Palaephatus (Ancient Greek: Παλαίφατος) was the author of a rationalizing text on Greek mythology, the paradoxographical work On Incredible Things (Περὶ ἀπίστων (ἱστοριῶν); Incredibilia), which survives in a (probably corrupt) Byzantine edition.
This work consists of an introduction and 52 brief sections on various Greek myths. The first 45 have a common format: a brief statement of a wonder tale from Greek mythology, usually followed by a claim of disbelief ("This is absurd" or "This is not likely" or "The true version is..."), and then a sequence of every-day occurrences which gave rise to the wonder-story through misunderstanding. The last seven are equally brief retellings of myth, without any rationalizing explanation.
Palaephatus's date and name are uncertain; many scholars have concluded that the name "Palaephatus" is a pseudonym. What little evidence is extant suggests that the author was likely active during the late fourth century BCE.
Palaephatus's introduction sets his approach between those who believe everything that is said to them and those more subtle minds who believe that none of Greek mythology ever happened. He sets up two premises: that every story derives from some past event, and a principle of uniformity, that "anything which existed in the past now exists and will exist hereafter"; this he derives from the philosophers Melissus and Lamiscus of Samos. So there must be some probable series of events behind all myth; but the "poets and early historians" made them into wonderful tales to amaze their audience. Palaephatus then claims to base what follows on personal research, going to many places and asking older people what happened.
As is usual in Palaephatus, the miracle is told baldly and without context, and the action of the gods is not mentioned; in the traditional story, Artemis transforms Callisto because of Callisto's unfaithfulness as a priestess. Palaephatus rarely mentions the gods, and when he discusses Actaeon, his statement of disbelief is: "Artemis can do whatever she wants, yet it is not true that a man became a deer or a deer a man" (§6, tr. Stern); his principle of uniformity applies to human beings. Jacob Stern distinguishes this from the more wide-ranging rationalism of Euhemerus: Palaephatus retains Callisto and Actaeon as historic human beings; rationalism extended to the gods can make them deified human beings or personifications of natural forces or of the passions, but does not leave them gods.
Palaephatus uses four principal devices for explaining the wonders of myth, and a number of minor devices:
Palaephatus is a very rare name, and many scholars have concluded that it is a pseudonym; as an adjective in epic poetry, it meant of ancient fame; it could also mean speaker of old tales. If Palaephatus wrote (as is perhaps most likely) in Athens in the fourth century BCE, rationalizing Greek mythology could be dangerous; Anaxagoras had been sent into exile in the previous century for no more.
The only accounts of the life of any Palaephatus are four entries in the Suda (pi 69, 70, 71, 72), a Byzantine biographical dictionary, compiled about 1000 CE:
Palaephatus of Athens, an epic poet, to whom a mythical origin was assigned. According to some he was a son of Actaeus and Boeo, according to others of Iocles and Metaneira, and according to a third statement of Hermes. The time at which he lived is uncertain, but he appears to have been usually placed after Phemonoe, though some writers assigned him even an earlier date. He is represented by Christodorus (Anth. Graec., i. p. 27, ed. Tauchnitz) as an old bard crowned with laurel. The Suda has preserved the titles of the following poems of Palaephatus:
Palaephatus of Paros, or Priene, attested to have lived in the time of Artaxerxes, however it is unknown which specific ruler this was. Suidas attributes to him the five books of Incredible Things (also five books of On Troy), but adds that many persons assigned this work to Palaephatus of Athens.
Palaephatus of Abydos, an historian who lived in the time of Alexander the Great, and is stated to have been loved (παιδικά) by the philosopher Aristotle, for which the Suda quotes the authority of Philo, Peri paradoxou historias, and of Theodorus of Ilium, Troica, Book 2. Suidas gives the titles of the following works of Palaephatus: Cypriaca, Deliaca, Attica, Arabica.
(Smith explains that some writers believe that this Palaephatus of Abydos wrote the fragment on Assyrian history, which is preserved by Eusebius of Caesarea, and which is quoted by him as the work of Abydenus; but Abydenus is that author's name, not the adjective meaning "from Abydos".)
Palaephatus, an Egyptian or Athenian, and a grammarian, as he is described by Suidas, who assigns to him the following works:
Of these, the first Palaephatus is, like Phemonoe, entirely legendary; modern scholars regard the other three as different literary traditions relating to the author of On Incredible Things. The Troica did once exist, and was cited in antiquity for geographical information on the people of the Trojan War, the Troad itself, and the surrounding area of Asia Minor; ancient authors cited the work's seventh and ninth books, so it must have been fairly long.
If the Artaxerxes mentioned by the Suda is Artaxerxes III Ochus, these data are all compatible with a student of Aristotle about 340 BCE, who came from the area around the Hellespont to Athens, and is called the Egyptian, sometimes, because he wrote on Egypt. The only internal evidence in the surviving book are citations of the two philosophers in the introduction and two literary references; if Melissus is Melissus of Samos, he lived in the previous century, and one possible Lamiscus is a Pythagorean contemporary of Plato. The literary references are one citation of Hesiod and the presentation of Alcestis, which is quite similar to Euripides' Alcestis.
The comic poet Athenion has a scene in which an interlocutor praises a cook as a new Palaephatus, to which the cook replies by explaining the benefits bestowed on mankind by the first inventor of cooking, who replaced cannibalism by animal sacrifice and roast meat; this alludes to the "first inventor" theories still reflected in our text of Palaephatus. (Unfortunately, Athenion's date is uncertain, but if he wrote, as it appears, New Comedy, he should be 3rd or 2nd century BCE.)
Aelius Theon, the rhetorician, spends a chapter discussing Palaephatus' rationalism, using several of the examples in our text of Palaephatus; other, later, authors cite Palaephatus for instances not in our text: Pseudo-Nonnus, the author of some commentaries on Gregory Nazianzen, attributes to Palaephatus the explanation that Cyclopes were so called because they lived in a round island; Eustathius of Thessalonica ascribes to him the explanation that Laomedon secured the help of Poseidon and Apollo in building the walls of Troy because he seized their temple treasuries to pay his workmen.
Some of the references in the Suda say that Palaephatus' work on myths was in five books, some that it was one book; Eusebius, Jerome, and Orosius all write of the first book of Palaephatus, implying that there were more. Jacob Stern, the modern editor, concludes from this, and the missing references, that Palaephatus was originally in five books, and was condensed down to one sometime before the publication of the Suda, although a fuller copy survived so Eustathius could see it in the twelfth century.
There are a dozen manuscripts of the present text, differing in length and in order, dating from the thirteenth through sixteenth century. How much of it derives from Palaephatus himself is open to question, although there is general agreement that the seven chapters of straight unrationalized mythology at the end are not. Festa, who edited the text in 1902, believed that Palaephatian texts became a genre, and our present text is a congeries of texts in that genre, most not by Palaephatus himself; Jacob Stern believes that this is a selection from all five books of the original.
Palaephatus's book was first printed by Aldus Manutius in his 1505 edition of Aesop. It became popular as a school text because of its relatively simple Attic Greek, and because the Renaissance approved its approach to classical mythology; it was edited by six more editors before the nineteenth century, due to its popularity. Although Aldus did not include a Latin translation, later editors included one; many reprinted Cornelius Tollius's Latin version, included with his Greek text (Amsterdam, 1649). The first German-language edition was published in the 17th century.
More recent editions include: