Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.07.36

Christine Schmitz, Anja Bettenworth (ed.), Menschen - Heros - Gott: Weltentwürfe und Lebensmodelle im Mythos der Vormoderne.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2009.  Pp. 183; 24 p. of plates.  ISBN 9783515092944.  €44.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Wolfgang Polleichtner, Ruhr-Universität Bochum (


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Christine Schmitz and Anja Bettenworth have edited a wonderful collection of ten essays on the question how heroes, gods, and humans function in pre-modern myth to create meaning, orientation, or identity within their own contexts in which they are situated by those who are narrating these myths while using various media for this purpose. Pertinent aspects of vase painting and architecture are discussed as well as literary evidence. In addition, the contributions to this volume come from a very wide-ranging multi-disciplinary background, which either deal with antiquity directly or make use of its reception. Thus, this volume is also fit to acquaint its readers with the methodologies and approaches to antiquity within these various fields in the form of case studies. This feature seems to be a minor by-product of this book at first, but it should not be undervalued. The articles of this book developed out of the papers of the annual conference of the Center for the History and Culture of the Eastern Mediterranean of the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster in November of 2006. The editors of this volume need to be applauded for having produced a book that is very cohesive in spite of the diversity of the approaches, disciplines, and centuries that are discussed.

Jan Assmann in his contribution (Der Mythos des Gottkönigs im Alten Ägypten) argues that the myth of the god king in late Egyptian times blocked the development of heroic myths, as we know them from Greek or Roman contexts. Epic poetry on godlike men was therefore impossible. Hence, the ancient Egyptian concept of the relationship between gods and men appears to have been very different from other concepts in the Mediterranean in antiquity although narratives about heroic humans did exist in Egyptian literature as well.1

Lutz Käppel (Heroisierung als aitiologische Form in der griechischen Tragödie am Beispiel des sophokleischen Oedipus Coloneus) offers a new interpretation of the cult of Oedipus. Colonus serves, according to Käppel, as a poetological cipher for Sophocles’ own Dionysian art. Oedipus’ heroic status that is achieved at the end of the play then serves as a special means to contextualize the myth in reality. Even if I might have wished that Käppel could have specified more clearly and more often on which grounds he makes certain statements,2 this interpretation which shows Sophocles’ own aspirations and his self-assessment as an author at the end of the 5th century seems plausible and opens interesting paths for further research.

Magdalene Söldner (Naiskoi für Menschen. Eine heroisierende Fiktion im unteritalischen Vasenbild) makes a very learned case for an interpretation of naiskos scenes on vases from Southern Italy as mythical images that bring the persons featured in them closer to the realm of heroes. Söldner contradicts the common view that these naiskos scenes are representations of cemetery scenes from reality. Söldner’s view supplements nicely Lohmann’s findings.3

Michael Janda (Der römische Triumphator als Iuppiter - Ein Mythos und seine Aktualisierungen) traces possible models for the Roman triumphal procession back to Greece (Dionysus) and India. To mark creative victory over chaos seems to be the common denominator for these ritual processions. His account that rests to a large extent on tracking down the Indo-European roots of related words is now nicely complemented by Mary Beard’s recent book on the Roman triumph.4

Lilian Balensiefen (Apollo Palatinus. Ein Kultgründungsvorhaben des jungen Caesar Divi Filius) rightly distances the construction of the temple of Apollo Palatinus from any attempt to use the battle of Naulochus or the reported lightning stroke at the place of the sanctuary as rather monocausal explanations for Octavian’s deed. Balensiefen sees Octavian’s foundation of this cult as a manifestation of Octavian’s personal and political belief in the political and social predestination of Rome This view supports once more the view that Apollo was chosen by Octavian as a special deity for himself because of “the latitude of possible associations and the concomitant opportunity for further development.”5

Johannes Breuer (Der Mythos als Maßstab menschlichen Handelns und Seins in den Oden des Horaz) argues convincingly that Horace used mythological examples not just for the sake of their content and their relevancy for their contexts, but also in order to reflect on these myths - and their uses - themselves. I would argue, however, that Horace’s mythological examples sometimes serve even more purposes and work on even more levels than Breuer indicates. Take, for example, the case of Bellerophon’s abilities (carm. 3.12.8).6

Anja Bettenworth’s treatment of the Argei ritual in Ovid’s Fasti is a very erudite piece of philological scholarship (Mythos und Erinnerung in den Fasti: Ovid und der Ursprung des Argeerrituals). Bettenworth convincingly argues that Ovid situated his account of this ritual on what we know from Vergil by filling in the gaps of Vergil’s narrative. And yet Ovid once more employs his technique of literary refraction. By using the god Tiber as his witness, Ovid lets somebody speak who has a vested interest in the version of the myth that is presented. Bettenworth’s contribution once more brings to mind the more general question how Ovid was dealing with Vergil’s poetic legacy and directs our attention to the fact that Vergil’s influence on Ovid was by no means restricted to the “little Aeneid” of the Metamorphoses.7 Since key elements of Ovid’s pertinent literary strategies are parallel both in the Metamorphoses and here in the Fasti, Bettenworth’s article shows how interesting and important further research in this direction would be.

Christine Schmitz (Narrative Wiederholung mythischer Modelle im Argonautenepos des Valerius Flaccus) very succinctly analyzes Valerius’ method of narrating in repetitions. Valerius’ repetitions happen along thematic and narratological patterns that allow Valerius to “repeat” scenes from his predecessors, myths, or patterns of typical settings that serve as the background against which the new passages need to be read. Valerius achieves a new level of innovative imitation by applying his method of repetition, but also calls attention to the very fact that his Argonautica is in itself a repetition. Apparently, Valerius did think a lot about his status in the line of epic poets who had to deal with material that was already used before. Schmitz’ observations foster the view that Valerius’ work fashioned itself as a work that expresses the desire for refoundation, renewal, return to order, and reconstruction.8 This desire necessarily entails a certain longing for repetition.

As a case study of the reception of ancient myths, Nikolaus Staubach (Zwischen Mythenallegorese und Idolatriekritik. Bischof Theodulf von Orléans und die heidnischen Götter) explains in detail Theodulph’s path from an absolute rejection of the ancient gods to an opinion in which the cult of the ancient gods is, of course, wrong, but in which their stories can serve as examples that will guide the people who see, read, or hear them to a better life. In a very concise overview that forms the introduction of the article, Staubach recounts the broader development of these two opinions that he characterizes as two separate traditions of discourse. Staubach contextualizes Theodulph’s opinions within the apparently changing climate in the 8th and 9th century between the Byzantine Iconoclasm and the reign of Louis the Pious. Special attention is given to the figure of Hercules and Cacus and the reception of Cacus’ punishment in Theodulph’s works. Theodulph read Hercules as virtue. He did so in a long line of writers that includes Fulgentius, Isidore of Seville, or Albericus of London.9

Stefan Leder (Religion, Gesellschaft, Identität - Ideologie und Subversion in der Mythenbildungs des arabischen ›Volksepos‹) describes the Arabic Folk Novel or Arabic Folk Epic, which came into existence in the Arabic Near East in the High Middle Ages, the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. To make his case, Leder uses the Hamza Epic as his example. Leder admits that narrative material from the Greco-Roman world has entered Arabic literature as well, but for the sake of his argument, he distinguishes both literatures by pointing our attention to the different concept of religion that the Arabic world had when the Arabic folk tales were invented. The concept of a revealed religion lets the tales surrounding this religion appear in a different light than stories that do not come from such a background. It is interesting to note, however, that religious concepts are discussed and at times criticized within the framework of this narrative. The New York Times was less scrupulous than Leder and compared the tales of Amir Hamza with those of Homer.10

A useful index nominum and the pictures of the articles by Söldner and Balensiefen are concluding this wonderful tour de force.

Vorwort 7
Jan Assmann: Der Mythos des Gottkönigs im Alten Ägypten 11
Lutz Käppel: Heroisierung als aitiologische Form in der griechischen Tragödie am Beispiel des sophokleischen Oedipus Coloneus 27
Magdalene Söldner: Naiskoi für Menschen. Eine heroisierende Fiktion im unteritalischen Vasenbild 35
Michael Janda: Der römische Triumphator als Iuppiter - Ein Mythos und seine Aktualisierungen 53
Lilian Balensiefen: Apollo Palatinus. Ein Kultgründungsvorhaben des jungen Caesar Divi Filiu 67
Johannes Breuer: Der Mythos als Maßstab menschlichen Handelns und Seins in den Oden des Horaz 91
Anja Bettenworth: Mythos und Erinnerung in den Fasti: Ovid und der Ursprung des Argeerrituals 103
Christine Schmitz: Narrative Wiederholung mythischer Modelle im Argonautenepos des Valerius Flaccus 119
Nikolaus Staubach: Zwischen Mythenallegorese und Idolatriekritik. Bischof Theodulf von Orléans und die heidnischen Götter 149
Stefan Leder: Religion, Gesellschaft, Identität - Ideologie und Subversion in der Mythenbildung des arabischen ›Volksepos‹ 167
Index nominum 181


1.   Cf., e.g, F. Hoffmann: Ägypten. Kultur und Lebenswelt in griechisch-römischer Zeit. Eine Darstellung nach den demotischen Quellen. Berlin 2000, 195-217.
2.   Cf., e.g., p. 32: “soweit ich mich umgesehen habe” and p. 33: “Er [sc. Oedipus] ist damit ein ideales Modell für einen tragischen Charakter im Sinne des Sophokles.” Statements like these would have deserved at least a footnote that could have provided some guidance for the reader.
3.   H. Lohmann: Grabmäler auf unteritalischen Vasen. Berlin 1979.
4.   M. Beard: The Roman Triumph. Cambridge, MA and London 2007. On the history of the Roman triumph cf. esp.: 305-18.
5.   K. Galinsky: Augustan Culture. An Interpretive Introduction. Princeton 1996, 215. Galinsky also points out that Octavian as divi filius could not use Caesar as a role model as far as the cult of Apollo was concerned. Octavian’s choice indeed proved to be far-reaching and very successful. Cf., e.g., D. E. E. Kleiner: “Semblance and Storytelling in Augustan Rome,” in: K. Galinsky: The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus. Cambridge 2005, 197-233, here: 208 on the portrait of Augustus.
6.   Cf. Breuer’s interpretation of this verse (p. 99) and Holzberg’s note on riding in erotic contexts (Horaz. Dichter und Werk. München 2009, 155).
7.   On Ovid’s treatment of Vergil in the “little Aeneid cf. esp. S. Papaioannou. Epic Succession and Dissension. Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.623-14.582, and the Reinvention of the Aeneid. Berlin and New York 2005.
8.   Cf. T. Stover: “Fables of the Reconstruction: A Reading of Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica.” Diss. The University of Texas at Austin 2006.
9.   Cf. already K. Galinsky: The Herakles Theme. The Adaptations of the Hero in Literature from Homer to the Twentieth Century. Oxford 1972, 190.
10.   W. Dalrymple: “Eat Your Heart Out, Homer”, in: The New York Times.

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