Saturday, August 7, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Ueli Dill, Christine Walde (ed.), Antike Mythen: Medien, Transformationen und Konstruktionen. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2009. Pp. xiii, 760. ISBN 9783110209099. $238.00.
Reviewed by Carl O'Brien, University College, Cork

Table of Contents

This Festschrift comprises forty essays in German, English, French and Spanish, which were presented to Fritz Graf on his sixty-fifth birthday. The volume is both wide-ranging in terms of the international dimension of the contributors (from ten different countries) as well as the scope of the papers, covering not just Graeco-Roman myth, but also Egyptian, Indian and Rabbinic literature. This breadth can also be observed in the range of periods covered; while the bulk of the chapters concentrate on classical antiquity, the medieval period and even modern Europe are also treated. The volume is a monument, both to the importance and interdisciplinarity which the study of myth has attained, as well as its significance beyond that of ancient religion: Brisson's analysis of Porphyry's Vita Plotini 10.1-3, Blok's examination of the origins of the Athenian autochthony myth or Zimmerman's survey of the origin of literary genres reveal the manner in which myth can function as a key which unlocks further insights in areas such as philosophy, politics or literature. Each chapter provides an extensive bibliography at the end. Despite the range of the subject-material of the individual chapters, the material is arranged into coherent sections: Connections; Cult and Ritual; Astrology, Magic and Prophecy; Places; Human and Animal; Protagonists; and the most extensive section: Literature and Art.

The first section, Connections, examines the nature of myth itself. Struck's contribution, 'The Invention of Mythic Truth in Antiquity' defines the meaning of the Greek word muthos, drawing on the evidence provided by Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics. Pirenne-Delforge's essay 'Under Which Conditions Did the Greeks "Believe" in their Myths? The Religious Criteria of Adherence' further examines the Greeks' relationship with their myths and the extent to which they read these narratives critically. Pirenne-Delforge analyses Pausanias' ambivalent attitude to myth. The Greek travel-writer sometimes dismissed myth as foolishness, but, after his visit to Arcadia, he viewed myth as containing concealed wisdom (p. 42). Pirenne-Delforge includes some of Pausanias' attempts to explain the origins of these tales. The history of religious studies and its influence on the development of modern politico-religious concepts (such as Europeanization or the relationship between Christianity and Islam) is given a detailed treatment by Kippenburg's chapter 'Die Religion im modernen Europa erhält eine Vorgeschichte'.

There is an entire section devoted to Astrology, Magic and Prophecy. Brisson discusses the anecdote recounted in the Life of Plotinus 10 in which Olympiodorus attempts to call down malign astral influence upon Plotinus. Brisson cleverly explains this story within the framework of Plotinian cosmology and illustrates how Plotinus might escape such attacks without having recourse to such magic himself. Faraone's article examines a series of nine hematite gemstones, depicting an armed male figure (Tantalus) and containing a command ("Thirsty, Tantalus? Drink blood!"). Faraone provides images and detailed descriptions of every stone in the series, as well as images of other blood-staunching amulets. Such amulets were used to control haemorrhaging or menstruation.

The section entitled "Places" contains contributions which examine localised myths, as well as reflections on the broad patterns which interlink various regional mythologies. For example, Blok considers the belief in autochthony amongst the Greeks in general, before analysing its political value. (The concept, if not the term, is made use of by Herodotus' Athenians in claiming the leadership of the allied navy). Blok makes the point that the Athenian awareness of sixth-century immigration, of marriage between the Athenian elite and non-Athenians, and of mythical refugees to Athens all seem to undermine the Athenian claim to be autochthonous. However, in Blok's view, prior to Pericles' citizenship law, priests were drawn from genê, who all traced their descent back to the beginnings of Athens. After the introduction of this law, however, the autochthonous myths of the genê became appropriated by the Athenian people as a whole.

Marcel Piérart provides a complementary study, though focusing on aetological accounts from Argos which are supposed to have all taken place during historical times (Herodotus' expression is 'during the period of men'). The famous account of the battle of the champions is examined, as is the poetess Telesilla's bravery in defending Argos against the Spartans. The problem of stasis is remembered in the account of Bryas' blinding, and the final aetiological tale examined by Piérart is the Argive account of the death of Pyrrhos in their city. These accounts, though regarded as historical by their purveyors, can be seen as attempts to understand the radical alterations of traditional institutions which took place in the aftermath of traumatic historical events.

The question of sacred precincts and asylia (an area from which it was not permissible to forcefully remove anything) is examined by Mastrocinque. Mastrocinque's account surveys this concept in both Greece and Italy, as well as its applicability to both animals and man. Animals within the precinct were protected and there are numerous testimonies to animals within sacred precincts (such as lions, bears and crocodiles) being tame. An interesting aspect of this survey is the examination of myths relating to the behaviour of certain animals such as bulls, horses and goats within sacred precincts, and the obvious relationship that this has to fertility.

In 'The Great Medieval Mythogenesis: Why Historians Should Look Again At Medieval Tales', Kaldellis seeks an explanation for the proliferation of pagan heroic tales from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries in the 'Periphery' of the Latin 'Core' (i.e. areas of Greek, Celtic and Germanic languages). A very useful strategy on Kaldellis' part is the survey of these peripheral literatures in geographical order, rather than in terms of language groups, which might solidify preconceptions. The article adds great geographical breadth to the volume with its examination of Icelandic Sagas, the Irish Táin Bó Cúailgne, the Welsh Mabinogion, the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, and the Danish Gesta Danorum.'

A particularly interesting chapter is that of Doniger, 'Dogs as Dalits in Indian Literature', which helps to remind the reader of the importance of cultural context in the survey of myth. Despite the association of ancient Sanskrit texts with the Brahmins, Doniger discovers traces of the lower castes in these works, as well as covert criticism of the caste system, masked by references to dogs (p. 392ff.) and in this context reminds the reader of the reference to members of the lowest caste as 'dog-cookers'. Tales of dogs polluting sacrificial oblations by licking them can be read as references to Dalit infringements against ritual purity. In a satirical account in the Upanishads, dogs impersonate the highest caste, the Brahmins, while the Mahabharata contains a tale about a dog who became a lion; a cautionary allegory against members of the lower castes rising above their station. More positive points of view are expressed in the accounts of dogs who inadvertently help to provide ritual purity (and therefore salvation) though accidentally performing acts of worship.

The Protagonists section looks at major figures around whom myths crystallised, such as Orpheus, Sardanapallus and Socrates. It also tackles the issue of the interrelation of myths from different cultural traditions. One area which has featured prominently in much recent research in ancient religion and ancient philosophy is that of Jewish or Christian claims that Greek wisdom was somehow plagiarised from Moses. This volume offers a contribution to this topic in the form of Bloch's essay 'Orpheus als Lehrer des Musaios, Moses als Lehrer des Orpheus'. In this reinterpretation of intellectual history, a monotheistic Orpheus, the father and teacher of Musaios, inherits all his wisdom from Jewish civilisation, which, this account claims, is older than that of the Greeks. Bloch investigates why Orpheus should have been adopted as such a central figure for the Jewish discourse on cultural sovereignty (p. 471), as well as the social capital Jews might seek to accrue from linking themselves to Greek culture. Cultural exchange in Cilicia is examined by López-Ruiz's account of references to Mopsos the seer (the professional rival of Calchas) in classical sources as well as epigraphical references. Burkert examines Sardanapallus, an Assyrian king of great wealth, but equally a figure who is the product of the Greek tradition. Burkert considers the quasi-mythological function of Sardanapallus in Greek discussions about happiness, enjoyment and the past (p. 505). Lefkowitz in 'Biographical Mythology' deals with one of the great problems facing classicists: that of interpreting accounts of the lives of the poets, which are replete with elements drawn from the poet's works or mythic features (such as Aristotle's account that Homer died of depression brought about by his failure to solve a riddle). The section closes with Auffarth's examination of Socrates' death and the manner in which the drama which this created was, in a sense, re-performed by Seneca.

The final section contains a wide-ranging survey of the interrelation between myth, literature and art. Nünlist, for example, examines the motif of the exiled killer, beginning with both explicit references and more general allusions to those expelled from their home territories on account of blood guilt in Homer. Nünlist outlines the basic schema of this motif and discusses variations in later writers such as Pindar and Virgil. Bierl looks at the mythological dimension of Longus' Daphnis and Chloe. As Bierl points out, the fairy tale quality of these idealised romances allows them to resemble myth. Both dealt with similar themes: violence, contact with the divine, the concept of the 'other' etc. Daphnis and Chloe's discovery of sexual love has obvious mythic qualities, along with legends, such as that of Echo, which are built into the narrative.

It is difficult to adequately do justice to a volume of such scope and erudition. The collection contains numerous other contributions which are of great interest, such as Rüpke's on the Ides of October and its Ancient Interpretation or Isler-Kerényi's on Orpheus and the book roll. The Greek font used is particularly pleasing aesthetically. The volume is extremely comprehensive. The authors take the title of Ancient Myths in its broadest sense and in so doing have produced a volume that, while providing a heightened understanding of this very significant theme, also contains specialised articles in virtually all of the major subfields of the Classics.

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