There is a strange passage in Chapter Six of the Book of Genesis. In the Duay version it runs thus:
And after that men began to be multiplied upon the earth, and daughters were born to them, The sons of God seeing the daughters of men, that they were fair, took to themselves wives of all which they chose…Now giants were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, and they brought forth children, these are the mighty men of old, men of renown. (Gen. 6: 1-2, 4)
As it happens, this fits with a train of thought I’ve been considering lately. It is this: I rather suspect there is more truth in myths than we generally admit.
For instance: Plutarch quite frankly considers Romulus and Theseus to have been historical figures. He disputes some of the more fantastic elements – e.g. the Minotaur – but otherwise presents their stories as simple historical accounts, including the supposition that they may have been sired by gods.
Now, leaving aside the question of parentage, I for one can see no real reason for doubting that Theseus, Herakles, and other famous heroes of legend were real people. I think we moderns are far, far too apt to consider “made up out of whole cloth” as a reasonable explanation. Me, I don’t think something that important to so many people could have been successfully made up out of nothing. At the very least, I have to figure that these are historical figures whose stories were expanded over time, and that the core events of their lives happened more or less as described. That is, I honestly think there really was a set of illegitimate twins named Romulus and Remus, they grew up to become very powerful in the region and either founded or took over what became Rome, and that the one killed the other in a quarrel.
So far, I suspect you’re with me. Now I’m going to start sounding crazy. I’m going to suggest that, perhaps, some of these very important, yet obscure figures at the dawn of history really were the children of ‘gods.’ That is, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that supernatural beings can and have had relations with human beings and produced children, who subsequently founded dynasties that became the world-shaping powers we know from history.
Before you reject the idea, ask yourself why it is impossible. The Bible seems to take the possibility as a matter of course. If we accept the idea of supernatural beings, then we must confess that our knowledge of their powers and limitations is hardly enough to put hard and fast limits on what they can do. We don’t have anything like enough real evidence of the lives of Theseus, Romulus, or so on to prove parentage. And it doesn’t seem antecedently improbable that Rome, Athens, and other great cultures who have exercised such influence on the world have their origin in beings more than human.
You may reply that, assuming these people lived, it’s much more likely that the stories of their divine parentage were just later embellishments. Perhaps that’s true. Only remember: one, to establish probability in such a case we would have to have knowledge about how and why supernatural beings might be expected to intervene in human history, or might have been expected to do so at that time, which is knowledge we simply do not have (you can’t really expect the gods to submit to laboratory testing). Two, it very well might have happened the way you describe, but, and here’s the big but, there is no way to say for certain that it did. That something may have happened a certain way is not proof that it did happen that way (side note: this is something people who talk about evolutionary psychology really need to keep in mind).
I’m not going to insist that Theseus was really a demigod. I am only going to insist that we don’t know that he wasn’t. Our present state of knowledge does not exclude that possibility: only the present climate of opinion. It is the fashion, even among Christians, to dismiss the supernatural except when forbidden by dogma to do so…and sometimes even then. This, I think, is a mistake and gives us an overly narrow view of the world and of history. Moreover, there’s no reason to do so: science, by definition, cannot prove or disprove the supernatural. We know from the deposit of faith that there are supernatural beings at large in the world, and the general account of mankind concurs while offering an endless line of testimony of how they have interacted with humanity. It seems to me only reasonable that some of those stories are more or less true, and it seems equally probable that such supernatural beings had a hand in the creation of the great influential powers and states of the world.
In any case, it is a possibility to keep in mind. When we hear historians speculating on what caused the prophecies of Delphi, we shouldn’t neglect the most obvious explanation of all: that they came from Apollo.