BMCR 1996.08.03

1996.8.3, Scheid/Svenbro, The Craft of Zeus

, , The craft of Zeus : myths of weaving and fabric. Revealing antiquity ; 9. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. 226 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 9780674175495. $39.95.

Revealing Antiquity, a series edited by Glen Bowersock for Harvard University Press, is winning a distinctive niche for itself in the world of classical studies. The initial blurb for the series promised—in a rather gungho or even Star Trek spirit—”to look where scholars never looked before” and to use “new methods of interpretation” and an “avalanche of new material” in order to present aspects of antiquity, central to current academic interest, for “a broad public in a post-modern age”. The series as a whole has set (nonetheless) high standards for provocative and beautifully produced books, which deploy stimulating and complex material, the product of both innovative methodological insight, and a flair for refocusing on the previously marginalized. What is more, each is intelligently framed to make its arguments accessible to a wide audience and to interests outside classics: one might cite as exemplary Giullia Sissa’s Greek Virginity, Bracht Branham’s Unruly Eloquence, or Shadi Bartsch’s Actors in the Audience. John Scheid’s and Jesper Svenbro’s The Craft of Zeus is similarly an attractively and thoughtfully produced volume, with a distinctive methodological concern and an eye for the misplaced margin and the surprising connection.

This particularly suits the subject of the book—weaving—and the authors constantly play with the idea of warp and weft, of crossing threads, of the text as woven, as they pursue what they call “the myths of weaving and fabric”. They aim not at an exhaustive coverage of the language, images and tales of weaving, but at a more essayistic approach that sets out to exemplify not merely the pervasiveness of the idea of weaving in classical culture but also a particular sense of what might be meant by a myth of weaving. For Scheid and Svenbro, a myth is a shared or collective figure of thought (hence it goes beyond the metaphor); a figure of thought which can expand to a story but which is also part of—and capable of generating—ritual, imagery, ideological messages as well as stories. Thus, as with the olive tree according to Detienne’s analysis, weaving, whatever its basis in physical objects and processes, must be viewed under the rubric of “generative” mythology, and the authors combine the language of dramatic texts, rituals of the city, political philosophy, lyric poetry, to explore how “weaving” functions as such a “myth” throughout a culture. It is not the aim of the book to produce another theory of myth, nor is there any attempt to fit the material on weaving into a predetermined model. Rather, as the authors assert in the introduction, the development of this notion of “generative mythology” was a response to the varied types of material available and relevant to their project. Their contribution to an understanding of how “myth” moves beyond the handbook of tales is all the more suggestive and pleasing for this lightness of methodological touch.

The book is simply structured. After a brief introduction, there are three sections of two chapters each. Each section focuses on one aspect of the myth of weaving—broadly, politics, erotics, aesthetics—and each section has two chapters, one concentrating on Greek material, one on Roman. (The reader will immediately perceive the opportunities for the language of warp and weft, and interweaving of threads such a structure encourages.) The first section, entitled “Peplos”, looks at how weaving functions as a political expression: the fabric of the state. The first chapter, on Greek material, focuses on Plato’s Politicus (with Aristophanes”Lysistrata), texts which are persuasively linked to the ceremonies of producing a peplos and presenting it to a goddess. The readings offered of each work are very brief (and certainly too brief on the Politicus to exhaust the problem of how weaving interrelates with ideas of unity and division in this dialogue); but the claim that the political imagery and politicized ritual draws its strength from the mythic associations of “weaving” is well made, and the argument neatly combines ritual and political philosophy and the event of drama in a way few scholars attempt. The second chapter is more strained. It looks at Roman imagery of political weaving by concentrating on the Troiae Lusus and Vergil’s account of its origins, where mounted youth “weave” patterns of military engagement. It is, significantly, a very short chapter and the range of material which makes the Greek chapter compelling is simply not adduced. It might have been worth asking what the lack of political “weaving” in Latin, if there is one, suggests about Roman conceptualizations of politics and the State with regard to the family and gender.

The second section, entitled “Chlaina”, looks at weaving and erotics. Since cloaks double as bed-clothes, and since marriage can be described as the weaving together ( sumploke) of a man and a woman (or of families), domestic desire finds an importantly normative “myth” in weaving—which is closely related to the political processes of the first section: “Between civic and nuptial fabrics there is in reality a relationship of the deepest sort”. Here, the Roman chapter which focuses on Catullus 64 is the more consistently persuasive. It draws out complex and well articulated parallels between the skein that Ariadne uses to lead Theseus to safety, the sail with which Theseus fails to announce his safety to Aegeus, and the thread of the Parcae, all placed on the coverlet which is both a nuptial blanket (and thus a metaphor or symbol of marriage) and an image that itself says something of marriage. The general argument about weaving as a normative, generative myth is particularly well linked here to the specifics of a particular poem. The Greek chapter, however, while its general point is clear enough, spends a good deal of space on the philological glossing of the first word of Sappho’s first fragment. Against the standard editions, Scheid and Svenbro argue that poikilothronos should be understood as “dressed in a cloak with flowered designs” (from throna rather than thronos, as it is usually taken). They look at a string of -thronos compounds arguing in each case for a meaning to do with flowered dresses rather than thrones. This becomes rather strained. Thus when Hera retires to bed with Zeus at the end of Iliad 1, she is called chrusothronos : after noting that Hera’s “epithet is … more indicative of the goddess’s status than of the presence of a throne in her bed” (an interpretation which I do not suppose has much worried commentators), they add “we have good reason to believe that the goddess’s status is expressed by mention not of her throne but of her garment”. It is hard to see any developed argument for such a belief. So, too, Dawn is said to be euthronos because she is krokopeplos. It could just as easily be asserted that the two adjectives express different aspects of the goddess’s authority and attributes.

The third section is concerned with the aesthetics of weaving and how weaving becomes an expression of the creative act. Here there is a strong contrast between the Greek and Roman cases. For the authors are loathe to see a full-scale expression of composition in the language of weaving in Homer. The “weaving” of wiles that Odysseus famously practices, and the “weaving” of speeches that Menelaus and Odysseus are said to practice before the Trojans, are claimed here to refer to an interlacing of positions in the work of persuasion, and not to a speech or “text” in itself. Thus, Scheid and Svenbro argue against seeing Helen’s weaving of the story of Troy as an image for the poet’s composition as Lynn-George and Frontisi-Ducroux have developed. The lyric poets, however, do utilize the notion of the “web” of song, and this leads finally to full expression in Latin with the vocabulary of “textus” and “texere” where composition is inherently and “naturally” (by which one means in a culturally significant sense) “weaving”. Indeed, they conclude the book by asserting that the prevalence of the language of “texere” is because of “the presence of the letter x in the middle of the word … The truth is that no letter more precisely suggests the myth of weaving better than the x, the crossing of opposing threads. In other words, we are suggesting that the fascination right up to the modern period with the word textus, in its various forms, can be attributed to its ideogrammatic nature“. They add: “Are we serious in asserting this? Absolutely.” (Tennis fans might be tempted to reply with the immortal words of John McEnroe: You can NOT be serious”.)

The book’s special qualities are completely interwoven with its faults. The questioning of the boundaries of what constitutes a myth, and the development, via Barthes’ sense of myth, of a nuanced sense of how the ideological formulation of a sense of “weaving” functions across classical discourse, seems to me to be an interesting and important step. But at the same time, the desire to see “myth” as a shared and “common” cultural resource means that the particularities of its use are often underplayed. Surely it is central to the use of weaving in the Lysistrata that its political sense is expressed by the representation of women trying to take over the political life of the polis—yet the comedy of reversal is quite ignored, as is the context of performance. There remains an unresolved tension in the book between the claim for a general sense for weaving on the one hand and, on the other, its specific use in specific texts—which the briefness of their readings of ancient works compounds. The relationship between the common resource and the manipulation of textual citation needs more careful articulation if the claims for “generative” myth are to be adequately explored. Secondly, the willingness to see weaving as involved with politics, erotics, and aesthetics, and to see these areas as interconnected at an ideological and normative level shows an acute sense of the interrelations of areas of culture all too often left separate by scholars. But at the same time, the authors surprisingly give very little time to the sense of trickery with which weaving becomes associated—and which comes to engage self-reflexively with the very normativity of the message of weaving. From Calypso, Circe and Penelope in the Odyssey, through the robes in which Agamemnon and Heracles die, to the weaving of plots in male spheres of activity, “the web” develops a negative sense of deception and subtlety that constantly threatens to undermine its normative and positive value. Aphrodite’s nets are there to trap you, not just to symbolize marriage. The pursuit of the normative range of weaving has led the authors to underestimate the association of the warp and web, from the earliest, with the untrustworthy. (A good example might be, say, Xenophon Memorabilia 3.11, where the body of a dangerously attractive courtesan is described by Socrates as a “closely woven net”.) Thirdly, the essayistic nature of the account offered makes for attractive and easy reading, and is well-suited to the suggestive style adopted. The downside, inevitably, is not just a certain restriction of scope, but also a sense of arbitrariness: while there is little doubt that Vergil is a central author, that his brief description of the Troiae Lusus forms the centre piece on the chapter on weaving as a political image in Rome leaves too many questions unanswered. So too there is a certain restriction of engagement with the secondary sources.

In sum, the somewhat surprising coupling of the vast solidity of Scheid’s work on the Arval Brethren with the more mercurial leptotes of Svenbro produces a stimulating brief set of interconnected essays, whose general frame encourages a deeper awareness of the normative depth of every use of the vocabulary, imagery or tales of weaving and fabrics. E.J.W. Barber’s monumental Prehistoric Weaving. which changed for me at least the understanding of the technical and social aspects of weaving, is usefully supplemented here by a work which takes the meaning of weaving seriously across a range of times and institutions (although it avoids all jokes about the world-wide web …). It has several gaps in the fabric and some wild flights of fancy, but, as Vivienne Westwood would say, that’s how sexy and fashionable things should be designed.