BMCR 1994.05.04

1994.05.04, Dougherty, Poetics of Colonization

, The poetics of colonization : from city to text in archaic Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. 1 online resource (x, 209 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 0195359232. $39.95.

In a recent article Richard Martin has summed up the present position of classicists: “Nature, culture, gender, myth, East, West, truth—the degree to which these concepts are not transcendent universals but are socially constructed has finally hit us. Cultural anthropology will mold the shape of classical studies for this generation…. What truth can we hope to extract from [the] stories [of the Seven Sages]? My preliminary answer is that we will not discover the positivist’s dream of a ‘historical’ occurrence, ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen ist,’ what ‘really’ went on. What we can find is the truth of historical representations. We might glimpse the way in which the Greeks themselves thought things happened and pictured to themselves the ideal by which they then judged the real” ( Cultural Poetics in Archaic Greece edd. Carol Dougherty and Leslie Kurke [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993] 108; emphasis in the original).

Dougherty’s aim in this book is very much in agreement with this. “This book is concerned with the representations—not the realia—of archaic colonization” (4) The Greeks told and retold tales of their colonial foundations long after they occurred; how did they construct this memory of founding new cities on foreign shores? Her concern is not with what happened, but with the stories the Greeks later told about what had happened.

In a short and lucid introductory chapter, D. sets out her methodology: she will “look at the colonial tale as a cultural product, a topos that extends from the Homeric poems to Plutarch and beyond…. The narrative pattern, metaphors, and language of colonial discourse are informed by cultural phenomena such as purification practices, the Delphic oracle, marriage ideology, and Panhellenic competition, all of which belong to Greece as a whole and whose influence transcend individual time periodization” (5). She refers to Hayden White’s suggestion that “narrative discourse in general uses metaphysical concepts, religious beliefs, or story forms to make sense of the strange, the enigmatic, or the mysterious—in other words, to ‘familiarize the unfamiliar'” (5). In terms of cultural anthropology, she quotes Clifford Geertz, who approaches another culture by “searching out and analyzing the symbolic forms—words, images, institutions, behaviors—in terms of which, in each place, people actually represented themselves to themselves and to one another” (6). Marshall Sahlins has shown how a society incorporates and understands such a new social phenomenon as colonization by structuring it within its established system and cultural media. So accounts arise which to us may seem mythical (Apollo carrying off the nymph Cyrene as foundress of her city), historical (Thucydides saying that Archias the Bacchiad led a founding expedition from Corinth to Syracuse), or legendary (Greeks from Pylos were shipwrecked on their way home from Troy and founded Metapontum) (5). Tales must also fit the needs of the present, and be “emplotted” into a fictionalized history by selection, emphasis and metaphor, used to “familiarize the unfamiliar” and “endow the past with meaning” (6). D. also speaks, a little less clearly, of using literary theory, to understand the limits in constructing a narrative of colonization imposed by one’s own language, vocabulary, and categories of experience, leading to a reliance upon familiar stereotypes (7).

This is (as I understand it) “new historicism;” and D.’s aims, methods and results are very different from those of her most recent predecessor in the study of Greek colonialism, Irad Malkin ( Religion and Colonization in Ancient Greece [Leiden 1987: Brill]). Malkin is explicit: “Because we are concerned with historical colonies we shall have little to say on legendary oikists and legendary foundation oracles” (21); “The subject of religious justification [for colonization] or ‘charter myths’ merits a full and separate discussion; however, we cannot enter into it here…” (90). Both authors make it absolutely clear, to themselves and to us, what they are setting out to do, and their purposes are significant and to a great extent complementary. Little purpose is served by trying to estimate the relative value of their aims.

D. summarizes the basic narrative pattern of colonization tales as; crisis; Delphic consultation; colonial foundation; resolution. The narrative would be retold as a part of the cult honors which city founders received after their death (8). The first two metaphors for representing the unfamiliar, i.e. leaving home, are a crisis caused by murder (which acknowledges the violent nature of a colonial expedition) and the consequent need for purification, providing a solution to a civic crisis and involving Delphic Apollo as purifying deity. Next, the enigmatic language characteristic of Delphi gives an appropriate linguistic environment, and colonization may be described as the solution to a riddle; “Punning riddles, in particular, make it possible to construct a colonial tale that describes a foreign landscape with a Greek vocabulary. Bilingual word-play hellenizes local cults and geography and thus addresses the problems of contact with native populations in foreign territory” (8-9). Then the “confrontation between Greeks and native populations entails a third cultural metaphor—marriage”. “The power relationship between men and women which Greek marriage implies is then used to negotiate the terms of interaction between Greek colonists and local populations. Both marriage and colonization entail violence; both institutions use that violence to transform wildness and lack of cultivation into a state of fruitful civilization” (9).

What is the context for telling colonial tales? It is exemplified in Aeschylus’Aetnaeae and Pindar’s Pythian 1, where both authors “adopt the representational strategies of archaic colonial discourse to celebrate the fifth-century foundation of Aetna” by Hiero of Syracuse (9). “Drama allows a city to act out its origins…. Epinician poetry provides the ritual context for transferring a victor’s talismanic power to his city…. Thus we see another cultural metaphor at work—a colonial founder functions a s an appropriate model of praise for the athletic victor” (9).

After this careful summary, Part I of the book is divided into 4 chapters, expanding the categories just outlined. First, the narrative pattern of colonization: (a) a civic crisis (b) prompts consultation of Delphic Oracle; (c) the oracle authorizes the foundation of a colony, which (d) resolves the crisis, to be memorialized through the cult of the founder (15). (A footnote notes another pattern, “god rapes nymph, who then gives her name to the city founded on the spot”.) The crisis may be overpopulation or a food or land shortage, a natural disaster, or a legendary journey; competition for a throne, civil strife, an external threat, or a murder (D. notes briefly that “rarely is there mention of the commercial or agricultural benefits which must have lured the colonists to explore new sites” [18]—more on this would have been welcome). Then follows the Delphic consultation, the oracle sometimes providing specific directions, designating an animal guide, a riddling or punning response which must be decoded; and subsequently the colonial foundation, usually not specifically described, though D. quotes Odysseus’ well-known description of the island off the land of the Cyclopes ( not“the island of the Cyclopes” [21]) as a description of an ideal, uninhabited colonization site. The founder must here mark out and allocate the land, and give the new city a name. His death marks the transition from colony to city-state (24), and hence the solution to the crisis and the end of the narrative. His cult continues to be important in the ritual life of his city.

Often the cause of crisis is said to be a murder, conveniently requiring consultation with Delphi (D. is aware of R. Parker’s caution [ Miasma, Oxford 1983, 393] against taking Apollo as uniquely concerned with purification) and the exile of the perpetrator. D.’s second chapter explains how murderers and political exiles can be honored as founders. She quotes Mary Douglas, relating purification to colonization in three ways: (a) purification is achieved by separating and expelling the negative element, as in choosing colonists (I feel more could have been said on this); (b) colonists make a fresh start, crossing boundaries, as in initiation rituals (36); (c) chaos is transformed into order, and a new city arises out of troubles of the old one. So “In a kind of narrative metonymy, the purification of an individual becomes a model for that of the city. A murderer consults Delphic Apollo to be purified and is sent out to found a colony…. The Apollo who purifies becomes the Apollo who colonizes” (37-8). D. refers to Vernant’s essay “The Pure and the Impure”, which points out the close association between what is sacred and what is polluted, and adds a further idea: “Colonial tales that include murder displace the warlike violence of the colonial expedition itself and relocate it within the tale by virtue of a religious system which can address and expiate that violence. Within colonial discourse, the murderous founder is made to shoulder the burden of the historical violence of settling foreign territory, and his purification as the story unfolds prefigures that of the colonists themselves” (41).

An oracular response is likely to be in riddling form, and D. incorporates this into her scheme. “Oracles within colonization tales exploit the ambiguity of puns to create a new vision of reality, one that translates local phenomena into the Greek language just as colonization itself transforms foreign soil into a Greek city”. Solving a riddle, a puzzle, “reorders an unfamiliar and confused landscape” (45). A Greek explanation may be given for a local place-name; a word-play, until explained, may suggest a natural law has been overturned, emphasizing the foreignness of the land prior to the Greeks’ arrival; an ambiguity may be used to trick the occupants out of their land. The solution of the riddle gives a sense of control, of Greek cleverness, of order restored out of confusion.

Reading chapter 4, “The Lay of the Land,” one suddenly realises the full significance of the title. Here D. deals with the similarities between marriage and colonization: both are institutions of integration and acculturation, uniting opposites, “transforming that which is wild and foreign into a fruitful and productive experience…. So the rituals and rhetoric of the Greek marriage ceremony (including rape) shape colonial representation as well” (61). In Greek thought, marriage integrates different entities into partnership for a common purpose, producing offspring and property; it transforms the bride from the wildness of nature into the civic role of wife (62). A bride, like a colonist, changes residence and loses family and early home; the woman is like the land, a fertile field to be plowed; and the lurking idea of violence finds expression in the myths of rape which often appear in colonization tales (64). Contact with the indigenous populations took two forms: expulsion, and marriage to local women (67). So in Greek tales, “marriage imagery leads us to imagine the new civic creation as a joint project of Greeks and native peoples” (68). The land is personified as a nymph, fresh, green, ready to be occupied and worked; and in a neat concluding double-entendre, both women and land are “in need of men and their tools of civilization in order to bear fruit” (76).

Part II of the volume deals with how the tales of colonial origins were circulated and publicized. There was no specific genre of colonization poetry as such, and the tales appear in literature in different genres, shaped by their own conventions. (I am a little dubious about D.’s claim that the “melic poetry, cyclic songs, partheneia, Simonidean specials” promised by the poet in Aristophanes’Birds [917ff.; here p.84] will be “in celebration of the foundation of Cloudcuckooland”.) D.’s prime example is naturally the celebration of Hieron’s foundation of Aetna by some of greatest poets of the age—Pindar, Bacchylides, Simonides, and Aeschylus. Vase-paintings depicted the rape of the local nymph Thalia by Zeus, and “portray visually the same scenario we have seen at work in literary representations of colonial foundations. Rape and marriage imagery describes colonization as a kind of divine conquest—as Zeus takes possession of the local nymph, so Hiero gains control of her land” (85-86). In the genre of drama, Aeschylus’Aetnaeae included a bilingual word-play deriving the name of the Palici, local gods born of Zeus’ rape of Thalia, from the Greek palin … hikous(i). In epinician, Pindar’s first Pythian tells of Zeus’ imprisonment of Typhon under Aetna, employing a Greek myth to explain a local topographical feature, and its conclusion celebrates Hieron as founder as well as victor.

This last point is elaborated in D.’s next chapter: “Pythian 5: Colonial Founders and Athletic Victors”. “In victory, the athlete … temporarily steps outside the bounds of conventional experience and thus must be reincorporated into his civic community. In this context, the victory song both celebrates the victor as he is welcomed home and orchestrates his reintegration” (103). Both founder and victor must take risks, expend effort, travel away from home; and both receive immortal honors from their cities—a cult, for the founder, and Pindar’s song for the victor. Thus Pythian 5 celebrates the victory of Arcesilaus of Cyrene, and its theme is the foundation of Cyrene by Battus from Thera, including the heroic honors paid to Battus; the song the victor has received for his victory ends with a prayer for further honors for Battus’ race.

In chapter 7 D. shows how the theme of murder too can be included in celebrations of a colonial foundation. In Olympian 7 Pindar praises Diagoras of Rhodes by singing of the nymph Rhodes, the daughter of Aphrodite and bride of Helius; but he begins with the tale of how Tlepolemus killed his kinsman Lycimnius and was told by Apollo to sail to an island endowed by Zeus at birth of Athena (Apollo’s part, connecting the colonial expedition with the necessary purification, is not found in the Homeric version, Il. 2.661-69). Then he tells how the island of Rhodes was born and given to Helius, who fathered seven sons upon the eponymous nymph. Tlepolemus the founder of the city receives sacrifices and athletic contests “as if to a god”, returning us to the victor Diagoras. “Bacchylides, too, describes Panhellenic competition and city foundations as parallel acts of purification, and for this reason, a reading of Bacchylides Ode 11 in conjunction with a discussion of Olympian 7 will explore how the purification-colonization metaphor operates within the context of epinician poetry” (120). In this ode, Artemis gave Alexidamus the victory at Delphi, Artemis saved the daughters of Proetus (in the myth) from their punishment by Hera, and Artemis accompanied the colonists to Metapontum; thus the goddess connects the victory, the myth, and the foundation of the victor’s city. From a struggle comes Proetus’ founding of a city, from a struggle comes Alexadamos’ victory at Delphi. D.’s explanation of all this is well-done.

Finally, D. examines the use of marriage imagery in Pindar’s Pythian 9. In this ode the victory of Telesicrates of Cyrene is honored not by the tale of the city’s founder Battus, as in Pythians 4 and 5, but through the love story of Apollo and the nymph Cyrene. In Hesiod Cyrene is a nymph of Phthia famous for her beauty, and D. suggests that in identifying her with a local place-name Pindar “uses bilingual wordplay to combine the themes of colonization and marriage in an epinician context” (136). The marriage imagery is analogous to the victory—Cyrene receives the victorious Telesicrates, coming home, like a bride (138-9). In a short concluding section D. discusses the reconciliation of these metaphors of purification for murder, solution to a riddle, marriage, and athletic victory, summarizing the themes of the book.

The volume includes texts (unfortunately without line numbers) and translations of Pythian 5, Olympian 7, Bacchylides 11, and Pythian 9; a good Bibliography, an index locc., and a subject index. D. has not been well served by her press, which has placed her numerous ‘footnotes’ at the ends of chapters and allowed the use of a Greek font (it looks like Attika) which is unpleasing (at least to my eye) and has indistinguishable commas and periods.

I noticed few infelicities or errors. On p. 48 the reference to the Poetics should be 22.2 (or better 1458a26-7), and “to combine things which are impossibly true” seems to me impenetrable English for τὸ λέγοντα ὑπάρχοντα ἀδύνατα συνάψαι. Something like Else’s “while talking about real things, to make impossible combinations of them” or Dorsch’s “to express facts in an impossible combination of language” would be preferable. Even the OED’s quotation of Shelley’s “The Son of Saturn with this glorious Power Mingled in love and sleep” does not remove my long-standing distaste for “mingled” as a translation of μιχθείς (138, 175) in the erotic sense—even “joined in love” would be better.

As D. mentions, in general terms, in the Acknowledgments, some of the material has already been published elsewhere. Since these articles are not mentioned in the Bibliography, scholars in the field should note that chapter 2 is virtually identical with sections I and II (178-89) of “It’s Murder to Found a Colony,” in Cultural Poetics in Archaic Greece edd. Carol Dougherty and Leslie Kurke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993) 178-98; chapter 3 is mainly identical with “When Rain Falls from the Clear Blue Sky: Riddles and Colonization Oracles,”ClassAnt 11.1 (1992) 28-44; and some of the material on the Aetnaeae and Pythian 1 appeared in “Linguistic Colonialism in Aeschylus’Aetnaeae,” GRBS 32 (1991) 119-32.

However, the volume forms a united whole and is a very considerable achievement. D. writes clearly and includes good summaries, though occasionally one is conscious of repetition. One could argue that her method includes a certain circularity—she uses the tales to deduce patterns, then uses the patterns to explain the tales, but this is the normal procedure in establishing the structure of a literary work. I found the volume of considerable interest. D. elucidates very clearly the ways in which new stories are constructed on old patterns, and often throws light on the underlying background. One feels that she is bringing us closer to the mentality of an ancient society, bringing us closer to the ways in which the Greeks, almost unconsciously, looked at a highly significant side of their own history. Her exposition is clear, and the book is a pleasure to read—a good introduction not only to the topic but also to the methodology employed.