Veyne – Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?

Paul Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination, 1988.



Athena in a black-figure vase, attributed Pamphaios, mid-5th century B.C.


Do children at once believe in Santa Claus and the toys as coming from parents? Yes. Ethiopians believe leopards are Christian and observe Coptic fasting days, but take equal care to protect their livestock from leopards on those fasting days. In such ways do we see Greeks construct not belief but truth in their own ways; imagination thus demarcates thought and our world. (xi-xii)

“Myth was a subject of serious reflection”; logos did not purge it but distilled or purified it. (1) Chronological efforts always attempted continuity between ‘myth’ and ‘history’. (1-2) How did the Greeks believe and how did they ‘do’ history? (2-3)


Myth as Vulgate/Tradition

Ancient writers copied one another without ever really asking, ‘how does he know that’. They do not care to make citations unless to emphasise an unusual case. Thus historical truth is in vulgate form and authorised by tradition. (5-7)  This is related to an emphasis in writing the history of one’s present, leaving the past to past writers. One does not rebuild past accounts, only corrects as they happen to find errors. “The ancient historian believes first; his doubts are reserved for details in which he can no longer believe.” (8) Even in the 15th century, Veyne cites the example of Pasquier, admonished by his friends for including too many citations. Do not bother, they say – your text will be vetted over time as ancient texts had been; no need to force the issue with your excessive citations, a performance most unbecoming of history! (5-6)

In contrast, modern history is a work of and on controversy, ancient history of inquiry; ‘here is what I have found.’ “Scholarly annotation has a litigious and polemical origin” amongst jurists, and only spreads once writers are no longer writing at leisure for the public, but professionally for their colleagues. (10-1) The heterogeneity of the public allowed ancient historians to make choices about what kind of truth to present, and what distance they might take to the history they themselves record. (12-3)

But what is myth, and how did ancient historians sort the wheat from the chaff?


Myth as Plurality/Analogy

Ancient Greece had in abundance localised, folk, oral legends, with many storytellers aware of others’ works; their legendary reality was believed in but as distinct from everyday reality. Thus there is a plurality of worlds, and the heroic world had more value, was more noble. (17-8) “Mythological space and time were secretly different from our own” (18); we find variants of this in other societies, like the Aborigines’ ‘Dreaming’ as accounted by Mircea Eliade.

We must be wary of sociological explanations, e.g. that the nobles employed Pindar to raise their own deeds to the level of the heroes. We see quite easily that Pindar raises himself as poet in an exercise of semiotic pragmatics. He stresses the distance between the real world and the mythical. (19-20)

Today we believe in fiction as we read; we only stop once we close the book. We believe in the general story of a historical novel on Napoleon, and do not fret over the ‘editorial’ of, say, dialogue scenes attributed to him. (21-2) Well, in this world-traveling we do, the truth we believe, the truth that becomes truth through our imagination is, whether Achilles or Einstein, truth because it has a certain analogous relation to our own everyday reality. This is what makes of myth an anonymous source of info that corresponds to the listeners’ reality and is thus truth. (22-3)

Another type was mythical genealogies flourishing 6c-> mostly by men of letters. Since cities have ‘always existed’ in historical time, they buttress this existence with an etiology. (24-5) “The implicit idea … is that our world is finished, formed and complete”. (25) Here the explanation is again analogical; from a King’s name came the name of this river, and it is not ours to reason why. (25-6) In short, “myth was information obtained from someone else.” (27)


Modalities of Belief

“Statements foreign to experience were neither true nor false”; there was a kind of lethargy in the listeners, a lack of drive to judge myth’s truth. (28) When the question of belief does arise it is one of trust in the speaker. Thus myth is “it is said that…”, “people say…”. (29)

We find another instance of this belief/truth modality in early Greek physicists: they solved riddles not by explaining but by presenting keys. Thales’ “everything is water” was not meant to solve but to replace the complex puzzle with a simple statement and erase the riddle. (29-30)

Of course, every society has its doubters, and some Greeks doubted myth as a form of rebellion against social authority. (31-2) Over time, myth also came into competition with historians who began to claim authority as specialists of truth. We see Herodotus actively refute certain legends as he builds his inquiry. (32-3)



Euphornios krater, depicting Sarpedon’s dead body, Hypnos and Thanatos carrying him, and Hermes watching. Early 5th century B.C.


Criticism of Myth

So the unlearned trusted the learned and thus believed; the learned began to demand history. This is the split.

Greek criticism of myth (1) made heroes into mundane men; (2) removed the visible intervention of gods; this both ‘historicised’ myth and ensured the idea of gods and heroes could survive in purified form. (41) Yet these two projects were separate; nearly all, including Christians, in 5BC – 4AD, retained a belief in heroes, for example. (42) This is because heroes were more readily historicised.

Myth to mythology: in classical times myth was seen as that all were supposed to know, a shared world; even if the unlearned did not know many stories and details, they could listen to stories that spelled it out for them. In Hellenic times literature “demands a cultural effort from its audience that excludes the amateurs.” (44-5) This creates an audience that demands a ‘scientific’ or historical mythology – not in fact a disenchantment of myth, but another type of mystification in the guise of rationalisation. There was no battle for enlightenment. (46-7)

The criticism by the learned – e.g. Cicero – never reaches the point of denying all myth. Hence someone like Ephorus will say history only begins with the return of the Heraclidae – but that still leaves included a large chunk of what we consider myth. (51) Hence there are hesitations, compromises, ambiguities; all the while, a belief that “A true background lies behind every legend” is not jettisoned. (49-51) “Speculation, eikasia, replaces confidence in tradition.” Thus emerges an attitude of critical credulity which did not devalue but lived with popular, unreflecting credulity. (52-4)


Truth in Myth

Poetry, myth, vocabulary (etymology) and figures of speech occupied a similar zone in this modality of truth: they were relied upon because they were authorless speech, and thus cannot reflect what does not exist. (64) The form of myth was thus never questioned entirely. (66) “For the philosopher, myth was thus an allegory of philosophical truths. For the historians, it was a slight deformation of historical truths.” (65)

Criticism took up the principle that elements of myth we find today (e.g. in natural phenomena) are true, and the further away, the less likely. Thus great men and natural causes substitute for heroes and godly intervention. (71-2) Though this standard could never be exact, it launched efforts to give depth and breadth – time/space designations for each story and character. (74-5) Etiology was thus a tool by which a city could find its legitimate place in history via mythical chronology. (76-8)

Greeks themselves, however, laughed at their etiologies; “myth had become rhetorical truth.” (79) Arguments calling upon myth as justification could conveniently veil less kosher reasons like force, saving face for both sides. Praises of cities and genealogies were less ‘genuine praise’ than rhetorical means of dignifying the other party in exchanges. (80-1) Of course, this meant that in the public there was a quite diffused, sly scepticism – of not only rhetoric, but history itself. (82-3)

Thus the Greeks, just like us and others, were quite capable of believing and not believing in their myths. This ‘ideological’ effect is in fact a conflict of interests that furnish in one mind contradictory truths. (84-5) We return thus to the plurality of worlds. (88-9) Thus a mental balkanisation: one believes a little of what one is told out of respect for the speaker, but this does not make of one a believer entire. (92)



Pausanias is rational, but not in our sense. He often laments the naïveté of the Greeks, but generally suspends judgment; by saying “the Greeks say”, “the locals say”, he practices an age old deferral. (95-7) He does enter into critique of internal unity of myths – a sign that he insists on myth as history. (98) He will criticise myths, but narrate them; he suspends judgment, but he only accepts the broad strokes of what he narrates.

During his travels and writing he has something of an epiphany: he considers that myth might have an elevated meaning, that it may not be literal, and that times of myth might have been very different from his. Thus emerges an interpretation of myth as allegories and riddles. (98-100)


…and Today

In short there are different programs of truth and falsehood in each age and discipline, and this governs the audience’s interpretation and historian’s synthesis work of this into fiction, that into ‘serious’ history; and how the cards fall is not random but up to programs of force. (104-7) History today wishes to understand what truly took place, but we can find other attitudes, now and then, where there is no distinction between text and its reality. (108-9)

We finally ceased to believe in these myths by eliminating this other attitude, by making truth into an absolute, by denying these other modalities of belief wherein (constitutive) imagination was always given some measure of respect. (112-3) “The idea that truth does not exist is no more paradoxical or paralysing than the idea of a perpetually provisional scientific truth that will be proved false tomorrow.” (115)

“Truth is the most variable of all measures.” (117) Imagination is constitutive of its own world; it is the only space available, it is the polygon of historically furnished possibilities for present actors. (121-2) Did the Greeks believe their myths? But of course! Veyne’s objective was merely to show that this is “also true of ourselves and to bring out the implications of this primary truth.” (129)