Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts

Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts

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by Peter T. Struck

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Nearly all of us have studied poetry and been taught to look for the symbolic as well as literal meaning of the text. Is this the way the ancients saw poetry? In Birth of the Symbol, Peter Struck explores the ancient Greek literary critics and theorists who invented the idea of the poetic "symbol."

The book notes that Aristotle and his


Nearly all of us have studied poetry and been taught to look for the symbolic as well as literal meaning of the text. Is this the way the ancients saw poetry? In Birth of the Symbol, Peter Struck explores the ancient Greek literary critics and theorists who invented the idea of the poetic "symbol."

The book notes that Aristotle and his followers did not discuss the use of poetic symbolism. Rather, a different group of Greek thinkers--the allegorists--were the first to develop the notion. Struck extensively revisits the work of the great allegorists, which has been underappreciated. He links their interest in symbolism to the importance of divination and magic in ancient times, and he demonstrates how important symbolism became when they thought about religion and philosophy. "They see the whole of great poetic language as deeply figurative," he writes, "with the potential always, even in the most mundane details, to be freighted with hidden messages."

Birth of the Symbol offers a new understanding of the role of poetry in the life of ideas in ancient Greece. Moreover, it demonstrates a connection between the way we understand poetry and the way it was understood by important thinkers in ancient times.

Editorial Reviews

Literary Imagination
A rich and fascinating account of how the ideas of symbolism and allegorical reading developed over the course of classical antiquity. It is a remarkable achievement.
— David Konstan
Classical World
This book offers a remarkably comprehensive study of ancient symbolic interpretation from the Pre-Socratics to the later Neoplatonists and beyond.
— Derek Collins
Literary Imagination - David Konstan
A rich and fascinating account of how the ideas of symbolism and allegorical reading developed over the course of classical antiquity. It is a remarkable achievement.
Classical World - Derek Collins
This book offers a remarkably comprehensive study of ancient symbolic interpretation from the Pre-Socratics to the later Neoplatonists and beyond.
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2007 Charles J. Goodwin Award of Merit

"A rich and fascinating account of how the ideas of symbolism and allegorical reading developed over the course of classical antiquity. It is a remarkable achievement."—David Konstan, Literary Imagination

"This book offers a remarkably comprehensive study of ancient symbolic interpretation from the Pre-Socratics to the later Neoplatonists and beyond."—Derek Collins, Classical World

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By Peter T. Struck


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ISBN: 978-1-4008-2609-4

Chapter One


Textual Difficulties

In book 5 of the Iliad, Homer relates a scene that drew the interest of ancient commentators. Homer has Diomedes stab the goddess Aphrodite on the battlefield, an incident troublesome enough in itself. But when Aphrodite retreats, Dione consoles her by telling an even stranger tale (Il. 5.381-90). She reminds the goddess that she is not alone in her sufferings at the hands of mortals. Once, the giants Ephialtes and Otos overpowered Ares, chained him up, and locked him in a bronze cauldron for three months. Ares could have died [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]], Dione says, had Hermes not caught wind of the situation and sprung him loose. A D-scholion on this section of Homer's text attributes the following opinion to Aristarchus (c. 215-c. 143 B.C.E.), the head of the Alexandrian library and one who can lay claim to being the principal textual critic of the ancient world:

Aristarchus thought that readers ought to take things told by the poet as more like legends, according to poetic license, and not bother themselves about what is outside the things told by the poet. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (D-scholion, Il. 5.385)

When critics run into something troubling or out of the ordinary in the narrative, Aristarchus counsels that they ought not to expend a great deal of energy generating imaginative explanations for it. We should keep in mind that the poets are wont to flights of fancy, which they include for their entertainment value. The critic who spends time trying to interpret the oddity runs the risk of reading into the poem what properly belongs on the outside [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]. This same concern about reading something into the text animates the most famous of Aristarchan principles. We ought to read "Homer from Homer" [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] and rely on parallels within the Homeric corpus, rather than any outside criteria, to guide our reading. For Aristarchus here, and for a long tradition of readers in antiquity, strange or fantastic happenings in Homer's narrative invite the closure of interpretive activity.

Porphyry (233-c. 305 C.E.), a Neoplatonist educated at Athens and Rome four and a half centuries later, takes precisely the opposite stance toward another passage that traditionally provoked commentators' interest, the cave of the nymphs episode in Odyssey 13.96-112. In this scene, Homer tells matter-of-factly of a sacred grotto where nymphs weave purple cloth on stone looms, where bees use stone bowls and jars to store their honey, and where there are two gates, one for mortals and one for immortals. As in the account of the binding of Ares, Homer's narrative marches on without elaboration or even a hint that he has said anything out of the ordinary. In the opening sentence of On the Cave of the Nymphs, Porphyry asks "What on earth does the cave in Ithaca mean for Homer ...?" [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ...;]. And he introduces his commentary proper this way: "Given that the description is full of such obscurities, it is not, in fact, a random fiction created for our amusement" [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] (Antr. 4).

In sharp and, I will argue, self-conscious contrast to Aristarchus, Porphyry takes a strange description in Homer's poem as a place to initiate critical activity. For Porphyry here and, as we will see, for a long tradition of reading different from the one to which Aristarchus belongs, the critic should pay attention precisely to those places in the poem that are unclear or obscure and that appear to run counter to our common sense. The strange elements in Homer's narrative are proof not that he was indulging in a flight of fancy but that he wished to convey some hidden significance. Therefore, these passages will repay the efforts of a diligent and careful interpreter.

Porphyry's treatise is perhaps the most impressive example of allegorical reading in the ancient period. In trying to convince his fellow readers that there is more to Homer's cave than meets the eye, Porphyry uses the distinctive conceptual tools of allegoresis. He begins his commentary with the tradition's most durable notion, that of the "riddle" or "enigma": Homer's cave is "riddling" [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] some hidden meaning that we readers are justified in trying to decode. This term is central for nearly every major allegorical commentator from the classical period down through late antiquity. More important for our narrower purposes, Porphyry repeatedly calls the cave in Ithaca a "symbol" [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]. The term and its variants appear emphatically, twenty- seven times, in his short treatise-more than once a Teubner page. Along with the better-known [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [other-speaking] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [under-meaning], [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and their cognates form the central concepts of ancient allegorical reading.

We begin by trying to illuminate through contrast, placing allegorical strategies of reading in conversation with literary ideas found in the traditions that flow from Aristotle, which is for the most part understood as the mainstream of ancient literary criticism. While the purpose of the contrast is to highlight the allegorists and thus to gain an understanding of the poetics in which the ancient literary symbol is born, we will find that we also gain a few clarifications of what Aristotle was up to in developing his approach to reading poetry. Others have given the general outline of Aristarchus's inheritance from Aristotle; I will focus on only one aspect of it: the view that clarity is the governing virtue of poetic language.

It surely stands to reason that a critic who approaches poetry through the lens of oratory, where persuasion in the open light of the agora is paramount, should hold clarity of diction in high esteem. However, it is less often remarked that as Aristotle argues for an elevated sort of clarity as the truly excellent poetic mode ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Poet. 1458a18]-on which more below), he is arguing against something else at the same time. The extant evidence for "poetics" before Aristotle attests beyond doubt to the rather widespread currency of an opinion in stark contrast to his. Diverse witnesses point to a commonsense view in the archaic and classical periods, well before the time Aristotle is writing, that great poetry is by definition unclear, or more precisely, that it is made up of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], riddles hinting at some hidden truth. Such a predisposition, which sees poetry as enigmatic and defines the reader chiefly as a decipherer, is part and parcel of allegorical reading, not only in this early period but throughout its whole history. As we will see in the next chapter, some time in the second half of the fourth century B.C.E., the notion of the symbol steps in as a synonym for enigma and begins to take its place within the vocabulary of ancient allegorism-a position that grows and expands until it reaches exalted status among the later Neoplatonists such as Porphyry. A solid under- standing of the classical notion of the "enigmatic" is therefore necessary for understanding its later trajectories into the "symbolic."

With these considerations in mind, when Aristotle defines a sort of elevated clarity as the mark of greatness in poetic language and, as we will see, simultaneously redefines the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the centerpiece of allegorical poetics, as a flaw of style, we are right to take notice. In fact, he places the enigma on a par with a barbarism, a use of Greek that is so nonstandard as to be no longer recognizable. It degenerates into babble. Where others see murky riddles hinting at profound truths Aristotle sees murky nonsense. The skillful poet will avoid such constructions, and, one can infer, the sensible critic will pass over them without much comment. Aristotle's new scale of poetic value knocks the legs out from under an allegorical approach to reading. By redefining the main focus of the allegorists' energies as a flaw of style, he suggests at a stroke that many of his predecessors in the field of poetic commentary have been wasting their time. Reconstructing the background of this development enlightens not only our understanding of Aristotle but also our understanding of the poetics of the enigma, from which allegorism proceeds. Each provides a context against which new aspects of the other's significance emerges.

Pre-Aristotelian Literary Commentary

The evidence for literary commentary before Aristotle is fragmentary, and one has a difficult time making sweeping statements about it. I will here be following a view that N. J. Richardson developed in looking at the Sophists and that Andrew Ford's recent work has confirmed: though many early commentators on Homer practiced textual and other forms of criticism, allegorical approaches are a central piece of the early picture. I will here make a brief review of the allegorical evidence in this period, beginning with three of the most substantial fragments from early readers and giving particular attention to the poetics generated by the assumption that great poetry is by definition obscure and enigmatic. Next, we will give consideration to the Derveni Papyrus, a fifth-century interpretation of an Orphic poem recovered from a papyrus that dates to the fourth century. André Laks and Glenn Most have pointed out the stunning importance of this text for our understanding of early allegory. I will attempt to work out a literary-critical context for the Derveni Papyrus, supplementing the work that has already been done to develop its philosophical and religious contexts. While nearly all of our other evidence for poetic commentary in the period before Aristotle comes from second- and third-hand references to shadowy figures, and in texts removed from the period by many centuries, the Derveni text is of a different order of magnitude: over twenty columns of it survive, and its authenticity is beyond doubt. I will then reread certain characterizations of poetry and poetics from the classical sources in light of the information gained from the Derveni text in order to see how the poetics of the enigma, which informs the Derveni author's text, might have been received and viewed in the broader classical world. Plato's corpus in particular offers us slightly more information here than is commonly appreciated.


A few fragments remain of allegorical readings from pre-Aristotelian literary commentators, including Pherecydes of Syros, Metrodorus of Lampsacus, Theagenes of Rhegium, Anaxagoras, and Stesimbrotus of Thasos. We will look here at the first three authors. In Against Celsus 6.42, Origen testifies to an allegorical reading by Pherecydes, a figure from the first half of the sixth century B.C.E. The text at hand discusses the threats that Zeus makes near the end of Iliad 1 and at the beginning of Iliad 15.

Celsus, interpreting the verses of Homer, says: "The words of Zeus to Hera are the words of god to matter, and the words of god to matter indicate in an enigmatic way that god grasped hold of matter, which right from the beginning was in a confused state, and bound it by certain proportions and ordered it; and that the daimones that were present in it, as many as were evil doers, he tossed them out and punished them by a journey to this world." And he says, "Pherecydes understood these verses of Homer in this way and said that beneath this region, Earth, there is the region Tartarus, and the Harpies, the daughters of Boreas, and Thyella guard it, whither Zeus thrusts down any of the gods, whenever one of them is rebellious." [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (D-K 7 B5)

Pherecydes (fl. c. 544 B.C.E.), about whom we now have valuable information, thanks to the work of Hermann Sadun Schibli, remains a difficult figure to discern. He is our first extant writer of Greek prose, and his interests tend to confound the categories of "mythic" and "philosophical." He seems to be writing at a time when the two were not stabilized as separate categories of inquiry. Origen's thirdhand citation of him, if genuine, is our earliest known instance of allegorical reading. Diels and Kranz consider the citation authentic; if so, the claim that Homer uses language "enigmatically" may come directly from Pherecydes, although it is impossible to establish this based on the fragmentary evidence. Was Pherecydes involved in a polemic, as Celsus surely was, and was he trying to exonerate Homer from detractors? Did he have some already conceived philosophy that dictated his reading of Homer, or did he generate his views on the cosmos from his reading of Homer? Did he think that Homer made an early adumbration, through myth, of a scientific observation that he (Pherecydes) knew to be true through his research? We have no information on these questions. What we can say, without speculation, is that Pherecydes had an interest in Homer's poem as a source of wisdom about the fundamental structure of the cosmos.

In his Homeric Questions Porphyry preserves a discussion on the theomachy at the beginning of Iliad 20. We hear that certain myths concerning the gods are unseemly, and that some people answer the charge by claiming that myths are to be understood allegorically. He then cites Theagenes' (fl. 525 B.C.E.) view that the scenes in which Homer has gods battle one another carry hidden messages about struggles between great elemental forces:

The story concerning the gods is held universally to be infelicitous and inappropriate. For it tells myths about the gods that are not fitting. In the face of this charge, some resolve it from the standpoint of language, by considering everything to have been spoken as an allegory concerning the nature of the elements, for example, in the case of the oppositions of the gods. For indeed, they say that the dry battles the wet, the hot the cold, and the light the heavy. Furthermore, water extinguishes fire, but fire dries out water. Likewise also in the case of all the elements, from which the universe is joined, opposition arises and destruction is admitted once in a while, but all things endure eternally. The story sets forth battles by naming fire "Apollo," "Helios," and "Hephaistos," water "Poseidon" and "Scamander," the moon "Artemis," the air "Hera," and the rest. The case is similar when the story attributes the names of the gods also to dispositions: Athena to sensibleness, Ares to senselessness, Aphrodite to passion, Hermes to reason, and they assign them to these. Such is the method of explanation from language, then, which is very ancient, even coming from Theagenes of Rhegium, who first wrote about Homer. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (D-K 8 A2)

Alongside this text, we also consider a fragment of Metrodorus (sixth to fifth century B.C.E.) that survives in Philodemus's work:

Agamemnon is aether, Achilles is the sun, Helen is the earth and Paris the air, Hector is the moon, and the others are named analogically to these. But among the gods, Demeter is the liver, Dionysius is the spleen, and Apollo the bile. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (D-K 61 A4)


Excerpted from BIRTH OF THE SYMBOL by Peter T. Struck Copyright © 2004 by PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this

Walter Burkert
This is a challenging yet rewarding journey through a millenium of texts, thoughts, and interpretations. As against the defensive stance taken by most studies of ancient 'allegory,' Peter Struck gives a resolute appraisal of a persistent and accepted way of understanding literature, a method of interpretation which, in opposition to Aristotelian rhetoric, tries to get beyond the limits of the text in order to find a surplus of meaning, to achieve 'more' or 'deeper' insights. This takes him from the beginnings of Greek literature down to the Neoplatonists of Late Antiquity. For the first time, a non-mimetic approach to literary theory becomes possible: 'Divine' poetry is not secondary reproduction of material realities but is to disclose higher forms of being. Struck keeps close to the texts, presented in translation and often in the original language, too, while maintaining a high theoretical level as to language and interpretation in general. His book makes always clear and not seldom exciting reading.
Walter Burkert, author of "Creation of the Sacred and Greek Religion"

Meet the Author

Peter T. Struck is Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a fellow at the National Humanities Center.

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