No nation possesses a history till events are recorded in written documents; and it was not till the epoch known by the name of the First Olympiad, corresponding to the year 776 B.C., that the Greeks began to employ writing as a means for perpetuating the memory of any historical facts. Before that period everything is vague and uncertain; and the exploits of the heroes related by the poets must not be regarded as historical facts.

The PELASGIANS are universally represented as the most ancient inhabitants of Greece. They were spread over the Italian as well as the Grecian peninsula; and the Pelasgic language thus formed the basis of the Latin as well as of the Greek. They were divided into several tribes, of which the Hellenes were probably one: at any rate, this people, who originally dwelt in the south of Thessaly, gradually spread over the rest of Greece. The Pelasgians disappeared before them, or were incorporated with them, and their dialect became the language of Greece. The Hellenes considered themselves the descendants of one common ancestor, Hellen, the son of Deucalion and Pyrrha. To Hellen were ascribed three sons, Dorus, Xuthus, and AEolus. Of these Dorus and AEolus gave their names to the DORIANS and AEOLIANS; and Xuthus; through his two sons Ion and Achaeus, became the forefather of the IONIANS and ACHAEANS. Thus the Greeks accounted for the origin of the four great divisions of their race. The descent of the Hellenes from a common ancestor, Hellen, was a fundamental article in the popular faith. It was a general practice in antiquity to invent fictitious persons for the purpose of explaining names of which the origin was buried in obscurity. It was in this way that Hellen and his sons came into being; but though they never had any real existence, the tales about them may be regarded as the traditional history of the races to whom they gave their names.

The civilization of the Greeks and the development of their language bear all the marks of home growth, and probably were little affected by foreign influence. The traditions, however, of the Greeks would point to a contrary conclusion. It was a general belief among them that the Pelasgians were reclaimed from barbarism by Oriental strangers, who settled in the country and introduced among the rude inhabitants the first elements of civilization. Attica is said to have been indebted for the arts of civilized life to Cecrops, a native of Sais in Egypt. To him is ascribed the foundation of the city of Athens, the institution of marriage, and the introduction of religious rites and ceremonies. Argos, in like manner, is said to have been founded by the Egyptian Danaus, who fled to Greece with his fifty daughters, to escape from the persecution of their suitors, the fifty sons of his brother AEgyptus. The Egyptian stranger was elected king by the natives, and from him the tribe of the Danai derived their name, which Homer frequently uses as a general appellation for the Greeks. Another colony was the one led from Asia by Pelops, from whom the southern peninsula of Greece derived its name of Peloponnesus. Pelops is represented as a Phrygian, and the son of the wealthy king Tantalus. He became king of Mycenae, and the founder of a powerful dynasty, one of the most renowned in the Heroic age of Greece. From him was descended Agamemnon, who led the Grecian host against Troy.

The tale of the Phoenician colony, conducted by Cadmus, and which founded Thebes in Boeotia, rests upon a different basis. Whether there was such a person as the Phoenician Cadmus, and whether he built the town called Cadmea, which afterwards became the citadel of Thebes, as the ancient legends relate, cannot be determined; but it is certain that the Greeks were indebted to the Phoenicians for the art of writing; for both the names and the forms of the letters in the Greek alphabet are evidently derived from the Phoenician. With this exception the Oriental strangers left no permanent traces of their settlements in Greece; and the population of the country continued to be essentially Grecian, uncontaminated by any foreign elements.

The age of the heroes, from the first appearance of the Hellenes in Thessaly to the return of the Greeks from Troy, was supposed to be a period of about two hundred years. These heroes were believed to be a noble race of beings, possessing a superhuman though not a divine nature, and superior to ordinary men in strength of body and greatness of soul.

Among the heroes three stand conspicuously forth: Hercules, the national hero of Greece; Theseus, the hero of Attica; and Minos, king of Crete, the principal founder of Grecian law and civilization.

Hercules was the son of Zeus (Jupiter) and Alcmena; but the jealous anger of Hera (Juno) raised up against him an opponent and a master in the person of Eurystheus at whose bidding the greatest of all heroes was to achieve those wonderful labours which filled the whole world with his fame. In these are realized, on a magnificent scale, the two great objects of ancient heroism, the destruction of physical and moral evil, and the acquisition of wealth and power. Such, for instance, are the labours in which he destroys the terrible Nemean lion and Lernean hydra, carries off the girdle of Ares from Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons, and seizes the golden apples of the Hesperides, guarded by a hundred-headed dragon.