Cretans: Diodoros on Cretan (Greek) contributions to civilization (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Cretans: Diodoros on Cretan (Greek) contributions to civilization (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified October 15, 2023,

Ancient authors: Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 5.64-84 (link).

Comments: Diodoros of Sicily’s discussion here is no random collection of local, Cretan lore. Rather, this material about Cretan origins of the gods – really humans of the long past who came to be honoured as gods, in a Euhemeristic fashion – allows Diodoros to solidify a crucial argument of his entire Library of History that directly pertains to competition among peoples regarding the origins of civilization.

As we saw with Diodoros’ opening discussion of Egyptians (link), one of Diodoros’ main concerns in the entire work is to refute any suggestion that so-called “barbarian” peoples were, in fact, paragons and originators of civilization. Along with this, he needs to undermine any notions that those other peoples (such as Egyptians, Assyrians, and Phoenicians) and their cultures were in fact prior to Greek peoples and cultures. These supposedly Cretan legends about their own gods making great advances for human civilization allow Diodoros to place Greeks – by identification with Cretans in the far distant past. In other words, “Minoan” civilization’s antiquity is used for particular purposes here. The point is that the Greeks generally (by way of identification with Cretans specifically) end up being the inventors of all important aspects of human culture and society. Any apparent signs of civilization among other peoples – “barbarians” – are, therefore, derivative of Greek inventions, and subsequent to them.

In light of Diodoros’ praise for Cretans, it is worth noting an irony. The Cretans of Hellenistic and Roman times often came under fire as being among the least civilized, even semi-barbarous Greeks. (Diodoros mentions that his sketch differs from others who wrote about Crete, but does not specify the ways). In his conclusion, Diodoros himself hints at the mixed nature of the population (including “barbarians”) in discussing migrations. However, he does not engage in the usual stereotypes here, opting instead for the notion that king Minos civilized the population long ago. Nonetheless, Cretans are often stereotypically cast as liars (e.g. at this link) and bandits (e.g. at this link) by other Greeks. But Diodoros needed them as receivers of civilization on behalf of the Greeks here.

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), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.


[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of Egyptians’ claims to inventing astrology, go to the bottom at this link.]

Book 5

[Eteocretans and king Kres as inventor]

64  Now regarding Rhodes and the Chersonesos, we will have to be content with what has been said, and we will now discuss Crete. The inhabitants of Crete claim that the oldest people of the island were those who are known as Eteocretans,​ who were indigenous (autochthones). They also claim that their king, who was called Kres, was responsible for the greatest number of the most important discoveries made in the island which contributed to the improvement of the social life of humankind. (2) Also, the majority of the gods, who have been granted immortal honours due to their benefactions to everyone alike, had their origin in their land, according to their own myths. We will now give a summary of the tradition regarding these gods, following the most reputable writers who have recorded the affairs about Crete.

[Gods deriving from Crete, and their inventions]

[Idaian Dactyls as inventors, including Ephoros competing Phrygian claims]

(3) The first of these gods of whom tradition has left a record made their home in Crete around mount Ida and were called Idaian Dactyls. These, according to one tradition, were one hundred in number, but others say that there were only ten who received this name, corresponding in number to the fingers (dactyloi) of the hands. (4) But some historians, and Ephoros is one of them, record that the Idaian Dactyls were in fact born on mount Ida which is in Phrygia and passed over to Europe together with Mygdon. Since they were howlers of enchantments (goētes), they practised spells, initiations, and mysteries. During their travels on Samothrake they somewhat amazed the natives of that island by their skill in such matters. It was at this time, we are further told, that Orpheus, who was endowed with an exceptional gift of poetry and song, also became a student of the Phrygian Dactyls, and he was subsequently the first to introduce initiations and mysteries to the Greeks.

(5) However this may be, the Idaian Dactyls of Crete [as opposed to Phrygia], so tradition tell us, discovered both the use of fire and what the metals copper and iron are, as well as the means of working them. This was done in the territory of the city of Aptera at Berekynthos, as it is called. (6) Since they were looked upon as the originators of great blessings for the descent group of humankind, they were accorded immortal honours. Writers tell us that one of them was named Herakles. Excelling as he did in fame, he established the Olympic Games, and that the men of a later period thought, because the name was the same, that it was the son of Alkmene who had founded the institution of the Olympic Games. (7) Evidences of this, they tell us, are found in the fact that many women even to this day take their incantations from this god and make amulets in his name, on the basis that he was an enchanter and practised the arts of initiation. But they add that these things were indeed very far removed from the habits of the Herakles who was born of Alkmene.

[Kouretes as inventors]

65  After the Idaian Dactyls, according to accounts we have, there were nine Kouretes. Some writers of myths relate that these gods were born from the earth. Yet according to others they were descended from the Idaian Dactyls. The home they made in mountainous places was thickly wooded and full of ravines and, in a word, provided a natural shelter and coverage, since it had not yet been discovered how to build houses.

(2) Since these Kouretes excelled in wisdom, they discovered many things which are of use to humanity. So, for instance, they were the first to gather sheep into flocks, to domesticate the several other kinds of animals which men fatten, and to discover the making of honey. (3) In the same manner, they introduced the skill of shooting with the bow and the ways of hunting animals. They showed humankind how to live and associate together in a community and they were the originators of concord and, so to speak, of orderly behaviour. (4) The Kouretes also invented swords and helmets and the war-dance, by means of which they made a very loud noise and deceived Kronos.​ We are told that, Rhea, the mother of Zeus, entrusted Zeus to the Kouretes without the knowledge of Kronos his father. Then the Kouretes took him under their care and saw to his nurture. But since we plan to present this affair in detail, we must take up the account at a little earlier point. . .  [omitted account of the Titans].

[Zeus passes his inventions on to his children, who make further inventions]

72 … (3) Athena, the myths relate, was likewise begotten from Zeus in Crete by the sources of the river Triton. This is the reason why she has been given the name Tritogeneia.​ And there stands, even to this day, at these sources a temple which is sacred to this goddess, at the spot where the myth relates that her birth took place. (4) Men say also that the marriage of Zeus and Hera was held in the territory of the Knosians, at a place near the river Theren. This is where a temple now stands in which the natives of the place annually offer holy sacrifices and imitate the ceremony of the marriage, in the manner in which with tradition tells it was originally performed.

(5) To Zeus also were born, they say, the goddesses Aphrodite, the Graces, Eileithyia and her helper Artemis, the Hours as they are called, Eunomia, Dike, Eirene, Athena, the Muses, as well as the gods Hephaistos, Ares, Apollo, Hermes, Dionysos, and Herakles. 73 To each one of the deities we have named, the myth goes on to relate, Zeus imparted the knowledge of the things which he had discovered and was perfecting, and likewise assigned to them the honour of their discovery, wishing in this way with to endow them with immortal fame among all humankind.

(2) To Aphrodite was entrusted the youth of maidens, the years in which they are expected to marry, and the supervision of such matters as are observed even yet in connection with weddings, together with the sacrifices and drink-offerings which men perform to this goddess. Nevertheless, all men make their first sacrifices to Zeus the Perfecter and Hera the Perfectress, because they are the originators and discoverers of all things, as we have stated above.

(3) To the Graces was given the adornment of personal appearance and the beautifying of each part of the body with an eye to making it more beautiful and pleasing to look at. They were given the further privilege of being the first to grant benefactions and, on the other hand, of requiting with appropriate favours such men as have performed good acts.

(4) Eileithyia received the care of expectant mothers and the alleviation of the labour of childbirth. For this reason, women when they are in perils of this nature call first of all upon this goddess.

(5) We are told that Artemis discovered how to effect the healing of young children and the foods which are suitable to the nature of babes, this being the reason why she is also called Kourotrophos (i.e. child-rearer).​

(6) Regarding the Hours, as they are called, to each of them, according as her name indicates, was given the ordering and adornment of life, so as to serve to the greatest advantage of humankind. For there is nothing which is better able to build a life of happiness than obedience to law (Eunomia), justice (Dike), and peace (Eirene).

(7) People ascribe to Athena the gift to humankind of the domestication and cultivation of the olive-tree, as well as the preparation of its fruit. Before the birth of this goddess this kind of tree was found only along with the other wild woody growths, and this goddess is the source of the care and the experience which men even to this day devote to these trees. (8) Furthermore, Athena introduced among humankind the making of clothing, carpentry and many of the devices which are used in the other crafts. And she also was the discoverer of the making of the pipes and of the music which they produce and, in a word, of many works of cunning device, from which she derives her name of Worker.

[Debates about what people invented letters of the alphabet]

74 To the Muses, we are further told, it was given by their father Zeus to discover the letters and to combine words in the way which is designated poetry. I would like to reply to those who claim that the Syrians [Assyrians or Mesopotamians generally are in mind] are the discoverers of the letters, with the Phoenicians having learned them from the Syrians and then passed them on to the Greeks, and that these Phoenicians are the ones who sailed to Europe together with Kadmos and this is the reason why the Greeks call the letters “Phoenician.” People tell us, on the other hand, that the Phoenicians were not the first to make this discovery. Instead, they did no more than change the forms of the letters. At that point the majority of humankind used the forms that the Phoenicians devised, and this is why the letters received the designation we have mentioned above.

(2) Hephaistos, we are told, was the discoverer of every manner of working iron, copper, gold, silver, and everything else which requires fire for working. He also discovered all the other uses to be made of fire and turned them over both to the workers in the crafts and to all other men as well. (3) Consequently the workmen who are skilled in these crafts offer up prayers and sacrifices to this god before all others. Both the craftsmen and also all humankind call the fire “Hephaistos.” In this way, they pass down to eternal remembrance and honour the benefaction which was granted in the beginning upon man’s social life.

(4) Ares, the myths record, was the first to make a suit of armour, to fit out soldiers with arms, and to introduce the battle’s fury of contest, slaying himself those who were disobedient to the gods.

(5) Regarding Apollo, people recount that he was the discoverer of the lyre and of the music which comes from it. They also recount that he introduced the knowledge of healing, which is brought about through the faculty of prophecy. That was how the sick were healed in ancient times. As the discoverer of the bow he also taught the people of the land [i.e. Cretans] all about the use of the bow. This is why the skill of archery is especially cultivated by the Cretans and the bow is called “Cretan.”

(6) To Apollo and Koronis was born Asklepios, who learned from his father many things about the healing art, and then he went on to discover the skill of surgery, the preparations of drugs and the strength to be found in roots. Generally speaking, he introduced such advances into the skill of healing that he is honoured as if he were its source and founder.

75  To Hermes, men ascribe the introduction of the sending of embassies to make an official request for peace, as they are used in wars, and negotiations and truces and also the herald’s wand. This wand is a symbol of such matters and is customarily held by those who are carrying on conversations dealing with affairs of this kind and who, by means of it, are accorded safe conduct by the enemy. And this is the reason why he has been given the name “Hermes Koinos” because the benefit is common (koinon) to both the parties when they exchange peace in time of war.​ (2) They also say that he was the first to devise measures and weights and the profits to be gained through merchant activity, and how also to appropriate the property of others without them knowing. Tradition also says that he is the herald of the gods and their most trusted messenger, because of his ability to express clearly (hermēneuein) each command that has been given him. This is the reason why he has received the name he bears, not because he was the discoverer of words and of speech, as some men say [it was somewhat common to attribute the introduction of language and writing to Hermes identified with the Egyptian deity Thoth]. Rather, it was because he has perfected, to a higher degree than all others, the skill of the precise and clear statement of a message. (3) He also introduced wrestling-schools and invented the lyre out of a tortoise-shell after the contest between Apollo and Marsyas. In that contest, we are told, Apollo was victorious and at that point exacted an excessive punishment of his defeated adversary. Yet afterwards Apollo repented of this and, tearing the strings from the lyre, had nothing to do with its music for a while.

(4) As for Dionysos, the myths state that he discovered the vine and its cultivation, and also how to make wine and to store away many of the autumn fruits and thus to provide humankind with the use of them as food over a long time. This god was born in Crete, men say, of Zeus and Persephone. Orpheus has handed down the tradition in the initiatory rites that Dionysos was torn in pieces by the Titans. In fact, there have been several who bore the name Dionysos, regarding whom we have given a detailed account at greater length in connection with the more appropriate periods of time.​ (5) The Cretans, however, attempt to advance evidence that the god was born in their country, stating that he formed two islands near Crete in the Twin Gulfs, as they are called, and named them Dionysiadians, after himself. They say that this is something which he has done nowhere else in the world.

76  Regarding Herakles, the myths relate that he was sprung from Zeus many years before the other Herakles who was born of Alkmene. As for this son of Zeus, tradition has not given us the name of his mother, but only states that he far excelled all others in body strength, and that he visited the inhabited earth, inflicting punishment upon the unjust and destroying the wild beasts which were making the land uninhabitable. For men everywhere he won their freedom, while remaining himself unconquered and unwounded. Because of his good actions, he attained to immortal honour at the hands of humankind.

(2) The Herakles who was born from Alkmene came much later. Because he emulated the plan of life of the ancient Herakles, for the same reasons he attained to immortality. As time went on, he was thought by men to be the same as the other Herakles because both bore the same name. The deeds of the earlier Herakles were transferred to the later one because the majority of people were ignorant of the actual facts.​ And it is generally agreed that the most renowned actions and honours which belong to the older god were concerned with Egypt, and that these, together with a city which he founded [i.e. Herakleion], are still known in that country.

(3) Britomartis, who is also called Diktynna, the myths relate, was born at Kaino in Crete from Zeus and Karme, the daughter of Euboulos who was the son of Demeter. She invented the nets (dictya) which are used in hunting. From this she has been called Diktynna, and she passed her time in the company of Artemis. This is why some men think Diktynna and Artemis are one and the same goddess. And the Cretans have instituted sacrifices and built temples in honour of this goddess. (4) But those men who tell the tale that she has been named Diktynna because she fled into some fishermen’s nets when she was pursued by Minos, who would have raped her, have missed the truth. For it is not a probable story that the goddess should ever have got into so helpless a state that she would need the help of men, since she is the daughter of the greatest one of the gods. Nor is it right to ascribe such impious action to Minos, who tradition unanimously declares avowed just principles and strove to attain a manner of life which was approved by men.

77  Ploutos, we are told, was born in Cretan Tripolos to Demeter and Iasion, and there are two accounts of his origin. For some men say that the earth, when it was at first sowed by Iasion and given proper cultivation, brought forth such an abundance of fruits that those who saw this granted a special name upon the abundance of fruits when they appear and called it “ploutos” (wealth). Consequently, it has become traditional among later generations to say that men who have acquired more than they actually need have ploutos. (2) But there are some who recount the myth that a son was born to Demeter and Iasion whom they named Ploutos, and that he was the first to introduce diligence into the life of man and the acquisition and safeguarding of property. All men up to that time had been neglectful of amassing and carefully guarding their property.

[Cretan origins of initiatory rites]

(3) Such, then, are the myths which the Cretans recount of the gods who they claim were born in their land. They also assert that the honours accorded to the gods and their sacrifices and the initiatory rites observed in connection with the mysteries were handed down from Crete to the rest of humanity. To support this, they advance the following most weighty argument, as they conceive it: The initiatory rite which is celebrated by the Athenians in Eleusis (the most famous of them all, as one might propose), the one at Samothrace, and the one practised in Thrace among the Kikonians (from which Orpheus came who introduced them) are all handed down in the form of a mystery. Whereas at Knossos on Crete it has been the custom for ancient times that these initiatory rites should be handed down to all openly, and what is handed down among other peoples as not to be divulged. The Cretans conceal this from no one who wants to learn about such matters.

[Pattern of dissemination of inventions from Crete to other peoples]

(4) Actually, the majority of the gods, the Cretans say, had their beginning in Crete and set out from there to visit many regions of the inhabited world, conferring benefactions upon all of humankind and distributing among each of them the advantage which resulted from the discoveries they had made. Demeter, for example, crossed over into Attica, then went to Sicily and afterwards to Egypt. In these lands her choicest gift was that of the fruit of the corn and instructions in the sowing of it, at which point she received great honours at the hands of those whom she had benefited.

(5) Likewise Aphrodite made her seat in Sicily in the region of Eryx, among the islands near Kythera and in Paphos in Cyprus, and in Asia in Syria. Because of the manifestation of the goddess in their country and her extended sojourn among them, the inhabitants of the lands appropriated her to themselves, calling her, as the case might be, Erykinian or Kytherian or Paphian or Syrian Aphrodite.​

(6) In the same manner Apollo revealed himself for the longest time in Delos, Lycia​ and Delphi, and Artemis in Ephesos, the Pontos [Black Sea area], Persis, and Crete. (7) As a consequence, either from the names of these regions or as a result of the actions which they performed in each of them, Apollo has been called Delian or Lycian or Pythian, and Aphrodite has been called Ephesian or Cretan or Tauropolian or Persian, even though both of them were born in Crete. (8) This goddess is held in special honour among the Persians [likely Anaitis / Anahita is in mind],​ and the barbarians hold mysteries which are performed among other peoples even down to this day in honour of the Persian Artemis. Similar myths are also recounted by the Cretans regarding the other gods, but to draw up an account of them would be a long task for us, and it would not be easily grasped by our readers.

[Cretan heroes’ contributions to civilization: Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon]

78  Many generations after the birth of the gods, the Cretans go on to say, not a few heroes were to be found in Crete, the most renowned of whom were Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon. These men, their myth states, were born from Zeus and Europe, the daughter of Agenor, who, men say, was brought across to Crete upon the back of a bull by the design of the gods.

(2) Now Minos, by virtue of his being the eldest, became king of the island, and he founded on it a number of cities, the most renowned of which were the three: Knossos, in those parts of the island which look toward Asia; Phaistos, on the sea-shore to the south; and, Kydonia in the regions to the west facing the Peloponnesos. (3) Minos established a number of laws for the Cretans, claiming that he had received them from his father Zeus when conversing with him in a certain cave. Furthermore, he came to possess a great naval power. He subdued the majority of the islands and was the first man among the Greeks to be master of the sea. (4) After gaining popularity for his manly spirit and justice, he ended his life in Sicily in the course of his campaign against Kokalos, the details of which we have recounted in connection with our account of Daidalos, because of whom the campaign was made [see 4.79].

79  The Cretans say that, among all men, Rhadamanthys rendered the most just decisions and inflicted severe punishment upon bandits (lēstai), impious men, and all other criminals (kakourgoi). He also came to possess a number of islands and a large part of the sea coast of Asia, all men delivering themselves into his hands of their free will because of his justice. Upon Erythros, one of his sons, Rhadamanthys bestowed the kingship over the city which was named after him Erythrai, and to Oinopion, the son of Minos’ daughter Ariadne, he gave Chios, we are told, although some writers of myths state that Oinopion was a son of Dionysos and learned from his father the skill of making wine. (2) The Cretans say that he made a present of an island or a city to each one of his other generals: Lemnos island to Thoas, Kyrnos to Enyeus, Peparethos to Staphylos, Maroneia to Euanthes, Paros to Alcaeus, Delos to Anion, and Andros to Andreus, with the island named after him. Moreover, because of his very great justice, the myth has sprung up that he was appointed to be judge in Hades, where his decisions separate the good from the wicked. And the same honour has also been attained by Minos, because he ruled completely in accordance with law and paid the greatest attention to justice.

(3) The third brother, Sarpedon, we are told, crossed over into Asia with an army and subdued the regions around Lycia. Euandros, his son, succeeded him in the kingship in Lycia, and marrying Deïdameia, the daughter of Bellerophon, he begat that Sarpedon who took part in the expedition against Troy,​ although some writers have called him a son of Zeus. (4) Minos’ sons, they say, were Deukalion and Molos, and to Deukalion was born Idomeneus and to Molos was born Meriones. These two joined with Agamemnon in the expedition against Ilion [i.e. the Trojan war] with ninety ships, when they had returned in safety to their fatherland they died and were accorded a notable burial and immortal honours. The Cretans point out their tomb at Knossos, which bears the following inscription: “Behold Idomeneus the / Knossian’s tomb, / and by his side am I, Meriones, / the son of Molos.” These two the Cretans hold in special honour as legendary heroes, offering up sacrifices to them and calling upon them to come to their aid in the perils which arise in war.

[Cretans subsequently intermixed by migrations: Eteocretans, Pelasgians, Dorians]

80  But now that we have examined these matters, it remains for us to discuss the peoples who have become intermixed with the Cretans. We have already stated that the first inhabitants of the island were known as Eteocretans and that they are considered indigenous. Many generations later Pelasgians, who were on the move by reason of their continuous expeditions and migrations, arrived at Crete and made their home in a part of the island.

(2) The third people to cross over to the island, we are told, were Dorians, under the leader­ship of Tektamos​ the son of Doros. The account states that the larger number of these Dorians was gathered from the regions around Olympos. But a portion of them consisted of Achaians from Lakonia, since Doros had fixed the base of his expedition in the region around Cape Malea.

A fourth people to come to Crete and to become intermixed with the Cretans, we are told, was a heterogeneous collection of barbarians who in the course of time adopted the language of the native Greeks. (3) But after these events Minos and Rhadamanthys, when they had attained to power, gathered the peoples on the island into one union.

Last of all, after the return of the Heracleidians,​ Argives and Lakedaimonians sent out colonies which they established on certain other islands and likewise took possession of Crete, and on these islands, they colonized certain cities. With regard to these cities, however, we will provide a detailed account in connection with the period of time to which they belong.

[Disagreements among authors and Diodoros’ defence of his position and choice of sources]

(4) Since the majority of authors who have written about Crete disagree among themselves, there should be no occasion for surprise if what we report does not agree with every one of them. We have, in fact, followed as our authorities those who give the more probable account and are the most trustworthy, in some matters depending upon Epimenides who has written about the gods, in others upon Dosiades, Sosikrates, and Laosthenidas.

[Cretan colonies in the Aegean and struggles between Minos and Rhadamanthys]

84  Since we have presented the facts concerning the most notable islands, we will now give an account of the smaller ones. While in ancient times the Cyclades were still uninhabited, Minos, the son of Zeus and Europe, who was king of Crete and possessed great forces both land and naval, was master of the sea and sent out from Crete many colonies, and he settled the greater number of the Cyclades, portioning the islands out in allotments among the folk, and he seized no small part of the coast of Asia.​ (2) This circumstance explains why harbours on the islands as well as on the coast of Asia have the same designation as those of Crete, being called “Minoan.” The power of Minos advanced to great heights. And having his brother Rhadamanthys as co‑ruler, he envied him because of his fame for righteousness. As he wanted to get rid of Rhadamanthys, he sent him off to the farthest parts of his dominion. (3) Rhadamanthys went to the islands which lie off Ionia and Caria, spending his time upon them, and caused Erythros to found the city which bears his name​ in Asia [i.e. Erythrai], while he established Oinopion, the son of Minos’ daughter Ariadne, as lord of Chios.

(4) Now these events took place before the Trojan War. After Troy was taken, the Carians steadily increased their power and became masters of the sea. Taking possession of the Cyclades, some of the islands Carians appropriated to themselves, expelling the Cretans who had their homes on them. But on some islands they settled jointly with the Cretans who had been the first to live there. And at a later time, when the power of the Greeks increased, the major number of the Cyclades came to be inhabited by them, and the Carians, who were barbarians, were driven out of them. But of these matters we will give a detailed account in connection with the appropriate period of time.

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of the __________, go to this link.]

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