The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology

By Robin Hard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN

THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE INACHIDS

The first four chapters of our survey of heroic mythology will be devoted to the Inachid family, which ruled in Argos, Thebes and Crete and produced the greatest of all Greek heroes, Herakles. Since it was supposed that most of the main heroes and heroines of legend would have belonged to the royal family of their native area, the mythical history of each city and land was in all essentials the history of its ruling family, as organized on a genealogical basis. Once a consistent account had been developed of the succession within each kingdom, all the mythical figures and legendary events associated with that area could be assigned to a specific point in time in relation to the reigns of the various kings; and since the heroes and heroines of each kingdom often interacted with those of others, through wars and marriages, for instance, or participation in joint adventures, it was necessary that the genealogies of the separate royal families should be synchronized with one another (even if this was not always perfectly achieved, see e.g. p. 337). On this basis, a remarkably coherent pseudo-history came to be developed for much of legendary Greece. The process was initiated in epic, most notably in the Catalogue of Women (a genealogical poem of the early sixth century BC traditionally ascribed to Hesiod, see pp. 10-12), and was brought to a high degree of development thereafter by early prose mythographers such as Pherecydes and Hellanicus (see pp. 9 and 15). According to the simplest pattern, a single ruling family would provide the ruling line in a single centre, as in the case of the royal families of Athens and Arcadia, which were both descended from indigenous earthborn ancestors. In general, however, the heroic genealogies tended to be more sophisticated and economical than this, since the mythographers liked to unite different ruling lines within a single family by tracing them back to common ancestors. The present family of the Inachids offers a striking example of this, as does that of the Atlantids, in which the family of Helen at Sparta is drawn into the same genealogical system as that of her abductor Paris at Troy.

As may be appreciated from this, nothing could be less true of Greek heroic legend than to suppose that it tells of events that were situated in some vague and indeterminate mythical antiquity. Most significant heroes and heroines and their adventures could be dated to a specific point in time within the heroic era, and the heroic era itself could be placed in a datable relation to the era of conventional

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