Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.2.25

Claude Calame, Mythe et histoire dans l'Antiquite grecque. La creation symbolique d'une colonie. Lausanne: Editions Payot, 1996. Pp. 185. ISBN 2-601-03189-1.

Reviewed by Adolfo J. Dominguez, Departamento de Historia Antigua, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, Ciudad Universitaria de Cantoblanco, 28049 Madrid - Spain,

In recent years several books have been published, which, like Calame's book, approach the study of Greek colonization from a less traditional perspective. Of these, the most recent is Dougherty's book,1 which also offers a new way of interpreting Greek tradition concerning colonial settlements. In fact, C.'s book is not so much a study devoted to the analysis of the mechanisms of the founding of a Greek colony, as a study of the symbolic mechanisms used by the Greeks themselves to explain within a mythical framework the reasons for it and the way in which it was done. As we will see later, the expression "mythical framework" is perhaps not entirely accurate. C. has chosen to study the city of Cyrene to illustrate his ideas concerning these traditions.

C.'s book is organised into three large chapters, each divided into various sub-sections. The first chapter, "Illusions de la mythologie", provides the theoretical basis for the contents of the book. In summary, it contains the author's reflections about the significance of myth for the Greeks, and how our contemporary definitions can hardly be applied to the use the Greeks made of their myths. Our current distinction between the "mythical" and the "historical" would make little sense to the Greeks, who would look for other means of distinguishing between the mythical or unreal and the historical or real. Obviously, the fact that the Greeks (before the 4th Century B.C.) had not developed a common view in this regard leads different ancient writers to accept or reject particular accounts according to different criteria: usefulness, pedagogical value, even piety. Curiously, the main criterion does not seem to be how close they are to the "truth". C.'s faultless analysis, following the line of research represented by authors such as Vernant, Vidal-Naquet or Detienne,2 manages to convince us that what for us is myth was for the Greeks nothing but the telling of "les événements constitutifs du passé de sa propre culture; mieux, de sa propre cité" (p. 39), for which reason its elimination would have been unthinkable. And C. observes the integration of that past into the continuous account of events, both in texts which epigraphy makes available such as Marmor Parium (he could have added the Chronicum Lindium) and in historical works such those of Acusilaus or Pherecides, as well as those of Herodotus or Thucydides. The overwhelming impression left after reading these pages is that we are looking at different conceptual frameworks. It is to get out of this dead-end that C. suggests a semio-narrative reading of myth in which its construction and functioning are considered as important as its recitation and its acting. The main pivots around which the rest of the book revolves are the relationship between poetry and its audience (here we can see the debt to Gentili's work),3 between the time of the recitation and the time to which the story refers, and between the place of the performance and location of the story. In C.'s own words, it deals with "les rapports établis par la mise en discours et par les processus de la schématisation entre l'espace/temps figure dans la narration simbolique et l'espace/temps de son énonciation" (p.54).

Having laid out and developed his interpretive framework in the first chapter, in the second chapter, "La fondation narrative de Cyrene", C. proceeds to apply it to the foundation of Cyrene. After introducing the main evidence, Pythian 9, 5, and 4 of Pindar, Herodotus (4.156-167), the Hymn of Apollo by Callimachus, the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes, and the so-called "Oath of the Founders", he offers a detailed "semio-narrative" analysis of each of these texts. The position adopted by C. in rejecting the existence of "one" history of the founding of Cyrene, to which most authors would subscribe in one way or another, is of great interest. According to the theoretical framework developed in the first chapter, C. believes in "plusieurs légendes, où fragments de légendes, integrees dans des genres marques par une forme et orientés par une perspective et une fonction singulières" (p. 65). This is why C. is mainly concerned with how a whole series of narrative themes are realized.

Pythian 4 is the first to be considered as it is the most complex of Pindar's poems regarding Cyrene. An initial approach allows C. to identify five different periods: T1 or the period of the performance of the ode (Arcesilaus IV); T2 or the period of the founding act (Battus): T3 or the period of the non-realized programme (Danaus): T4 or the period of the prophecy (Medea): and T5 or the period of the manipulation (Euphemus). Each of these periods, in its turn, acts upon the present in which the piece is being acted and all of these end up legitimising the founding of Battus, and consequently enhancing the role of his descendant Arcesilaus IV. It is impossible to try to summarise here the large number of suggestions, keys for interpretation, readings, that C. provides. It has to be emphasized, though, that his analysis is extremely convincing concerning the mechanisms present in the development of the legend of the founding, which also involves the presence of the Pythia and the gods Zeus, Poseidon, and Apollo. Legitimacy, civilisation, order, generation, are some of the topics that are subject to C.'s analysis of Pythian 4. In Pythian 9, however, the focus of attention is the eponymous nymph of the city and her union with Apollo, followed by the marriage of the colonist Alexidamus with the daughter of a Libyan prince, and, finally, the marriage of Telesicrates himself, for whom the ode was written. All these events are properly seen as "actes fondateurs tendant à ancrer une cité grecque dans un territoire indigène" (p.107). Finally, Pythian 5, which complements the vision given in Pythian 4, focuses above all on the genos of the Battiads, on the institution of the Carneia, and on the necessary connection between the colonial Cyrenean atmosphere and the Greek land through the figure of Apollo. In the same way, the making of Battus into a founding hero, is also the making of Arcesilaus IV into a hero.

Herodotus' thorough and complex account is also characterised by the fact that it goes back to remote times for the causes of the founding of Cyrene; Sparta, Thera and Cyrene follow one another as the focus of the tale. However, after introducing the motives for the departure of the settlers, Herodotus indicates the existence of two versions, one from the people in Thera and the other from the Cyreneans, each one independent from the other. C. notes that both have the same narrative scheme, even though the order of events differs. In the same way, both tales end up leading the settlers towards a fountain dedicated to Apollo, the final point of both stories. C. also notes the relationship that this account has with other foundation stories, such as those concerning Tarentum and Croton, and to which we could add, in my view, that of Epizephyrian Locris.4 Above all they deal with the topic of legitimising the Greek dominion and the power of the founder, as well as the role of the Delphic Oracle, which is pervasive in Herodotus' account. Equally, and partly linked to the inscription text of the "Oath of the Founders", there is the issue of the motive for the colonisation, the stasis, best understood as ritual staining or pollution. This results in the rejection by stoning of the settlers attempting to return to Tera. The similarities of this to the ritual of pharmakos is correctly pointed out by Calame. Gras has considered in depth the various connotations that this practice entails.5

Finally, Callimachus and Apollonius represent the last developments of the Cyrenean theme, although with the special feature that they signify a return to the language of poetry: a clear example that the movement from mythos to logos is not irreversible for the Greeks. For C. a common feature connecting both accounts is their linear chronological development; in addition, in Callimachus' case there is also the poet's personal stance: Apollo, Battus, Callimachus (of Cyrenean origin himself), the contemporary Cyrenean kings and perhaps Ptolemy II are all linked. The account ends in the work of Apollonius of Rhodes, in what C. considers an entire cosmogony.

The short third chapter, "Ni mythe, ni histoire," returns to the basic theme introduced in the first chapter, but supported by the analysis developed in the second: "... le développement de la légende de la fondation de Cyrene dans ses differéntes versions n'esquisse aucun passage du mythe a l'histoire au sens ou communement nous entendons ces deux notions; pas de passage non plus du muthos au logos dans le sens d'une rationalisation progressive" (p.163). In his final words, C. argues in favour of the Greeks' symbolic approach to the past, the relation of mythos with poetry and music, and the loss of the Greek concept of mythos as it becomes myth (our concept of myth) -- which came to be used to refer to distant events, to be understood as the opposite to the concept (i.e. our concept) of history.

In summary, in rejecting the "indigenous" character of the concept of myth as it is understood today,6 the anthropological approach that C. suggests offers an interesting viewpoint concerning the interpretation of the accounts of the founding of Cyrene. Pindar plays with various levels of the past and the present; Herodotus develops a complex plot in which we move in a continuous fashion from the descendants of the Argonauts expelled from Lemnos up to the reign of Arcesilaus III (Herodotus 4.145-167); in the Oath of the Founders legend is mixed with political relations among the Cyrenean and Theran poleis, etc. Where does myth end and history begin? This question, which perhaps the Greeks did not ask themselves before Socrates or Plato, or which, if they did, they were not able to agree on the answer to, gives way in C.'s book to a study of the accounts, whether poetic or not, on which the Greeks based their perception of their past. Whether or not we agree with all the points which C. puts forward, the lucidity of his arguments and the answers he provides to many of the problems posed by Greek literary tradition cannot be denied. And this, moreover, in such an area as the foundation of the Greek colonies, for which, in many cases -- including Cyrene -- there are other kinds of evidence available that are more in accordance with our way of viewing the past, which illustrate another kind of history.


1. C. Dougherty, The poetics of colonization. From city to text in Archaic Greece (Oxford 1993), reviewed by M.W. Edwards in BMCR 94.5.4.

2. J.P. Vernant, Myth and thought among the Greeks (London and Boston 1983); Id., Mythe et religion en Grece ancienne (Paris 1990); J.P. Vernant, P. Vidal-Naquet, Myth and tragedy in ancient Greece (Cambridge, MA 1988); P. Vidal-Naquet, Le chasseur noir: formes de pensee et formes de societe dans le monde grec (Paris 1981).

3. B. Gentili, Poetry and its public in ancient Greece: from Homer to the fifth century (Baltimore 1988); the third italian edition was published in 1995.

4. See, for instance, S. Pembroke, "Locres et Tarente. Le role des femmes dans la fondation de deux colonies grecques", Annales (ESC) (1970) 1240-1270; R. Van Compernolle, "Le tradizioni sulla fondazione e sulla storia arcaica di Locri Epizefiri e la propaganda politica alla fine del V e nel IV secolo av. Cr.", ASNP, 6 (1976) 330-400.

5. M. Gras, "Cite grecque et lapidation. Du chatiment dans la cite", in Supplices corporeles et peine de mort dans le monde antique (Roma 1984) 75-88.

6. See the remarks by L. Edmunds in his review of F. Graf, Greek Mythology: An Introduction (Baltimore 1993), BMCR 94.9.10.