In the first book of the Iliad, Nestor, the oldest by a generation of the Achaean chieftains at the siege of Troy, intervenes in the argument between Agamemnon and Achilles, telling them they should listen to him because
You are both younger men than I,
and in my time I struck up with better men than you,
even you, but never once did they make light of me.
I've never seen such men, I never will again . . .
men like Pirithous, Dryas, that fine captain,
Caeneus and Exadius, and Polyphemus, royal prince,
and Theseus, Aegeus' boy, a match for the immortals.
They were the strongest mortals ever bred on earth,
the strongest, and they fought against the strongest too,
shaggy Centaurs, wild brutes of the mountains -
they hacked them down, terrible, deadly work.
And I was in their ranks, fresh out of Pylos,
far away from home - they enlisted me themselves
and I fought on my own, a free lance, single-handed.
And none of the men who walk the earth these days
could battle with those fighters, none, but they,
they took to heart my counsels, marked my words.
The strength of Nestor's appeal depends on his audience believing what he says about his past to be true, both in the sense that the events he describes took place and that they were as momentous as he claims. Facts are not enough: they need to be significant facts. A story where there is sufficient consensus regarding its significance for its facts (perhaps details would be a better word) to be transcended might be one way to define what constitutes a myth. Nestor mythologises his past in order for its significance to be felt by the younger warriors, even though by doing so he compromises the details and his story's claim to be factual - not that such considerations would have bothered the Greeks too much. The Iliad exists in an uncertain space on the cusp between myth and literature; or rather it creates literature out of myth, the details making the poem discrete. This process, or a reduced version of it, can be seen at work in a passage in Book 9 of the poem, in which Phoenix, Achilles' tutor, tries to persuade him to return to battle, and tells him the story of Meleager - or rather a story of Meleager, since it's unfamiliar from any other source. Phoenix' account is rife with parallels to Achilles' position, and is too specific to a single, real (within the context of the poem) situation to be considered as a mythic account at all.
LRB 2 November 2000 | PDF Download