Where people of ancient times more superstitious? Did they believe in monsters and centaurs and the like or is there something very fundamental that we are missing when we read about old myths and legends?

An ancient hero who is surrounded by fantastical events is Hercules, who is most famous for his twelve labors. He slays a nine-headed hydra, fights monstrous bulls and flesh eating horses that breathe fire. Or does he really?

One of Hercules’s more realistic labors is to capture the Erymanthian boar alive, a command that he got from his uncle Eurystheus. According to the ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus:

Flint axes from the Swedish History Museum. Photo by the author.

This Command was thought to be exceedingly difficult, since it required of the man who fought such a beast that he possess such a superiority over it as to catch precisely the proper moment in the very heat of the encounter. For should he let it loose while it still retained its strength he would be in danger from its tushes, and should he attack it more violently than was proper, then he would have killed it and so the Labour would remain unfulfilled.

Diodorus’s tale is very realistic. Wild boars are fast and fearsome beasts and it would indeed be exceedingly difficult to capture one alive.

Before going on the actual hunt for the Erymanthian boar, Hercules meets some centaurs. First he shares wine with a centaur named Pholus. When Pholus’s comrades discover that Hercules and Pholus have shared wine that belonged to all of them, they become mad with anger and attack the cave where Hercules and the centaur Pholus are drinking together. It all ends with Hercules killing all the centaurs and even Pholus dies by an arrow.

In myths and legends, centaurs are beings that are half man, half horse. But Diodorus writes that centaurs are rather descendants of a man called Centaurus and they are said to have been the first to ride horses. Not, as the myth tells, that they consorted with mares and gave rise to hippocentaurs – creatures of double form.

It is important to keep in mind that when Diodorus and other ancient Greek scholars wrote about Hercules and many other ancient myths, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, these myths were already many hundreds of years old. They were tales kept in oral form, originating in the Bronze Age, many hundreds of years before the time of Diodorus himself. So already Diodorus and his colleagues had to interpret what these myths actually were about. Diodorus writes that many difficulties beset those who undertake to give an account of the ancient myths, and especially is this true with respect to the myths about Heracles. (Heracles and Hercules are the respective Greek and Roman names of the same ancient hero). The difficulties, as Diodorus puts it, is that if you only keep what is realistic, you kind of deflate the fame of the ancient hero Hercules, which is also wrong:

For, speaking generally, when the histories of myths are concerned, a man should by no means scrutinize the truth with so sharp an eye.

He goes further to explain that in theaters, for example, we look with favor on such things such as centaurs and applaud the hero.

Thus, in ancient Greece, people knew the myths were fanciful and beautiful retellings of presumably real events and appreciated them as such. Should we then in modern times dismiss the myths as fantasies or should we look for the truth behind them? I think so.

First of all one must understand that retelling something orally is very different from reading a written text. In order not to bore the listeners, the bards used many synonyms and metaphors for the same person or concept. For example, in Norse legends, the god Odin has about a hundred different kenningar, or names. If you do not understand or know of all these kenningar, it is very difficult to understand what the Icelandic sagas really are about. (The Norse bards of ancient times also used kenningar for many objects or phenomena). Ships were for example called horses of the sea. We find the same in Homer’s Odyssey, where Odyssey’s wife Penelope says in Book 4 that ships can be likened to horses of the deep (or salt-water horses or chariots of the sea depending on the translation).

A friend of mine has Asperger syndrome, which is now included in the autism spectrum. Whatever you call it, one of the characteristics of people with Asperger is that they find it difficult to understand social codes and communication and take metaphors literary. My friend has Asperger “light” and has also studied psychology, meaning that she has the ability to look on her syndrome with an objective eye.  She once told me about a member of her Asperger club, a young man who, when his parents said let’s skip the coffee, actually thought that they were going to put a cup of coffee on the floor and jump over it.

The thing is though, when reading about ancient legends such as centaurs, we often make these kinds of Asperger interpretations about what we read. We take what the ancients wrote literary and believe they were superstitious, alternatively we think that we read some made up fantasy stories.

In Sweden, when the wind is strong and you see white foam on the waves out at sea, we have a saying which goes det går gäss på sjön, which translated means geese are walking on the sea. Now imagine that someone would read that thousands of years from now, and doing what we do now, that is, interpreting the text literary. They would then claim that in those times, people were very superstitious; they actually thought that when there was a strong wind, geese could walk on water.

In other words, whenever we read about fantastical legends, such as about centaurs and monsters, we should be aware of the fact that there probably is something far more realistic behind it.

Read more: The 12 Labors of Hercules – the Dawn of Civilization (a realistic interpretation about his heroic deeds)
Or read the book: Heracles – a Psychopath’s Tale (a story about the real man behind the legends)

Main source:
The Library of Historyby Diodorus Siculus, Book IV, translated and commented by C.H. Oldfather