Diodorus Siculus, a Greek-Sicilian historian from the 1st century BCE, put himself in an awkward position while writing his Bibliothēkē (known in English as the Library or the Library of History) by speaking of myths as true historical events, while also trying to siphon away the divine and fantastical elements of the ancient stories. During this literary tightrope walk, Diodorus had a habit of imagining old gods as primordial kings whose personas and exploits became exaggerated legend. Similarly, Diodorus tried to explain away certain monsters, often labeling them as real things, but stripping them of their supernatural shapes and powers. Diodorus used this tactic while describing the famous Jason and the Argonauts tales, in which the ancient Greek hero, Jason, came across creatures such as fire-breathing bulls and large fearsome serpents or dragons. As described by Diodorus Siculus, the idea of fiery bulls and dragons mentioned in the Jason legend may have evolved from names of actual ancient Tauric Chersonese people, whose exotic names were morphed into monsters by storytellers. Diodorus Siculus wrote:
“[Jason’s foe, King Aeëtes,] threw a wall about the precint and stationed there many guardians, these being men of the Tauric Chersonese, and it is because of these guards that the Greeks invented monstrous myths. For instance, the report was spread abroad that there were fire-breathing bulls (tauroi) round about the precint and that a sleepless dragon (drakon) guarded the fleece, the identity of the names having led to the transfer from the men who were Taurians to the cattle because of their strength and the cruelty shown in the murder of strangers having been made into the myth of the bulls breathing fire; and similarly the name of the guardian who watched over the sacred precinct, which was Dracon, has been transferred by the poets to the monstrous and fear inspiring beast, the dragon.” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 4.47).
Such, then, is one origin story for how the idea of fire-breathing bulls and monstrous dragons came into being, at least for the Jason and the Argonauts story. Once again, it was an interesting line that Diodorus tried to maintain—he hesitantly counted the hero, Jason, as well as Jason’s divinely-sired foe, Aeëtes (a child of the sun-god Helios), as historical or legendary people, while simultaneously stripping the side-character monsters in the story of their monstrous and supernatural natures. Paradoxes and conundrums aside, Diodorus Siculus’ fusion of interest in mythology, combined with his healthy dose of skepticism for supernatural elements, makes his commentary on the ancient era of myths and legends an interesting read.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped section of The Battle Of The Soldiers Born Of The Serpent’s Teeth, Painted By Jean-François de Troy (c. 1679 -1752), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Paris Musées Collections).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).