BMCR 2004.07.54

The Writing of Orpheus: Greek Myth in Cultural Context. Translated by Janet Lloyd

, The writing of Orpheus : Greek myth in cultural context. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. xv, 199 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0801869544. $55.00.

Detienne’s Writing of Orpheus is not merely a translation of his 1989 L’écriture d’Orphée; it is a reworking of the earlier collection of essays with significantly different contents. Not only are there six new essays, but two of the essays from the French version are omitted. Even the essays that are in both versions are organized into different sections. Although many of the essays have therefore appeared in print in some form previously, this collection of exercises in the theory and practice of myth analysis by such a prominent proponent of structuralism provides an important contribution to the debates surrounding the interpretation of Greek mythology. Detienne performs his myth analysis in a set of dazzling virtuoso compositions, putting on display both the strengths and the problems of his method. Anyone with an interest in either the theory of myth interpretation or any of the particular mythic complexes D engages will find this a fascinating and provocative book.

Section I, “From Myth to Mythology” consists of four short essays on the themes of D’s earlier work, The Creation of Mythology.1 In the first three essays, “The Genealogy of a Body of Thought,” “What the Greeks Called ‘Myth’,” and “Mythology, Writing, and Forms of Historicity,” D presents again in more condensed form the genealogy of the ideas of myth and mythology among both the ancient Greeks and modern scholars, although he brings in some new excursuses on particular figures, notably Thucydides and Lévi-Strauss, who received less attention in the larger work. The essay, “Le mythe, en plus ou en moins,” from the French version might have made a nice addition to this section, bringing in the contributions and problems from the Christian theologians who grappled with Scripture and myth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, as an articulation of some of D’s perspectives on the history of mythology, these essays can serve as an introduction to the ideas in D’s important, influential, and difficult Creation of Mythology.

One of the essays from the fourth section, “The Double Writing of Mythology (between the Timaeus and the Critias)”, might have fit better in this first theoretical section, since D here theorizes on the place of writing in mythology. This essay seems to be D’s response to Brisson’s 1982 Platon: les mots et les mythes (translated into English as Plato the Mythmaker in 1999), which was written as a critique of D’s Invention de la Mythologie/Creation of Mythology. Although D does not respond directly to Brisson’s charges of “inexistentialism”, he does engage with Brisson’s more positive account of the nature of Greek myth, providing a salutary warning not to put as much trust as Brisson does in Plato’s account of the transmission of the Atlantis story as a transparent account of the way the mythic tradition worked.

In the final essay of the first section, “The Practice of Myth Analysis,” D launches a defense of the structural method of myth analysis against its recent critics and against other kinds of semiotic analyses that also look to Lévi-Strauss for inspiration. He argues that structuralist analysis does not merely reduce myths to “a small number of skeletal oppositions” (p. 30), but instead enriches the myths.

“Contrary to the perceptions of those who have neither practiced it nor understand it, the structural analysis of myths involves not only the myths themselves but also an understanding of the concrete circumstances of the relevant societies and experimentation with their intellectual structures, sometimes in a limited local context, sometimes in a wider one. The analyst needs to work using several levels of meaning; at each level, latent properties may be extracted from the domain under investigation that allow it to be compared to other domains” (p. 30).

D thus identifies the true object of myth analysis as the entire system of thought; the particular message of any given teller of myth is dismissed as dross to be stripped away, leaving exposed to the view of the analyst the “‘crystalline parts’ — that is, the parts that confer a more regular structure or ‘a greater symbolic meaning’ upon a traditional story” (p. 31).

D here articulates the theory he puts into practice in the other essays of the collection, and this theoretical section reveals both the strengths and the problems of his method. D emphasizes the richness of the mythic tradition and argues that the analyst must make use of a wide variety of evidence. Most importantly, D rejects the old idea that some products of the mythic tradition are somehow less authentic than others; all forms of expression can yield valuable information to the analyst.2 On the other hand, the focus on the system rather than the particular text creates problems because, however coherent the Greek mythic tradition might be, there were nevertheless significant shifts over time and variation between places. When D claims that, “Mythology as a framework consists of a system of thought that is revealed, or rather reconstructed, by structural analysis” (p. 32), his correction of “revealed” to “reconstructed” points up the problem. Pulling together pieces from different places and time to create a coherent whole, an analyst can at best only construct a snapshot image of a fluid and dynamic system that will illuminate and enrich our understanding of the products of that mythic tradition. However, even if the analyst successfully isolates the ‘crystalline parts’ from the dross, the construction may not in fact reflect the state of the system at the particular place and time in which a given text was produced. At worst, the reconstruction may not correspond to the system at any point, creating distortions when the interpretations are applied to any text.

The second and third sections consist of essays on a variety of topics within the Greek mythic tradition. Four essays somewhat loosely gathered under the rubric of gender make up section II, entitled “Does Mythology Have a Sex?”. The first three, “The Danaids Among Themselves: Marriage Founded upon Violence”, “A Kitchen Garden for Women, or How to Engender on One’s Own”, and “Misogynous Hestia, or the City in Its Autonomy”, fit better under this rubric of gender than “Even Talk Is in Some Ways Divine”, although the personification of Talk as a goddess in the French title, “La Rumeur, elle aussi, est une déesse,” perhaps explains the grouping. Section III, “Between the Labyrinth and the Overturned Table” includes four essays with no real thematic grouping: “An Ephebe and an Olive Tree,” on the relations of Athens’ olive and its citizens; “The Crane and the Labyrinth,” on the twists and turns that recur in the Theseus myths; “The Finger of Orestes,” on bloodshed and purification; and “At Lycaon’s Table,” on sacrifice and social relations. These last two essays are new in the English edition, while the others in these two sections appeared in the French, along with another essay, “Puissance du jaillissement. A l’entour des Champs Phlégréens,” which is omitted without explanation from the English edition.

All of these essays demonstrate what D might call his “experiments in the field of polytheism,”3 and they display D’s artistry and brilliance in his chosen medium. D is a master at weaving together ideas and setting up harmonious correspondences, and he plays with an amazingly wide range of sources — visual and textual, literary and philosophical, from archaic poetry to Byzantine scholia. The result is often illuminating, provoking fresh consideration of all the themes and ideas of the myths. One is left, however, to wonder how well these variegated and beautiful structures D cunningly reconstructs actually might apply to some of the texts he makes use of. Since the object of his inquiry is not the texts but the system, D might reject such a concern as irrelevant, but anyone whose objects of study are the particular texts would do well to take care and examine his enchanting reconstructions with caution.

For those interested in Orpheus and Orphism, the two essays on Orpheus in section IV, “Writing Mythology”, reveal some of the problems with D’s method. “An Inventive Writing, the Voice of Orpheus and the Games of Palamedes” examines Greek ideas of writing and writers through the mythic figures of Palamedes and Orpheus. In this essay, D defines Orphism as a particular approach to writing, for he notes that not only is the voice of Orpheus credited with great power, but the writing of Orpheus is also seen as potent. In “Orpheus Rewrites the City Gods,” D develops his construction of Orphism further, adding to the voice and writing of Orpheus two other components: the story of the life of Orpheus and the Orphic life of renunciation. D creates an elaborate image of Orpheus and Orphism in these essays, but his treatment of the evidence is often problematic, resulting in a deeply flawed reconstruction.

An example of D’s treatment of evidence may illustrate some of the problems. In discussing the relation of Orpheus, writing, and the Orphic life, D mentions a particular image. “An Etruscan mirror, now in Boston, depicts a box of books lying at the feet of an Orpheus surrounded by animals drawn out of their world of silence. The box contains a piece of writing entitled the Initiation and also a Telete designed to be recited or chanted, which recounts how the child Dionysus is lured by the Titans and then put to death in the course of a most horrible sacrifice” (p. 154). The image conveniently pulls together a number of separate themes in D’s study — the magical voice of Orpheus, the association of Orpheus with writing, and the association of Orpheus with ritual. Upon reflection, however, one is struck by the thought that there must be an enormous amount of detail on that mirror! D provides no citation for someone wishing to see the mirror; he merely asserts its contents and elaborates upon their meaning, weaving the themes together into his own writing on Orpheus.

The absence of citation is indeed a recurring problem throughout the essays in this collection; too often one has little choice but to accept D’s assertion of the existence of a piece of evidence and of its particular meaning. Although the essays in the second and third sections are fairly well documented, none of the essays in the first section has notes. “An Inventive Writing” is, as the author puts it, “unburdened by the references that will have to be supplied” when it is published as part of a larger work on writing. The reader is also spared the burden of any but minimal notes in “Orpheus Rewrites the City Gods.” Of course, the burden of tracking down casual references is left to the reader who wants to know more. With the help of an Etruscan expert, I managed to find the mirror D mentions, whose details differ significantly from D’s description.4 In the first place, although the lyre-playing figure is unlabeled, the editors identify him as Apollo, who also often appears with animals, rather than as Orpheus. A box nearby does indeed seem to contain two scrolls, but there is no title on either of them. As for the contents of the writings, an initiatory ritual that involves reciting a myth of the Titans’ murder of the infant Dionysus in a perverted sacrifice, they are entirely a fabrication, something that could never have been depicted on a mirror, even by the most gifted of Etruscan artists.

Although a reasonable case could be made to identify the figure as Orpheus instead of Apollo (or even as Orpheus connected to Apollo by the iconography), the significance of the image changes if it is not actually Orpheus associated with the writings. If Orpheus is taken as the author of the writings, then Initiation is a possibility for a title, since there is indeed evidence for Teletai attributed to Orpheus.5 However, many writings were attributed to Orpheus — accounts of the Argo’s voyage, cosmologies, hymns, incantations, oracles, treatises on the magical powers of stones and other substances. Orpheus depicted singing a hymn to Apollo for an audience of animals would not, however, make D’s connection between the voice of Orpheus and his rituals. Even were one to imagine that the scrolls did contain the instructions for a ritual, there is no reason to believe that the ritual contained a recitation of the myth of Dionysus Zagreus rather than purificatory formulas and prayers — unless, of course, one were trying to establish the connection with the Orphic rejection of blood sacrifice and belief in original sin.6

These leaps of creative imagination, covering gaps in the evidence, may be found in all of D’s essays, even if not all are quite as inventive as the description of the mythic texts on the mirror. Some are more plausible than others; some have more evidence that could back them up, even if D does not actually cite it but all are persuasively presented in D’s artful and enchanting style. In the preface, D is careful not to claim too much authority for his reconstructions. “It seems to me to go without saying that the interpretations that I have suggested under the sign of Orpheus need to be checked out, reconsidered, and challenged from different perspectives” (p. xv). Nevertheless, there is always the danger that the unwary reader may be seduced into accepting D’s assertions about, e.g., “the Pythagorean tradition, a practice from which the Orphics liked to distance themselves” (p. 162) or “the Orphic tradition, which is consistently misogynous” (p. 164). Both of these claims generalize from a dubious interpretation of a few pieces of (uncited) evidence and put forth a misleading image of Orphism as a concrete religious sect with consistent doctrines, a path of déviance clearly separated from Dionysiac or Pythagorean traditions.7 As he develops his ideas on Orphism in these two essays, moreover, D seems to have recreated the Orphics in his own image. “In the space of Orpheus and the writing of his disciples, the sole purpose of the eschatological vocation that prompts them to write is knowledge, real knowledge of the genesis of the gods and of the world, knowledge that extends to the extreme isolation of the individual” (p. 136). Just as scholars at the beginning of the last century imagined Orpheus and his followers as Protestant reformers, so now at the beginning of this century the Orphics can be imagined as existential deconstructionists, playing with polyphonic writing. Such an activity is far closer to what Detienne himself is doing in this collection of essays than what the author of the Derveni papyrus, who mentions making sacrifices and consulting oracles on behalf of his clients, was engaged in.

It may indeed perhaps be best to view D’s essays in his own terms, as the work of a bricoleur, a specialist learned in the lore of the mythic tradition, who, as he performs his art, creatively reworks the traditional material. Often he illuminates or brings fresh depth to familiar themes; sometimes he enriches them with obscure variants; and at times he innovates, weaving in his own ideas. D’s own Writing of Orpheus thus resembles his descriptions of the writing of Orpheus. D, as he himself says of Orpheus, “invites us to recognize that mythology as a framework of thought must be understood in its connection to polytheism and the system of relations that obtains among the various divine forces” (p. xi). So too, like the song of his Orpheus, D’s art “generates interpretations, gives rise to exegetic constructions that become or are an integral part of the … discourse. This is polyphonic writing, a book with several voices” (p. 135). D’s exegetic constructions in these essays will no doubt prompt further discourse on these topics, his harmonizations calling forth a chorus of responding voices. For the critical reader, there is much to be gained from these thought-provoking études, but one must be cautious not to be lulled by D’s artistry into a passive absorption of his performance, like animals at the feet of Orpheus.


1. Detienne, Marcel, The Creation of Mythology, trans. Margaret Cook, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. First published as L’Invention de la mythologie (Paris, 1981).

2. “There is no reason to imagine any deep cleavage between, on the one hand, ‘real’ myths that are bound to rituals deeply anchored in beliefs, and, on the other, stories that have become literary and seem no longer to have anything to do with the mythological tradition.” pp. xiii-xiv.

3. See his “Experimenting in the Field of Polytheisms,” in Arion 7, no. 2 (1999), pp. 127-149, as well as his Apollon le couteau à la main (Paris, 1998).

4. Corpus Speculorum Etruscorum, U.S.A. 2:14. The image also may be found in LIMC as Apollo/Aplu 88. Thanks to Jean Turfa for the guidance.

5. Although Kern doubts it, “At num Orphei liber, cui T. titulus est, unquam extiterit, dubium est.” (Kern, Otto, Orphicorum Fragmenta, Berlin 1922, p. 315.) Orpheus was certainly credited with the invention of rituals, however, and the myth imagined by D could possibly have played a part in some of them. The blame for the separation of the titles “Initiation” and “Telete” into two separate works must be laid on the translator, since the French version correctly treats “Initiation” merely as a translation of the original Greek “Telete”.

6. I have critiqued the idea of an Orphic doctrine of original sin and the way the evidence has been reconstructed for the myth of the murder of the infant Dionysus in my “Tearing Apart the Zagreus Myth: A Few Disparaging Remarks on Orphism and Original Sin,” Classical Antiquity 18.1 (1999), pp. 35-73.

7. Detienne cites his “Les chemins de la déviance: orphisme, dionysisme et pythagorisme,” in Orfismo in Magna Grecia: Atti del quattordicesimo Convegno di Studi sulla Magna Grecia, Arte Tipografica: Napoli, 1975, pp. 49-79. Burkert, however, has shown that Orphism is better understood as a classification for a type of religious craftsman, and that a more useful metaphor for the relation between Orphism, Pythagoreanism, and Dionysiac religion is not one of separate parcels or paths but of interlocking circles in a Venn diagram. See Burkert, Walter, “Craft Versus Sect: The Problem of Orphics and Pythagoreans,” in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition, vol. 3: Self-Definition in the Greco-Roman World, ed. Ben Meyer and E.P. Sanders, Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1982, pp. 1-22, and Burkert, Walter, “Orphism and Bacchic Mysteries: New Evidence and Old Problems of Interpretation,” in Protocol for the Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture: Colloquy 28, 1977, pp. 1-10.