Myth and History in Ancient Greece: The Symbolic Creation of a Colony

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Surely the ancient Greeks would have been baffled to see what we consider their "mythology." Here, Claude Calame mounts a powerful critique of modern-day misconceptions on this front and the lax methodology that has allowed them to prevail. He argues that the Greeks viewed their abundance of narratives not as a single mythology but as an "archaeology." They speculated symbolically on key historical events so that a community of believing citizens could access them efficiently, through ritual means. Central to the book is Calame's rigorous and fruitful analysis of various accounts of the foundation of that most "mythical" of the Greek colonies—Cyrene, in eastern Libya.

Calame opens with a magisterial historical survey demonstrating today's misapplication of the terms "myth" and "mythology." Next, he examines the Greeks' symbolic discourse to show that these modern concepts arose much later than commonly believed. Having established this interpretive framework, Calame undertakes a comparative analysis of six accounts of Cyrene's foundation: three by Pindar and one each by Herodotus (in two different versions), Callimachus, and Apollonius of Rhodes. We see how the underlying narrative was shaped in each into a poetically sophisticated, distinctive form by the respective medium, a particular poetical genre, and the specific socio-historical circumstances. Calame concludes by arguing in favor of the Greeks' symbolic approach to the past and by examining the relation of mythos to poetry and music.

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Editorial Reviews

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Calame's faultless analysis convinces us that what for us is myth was for the Greeks nothing but the telling of 'les événements constitutifs du passé de sa propre culture; mieux, de sa propre cité'. . . . [T]he lucidity of his arguments and the answers he provides to many of the problems posed by Greek literary tradition cannot be denied.
— Adolfo J. Dominguez
Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews - Adolfo J. Dominguez
Calame's faultless analysis convinces us that what for us is myth was for the Greeks nothing but the telling of 'les événements constitutifs du passé de sa propre culture; mieux, de sa propre cité'. . . . [T]he lucidity of his arguments and the answers he provides to many of the problems posed by Greek literary tradition cannot be denied.
From the Publisher
"Calame's faultless analysis convinces us that what for us is myth was for the Greeks nothing but the telling of 'les événements constitutifs du passé de sa propre culture; mieux, de sa propre cité'. . . . [T]he lucidity of his arguments and the answers he provides to many of the problems posed by Greek literary tradition cannot be denied."—Adolfo J. Dominguez, Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews
Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews
Calame's faultless analysis convinces us that what for us is myth was for the Greeks nothing but the telling of 'les événements constitutifs du passé de sa propre culture; mieux, de sa propre cité'. . . . [T]he lucidity of his arguments and the answers he provides to many of the problems posed by Greek literary tradition cannot be denied.
— Adolfo J. Dominguez
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691114583
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/2/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 200
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.48 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Myth and History in Ancient Greece

The Symbolic Creation of a Colony
By Claude Calame

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2003 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-11458-3

Chapter One


IS it appropriate once again to question that privileged object of the study of cultural anthropology that has evolved through the course of more than a century as "myth"? Is it prudent to apply this concept and category to ancient Greece? Do we not situate the ancients' thought itself precisely at the origin of our predicament when faced with this ambiguous category? Greece offers to us its garden of myths, in all its fertility; but it seems as if the Greeks, through the criticism they exercised on narratives within their own tradition, originated the very category that defines for us the stories we are accustomed to call "myths." Herein lies the paradox: we attribute to the Greeks the origin of a critical concept of which they themselves would supply, in return, the most brilliant and exemplary specimens.

Indeed, on closer examination, the Greeks never elaborated a singular concept or definition of the mythic, nor recognized a group within the abundance of their own narratives as fitting in an exact manner within the confines of such a category. If they had developed such a distinction, Aristotle, that master of nomenclature, would not have failed toacknowledge it; however, in reading his Poetics, we see that the term muthos is limited to the technical meaning of the plot of a story, particularly of a tragedy. Thus a Greek term is used in modern times to designate a different set of meanings from those that the term covered in its native sense. If "the existence of myths" is supposed to be "attested in all societies studied, or even simply approached, by ethnologists," and if a myth found in a particular culture is now placed within a universal category, it is because this type of narrative has been situated at a distance essential to the claim of objectivity that modern anthropology has instituted between "primitive" societies and our own. Fabula, then myth, "that particular type of story that takes as its subject the history of the gods of ancient Greece" represents the point of differentiation that is supposed to delineate Western society, in constant progress, from traditional societies. Myth, then, achieves the status of a mode of human thought, itself significant of the "otherness" of cultures not yet having reached the privileged stage of development that their occidental observers inevitably have achieved. For myth to return to a critical sociology dedicated to the culture of the "same," we must wait for Barthes. But the Greeks, for their part, always adopted this approach of internal criticism toward their own narratives. We see that for Herodotus, the first historian-anthropologist, or still for Pausanias, ethnologist of his own culture, the stories of foreigners are no more readily labeled "mythic" than those told in Greek, by Greeks.

Here, perhaps, is the focal point of most misunderstandings. Even if the countless definitions of myth that have been put forward a posteriori are centered upon elements of content, one can easily find stories that at first glance appear to be mythic but do not fit within that category defined as such. The implicit but regular application of a standard of narrative verisimilitude coincides with the anthropological nature of the concept of myth; a critical and distant perspective on cultures geographically or chronologically far removed is needed in order to classify as "myth" those stories actually situated at the heart of these exotic communities' traditions. A brief foray through the history of these concepts will be, in certain respects, instructive. Throughout the eighteenth century the term "myth" was applied not only to the stories of the Greeks and Romans; it also came to include little by little the Indian, Nordic, and African traditions, and likewise to oppose the biblical tradition, alone considered worthy of belief. Among the French, however, where "mythe" did not establish itself outside the Encyclopédie, the term "fable" has been preferred! Already in the sixteenth century, one who quenched his thirst for allegorical figures at the source of the "mythological" patrimony of the Greeks and Romans could rely on an abundance of ancient mythographic handbooks; he was also persuaded that the narratives of those people newly found in the great period of discovery, along with the stories of the ancients themselves, were only distortions of the traditional biblical narrative. Myth is very much the domain of the unfamiliar, of the pagan, who, living in another time or under different skies, does not have the benefit of the lights of Truth. In his ignorance of the revealed biblical narratives, he can construct only irrational fictions.

Perhaps the best mode of questioning a category in order to avoid the vagueness of its definition and its Eurocentric partiality is simply to follow the development of a few Greek narratives: those that find themselves, more than the term muthos itself, at the origin of the Western concept of "myth"; those that remain surprisingly lively, independent of the generic category to which they are now forced to be a part; and those that constitute a (true) history of a community and are therefore able to highlight certain paradoxes within our own conceptions. The anthropological and narrative approach that shall be proposed here can only lead to reflections on our own ways of narrating. To study the stories of other people is inherently to examine our own stories, and ourselves.

1. The Substance of Myth and Mythology

This rereading of a few Greek stories is aimed at rethinking certain of our generic classifications, along with the pertinence of the categories of "myth," "mythology," and "mythic thought," concerning both ancient Greece and our own modern anthropological approaches. It requires certain additional general arguments, apart from the historical inquiries already offered with excellent results by others.

1.1. Common Sense and Scientific Effort

Encyclopedias, those anthologies of received ideas, for their part present a summarizing shortcut for such a chronological inquiry. A comparative reading of corresponding articles in the works supposed to have amassed the received knowledge of Europe suffices in filling the lacunae left by the majority of historical studies. It is quite rare to find posed the questions of the communal representation underlying the notion of myth, of the shared knowledge implied, or indeed of an acknowledged norm concerning this concept as it is employed throughout the extent of Western culture. The parameters running through the different encyclopedic definitions of myth, given in the form of indubitable assertion, are three: first, whether Aussage, account, histoire, or racconto, myth is presented as a form of enunciation and narrative. Second, it presents a transcendent time, peopled by superhuman characters, such as the gods. Lastly, and in consequence, as a product of the imagination, myth lacks the value of truth, even if, together with its readily allowed function as foundational narrative, it gains authority for the community that produced it. Thus for the establishment and attribution of the qualification of the "mythic," the definition of a point of view external to the indigenous perspective is also necessary.

Attempts at definition proposed recently by cultural anthropologists or historians of religion, which are undoubtedly-indeed, inevitably-influenced by this encyclopedic tradition, restate in turn these underlying principles. Now, certainly, elaborate precautions are taken. We now know that the nomenclatures of narratives are relative to each individual culture; that they resort to a certain number of terms that define a specific segmentation within the indigenous narrative corpus; but also that these can be constructed by the anthropologist himself on the basis of a stylistic criterion or different contexts of enunciation (we shall return to this point later). From the scientific and academic point of view of cultural and social anthropology, myth is nonetheless understood as a narrative concerning the gods or divine beings, a narrative to which one could easily attach Eliade's foundational function: the primary character attributed to mythic temporality would have, as a universal corollary, a formative impact on the hic et nunc of the social life of those listening to a particular narration. Myth then becomes, for the historian of ancient religion, an "applied narrative," one that is a "primary verbalization of supra-individual concerns and of matters of collective importance in real life."

Classicists, anthropologists, and folklorists apply the same rhetorical tools, creating scientific understanding through encyclopedic knowledge. Starting with an inquiry concerning a single culture, a description is proposed based on four criteria: form, content, function, and context. Myth is then defined again as a narration, recited or dramatized. It essentially gives a report of the sacred origins of the world and of the indigenous community by narrating the events of creation that took place in primordial times. The cosmogonical and foundational acts attributed to the gods or heroes of myth thus assume an exemplary function that attests to their supposed ontological nature. In the end, myth most frequently has a ritual context, a "form of behavior sanctioned by usage" to which it imparts its ideological content.

In the eyes of the scholar, however, the historical point of view, inevitably involving the need to set myth in perspective vis-à-vis our own culture, quickly reappears: myth belongs originally to primitive cultures; it reveals itself there as not only a fundamental but also a chronologically primary form of communication. To treat a problem so fundamental as the time and actions of origins seems thus to require a form of enunciation associated with that actual time ...

1.2. Myth as a Mode of Thought

One cannot criticize the Hellenist for adopting a historical perspective. But this very perspective, characteristic of nineteenth-century thinkers who were happy to have found a tool for explication, has contributed to the formation of myth as a substance. Through the passage from ancient societies to exotic ones, myth has come to transcend its status as narrative and has assumed the rank of a mode of human thought.

The historical and evolutionary approach invites us, all the same, on a brief foray through the past. In Italian and German scholarship, at least, in order to transform myth into a mode of thought, historicism and anthropology have been fostered by pre-Romantic conceptions. Consider Vico singing the praises of mythology: he shows us, by the light of his allegorical readings, that the stories of the first poets present a reflection of the still-rough character of their authors, but also their first attempts to understand human form and to express, through the intermediary of language, the forces of nature. Like the Greeks, the civilized nations knew a Jupiter and a Hercules, seminal figures of civil truth. Already for Bacon, these fabulous narratives recounted the actions of divinities who were merely the allegorical and anthropomorphic incarnations of moral and philosophical principles-before the argument comes the parable. In this manner, one can notice in myth the first traces of civilized thought. Heyne, precisely through the use of the term mythus, or more precisely, sermo mythicus, intended to return dignity and serious study to what his contemporaries had denounced as the nonsense of "fables." For Heyne, myth, as an explanation of nature or as historical recollection, represented man's first attempt, through poetic and symbolic productions, to explain and express his sensory impressions. It is the first steps of man, in a childhood attached to sense and to the concrete, moving toward maturity of thought, and eventually metaphysics! This understanding of myth distinguishes itself clearly from the definition of mythology given by the corresponding article in the Encyclopédie. There, myth is still "the fabulous history of the gods, demigods, and heroes of antiquity, as its very name indicates"; still "the confused mélange of imaginary visions, philosophical daydreams, and the debris of ancient history." Its conclusion: "analysis of these fables is impossible"!

The course of this progressive linear development, from the empirical babblings of myth to the enlightenment of abstract reason, marked all anthropological thought of the nineteenth century. The "prelogical" character attributed to myth conferred on it, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a reinforced position within the notions of primitive thought and "pensée participante" developed by Lévy-Bruhl. The use that Cassirer proposed at this time as well, through its outline of the different symbolic forms and their required coexistence, falls definitively within the same evolutionary and idealizing context: "At first the world of language, like that of myth in which it seems as it were embedded, preserves a complete equivalence of word and thing, of 'signifier' and 'signified.' It grows away from this equivalence as its independent spiritual form, the characteristic force of the logos, comes to the fore." Organized in accordance with the forms of "pure intuition," mythic thought knows no causal analysis, nor any distinction between the whole and the part, since it is attached only to objects through their immediate presence. Myth would thus have its own logic.

This being the case, is there not a paradox in noting that the very founder of modern structuralism devoted himself to transmitting, through contemporary anthropological reflection, a concept of myth constructed as a substance and thus as a mode of human thought? True, through the appeal to synchrony (but to the detriment of a diachronic development), mythic thought is here no longer considered representative of a first stage, primary in the linear evolution and progression of civilization. But the very essence of the structural perspective, which seeks to restore the meaning of myth through the arrangement of narrative and logical units that transcend their linguistic manifestations, leads to the existence of a "substance of myth." The organization of this substance would be brought about by the intellectual patchwork that constitutes precisely the distinctive feature of mythic thought. A genuine "science of the concrete," mythic reflection would thus operate in a specific manner, situating itself "between the percept and the concept." Beyond the linguistic surface of mythic narratives and their modes of communication, one discovers in this way the organization of the elements of sense and the employment of a logic that, though not inevitably revelatory of the first babblings of mankind, are still characteristic of exotic cultures, the societies without history or writing that anthropologists attempt to save from disappearance or oblivion. We should not forget the paradoxical declaration that concludes Du miel aux cendres:

If myths belonging to the most backward cultures of the New World bring us to this decisive threshold of the human consciousness which, in Western Europe, marks the accession to philosophy and then to science, whereas nothing similar appears to have happened among savage peoples, we must conclude from the difference that in neither case was the transition necessary, and that interlocking states of thought do not succeed each other spontaneously and through the workings of some inevitable causality.

It is not surprising to find this propensity for creating a substance and thus a mode of thought out of myth in the work of Hellenists concerned with traditional Greek narratives. For proponents of the historicist perspective, substantialized myth allows the tracing of a direct line for the development of Greek thought; advancing from muthos to lógos, the formation has from here become a paradigm for the evolution of human thought in general. It is a persistent paradigm, at its foundation difficult to disprove, and is implicit in several recent critical approaches. On the one hand, connected with the transition of an oral culture to a civilization of writing, the development of a type of thought that progressively becomes clearer is supposed to lead the Greeks from the dramatic actions animated by the divine powers of myth toward the demonstration concerning abstract entities that constitutes philosophy, from "the logic of ambiguity, of equivocality, of polarity" inherent in myth, with the shiftings and tensions organizing its polysemy, to the logic of noncontradiction and the effort of categorization championed by Aristotle. On the other hand, by adopting a resolutely nonhistorical point of view, one can propose, beyond the different forms of expression of myths, "mythology as a frame of mind"; one can delimit in this way, with the aid of all the various versions and narrative forms of Greek myths, the practical domain of a unitary mode of thought, a system of symbolic representations spanning, without chronological distinction, the entire history of Greek culture. At once incorporating and incorporated, the narrative realization of myths, their verbalization, then their written form-simply put, "mythology as learning"-would be looked upon simply as ways of thinking about myth that become, through their repertoire, mythology. This progression of myth into mythology is, moreover, rather insidious: even when postulation of a form of thought beyond the multiplicity of narratives is avoided, the temptation to agglomerate persists. In this way, the corpus of Greek myths comes to be elevated once more to the level of "Greek Mythology." The capital letters have the function of designating the existence of an "intertext" or, better yet, a system. The famous Bibliotheke attributed to Apollodorus becomes the standard, that late collection of local and Panhellenic stories concerning the gods and heroes from the primordial union of Earth and Sky to the return of Odysseus from the Trojan War. But let us not jump ahead!


Excerpted from Myth and History in Ancient Greece by Claude Calame Copyright © 2003 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction to the English Edition
I Illusions of Mythology 1
1 The Substance of Myth and Mythology 3
2 Contrasts and Comparisons 8
3 Greek Nomenclature? 12
4 The Production of Symbolic Discourse 27
II The Foundation Narrative of Cyrene 35
1 Pindar and the Time of Performance 37
2 Pythian 4: The Birth of a Land 43
3 Pythian 9: A Pastoral Civilization 67
4 Pythian 5: Calling All Heroes! 79
5 Herodotus and the Chronology of History 86
6 Callimachus and Apollonius: A Return to Poetry 108
III Neither Myth nor History 114
1 Strabo's Homer 115
2 Plato and Fiction 116
Notes 121
Bibliography 165
Index 173
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"This is an important book, especially in its magisterial demonstration of how discourse analysis can be applied to the intertextual and anthropological study of Greek myth, in this case the foundation of Cyrene. It should be required reading by anyone doing work at the graduate and professional levels in the fields of mythology, cultural poetics, and Greek colonization."—Erwin Cook, University of Texas, Austin, author of The Odyssey in Athens

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