Telemachus is told, early on, in the Odyssey) and, for a girl, in being "like Penelope" or "unlike Clytemnestra."


Published in The Classical Outlook, Vol. 61 Iss. 4 (1984).


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