Excerpts from Veyne’s “Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?”

“Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?” is a long 1983 essay by Paul Veyne, a French archaeologist/​historian. The following post (written by me in 2011) consists of excerpts of the essay that I found particularly interesting when I read it.

Topics Veyne discusses include:

  • Can a politician really believe all the things she says?

  • Can contradictory views, e.g., of alternative medicine, coexist in the same mind? If so, how?

  • Do people ‘believe’ in their religion in the same way that they believe in the existence of laundry detergent?

  • Can someone fabricate completely new scriptures in good faith?

1. When historical truth was tradition and vulgate

Let us return to Estienne Pasquier, whose Reserches de la France appeared in 1560. Before publishing it, G. Huppert tells us, Pasquier circulated his manuscript among his friends. Their most frequent reproach concerned Pasquier’s habit of giving too many references to the sources he cited. This procedure, they told him, cast a “scholastic pall” (“umbre des escholes”) on the book and was unbecoming in a work of history. Was it truly necessary each time to confirm his “words by some ancient author”? If it was a matter of lending his account authority and credibility, time alone would see to that. After all, the works of the Ancients were not encumbered by citations, and their authority had been affirmed with time. Pasquier should let time alone sanction his book!

These startling lines show us the gulf that divides our conception of history from the one that was held by ancient historians and was still current among Pasquier’s contemporaries. For them, as for the ancient Greeks, historical truth was a vulgate authenticated by consensus over the ages. This consensus sanctioned the truth as it sanctioned the reputation of those writers held to be classical or even, I imagine, the tradition of the Church. Far from having to establish the truth by means of references, Pasquier should have waited to be recognized as an authentic text himself. By putting his notes at the bottom of the page, by furnishing proofs as the jurists do, he indiscreetly sought to force the consensus of posterity concerning his work. [...]

[W]e believe that the ancient historians’ respect for the tradition transmitted by their predecessors can be explained by the fact that for them history is born, not out of controversy—as it is with us—but from inquiry (and that is precisely the meaning of the Greek word historia). When one inquires (whether as traveler, geographer, ethnographer, or reporter), one can only say, “Here is what I found, here is what I was told by generally reliable sources.” It would be futile to include the list of informants. Who would check them? One bases one’s estimation of a journalist not on his respect for his sources but on an internal critique or a detail where he has been caught in a blatant error or lapse into partiality. [...] A reporter adds nothing to his credibility by including his informant’s identity. We judge his value on internal criteria. We need only read him to know whether he is intelligent, impartial, or precise and whether he has a broad cultural background [...]

Now, at the university the historian no longer writes for the common reader, as journalists or “writers” do, but instead writes for other historians, his colleagues. This was not the case for ancient historians. Thus the latter have an apparently lax attitude toward scientific rigor that we find shocking or surprising. [...]

The aim for objectivity delimited the historian’s role: before the age of controversy, before the time of Nietzsche and Max Weber, facts existed. The historian had neither to interpret (since facts existed) nor prove (because facts are not the stakes of a controversy). He had only to report the facts, either as a “reporter” or a compiler. For that he did not require vertiginous intellectual gifts. He needed only three virtues, which any good journalist possesses: diligence, competence, and impartiality.

2. The plurality and analogy of true worlds

Varro’s Stoic distinction of three categories of gods is still fundamental: the gods of the city, to whom men made cult; the gods of the poets, that is, those of mythology; and the gods of the philosophers.


These legendary worlds were accepted as true in the sense that they were not doubted, but they were not accepted the way that everyday reality is. For the faithful, the lives of the martyrs were filled with marvels situated in an ageless past, defined only in that it was earlier, outside of, and different from the present. It was the “time of the pagans.” The same was true of the Greek myths. They took place “earlier,” during the heroic generations, when the gods still took part in human affairs. Mythological space and time were secretly different from our own. A Greek put the gods “in heaven,” but he would have been astounded to see them in the sky. He would have been no less astounded if someone, using time in its literal sense, told him that Hephaestus had just remarried or that Athena had aged a great deal lately. Then he would have realized that in his own eyes mythic time had only a vague analogy with daily temporality; he would also have thought that a kind of lethargy had always kept him from recognizing this difference. The analogy between these temporal worlds disguises their hidden plurality. It is not self-evident that humanity has a past, known or unknown. One does not perceive the limit of the centuries, held in memory, any more than one perceives the line bounding the visual field. One does not see the obscure centuries stretching beyond this horizon. One simply stops seeing, and that is all. The heroic generations are found on the other side of this temporal horizon in another world.


Pindar magnifies his victor’s glory by exalting this other, higher world, where glory itself is greater. [...] It is precisely because the mythical world is definitively other, inaccessible, different, and remarkable that the problem of its authenticity is suspended, and Pindar’s listeners float between wonderment and credulity. [...]

There is a problem, then, that we cannot avoid: Did the Greeks believe in these tales? More specifically, did they distinguish between what they held as authentic—the historicity of the Trojan War or the existence of Agamemnon and Zeus—and the obvious inventions of the poet, who desired to please his audience? Did they listen with the same ear to the geographical lists and catalogues of ships and to the tale, worthy of Boccaccio, of the amorous adventures of Aphrodite and Ares caught in bed by her husband? If they really believed in myth, did they at least know how to distinguish fable from fiction? But, precisely, it would be necessary to know whether literature or religion are more fictitious than history or physics, and vice versa. Let us say that a work of art is accepted as true in its way, even when it passes for fiction. For truth is a homonym that should be used only in the plural. There are only different programs of truth, and Fustel de Coulanges is neither more nor less true than Homer, even if differently so. Only, it is of truth as it is with Being, according to Aristotle: it is homonymical and analogical, for all truths seem analogous among themselves, so that Racine seems to us to have portrayed the truth of the human heart. [...]

According to a certain program of truth, that of deductive and quantified physics, Einstein is true in our eyes. But if we believe in the Iliad, it is no less true according to its own mythical program. The same can be said for Alice in Wonderland. For, even if we consider Alice and the plays of Racine as fiction, while we are reading them we believe; we weep at the theater. The world of Alice and its fairy-tale program is offered to us as a realm as plausible and true as our own—as real in relation to itself, so to speak. We have shifted the sphere of truth, but we are still within the true or its analogy. This is why realism in literature is at once a fake (it is not reality), a useless exertion (the fairy world would seem no less real), and the most extreme sophistication (to fabricate the real with our real; how baroque!). Far from being opposed to the truth, fiction is only its by-product. All we need to do is open the Iliad and we enter the story, as they say, and lose our bearings. The only subtlety is that later on we do not believe. There are societies where, once the book is closed, the reader goes on believing; there are others where he does not. [...]

Myth is information. There are informed people who have alighted, not on a revelation, but simply on some vague information they have chanced upon. If they are poets, it will be the Muses, their appointed informants, who will tell them what is known and said. For all that, myth is not a revelation from above, nor is it arcane knowledge. The Muse only repeats to them what is known—which, like a natural resource, is available to all who seek it.

Myth is not a specific mode of thought. It is nothing more than knowledge obtained through information, which is applied to realms that for us would pertain to argument or experiment. As Oswald Ducrot writes in Dire et ne pas dire, information is an illocution that can be completed only if the receiver recognizes the speaker’s competence and honesty beforehand, so that, from the very outset, a piece of information is situated beyond the alternative between truth and falsehood. To see this mode of knowledge function, we need only read the admirable Father Huc’s account of how he converted the Tibetans a century and a half ago:

We had adopted a completely historical mode of instruction, taking care to exclude anything that suggested argument and the split of contention; proper names and very precise dates made much more of an impression on them than the most logical reasoning. When they knew the names Jesus, Jerusalem, and Pontius Pilate and the date 4000 years after Creation, they no longer doubted the mystery of the Redemption and the preaching of the Gospel. Furthermore, we never noticed that mysteries or miracles gave them the slightest difficulty. We are convinced that it is through teaching and not the method of argument that one can work efficaciously toward the conversion of the infidel.

Similarly, in Greece there existed a domain, the supernatural, where everything was to be learned from people who knew. It was composed of events, not abstract truths against which the listener could oppose his own reason. The facts were specific: heroes’ names and patronyms were always indicated, and the location of the action was equally precise (Pelion, Cithaeron, Titaresius . . . place names have a music in Greek mythology). This state of affairs may have lasted more than a thousand years. It did not change because the Greeks discovered reason or invented democracy but because the map of the field of knowledge was turned upside down by the creation of new powers of affirmation (historical investigation and speculative physics) that competed with myth and, unlike it, expressly offered the alternative between true and false. [...]

[G]enealogical literature, in which Pausanias found a historiography, in reality tells of aitiai, origins, the establishment of the order of the world. The implicit idea (still found in book 5 of Lucretius) is that our world is finished, formed and complete (as my child said to me with some amazement, while watching masons at work, “Papa, so all the houses haven’t been built yet?”). By definition, this establishment occurred before the dawn of history, in the mythical time of the hero.

3. The social distribution of knowledge and the modalities of belief

There is no such thing as a sense of the real. Furthermore, there is no reason—quite the contrary—for representing what is past or foreign as analogous to what is current or near. The content of myth was situated in a noble and platonic temporality, as foreign to individual experience and individual interests as are government proclamations or esoteric theories learned at school and accepted at face value. In other words, myth was information obtained from someone else. This was the primary attitude of the Greeks toward myth; in this modality of belief they were depending on someone else’s word. Two effects can be noted. First, there is a sort of lethargic indifference, or at least hesitation, about truth and fiction. And this dependence ends up leading to rebellion: people wish to judge things for themselves, according to their own experience. It is precisely this principle of current things that will cause the Greeks to measure the marvelous against everyday reality and pass on to other modalities of belief.

The most widespread modality of belief occurs when one trusts the word of another. [...] Westerners, at least those among us who are not bacteriologists, believe in germs and increase the sanitary precautions we take for the same reason that the Azande believe in witches and multiply their magical precautions against them: their belief is based on trust. For Pindar’s or Homer’s contemporaries, truth was defined either as it related to daily experience or in terms of the speaker’s character: whether it was loyal or treacherous.

Given its dissymmetry, belief in someone else’s word could in fact support individual enterprises that opposed their truth to the general error or ignorance. This is the case with Hesiod’s speculative theogony, which is not a revelation given by the gods. Hesiod received this knowledge from the muses—that is, from his own reflections. By pondering all that had been said about the gods and the world, he understood things and was able to establish a true and complete list of genealogies. First were Chaos and Earth, as well as Love; Chaos begat Night, Earth gave birth to Heaven and Oceanus. [...] Many of these genealogies are allegories, and one has the impression that Hesiod takes his god-concepts more seriously than he takes the Olympians. But how does he know so many names and so many details? How does it come to pass that all these old cosmogonies are veritable novels? Because of the dissymmetry that characterizes knowledge based on faith in another. Hesiod knows that we will take him at his word, and he treats himself as he will be treated: he is the first to believe everything that enters his head.

Along with these more or less esoteric speculations, truth based on belief had another type of hero: the solver of riddles. [...] For example, here is how Greek tradition depicted the beginnings of philosophy. Thales was the first to find the key to all things: “Everything is water.” Was he teaching the unity of the world? Was he on the track that would lead to monism, to the problems of Being and the unity of nature? In fact, if we believe tradition, his thesis was neither metaphysical nor ontological but, instead, allegorical and . . . chemical. [...] It is not an explanation but a key, and a key must be simple. Monism? Not even that. It is not monism that leads us to speak of the “key” to an enigma in the singular. Now, a key is not an explanation. While an explanation accounts for a phenomenon, a key makes us forget the riddle. It erases and replaces it in the same way that a clear sentence eclipses an earlier, more confused, and obscure formulation. As Greek philosophical tradition presents him, Thales does not account for the world in its diversity. He gives us its true meaning, “water,” and this answer replaces the enigmatic confusion, which is immediately forgotten. For one forgets the text of a riddle; the solution is the whole point.

An explanation is something that is sought and proved. The key of a riddle is guessed and, once guessed, it operates instantaneously. There is not even the possibility of an argument. The veil falls away, and our eyes are opened. [...] We can get a glimpse of it in the work of Freud. It is amazing that the strangeness of his work startles us so little: these tracts, unfurling the map of the depths of the psyche, without a shed of proof or argument; without examples, even for purposes of clarification; without the slightest clinical illustration; without any means of seeing where Freud found all that or how he knows it. From observing his patients? Or, more likely, from observing himself? It is not surprising that this archaic work has been carried on in a form of knowledge that is no less archaic: commentary. What else can be done but comment when the key to the enigma has been found?

7. Myth and rhetorical truth

[T]here were serious history books, and there were also many of them that were not so serious; but the most important thing is that no external sign differentiated the first from the second. The public was reduced to judging them on an individual basis. As we see, nonprofessionalization had harmful effects. [… T]he blending of the best and worst misled minds, ruined the readers’ moral nature, and fostered a sly skepticism. It thus was necessary for the historians of the day to tactfully manage all the inclinations of a rather mixed audience. When Livy or Cicero in De re publica write that Rome is enough of a big city for people to respect the tales with which she adorned her origins, they are not bluffing their readers with ideological stories—quite the contrary. As good reporter-historians, they disdainfully allow each of their readers to choose his preferred version of the facts. Nevertheless, they reveal that on their part they do not believe a word of these tales.

We see how far ancient artlessness was removed from ideological dictatorship or edifying pretenses. The function created its organ, the “stock languages” of etiology or rhetoric, but no political or religious authority contributed its weight. Compared to the Christian or Marxist centuries, Antiquity often has a Voltairean air. Two soothsayers cannot meet without smirking at each other, writes Cicero. I feel I am becoming a god, said a dying emperor.

This poses a general problem. [… T]he Greeks believe and do not believe in their myths. They believe in them, but they use them and cease believing at the point where their interest in believing ends. It should be added in their defense that their bad faith resided in their belief rather than in their ulterior motives. [...]

It would be better to admit that no knowledge is disinterested and that truths and interests are two different terms for the same thing; for practice thinks what it does. It was desirable to make a distinction between truth and interest only in order to explain the limitations of the former; it was thought that truth was bounded by the influence of interests. This is to forget that interests themselves are limited (in every age they fall within historical limits; they are arbitrary in their fierce interestedness) and that they have the same boundaries as the corresponding truths. They are inscribed within the horizons that the accidents of history assign to different programs.

If this were not the case, it would seem paradoxical that interests can be the victims of their own ideology. If one were to forget that practices and interests are limited and rare, one would take Athenian and Hitlerian imperialism for two examples of an eternal Imperialism, and then Hitlerian racism would be nothing more than an ideological blanket—a motley one, to be sure, but what does it matter? Since the only function of racism is to justify totalitarianism or fascism, the Hitlerian version would be only a superstition or a sham. Then one would note with astonishment that Hitler, because of his racism, sometimes compromised the success of his totalitarian imperialism. The truth is less complicated. Hitler confined himself to putting his racist ideas, which were what interested him, into practice. Jackel and Trevor-Roper have shown that his true war aim was the extermination of the Jews and the extension of Germanic colonization throughout the Slavic states. For him Russians, Jews, and Bolsheviks amounted to the same thing, for he did not think that his persecution of the first two would compromise his victory over the latter . . . Just because one is “interested” does not mean that one is rational; even class interests are the products of chance.

Since interests and truths do not arise from “reality” or a powerful infrastructure but are jointly limited by the programs of chance, it would be giving them too much credit to think that the eventual contradiction between them is disturbing. Contradictory truths do not reside in the same mind—only different programs, each of which encloses different truths and interests, even if these truths have the same name. I know a doctor who is a passionate homeopath but who nonetheless has the wisdom to prescribe antibiotics in serious cases; he reserves homeopathy for mild or hopeless situations. His good faith is whole. I attest to it. On the one hand, he wants to take pleasure in unorthodox medicines, and, on the other, he is of the opinion that the interest of both doctor and patient is that the patient recovers. These two programs neither contradict each other nor have anything in common, and the apparent contradiction emerges only by taking the corresponding truths literally, which demand that one be a homeopath or not. But truths are not sprinkled like stars on the celestial sphere; they are the point of light that appears at the end of a telescope of a program, and so two different truths obviously correspond to two different programs, even if they go by the same name.

This is not without interest in the history of beliefs. We do not suffer when our mind, apparently contradicting itself, secretly changes programs of truth and interest, as it unceasingly does. This is not ideology; it is our most habitual way of being. A Roman who manipulates the state religions according to his political ends can be of as good faith as my friend the homeopath. If he is acting in bad faith, it will be because he does not believe in one of his two programs while he is using it; it will not be because he believes in two contradictory truths. Besides, bad faith is not always found where we think it is. Our Roman could be sincerely pious. If he affects a religious scruple that he scarcely believes in in order to call off an election in which the people are likely to make a poor choice, this does not prove that he does not believe in his gods; it proves only that he does not believe in the state religion and holds it to be a useful imposture invented by men. Even more likely, he will think that all the values must be defended together, religion or fatherland, and that a reason is never a bad one when it supports a good cause.

Our daily life is composed of a great number of different programs, and the impression of quotidian mediocrity is precisely the result of this plurality, which in some states of neurotic scrupulosity is sensed as hypocrisy. We move endlessly from one program to another the way we change channels on the radio, but we do it without realizing it. Religion is only one of these programs, and it rarely acts within the others.

As Paul Pruyser says in his Dynamic Psychology of Religion, religion occupies only the slightest part of a religious man’s thoughts during the day, but the same could be said of a sports fan, militant, or poet. It occupies a narrow band, but it does so genuinely and intensely. [...] Religion, politics, and poetry may well be the most important things in this world or any other; nevertheless, in practice they occupy only a narrow band of our existence, and they tolerate contradiction all the more easily since it generally passes unnoticed. This does not mean that these beliefs are any less sincere and intense. The metaphysical importance or individual sincerity of a truth is not measured by its wavelength. [...]

The different truths are all true in our eyes, but we do not think about them with the same part of our head. In a passage in Das Heilige, Rudolf Otto analyzes the fear of ghosts. To be exact, if we thought about ghosts with the same mind that makes us think about physical facts, we would not be afraid of them, or at least not in the same way. We would be afraid as we would be of a revolver or of a vicious dog, while the fear of ghosts is the fear of the intrusion of a different world. For my part, I hold ghosts to be simple fictions but perceive their truth nonetheless. I am almost neurotically afraid of them, and the months I spent sorting through the papers of a dead friend were an extended nightmare. At the very moment I type these pages I feel the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Nothing would reassure me more than to learn that ghosts “really” exist. Then they would be a phenomenon like any other, which could be studied with the right instruments, a camera or a Geiger counter. This is why science fiction, far from frightening me, delightfully reassures me.


The faithful did not consider their all-powerful master to be an ordinary man, and the official hyperbole that made of this mortal a god was true in spirit. It corresponded to their filial devotion. Swept on by the linguistic tide, they experienced this feeling of dependence all the more strongly. However, the absence of votive offerings proves that they did not take the hyperbole literally.

[… T]hese truths are only the clothing of forces; they are practices, not the light that guides them. When men depend on an all-powerful man, they experience him as a man and see him from a valet’s perspective as a mere mortal; but they also experience him as their master and therefore also see him as a god. The plurality of truths, an affront to logic, is the normal consequence of the plurality of forces. The thinking reed is humbly proud to oppose his weak and pure truth to brute forces, yet all the while this truth is one of these forces. Thought belongs to the infinitely pluralized monism of the will to power. [...] And because thought is a force, it is not separated from practice the way the soul is from the body. It is a part of it. Marx spoke of ideology to emphasize that thought was action and not pure understanding; but as a materialist of the old school he attached the soul to the body instead of not distinguishing the one from the other and handling practice as a unit.

9. Forger’s truth, philologist’s truth

[T]hese imaginary lists [...] had duped so many people, beginning with their own creators. This historiography of sincere forgers is so strange that it is worth considering for a moment. [...] How does one decide that a king was called Ampyx? Why this name instead of a million others? A program of truth existed in which it was accepted that someone, Hesiod or someone else, told the truth when he reeled off the names that passed through his mind or spouted the most unbridled Swedenborgian fantasies. For such people psychological imagination is a source of veracity.

This attitude, normal in the founder of a religion, is not incomprehensible in a historian, either. Historians are merely prophets in reverse, and they flesh out and animate their post eventum predictions with imaginative flourishes. This is called “historical retrodiction” or “synthesis,” and this imaginative faculty furnishes three-fourths of any page of history, with documents providing the rest. There is more. History is also a novel containing deeds and proper names, and we have seen that, while reading, we believe that what we read is true. Only afterward do we call it fiction, and even then we must belong to a society in which the idea of fiction obtains.

Why shouldn’t a historian invent the names of his heroes? A novelist does. Neither one invents in the strict sense of the word. They discover in their imagination a name they had never thought of before. The mythographer who made up the list of the kings of Arcadia thereby discovered in himself a foreign reality that he had not deliberately put there and that had not been there beforehand. He was in the state of mind in which a novelist finds himself when his characters “get away from him.” [...]

The Iliad passed largely for history, but, since readers expected entertainment, the poet could add his own inventions without disturbing them. On the other hand, readers of Castor, the inventive historian of the long line of legendary kings of Argos, consulted him for information, and instead of floating in pleasure—which is neither true nor false—they believed it all. But that is precisely the issue. The very boundary between information and entertainment is dictated by convention, and societies other than ours have practiced agreeable sciences. [...] When the parent of a student, clever and well read, asked his son’s grammarian sticky questions concerning “the name of Anchises’ nurse or Anchemolus’ stepmother,” as Juvenal puts it, he cares little about the historicity of the two. Even we moderns may take pleasure in history as a detective story[.]