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Greek Myths: Not Necessarily Mythical
Date of Review: 
John Noble Wilford
New York Times

In her book, ''The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times,'' published in May by Princeton University Press, Adrienne Mayor draws on a close study of classical texts to show that some of the more impressive and mysterious fossils were used as evidence supporting existing myths or creating new ones.

The Homeric legend of Heracles rescuing Hesione by slaying the Monster of Troy, for example, may have a paleontological origin. Ms. Mayor pointed out that in the earliest known illustration of the Heracles legend, painted on a Corinthian vase, the monster's skull closely matched that of an extinct giraffe. Such fossils are plentiful on the Greek islands and western coast of Turkey and are mentioned in classical literature.

The vase painting from the sixth century B.C., Ms. Mayor concluded, is most likely ''the earliest artistic record of a vertebrate fossil discovery.''

Fossils found and displayed in antiquity on the island of Samos probably inspired the story of savage monsters called Neades, whose reverberating bellows were said to tear the earth apart.

The Greeks thus had a neat explanation for two perplexing phenomena, the gigantic bones and the earthquakes that frequently devastated their land.

Other discoveries of huge mammal bones were viewed as confirmation of the ancient Greek belief in ancestral heroes as 15-foot giants. Mastodon fossils on Samos were hailed as the remains of the war elephants Dionysus is supposed to have deployed in his mythic battle with the Amazons.

And where did the idea of the griffin come from? Aristeas, a seventh-century B.C. traveler, wrote of the gold-seeking Scythians who fought creatures in the Gobi Desert that resembled ''lions but with the beak and wings of an eagle.'' These fierce creatures presumably nested on the ground and guarded deposits of gold. In reality, Ms. Mayor concluded, the griffin ''was based on illiterate nomads' observations of dinosaur skeletons in the deserts of Central Asia.''

Ms. Mayor's success in piecing together the griffin legend encouraged her to examine other Greek and Roman texts for ''the world's oldest written descriptions of fossil finds,'' which had been overlooked by most classics scholars and historians of science. On a visit to Samos, she studied a rich collection of prehistoric bones and skulls with which the ancients must have been familiar. She began to put texts and fossils together and saw the ancients in a new light.

''Just as a fossil is 'petrified time,' so is an ancient artifact or text,'' she wrote. ''The tasks of paleontologists and classical historians and archaeologists are remarkably similar -- to excavate, decipher and bring to life the tantalizing remnants of a time we will never see.''