Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.05.07

William Hansen, Ariadne's Thread. A Guide to International Tales Found in Classical Literature.   Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2002.  Pp. 550.  ISBN 0-8014-3670-2.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Christine Goldberg, University of California, Los Angeles (
Word count: 1832 words

Ariadne's Thread has much to recommend it, beginning with its title. This perfectly depicts the purpose of the book, which is to guide the reader through a long series of traditional tales (spun stories) from Greek and Roman sources. The bulk of the book consists of mini-studies of nearly a hundred individual folktales in their ancient and modern manifestations. By itself, any one such example seems problematic: the reader may wonder whether the correspondence is real (meaning that the ancient and modern versions derive from a common source), or whether it might be merely a figment produced by chance or by some basic laws of storytelling. In large quantities, however, the evidence for continuity grows more convincing. Moreover, regardless of whether the reader accepts the author's belief that oral tradition is the basis for the ancient material presented here, the stories are all interesting (if they were not, people would not keep retelling them). Hansen's style of narration is graceful, his arguments are reasonable, and his observations are insightful. The book is a pleasure to read.

The introduction gives concise descriptions of the comparative study of folktales and of the evidence for folktales in ancient Greece and Rome. It initiates a discussion, which is continued in most of the chapters, regarding the differences in genre and in content between ancient and modern narratives. A typical chapter in the main part of the book begins with a general description of a tale type as it is found in later oral tradition (and sometimes in medieval or early modern sources), and follows this with detailed summaries of two to four representative modern texts. Then, marked by a separate section, comes the ancient example of the same tale, again retold in detail, with information about its source(s). This is followed by a discussion of the similarities and differences between the ancient and modern examples. At the end of the chapter comes a paragraph of bibliography. Many of the folktales have more than one ancient example, each in its own section. The arrangement of these chapters is alphabetical according to titles that are appropriate for the modern tale types. Three indexes help to make things easier to find. The index of ancient sources, which includes more than 150 authors, is the most complete: it is the only one that gives references to notes as well as to text. The index of tale type numbers and selected motifs refers only to the main chapters, not to tales mentioned in passing. The general index includes characters' names, words and phrases that pertain to events in the tales, and terms used for different kinds of narratives.

This book presents more ancient folktales than any earlier work. The biggest single group (about forty examples) is the humorous anecdotes (AT 1200-1999).1 Many of these are tales about fools, such as the man who believes that his moon at home is different from the one where he is visiting; the man who trains his horse to eat less and less, but just when he succeeds in getting it to eat nothing at all, it dies; and the man who regrets that he did not learn to swim before he jumped into the water. Others are erotic, like the lusty widow of Ephesus, and the man who constructs an underground passage to the house of his lover. There are fables such as the shepherd who cried "Wolf!" and the man traveling with his son and their donkey, who is criticized regardless of who walks and who rides. Some subjects are not really narratives but are descriptions of, for instance, huge objects or animals, of Topsy-Turvy Land, and of the Land of Cockaigne (Schlaraffenland, hog heaven).

In addition to anecdotes and fables, there are another twenty simple tales. Half of these consist of conflicts in which a trickster hero gets the better of an adversary (AT 1000-1199). Odysseus's encounter with Polyphemos fits here, as does the legend of the bridge-builder who promises to give the devil the first soul that crosses the bridge (he makes sure a dog crosses before any people do), which is paired with Alexander's plan to kill the first being he meets (which the donkey driver insists was not himself but his donkey). The Types of the Folktale includes only oral tales in Old World tradition, which means myths are rarely listed there. However, one is, Ogre Steals Thunder God's Instruments, for which Hansen provides analogs in Germanic and Hittite mythology as well as the account of Nonnos. There are also about ten tales in which, in their modern forms, religious personages work magic (AT 750-849). Gods reward humans for their hospitality by saving them from a flood (ancient) or by granting them wishes (modern). A man promises to make a sacrifice greater than he can afford, reneges on the promise, and is punished by the god. Thematically, the legend of the announcement of the death of Pan belongs here, although in its modern forms it is the King of the Cats or a spirit with a nonsense name whose death is announced. Such religious tales overlap with fables, as in the account of the man who lost his axe and was rewarded by Hermes for his honesty because he did not claim a gold or a silver one.

Somewhat fewer than half the examples are of complex tales. There are about ten novelle (romantic tales, AT 850-999), including the Homecoming Husband (Odysseus's return to Penelope). A man who sneaks into a woman's room by hiding in a large golden statue of an animal is paired with the Trojan horse. Potiphar's Wife, who in the Bible tried to seduce Joseph, is represented by many accounts of lustful wives and horrified young men. There are roughly twenty magic tales (fairy tales, AT 300-749). The slipper of Rhodopsis is aligned with Cinderella, Achilles' heel with The Youth Who Bathed Himself in Blood, and the Menaechmi with The Two Brothers. The tale of Cupid and Psyche (AT 425B) is here, along with a Hellenistic ghost story matched with a similar tale in which a wife goes to hell to redeem her husband (AT 425J, but unfortunately, both numbers are missing from the index of tale types).

Hansen's strategy of basing his presentation on modern tale types has several advantages. First, it allows him to show the reader modern examples of tales that help him or her appreciate the ancient material. The modern analogs show what sort of tale the ancient one is, whether it is humorous, pathetic, horrifying, or wonderful. Once the ancient tales have been situated in a system of genres that modern people live with, the reader can feel more confident of his or her attitude toward them. Some of the comparisons (for example, The Sailor and the Oar) also help to explain problems or lapses in the ancient texts. Second, this presentation means that European folktale scholarship fits well into the chapter bibliographies. These, and the accompanying notes, are outstanding: they cover more than 150 years, from the Grimms to the present. By showing that many scholars have already worked on this material, Hansen effectively disproves Gregory Nagy's comment in his Foreword (p. ix) that classicists who are also folklorists are "relatively rare in the history of scholarship." Third, presenting several modern texts first allows Hansen to show by example how much variation exists in modern tradition and reinforces his argument that the ancient and modern examples must belong to a common tradition. One of the principles according to which folklorists distinguish tale types from motifs is that tale types are (believed to have been) created once and after that only replicated, while motifs are so simple that they may have been created many times. Thus, ancient and modern examples of tale types are, by definition, assumed to be "genetically" related.

Hansen knows that this last assumption is problematic, and he discusses precisely in what manner the ancient examples correspond to modern tradition. In the introduction, he outlines the different sorts of analogies that he has recognized: (1) overall (including structure and content), (2) partial (the ancient tale consists of one episode of the modern tale), (3) intermittent (considerable but inconsistent similarity), (4) structural (the sequence of action is the same but the details differ), (5) allusive or fragmentary, and (6) nascent (remote or rudimentary resemblance).2 In the bibliography for each chapter, tale type numbers for which the identification of the ancient text is dubious are indicated by parentheses or by "Cf." Even when the ancient tales seem not to be genetically related to their purported modern counterparts, Hansen's discussions reveal a lively interest in how stories work, in what it takes to make a good story, and what it means when two accounts are said to be examples of the same story.

One important question that Hansen does not address is how much of the labyrinth of ancient analogs to modern folktales Ariadne's Thread lets us explore. On page 294 he says that there are hundreds of such tales, which means that we have fewer than half as chapters in this volume.3 Through his own astuteness and with the help of previous scholarship, he has obviously chosen to include many of the best examples. Nevertheless the criteria that he used for inclusion (and thus for exclusion) are known only to the author. In the introduction, he mentions about thirty famous examples of correspondences between ancient literature and modern folktales. Ten of these do not appear as chapters in Ariadne's Thread. This is already a big book, and I do not want to fault it for not being even bigger. But there should be a rationale for what it includes and what it omits, or at least a reasonably complete list of "items not included."

One of the desired effects of this book should be to encourage people to pay attention to folktales in ancient sources. For this reason, it is unfortunate that Hansen does not include a short history of the region where classical scholarship and folktale scholarship have overlapped in the past. Different scholars have invented or borrowed different strategies for describing that overlap. Notes to a number of folktale collections, including that of the Grimms', mention ancient analogs. J. G. Frazer began with ancient texts and put modern folklore into his notes. H. J. Rose worked from a nineteenth-century list of tale types and cited parallels from ancient mythology. More generally, as Hansen remarks (p. 6), beginning in the nineteenth century, Märchenforschung was modeled on textual criticism, and its purpose was to establish the archetype of each tale. In the twentieth century, both disciplines have wrestled with the problem of how literature is related to culture. Recently, text-based comparative studies have largely been a fallow field neglected by folklorists and literary scholars alike. Nevertheless the potential crop is inherently interesting, and the subject is central to our understanding of cultural continuities. Ancient popular tales belong to a sector of culture shared by many people. An opportunity awaits.


1.   AT refers to Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, The Types of the Folktale (Helsinki: Folklore Fellows Communications no. 184, 1961). Hansen is very good at navigating this index, but he misrepresents its history. He repeatedly says, "Aarne-Thompson classify...", or "their summary," as if the authors worked together. Actually, Aarne's index was published in 1910, and was enlarged by Thompson twice, in 1928 and in 1961.
2.   My own preference is for the first two sets, the overall and the partial resemblances. It is also good to have the evidence laid out for sets 3 and 4, and even 5. It is to be hoped that, given time, a scholarly consensus will be reached as to the relationship between each ancient example and modern tradition. Set 6, for example the comparison of The Frog King (AT 440) to Trimalchio's proverb about having been a frog but now being a king, is in my opinion useful only to record the vagaries of scholarship. However, many of the other proverbs cited as evidence for ancient tales are more convincing (e.g. pp. 41, 189, 404, 426).
3.   Twenty-five tale type numbers are listed in the index to W. Aly, Volksmärchen, Sage, und Novelle bei Herodot und seinen Zeitgenossen (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1921). Many of these are no doubt dubious identifications. Nevertheless, Hansen has made chapters for only three of them. One of these is Sunlight Carried in a Bag (AT 1245), for which Hansen enumerates many interesting differences between the ancient and the modern tales. The other two, The Son of the King and of the Smith (AT 920, Cyrus) and Rhampsinitus (AT 950), are quite straightforward in their correspondences to modern tradition. Famous tales or episodes for which Hansen has no chapters include the ring of Polycrates, Oedipus, Alcestis, Meleager's life-light, and the snake's healing herb (Polydos and Glaukos). All of these belong in either set 1 or set 2, and could be used to support an argument for an ancient literary source for modern folktale episodes.

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