Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.29

Greta Hawes (ed.), Myths on the Map: The Storied Landscapes of Ancient Greece.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xviii, 332.  ISBN 9780198744771.  $105.00.  


Reviewed by Kenneth W. Yu, University of Chicago (kennyyu@uchicago.edu)

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

Myths on the Map, which originated in a 2013 conference at Bristol University, attempts to make good the editor’s claim that “myth-making blended into map-making” (2). To this end, fifteen studies, arranged in no particular order, explore how ancient Greek mythmakers and artisans engaged a bundle of kindred concepts: inter alia, space, place, maps, geography, landmark, and landscape. The essays vary in scope and quality, and several, though stimulating in their own right, appear only marginally invested in the central theme.

Greta Hawes (1-13) outlines in her detailed introduction the volume’s key topics: the ways in which storytelling inscribes “communal memory” (6), both local and Panhellenic, onto distinct topographies and landmarks; landscapes as arenas of “cultural appropriation and subjectivity” (9); and the imbrication of mythic and geographic knowledge. The contributions by Katherine Clarke and Elizabeth Minchin may be profitably read alongside the Introduction. Clarke (14-31) expands on the major themes and presents a set of metaphors to capture how myths activate meaning across space and over time: “islands of mythical significance,” “landscape palimpsest,” and “patchwork.” More specifically, she uses these concepts to think through how the notion of travel, as articulated in the accounts of Pausanias, Strabo, and Herodotus, can “unlock mini-mythological narratives at key points along the way” (29). Minchin (65-82), in turn, mobilizes memory studies, cognitive and social psychology, and the phenomenology of landscape to claim that the tower of Sestos and Hellespont are paramount in the Leander and Hero myth (the sources for which, as she admits, are Roman), and that they become metonymic for the narrative as a whole. Her theoretical survey is effective, if brisk, though one might have wished for some consideration of how these heuristics, rather than adopted wholesale, should be reframed for the Greek materials.

The contrast between the cartographic and the hodological modes of spatial organization recurs in the essays by Aara Suksi and Charles Delattre. Suksi (204-20) supplements a recent study of Purves1 to argue that Aeschylean tragedy reconfigures the hierarchy of human (hodological) and divine (cartographic) vision as established in epic. The namesake character in Prometheus Bound usurps Zeus’ divine prerogative when he “inscribes” into Io’s mind a map of her wanderings that will lead her to Zeus and result in the birth of his liberator, Heracles. In Agamemnon, Clytemnestra’s chain of beacons mapping the vast expanse from Troy to Argos defy the limits of human vision and allow her immediate knowledge into the fall of Troy. Turning to the subliterary, Delattre (261-80) submits that the logic of Imperial mythographic texts like the Metamorphoses of Antoninus Liberalis and Ps.-Plutarch’s De fluviis resist the cartographic and hodological paradigms and operate rather by toponyms that spark clusters of associations, a style of world mapping indifferent to linear or coherent geographies. He argues that this paratactic feature of mythography reflects the “formulation of a new Greek identity through paideia” coterminous with the spread of Roman power (263, 274). His claim that mythographers helped promote a “new elite culture” that wielded social power (264) is intriguing and deserves further treatment.

Three chapters address aspects of the natural environment and material culture. Stephanie Larson (106-21) examines a fragment from an askos recently discovered on the Ismenion Hill in Thebes. She makes the case that the fragment’s iconography of two humans in combat with two sphinxes repurposes the popular grypomachy scene, while also departing from more conventional panhellenic representations of the riddling sphinx in the Oedipus tale. Larson proposes that the vase, perhaps commissioned in Athens and dedicated to Apollo Ismenios by a wealthy Theban, reflects the widespread Theban tendency to “meddle” with myth. Christina Salowey (159-77) argues that the specific imagery in the combat of Achilles and the Scamander in the Iliad and of Heracles and the Achelous in Sophocles’ Trachiniae reflects awareness of hydrogeology and the complex properties (e.g., life sustaining, destructive, and lascivious) that ancient audiences would have associated with actual rivers. Betsey Robinson (178-203) traces how the iconographical, sculptural, and architectural programs at urban springs and fountains in Hellenistic and Roman Corinth and Ephesus harnessed local narratives to express civic pride (e.g., Bellerophon and Pegasus on the Peirene fountain), to celebrate foundation stories (e.g., the Heroon of Androclus), and to display political authority (e.g., the hydrekdocheion of Trajan).

The other, stand-alone, contributions deal primarily with textual evidence. Daniel Berman (32-51) surveys a number of myths that in his view attempt to prefigure, and thus to challenge, traditional foundation stories. In a particularly lucid section, Berman presents anti-Theban narratives that arguably undermine two well-known foundation stories of Thebes. The evidence for the stories about Athens and Croton, however, is relatively thin, late, or not manifestly polemical, and may even counter Berman’s argument, for they apparently demonstrate that a plurality of aetiologies could coexist (in the case of Athens), or that such alternative narratives conveyed discrete, but not incompatible, facets of local identity (as Berton himself suggests at 43 regarding Croton).

Richard Buxton (52-64) develops on work by Hopman2 to elucidate how such varied personae as primordial builders, blacksmiths, and Polypheman pastoralists converged under the nominal penumbra of Cyclopes. Buxton traces the recurrent image of “the blending of the fiery and the liquid” (60) in passages from Homer to Ovid that associates the Cyclopes with the landscape of Sicily and volcanic Etna specifically, and thus conceptually links the Odyssean Polyphemus with blacksmithing.

Emma Aston (83-105) argues that Thessalian communities had an active hand in shaping local myths about Lapiths and Centaurs. The evidence for local manipulation of Lapith myths appears (at least to this reader) rather circumstantial. Though it seems reasonable for Aston to assume from numismatic iconography and onomastic trends in Thessalian cities that there was local interest in appropriating elements of Lapith stories, such evidence hardly evinces that Gyrton or Atrax “was doubtless an active producer of self-referential myths” (94). Similarly strained, in my view, is Aston’s interpretation of a fragment by Heraclides Criticus (FGrH 369A F2.12) as evidence for local modification of Centaur myths to establish descent from Chiron; the fragment, following a pharmacological discussion, states neutrally that a clan “is said (λέγεται)” to descend from Chiron, without specifying the agents, circumstances, or purpose of the assertion. The general lack of evidence about the producers, patrons, and recipients of these myths, or about the Thessalian festivals and performance contexts in which they circulated, curtails Aston’s otherwise valiant efforts to identify local and regional voices. But Aston’s plea to direct greater attention to possible local perspectives in Greek myth is highly compelling.

Jeremy McInerney (122-40) investigates how Callimachus overlays the poetic and the geopolitical to mediate local and expatriate affinities in response to the postclassical diasporic experience. McInerney lays stress on the Callimachean use of topographical allusions (e.g., Cyrene and Thera in the Hymn to Apollo) and epikleseis (e.g., Lady of Munychia and Lady of Pherae in the Hymn to Artemis) to articulate “a looser, more expansive form of affiliation” (140) in Hellenistic Greece.

Julie Baleriaux (141-58) examines Pausanias’ description of religious life in Arcadia in light of the region’s demographic and political conditions under Rome. She shows that, despite the increasing prominence of urban centers like Megalopolis, epichoric cults in surrounding pastoral settlements persisted (due in part to Roman euergetism), which may clarify why Pausanias could observe that Arcadia abounded in time-honored local Greek cultic activity even in the Imperial period.

Iris Sulimani (221-42) draws attention to Diodorus’ penchant for locating imaginary islands, notably the Elysian Fields and Panchaea, in the real world. The essay contains a wealth of material, but scarcely useful is the convoluted terminological discussion of the utopic, imaginary, mythical, historical and real; the confusion redoubles with the inconsistent use throughout of scare quotes around such terms, and the accumulation of others besides (“mythological,” “actual,” and “fantastic”). The rather cursory discussion in the conclusion speculating the reasons for Diodorus’ distinctive portrayal of imaginary islands is marred by sweeping claims, such as the following, to explain Diodorus’ representation of local and nonlocal cohabitation on Panchaea: “By the time of Diodorus, acceptance of and tolerance towards the ‘other’ existed alongside with conservatism and distinctions between peoples according to racial and cultural factors” (242).

Robert Fowler (243-60) guides us through the epistemologies that underpin the construction of the “Beyond” in Homer, Pherecydes, and Herodotus. To map the Beyond, Fowler shows, is to negotiate the real and the imaginary, and hinges on the degree to which an author claims knowledge over the unverifiable. Whereas Pherecydes offers “a single regime of reality” (251) in which the imaginary and the real combine indiscriminately, Herodotus is more epistemologically prudent and questions the possibility of mapping the unknowable. Accordingly, Herodotus is concerned not with the remote hinterlands but with the still verifiable frontier between the Here and Beyond.

Richard Hunter (281-98) explores the “Libyan Myth” and its philosophical and psychological registers in Dio Chrysostom, Apollonius, and Lucan. In particular, he argues that Dio in the Fifth Oration interprets Heracles’ overcoming of the snake-women in the Libyan dessert both allegorically (control of the irrational passions) and in the rationalizing mode, depending on whether the episode occurs in mythic or historical time. The Libyan landscape could therefore be used to elicit several interpretive modes to take readers in different directions.

What emerges clearly from these essays is that aspects of space and landscape pervade ancient Greek myth across genres and materialities. Less evident, however, is to what extent we should understand these features as absorbed intuitively into myth-poetic discourse, or as indeed reflected upon in antiquity as emic principles that guided practices of mythmaking. A more nuanced view would obviate the potential danger of imposing coherency of such concepts on the Greeks. Further, one observes that two distinct interpretive approaches to landscape course through the volume. Several contributors treat spatial elements as representations, tropes constructed chiefly by narrative means; others, however, construe them as extratextual phenomena, realia that ancient actors could ostensibly observe and traverse in phenomenologically meaningful ways. Some pause on the implications of these (and other) ways of envisaging landscape, perhaps in a synthesizing conclusion, might have put into sharper relief the distinctiveness of ancient Greek spatial thinking in the context of the much-vaunted “spatial turn in the humanities” (5).3

One final issue concerns the plurality of largely undifferentiated terms applied to the volume’s object of inquiry: space, map, landscape, geographies, landmark, and so on. To be sure, the editor acknowledges at the outset that the project “makes a virtue of variety and proliferation within the confines of its central theme,” (2) but a clear terminological discussion—either tackled summarily in the introduction or articulated individually as each author sees fit—would have helped readers apprehend the ancient evidentiary basis or modern analytical vantage by which these terms form a cohesive group. Greater conceptual clarity of the explanandum, moreover, would have made it easier to assess how the volume’s disparate essays mutually illuminate as case studies of the same putative phenomenon. These lingering questions about the collective implications of the excellent essays attest to the volume’s success in stimulating further debate.

Authors and titles

Greta Hawes, “Introduction: Of Myths and Maps”
Katherine Clarke, “Walking through History: Unlocking the Mythical Past”
Daniel W. Berman, “Cities-Before-Cities: ‘Prefoundational’ Myth and the Construction of Greek Civic Space”
Richard Buxton, “Landscapes of the Cyclopes”
Elizabeth Minchin, “Mapping the Hellespont with Leander and Hero: ‘The Swimming Lover and the Nightly Bride’”
Emma Aston, “Centaurs and Lapiths in the Landscape of Thessaly”
Stephanie Larson, “Meddling with Myth in Thebes: A New Vase from the Ismenion Hill (Thebes Museum 49276)”
Jeremy McInerney, “Callimachus and the Poetics of the Diaspora”
Julie Baleriaux, “Pausanias' Arcadia, Between Conservatism and Innovation”
Christina A. Salowey, “Rivers Run Through It: Environmental History in Two Heroic Riverine Battles”
Betsey A. Robinson, “Fountains as Reservoirs of Myth and Memory”
Aara Suksi, “Scandalous Maps in Aeschylean Tragedy”
Iris Sulimani, “Imaginary Islands in the Hellenistic Era: Utopia on the Geographical Map”
Robert L. Fowler, “Imaginary Itineraries in the Beyond”
Charles Delattre, “Islands of Knowledge: Space and Names in Imperial Mythography”
Richard Hunter, “Serpents in the Soul: The 'Libyan Myth' of Dio Chrysostom”

Notes:


1.   Alex Purves, Space and Time in Ancient Greek Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
2.   Marianne Hopman, Scylla: Myth, Metaphor, Paradox (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2013).
3.   Clarke discusses this briefly at 15-16. Two studies that foreground these issues and which are conspicuously absent in the bibliography: Christian Jacob, Géographie et ethnographie en Grèce ancienne (1991, rev. ed. Paris: Armand Colin, 2017) and ibid., L’Empire des cartes: Approche théorique de la cartographie à travers l’histoire (Paris: Albin Michel, 1992).

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