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Hero into general: reading myth in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Nonnus of Panopolis, and John Malalas

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hero, myth, rationalization, historiography, interpretation, debunking

Abstract (summary)

One of the interpretive models applied by the ancient Greeks to their myths was the recasting of heroes as generals and their lonely quests as elaborate military campaigns. In the first instances, this reimagining of mythic narratives was intended to explain the esteem in which heroes were held, lend credibility to their legends, and extend the period of recorded history. Rather than “debunking,” the interpretation of heroes as generals was a positive attempt to bolster the reputation of the heroes and their cults. Over time this particular kind of historicization seems to have enjoyed extensive popularity, so much so that its rationale crept into even the most inhospitable genres, like epic, which rejected rationalization on the whole. Indeed, so popular was the understanding of heroes as generals, it was not necessarily made explicit in accounts that took it as a premise. The very prevalence of this historical interpretation of myth seems to have resulted in a return to at least the appearance of fable form in accounts of mythic heroes intended as historical narratives. The seismic ideological shift from a predominant paganism in the ancient Mediterranean to a predominant Christianity also finally made the historicization of myth a kind of debunking. Not that Christian versions of myth denied the existence of heroes, rather they stressed their most disreputable characteristics and deeds and attempted to undermine the regard in which heroes were held. This article will explore the development of the interpretation of heroes as generals through an examination of the accounts of three different figures: Heracles in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Dionysus in Nonnus of Panopolis, and Perseus in John Malalas.

Publication Information

Garstad, Benjamin. “Hero into General: reading myth in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Nonnus of Panopolis, and John Malalas.” Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural 3 (2014) 227-60.


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