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An Age of Heroes?

The setting of the ancient Greek myths

The ancient Greek stories about gods and heroes are set in a time long ago. Did the ancient Greeks believe that their tales were set during the period that we today refer to as the Bronze Age? The answer is no, but this requires some qualification.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Were the ancient Greek tales of gods and heroes set during the Bronze Age? It’s a question that popped up on AskHistorians. Something similar is asked every once in a while, and I figured it would be good to turn my reply into yet another article on Ancient World Magazine for easy reference.

Ancient Greek myths, the stories about gods and heroes, are set sometime “long, long ago”. The ancient poet Hesiod, in his Works and Days, came up with a system of alternating generations of mortals – in English, it is customary to refer to “Ages” instead. The sequence starts with the Golden Age, followed by the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Age of Heroes, and finally the Iron Age. The Iron Age was the time when Hesiod himself lived, so contemporary ancient Greece (in his case, around 700 BC).

The Roman poet Ovid would merge the Age of Heroes with the Bronze Age, reducing the number of ages to four. This may have been an invention on the part of Ovid, but considering how the ancient Greeks conflated the story of Bellerophon with that of Perseus or confused the Titans with the giants, we can imagine that the merging of the mythological Bronze and Heroic races may have happened well before the Roman era.

In any event, the Age of Heroes had ended some time earlier – the ancient Greeks used genealogies to fill in the blanks between their own time and the earlier period of the heroes. A later poem called the Ehoiai or Catalogue of Women, wrongly attributed to Hesiod, is a good example of a genealogical poem. It lists the ancestry of e.g. Perseus and Herakles. High-ranking Greeks of the historic era could often trace their families lineages along such semi-mythical lineages back into the distant past. Exact dates were murky, but that didn’t preclude some ancient commentators from calculating when, for example, the Trojan War was supposed to have happened.

The Age of Heroes is when all of the major events from Greek heroic saga are set: this is the time period during which Perseus fought Medusa, Herakles performed his Labours, Theseus slew the Minotaur, there were two successive sieges of the Greek city of Thebes, and so on. The Age of Heroes ended shortly after the Trojan War.

Modern scholars for a long time believed that Greek myths were just that – stories. But then archaeological discoveries at the end of the nineteenth century revealed that the Aegean had been the home of an earlier civilization, which Heinrich Schliemann dubbed “Mycenaean”. As research continued, more discoveries were made, including the “Minoan” civilization on Crete.

Archaeologists divide prehistory into three successive ages, named after the material from which the most advanced tools of each period were made. These are the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. This three-age system was originally devised by C.J. Thomsen (1788-1865) in an attempt to categorize the artefacts in the Royal Museum of Nordic Antiquities in Copenhagen.

The Mycenaean civilization unearthed by Schliemann belongs to what we refer to as the Late Bronze Age. The Minoan culture on Crete reached its zenith during the Middle Bronze Age. When the archaeological Bronze Age ended, it transitioned into the archaeological Iron Age.

At this point, it should be obvious how these periods seemed to map perfectly onto the ancient sequence of ages: Hesiod wrote about an Age of Heroes and lamented that he himself was one of the “iron race” of men.

Schliemann believed that the Bronze Age world he had unearthed revealed the truth behind the stories of the Trojan War. The response amomg academics was – eventually – to equate the archaeological Bronze Age with the Heroic Age (or Ovidian Bronze Age). All of a sudden we seemed to have had an actual setting for the stories of the ancient Greeks, which were now believed to contain that dreaded “kernel of truth”.

But as time went on, it became obvious that there were important differences between the archaeologically attested Bronze Age and what was described in Greek myths, most notably the Homeric epics. Initial enthusiasm for equating the “real” Bronze Age with the mythical Age of Heroes ebbed away and made way for healthy scepticism. There are few experts today who would defend the idea that the Aegean Bronze Age relates one-to-one with the world of the ancient Greek heroes.

Sadly, the idea that the Greek myths are an accurate reflection of the Bronze Age persists in popular media, much to my own chagrin. I have written more specifically about the relationship between Homer and history on the Bad Ancient website.

So is there no link at all between Mycenaean Greece and the later Greek myths? The latter are known to us only from the historic period onwards: again, Homer and Hesiod are usually believed to be the earliest poets whose works have survived, and they are dated to ca. 700 BC. There is also the so-called Nestor’s cup from Pithekoussai (near modern Naples) which refers to Nestor and it dates to the eighth century BC, indicating that at least some of the stories and/or characters familiar to us were around in the eighth century BC.

By far the earliest mythological thing recognizable to us is a Centaur recovered from the site of Lefkandi and dated to ca. 950 BC, which may – based on a wound to the knee – be identified as the Centaur Chiron, who, according to later Greek myth, had served as a teacher to a number of heroes, including Achilles and Jason. But nothing recognizable stretches back to the Bronze Age, though we do encounter familiar names of gods in the Mycenaean Linear B tablets.

An excellent book to read on this subject is John Boardman’s The Archaeology of Nostalgia: How the Greek Re-Created Their Mythical Past (2002). In this book, Boardman shows how the Greeks continuously (re)created their past using stuff that they could not otherwise explain.

For example, Mycenaean remains – such as the imposing walls around Mycenae itself, built in the thirteenth century BC, or those of Tiryns (used as this article’s featured image) – were explained in mythological terms (as the work of Cyclopes directed by Perseus). In other words, the Greeks did encounter relics from a more remote time, but they had no clue what they actually were, and instead fitted them into an image of the past that they created according to their own needs.

This is a key point to stress. While the stories were set in the past, the ancient Greeks had no idea what that past looked like. There were no archaeologists in the first millennium BC. But they did come across stuff that was clearly older, from the fortifications already mentioned to ancient tombs, like the tholos or beehive tombs in mainland Greece that date back to the Bronze Age (archaeologically speaking) and which the ancient Greeks tried to explain as having belonged to the kings and princes of an imagined age.

People in ancient times seldom tried to be realistic in their depiction of events set in the distant past. This is why legendary kings and heroes are usually depicted wearing the clothes and armour of the artist’s own time. The idea that the past could be fundamentally different from the present is a relatively recent development: the result of modern academic study of the past.

Of course, none of this has stopped some people in the modern world from trying to “historicize” or “rationalize” ancient Greek myths. For example, the Bronze Age palace at Knossos has a labyrinthine layout and therefore must have served as the inspiration for the story of Theseus and the Labyrinth, despite that fact that probably little remained visible by the time that these stories were starting to do the rounds.

Naturally, that way madness lies.