Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.01.17

Charles Delattre, Manuel de mythologie grecque. Pratiques du mythe.   Rosny-sous-Bois:  Éditions Bréal, 2005.  Pp. 319.  ISBN 2-7495-0477-5.  €19.00.  

Reviewed by Janette Auer, Brock University (
Word count: 2668 words

Delattre's (D.) work on Greek myth and mythology is divided into a long introductory section and five chapters in which he seeks to provide a practical tool for the reading and understanding of ancient Greek myths rather than a text that simply recounts the myths and their variants. It is not, therefore a handbook or manual of the myths in the usual sense, but rather an attempt to show the ways the myths were written, composed and transmitted in the Greek world, and (in this reviewer's opinion) a very interesting and successful effort to demonstrate how the myths were used by the Greeks themselves. D.'s argument is that there is not one single type of myth, but rather different "techniques and strategies" for presenting them, and he makes each strategy the object of a short chapter within larger sections that is based on the study of an individual or several documents. The documents, which range from literary works to images to inscriptions, analyze characters of myth, the media of mythic expression, representation of the historic past through genealogical and foundation myths, and the political aspects of myth that can relate to the present time. Each section is fairly brief, but there are relevant and up to date bibliographies after each of the short chapters, which will allow the reader to explore further what has been presented.

The intended audience for this book is students and teachers of myth at the university level; this reviewer would agree that the level of writing and analysis is appropriate to this audience (though for the contemporary North American educational scene, an English translation would be more useful; and this reviewer believes that the manual is worthy of translation). It would be a very useful complement in an introductory myth course to one of the standard textbooks that serve to recount the body of ancient Greek myths, or in a more advanced course along with, for example, Eric Csapo's Theories of Mythology (2005).

The long Introduction (pp. 5-62) outlines the different possible definitions of myth under the headings Quelle définition du mythe?; Comment analyser un mythe?; La parole mythique; Transmission et héritage: la part des anges; Extension géographique et historique; Quel document moderne?; Quel document ancien?; and Discours de la méthode.

In "Quelle définition du mythe?" D. proposes that there is not one single definition of myth, valid for all times and places; rather that there are diverse definitions, specific to particular usages and contexts; hence the different techniques for presenting them. He criticizes definitions of myth that set them up as true versus false, or that use them as documentary texts for a better understanding of ancient gods and religion. Myth, as Lévi-Strauss has allowed us to see, does not stand in opposition to the traditional mathematical sciences. It is in fact a rational intellectual activity that is simply different from these sciences. In "Comment analyser un mythe?" D. asserts that from the beginning (Theagenes of Rhegium, Euhemerus), commentary on Greek myths has assumed that beyond the evident or obvious sense of a myth lies a second, hidden meaning. This led to the allegorical and symbolist methods of analysis, revealing what was missing from the myth in the first place. The myth itself is subordinated to its real meaning, and it is the revelation of real meaning through analysis that provides the justification of the myth (esp. the Cambridge School). Structural analysis of the 20th c. moved away from the hierarchical notions of myth, towards understanding myth as purely an ontological statement. The myth's architecture and relationship with other myths (rather than any "hidden meaning") are central to structuralism. Rather than concern with the function ("fonction") of myth, structural analysis concerns itself with the functioning ("fonctionnement") of the narrative. And this is intimately connected with a rejection of the "good version" for the collection of possible narrative variants ("la variabilité devient le critère essential du mythe). Myth is a speech act (un acte d'expression autonome et de parole"). D. here gives the example of historical variation in the narration of the story of Cinderella, beginning with Perrault's 17th c. version, through Balzac's interpretation in the 19th, Disney's animated film in the mid-20th, and versions found on the Internet in the 21st c., the differences arising in the construction of Cinderella's slippers (verre, vair, glass, crystal).

In "La parole mythique", D. rejects the idea that once a myth appears in written form, all possibility of evolution of that myth is archived and therefore killed. He asserts that as long as the public accepts a new variant, the myth remains very much alive, so that the identification of myth with oral expression is not necessarily operative. He equates (loosely, not precisely) fiction in the modern world with myth in the ancient Greek world. There is a rapport between a modern author and his reader that is analogous to that between the ancient myth-maker and his audience, a suspension of disbelief that is/was sustained as long as there is a semblance of truth shared. D. ponders whether there have been short-lived, aborted myths, myths that never really took hold, and he thinks that this is likely to have been the case in the ancient world. A myth, like a modern work of fiction, will live on if it, in the first place, produces pleasure, and if, as a corollary of this, it is effective in the second place ("plaisir" and "efficacité"; though could we not say this about any work of literature, in any genre, or indeed in any of the arts?).

Since a myth appears in some form, which D. calls a "support", mythology must include in its analyses the form of the document, whether a literary text or an inscription or an image, each of which has its own end or goal. A myth must not be reduced to simple, individual elements isolated from the rest. It is the entire document. In the three chapters that follow, the selected myths are then studied, illustrating the devices and mechanics of their construction.

Première partie: les personnages du mythe, pp. 63-140

"Mythe et dieu", in which the attack of Diomedes upon Aphrodite at Iliad V.330-347 is discussed under the rubrics of Contexte, Personnages, Plan, Enjeux (statut du combat, nature de la déesse). D.'s conclusion: that the scene which represents the body of the god(dess) in terms of the human body is just an expedient; that all signs (e.g. blood that is not blood) are inverted and that the result of the scene is that the divine being is shown as superior to the human. Not entirely "autre" but "différente". As in all his textual examples, D. provides the Greek text with a French translation.

"Mythe et héros", in which D. considers three domains of the hero: 1) Narratif, the most problematic for D. since the hero is seen as a "real" person and therefore his personality must be seen to have some chronological and psychological coherence. D. believes that the ancient hero was a character ("personnage"), but one for which any coherence resided only within a single recounting of a story. 2) Littéraire, the hero in epic. 3) Religieux, hero as cult object. D. analyzes Plutarch. Theseus 20. 8-9, on the abandonment of Ariadne on Naxos by Theseus and her marriage to Dionysus, which focuses on the lesser known, or less widespread, story of Ariadne's marriage to the god and her tomb/cult on Naxos (suggesting two separate Ariadnes in ancient myth).

"Mythe et demi-dieu". The text of Apollodorus III.126 and 134-137 on the birth, lives and fate of the Dioscuri is the document interestingly chosen to represent the difficulty inherent in the definition of a demi-god. Through the literary device of close pairing of characters in this text (Castor/Pollux, Idas/Lynceus, Phoebe/Hilaira), and the distinctive fate assigned to the Dioscuri (one day among the gods alternating with one day among the mortals, rather than among the dead of the underworld as in other ancient texts) this one ancient source attempts a plausible solution to the murky understanding in antiquity of the status of the demi-god in relation to gods and mortals. With Castor entirely mortal and Pollux half-divine, the two are, by literary contiguity, provided with a fate that assigns both of them equally to the world of the mortals and the immortals. This contrasts with the fates of Heracles, who also had a double in Iphicles, and Theseus, who, though without a double, also had a divine father.

"Mythe et figure". Through Plato, Gorgias 523e-524a, D. describes the birth of the type, or stereotype, in myth. At the end of the Gorgias, Socrates establishes the figure of the infernal judge in Minos, Rhadamanthos and Aiakos. Minos had appeared in Homer as judge of disputes in the underworld, and Pindar had placed Rhadamanthos at the side of Cronos as adviser to the king of the gods. Plato makes use of these literary antecedents and adds Aiakos to form the iconic triumvirate. These judges of the underworld are directly imitated again in Greek antiquity only textually (though not in representational art, other than three Italian vases of the 4th century), and then again in Virgil, Dante and Racine.

Deuxième partie: les expressions du mythe, pp. 141-184

"Mythe et mythographie". D. asserts that the mythographers (e.g. Apollodorus and Hyginus in Antiquity, Tzetzes in the Middle Ages, Conti in the Renaissance) offer a particular kind of reduced writing that narrates a myth as a chronological story, with interactions of several characters (i.e. mythemes organized to produce a logically coherent, ongoing narrative). The mythographers do not produce a "pure" version.

D. uses Palaiphatos. Incredibilia, 12, "On Daedalus and Icarus" to illustrate the interpretative project of the mythographer. In this case, it is the expurgation of certain details that bother him; specifically, the notion that a man can fly. Escape by flight in the air becomes escape by navigation in a boat; the fall of Icarus becomes a shipwreck. All marvelous or unbelievable elements of the traditional story are rationalized (following the tradition of Euhemerus) by playing on words and by correcting misinterpretations occasioned by human ignorance and weakness of perception: Daedalus and Icarus, for example, sailed so quickly under a favourable wind that they appeared to be flying. The basic story does not change, but details are made to conform to the natural order of things.

"Mythe et iconographie". D. analyzes three lekythoi of the 5th century that portray the figure of Charon sitting in a boat at the edge of an underworld river. The practical purpose of the lekythos was funereal, and the depictions tell us something about the Greek view of death. We understand the sense of the image through an iconographic code. In the two lekythoi that depict Charon and an approaching figure (the dead person), the two characters look intently at each other. It is this intent gaze that is the central important feature. On the third lekythos there is no approaching figure shown, but through the gaze of Charon we understand the representation of a similar scene. There is no depiction, for instance, of the obol that is to be the Ferryman's pay, nor of any other funeral ritual. The portrayal has less to do with ritual than with the imagination of the painter. Ekphrasis, on the other hand, is common throughout Greek literature and presents an image in the textual medium, elaborated by use of its own special codes, separate from the actual image, and substituting a narrative version of it.

Troisième partie: mythe et étiologie, pp. 185-222

"Mythe et toponyme". D. employs a fragment of Hellanikos, summarized by Dionysios of Halicarnassos, in which Heracles, the quintessential Greek hero-traveller, pursues a cow that has escaped from Geryon's herd, which he is driving back to Greece. He calls Italy "Vitulia" (which becomes "Italia") after a word that the inhabitants of the area use to designate the cow. This falls in line with the project of the historian Dionysios to show the Greek origins of Rome.

"Mythe et rituel". The scholia to Pindar's Olympian 13, 56c explains how the etiological device gives sense to the ritual of the torch race at the Corinthian Hellotia, by focusing on the character Hellotis and the significance of fire in the myth. Other aspects of the festival (processions, sacrifices) are ignored because of the particular project of the scholiast. We are left, therefore, with an incomplete picture of overall ritual at the Corinthian Hellotia since the scholiast is attempting only to elucidate a particular phenomenon, rather than to give an ethnologically complete account of, in this case, a festival. D. sees this as both a blessing (here is our only source of information about the Corinthian Hellotia) and a danger (the elimination of any detail that does not concern the etiological explanation).

Quatrième partie: mythe et représentation du passé, pp. 223-290

"Mythe et généalogie". D. focuses on Diodorus' fascinating narrative genealogy of the Cretan royal family at IV, 60, 2-4 of the Library. D. here provides one of the most interesting analyses in the book. Through the particular grouping of names (starting with Deucalion and ending with the children of Minos II and Pasiphae), and the invention of a Minos I and a Minos II, thus creating a doublet of the usual Minos of myth, Diodorus emphasizes the divine element as well the Greek and the non-Greek (i.e. indigenous, such as Crethe, Ida, Asterios, Corybas) fusion that is the heritage of the Cretan royal family, in justification of its transmission of power and of its legitimacy to rule.

"Mythe et fondation". D. analyzes Dionysios of Halicarnassus' Roman Antiquities I, 59, 4-5, in which the events (i.e. omens of fire, wolf, fox, eagle, sow) leading up to the foundation of Lavinium, "glorious" precursor of Rome, are discussed. Comparisons are made with the versions of Varro and Virgil.

"Mythe et théâtre". D. analyzes Euripides' Medea, lines 780-797 in terms of the expectations of the audience ("horizon d'attente"). The body of details concerning the legends of Jason and the Golden Fleece and Jason's tumultuous relationship with Medea came to Euripides from the Iliad and the Odyssey, and from Hesiod, Pindar, Pherecydes, Sophocles, and possibly Creophylos, Parmeniscos and Eumelos. Medea's murder of her children is likely to have been novel, and thus this literary work gives birth to a "type", the infanticidal mother, as she will ever after be considered in myth.

Cinquième partie: mythe et représentation du présent, pp. 291-315

"Mythe et politique". Through three examples taken from inscriptions and visual representations, D. shows how myth was used in a way that could be compared with the methods of modern ideology and propaganda. A city could provide a public (re)presentation of itself through expressions of political myth, or a political usage of myth in the spheres of narration, ritual, or iconography. His examples deal with political accords between two cities: divinities (Artemis and Aphrodite) as reflections or representatives of the cities, showing, through a handshake (dexiosis), an equality between them in their alliance; a male (Corinthos, probably a king) and a female (Leucas, with no royal attributes, shown placing a crown on the head of Corinthos), revealing a certain subordination of the colony Leucade to the mother-city Corinth; and the invoking of blood relationship between two eponymous heroes (Cephalos - Cephallenia, Magnes - Magnesia), the heroic genealogy coinciding with the political alliance and functioning as justification for it.

Index, pp. 316-319: the indexes ("Index des notions", "Index des noms", "Index des auteurs") lead the reader to the first page of the chapter where the term occurs, rather than to the occurrence of the term itself, necessitating some browsing in order to find the term in the text.

In sum, this book is to be strongly recommended to any serious student of Greek myth and mythology. It leads one to wish for even more examples in each section -- and this not as a criticism, but rather as an acknowledgement of the appropriateness of each of the selections and of the persuasiveness of the argumentation.

Read Latest
Index for 2007
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:31:33, Friday, 03 April 2009