Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.11.4


Jacob Stern (trans.), Palaephatus: On Unbelievable Tales. Wauconda: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1996. Pp. 167. $40.00; ISBN 0-86516-320-0 (hb). $20.00; ISBN 0-86516-310-3 (pb).


Reviewed by James Romm, Bard College.

It is odd, in an era when many classical authors are available in a half-dozen translations, to find a Greek author who has never been put into English before; but then, Palaephatus is an odd bird. His peculiar method of rationalizing exotic myths does not fit easily into any of the generic categories established by the Loeb Classical Library, where so many other odd birds of antiquity can be found, and the only surviving fragments of his treatise, PERI\ A)/PISTWN -- 72 short pages in the Teubner edition, of which the last five are clearly the work of an interpolator -- are not in themselves enough to fill a Loeb volume. What Jacob Stern has done, then, is to create the equivalent of a Loeb edition of this strange and intriguing work, adding his own English translation to Festa's Teubner text of 1902 (printed consecutively, not on facing pages), and then supplementing the two with an introduction, notes and commentary. The result is an extremely useful and elegant edition that will help make this hitherto obscure author available to students of Greek mythology and intellectual history.

Palaephatus was apparently a contemporary of Aristotle, and thus lived at a time when the body of myths inherited from high antiquity had long been under scrutiny by scientists and skeptics. Plato in the Phaedrus shows Socrates playfully attempting to rationalize the myth of Boreas' rape of Orithyia, by explaining that a gust of the north wind had simply blown the poor girl down off a steep precipice. But Socrates quickly draws back from this sort of approach, anticipating that it would take vast amounts of time and ingenuity to similarly decode all the fabulous elements in the mythic tradition: centaurs, chimeras, gorgons, Pegasuses, and the like. As if taking this Phaedrus passage as his challenge, Palaephatus set out to make all of Greek mythology conform with TO\ EI)KO/S, even when this required performing bizarre, almost ludicrous linguistic or logical contortions. For instance, he explains the Theban origin myth, in which Cadmus was said to have generated the Spartoi or Sown Men by planting dragon's teeth, in the following way: A Theban king named Drago had owned a pair of elephant's tusks; Cadmus slew him, thus precipitating a civil war in which these tusks, along with the rest of the royal treasury, became objects of contention. Drago's supporters stole the tusks and fled to many different parts of Greece, thus becoming scattered SPA=RTOI) as a result of (E)K) Drago's teeth! This is the sort of game that children, or participants in the British game show "My Word," play in jest, but Palaephatus seems to be in dead earnest, since for him the credibility of the whole mythic tradition is at stake. In reading him, therefore, one has the odd sensation of seeing the most central and significant stories from Greek mythology converted into a series of tortured puns.

The rendering into English of such elaborate puns is of course one of the most challenging tasks a translator can undertake, and Stern, for the most part, meets this challenge ably. However there are places in which his footnotes could do more to clarify the ways in which linguistic misprisions give rise to Palaephatus' mythic tales. For example, when the victims of a female bandit named Sphinx, who happens to be accompanied by a pet dog, describe the speed with which their attacker moved -- OU) TRE/XEI, A)LLA\ PE/TETAI KAI\ KU/WN KAI\ GUNH/ -- one can easily see how the image of a winged monster, part dog and part woman, took form. But that image is much harder to derive from Stern's English version, "She doesn't run, she flies -- she and her dog!" It might not have been possible to capture in translation the ambiguity as to whether the Greek KAI/ ... KAI/ denotes two different creatures or two combined into one, as the singular verb suggests; but a footnote would have helped the Greekless reader understand just how natural an error led to the creation of the Sphinx legend. I also found myself troubled by Stern's occasional use of English versions of proper names within the text of Palaephatus' rationalizations; by calling a character named Alopex "Fox," or Taurus "Bull," he spares the reader additional footnotes, but also (to my ears anyway) gives the text an inappropriately folkloric tone, as in the tales of Brer Rabbit. But I should stress that I take issue with only these minor points in what is generally a clear, well-annotated, and -- to the degree that Palaephatus' rather flat prose style allows -- lively translation.

Accompanying his translation of each of the rationalizations, Stern gives three types of commentary: A list of "Additional Versions" of the myth in question, along with their primary loci in Greek and occasionally Latin literature; a critical "Comment," analyzing the technique of Palaephatus' explanation or comparing it with the approaches attempted by other Greek rationalists; and, in some cases, a "Bibliography" of relevant secondary literature. The first of these three elements at first struck me as a gratuitous (though greatly welcome) apparatus, until I perceived how many myths are recorded by Palaephatus in unique variants, or in how many cases he provides our earliest written record of a mythic tale. The exhaustively compiled lists of "Additional Versions," therefore, will be extremely useful to readers interested in tracing the growth and evolution of individual myths, or in bridging the gap between archaic and classical Greek versions of a myth and their Roman or late Greek descendants. Undergraduates in Mythology courses will no doubt find them easier to use and more complete than comparable lists in the Oxford Classical Dictionary or the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, if they plan on researching one of the fifty-two myths dealt with by Palaephatus or his interpolator; and of course the secondary citations contained in the "Bibliography" segments are more extensive than in these other sources.

The translation and commentary are prefaced by an excellent introduction, in which Stern situates Palaephatus in the history of Greek rationalization of myth and explains his aims and procedures. Here the interesting point is advanced that "the fundamental thrust of Palaephatean rationalism is not theological or philosophical but historical," and parallels are drawn to the I(STORI/H practiced by Herodotus and the Ionian logographers. (One parallel Stern omits to mention, but which supports his point, is Palaephatus' claim in his prologue to have gathered his explanations from the elder inhabitants of various lands where myths supposedly originated. If we are to take him at his word, he never devised any rationalizations himself, but merely adopted the Herodotean strategy, LE/GEIN TA\ LEGO/MENA). Since the Olympian gods are outside of history, they are also beyond the scope of Palaephatus' brand of mythological inquiry. On the other hand human social evolution lies at the center of that inquiry, so that Palaephatus, like Herodotus, is keenly interested in moments of cultural innovation, or in the mistaken impressions one nation forms about another.

Stern does not make any grand claims for the importance or intelligence of this curious author, but has presented the surviving fragments of his work in a volume that will be valuable to many and intriguing to all. He shows us that Palaephatus deserves to be looked at, and not only, as was long the case, because he could instruct youngsters in both elementary Greek and basic mythology at the same time. As Stern himself says in his introduction, "Although the [rationalistic] movement may be fundamentally absurd, the history of the absurd is no doubt important."