Atlantians: Dionysios of Mytilene and Diodoros on supposed Atlantian stories about the earliest kings / gods (third / mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Atlantians: Dionysios of Mytilene and Diodoros on supposed Atlantian stories about the earliest kings / gods (third / mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 30, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=14530.

Ancient authors: Dionysios of Mytilene (third century BCE), Libyan Stories, as discussed in Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 3.56-61 (link).

Comments: Diodoros (mid-first century BCE) continues to fill in information regarding the supposed Atlantians he introduced in his former discussion of Libyans (where they were pictured at times living further west on what we know as the continent of Africa). Most likely, here Diodoros continues to draw on Dionysios of Mytilene’s Libyan Stories (on which see the previous post at this link). The narrative presents a humanizing or Euhemerizing account of the gods in which gods were originally kings. It is difficult to assess what, if anything, here is particularly Libyan. It is worth remembering the Greek / Therian settlement at Cyrene in Libya, which existed for some centuries before this. That may have provided additional opportunity for local Cyrenean interest in Libya as well as wider Greek interest as well.

The story goes that those kings that provided significant favours or contributions to the advancement of civilization were then given honours as gods. These narratives concerning king’s contributions and inventions sound much like Egyptian (e.g. Manetho: link), Babylonian (Bel-re’ushu: link), Phoenician (Philo of Byblos: link), and other tales of the achievements of their own native kings. Diodoros himself dealt with this sort of competitive material extensively in his account of Egyptians (link). So such discourses definitely touch on the realm of rivalries among peoples as well. Diodoros’ (or Dionysios’) awareness of the competitive nature of some of his supposed Atlantian material comes through in his bringing in alternative accounts attributed to other peoples, in this case the Phrygians.

Works consulted: J.S. Rusten, Dionysius Scytobrachion (Viesbaden: Springer, 1982).

Source of the translation: C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (passed away in 1954 and copyright not renewed), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.

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[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of Libyans and Libyan Amazons, go to this link.]

Book 3 

[Atlantian version of the origins of the gods in Euhemeristic / humanizing terms]

56  Now since we have made mention of the Atlantians, we believe that it will not be inappropriate to recount here what their myths communicate regarding the origins of the gods, in light of the fact that it does not differ greatly from the myths of the Greeks. (2) Now the Atlantians, living as they do in the regions on the edge of the ocean [Atlantic Ocean] and inhabiting a fertile territory, are reputed to go well beyond their neighbours in reverence towards the gods and the humanity they showed in their dealings with foreigners (xenoi).

[King Ouranos’ contributions to civilization]

They say that the gods were born among the Atalantians. And their account, they maintain, is in agreement with that of the most renowned of the Greek poets​ when he represents Hera as saying: “For I go to see the ends of the bountiful earth, / Oceanus source of the gods and Tethys divine / Their mother” [Homer, Iliad 14.200-201].

(3) This is the account given in their myth: Their first king was Ouranos (Sky), and he gathered the human beings, who lived in scattered places, within the shelter of a walled city and caused his subjects to cease from their lawless ways and their bestial manner of living. Ouranos discovered for them the uses of cultivated fruits, how to store them up, and not a few other things which are of benefit to human beings. Ouranos also subdued the larger part of the inhabited earth, in particular the regions to the west and the north. (4) And since he was a careful observer of the stars, he foretold many things which would take place throughout the world. And for the common people he introduced the year on the basis of the movement of the sun and the months on that of the moon, and instructed them in the seasons which recur year after year.

(5) Consequently the masses of the people, being ignorant of the eternal arrangement of the stars and marvelling at the events which were taking place as he had predicted, thought that the man who taught such things shared in the nature of the gods. After he had passed from among men, they granted him immortal honours, both because of his benefactions and because of his knowledge of the stars. Then they also transferred his name to the cosmos, both because they thought that he had been so intimately acquainted with the risings and the settings of the stars and with whatever else took place in the cosmos, and because they would surpass his benefactions by the magnitude of the honours which they would show him, in that for all subsequent time they proclaimed him to be the king of the universe.

[Titaia, the Titans and other successors]

57  To Ouranos, the myth continues, were born forty-five sons from a number of wives. Among these, it is said that eighteen were by born from Titaia, each of them bearing a distinct name, but all of them as a group were called, after their mother, Titans. (2) Titaia, because she was prudent and had brought about many good deeds for the peoples, was deified after her death by those whom she had helped and her name was changed to Ge (Earth). Ouranus also had daughters, the two eldest of whom were by far the most renowned above all the others and were called Basileia and Rhea, whom some also named Pandora.

[Basileia, the plot against her offspring by the Titans, and the institution of honours for the Mother of the gods and her offspring]

(3) Of these daughters Basileia, who was the eldest and far excelled the others in both prudence and understanding, reared all her brothers, showing them collectively a mother’s kindness. Consequently, she was  given the appellation of “Great Mother.” And after her father had been translated from among men into the circle of the gods, with the approval of the masses and of her brothers, Basileia succeeded to the royal dignity. However, she was still  unmarried and because of her exceedingly great chastity had been unwilling to unite in marriage with any man. But later, because of her desire to leave sons who should succeed to the throne, she united in marriage with Hyperion, one of her brothers, for whom she had the greatest affection. (4) She had two children, Helios (Sun) and Selene (Moon),​ who were greatly admired for both their beauty and their chastity. However, the brothers of Basileia [i.e. the Titans], they say, were envious of her because of her success with having children and feared that Hyperion would divert the royal power to himself. So they committed an utterly impious action. (5) Entering into a conspiracy among themselves, they put Hyperion to the sword and cast Helios, who was still in years a child, into the Eridanos​ river and drowned him. When this crime came to light, Selene, who loved her brother very greatly, threw herself down from the roof. As for his mother Basileia, while seeking his body along the river, her strength left her and as she fainted she beheld a vision in which she thought that Helios stood over her and urged her not to mourn the death of her children. For, he said, the Titans would face the punishment they deserved, while he and his sister would be transformed, by some divine providence, into immortal natures, since that which had formerly been called the “holy fire” in the sky would be called by men Helios (“Sun”) and that addressed as “mÄ“nÄ“” would be called Selene (“Moon”). (6) When she was recovered from fainting, she recounted to the common crowd both the dream and the misfortunes which had happened to her, asking that they render to the dead honours like those accorded to the gods and asserting that no man should touch her body afterwards.

[Basileia goes into a frenzy which becomes the basis of honours for her]

(7) After this she became frenzied, and seizing her daughter’s playthings that made noise, she began to wander over the land with her hair hanging free, inspired by the noise of the kettledrums and cymbals. The result was that those who saw her were struck with amazement. (8) Everyone was filled with pity at her hardship and some were clinging to her body,​ when there came a mighty storm and continuous crashes of thunder and lightning. In the midst of this, Basileia passed from sight. At that point, the crowds of people who were amazed at this reversal of fortune transferred the names and the honours of Helios and Selene to the stars of the sky. As for their mother, they considered her to be a goddess and erected altars to her. Imitating the incidents of her life by the pounding of the kettledrums and the clash of the cymbals, they rendered sacrifices and all other honours to her.

[Phrygian version of Basileia’s / Kybele’s story]

58  However, an account is also handed down that this goddess​ was born in Phrygia. For the natives of that country have the following myth: In ancient times Meion became king of Phrygia and Lydia. After marrying Dindyme [a name of a mountain in the region], he had an infant daughter but was unwilling to rear her, so he exposed her on the mountain which was called Kybelos. There, in accordance with some divine providence, both the leopards and some of the other very ferocious wild animals offered their nipples to the child and so gave it nourishment. (2) Some women who were tending the flocks in that place witnessed this and, being astonished at the strange event, picked up the baby and called her Kybele (or: Cybele) after the name of the place. The child, as she grew up, excelled in both beauty and virtue and also came to be admired for her intelligence. For she was the first to devise the pipe of many reeds and to invent cymbals and kettledrums with which to accompany the games and the dance. In addition, she taught how to heal the sicknesses of both flocks and little children by means of rites of purification. (3) In consequence, since the babes were saved from death by her spells and were generally taken up in her arms, her devotion to them and affection for them led all the people to speak of her as the “Mother of the mountain.” The man who associated with her and loved her more than anyone else, they say, was Marsyas the physician, who was admired for his intelligence and chastity. They think it is a proof of his intelligence that he imitated the sounds made by the pipe of many reeds and carried all its notes over into the flute. As an indication of his chastity, they cite his abstinence from sexual pleasures until the day of his death.

(4) Now Kybele, the myth records, having arrived at full womanhood, came to love a certain native youth who was known as Attis, but at a later time received the nickname “Papas.” With him she consorted secretly and became pregnant, and at about the same time her parents recognized her as their child. 59 Consequently she was brought up into the palace, and her father welcomed her at the outset under the impression that she was a virgin, but later, when he learned of her seduction, he put to death her nurses and Attis as well and cast their bodies out to lie unburied. At that point, Kybele, they say that, because of her love for the youth and grief over the nurses, she became frenzied and rushed out of the palace into the countryside. Crying aloud and beating upon a kettledrum she visited every country alone, with hair hanging free. Out of pity for her plight, Marsyas voluntarily followed her and accompanied her in her wanderings because of the love which he formerly had for her.

[Marsyas and Apollo’s competition and the skinning of Marsyas]

(2) When they came to Dionysos in the city of Nysa they found there Apollo, who was being accorded high favour because of the lyre, which, they say, Hermes invented, though Apollo was the first to play it fittingly. And when Marsyas strove with Apollo in a contest of skill and the Nysaians had been appointed judges, the first time Apollo played upon the lyre without accompanying it with his voice, while Marsyas, striking up upon his pipes, amazed the ears of his hearers by their strange music and in their opinion far excelled the first contestant in terms of the melody. (3) But since they had agreed to take turns in displaying their skill to the judges, Apollo, they say, added, this second time, his voice in harmony with the music of the lyre, whereby he gained greater approval than that which had formerly been accorded to the pipes. Marsyas, however, was enraged and tried to prove to the hearers that he was losing the contest in defiance of every principle of justice. For, he argued, it should be a comparison of skill and not of voice, and only by such a test was it possible to judge between the harmony and music of the lyre and of the pipes. And furthermore, it was unjust that two skills should be compared in combination against but one. Apollo, however, as the myth relates, replied that he was in no sense taking any unfair advantage of the other. (4) In fact, when Marsyas blew into his pipes he was doing almost the same thing as himself. Consequently the rule should be made either that they should both be accorded this equal privilege of combining their skills, or that neither of them should use his mouth in the contest but should display his special skill by the use only of his hands. (5) When the hearers decided that Apollo presented the more just argument, their skills were again compared: Marsyas was defeated, and Apollo, who had become somewhat embittered by the quarrel, skinned the defeated man alive. But quickly repenting and being distressed at what he had done, he broke the strings of the lyre and destroyed the harmony of sounds which he had discovered. (6) The harmony of the strings, however, was rediscovered, when the Muses added later the middle string, Linus the string struck with the forefinger, and Orpheus and Thamyras the lowest string and the one next to it. And Apollo, they say, stored away both the lyre and the pipes as a votive offering in the cave of Dionysos, and becoming enamoured of Kybele joined in her wanderings as far as the land of the Hyperboreans.

[Solution to honour Attis as a god]

(7) But, the myth goes on to say, a pestilence fell upon human beings throughout Phrygia and the land ceased to bear fruit. When the unfortunate people asked the god how they might rid themselves of their illnesses, he commanded them, it is said, to bury the body of Attis and to honour Kybele as a goddess. Consequently the physicians, since the body had disappeared in the course of time, made an image of the youth, before which they sang dirges and by means of honours in keeping with his suffering propitiated the wrath of him who had been wronged. And these rites they continue to perform down to our own lifetime.

(8) As for Kybele, in ancient times they erected altars and performed sacrifices to her yearly. And later they built for her a costly temple in Pessinous in Phrygia, and established honours and sacrifices of the greatest magnificence, with Midas their king taking part in all these works out of his devotion to beauty. Along with the statue of the goddess, they set up panthers and lions, since it was the common opinion that she had first been nursed by these animals.

Such, then, are the myths which are told about Mother of the Gods both among the Phrygians and by the Atlantians who live on the coast of the ocean.

[Atlantian version of the origins of the gods continued]

[King Atlas’ contributions to civilization and his offspring]

60  After the death of Hyperion,​ the myth relates, the kingdom was divided among the sons of Ouranos, the most renowned of whom were Atlas and Kronos. Of these sons Atlas received as his part the regions on the coast of the ocean [i.e. Atlantic Ocean], and he not only gave the name of Atlantians to his peoples but likewise called the greatest mountain in the land Atlas. (2) They also say that he perfected astrology and was the first to share with humankind the doctrine of the sphere. It was for this reason that the idea was held that the entire heavens were supported upon the shoulders of Atlas, the myth darkly hinting in this way at his discovery and description of the sphere.

Atlas had a number of sons, one of whom was distinguished above the others for his piety, justice to his subjects, and love of humankind, his name being Hesperos. (3) This king, having once climbed to the peak of mount Atlas, was suddenly snatched away by mighty winds while he was making his observations of the stars, and never was seen again. Because of his virtuous life and their pity for his sad fate, the multitudes accorded to him immortal honours and called the brightest​ of the stars of heaven after him [i.e. Hesperos as a star].

[Atlantidians’ contributions to civilization]

(4) Atlas, the myth goes on to relate, also had seven daughters, who as a group were called Atlantidians (Atlantides) after their father, but their individual names were Maia, Elektra, Taygete, Sterope, Merope, Halkyone, and the last Kelaino. These daughters slept with the most renowned heroes and gods and thus became the first ancestors of the larger part of the descent group of humanity, giving birth to those who, because of their high achievements, came to be called gods and heroes. Maia the eldest, for instance, slept with Zeus and gave birth to Hermes, who was the discoverer of many useful things for humankind. Similarly the other Atlantidians also gave birth to well-known children, who became the founders in some instances of peoples (ethnÄ“), in other cases of cities. (5) For this reason, not only certain barbarian peoples but also the Greeks trace the genealogy of the majority of the most ancient heroes back to the Atlantidians. These daughters were also distinguished for their chastity. After their death, they attained to immortal honour among humanity, by whom they were both enthroned in the heavens and endowed with the appellation of “Pleiades.”​ The Atlantidians were also called “nymphs” because the natives of that land addressed their women by the common appellation of “nymphai.”

[Atlas’ impious brother, Kronos]

61  Kronos, the brother of Atlas, the myth continues, was a man notorious for his impiety and greed. Kronos married his sister Rhea, by whom he had the Zeus who was later called “the Olympian.” But there had been also another Zeus, the brother of Ouranos and a king of Crete, who, however, was far less famous than the Zeus who was born at a later time.​ (2) Now the Olympian Zeus was king of the entire world, whereas the earlier Zeus, who was lord of the above-mentioned island, had ten sons who were given the name of Kouretes (or: Curetes). And the island he named after his wife Idaia, and on it he died and was buried, and the place which received his grave is pointed out to our day. (3) The Cretans, however, have a myth which does not agree with the story given above, and we shall give a detailed account of it when we speak of Crete.​

Kronos, they say, was lord of Sicily, Libya, Italy, and, in a word, established his kingdom over the regions to the west. And everywhere he occupied with garrisons the commanding hills and the strongholds of the regions. This is why both throughout Sicily and the parts which incline towards the west many of the lofty places are called to this day after him “Kronia.”

[Zeus contributions to humanity]

(4) Zeus, however, the son of Kronos, emulated a manner of life the opposite of that led by his father, and since he showed himself honourable and friendly to all, the masses addressed him as “Father.” As for his succession to the kingly power, some say that his father yielded it to him of his own volition. However, others say that he was chosen as king by the masses because of the hatred they held towards his father. They say that, when Kronos made war against him with the aid of the Titans, Zeus overcame him in battle, and on gaining supreme power visited all the inhabited world, conferring benefactions on humankind. (5) He was pre-eminent also in bodily strength and in all the other qualities of virtue and for this reason quickly became master of the entire world. In general he showed great enthusiasm in punishing impious and wicked men and in showing kindness to the masses. (6) In return for all this, after he had passed from among men, he was given the name of “ZÄ“n,​” because he was the cause of right “living” among men. Those who had received his favours showed him honour by enthroning him in the heavens, everyone eagerly acclaiming him as god and lord of the whole universe forever.

These, then, are in summary the facts regarding the teachings of the Atlantians about the gods.

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of the ____________, go to this link (coming soon)].

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