Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.21
Ioannis M. Konstantakos, Θρύλοι και Παραμύθια για τη Χώρα του Χρυσού. Αρχαιολογία ενός Παραμυθιακού Μοτίβου (Legends and Folktales about the Land of Gold. Archaeology of a Folktale Motif). Athens: Stigmi Publications, 2011. Pp. 346. ISBN 9789602692325.
Reviewed by Vasileios Liotsakis, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (firstname.lastname@example.org)
During the last two decades, a new tendency has begun to flourish in the field of Classical Philology: the effort to compare classical texts with Near Eastern literature. The prejudice that the Greeks of antiquity owed nothing to their eastern neighbors belongs nowadays, after a series of studies, to the past. In fact, it begins gradually to be common knowledge “that the Greeks were influenced in their religion and literature by the eastern models to a significant degree”.1 Ioannis Konstantakos belongs to that school of researchers2: in the four chapters of his book, he examines very successfully an area that receives only perfunctory attention in modern scholarly criticism, specifically the connections between the Greek and the Iranian literature concerning the folk motif of the so-called ‘precious land’.
In chapter 1 (pp. 11-24), Konstantakos outlines the four main motifs of narration about precious lands, using examples of popular tales from various periods and areas of the world (Indian, Arab, Iranian, European). The first of these motifs is the “metallization” or “jewelification” of the materials: both nature in all its manifestations (mountains, liquid elements, land stretches) and the constructions of human civilization are made of gold, diamonds, emeralds, and generally all kinds of valuable material (pp. 11-14). The second motif is the “degradation” or the “devaluation” of the precious materials of the wonderful land: the inhabitants own so much gold and precious stones, that they take them for granted (pp. 14-18). The third motif is the abundance in food and the idyllic circumstances, which prevail in the ideal land (pp.18-21), and the fourth concerns the profits acquired by the visitor (pp. 21-24). These four elements are the fundamental criteria on the basis of which Konstantakos defines precious land narratives and identifies them in world traditions. He uses these very motifs in order to relate Aristophanes’ Persia and the Ethiopian logos of Herodotus with eastern – mainly Iranian – traditions. Konstantakos, by presenting from the very beginning the features which constitute the link between Aristophanes, Herodotus and the eastern traditions, facilitates the reading of the book, as he shows programmatically the logic which permeates it from the first until the last page.
Chapter 2 (pp. 25-58) offers an “archaeology” of the stories about precious lands. Beginning with the oldest extant text, the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh of the second millennium B.C., the author demonstrates how widespread were stories of this kind in the ancient world even up to late antiquity. The textual collection of Konstantakos is derived from writers of several areas in East and West, from ancient Greece and Rome to India. The plethora of the examples eloquently reveals the popularity of that very motif in a vast cultural area, a popularity, which remained undiminished over the centuries.
In chapter 3 (pp. 59-99) Konstantakos traces the four fictional motifs of chapter 1 in the Ambassador’s narration about fabulous Persia in Aristophanes’ Acharnians (ll. 65-114). He examines the sources of this tale and attributes to it Iranian roots (pp. 59-66 and 95-99). He draws attention to relevant stories of Iranian background written down by Greeks of the classical period, such as those of Ktesias (fr. 45.26 and 45h Lenfant = Phot. Bibl. 72, 40b 27-34, Ael. Nat. anim. 4.27) and Herodotus (3.102-105) about the golden mountains and golden desert of India, as well as to a more recent tale in Firdausī’s medieval Shāhnāma, which however draws its material from older sources, going back to Avestan times (probably second half of the 1st millennium B.C.). According to Konstantakos, these tales point unambiguously towards the fact “that in ancient Iran”, already in the Achaemenid period, “there was a vivid tradition of stories about precious places”, which could easily be channeled to the Athenian world of Aristophanes’ time (pp. 69-99).
As he argues in chapter 4, the Ethiopian logos of Herodotus (3.17-25) also derives from similar origins. The description of Ethiopia by the Greek historian as a land of abundance in gold, profusion of meat, and a population of fabulous longevity has its roots, according to Konstantakos, in the Iranian tradition. This assumption is strengthened by other Iranian motifs of the story, which do not belong to the typical form of precious land narratives, such as the water of life (pp. 117-121), the conflict of truth and lie (pp. 129-135) and the bow motif (pp. 135-140).
Already in the first two chapters, Konstantakos cleverly sets out one of the most important methodological principles of his book: that is, the different approach with regard to a) the presentation and b) the archaeology of the narratives about valuable lands. It should be highlighted that when Konstantakos describes the examined motifs, he uses examples of all times and places. He follows this model of presentation also in the first part of chapter 3, where he describes the fabulous motifs of the Persian tale in the Acharnians (pp. 59-66). In contrast, when researching the archaeology of the motifs (i.e. their historical formation and development in antiquity), Konstantakos elaborates only on these stories, which are relevant to the temporal and local starting point of the particular tradition under examination. Hence, the reader is able to understand how different the issue of the identity of a fictional motif from that of its origins is. In a book containing such an amount of examples, to distinguish the parallels serving the definition of identity from those that regard the origins of the relevant narratives is useful; and Konstantakos, through the repeated scheme of presentation-archaeology, helps the reader to differentiate and categorize the various pieces of material.
The core of Konstantakos’ methodology lies in the combination of the motifs. Following William Hansen and Graham Anderson, who focus their researches more on tale types than on isolated motifs,3 Konstantakos proposes that, in narratives such as the Persian tale of the Acharnians and the Ethiopian logos, the four cardinal motifs of precious land narratives are not to be viewed as random elements, unrelated to each other and stemming from separate sources. On the contrary, these motifs “compose a single organic narrative whole” (p. 109). Basing on this principle, Konstantakos offers many innovative and convincing readings of ancient Greek texts: For example, in chapter 2 he argues that the episode of the gem-strewn “Land of the Blessed” in the Alexander Romance stems from the same tradition as the story of the jewel garden in the Epic of Gilgamesh, precisely because these two narratives do not just resemble each other concerning isolated elements, but combine the four basic motifs in exactly the same way (pp. 34-37 and 171-174).4 Moreover, chapter 3 challenges the old view that the Persian narration of the Acharnians is a deliberate parody of the Herodotean descriptions of exotic Persia, since Herodotus’ account does not entail the typical precious land motifs (p. 66 and 191 nn. 17-18). Finally, in chapter 4, Konstantakos rightly concludes that the Ethiopian logos of Herodotus relies on an Iranian background rather than on Greek roots, again because of similarities in the combination of motifs (pp. 109-112).
For the same reason, Konstantakos excludes some cases where only one of the four motifs exists apart from the others. For example, he explains that he did not consider many texts that offer the “Cockaigne” motif in isolation (culinary utopias of ancient comedy and so forth), because the abundance of food is not combined there with the profusion and degradation of precious materials. Similarly, when Odysseus receives valuable gifts from the magnificent palace of Alkinous, this should rather be seen as an example of a commonplace pattern in the Odyssey (the stranger is traditionally loaded with presents when departing from the civilized place), without any connection to the motif of the visitor’s profits from the wonderful place. Only the combination of all the basic motifs is a safe criterion for identifying the true pattern of precious land tales. Such comments show how critically and carefully the author has delineated his area of research and chosen his material.
Another advantage of the book is the emphasis Konstantakos attaches to places on the interaction of popular fiction with the social actors of each period. He constantly focuses on how the four basic examined motifs (metallization/jewelification, degradation, food and idyllic circumstances, visitor’s profits) are assimilated within different narratives depending on their creators’ motives and purposes, as well as on the particular messages they wish to transmit. As explained in chapter 1, the degradation of the valuable materials in Voltaire’s Candide serves to highlight the philosopher-author’s moralistic doctrines, while in the Utopia of Thomas More the same motif reflects More’s tactical attack against the monetary greed of his times. Significantly, in chapter 3 this same motif of degradation is turned into a scatological joke in the hands of Aristophanes, harmonizing itself with the comic palette of Old Comedy (p. 62). Finally, Aristophanes adjusts the motif of the visitor’s profits to his contemporary historical circumstances (pp. 65-66). In the last chapter, the typical precious land narrative, along with other motifs of Iranian provenance in the Ethiopian logos (the reckless monarch, truth and lie, the bow motif), are read as a tale of defamatory propaganda against king Kambyses, concocted by the regime of his usurping successor Dareios (pp. 113-140). When Herodotus borrows the story from his Persian sources, he explicates and transforms its motifs through the filter lens of his Greek rationalistic thought (p. 111). Throughout the book Konstantakos keeps to the foreground the functionality – and not merely the presence – of the examined motifs within several societies, from Dareios’ Achaemenid Empire and Aristophanes’ classical Athens to the Renaissance England of the humanist Thomas More and the France of Voltaire.
Finally yet importantly, another significant interpretative guideline of this book should be underlined: Konstantakos’ keen analysis of the multidimensionality and complexity of mythical motifs. Each motif has its sub-categories and its variant versions. The same element can take several, quite different, but still recognizable forms while passing from one story to another. As a result, the multiplicity of a motif’s versions enables several comparisons between the stories containing it. By reading this book the reader has the opportunity to make his own comparisons, apart from those already made by the author.
Konstantakos’ great contribution is twofold. Firstly, he forwards our understanding of popular lore in antiquity, by studying a pervasive complex of folk motifs. Secondly, he fosters a new perspective in comparative studies between Greek and Eastern literature, specifically the connections between the Greek and the Iranian narrative tradition. Throughout his book, he discusses several Greek and Iranian narratives, which are correlated here for the first time, giving to every scholar interested in such studies new directions to pursue and suggesting that Persian influence on Greek narrative imagination may have been larger than what recent criticism suggests. At the same time, he casts his specialized scholarly argumentation in a highly readable style and in a user-friendly manner (pp. 231-294: anthology of all the main texts discussed, in Modern Greek Translation; pp. 311-322: copious indices of names and works, as well as of subjects and motifs; pp. 323-346: an extensive English summary of the whole book), so that even those who are not familiar with such issues may comfortably follow everything they read.
1. See collectively Burkert, W., The Orientalizing Revolution. Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age, translated by Margaret E. Pinder and Walter Burkert, Cambridge-Massachusetts, 1992, 6. Cf. West, M.L., The East Face of Helicon. West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth, Oxford, 1997· Burkert, W., Babylon. Memphis. Persepolis. Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture, Cambridge-Massachusetts, 2004· Louden, B., Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East, Cambridge, 2010.
2. See his previous book: Konstantakos, I.M., Ἀκίχαρος. Ἡ Διήγηση τοῦ Ἀχικὰρ στὴν Ἀρχαία Ἑλλάδα, vols. I-II, Athens on the relations between Eastern and Greek literature concerning the influence of the Tale of Ahiqar on Greek narratives.
3. See Anderson, G., Fairytale in the Ancient World, London-New York, 2000 and Hansen, W., Ariadne’s Thread. A Guide to International Tales Found in Classical Literature, Ithaca-London, 2002.
4. In this approach, Konstantakos disagrees with earlier studies: see e.g. Friedlaender, I., “Alexanders Zug nach dem Lebensquell und die Chadhirlegende”, Archiv Für Religionswissenschaft 13, 1910, 195-198, 224· Stoneman, R., “Oriental Motifs in tthe Alexander Romance“, Antichthon 26, 1992, 98-101.