BMCR 2003.01.11

After Antiquity: Greek Language, Myth, and Metaphor. With a foreword by Gregory Nagy

, After antiquity : Greek language, myth, and metaphor. Myth and poetics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001. xvii, 567 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0801433010. $59.95.

Alexiou’s first book appeared in 1974,1 and the book under review is her first book since then, and can in some sense be considered an expansion of horizon and deepening of insights contained in that book. I regret that in reviewing this book I really cannot do it justice, for much of the material is new to me: I had anticipated from the title a different sort of work, one more directed to classicists and less to Byzantinists and Neohellenists. Once embarked upon it, however, I found myself fascinated and unable to stop reading. I apologize to readers of BMCR for deficiencies resulting from my combination of ignorance and enthusiasm. Classicists will find it tough going, but will learn a great deal of the magic of the Greek language and imagination from it.

In her Introduction (1-16) Alexiou lays out in general terms her methodology and confronts other approaches. Her approach is eclectic, experiential, informed with great sensitivity and philological acumen, a very model of sound scholarship. Those addicted to various -isms may find her approach insufficiently theoretical. “There can be no single theoretical or ideological perspective on language, myth, and metaphor, only a diversity and a plurality of texts and interpretations.” (16) I find Alexiou’s approach congenial and, if I may say so, very Greek. Her take on the question of continuity from antiquity to today (p. 9) is excellent, and removes the question from the either/or opposition to a question of “in what sense.” She notes (p. 13) that Greece is somehow neither eastern nor western, neither modern nor traditional, neither first world nor third. In fact it is a unique amalgam of influences and tendencies derived from many sources.

The first long section, on language (19-148), contains a certain amount of purely linguistic material that is more or less known to all but then embarks on a nuanced discussion of texts from various periods of the late antique and Byzantine periods. Here I found going tough and slow because I am not familiar with many of the texts in question — an eventuality Alexiou herself recognizes (43). In this section she is concerned to indicate the dialogic interaction among the three strands of the modern Greek literary language — folk traditions, an ancient prestigious language, religious language — and shows that these three strands, enriched by borrowings and influences from without, have been characteristic of post-classical Greek generally. Modern Greek is a descendant of ancient Greek, but not in a direct or single line, but is an amalgam of much that has occurred linguistically in and to Greece. This argument may not be palatable to a linguist interested in creating stemmata and rules of linguistic change but does accord with principles of anthropological investigation. It also leads to an understanding of the linguistic situation in Greece today, especially in its literary aspects. Alexiou is interested in Greek as parole rather than as langue, as utterances rather than as abstract system.

Following the abstract account of stages of the language Alexiou provides texts and analyses of those texts from various periods of the language, beginning with the New Testament and extending to the 12th c. Ptochoprodromic poems. Analyses here are rich and detailed, and unfortunately beyond my competence to criticize. Among texts treated are Romanos’ Kontakia On the nativity and On the Resurrection I (both texts printed complete — with translation — pp. 416-451), letters, The Timarion, Hysmine and Hysminias.

The second section (151-314), “Myth,” is exciting. Here Alexiou is really in her element and draws on her early field work and that of others. Myth, according to Alexiou (153), is “a story, often involving supernatural or nonnatural elements, which may be told, sung, or implicit, whether by word of mouth or in writing (or a combination of both). It draws on a shared yet not undisputed fund of beliefs, experiences, and memories, rather than on an officially or scientifically determined consensus imposed from outside. It serves to link the past with the present, the known with the unknown worlds.” Response to myth is often as important as the recounting of the myth. And (155): “How do mythical genres explore dangerous subjects in order to challenge authority, while strengthening a sense of community?” She discusses these issues in chapters devoted to “Myth in Song” and “Magic Cycles in the Wondertales.” She observes (178) that European romanticism and demotic nationalism have distorted the collection of Greek folk songs by (1) detaching songs from their context and function; (2) the belief that demotic poetry reflects the national soul; (3) idealizing the “folk.” We must free ourselves from western canons in order properly to understand Greek. Her discussions of songs and wondertales illustrate the variety and flexibility of Greek mythic discourse. Striking is the fact that the same song (myth) can be sung both at weddings and at funerals. Alexiou provides both a primer of Greek mythic performance and a detailed analysis of many of the myths.

A further section is labeled: “Between Worlds: From Myth to Fiction” and deals with the Greek novel, particularly with Vizyenos. The 19th c. author George Vizyenos stands as an exemplar of modern Greek literature and folklore. He was born in Thrace under the Ottomans, studied in Germany, taught and wrote in Athens. He was a highly learned man, an original literary genius, whose language embraces the formal Greek of the time as well as dialectal and colloquial features and Turkish expressions (along with Turkish characters and locations). His six major stories include much that is folkloric, though his narrator tends to disapprove of such things. Vizyenos thus embraces traditions in language and folklore while at the same time incorporating western European literary forms and themes. The amalgam works, but Vizyenos does not fit comfortably into western canons of literature.

“Metaphor” (317-413) completes this long and rich book. Here Alexiou discusses and demonstrates the “ritual underpinnings of the Greek metaphorical system” (317). She defines ritual (320) “as an attempt by a group or by an individual to control the perceived outside world in relation to the self and to organize that outside world by symbolic means, involving repetition of actions, gestures and utterances.” In touching a section entitled “Autistic Rituals” and “Ritual and Reciprocity” (325-332) she introduces us to the behavior of autistic children as exemplified by her own twin autistic sons. The account of Pavlos’ baptism and its sequel is marvelous and moving. The primary rituals discussed are birth, marriage and death and the notional attributes of separation, transition, integration common to them all; and the songs are songs of the Life Cycle. Love songs, wedding songs and lullabies find their place in her discussion of metaphor, the metaphors being journey; clothes and gems; hair; The Garden of Love; dangerous spaces: hunting and hunted; burning and withering; tears and poison, blood and water; plants and fruits of the earth; hunting birds; the tree of love and life. All of these metaphors are illustrated by a rich selection of songs from all over the Greek world. A particularly striking instance of metaphor is provided (403-4) by a song classified by scholars as “a fragmented version of a heroic song.” Alexiou points out that the song in all its versions has been sung by women to the bride on her wedding day and thus must be interpreted metaphorically rather than as a story.

Alexiou has presented us with an account of post-antiquity Greek literary and folk imagination, and has done so — as it were — from within rather than from without. She has approached the texts on their own terms rather than from one or more theoretical standpoints. As a result her work is perhaps more discursive than another one might have been and has had to rely on large numbers of texts in order to make the argument. Her picture is coherent but not as clearly formulated as would be a more theoretically oriented book; one must read and reread in order to appreciate her contribution. A classicist — or at least this classicist — will find it difficult. Nonetheless it is worth reading both in order to obtain an understanding of later Greek literary culture and also to catch glimpses of ancient Greece still alive in the modern world.

The book concludes with notes (453-501), Key to References for Songs and Tales (503), Bibliography (505-546), General Index (549-562) and Index of Themes and Images (563-7). The book is long, but very well put together. There are a few errors in the Greek, but they are few. All involved in the production of the work from Alexiou to Nagy to the Loeb Foundation to the Cornell University Press are to be congratulated and thanked.


1. M. Alexiou, The ritual lament in Greek tradition, Cambridge: CUP, 1974.