Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.03

Richard Buxton, Imaginary Greece, the Contexts of Mythology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Pp. xvi + 250. $59.95 (hb). $18.95 (pb). ISBN 0-521-32978-7 (hb). ISBN 0-521-33865-4 (pb).

Reviewed by Robert Lamberton, Washington University, St. Louis (

His title, as Buxton is acutely aware (4), sounds French, but he strikes a careful balance, lest his work seem too French. The title is intended, he advises the reader, "to allude at the outset to ... the distance and interplay between the imaginary world of the stories and the (real?) world of the tellers," and the subtitle, to point both to "narrative contexts" and to "social contexts in the broadest sense" (5). What is at stake, then, is no less than the relationship of Greek myth to Greek storytelling and literature, and then to Greek society, and even beyond that, to the physical environment and the landscape of Greece (80-113). At various times, the project is directed toward a range of related questions, big questions: When and how did the Greeks tell the stories we know as their "myths"? How did these stories function in Greek society? What picture of the world do they project? What was the relationship of that picture to Greek realities? (This last is known, in short, as "the life/myth problem" [127].)

What we have here is in part one aspect of the project of the two generations of French scholars who have taken up, in various ways, the banner of Louis Gernet and who strive to reconstruct what they call l'imaginaire grec -- one thing that distinguishes this project from theirs (and I paraphrase Buxton) is the insistent juxtaposition of this imaginaire with something we might designate as reality. Is this a modest exercise in having your cake and eating it, too? In flirting with theory while protesting all the time that the enterprise at hand is as solidly common-sensical and positivist as can be? An unsympathetic observer might so characterize it. It should be stressed, though, that Buxton is far from naive with regard to his own stance and, if anything, tends to call attention to the contradictions inherent in it. It was he, after all, who over a decade ago (in his "Introduction" to R. L. Gordon, ed., Myth, Religion, and Society, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), laid out, for the disapproval of an audience for which it was never intended, Martin West's denunciation of the project of teaching anything about the interpretation of Greek myth to British undergraduates (from the in-house Bulletin of the Council of University Classical Departments, 1977). In the introduction to the present volume, he opens on a decidedly defensive note, characterizing as "ostrich[es]" those who view the study of mythology as tainted by "Theory, Methodology, and the Continent and ... thus not quite sound" (4), an attitude identified in a note ad loc. as "the consistent subtext" of Geoffrey Kirk's Myth: Its Meaning and Function in Ancient and Other Cultures (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1970). He would represent himself, then, as decidedly more sympathetic to Continental theory than Kirk (to whose role as mediator in the ideological cold war between Oxbridge and Paris he nevertheless concedes deserved praise), yet the greatest passion in his book will be found in Buxton's denunciation of "the puritanically anti-referential trend of some temporarily modish literary criticism" (74), while at the same time he feels he must defend his rear from friendly fire: "... it is hardly being excessively positivistic to claim that the most potentially revealing features of the tales are precisely those which recur" (76). The net effect is that the teller of this tale seems to be talking to different audiences at different times, and this reader, at any rate, finds difficulty in identifying with any of them.

Though Buxton (or at least his publisher) clearly hopes for American readers, and sales, one could not accuse him of tailoring his rhetoric to an American readership. This is not a trivial problem. I would not lightly ask one of my students to read a book on Greek myth that contextualizes a parthenion of Alcman in these terms: "The occasion for which this was originally designed -- perhaps one on the same scale as a Derbyshire Well Dressing -- is as doubtful as the identity of Hegesichora." (26) The cultural baggage Buxton brings to the study and explication of Greek myth is clearly and explicitly very British. For those who have little nostalgia for the society or the value system into which Victorian and Edwardian admiration for the Ancients was integrated, much of what he says will seem irrelevant or even offensive. Particularly alienating is the rhetoric of the paragraph from the discussion of myth in performance that opens: "Was there anything 'masculine' about the content of the songs of young males? Surely yes." (24-25), to close with this rousing paraphrase of Pindar:

The young men gladly follow their heroic leader, preferring the quest for prowess to a life without danger beside mother.... The human athlete is modelled on the mythical hero yet stands at the same time as a beacon of achievement for his fellows, whose voices are raised in his praise.
Add to this the rhetoric of the three-word sentence that immediately follows the paragraph break:
Girls, too, sang.
Buxton's is a book that addresses itself primarily to students and "the wider audience" (5-6). It envisions its role as one of popularization and that in turn is based on a complex web of assumptions about the identities and relationships of the groups involved (scholars, students, the wider audience). It is possible that in contemporary Britain the terms of this enterprise will find acceptance and that Buxton's "students" and "wider audience" will share with him enough assumptions to guarantee its success. As it stands, this fine book has little chance of serving the function on this continent that it was designed to serve at home, and this is a loss all around, as I hope to show.

Buxton places before his readers large questions that are intellectually and imaginatively engaging. They address problems that are both fascinating and enduring, for the nature of the evidence renders their full resolution a remote goal. What he achieves here, though, beyond the methodological footwork and the cultural paradigms I've criticized, is a sane and helpful presentation of the materials available to contribute to any possible solution.

The undertaking is fairly easily summarized: Part One surveys the contexts in which Greek myths were told in archaic and classical Greece (the Hellenistic and Roman cultural spheres are excluded from the inquiry, with few exceptions). Precise definition of the field poses obvious difficulties, but it is nevertheless possible to reach general agreement on what we mean by "Greek myth" (ch. 1). The second chapter situates these myths in performance contexts within Greek society, from bed-time stories to choral song (performed by and, at least in part, for the young), symposiac performance, tragedy, and comedy, with further discussion of the role of myth in epideictic oratory (and particularly in funeral speeches), in sophistic teaching, in festivals, and a variety of other contexts in which storytellers might perform, including the leskhe. The evidence for what we call myths in some of these contexts is slim, and despite the Platonic evidence brought forward here, I remain doubtful about the regularity with which such tales were told to small children. (The evidence, for instance, of Rep. 378d does not seem to me to show that "stories which we know as Homeric and Hesiodic figured in some form in the domestic repertoire as well" [20]. In the passage in question, Socrates criticizes several modes of formative storytelling all at once -- that of the poets as well as that of "nurses and mothers" [377c] -- and nothing that I can see indicates that the Homeric and Hesiodic stories, more obviously belonging to the category of poetic falsehoods, are here said to belong to the latter category as well. This dubious assumption has an after-echo [179] in a modestly hypothetical attempt to establish a continuity between the aetiological function of myth in adult contexts and the questions asked by small children -- and "plausibl[y]" answered with what we would identify as a myth. But this is perhaps splitting hairs -- as soon as they went to school, they no doubt heard Homeric and Hesiodic myths -- and that is early enough.)

One of the fruitful models well utilized here is that of the "song culture," developed by John Herington in his Sather Lectures (Poetry into Drama, Univ. of California Press, 1985). Much of what is said about drama, in particular, is attractive and instructive -- though I am surprised not to find here any reference to or (potentially fruitful) use of Charles Segal's important work on the subject of myth in the social context of Athenian drama (brought together as the opening chapters of Interpreting Greek Tragedy, Cornell Univ. Press, 1986).

The final chapters in Part One look briefly beyond the performance culture to the text culture of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and fruitfully draw the visual arts into the discussion, with emphasis on the fact that the ancient Greeks surrounded themselves with images -- on pots, in (lost) major painting, and in sculpture -- drawn from mythology and doubtless functioning as catalysts for the recall and retelling and discussion of the stories themselves.

Part Two offers us l'imaginaire grec itself -- or rather, case studies of three aspects of the world as the Greeks imagined it in their myths, each held up for comparison with its real-life manifestation (much as Socrates is said to have stood up and turned to the audience of the Clouds, when it was performed in 423, inviting comparison between the reality of his visage and its transformation in the imagination of Aristophanes' mask-maker). The three case studies -- landscape, family, and religion -- are in fact quite disparate, and the differences are symptomatic of the different status of the entities in question. The landscape is a social construct only secondarily. There is, after all, a Greek landscape (and Buxton provides us with some attractive photographs to prove it), previous to its conceptualization, and that landscape persists today (however degraded and impoverished) for comparison with what the ancient Greeks said about it. Buxton had in fact tackled this aspect of "imaginary Greece" in his 1992 JHS article on "Imaginary Greek Mountains" (JHS 112, 1-15), reproduced here (81-96) in slightly reduced form, and juxtaposed with similar treatment of "other territories," including the sea, its shore, caves, and springs. And what is the difference between a mountain and an "imaginary mountain"?:

Myths present an image of mountains which is both more extreme and more consistent than that of everyday life, paring down that wide range of uses which men actually made of the oros, and coming back again and again to the same few, symbolically productive characteristics. (88)
These are three: "mountains were outside and wild" (88), "mountains are before" (90), and "a mountain is a place for reversals" (91). A range of activities and events that characteristically involve mountains (in Greek myths) is assembled around these categories, and no one will deny that interesting associations emerge, particularly from the last of the three categories. The mountain as a "place for reversals" is the locus of such activities as the coming together of the divine and the human (91), metamorphosis, and reversals of social behavioral roles (92). This modest sample shows the method and accomplishments of Buxton's book to best advantage, and some of his insights are both original and memorable (a substantial accomplishment for a self-proclaimed work of popularization). At the other extreme, the very vastness of the questions asked leads to the risk of vapidity. Few readers will know more about the role of the sea in l'imaginaire grec after reading, "Without the sea there would have been no colonization, no victory at Salamis. The sea made things possible. Like all friends, however, it was potentially false." What follows is a citation of Semonides on the "sea" woman (fr. 7, 27 ff.), alternately placid and violent. (Semonides, incidentally, is mentioned only here and once again [202] in illustration of the point that "the animal series pervades the whole fabric of Greek story-telling." The reader is not told what he was writing about, nor is Semonides heard on the subject of la femme imaginaire.)

At the end of the section on the sea, an accumulation of poetic snippets, mythic motifs, and claims about the symbolism of cult had failed to convince me that the sea in "the Greek imaginary" is preeminently a place of "ambiguity" or "duplicity" or that it can be said in general to "offer renewed hope" (100-101). Its link with prophecy (103-104) is real and interesting, but whatever rich specificity of associations may lurk there is swamped in this premature conclusion: "Knowledge of the future belongs to the wild, the sacred, the non-human; among other inaccessible spots, it can be found beneath the sea, invisible and unfathomable" (104).

Sometimes, the "reality" against which these imaginative constructs are held up for comparison gets treatment that is scanty to the point of being misleading. "The economic importance of caves was minimal. In the period with which we are concerned, their main practical function was probably to shelter shepherds or lovers" (104-105). On the economic importance of Greek caves, as well as the importance of caves as cult sites, from the neolithic through the classical period (and indeed into this century), the reader would be well advised to consult the works of the archaeologists who have studied the caves rather than take Buxton at face value. Their function in sheltering lovers may or may not be part of the "real" story, but clearly its place is in the other column, where such episodes exert a powerful hold on the erotic imagination (as Buxton has no trouble illustrating). "Caves, too, are before" (104). Like mountains. When Buxton suspects he is saying something utterly groundless, he has the endearing habit of pointing it out. Much rhetorical contortion, along with evidence to the contrary (which must then be down-played) leads to the conclusion: "In spite of these instances there is still, I think, a gap between the relative lack of prominence of caves in Classical Greek religious and practical life, and the frequency with which we meet them in mythology." (108) And so, against a manifestly erroneous picture of the "real" situation, the frequency of caves in Greek myth tells us, what? That "caves were 'good to think with'" (108). This Lévi-Straussian term, "domesticated" (fide Buxton 108, n. 125) by Geoffrey Lloyd -- may he be remembered, rather, for his greater accomplishments -- introduces the payoff (108, footnotes omitted):

A cave ... is both inside and outside.... A cave is both like and not like a house: unlike, because natural; like, because sheltering. Caves are also open, but impenetrable. They give access to the sacred or, ultimately, to the dead (the cave entrance to the Underworld at Tainaron). These ambiguities are the nourishment on which mythology survives.
The frustrating thing about this formulation is that it almost gets to the point, but it is, I'm afraid, a function of Buxton's no-kisses romance with structuralism and theory generally that this book can be counted on to skirt the point. The only characterizations of the Greek "imaginary" the reader will find here are the ones compatible with the paradigms and representations of the Greek world that have fuelled most British popular writing about the ancient Mediterranean since the turn of the century and before. The theorists with whom he hobnobs are (or were) anthropologists. The anthropological thrust of the tremendously liberating work of Louis Gernet aimed first and foremost at a value-neutral representation of Greek society -- la grèce sans miracle. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Imaginary Greece.

The Greek family (ch. 7) and religion (ch. 8), unlike the landscape, were social constructs and nothing more. What Buxton's analysis might aspire to in these areas, then, is to hold up for comparison with the institutions the Greeks built for themselves -- their primary structuring of their world -- their representation in their myths of those institutions along with the relationships that constitute them. That is, more or less, what he does, often successfully, in spite of the obvious fact that the institutions themselves were so complex and so problematical that the task of representing the "real" situation in a few words is doomed to failure. The chapter on the family is divided into two sections, "Wives, webs, and wiles" and "Fathers, sons, and brothers," and focuses in the first on the representation of women in relation to marriage, distinguishing carefully among the demands of various narrative contexts (117). The methodological guide here is John Gould ("Law, Custom, and Myth: Aspects of the Social Position of Women in Classical Athens," JHS 100 [1980], 38-59) and his "contention ... that myths about women bring into the open matters which, in the formal regulations and informal attitudes of everyday life, remain partially or completely hidden" (129). The subchapter is delicate, discreet. It has no room, for instance, for the richest recent contribution to the study of the representation of women in the Greek imaginaire, Anne Carson's "Putting Her in Her Place: Woman, Dirt and Desire" (in D. M. Halperin, J. J. Winkler, and F. I. Zeitlin, eds., Before Sexuality, Princeton Univ. Press, 1990), though in another sort of book addressing the present topic, hers is just the sort of treatment one would hope for. Marriage, Buxton tells us, is celebrated in some genres, viewed in a less rosy light in others. Women marry and weave, in the real world. In male fantasy (including tragedy), they weave wiles and threaten male authority. The ritual lives of Athenian women "dramatised" many of the same qualities we see dragged into the light in myth, but in so doing bracketed and contained them.

The treatment of the male half of the family in the second part of the chapter is quite different. It begins with an ill-advised excursus on psychological theories bearing the names of characters from myth, but soon brushes all that aside to get down to applying Gould's model to the father-son relationship (i.e. asking what it was really like and what the myths "bring into the open" about its inner tensions). Though the payoff is less explicit here, it seems that quite a few myths contain "the message ... that challenging the authority of the father may be fatal to the son" (139). These myths are ultimately found not to conform closely to the Gouldian paradigm, since the dynamics of father/son interaction are already more a part of the sphere of public discourse than are interactions with women -- here, rather, "myths gave extreme expression to problems and possibilities which law and custom already acknowledged" (142).

Chapter 8 ("Religion") is something else again. Do myths represent religion? Not in any very interesting ways. Rather, religion is an element of the imaginaire grec to which we may perhaps fruitfully compare myth, and that is what Buxton sets out to do. He concludes that "mythology expresses openly or in extreme form that which in ritual remains hidden or disguised" (153). Moving off in another direction, he asks (echoing Paul Veyne) "Did the Greeks believe in their myths?" It will be no surprise that no satisfactory conclusions are reached. Indeed, what little evidence is brought forward is rather conspicuously misused. (The evidence on the supposed credulity of women [161] has in fact nothing at all to do with the issue of belief, and describes only emotional reactions to stories, and pleasure in them.) A conclusion of a sort is arrived at by way of the very interesting observation that belief in myths may be like belief in proverbs. That is, context is everything and contradictions among proverbs really don't matter very much.

Part Three treats the uses of myth, including the problem of interpretation, from the perspective, first, of the ancients (Ch. 9) and secondly, the moderns (Ch. 10). Briefly, the ancients are said to have used myths in the following ways: 1) preservation of the klea andron, 2) teaching -- sometimes by paradigm, and sometimes intertwined with entertainment, and sometimes by way of the allegorical explication of myths, 3) to give pleasure and arouse feelings, something that may in some cases be viewed as therapeutic, 4) to explain the present in terms of the past, all of this in the service of persuasion.

The discussion in the final chapter of "Modern Perspectives" is predictably more rewarding. The section on "Reflectors and Constructors" (182-193) is perhaps the most useful in the book, laying out in a common-sensical way the distinction between the conception of myth as representation of the ancient world (Moses Finley reading Homer to reach conclusions about the society that produced the poems, Martin Nilsson, Martin Bernal) and myth as construction of a historical reality (C. Sourvinou-Inwood on the Delphic myths as symbolic representations cast by the local mythoplasts as history). A fruitful comparison is made, based on conflicting and complementary readings of the story of Cadmus and the founding of Thebes. Further modern orientations toward myth discussed are treatment of myth as educational (a modern interpretive stance based on a well established ancient view of the function of myth), the use (e.g. by Lévi-Strauss) of myth to "map" the conceptual categories of cultures, the interpretation of myths as aetiologies (again rooted in an ancient approach), and once again (and again superficially but not inhumanely) psychology. The conclusions reached are common-sensical, pluralistic, and by that token both sympathetic and unremarkable, but this final section on the modern use of myth makes some important distinctions with great clarity.

In a sense, that discussion of approaches to myth might more appropriately have stood at the beginning of the book, where it might have introduced into the study as a whole a methodological clarity and focus that is sometimes lacking. But that would have been another sort of book. In retrospect, what Buxton is up to here is in fact an introduction to Greek culture by way of mythology. If his outline seems to promise a more systematic account than it can deliver of the ways in which Greek myth represents Greek reality, and if he makes use of that outline to do things that are not always what he seems to have promised, all that is finally not so important. What he has done, in a modest and finally quite positivistic way, is to appropriate some of the sizzle of the study of Greek myth in the traditions of Gernet and Lévi-Strauss, and to use that sizzle to enhance a rather traditional account of archaic and classical Greek culture, making that account both more accessible and more attractive to an interested novice. I have already expressed my reservations about the appropriateness of this particular introductory presentation for American students (or, for that matter, American "general readers"), but that should not obscure its usefulness, which in part does bridge that "duplicitous" sea that divides us.