By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB
I first became interested in classics as a child when I heard the great tales of Greek mythology, stories like the Trojan War, the labors of Heracles, and the Minotaur. Exposure to these fascinating legends in childhood increases the chances that the child will one day become an enthusiast of classical literature or even a classicist. However, one thing has always puzzled me: what is our source of all these stories? How do we know about them?
Today I will be describing an ancient work which includes 90% of the Greek mythology students hear in their lives, the Bibliotheka. Just to give you an idea of the importance of this work, Patriarch Photius I of Constantinople wrote the following epigram about it:
“Draw your knowledge of the past from me and read the ancient tales of learned lore. Look neither at the page of Homer, nor of elegy, nor tragic muse, nor epic strain. Seek not the vaunted verse of the cycle; but look in me and you will find in me all that the world contains”.
What Is the Bibliotheka?
The Bibliotheka is a compendium of Greek myths and heroic legends, arranged in three books, generally dated to the first or second century AD. Although the Bibliotheka was undivided in the original manuscripts, it is now typically divided into three books. The authorship of the Bibliotheka has been attributed to a number of scholars over the centuries, but it is now considered an anonymous work. In it, the student will find a reference to every important story of Greek mythology. If this book, like many others, had been lost, we would know far less about the myths of the ancient Greeks.
The Labors of Heracles in the Bibliotheka
Many are familiar with the story of the labors of Heracles. This ancient tale, full of tragedy and heroic deeds, has been turned into novels, movies, and even a Disney cartoon. Here’s a passage from the Bibliotheka‘s section on Herakles:
μετὰ δὲ τὴν πρὸς Μινύας μάχην συνέβη αὐτῷ κατὰ ζῆλον Ἥρας μανῆναι, καὶ τούς τε ἰδίους παῖδας, οὓς ἐκ Μεγάρας εἶχεν, εἰς πῦρ ἐμβαλεῖν καὶ τῶν Ἰφικλέους δύο: διὸ καταδικάσας ἑαυτοῦ φυγὴν καθαίρεται μὲν ὑπὸ Θεσπίου, παραγενόμενος δὲ εἰς Δελφοὺς πυνθάνεται τοῦ θεοῦ ποῦ κατοικήσει. ἡ δὲ Πυθία τότε πρῶτον Ἡρακλέα αὐτὸν προσηγόρευσε: τὸ δὲ πρώην Ἀλκείδης προσηγορεύετο. κατοικεῖν δὲ αὐτὸν εἶπεν ἐν Τίρυνθι, Εὐρυσθεῖ λατρεύοντα ἔτη δώδεκα, καὶ τοὺς ἐπιτασσομένους ἄθλους δέκα ἐπιτελεῖν, καὶ οὕτως ἔφη, τῶν ἄθλων συντελεσθέντων, ἀθάνατον αὐτὸν ἔσεσθαι.
“Now it came to pass that after the battle with the Minyans Hercules was driven mad through the jealousy of Hera and flung his own children, whom he had by Megara, and two children of Iphicles into the fire; wherefore he condemned himself to exile, and was purified by Thespius, and repairing to Delphi he inquired of the god where he should dwell. The Pythian priestess then first called him Hercules, for hitherto he was called Alcides. And she told him to dwell in Tiryns, serving Eurystheus for twelve years and to perform the ten labours imposed on him, and so, she said, when the tasks were accomplished, he would be immortal (translated by J.G. Frazer).”
I hope more people, particularly teachers, will familiarize themselves with this important ancient work. In my mind not only is it essential that students know these stories but also that they understand how they were passed down to us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.
Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.