Thinking comparatively about Greek mythology XII, Hēraklēs at his station in Mycenaean Tiryns

2019.10.11 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. The glory days of Tiryns, a stronghold that once controlled access to Mycenae from the sea, came to an end toward the end of the second millennium BCE, that is, around the same time that marked the collapse of the Mycenaean Empire. But the splendidly massive stone walls of the “palace” at Tiryns endured well after that time, throughout the first millennium BCE and beyond, down into the historical era, and even down to our own present time. I am hardly the only person today who has entertained the thought that the very sight of these walls represents, at least on the surface, perhaps the most spectacular survival of material culture stemming from the prehistoric Greek world. In Iliad 2.559, such an impression is reaffirmed: here the stronghold of Tiryns in the heroic age is already being celebrated for its single most outstanding feature, which is, its imposing walls (teikhioessa ‘the walled [stronghold]’). The massive stones used for building the walls were known in the ancient world as ‘Cyclopean’, on the grounds that only such gigantic figures as the Cyclopes could possibly have ever lifted them. That is what we read, for example, in a source dating from the second century CE, in the writings of the traveler Pausanias (9.36.5). Having personally viewed the site, Pausanias adds (2.25.8) that a team of mules pulling together could not have budged even the smaller Cyclopean stones of these mighty walls. The stunning visual impact of the walls of Tiryns comes through even in photographs, as we can see from the illustrations that I show in my posting here. And, matching the grandness of this ancient site, there is the grandness of its heroic prestige. Myth tells us that the grandest of all Greek heroes, Hēraklēs, was stationed primarily at Tiryns.

Cyclopean Walls of Tiryns, on the Argolid Peninsula, Greece. Image credit: Andy Montgomery.

§ 1. In my ongoing series of essays on thinking comparatively about Greek mythology, I have already shown an example of the close connectedness between the ancient site of Tiryns and the various myths, dating back to the era of the Mycenaean Empire, that center on the hero Hēraklēs. The example came from the essay TC IX, in Classical Inquiries 2019.09.20. In that essay, at §2B, I focused on a myth about a notorious deed of Hēraklēs that was linked not only with the site of Tiryns but even with the mighty walls of that fortress. The source, as we saw in TC IX §2B, was Diodorus of Sicily, who dates from the first century BCE. In the myth as retold by Diodorus (4.31.1), we read that Hēraklēs, when the king Eurytos refuses to give his daughter Iole in marriage to the hero, spitefully rustles a herd of horses belonging to this king, driving the herd to the stronghold of Tiryns. The king’s son Iphitos, older brother of Iole, tries to track down the rustled herd. Suspecting Hēraklēs as the rustler, Iphitos comes to Tiryns, where he is welcomed as a guest by Hēraklēs, who pretends not to have rustled the herd of horses. Then Hēraklēs invites Iphitos to ascend with him to a high tower atop the walls of Tiryns, so that Iphitos may look around and ascertain, as Hēraklēs claims, that the rustled herd is not to be found. While Iphitos, standing high up on the walls, is looking around, Hēraklēs sneaks up behind his guest and pushes him. Iphitos plunges from the heights of the walls to his death.

Tiryns fortress
Tiryns fortress. Image credit: Jean Housen.

§2. I have found another example where the site of Tiryns is the setting for a comparable myth about Hēraklēs. The source is the Hesiodic Theogony (287–294). In this case, the hero Hēraklēs rustles a herd of cattle belonging to the three-headed monstrosity named Geryon, having crossed the cosmic river Okeanos (291–292); to succeed in his quest to capture this herd, Hēraklēs must first kill a herdsman named Eurytion, who guards the cattle, and a monstrous watch-dog named Orthos (293–294). The name of this Eurytion is comparable to the name of Eurytos, father of the prince Iphitos whom Hēraklēs threw down from the lofty walls of Tiryns in the myth retold by Diodorus (4.31.1).

§3. Reading further in the Theogony (287–294), we see that Hēraklēs, having killed Eurytion, guardian of the cattle of Geryon, now takes control of these cattle and proceeds to herd them eastward, driving them all the way back home to the stronghold of Tiryns, which is described here as hierē ‘sacred’ (292). I now add a further detail, to be found in the Library of “Apollodorus,” a work dating from the second century CE. According to the retelling by “Apollodorus” (2.5.10 pp. 217–219 ed. Frazer 1921 I), Hēraklēs in the end delivered the rustled cattle of Geryon to Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, who sacrificed them to the goddess Hērā.

§4. In another retelling, as we read in Diodorus (4.17.1–4.18.22), Hēraklēs initially had to assemble a mighty army combined with a commensurately mighty navy in order to accomplish the Labor of rustling the cattle of Geryon in the Far West. At §5 in TC VIII, Classical Inquiries 2019.09.13, I already noted the implications of this spectacular expedition. Hēraklēs here is serving as a generalissimo for Eurystheus, king of Mycenae and high king of the Mycenaean Empire, by virtue of leading a mighty army combined with a mighty navy—I referred to these armed forces as an “armada” at §1.1.3 in TC IV, Classical Inquiries 2019.08.15.

§5. Such a mythological role of Hēraklēs as leader of the armed forces of the Mycenaean Empire suits perfectly his links with the stronghold of Tiryns. When Hēraklēs drove the cattle of Geryon from the Far West all the way to Tiryns, this hero’s eastward destination signaled, in the logic of the myth, that this venerable old walled stronghold was the primary point of access to Mycenae, the nerve center of the Mycenaean Empire.



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