Sunday, September 13, 2015


Greta Hawes, Rationalizing Myth in Antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. xi, 279. ISBN 9780199672776. $99.00.

Reviewed by Arnaud Zucker, CEPAM, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis (

Version at BMCR home site


What contribution have ancient rationalist criticism and mythography made to the mythographical tradition and the history of storytelling? How complex are "the various interpretative impulses" (136) and the cultural issues at stake in the texts that criticize myths "using strictly historicist principles" (2)? To what extent does this approach help us understand the way ancient Greeks considered myth-telling and how they "believed in their myths"?

These are some of the questions Greta Hawes addresses in her book, in which she offers "a series of snapshots of rationalization at work" (224), deliberately choosing a pragmatic approach over a hazardous synthesis on what could have been a Rationalistic critique of myths in antiquity, as a continuation of the precursory double booklet by F. Wipprecht. 1 There are texts some scholars still exclude from the mythographical corpus (135), so without a canonical list she could rely upon, Hawes selected six case studies in Greek literature.2 Provided with a lengthy introduction (36 p.), a rich bibliography (35 p.) and a minimal conclusion (3 p.), the book is organized in six chapters. First, three collections of Peri Apiston are dealt with: Palaephatus' (chap. 1), Heraclitus' (chap. 2), and mythographical Excerpta Vaticana (chap. 3); Conon's Narratives (chap. 4), Plutarch's Life of Theseus (chap. 5) and Pausanias' Periegesis (chap. 6) are dealt with next. Two appendices complement the whole: a well-grounded discussion on "the date [late 4th] and authenticity [substantial] of Palaephatus, Peri Apiston, and an original translation of "a late, derivative compendium dominated by rationalistic material", the Anonymous' Peri Apiston (see chapter 3).

This short and lively book is full of bright remarks; this is especially true of the introduction where Hawes outlines the theoretical contextualization of her gallery of texts. She points out characteristic shortcomings of modern approaches that conflate or, at least, do not clearly set rationalistic interpretation apart from two other interpretative patterns, euhemerism and allegoresis (23-36).3 In the few, terse pages she devotes to the question of rationalistic interpretation, Hawes maintains that rationalization is not a form of "realist allegory" (29).4 While allegory is a symbolic (and often philosophical) reading, rationalization has more to do with an historical rephrasing. One could even say (especially in the paradigmatic case of Palaephatus) that the term "rationalization", as a peculiar "therapy" converting traditional stories into plausible narratives. Such a conversion does not imply hermeneutic skills from the mythographer (since the mythical form is not a disguise but a "misunderstanding") and might as well be replaced by "historical reductionism".

To give credit where credit is due,5 Palaephatus offers Hawes, in the first and longest chapter, the starting point of this chronological path, all the more so because the method of this leading character is used along the book as a template and a touchstone. Hawes offers a compelling reappraisal of this radical and dogmatic mythographer, who, since Wilamowitz, has been disparaged or simply disregarded even by scholars dealing with the "use of Greek mythology".6 Hawes convincingly shows how Palaephatus marks a shift in the history of conceptualizing myth, revealing an erudite and subtle dimension underneath a seemingly mechanical text.7 Since Palaephatus adheres to the most conventional version and treats the myths not as evolving stories but as textual standard products, he illustrates a new conception of mythical stories matching Cameron's definition of myth in a literate world: "a corpus of stories every educated person was expected to know",8 or "a repertoire of stable, recognizable, useful narrative artifacts" (Hawes 2014b:145). Seen thus as a pioneer of a new literary and dogmatic approach, Aristotle's presumed pupil Palaephatus was, in Hawes' eyes, interested in myth not as a symbolic phenomenon, but as a distorted tale, and as an instrument of playful exercise.9 Indeed, his treatise, "an extended masterclass in exploiting the potential ambiguities of language" (67), deals more with linguistic ambiguity than with myth itself. Its 45 chapters often include an important etiological argument (1, 3-11, 15…) on the supposedly original phrasing of the myth: 10 myth appears as a rational tale told by a poet, full of linguistic ambiguities, but referring to real events. In describing the systematic "treatment" of the mythographer (which one might be tempted to compare to the technique of double-meaning used by Raymond Roussel in his storytelling)11, Hawes underlines the creative and positive aspects of the rationalistic Paleaphatean θεραπεία (62-63).

The other Peri Apiston are equally focused on particularly implausible stories, already forming a canonical set. The booklet of Heraclitus (known as "the Paradoxographer" but more correctly called "the Rationalist" by Hawes) is far less systematic than Palaephatus' milestone work. The general principles and method are similar, although less elaborate, and the author tries to "cure" various disconnected myths. Hawes develops the idea that this corrupted book, a collection of 39 revised stories, is a relic of rhetorical textbooks. Capitalizing on historical and geographical knowledge and operating on classical tales, the rationalized version in Heraclitus "proceeds organically out of the fundamental elements of the mythic tradition" (127) and appears to be a plausible extension rather than a counterweight to the mythical way of telling stories. The eclecticism of mythographical interpretation in ancient literature, repeatedly emphasized by Hawes, also appears in the anonymous Peri Apiston, a somewhat unmethodical compilation and third-hand epitome of a standard handbook, which is quite poor in content, albeit interesting for its philosophical inspiration. Among historical "Palaephatean" scenarios, the author inserts some philosophical interpretations from Plato, Plotinus, and (Ps.) Alexander of Aphrodisias.

The brief chapter on Conon (chap. 4) may have been meant to connect the Apista tradition with the group of historians formed by Plutarch and Pausanias. As a matter of fact, however, in Conon's Narratives we find no more than three superficial echoes of rationalizing interpretations (tales 1, 37, 40). All in all, such an author hardly belongs to the (even extended) corpus. The chapter is frustrating and would appear as more or less irrelevant, if Hawes had not taken the opportunity to deal more generally with mythographical matters (133-137).

The second part of the book, dedicated to two texts where the myth is no longer "a separable object of study", is less convincing, though as stylistically brilliant as the first part. Plutarch's Life of Theseus (chap. 5) and Pausanias' Periegesis (chap. 6) could illustrate the second part of the distinction proposed by C. Pelling (2002: 174-5) 12 between two kinds of rationalization: 'the explaining away of the mythical', whose aim is to describe how the legend developed from reality, and 'the contextual explaining of the myth'. Both texts are clearly not eiusdem farinae and they also are interesting case studies for integrating rationalizing trends in a more general mythographical reflection. As it happens, these texts give Hawes the opportunity to deal with strategies of compromise. Even if Plutarch did not write history (but biographies), he displays in the Theseus a keen interest for the articulation of mythical and historical accounts when he tactfully comments on mythological traditions, and an even greater interest in various ways of storytelling. As Hawes makes plain, this pair of lives (Theseus/Romulus) gives rise to opposite approaches to mythological tradition. Plutarch presents ideal standards of historiography (Theseus) and gives evidence of the limitation of rationalization. However, the chapter on Plutarch does not warrant the conclusion that Plutarch is a rationalist, despite some assertions (such as Isid. 374e, quoted by Hawes) since Plutarch clearly condemns the historicization or the literal exegesis of myth (339e ff).

In the last chapter Hawes turns to the role of myth and storytelling in Pausanias' Periegesis where she sees an indirect influence of the "Palaephatean structure" (196). After a general introduction to Pausanias' work, Hawes criticizes P. Veyne's seminal essay, "Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?", which constitutes a theoretical backdrop for her own discussion. 13 Unlike Veyne , she insists—and, one might add, not without reason—on the fact that the text cannot be separated from the geographical frame and the conceptual charting of Greece proposed by Pausanias, and she stresses the harmonious intertwining of physical landscape and stories. Hawes goes on to illustrate the "descriptive and explanatory function" of the myth (189), and the varying use and critique of Pausanias. (as duly noted by Hawes (212-222), who relies on Pirenne- Delforge's studies).14 The quite different treatment given to tales on (venerable) Arcadia, which are accepted even when implausible, and on (suspect) Crete, provide pretty clear examples of this variation of method.

Despite its title, the compelling book of Greta Hawes exclusively deals with ancient Greek texts (Livy and Servius are only mentioned twice) and she does not even treat all of them. The rationalistic tradition of myth-writing or myth-reading is much larger, but Hawes prefers to present some vantage points in the post-classical tradition in order to measure narrative inventiveness, cultural integration and mythological dignity of this literature and intellectual endeavor. Some readers may regret that important characters, such as Diodorus and Dionysus, who arguably might have deserved attention are only hinted at.15 Some would probably have preferred a more systematic treatment with recurrent topics, such as the relation of rationalism to other exegetic processes and methods, rhetorical uses of rationalizing approach, historical treatment and patterns, tradition and constancy of the specific rationalistic interpretations in the texts of the corpus, etc. That would have prevented some redundancies and occasional excursus on general issues (e.g.,134ff.). That being said, Hawes' somewhat scattered presentation has its logic and its charm. What Hawes highlights perfectly is the fundamental role played by rationalizing attempts in the tradition of "thinking about myth" (123, 131), and the complicity between the rationalistic versions (interacting with broader "storytelling patterns": 130) and the traditional criticized versions. The myth rationalistic rewriting consists, to a large degree, in the elaboration of mythical variants rather than a meta-discourse on myths that rejects conventional forms of myth-telling, and appears to be a "living part" of the myth.


1.   Zur Entwicklung der rationalistischen Mythendeutung bei den Griechen, 1902-1908.
2.   See Cameron (2004), Greek mythography in the Roman world: 27-32; Conon is the only author common to both Cameron and Hawes, even if the former mentions Palaephatus in passing as author of a "rationalizing treatise" (p. 204).
3.   On this matter Hawes is indebted to M. Winiarczyk (2002), Euhemeros von Messene: Leben, Werk und Nachwirkung, and more profoundly to Jacob Stern: J. Stern (1996). On Unbelievable Tales = Peri Apiston; (1999) 'Rationalizing Myth: Methods and Motives in Palaephatus.' in R. Buxton, From Myth to Reason, 215–22; Id. (2003) 'Heraclitus the Paradoxographer: Peri Apiston, On Unbelieveable Tales', TAPA 133, 51–97.
4.   The expression comes from J. Pépin (1958) Mythe et allégorie (who dated Palaephatus of the 2nd century BC and wrongly considered rationalistic criticism as a type of Stoic allegorism).
5.   See F. Wipprecht, Zur Entwicklung der rationalistischen Mythendeutung bei den Griechen (1) 1902 : 4, 11-20/
6.   Palaephatus is not even mentioned in the eponymous handbook of K. Dowden (1992).
7.   See also Hawes (2014b: 126): "It is precisely their stubborn repetitiousness and hermeneutic simplicity which makes them so important."
8.   Cameron 2004: XII, quoted in Hawes 2014b: 144.
9.   This aspect is even more explicit in G. Hawes 'Story Time at the Library: Palaephatus and the Emergence of Highly Literate Mythology' (2014b) in R. Scodel, Between Orality and Literacy: Communication and Adaptation in Antiquity, 125-147.
10.   Hawes correctly if quietly dismisses the seven spurious chapters (47-52) edited by N. Festa in 1902.
11.   See Comment j'ai écrit certains de mes livres.
12.   C. Pelling (2002) "'Making myth look like history': Plutarch's Theseus-Romulus", in Plutarch and History.
13.   Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination, 1988.
14.   V. Pirenne Delforge has dedicated many papers and a book to Pausanias: Retour à la source. Pausanias et la religion grecque, 2008.
15.   Hawes recognizes that "Diodorus' Bibliotheca perhaps shows unacknowledged Palaephatean influences" (229).

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