Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.49
Ken Dowden, Niall Livingstone (ed.), A Companion to Greek Mythology. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Literature and culture. Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Pp. xxvii, 643. ISBN 9781405111782. $199.95.
Reviewed by Nickolas P. Roubekas, University of Aberdeen (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Greek mythology remains a fascinating topic. Ken Dowden and Niall Livingstone have made sure to demonstrate this with their Companion to Greek Mythology. The book consists of 28 contributions divided into five parts, with the chapter offered by the editors, entitled “Thinking through Myth, Thinking Myth Through” (chapter 1), standing as an introduction to the Companion. The five parts are: “Establishing the Canon” (chapters 2–4); “Myth Performed, Myth Believed” (chapters 5–10); “New Traditions” (chapters 11–17); “Older Traditions” (chapters 18–20); “Interpretation” (chapters 21–27); “Conspectus” (chapter 28). Dowden and Livingstone managed to bring together some of the most important scholars in the field and offer a very well structured Companion that includes a comprehensive glossary (pp. xxii–xxiv), a complete bibliographical section (pp. 549–603) and three detailed indexes (“Texts Discussed”; “Names”; and “Subjects”, pp. 605–643) that are of great help to the reader. Given the length of this work it is impossible to discuss all contributions; instead, I will concentrate on some of them that I think raise interesting issues for further examination.
In their introductory chapter (“Thinking through Myth, Thinking Myth Through”, pp. 3–23) Dowden and Livingstone argue that there is no one definition of what is called ‘myth’ that can encapsulate all the uses and meanings of the term. They point out that myths are usually part of a system and are not “remembered in isolation: they are interactive, with each other and on countless occasions with every aspect of Greek life and thought” (p. 4). However, such an approach could trigger debates when myths are associated with ancient Greek religion (as they often are) and the idea of its ‘embeddedness’ as has been argued by, among others, Jan Bremmer,1 who is also among the contributors to this Companion (see below). Recently, the notion of ‘embedded religion’ has been criticized2 and if one is to accept such criticism then an implicit embeddedness of myth in Greek culture must likewise be abandoned or used cautiously.
Radcliffe G. Edmonds III offers one of the most interesting contributions to the Companion and by far the most engaging one in Part 1. Entitled “Orphic Mythology” (chapter 4, pp. 73–106), Edmonds discusses the subject and offers at the same time an exemplary overview, ranging from the myths and life of Orpheus to cosmogony and rituals. The “Further Reading” section (pp. 92–3) is excellent for readers interested in the subject, and extensive notes accompany the text. The methodological and theoretical issues raised in the beginning of this contribution must be highlighted. Edmonds rightly points out that the “label ‘Orphic’ is also, in some sense, an ancient cultural classification as well as a modern scholarly category” (p. 73). What is essential in dealing with Orphic mythology is the content of the stories that were deemed “exceptionally strange — alien rites or tales of perverse and horrifying deeds by the gods” (p. 91). This raises the issue of who determines what will be labelled as Orphic but also “in what context, and whether it is self-applied or applied by another” (p. 75).3 The general problem of classification of stories as myths becomes even more challenging in the case of Orphic mythology, and Edmonds emphasizes this in his contribution. Along with his excellent discussion of the data, Edmonds is among the few contributors to the Companion to raise issues of classification and touch upon persisting theoretical questions that are (or should be) central in theorizing about Greek myths.
In chapter 5, “Singing Myth: Pindar” (pp. 109–123), Ian Rutherford discusses the place of myth in choral songs, with Pindar being “the supreme exponent” of this “perhaps most widespread form of song and poetry in ancient Greece” (p. 109). Taking the myths of this period of Greek history as traditional narratives (echoing Walter Burkert’s definition of myth),4 Rutherford outlines seven different functions of myth in choral songs ranging from providing an exemplum and teaching a moral or cosmic lesson to justification of a political situation (borrowing here from Malinowski’s concept of charter myths) and correcting older myths (pp. 110–111). Rutherford provides a very informative summary of Pindar’s approach and use of myth (“to glorify, to teach, to explain, to entertain”, p. 122), while stressing Pindar’s ambivalent attitude towards myths as both “taking a conservative stance” and being critical by “eliminating false traditions and returning to the truth” (p. 122).
Three contributions must be mentioned together, given their content: chapter 8, “Displaying Myth: The Visual Arts” (pp. 157–178) by Susan Woodford, and chapters 14, “Displaying Myth for Roman Eyes” (pp. 265–281) and 16, “Myth and Death: Roman Mythological Sarcophagi” (pp. 301–318) both by Zahra Newby. These contain 25 figures that accompany the excellent surveys in each subject. Woodford’s contribution also offers a very interesting and helpful appendix entitled “How to Identify Myths Depicted in Images” (pp. 174–6) that outlines “three strategies for identifying images of myths and warns of the pitfalls associated with each” (p. 174): Identification through Inscription, Attribute or Characterization; Identification through Conflict with a Unique Monster; Identification through Context. Woodford’s appendix might easily accompany the other two contributions as well, given its methodological scope.
Dowden and Livingstone point out that “Roman myth is not the same kind of thing as Greek myth” (p. 14) and Matthew Fox elaborates on that in chapter 13, “The Myth of Rome” (pp. 243–263). Fox summarizes the threefold function of Roman myth in connection with space: “Roman myth is, to a large extent, about providing a mythology for Rome itself … myths at Rome are frequently aetiological … And lastly, myth at Rome, more than its Greek equivalent, prompts those telling the stories to think about questions of veracity and historical reliability” (pp. 243–4). What is emphasized here is the function of myth as an identity formation strategy for both Rome’s glory and the Romans themselves. The Roman authors, as Fox informs us, were rationalizing their stories so as to make them look more like history rather than myths (p. 246). Fox makes a distinction between two ways of looking at Roman mythology. One involves the Roman authors themselves and the way they attempted to historicize their stories, while the other concerns the modern scholars who attempt “to find a method of interpreting the ‘original’ mythical material, and to uncover the ‘real’ meaning of these stories, divested of their ancient interpretations” (pp. 246–7). Fox’s attention to detail and theoretical concerns is summarized in the following statement: “It is the task of the alert reader or scholar to work beyond the immediate experience of synchrony, to a more diachronic understanding not just of our source or text, but (ideally) of our own act of reading” (p. 259; emphasis added). I think that such an approach has much more to offer to the study of ancient mythology than the (often) superficial textual analysis that offers little to the study of ancient myths regarding their origin and, more importantly, their function.
In chapter 17, “Myth in Christian Authors” (pp. 319–337), Fritz Graf attempts to examine how the early Christian authors used ancient myths, for what reasons, and to what end. As he points out, “we lack an overall synthesis or detailed study of the way Christian orators such as Ambrose used mythology” (p. 320), and goes on to provide a very stimulating description of such usage taking Ambrose (among others) as an example (pp. 326, 330). The most solid part of his contribution is found in the usage of Greek mythology in Christian poetry and prose orations. In dealing with Greek myths in the works of the apologists, Graf distinguishes two ways with which early Christian writers dealt with myths: a) paralleling ancient myths to make the Christian God comprehensible to possible converts, but at the same time refuting the validity of the beings encountered in the myths and considering them as demons; and b) employing euhemeristic readings of those myths to show that the gods of the myths were but mere humans (p. 320).5 Graf argues that, most often, the apologetic writings were addressed to people outside the Church (p. 321). However, those works were most probably not much read outside the Church, especially those written by Christian apologists before the time of Constantine.6 It would be interesting to study how those myths were understood by Christian insiders and how they were used by them in order to strengthen their newly formed religious identity. Graf’s contribution certainly opens up new areas of research for classicists and scholars of early Christianity.
The Companion concludes with Jan Bremmer’s “A Brief History of the Study of Greek Mythology” (chapter 28; pp. 527–547). Bremmer offers a concise history on the subject and presents the most “important results since the middle of the 1960s” (p. 539): the problematic nature of the term ‘myth’; the adaptability and constant changing content of the myths; the different and often diverse audiences of myths; the content of myths not restricted to mortals and immortals but expanding to landscapes and animals; the origin of myths to serve certain needs; and the relation between myth and ritual (pp. 539–41). The “Further Reading” section (p. 543) suggests some important works. However, given that Greek myths are – more or less – the basis of the study of myth as a category that exceeds the limits of classical studies, one would expect a more comprehensive guide of works that lie outside the various approaches to myth employed by classicists, and from which students of ancient myth would benefit when they go beyond the strict limits of the texts to theorize about those myths.7
The Companion to Greek Mythology is an important contribution that will be extremely helpful to classicists and students of ancient history, classics, and mythology. The editors have dedicated a lot of thought and energy in bringing together some of the best classicists and compiling a Companion that is very well structured and covers many different and diverse issues pertaining to Greek mythology. Even though, as the editors themselves acknowledge, “critics may demand a different balance” (p. xix), I think that this is a modest statement. I believe that the present volume does a great job in balancing the different aspects of such a vast topic. What would have made the publication even more appealing, though, is not more on data but more on theory.
1. Greek Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 2–4.
2. See Brent Nongbri, “Dislodging “Embedded” Religion: A Brief Note on a Scholarly Trope.” Numen 55 (2008): 440–60.
3. This echoes the fourth of Bruce Lincoln’s famous “Theses on Method,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 8 (1996): 225–7.
4. It is self-evident that myths are narratives (i.e., stories) while their description as ‘traditional’ is not a term that helps us to theorize, let alone metatheorize, about myth. What is the time framework after which a story can be deemed traditional? Who decides it?
5. The euhemeristic-like reading of myths by the apologists and the early Christian writers is itself problematic, given the complexity of Euhemerus’ theory. See Nickolas P. Roubekas, “Which Euhemerism will you use? Celsus on the Divine Nature of Jesus.” Journal of Early Christian History 2.2 (2012): 80–96.
6. See Mark Edwards, Martin Goodman, Simon Price, and Christopher Rowland, “Introduction: Apologetics in the Roman World”, in Mark Edwards et al. (eds.), Apologetics in the Roman Empire: Pagans, Jews, and Christians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1–13.
7. See for example Laurence Coupe, Myth (London; New York: Routledge, 1997); Bruce Lincoln, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1999), especially pp. 3–43; Andrew Von Hendy, The Modern Construction of Myth (Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2001); Robert A. Segal, Myth. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).