Greek Mythology and "Strange Loops" -- time paradoxes

Are there any “loops” in the sequence of the adventures in the classical Greek myths?

Something where event A happened before B, B before C, but C before A?

A lot of the stories refer to other stories. Jason and the Argonauts clearly happens before the Trojan War, with several of the same characters. Perseus apparently slew Medusa before the Argosy, because the Argonauts suffered from poisonous snakes in Libya that grew from blood shed by Medusa.

Were the authors careful not to paint themselves into time-corners? Or are there blunders of time-sequence?

(Paging Skald the Rhymer!)

Characters, especially deities, are often described as having items or attributes at the beginning of a story that they wouldn’t gain until later in the story. It’s not clear that those descriptions are meant to be “present tense” with respect to the story, though.

Don’t take that sort of chronology to use for your timing – the various myths and tellers of myths didn’t coordinate themselves, or try to be completely consistent.

You’re on much safer ground dating the voyage of Argo after the time of Perseus on the basis that Hercules was a member (for a while), and he was Perseus’ great-to-the-fifth grandson.
It wasn’t until Apollodorus* circa the first century that they tried to iron out the inconsistencies. I think of Apollodorus as a Classical Greek comic book nerd, who tried to get all the origin stories and family trees straight without the aid of Infinite Crises.
In any event, I don’t know of any “time loops” in Greek mythology. Stories whjere someone gets wishes, they all go bad, and he wishes he was back before it all began seem to be from much later. The closest story I know to what the OP asks is the story of the hound Laelaps and the Temassian Vixen. Laelaps caught anything he chased, while the Teumassian Vixen could evade any hunter. Inevitably, Laelaps started chasing the Vixen one day. Supposedly, Zeus turned both of them to stone to avoid a logical paradox.

This story is in (pseudo) Apollodorus, and I’ve always been suspicious of it. I think it’s a relatively late myth, a literary one, not an ancient myth. It might have been inspired, in part, by a couple of boulders that re4sembled a Hound and a Fox (much as places like POlar Caves or Crystal Caverns have a slew of named formations that resemble animals), and this story grew up to “explain” them.

*According to many, the Bibliotheka is actually the work of someone else, claiming to be the historian Apolodorus of Athens. But most people have never heard of Aopollodorus of Athens, and if I call the author of The Library pseudo-Apollodorus as so manmy do, I feel that I’m telling people that “it isn’t this guy you never heard of, but another guy pretending to be this guy you never heard of”, and that’s just too meta.

That’s all I’m asking: can you give me a really juicy example of a self-contradicting set of myths?

(I’m not playing “Biblical Literalism” gotcha here. I just got to wondering, after reading a nice book on the subject, if anybody ever, say, inherited his grandson’s weapon or slew the monster that would slay his grandson, etc.)

I don’t know about any juicy examples, but there are contradictions and inconsistencies aplenty.
Ovid wrote things about Polyphemus after his encounter with Odyseus – and he still has his eye.

In the oldest sources, Medusa is one of three monstrous sisters, the children of Ketos and Phorkydes. (So are the Graiae, depicted in both versions of Clash of the Titans as “The Stygian Witches” – the ones who share the eye among themselves) But in Ovid, Medusa was a human who was seduced by Poseidon in Athena;s shrine and became a monster. Ovid also has them sharing a tooth as well as the eye.

Oedipus is the son of Laius and Jocasta in everybody except Homer. In Homer, Odeipus’ MILF is Epicasta. (which is odd – Fundamentalist Greek mythographers looked to Homer as the inerrant source the way modern Fundioes revere a literal Bible – usually. This is one case where they didn’t.)

The Gorgon face is on the Aegis of Zeus (which he is never depicted holding – Athena is) was supposedly put there after Perseus’ adventure, when he gave it to Athena. But there are depuictions of The Birth of Athena when Ares is shown holding a shield with a Gorgon head on it.

For that matter, in one version, it’s Zeus who kills the Gorgion and takes its head.

Speaking iof Gorgon heads on shields, in Greek art – pottery, carvings, coins, etc., it’s Achilles who has the Gorgon head on his shield. In the Iliad, though, it’s Agamemnon.

Don’t even get me startred on the works of Dionysus Skytobrachion. If it’s in his work, it’s almost certtainly nolt the same myth you read anywhere else. He maked Ovid look canonical.

Grin! I knew of a couple of those, but not most of them! Thank you!

And, of course, it’s famed that Homer contradicts himself, leading to the aphorism Even Homer Nods.

Cal’s already said all I could have added and more. The Greek myths were not written by a single writer, or even set of writers, at all concerned with continuity.


You are correct about the lack of consistency in Greek myth, which, after all, was set down over a considerable span of time. There was no need for it all to be consistent, and it would’ve been hard to coordinate it all, across that large an area (Greek civilization extended across not only present-day Greece, but multiple islands, a big chunk of modern Turkey, colonies in Sicily and Italy, and elsewhere). Furthermore, there was no compelling reason to – different regions had their own heroes, and their myths tended to emphasize their own guys over those of elsewhere. That the Greek myths ended up being as cohesive as they did is pretty incredible, given that.

Nevertheless, there are a LOT of inconsistencies and contradictions in Greek myth – my list above barely scratches the surface. Pull out a book that goes in-depth on Greek myth – Karl Kerenyi or Donald Ganz or Robert Graves*, or a majestic tome like Roscher’s Lexikon – and you’ll see all the variations and inconsistencies. Those genealogies they often put in the backs of books on myth need to be taken with a grain of salt.

It was much later, circa the first century, when (pseudo) -Apollodorus started collecting the myths into a single volume, and wanted to try to fit them together into a coherent non-contradictory whole, that the began hammering out the annoying inconsistencies that stuck out, and rationalizing them away. Theseus encounters a Gorgon in the Underworld? Aha! It must be Medusa, killed by Perseus, because the other two are immortal! And Theseus’ visit must therefore be after Perseus killed her.
What’s really amazing, to me, is that you have all these stories about the way the Universe is set up, and important events in World History, and you leave it in the hands of Bards and Poets to recite, compose poems about, and propagate. Could you see the Catholic Church letting Andrew Greely decide what Catholic doctrine was by writing it up in one of his novels? Yet that’s exactly what Greek religion effectively allowed Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, and that crowd to do. Pretty amazing, when you contemplate it – because a poet will be driven by what fits metrically, works intuitively, and ends in a dramatically satisfying fashion. He or she isn’t compelled to follow what is believed to have actually happened. (As I’ve suggested above, in the case of Achilles/Agamemnon’s shield, Art tradition can diverge from literary tradition. The myth of Pandora looks completely different on Greek pots than in Ovid’s familiar version. There are illustrations of Jason that don’t at all fit in with Apollonius of Tyre’s poem, and so on.)

*whatever you do, though, take Graves with a skeptical eye. The man notoriously tried to pass off his imaginings and suspicions as reality, without clearly marking them.

CalMeacham: Good point about Graves. I have his book, and love it – it’s got more detail than most others – but, yeah, he does like to slip in propaganda for his “White Goddess” idea, which, as I understand it, isn’t wholly wrong – he just stretches it some few thousand per cent too damn far.

Part of the joy of the Greek Myths is…they haven’t ended yet! We’re still adding to the collection, in our modern fashion. Take, just as one example, Esther Friesner’s “Sphinx’s Wild,” where a Sphinx comes to modern-day Atlantic City and starts to take the place over.

The “Robin Hood” cycle long ago fell into this kind of public venture, where nearly anyone can write nearly anything to add to the cumulative “mythos.” It’s fun, nowadays, watching the “Gangster” and “Al Capone” era falling into very much the same mythic universality. Al Capone has transcended his historical reality and has become a “figure of myth.”

And yet that’s effectively what happened with Dante and (to a lesser degree) Milton. Which is all the more impressive given that Christianity is in some senses much more a religion than the Greek mythos was: Even at the time that the myths were first being recorded, a lot of people viewed them as mere stories, much like we view Superman, or as having only symbolic meaning, like we view Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam.

And, much neglected today, John Bunyan.

For a good long time, Pilgrim’s Progress was compulsory reading in the English Christian household. Questioning it was nigh as bad as questioning scripture.

(signed) : Atheist.

Actually, I like to cite modern movies as examples of Evolving Myth. Beverley Cross’ script for the 1981 Clash of the Titans is surprisingly literate, and slips in bits of ancient literature I wouldn’t have expected to make it in there (Burgess Meredith’s poet character, for instance, says that he composed a poem about Perseus and Danae being set adrift – which arguably makes him identical with Simonides of Ceos (although they changed his name to Ammon). There are a lot of little knowing touches like that.

On the other hand, the changes made are just as interesting – in all the Classical sources, Perseus’ helper is Athena (and also Hermes), but the film made his supporter Zeus himself – it fits in with our ideas of the superior male god, and also of our sentimental notion of Zeus helping his son. None of this is in the Greek original. So the myth evolves through time to reflect the prejudices of our own time.

(Another change is in having Perseus riding on the back of Pegasus, whereas in the myth Pegasus is born from the neck of Medusa after her head is severed. Certainly this was done because it’s a striking visual, and one suited to Harryhausen’s talent of animation. But there had long been a trend pushing for Perseus to be riding Pegasus, going all the way back to ancient Greek art. Ovid has him riding Pegasus in one of his poems (although not the Metamorphoses). And the first opera based on the myth, Perseo, also has him riding Pegasus.)

So the 1981 Clash of the Titans evolves the story as a piece of late 20th century bcinema.

The more recent 201`1 version is a whole’nother thing. The script isn’t anywhere near as literate, and they take their cues from the 1981 film (Giant scorpions were first introduced by the 1981 Cross script, for instance. And Medusa having the body of a snake, and shooting arrows, is straight out of the Harryhausen version – neither features in any earlier version of the story, including cinemaqtic ones) The version brought CGI effects into the mix, but sometimes it seems needlessly over-the-top. It also changed the events from an interesting episode of Greek history, important for Argos, but only interesting to them, into a crucial piece of cosmic struggle, with the Fate of the Universe at stake. (The whole revolt-of-Hades-against Zeusa is VERY un-Greek. It looks like they lifted it from Disney’s Hercules.

I wouldn’t say so – Dante and Milton portrayed the geography of Heaven and Hell, but their visions never had the force of doctrine.

A better case of non-authorities influencing the shape of belief is provided by the ones who had visions of Heaven and Hell.án

I’d wondered where that came from. It also seems to have been influential on the “Type VI Demon” from Dungeons and Dragons: serpent body, woman’s torso and head, and six arms. (Later renamed “Marilith” and reappears as “Lady Vashj” in World of Warcraft.) More recently, there is the “Modest Medusa” comic strip (quite delightful!)

My favorite bit in the 2011 Clash of Titans was the very brief cameo by “Bubo,” the mechanical owl of Hephaestus, who was the “R2D2 of the Gods” in the 1981 version.

Nifty! Thank you for the recommendation! “I’ll see you in hell!” :wink: