At the time when made its announcement for the first two issues, I was reading one of the short stories on feminine bravery in Plutarch’s . More precisely I was analysing the story about the Lycian women which also deals with and . As Plutarch’s account gives insight into several explanations trying to rationalize away some of the mythical elements in the story I thought that the concept of pseudohistory was relevant to the text and could illustrate how ancient authors dealt with this notion or, at least, with the difficulties it raises.
The story of Chimaera is already mentioned in the Iliad () where it is the name of a monster that should be killed by Bellerophon, a Corinthian hero sent to by King Proitos in order to be killed by the Lycian king, Iobates. The punishment was motivated by a false accusation of Proitos’ wife who pretended that Bellerophon was in love with her and wanted her to be unfaithful. The well-known story is often quoted for the presence of a letter (mentioned as in the Iliad which Bellerophon had to deliver to Iobates and which contained the hidden order of his being put to death (, more radically).
In my thoughts here, I won’t focus on this aspect of the account. The monster itself and the oddities its existence implies (mixing several species of animals : ) will be under discussion. As I am starting from Plutarch’s account, my focus will be on the ancient attempts to explain the existence of this monster or to make it less challenging for human reasoning. The Chimaera is however not the only difficult element in the story. One could easily add for instance the two other tasks Bellerophon has to accomplish : the battle against the Solymi and the one against the Amazons. Both populations are puzzling and many ancient explanations about them exist (for instance ). Further the location of the myth in Lycia raises also question as this place name is mentioned in a very ambiguous way in the Iliad. Pandarus the ally from Zeleia is said to be a Lycian ( and ) and this is in contradiction with the Lycian allies, Sarpedon and Glaucos, at the very end of the Trojan Catalogue (). Finally Bellerophon’s helper the winged horse is also a somewhat problematic figure.
However the difficulties can be sorted in two main categories : the monsters (Chimaera and to a lesser degree Pegasus) and the setting (Lycia, the Solymi and the Amazons). To these elements, some thoughts about Bellerophon himself should be added, because his being Poseidon’s son or his heroic power have been received sceptically by some ancient readers.
Here is a short list of the main explanations given for Chimaera (the list is certainly not exhaustive and it would certainly go far beyond the scope of this short note to try to find the ancient sources for all of them !). Still it shows the variety of the attempts and illustrates the different principles ancient authors used as tools to explain the irrational elements of the account:
There are several groups functioning on different principles. The mythical monstrosity can be explained by personification (as in 1, 8, 9a, 12) or it can be replaced by an animal with a more natural shape (4). This element often appears in a geographical explanation where the name Chimaera is applied to a mountain (3, 5, 6, 9b) on which special animals live (7, 10b, 11). Lastly there is the category of allegorical explanations (10a, 13).
But Plutarch goes beyond the mere cataloguing of the several accounts, makes judgments about them and clearly indicates his preferences. Plutarch prefers the version of Nymphis () who mentioned it in his work on the city ), which also means that he rejects the other ones. Therefore the notion of pseudohistory may be taken up again assuming that it has a negative meaning, as for us moderns, and is therefore used as criterion for the rejected versions considered as less good. But before we may ask if Plutarch would have use the label of pseudohistories for the versions he considers as inferiors, Plutarch’s statement raises other questions :
Why did he prefer this version ? Or, what were the criteria which allow him to trust this version ? Why did he completely leave out for instance the allegorical explanations or why does he not treat in any special way the account from Palaephatus. The question is certainly justified as the beginning of Plutarch’s section
Plut. Virt. Mul. 247f:
Τὸ δ’ ἐν Λυκίᾳ γενέσθαι λεγόμενον μυθῶδες μέν ἐστιν,
ἔχει δέ τινα φήμην ὁμοῦ μαρτυροῦσαν.
The event which are told to have happened in Lycia are full of myth, but the story contains still some supporting testimony.
is very close to the position held by Palaephatus
ἐμοὶ δὲ δοκεῖ γενέσθαι πάντα τὰ λεγόμενα (οὐ γὰρ ὀνόματα μόνον ἐγένοντο, λόγος δὲ περὶ αὐτῶν οὐδεὶς ὑπῆρξεν· ἀλλὰ πρότερον ἐγένετο τὸ ἔργον, εἶθ’ οὕτως ὁ λόγος ὁ περὶ αὐτῶν)·
My own belief is that there is some reality behind all the tales. (indeed the names would not have came into existence alone and there would have be no stories about them. But on the contratry, first were achieved the deeds and thus the stoires about them).
Both believe that not everything in a mythical account is false and they claim to be able to show the truth which is hidden in those versions. Or why does he not quote Strabo’s version which shares with Nymphis’ one the qualities of having been based on observation and knowledge of local practices ()?
A first attempt to find an answer to all these questions can be made by looking at the general outline of the section and in suggesting that Plutarch may have wanted to single out the preferred version by putting it against more problematic accounts. In doing so, he would convince more easily his readership to agree on his choice. This is certainly a first step, but it does not explain Plutarch’s own choice. So another list of question comes up. Were the scholars left alone with the evaluation of their sources ? Even if the question of the sources used by ancient authors is first a question of availability (i.e. which works were still available in their time or in the region they were living in ?), in the time of the 2nd century CE where large libraries were open for scholars and with scholars such as Plutarch the questions is always also a question of choice. So how could they make a distinction between history and our modern pseudohistory (in the case they really had this twofolded concept) ? What tool had they to judge and categorize works from previous authors? Taking as example the Chimaera story from Plutarch, I would rather prefer to speak about a system with more than only two categories (history versus pseudohistory). For this, it is interesting to have a look at the adjectives ancient authors use to qualify the different versions. is certainly pejorative. But there are others which are less well defined and more difficult to understand for modern readers such as , , . Especially when it comes to understand the meaning of these qualifications difficulties arise. For instance what is an ancient author saying when he qualifies an account as being an allegory told in a rhetorical way (ἀλληγορεῖται ῥητορικῶς). Or what is meant if a quotation from the orator Lysias is qualified as μυθικῶς (neither μυθῶδες nor μυθικωτέρως)?
It would be very useful to have further studies on that…
Bellamy R., « Bellerophon’s Tablet », CJ 84 (1989), 289-307.
Mylonas Shear I., « Bellerophon Talets from the Mycenaean World? A Tale of Seven Bronze Hinges », JHS 118 (1998), 187-189.
Stadter P.A., Plutarch’s Historical Methods, An Analysis of the Mulierum Virtutes, Cambridge Mass. 1965 ().
Stern J. « Heraclitus the paradoxographer, Περὶ ᾿ Απίστων », TAPHA 133 (2003), 51-97.
Stern J., Palaephatus. On unbelievable tales, Wauconda 1996 ().
Strauss Clay J., « The Generation of Monsters in Hesiod », CPh 88 (1993), 105-116.