The day after Britain’s historic decision to leave the European Union, David Cameron promptly announced his resignation. “I will do everything I can as prime minister to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months,” he declared, “but I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.” For his part, Boris Johnson, Cameron’s political adversary, stressed that the vote would provide the United Kingdom with greater autonomy and security: “we can control our borders in a way that is not discriminatory but fair and balanced and take the wind out of the sails of the extremists and those who would play politics with immigration.” And in response to those concerned that Brexit would threaten Britain’s European identity, Johnson reassured his audience that sea crossings would continue, ensuring the islanders that they had a “wonderful future as Europeans, travelling to the continent, understanding the languages and the cultures that make up our common European civilisation, continuing to interact with the peoples of other countries in a way that is open and friendly and outward looking.”
The nautical imagery evoked in these comments is particularly apt for an island state currently reflecting on its place in European society. For inhabitants of these spaces, the sea can both connect and divide. As Johnson intimates, the waters may be seen as a passageway that links Great Britain with continental Europe, enabling the two to maintain a sense of shared identity. Yet as Cameron’s speech notes, the sea also acts as a boundary, an aquatic frontier that, when traversed, leads the traveller from one state of existence to another. These themes of identity and movement, or the construction of identity through stories of interactions with the sea, receive examination in Beaulieu’s creative and insightful study. Her central argument is that the sea represents a mediating space that “separates the visible and invisible worlds and marks the difference between men, gods, and the dead” (16). As such, it plays a prominent role in Greek literature, featuring in a range of stories, from tales of social integration and isolation to mythic explorations of cosmic travelers, otherworldly terrain, and apotheosis.
Beaulieu positions her book in a long line of studies that have explored the Greeks’ perceptions of the sea through myth, ritual, art, and poetry. While this work has yielded important insights on specific topics, it has not, according to Beaulieu, offered a more comprehensive treatment of the sea as part of the real and imagined landscape of the Greek mentality. To address the sea more systematically, Beaulieu presents six case studies that explore the dynamic interaction between the “real” sea and the imaginary significations it inspires in storytelling. To attend to such a broad collection of material, Beaulieu opts for an eclectic methodological approach that alternates between synchronic and diachronic analysis, thus charting a middle ground between previous research that focused on either narrative questions or chronological issues.
Beaulieu’s first chapter surveys perceptions of the sea from the Archaic through Roman periods. The Homeric image of the sea as boundless space signals its ability to resist simple understanding: authors may describe it alternatively as dark or gleaming, liquid or solid, and a plane or abyss. A persistent motif, however, is the notion of the sea as a passageway, one that enables communication between peoples but presents its travellers with innumerable dangers. Foremost among these dangers is death, and it is thus not surprising that the poets envisioned the sea as the space between civilization and Ocean, the river marking the boundary between the living and dead. Complementing this geographical positioning of the sea in physical space is a “vertical” conception that positions it as the intermediary between mortality and immortality. Mythicists routinely speak of the sea as a site of exchange between humans and the gods. It is where Poseidon and other divinities reside and descents to and ascents from Hades take place. The sea’s role in transitions from life to death also help explain the prominence of nekyomanteia near the seas and the use of seawater in funerary rituals.
The second chapter examines the role of the sea in the coming-of-age stories of Perseus (Pind. Pyth. 10), Theseus (Bacch. Ode 17), and Jason (Pind. Pyth. 4). In each hymn, Pindar and Bacchylides utilize the sea crossings of heroes as metaphors to resolve current social and political tensions and to establish proper behavior for elite men. Perseus’ journey to the otherworldly land of the Hyperboreans is designed to praise the leading aristocrats in Thessaly for their noble lineage, divine favor, and future joy in the land of the dead. In the story of Theseus, Bacchylides recounts the hero’s defeat of King Minos in a contest while on board a ship sailing to Crete. Theseus defends a young girl subject to the aggressions of the Cretan king, demonstrates his divine lineage through Poseidon by visiting his father’s residence in the sea, and returns with gifts that make him an attractive marriage candidate. For Beaulieu, this myth reinforces the notion of just rule, a point designed to defend Athens’ position of leadership in the Delian League, and contrasts a tyrannical understanding of sexuality with an aristocratic view of marriage. Pindar scores a similar political point, this time for the Euphemid family in Cyrene, by narrating Jason’s sea voyage to Colchis. Here the poet recalls that Medea had prophesied that the descendants of Euphemus, a member of Jason’s expedition, were destined to found Cyrene. Having underscored their legitimacy, he then invites his audience to view the sea journey of Jason as a model for political rule in Cyrene: just as the hero’s quest enabled him to overcome political opposition in Iolcos, so too should the city celebrate the restoration of peace through the return to the throne of the legitimate Euphemid king.
Beaulieu turns to myths of women and the sea in the third chapter. An examination of the stories of Danae, Auge, and Rhoeo reveals a common pattern: a god or hero rapes a young, unmarried woman, which causes family disorder that the father attempts to resolve by imprisoning his daughter (and sometimes the son) in a chest and casting it out to sea. While Auge and Rhoeo emerge from this symbolic death to become reintegrated into society through marriage to kings and the subsequent legitimation of their sons (one becomes king of the Mysians, the other a prophet and king of Delos through his divine father Apollo), the status of Danae remains ambiguous, experiencing a failed marriage that leads to continued suffering and, ultimately, her status as the bride of Hades. In all of these myths, however, the sea functions as an indeterminate space for women who, as unmarried mothers, do not fit neatly into the social order and thus hover between life and death.
Greek literature is replete with descriptions of real and mythical creatures that inhabited the sea. Among these, the dolphin distinguishes itself as an animal with close connections to seafarers. In fact, as Beaulieu demonstrates in the fourth chapter, writers assigned the dolphin certain human-like traits that made it a mediating figure, between both the living and dead and humans and gods. An illustration of this motif appears in the story of Arion, who encounters sailors who steal his valuables and give him the choice of being killed on their ship or jumping into the sea. Arion chooses the latter, a katabasis into the underworld where he meets the gods (likely Poseidon) and then a dolphin, who aids in his anabasis by transporting him to Taenarum, a site known to the ancient world as the gateway to the underworld. The dolphin also assists Hesiod and Melicertes in their transitions from death to afterlife. For example, when the poet is murdered and thrown into the sea, a dolphin, acting as an agent of Poseidon, recovers the body and deposits it on land. When villagers discover it, they give it a burial at the shrine of Nemean Zeus, thus cementing the poet’s reputation as beloved by the gods. The dolphin also figures prominently in myths of colonization, saving figures who ultimately founded new societies on Lesbos, at Tarentum, and at Delphi.
The fifth chapter interprets instances of leaping into the sea as acts of boundary crossing. While these stories can represent a movement from life to death, as in the case of those who jump off the White Rock to enter Hades, or the Hyperboreans, who, when they have had their fill of the good life, enter the afterlife by diving off a rock. In contrast to this serene image, Hellenistic poets often associate leaping into the sea with women who see the act as a countermeasure against the advances of unwanted suitors. The leap not only relieves them of their distress, it also culminates in an apotheosis. In these stories, the sea effects a personal transformation while, paradoxically, ensuring that the women will remain virgins never fully integrated into society. Instead, they consign themselves to occupying liminal space, which mythicists often underscore by describing leaping women changing into marine birds, amphibious animals that are continuously in transition.
The final chapter investigates the relationship between Dionysus and the sea through the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, later literary interpreters, and related iconography. Beaulieu shows that in this famous encounter with Dionysus, Seneca and Nonnus invest the scene with funerary motifs that affirm the pirates’ jump into the sea as a movement from the human realm to a death-like state. Yet as they enter the waters, the pirates become dolphins, creatures closely associated with Dionysus. Rather than dying, they undergo a psychological transformation caused by a mania characteristic of the Dionysiac symposium: those who were once the god’s enemies, it would appear, have now become his votaries, reveling in the watery depths, suspended, like Dionysus’ human worshipers, between life and death.
Beaulieu has collected a disparate body of evidence, both literary and iconographic, to present a compelling case for Greek perceptions of the sea. She defends her argument with close readings of a wide range of literature, which is often illuminated through careful analysis of artistic symbolism. Specialists will appreciate the new insights that emerge from this interdisciplinary work. Moreover, her interest in the interplay of the “real” sea and the sea of the imagination is also provocative, in that it reminds the reader of the significance of the “geographies of the mind,” those “cultural constructs that shape men’s perceptions of the world and of their own place in it” (8). In other words, while the sea may exist in physical space, its creation through the imaginative power of human thought reveals how an interpreter’s values and interests in identity formation combine to produce a distinct socio-cultural map.