1. A poet and prophet of Crete. His father's name was Dosiades or Agesarces. We have an account of him in Diogenes Laertius (1.100.10), which, however, is a very uncritical mixture of heterogeneous traditions, so that it is difficult, if not altogether imposible, to discover its real historical substance.
The mythical character of the traditions of Epimenides is sufficiently indicated by the fact of his being called the son of a nynmph, and of his being reckoned among the Curetes.
It seems, however, pretty clear, that he was a native of Phaestus in Crete (D. L. 1.109
; Plut. Sol. 12
; de, Defect. Orac.
1), and that he spent the greater part of his life at Cnossus, whence he is sometimes called a Cnossian.
There is a story that when yet a boy, he was sent out by his father to fetch a sheep, and that seeking shelter from the heat of the midday sun, he went into a cave.
He there fell into a sleep in which lie remained for fifty-seven years. On waking he sought for the sheep, not knowing how long he had been sleeping, and was astonished to find everything around him altered. When he returned home, he found to his great amazement, that his younger brother had in the meantime grown an old man.
The time at which Epimenides lived, is determined by his invitation to Athens when he had already arrived at an advanced age.
He was looked upon by the Greeks as a great sage and as the favourite of the gods. The Athenians who were visited by a plague in consequence of the crime of Cylon [CYLON], consulted the Delphic oracle about the means of their delivery.
The god commanded them to get their city purified, and the Athenians sent out Nicias with a ship to Crete to invite Epimenides to come and undertake the purification. Epimenides accordingly came to Athens, about B. C. 596 or Olymp. 46, and performed the desired task by certain mysterious rites and sacrifices, in consequence of which the plague ceased.
The grateful Athenians decreed to reward him with a talent and the vessel which was to carry him back to his native island. But Epimenides refused the money, and only desired that a friendship should be established between Athens and Cnossus. Whether Epimenides died in Crete or at Sparta, which in later times boasted of possessing his tomb (D. L. 1.115
), is uncertain, but he is said to have attained the age of 154, 157, or even of 299 years. Such statements, however, are as fabulous as the story about his fifty-seven years' sleep.
According to some accounts, Epimenides was reckoned among the seven wise men of Greece (Diog. Laert. Prooem.
§ 13; Plut. Sol. 12
); but all that tradition has handed down about him suggests a very different character from that of those seven, and he must rather be ranked in the class of priestly bards and sages who are generally comprised under the name of the Orphici; for everything we hear of him, is of a priestly or religious nature : he was a purifying priest of superhuman knowledge and wisdom, a seer and a prophet, and acquainted with the healing powers of plants.
These notions about Epimenides were propagated throughout antiquity, and it was probably owing to the great charm attached to his name, that a series of works, both in prose and in verse, were attributed to him, though few, if any, can be considered to have been genuine productions of Epimenides, the age at which he he lived was certainly not an age of prose composition in Greece.
Diogenes Laertius (1.112) notices as prose works, one on sacrifices, and another on the Political Constitution of Crete.
There was also a Letter on the Constitution which Minos had given to Crete; it was said to have been addressed by Epimenides to Solon; it was written in the modern Attic dialect, and was proved to be spurious by Demetrius of Magnesia.
Diogenes himself has preserved another letter, which is likewise addressed to Solon; it is written in the Doric dialect, but is no more genuine than the former.
The reputation of Epimenides as a poet may have rested on a somewhat surer foundation; it is at any rate more likely that he should have composed such poetry as Χρησμό
than any other. (Suidas, s. v. Ἐπιμενίδης
; Strab. x. p.479
; Paus. 1.14.4
It is, however, very doubtful whether he wrote the Γένεσις καί Θεογονία
of the Curetes and Corybantes in 5000 verses, the epic on Jason and the Argonauts in 6500, and the epic on Minos and Rhadamanthys in 4000 verses; all of which works are mentioned by Diogenes.
There cannot, however, be any doubt but that there existed in antiquity certain old-fashioned poems written upon skins; and the expression, Ἐπιμενίδειον δέρμα
was used by the ancients to designate anything old-fshioned, obsolete, and curious.
An allusion to Epimenides seems to be made in St. Paul's Epistle to Titus (1.12).
Comp. Fabric. Bibl. Graec.
vol. i. pp. 30, &c., 844; Höckh, Kreta,
vol. iii. p. 246, &c.; Bode, Gesch. der Hellen. Dichtk.
vol. i. p. 463, &c., and more especially C. F. Heinrich, Epimenides aus Creta,
Leipzig, 1801, 8vo.