Thinking comparatively about Greek mythology XVI, with a focus on Dorians led by kingly ‘sons’ of Hēraklēs the kingmaker

2019.11.08 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. In the logic of ancient Greek myths centering on the hero Hēraklēs, as we have seen cumulatively in the series of essays bearing the title “Thinking comparatively about Greek Mythology” (“TC” I through XVI so far), this hero is always pictured as a kingmaker, never as a king. But what about the sons of Hēraklēs? I ask such a question in view of the mythological fact that this hero, in the course of his countless adventures, fathers countless children, left and right. And the answer to my question is quite clear: in myths about the male descendants of Hēraklēs—and the lineages of such descendants are known generically as Hērakleidai (Heracleidae), meaning ‘sons of Hēraklēs’—we see that such ‘sons’ are consistently destined to become kings, not just kingmakers. Some myths about lineages of Hērakleidai tend to be more localized, while others are more Panhellenizing, but the most Panhellenizing versions of all such myths about royal male descendants of Hēraklēs are centered on one son in particular. His name is Hyllos, married to Iolē, the newest wife that Hēraklēs never had. This Hyllos fathers three brothers named (1) Tēmenos, (2) Aristodēmos, and (3) Kresphontēs, who become the prototypical ancestors of the three main dynasties ruling over the Peloponnesus in the first millennium BCE, namely, the kingdoms of (1) Argos, (2) Sparta, and (3) Messene. Which one of the three brothers became king over which one of these three kingdoms was determined by way of drawing lots, as represented in the illustration that introduces my essay here. What I intend to show in this essay is that such myths about the dividing of the Peloponnesus into three kingdoms—linked to myths about an invasion of the Peloponnesus by Dorians led by the Hērakleidai—are relevant to various different theories about dialectal variation in the Greek language as spoken in the second millennium BCE.

Drawing, by Jill Robbins, based on an earlier drawing of an ancient gem, published in Q. Horatii Flacci Opera. Illustrated from Antique Gems by C. W. King. Ed. H. A. J. Munro (London, 1869), p. 420. The illustration itself is on p. 134. The engraving on this gem shows a traditional picturing of the Hērakleidai drawing lots for their share of the Peloponnesus, which had been divided into three kingdoms. We see here three warriors standing around a great jar, into which one of them is about to dip his hand. In the background is a column of the Doric order, and on top of it is a tripod.


§1. There are at least two different surviving versions of a moment in myth where the Hērakleidai are drawing lots for their share of three kingdoms in the Peloponnesus.

§1.1. The first of the two different versions is most clearly attested in a source dating from the second century CE, namely, the Library of “Apollodorus” (2.8.4 pp. 289–291 ed. Frazer 1921). According to this version, there are really four Hērakleidai involved in the action of drawing lots, not three, since the kingdom of Sparta is to be allotted to twin brothers named Proklēs and Eurysthenēs, while the kingdoms of Argos and of Messene are to be allotted to Tēmenos and to Kresphontēs respectively, who are the uncles of the twins; the father of the twins, Aristodēmos, is already dead, and so the twins will have to share the kingdom of Sparta in the form of a dual kingship—an arrangement that persists, of course, into the historical period.

§1.2. The second of the two different versions is what seems to be represented in the illustration I have chosen for this essay. This illustration matches in many details the second version, a written form of which is attested in a most valuable source that is also dated, like “Apollodorus,” to the second century CE, namely, Pausanias (4.3.5). In this version, the myth concentrates on the allotment of Messene to Kresphontēs. This allotment, I must emphasize, is to be contrasted with the allotment of Sparta to the twin brothers Proklēs and Eurysthenēs. And the myth here, as reported by Pausanias, concentrates on a primary question: how come Kresphontēs, the uncle of the twins, is allotted the kingdom of Messene?

§2. Before we see the answer to the primary question, I must note that this same myth elides a secondary question, which is, how come the other uncle of the twins, Tēmenos, is not a contestant in this lottery? The answer to this second question is simple: in this version of the myth as reported by Pausanias, the allotment of Argos to Tēmenos had already been made. This way, the myth can concentrate on the allotment of Sparta to the twins and, far more important for now, on the allotment of Messene to Kresphontēs.

§3. In the myth as reported by Pausanias (again 4.3.5) and as visualized in the illustration for my essay, the allotments here take the form of two lots, each one of which is called a palos. One of these two lots is made of an earth-derived substance that has been baked in the sun while the other, though it is made of the same substance, has been burned in a fire. And the two lots are look-alikes, seemingly identical on the surface. What happens next? Well, the palos or ‘lot’ that had been burned in a fire is assigned to Kresphontēs, while the palos or ‘lot’ that had been baked in the sun is assigned to the twins Proklēs and Eurysthenēs. These two look-alike lots are now to be thrown into a huge jar filled with water, and the winner of the lottery will be the one who succeeds in being the first to scoop out from the jar the lot that had been assigned to him. This way, the winner gets to choose which kingdom to rule, Sparta or Messene. We see here an act of deception, contrived by Kresphontēs, who desires to rule Messene as his allotment. He had persuaded Tēmenos, who presides over the lottery, to pre-arrange the assignment of the fire-burned palos to himself and the assignment of the look-alike sun-baked palos to the twins. When the lots are thrown into the jar, the sun-baked lot melts in the water—while the fire-burned lot resists melting, and thus Kresphontēs gets to be first in scooping out his lot from the water in the jar. In short, then, Kresphontēs gets what he wishes for, which is the kingdom of Messene.

§4. By contrast, in the version of the myth as reported by “Apollodorus” (again 2.8.4 pp. 289–291 ed. Frazer 1921), the lottery arranged by the Hērakleidai is more simple: using pre-assigned stones as lots, called psēphoi here, the Hērakleidai throw them into the huge jar filled with water—except that Kresphontēs substitutes a look-alike stone that is really a bōlos or ‘clod of earth’. The clod melts in the water, and so Kresphontēs gets to rule Messene by default, because the lottery has resulted in the winning of Argos by Tēmenos and the winning of Sparta by the twins. Nevertheless, in the logic of the myth in this version, the default is what Kresphontēs had wanted all along, and, once again, Kresphontēs gets what he wishes for, which is the kingdom of Messene.

§5. These two versions of the myth about the tripartition of the Peloponnesus into three dominant kingdoms to be ruled by the Hērakleidai is combined, in both sources we have considered, with the idea that these ‘sons’ of Hēraklēs were leaders of Dorians, that is, of Greeks who spoke a Doric dialect and who invaded this part of the Greek-speaking world, the Peloponnesus, which had formerly been the nucleus of the Mycenaean Empire. In the wording of both sources that I have cited, the myth is about the kathodos or ‘Return’ of the Hērakleidai, Mycenaean natives of the Peloponnesus who return to their homeland as military commanders of non-native Dorians—and who lead these outsiders in a massive invasion of a moribund Mycenaean Empire. This myth, then, centering on events that supposedly happened near the end of the second millennium BCE, serves as an aetiology for the political realities of the first millennium BCE, when the Peloponnesus became the central homeland for Doric-speaking populations—except for such non-Doric enclaves as Arcadia.

§6. I think that the second version of the myth, where Kresphontēs gets to possess the kingdom of Messene by way of being assigned a lot that is burned in fire, is closer to the reality of a Mycenaean past that is superseded by what can best be called a ‘Dorian’ present. And, of course, such a time in the present can become a reality only after the Mycenaean palaces are destroyed by fires, near the end of the second millennium BCE.

§7. As a result of these fires, as I pointed out some time ago in a paper presented at the Academy of Athens (Nagy 2011.04.06), the sun-dried clay tablets that had once served as temporary records for the bureaucracies of Mycenaean civilization could now become—now that they had been burned in the fires—the permanent record for Mycenologists who study that civilization. The fire-burned lot of Kresphontēs, I propose, is symbolic of such clay tablets—or, in this case, perhaps, of clay sealings that were attached to records kept by Mycenaean bureaucrats.

§8. The ‘Dorian’ agenda that I see at work in the myth about a lot made of clay that had been burned in fire can be connected, I think, with relevant linguistic evidence to be gleaned from the records written in Linear B script on sun-baked clay tablets that got to be accidentally preserved by the fires that burned down the Mycenaean palaces toward the end of the second millennium BCE, at a time when such records were being systematically produced by bureaucrats working in these palaces. As I argued in a paper I have already mentioned (Nagy 2011.04.06), some of the bureaucrats who were writing these records reveal, unintentionally, by way of inconsistencies in their spelling, that they are speakers of a dialect that was substandard in comparison to the standard dialect of the elites. To cite just one example here, the dative singular of third-declension nouns was -i in the substandard dialect, as distinct from -ei in the standard dialect of the Mycenaean bureaucracy. What is remarkable about such distinctions, as I also argue in my paper, is that the linguistic features of the standard dialect as spoken in the Mycenaean Empire toward the end of the second millennium BCE survived only selectively—and thus unsystematically—into the post-Mycenaean era of the Greek language as attested in the subsequent first millennium BCE, while the linguistic features of the substandard dialect did in fact survive systematically. And here is where I find it essential to cite a most revealing article published by the current doyen of Mycenologists, Thomas G. Palaima (2002), who points out that the dialectal features of what I described as the substandard dialect in the Mycenaean texts actually correspond to the dialectal features of the Doric dialects that pervade the Peloponnesus in the first millennium BCE.

§9. That said, I return to the myths that I have studied here—myths that tell about an invasion of the Peloponnesus by Dorians led by the Hērakleidai. In the light of the point made by Palaima (2002), that the bureaucrats of the Mycenaean empire included speakers of a substandard dialect that survived as Doric, I see no need for positing a “Dorian Invasion” of the Peloponnesus near the end of the second millennium BCE. After all, there is no archaeological evidence for such an invasion.

§10. Instead, the simplest explanation for the existence of myths about invading Dorians is that such myths served to aetiologize the predominance of Dorian populations in the first millennium BCE, replacing the earlier dominion of non-Dorian Mycenaean elites in the second millennium BCE. In terms of such an explanation, these Dorian “invaders” were in fact not at all newcomers to the Peloponnese. No, they were already “there” in the era dominated by the Mycenaean elites who had once controlled the palaces. And then, after the destruction of the palatial civilization that had been built by the Mycenaeans, the Dorian populations took over. But the point is, these Dorians had already been part of Mycenaean civilization—even if they once represented a substratum, as it were, of palatial society, speaking a substandard dialect of their own.



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