BMCR 2004.01.16

Myth and Symbol I

, Myth and Symbol I: symbolic phenomena in ancient Greek culture; papers from the first International Symposium on Symbolism at the University of Tromsø, June 4-7, 1998. Papers from the Norwegian Institute at Athens, 5. Bergen: Norwegian Institute at Athens, 2002. 332 pages: illustrations. ISBN 8291626219 $62.50.

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This book is the publication of a symposium held at the University of Tromsø in 1998. As usual with such volumes, it is a potpourri of good and bad, without an overarching theme or persuasive conclusions. Poorly edited, every page has some kind of error or solecism, but you get used to it after awhile.

In the introductory chapter, the longest in the book, the editor Synnøve des Bouvrie discusses “The Definition of Myth. Symbolical Phenomena in Ancient Culture.” She hopes to improve on our definitions of myth by seeing “mythical phenomena” as generated by a “mythical mind,” by seeing myth as a subspecies of “symbolic phenomena.” As such, des Bouvrie opposes the views of M. Detienne and C. Calame, who understand the artificial category “myth” to derive from the European Enlightenment’s attempt to understand primitive cultures. Just because the Greeks did not have a term with same meaning that “myth” has for us, des Bouvrie argues, does not mean that such a category does not reflect something real, so that myth would be a way of thinking that is neither “argumentative” nor “rational.” True, you cannot define myth by contrasting it with modern European thought, nor by identifying universal properties of the tale. Rather, its definition must be sought in its reception by real people in a living society — hard to do when discussing ancient Greek myth! At least the definition of myth as a “traditional tale” is unsatisfactory, because some myths are of recent origin, for example most myths about Theseus.

Most classicists agree on, or discuss, various qualities of traditional tales. For example they are anonymous but set in place in time; they have collective importance; they describe “programs of action” or present an “inversion” of an expected program of action; they justify institutions. All such expectations are easily defied, however, by anthropological comparanda. Anthropologists are most comfortable with considering traditional tales as symbolic phenomena on a par with rituals and ritual implements. Such tales are “traditionalizing” in the sense that they claim to represent deep values. They often present exegesis, an explanation of events. They are “culture-creating” tales. To understand myth by reducing it to its structure is too intellectual and does no justice to the actual effect of a tale on its original audience. After all, a similar structure can underlie an altogether different surface, for example the Bacchae and Lysistrata can be described in similar terms, if you are talking about just structure. What counts is how symbols affect one emotionally and drive one to action.

Above all, inversion is able to stir the emotions of an audience. For this reason many myths describe conditions that violate or overturn our values. Such thoughts lead des Bouvrie to observations about the dichotomy “mythos” vs. “logos,” the one a form of symbolic thought and the other rational.

Much of des Bouvrie’s argument is hard to follow through such prose as “During these practices man may create phenomena with disproportionate relationships between signifier and of signified, resulting in a surplus of signifiers or a multitude of signified” (p. 37), by no means an exceptional example. Also, I’m not sure we contribute to understanding by defining myth as “symbolic phenomena,” when any human experience couched in language, obviously a symbolic system, becomes a “symbolic phenomenon,” including rational descriptions. The essential quality of a myth seems for des Bouvrie to be effect, the way that symbolic tales are received by the audience, for whom no proof is necessary. Lurking behind her speculations may be the notion that “myth” always has a popular appeal, which Greek myth certainly did, but so did Greek oratory.

Herbert Hoffman’s “Focusing on the Invisible. Greek Myth and Symbol Contemplation” appeals to modern psychology and mystical religious traditions to interpret the story of Glaukos and Polyeidos as a metaphor for rebirth and enlightenment, “The two terms being synonymous with self-knowledge at a higher level of comprehension” (p. 85).

Jaako Aronen in “Genealogy as a Form of Mythic Discourse. The case of the Phaeacians” shows how the Phaeacians, whose idealized life reminds us of the Golden Age, are related by blood to the Cyclopes and to the Giants, and that features of these hubristic early beings are clear among the Phaeacians too.

In “Gaia/Gê. Entre mythe, culte et idéologie” Stella Georgoudi vigorously opposes the fantasy of a primordial “Mother Earth,” a powerful goddess whose religion was paramount in prehistoric times and still important later. Rather, in cult the Earth refers both to the soil from which things grow and to the territory of any polis, but is both feminine and masculine. Modern misunderstandings about Mother Earth as a divine being are based on such literary works as Hesiod’s Theogony and not on the facts of Greek religion.

Jan N. Bremmer’s interesting “Odysseus versus the Cyclops” argues that the Cyclopes were traditional smiths in oral tradition, refashioned by Homer himself into the cave-dwelling cannibal Polyphemus, antithesis to the civilized Greek. Polyphemus owes more to the shaman’s Master of the Animals than to Hesiod’s tradition of the strong makers of lightning. So fine was Homer’s tale that it inspired many imitators in later antiquity and in Europe, whose versions folklorists have wrongly supposed to descend from a common stock of oral tale — the original tale was Homer’s creation, as preserved to us in the Odyssey.

“The Life Cycle of the Archaic Greek Warrior and Hero. The interplay of myth and genre in imagery” by Nanno Marinatos offers a presentation of the life of the hero as preserved on bronze shield straps preserved at several sanctuaries, mostly Olympia. Though the sequential scenes on such straps, visible only to the warrior who carries the shield, have no clear connection, she devises an “ideal” strap of eight typical panels that portrays stages in the life of the warrior, from youth, through marriage, athletics, arming, battle, the destruction of innocents, and the warrior’s own death. Such generic scenes easily correlate with epic descriptions but are independent of them in origin and function.

In “Greek myth-Etruscan Symbol” Marjatta Nielsen presents material interesting to the study of the use of narrative in Etruscan art. After examining a chair carved with scenes that symbolize the life of the community c. 700 BC in an Etruscan town, she shows how Greek myths later paralleled and complemented native traditions in Etruscan narrative art.

“Mythe et tragédie dans l’ Alceste d’Euripide” by Louise Bruit Zaidman explores the theme of xenia in Euripides’ play and the place of his version against traditional explorations of the necessity of death.

Bruce Lincoln, in “Retheorizing Myth,” discusses an Irish myth and Plato’s myth of the soul-chariot to clarify general principles of the functioning of myth, showing how it can be a “discursive instrument.”

“To lock up Eleusis. A Question of Liminal Space” by Dag Øistein Endsjø considers, in a sometimes frustrating style, Van Gennep’s theories of ritual initiation as reflected in myth and literature.

In “Rethinking Sisyphos” Kirsti K. Simonsuuri argues that stories about Sisyphus emphasize “the fragility of human desire and the philosophical notion of irreversibility.”

In “Syloson’s cloak and other Greek myths” Jesper Svenbro suggests that myth is not narrative but a “concatenation of categories.” For example, according to J. P. Vernant, limping is associated with bad relationships between the generations. The story of Oedipus concatenates his limping (Oedipus =”Swell-foot”) with the distorted relationships in his family. Svenbro goes on, following Louis Gernet, to suggest that agalmata can serve as the basis, or inspiration, for narrative, and that names are themselves objects or agalmata. So Oediopus both means “Swell-foot” and refers to oida, that is to knowledge, of who he is and what he did. So the story is a projection of the name. Orpheus, too, is the name of a grouper fish, said to hibernate in the darkness of the undersea netherworld, from which Orpheus, as we know, returned. Similarly, in Herodotus’ story about Syloson, brother of Polycrates, and how he gave his cloak to the future Darius, the story and even its refined meanings derives from the object, the cloak, and its mythical value of “harmonious rule.”

Synnøve des Bouvrie, who wrote the introduction and edited the papers, in “The Symbol of the Warrior in Greek Tragedy?” sees the violation of a community’s key symbols as the essence of the genre of tragedy. Rather oddly she takes the warrior as a “symbol,” meaning his importance and his central role in society. By presenting an abnormal warrior, a key symbol is breached. Discussing the Iphigeneia at Aulis, des Bouvrie points out how Agamemnon’s daughter takes on the posture of a male warrior, dying for the common good, rewarded with fame and a tombstone. About Euripides’ Trojan Women she argues that the play does not condemn war so much as it praises those who would fight against defeat; a world without war in classical Greece is a topic for comedy. Euripides’ Heracles, too, she interprets as an inversion of the “symbol of the warrior”: instead of defending the women and the children, Heracles kills them.

In “Artémis, Pan, et Marathon. Mythe, polythéisme et évenément historique” P. Ellinger notes the connection between Artemis and Pan and the battle of Marathon in Xenophon and Plutarch. Through study of the account in Herodotus and other sources, Ellinger distinguishes between the power of Artemis to inspire the Athenians in the actual battle against the Persians and the power of Pan to instill irrational fear before a battle: as Pan was abandoned at birth, so did the Spartans abandon the Athenians at Marathon. The appearance of Pan to the runner Philippides as he returned from Sparta is of course the aition for the cult of Pan at Athens.

I wanted to review this book because I am keenly interested in myth and symbol, but came away from the book thinking that little progress is being made in the conversation about these compelling topics. While there are occasional insights, the views expressed are scattered and contradictory and sometimes so ill-expressed as not to be taken seriously. The definition of myth as “traditional tale” with “collective importance” is too thin, but we’re not sure what to replace it with. No doubt we are poised for some great synthesis, but I can’t help but believe that myth is story, and that the rules and behavior and meaning of stories can be understood on their own terms. In studying myth that is where we should be looking.