Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.05.04

Claude Calame, Thesee et l'imaginaire athenien: Legende et culte en Grece antique. Preface de Pierre Vidal-Naquet. Lausanne: Sciences humaines, Editions Payot Lausanne, 1990. Pp. 480 (pb). ISBN 2-601-03080-1.

Reviewed by Anton Bierl, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and University of Munich.

The reader may ask: After the excellent collections of materials on Theseus by Hans Herter ("Theseus," RE Suppl. XIII [München 1973] coll. 1045-1238) and Frank Brommer (Theseus. Die Taten des griechischen Helden in der antiken Kunst und Literatur [Darmstadt 1982]), do we really need another monograph on this Greek hero? Claude Calame, the author of two other very innovative books (Les choeurs de jeunes filles en Grece archaique, 2 vols. [Rome 1977] and Le recit en Grece ancienne [Paris 1986]) and editor of Alcman (Rome 1983) and of collections of essays on such fascinating themes as love and ritual and myth, proves that we really do. In a word, Calame has written an excellent book. He is not interested in simply repeating the primary sources again. His aims are higher and only the subtitle of the book reveals what it is really about. He deals with the old problem of the relation between myth and ritual, Theseus being only the pretext for a much wider discussion. To this end Calame applies all sorts of modern theories and tools, including semiotics, narratology, structuralism, Russian formalism, linguistics, comparative anthropology and modern cognitive psychology. The author gives an example of how to go beyond the limits of traditional philology and the results are encouraging.

The great danger here is that the traditionally educated classicist might have difficulty in following the intricate argument. Calame presupposes a great deal of knowledge, and his terminology sometimes remains obscure. At least the author is aware of this and gives an immensely theoretical introduction in chapter I which even a man like Pierre Vidal-Naquet in his preface characterizes as "pas une entreprise facile, car tous les mots ont ici besoin d'etre definis" (12). Some advice for the reader: one should not become discouraged, but should take this book as a challenge and a thesaurus to work on in the future in order to understand many things even better. The monograph in the beginning seems to be like a labyrinth and sometimes one has to find Ariadne's thread on one's own. One major flaw of this great book is the lack of an index through which one could pursue certain arguments for a second time.

In the introduction (chapter I) we become aquainted with Calame's real concern, the concepts of myth (or legend) and cult. In modern religious studies there has been a long discussion about the relation and differences between the two. Is myth prior to rite or vice versa, or do both phenomena develop simultaneously? Wilamowitz and many other scholars regarded myth as the essence of Greek belief, whereas cult was for them the superstitious religious expression of the masses. Under the influence of Freud and Darwin the Cambridge Ritualists like Jane Harrison, after W. R. Smith, put the emphasis on ritual. Harrison believed ritual is authentic; it is the dromenon, whereas myth, often aetiological, is only a later protorational attempt to add a verbal explanation (legomenon) for cults. This concept of deed and corresponding word of justification has been applied up until even very recent studies on the subject. Following modern semiotic theories myth and ritual and even imagery become for Calame similar expressions of one and the same symbolic process in society. In his opinion both have to be understood as texts with specific signs which function as symbols for constitutive features of society and its ideology. What really links them is that both 'languages' are continuously manipulated during the 'processus symbolique', which is to say that communities tend to appropriate these expressions for their 'ideology'. In linguistic terms, myth and ritual are symbolic expressions; the relation between signifier in the mythological legend and signified in the cult is not congruent but arbitrary based on a partial contiguity and has to be understood as a metonomy or metaphor.

Now it becomes clear why Calame chose Theseus as his example. The history of his myths, iconographic representations and cults shows that they had to undergo a constant process of manipulation. He argues from insufficient evidence that in Homer and Sappho he is a panhellenic hero like many others. Only at the very end of the 6th century B.C. does Athens start to appropriate Theseus for her own discourse in such a way that he becomes in the classical period the national hero par excellence. The young ephebe is adopted as the model of the future ideal citizen. In the same way one can detect a continuous development making the famous story of Theseus' fight against the Minotaur center on Athens by linking his figure with the tutelary gods of the polis. In later fifth-century tragedy he appears on the Attic stage as the embodiment of Athenian democratic society with its specific values (e.g. Euripides' Suppliants and Heracles and Sophocles' Oedipus Coloneus). He is the wise king who integrates the Other from outside into the polis. This process of Athenian manipulation reaches its summit with the frequent praise of Theseus in fourth-century rhetoric. The historical development of the Theseus saga is demonstrated in Chapter VI.1. In chapter II Calame recounts the first part of Theseus' adventures from his birth in Troizen, his arrival in Athens and the expedition to Crete up until his successful return to Athens. In chapter III he shows how the Theseus story was linked with the cultic practices of Athens and its main gods. In III.3 Calame returns to the propositions of the introduction. After giving the practical example, his thesis on cult and myth gains shape. He differentiates myth and ritual on syntactical and semio-narrative grounds. Then in chapters IV and V he undertakes a semantic analysis concentrating on the action and on the geographical distribution of cult. In the first category he pursues an inquiry into the story under the aspect of age, degree of maturity, royal legitimation, sexuality and the function of music for the hero; in addition he describes the degree of savagery of the animal enemy and the quality of political power of Minos. In demonstrating these features Calame is obviously to a great extent dependent on the work of Vernant and his Parisian School with his followers in Italy. This is why the results in the first half of chapter IV lack a certain originality. But just the opposite is true of the second half, the study of the Athenian gods and their spatial interrelation ("Des dieux et des lieux"). Before following this promising path the author gives the rest of Theseus' biography from Aegeus' suicide until Theseus' end.

In my opinion the most important contributions of this book are to be found in the last two chapters. Pursuing the fact that Theseus' story was linked with the tutelary god of Athens, Calame provides a detailed picture of the system of the gods Apollo, Dionysos, Athena, Poseidon and Demeter and the function of their cults in the Attic territory and calendar. This is the result of a superb application of modern theories. The book not only summarizes the research on partial aspects and single gods in this field but succeeds in bringing these results together in a highly abstract schematization of their geographical distribution in Attica. Very useful are the synoptic representations of the cultic space (fig. 1, p. 363), of the spatial organization of classical Athens (fig. 2, p. 372) and the festivities in the Athenian calendar in connection with the Theseus myth (fig. 3, p. 375). Leaving the bipolarity of the structuralists behind, Calame develops a hexapolar schematization. Every god has a function in the center of the polis and on the limits of Attic territory. Athena and Poseidon, and Dionysos and Apollo form two complementary pairs; Demeter comes in addition. The first pair define the agricultural domain, the second is responsible for civilisation, Demeter participates in both tasks. Frontier outposts like Eleusis, Delphi, Sciron, Phalerum, Delos and Salamis, with the cultic institutions of the main Athenian gods in linkage with the Theseus-Minotaur saga, define the Attic space in its entirety. Following schemes of Detienne about the maturity of food Calame interprets the decisive rituals of Apollo and Dionysos, namely Pyanopsia, Thargelia, Oschophoria and Anthesteria, as reflections on civilisation in the basic alimentary code.

As far as I can judge on Dionysos, the quality of discussion is high. Calame masters all the extant sources and the modern discussion in a precise way. Especially important is the insight into the complementary character of Dionysos and Apollo not only in Delphi but in Athens as well (pp. 364-369). This is another refutation of the Nietzschean conviction that these gods form a strict opposition. Calame also thereby gives further evidence in support of my recent argument that Euripides uses the similarity of Apollo and ambivalent Dionysos for dramaturgical metadramatical reflexions in tragedy.1 Furthermore, although standing close to the French tradition which tends to overestimate the violent side of Dionysos as a god coming from outside reversing civic order, Calame is able to modify this view by emphasizing the positive aspect of the god and his function in the city (pp. 333-337). In his opinion the subversion of social categories is only partial and relatively moderate. The interplay between Apollo and Dionysos defines civilisation: Apollo is generally regarded as the god of culture and moderation. Dionysos' reversing tendencies, on the other hand, function to create an even more stable order within the city. By subver ting hierarchies for a prescribed period of time the need for social regulation becomes manifest and order is finally restored. Dionysus is worshipped to consecrate ambivalence and contradiction in the city. According to Calame Anthesteria and Oschophoria are not the bloody and horrible actions portrayed by Walter Burkert but rather symbolic speculations on the possibilities of transition provided by the consumption of the Dionysiac wine (p. 337).

The last chapter (VI) sheds light on the puzzling elements of the introduction and winds up the thesis of the book. After giving a historical survey of the development of the Theseus-saga in relation to Athens, Calame concentrates on the important question of whether the reelaborations of Theseus as hero of the polis-civilisation are promoted by single individuals such as Ephialtes, Peisistratus, Cleisthenes, Themistocles or Cimon. He pleads that such a symbolic process could not be coined by individuals but is rather the product of moments of crisis in the historical progress of Athens towards democracy. The Theseus myth mirrors Athens' preoccupation with boundaries during its territorial expansion in Attica and its emergence as a seapower. Theseus appropriates older cults such as the worship of Apollo at Delos in order to reflect Athens' hegemony in the Delian-Attic league. The experiences of the Persian wars are also mirrored in Theseus' participation in the battle against the Amazons and Centaurs. Moreover, Calame refutes the old reading of the Cretan expedition as a reflection of initiation, as it was developed by Jeanmaire. The cults linked with the Theseus-saga do not provide any sign of a ritual initiation scheme. Thus, in sum, myth and cult do not function as word and deed. In Calame's opinion the only points of contact between the two are based on the metaphorical analogy between the maturation of vegetable food through agriculture and the civic maturation of the young people through education.2 The book is important for every classicist working on religion, because it proposes a new explanation for the relation of myth and cult and provides for the first time a complete structural analysis of the system of gods and the spatial distribution of their cults in classical Attica. I am almost convinced that Calame's new system would be fruitful especially when applied to tragedy and comedy of the same period; for it can yield further insight into the working of the gods in literary texts.


1. See A. Bierl, Dionysos und die griechische Tragödie. Politische und 'metatheatralische' Aspekte im Text (Tübingen: 1991) pp. 91-99, 103-110, 146-151.

2. See e.g. Antiphon, DK 87 B 60, Pl. Euthphr. 2D, Leg. 765E-766A, TrGF II 646a, 25, and A. Henrichs, ZPE 1 (1967) pp. 50-53.