When did Greek historians stop believing Greek mythology to be historical fact?

When did Greek historians stop believing Greek mythology to be historical fact?


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In Greek mythology, there are all kinds of historical stories. Fire from Mount Olympus, founding of Thebes, not to mention actions of the gods.

First, is it safe to assume that there was a time in history when Greeks tended to believe Greek mythology as historical fact?

Second, if so, when did the overwhelming majority of Greek historians realize that it was not true?


By definition, a historian is a scientist. Herodotus is generally considered the "father of history" and he distinguishes myths from historical facts, or at least tries to. At least the gods to not interfere in his history directly (except by pronouncements of the oracles which in his and in the later Greek accounts are always relevant, but this is not related to the myths). Homer is not considered a historian, of course, and was not considered one by the Greeks.

So the short answer is that Greek historians always distinguished myths from historical facts.


To speak to the first question: we are usually led a bit astray by the term "myth," by which we tend to mean a story somewhat akin to a fable that is (to us) obviously not true. To the Greeks, "myth" just mean "story" or "plot." Their religion was in part made up of a lot of stories, but so is every religion. That doesn't mean they didn't believe them or that they didn't have a flexible understanding of their literal vs. figurative truth (i.e. you don't have to believe everything in Bible to believe in God, etc.). Generally, Greeks were fairly religious well into Roman rule.

Also, a fifth century Greek's understanding of the concept "history" is hard to pin down. While someone like Herodotus (and especially Thucydides) tried hard to distinguish fact from fiction, they didn't really engage in some of the central methodological practices that we do (periodization, scrutiny of sources, primary sources), so although we can talk about ancient historians as historians, it is useful to keep in mind that "history" had much different connotations to them than it does to us.

For example, it would be fine back then to say "The Trojan War definitely happened, although I have no evidence, and it happened some time a long time ago."

I also want to second @Gracie K's point: till recently, it was standard to incorporate the bible into historical works. And still, there are plenty of popular history writers who take religious content as fact.


Yes they did. There are specific instances of historians or philosophers being ostracized for criticizing not even the existence of the gods, but just the powers of the gods. An example illustrating their literal belief is that when Tiberius found out that the god Pan had "died", he had an investigation launched as to the cause of his death. Christians understand this to be the allegorical death of paganism since Pan was known as the most "sinful" god (our depiction of the devil derives its image from Pan), but Greeks at the time believed him to have physically died.

Pan is dead though and it need not matter beyond personal intrigue whether the ancient Greeks believed in the literal gods; for the educated are now Christian.

According to the Greek historian Plutarch (in De defectu oraculorum, "The Obsolescence of Oracles"),[29] Pan is the only Greek god (other than Asclepius) who actually dies. During the reign of Tiberius (A.D. 14-37), the news of Pan's death came to one Thamus, a sailor on his way to Italy by way of the island of Paxi. A divine voice hailed him across the salt water, "Thamus, are you there? When you reach Palodes,[30] take care to proclaim that the great god Pan is dead." Which Thamus did, and the news was greeted from shore with groans and laments.



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