BMCR 1994.09.10

1994.09.10, Graf, Greek Mythology: An Introduction

, , Greek mythology : an introduction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. xii, 240 pages, 6 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780801846571 $22.95.

The past two years have seen a spate of publication of books about Greek mythology. In the United States, there are, or soon will be, four new textbooks (by Barry Powell; by Carl Ruck and Danny Staples; the fifth edition of “Morford and Lenardon”; HyperMyth 4.1). In addition, there are in English new reference works (Gantz; Ahlberg-Cornell) and an important new work of interpretation (Buxton). These books support the teaching of those perennially attractive college courses on Greek myth whose large enrollments do much to support the profession of Classics in the United States. Those who teach Greek myth, if they want to go beyond lists of names and outlines of stories, face the questions: what is Greek myth? how to discuss it as such, in its specificity, and not as the poetic texts in which it first appears? The book under review faces these questions directly, and will thus be useful to the instructor as well as to the student.

On the question of what is Greek myth, Graf occupies a middle ground between two emerging extremes.

One of these extremes, which can be called post-structuralist, dates to the publication of Marcel Detienne’s L’Invention de la mythologie (1981) and of Paul Veyne’s Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes? (1983). The first of these books showed the formation of the concept of myth in the modern period, beginning in the eighteenth century, and the retrojection of this concept onto Greek antiquity. The Greeks themselves, according to Detienne, had only the incipient concept found in Plato. W hat we thought was Greek myth was only “un poisson soluble dans les eaux de la mythologie.” Veyne showed the irrelevance of modern theory of myth to the “program of truth” which guided the Greeks’ understanding of the stories that we call “myths.” Detienne’s argument has recently been carried forward in articles by Claude Calame, which will soon take the form of a book. Like Detienne, Calame puts emphasis on the non-existence of any ancient Greek terminology for “myth,” “legend,” etc. The lack of terminology is one of the arguments for the non-existence of any ancient Greek “native category” of what we call “myth.”

The other extreme, which can be called oralist, lacks both foundational tracts and a self-conscious school of exponents. It is emerging more slowly, but no less certainly, than the first. An early formulation appears in 1983 in a paper published by William Hansen in Journal of Folklore Research. Hansen, starting from more or less the same observation that Calame makes concerning the absence of a general concept of myth in Greek antiquity, concludes that it is time for “Hellenists … to operate with one inclusive category of the oral story, whether we wish to call it mythology or something else, and however we may wish to divide it up into genres.” Support for this notion of “oral story” appeared in Richard Martin’s The Language of Heroes (1989), even though this book was principally a study of oral poetics. Of the speeches called muthoi, Martin chose a large subset consisting of commands, boast-and-insult contests (“flyting”), and recitation of remembered events, and, on the basis of speech-act theory and comparative ethnological evidence, described these muthoi as “performances of self”; further, he argued that they must be imitations of styles of speaking actually practiced by those who listened to the poems. As the narratives of remembered events are sometimes what we would call “myths,” we can say, on the basis of Martin’s findings, that for Homer and his audience, myths are oral performances. (It is not surprising, if performance is the important thing, that, for a long time, muthos and logos could be used interchangably and that we find various genres of narrative, Aesop’s fables, for example, referred to as muthoi. At a certain point, however, the word muthos came to refer to the contents of the narrative, not to the narration itself, and to particular contents, i.e., stories of gods and heroes.)

Graf’s moderate position is stated in his “Introduction: A Provisional Definition” (1-8). A myth is a “traditional tale.” “Traditional” means author-less: no one knows who created a myth. Further, myth is a “peculiar kind of story” that “does not coincide with a particular text or literary genre” (2-3). Myths continue to be reused because they have “cultural relevance,” making “a valid statement about the origins of the world, of society and its institutions, about the gods and their relationship with mortals, in short, about everything on which human existence depends” (3). Myths are adaptable and change as historical conditions change. This process continued in ancient Greece down to the time when the claims of truth had to satisfy new requirements of rationalism, though in Plato myth still retains expressive power for areas that are inaccessible to dialectical reasoning (4-5). (A more elaborate form of this same moderate position, directed to specialists, will be found in Walter Burkert’s contribution to Mythos in mythenloser Gesellschaft.)

Graf’s notion that myth is a “peculiar kind of story” is diametrically opposed to the post-structuralist denial of myth as a native category of ancient Greek mentality. (Graf glances at Detienne’s book [55] but does not enter into controversy.) But this notion makes sense to oralists, as does the kernel of Graf’s definition, “traditional tale,” and also his sharp distinction between myth and poetry. The oralist would regret that, having made this distinction, Graf proceeds to privilege the poetic forms of myth; cautiously stating, “It is just possible that myths were passed along in nonpoetic forms—in prosaic, quotidian narratives not bound to set institutions…. ” (5). The oralist would maintain that the nonpoetic forms were the normal ones and would invoke Homer as a witness to nonpoetic story-telling. Homer fairly often represents a hero narrating a story about the past (one of Martin’s three types of muthos). When he does so, as for example in Achilles’ recounting of the Niobe story to Priam, Homer does not represent the hero as a bard; on the contrary, Homer represents the hero as a story-teller (24.601-619). Further, contrary to Graf’s stress on large-scale diachronic variation in myth, the oralist would call attention to small-scale synchronic variation, as in Achilles’ version of the Niobe story, which is tailored to Achilles’ immediate purpose, i.e., to persuade Priam to take food. While Graf is undoubtedly correct that historical change and the persistent cultural relevance of myth produce diachronic variation (3), there is another, more immediate “motor of the tradition” and that is the story-teller’s desire to make a point. All of Martin’s three types of muthoi, including the narration of remembered events, are assertions of the self against someone else.

The last few pages of Graf’s Introduction are concerned with problems of terminology. The greatest one of all is the word “myth” itself. The poststructuralists make much of the fact that muthos never in the archaic and classical periods refers to a category of narrative corresponding to “myth” as in our expression “Greek myth.” We have to use “myth,” then, with self-conscious anachronism, as we use “historian,” “gnomology,” “fable,” etc. in referring to these periods, and with a clear statement, such as Graf has given, of what we mean by “myth.” I agree with Graf’s general view (which accords with that of Hansen quoted above) that we need fewer terms, not more, but I believe that it is helpful to have a pair of terms to distinguish between myth and its particular instantiation in a poetic or dramatic or choral or visual medium. These terms are “story” and “narrative,” which come from Gérard Genette (and are used systematically in my Myth in Homer). The term that Graf especially wants to banish, “folktale” (7), is one that I want to keep. Without it, we would have great difficulty in discussing Odyssey 9-12 and the dozens of other cases in which Greek myth has adapted international folktale story-patterns or motifs. (“Dozens” is an understatement, as Hansen’s forthcoming Ariadne’s Thread: A Guide to International Folk Narratives in Classical Literature [provisional title] will show. Hansen discusses 150 examples from a list twice as long.) Graf himself discusses such an adaptation in the case of the Meleager folktale (65-66). We have to reckon with the existence of folktales in antiquity (cf. the prudent statement of P. E. Easterling in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, Vol. I [Greek Literature], pp. 699-703), even if we have no records of them, and therefore also with their function in the ancient audience’s reception of myth. While scholars like Sir Denys Page who have written on the adaptation of folktales have usually assumed that, once adapted, they disappeared or that their continued existence had no further relevance, it seems more likely that the audience would have been aware of the transmutation of the simpler form of the story into the mythical narrative.

Graf’s first (“The Rise of the Scientific Study of Myth”) and second (“New Approaches to the Interpretation of Myth in the Twentieth Century”) chapters form a unit. Graf gives a history of the concept of myth in modern times up to the present. This history, which begins with Christian Gottlöb Heyne (1729-1812) and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), is implicitly polemical: neither Heyne nor Herder is mentioned by Detienne in a similar history in L’Invention. The stakes are high. Depending on how the history is written, one can conclude that myth is nothing but a construct bearing no relation to Greek antiquity (the poststructuralists) or that current, feasible approaches to Greek myth are traceable to the eighteenth century. Graf has written a separate essay on Heyne (in Mythos in mythenloser Gesellschaft) and he recently gave a paper (Mar. 2, 1994 at the V Coloquio Internacional de Filología Griega, Madrid; forthcoming in the Actas of the conference) on Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757) in which he criticized some aspects of Detienne’s interpretation of this founding father of mythology. Calame, too, has done much research in this area, which is, somewhat oddly, where much controversy over Greek myth will take place in the next few years.

After the first two chapters, Graf turns to the main sources of Greek myth in the archaic and classical periods and the main problems (myth and ritual; myth and history). He begins with “Myth and Epic Poetry” (ch. 3). He discusses the relation of the Iliad and the Odyssey to the larger Trojan War myth, to myths about individual gods and heroes, and to non-Trojan War myth. As an example of this last category, he takes the Meleager myth. He concludes, correctly, that “Homer’s use of myths that were not about the Trojan War was idiosyncratic” (66), but the reason for the idiosyncrasy, to return to a point made earlier in this review, is that Homer, who never narrates such myths at any length in his own voice, represents the heroes as adapting them for their own purposes. In this chapter, Graf is more open to the possibility, which arises in a valuable passage on local epic (apropos of the Meropis), of non-poetic mythic tradition (67). Turning to the question of the origin of the myths found in Homeric epic, Graf considers Nilsson’s thesis and the related problem of the historicity of the Trojan War. Graf’s discussion is characteristically sane and refreshing. He does not deny the possibility of historical reverberations in Homer but is far from lapsing into the Schliemann-inspired reductionist explanations that undergraduates and some archaeologists seem to love. (Consider an article in the The New York Times, Feb. 23, 1993, p. C1 on a geomagnetic survey of Schliemann’s site. The headline was “A New Clue to the Splendor That Was Troy,” and the sub-head, “Find may be wall around which Achilles ran”!) He prefers to see the Mycenaean elements in Homer as the localization of an Indo-European poetic tradition. His cautious suggestions concerning Achilles as the reflex of the young Indo-European hero point to a new way of understanding the story of the Iliad. (It is discouraging that the field of Classics has had nothing better than the vaguely myth-ritualist pattern of withdrawal, devastation, and return as an account of the story-pattern or underlying myth of the Iliad.)

Ch. 4 (“The Origin of the World and the Gods”) is mainly on Hesiod. Graf makes a nice suggestion concerning the notorious lack of a story about the origin of humans: what Hesiod offers at the center of the Theogony is a definition of mankind in religious and cultural terms; physical creation is implied to be of secondary importance (86). Much of this chapter is necessarily taken up with the Near Eastern background of the succession myth in the Theogony. On the question of how Near Eastern myths reached the Greeks, Graf is confident that the transmission was oral. The Near Eastern myths that we have are the textual crystallizations of traditions that the Greeks encountered probably in Cilicia and in the ninth century, not at the end of the Bronze Age (94-96). The final section of this chapter, on theogony and cosmogony after Hesiod, opens with the statement that “Hesiod’s account of the origin of the world and the gods … never became canonical” (96), and proceeds to discuss Orphism and the preSocratics. The point is worth taking. Too often, the passage in Herodotus on Homer and Hesiod (2.53), which suggests an orthodoxy, is taken as definitive. (Graf quotes some of the passage at the beginning of the next chapter but for a limited purpose.) The pan-Hellenic success of Hesiod’s poem does not preclude a high degree of theogonic pluralism in local myth and cult.

The title of Ch. 5, “Myth, Sanctuary, and Festival,” already suggests how Graf will refocus the old question of myth and ritual. Graf takes the myths concerning Apollo and Delos as his main example and shows the complexity of their relation to the island’s buildings and history. Graf sees myth and ritual as autonomous phenomena, each of them governed by its own structural laws (116). The etiological relation of the former to the latter is thus, even when it is fairly constant, as in the case of Delian myth, anything but rigid.

Ch. 6 (“Myth as History”) takes up another old problem of mythology, the relation of myth to history in the Greek mind. Graf describes very well the lack of any clear distinction down through the classical period. Greek myth is itself therefore a counter-example to the standard account of Greek intellectual history as the triumph of logos over mythos (cf. 140). As Graf shows, the progress of rationalism, at least as far as historical thought was concerned, took place inside of myth (e.g. in systematic genealogies), it did not supervene upon it. (Graf and twenty or so other speakers will address this issue at a conference organized by Richard Buxton, “Myth into Logos?”, to be held on July 24-28, 1996 at the University of Bristol.) The oralist notices the lack of any mention of the logioi in this chapter.

Ch. 7 (“Myth, Choral Song, and Tragedy”) begins with the uses of myth in archaic choral lyric and in Pindar and Bacchylides and proceeds to the fundamentally new dramatized form that myth assumed in tragedy. Graf holds that “the mythical narration of fifth-century tragedy, unlike that of archaic choral lyric poetry, was not marked by the use of tales continually modified within a purely oral tradition; instead, the tragedians tended to borrow specific poetic versions from the archaic period. They probably became acquainted with most of these versions in the form of written texts, not by attending performances of choral lyric poetry” (152). While the fifth-century tragedians might not have seen performances of archaic choral lyric, there is no reason that the stories common to this genre and to tragedy could not have come to the tragedians orally, independently of texts. There is also the matter of epic as a source for tragedy. Graf cites Aeschylus’ acknowledgement of his debt to Homer (142) but does not pursue the matter. My opinion is that the textualization of myth is a result of tragedy, not a cause. As is well known, the poetic engagement with myth ceases to flourish after the fifth century; in Alexandrian poetry, myth becomes a learned, dilettantish affair. While the narrative of myth in the forms that become what we know as Greek literature thus ends, the stories retained their explanatory and probative value for many people in many places for many centuries, as the reports of Pausanias show (and see the post-fifth-century examples given by Graf on 177-78).

The main discussions in ch. 7, of Pindar, Ol. 1, of the Oresteia, and of “Euripides, Myth, and the Gods,” are excellent. The climactic position of Euripides emerges forcefully. The capacity of myth to express a radically new, pessimistic worldview paradoxically meant the end of myth as a form of a poetic reflection. In his concluding chapter (“Philosophers, Allegorists, and Mythologists”), Graf turns to the ultimately more powerful kind of thought that had already started with the sophists in the fifth century and that in Plato and Aristotle would lead to more or less systematic critiques of myth. Graf begins with the sophists, who fundamentally challenge the validity of myth and who therefore free themselves to invent myths for expository purposes, as Plato was to do. Graf discusses Plato after the Sophists, and then, with only a glance at Aristotle (191), pursues myth in the directions it took after Plato, euhemerism, mythography, and allegoresis.

The criticisms of Graf’s book that I have made are obviously in the area of specialist research. This book is to my mind the best general introduction to Greek mythology in English. It will be of great use to teachers of Greek mythology. As it provides excellent synopses of the myths that are discussed in detail and assumes little prior knowledge, it will also be of use to many students. The only note of caution I want to sound concerns the first chapter, which is the only difficult one. Those who persevere beyond this chapter will be rewarded. In brief compass, Graf has set out the major issues surrounding, and the major sources for, Greek myth, and, at the same time, preserves a clear sense of historical context and of the particular literary or poetic character of the sources. He has managed to be both brief and nuanced. He has been well served by his translator, Thomas Marier, who, unlike many translators of books in the field of Classics, both understood the book he was translating and was able to write readable English.

Finally, a prognostication on the successor to Graf’s book. Whatever it may be, one can predict that it will make much greater use of visual sources than Graf has done. It happens that Graf’s final words, under “Abbreviations and Sources” (200-201 with a long note on 220-21), are on visual sources, where he comments on the vase painting seen on the dust cover (a cup by Douris), which shows Jason exiting or entering the mouth of a serpent. As Graf indicates, on-going research is providing the means of understanding iconography as an authentic narrative mode, contrary to the traditional approach, which regards vase painting as illustration of verbal myth. The new approach, along with the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Graecae and other new resources, will surely lead to revisions of our understanding of Greek myth.

  • “Morford and Lenardon,” fifth edition forthcoming.
  • Barry Powell, Classical Myth (New York 1994).
  • Carl Ruck and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth: Gods and Goddesses, Heroines and Heroes (Durham NC 1994).
  • Randy Stewart, HyperMyth 4.1 (Salt Lake City 1994, forthcoming), with a link to Perseus.
  • Claude Calame, “Mythique (discours, niveau),” in A. J. Greimas and J. Courtes, Sémiotique: un dictionnaire raisoné de la théorie du langage, II (Paris, 1986) 148-49.
  • ________, “Evanescence du myth et réalité des formes narratives,” in C. Calame, ed. Métamorphoses du mythe en Grèce antique (Geneva 1988) 7-14.
  • ________, “Illusions de la mythologie,”Nouveaux Actes Sémiotiques (Université de Limoges 1991).
  • ________, “‘Mythe’ et ‘rite’ en Grèce: Des catégories indigènes?”Kernos (1991)179-204.
  • Marcel Detienne, L’Invention de la mythologie (Paris 1981). The Creation of Greek Mythology, trans. Margaret Cook (Chicago and London 1986).
  • Paul Veyne, Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes? Essai sur l’imagination constituante (Paris 1983). Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? Essay on the Constitutive Imagination, trans. Paula Wissing (Chicago 1988).
  • Lowell Edmunds, “Oral Story-telling and Hexameter Poetry in Archaic Greece,” forthcoming in the Actas of the V Coloquio Internacional de Filología Griega. I have cannibalized a couple of paragraphs of this essay for the present review.
  • William Hansen, “Greek Mythology and the Study of the Ancient Greek Oral Story,”Journal of Folklore Research 20 (1983) 101-12.
  • Richard Martin, The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad (Ithaca 1989).
  • Ada B. Neschke-Hentschke, “Mythe et traitement littéraire du mythe en grèce ancienne,”Studi Classici e Orientali 37 (1987) 29-60, esp. 43-44. But, unlike others in this list, she takes the pre-exisiting myth as only a personage (hero or god) and an act (or two) and not a story (which we define as a type) that was always a potentiality for reuse or reference.
  • Ernst Risch, “Homerisch ‘ennepo’, Lakonisch ‘epheneponti’ und die alte Erzählprosa,”ZPE 60 (1985) 1-9.
  • Alex Scobie, “Storytellers, Storytelling, and the Novel in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,”RhM 122 (1979) 229-59. Because of the author’s interest in the novel, the focus is Roman and Hellenistic.
  • Sophie Trenker, The Greek Novella in the Classical Period (Cambridge 1958). Ch. 2 (“Story-telling in Attica in the Classical Period”) covers evidence not in Scobie’s article.
  • Timothy Gantz, Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources (Baltimore and London 1993). Rev. by Jennifer Neils in BMCR 94.5.10.
  • Gudrun Ahlberg-Cornell, Myth and Epos in Early Greek Art: Representation and Interpretation (Jonsered 1992).
  • Suzanne Said, Approches de la mythologie grecque (Paris 1993). A very handy 128-page outline. Worth using in tandem with Graf.
  • W. Robert Connor, “Commentary on the Conference,”Arethusa 20 (1987) 259-60. Cf. Nagy below.
  • J. A. S. Evans, the third essay, “Oral Tradition in Herodotus,” in Herodotus, Explorer of the Past (Princeton 1991) 88-146.
  • Kurt von Fritz, the appendix, “Die Sogenannten logographen, logopoioi und logioi,” in Die griechiche Geschichtsschreibung, vol. 1 (Anmerkungen) (Berlin 1967) 343-47.
  • Oswyn Murray, “Herodotus and Oral History,”Achaemenid History 2 (The Greek Sources), ed. Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg and Amélie Kuhrt (Leiden 1987) 93-115.
  • Gregory Nagy, “Herodotus the Logios,”Arethusa 20 (1987) 181-82.
  • _______, Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past (Baltimore and London, 1990) 221-25.
  • _______, “Response to Mabel L. Lang and Robert Connor,”Arethusa 20 (1987) 209.
  • Walter Burkert, “Mythos—Begriff, Struktur, Funktionen,” in Fritz Graf, ed. Mythos in mythenloser Gesellschaft: Das Paradigma Roms (Stuttgart and Leipzig 1993) 9-24.
  • Richard Buxton, Imaginary Greece: The Contexts of Mythology (Cambridge 1994).
  • Paul A. Cartledge, The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others (Oxford 1993). Ch. 2 (“Inventing the Past: History v. Myth”) complements Ch. 6 of G.
  • Lowell Edmunds, Myth in Homer: A Handbook, 2nd ed. (Highland Park NJ 1993).
  • Fritz Graf, “Die Entstehung des Mythosbegriffs bei Christian Gottlob Heyne,” in Mythos in mythenloser Gesellschaft, pp. 284-94.
  • Steven Lowenstam, “The Use of Vase-depictions in Homeric Studies,”TAPA 122 (1992) 165-98.
  • Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, ‘Reading’ Greek Culture: Texts and Images, Rituals and Myths (Oxford 1991). Part IV (“Myth and History”) complements Ch. 6 of G.
  • H. A. Shapiro, Myth Into Art: Poet and Painter in Classical Greece (London and New York 1994).