BMCR 2004.11.34

Myth and History in Ancient Greece

, Myth and History in Ancient Greece: The Symbolic Creation of a Colony. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. xvii, 178 pages. ISBN 9780691114583 $39.50.

This book, originally published in France in 1996,1 sets out to accomplish a double objective: to offer a thorough exploration of the semionarrative approach, the theoretical framework of Calame’s research on myth (pp. 1-34), and to treat in this light the ancient narratives that relate the foundation of Cyrene (pp. 35-113). A short third section concludes the study (pp. 114-119). The English translation features an informative introduction by D.W. Berman that aims at putting this volume in the context of C’s other works (p. xii). According to Berman, C, a poststructuralist who admits the usefulness of structuralism (p. xvi), allows space for an anthropological perspective in his interpretations of mythology. C, who is aware of the dangers of a strict theoretical setting, recognizes its potential for making comparisons.

Therefore, already in his first chapter on the ‘Illusions of Mythology’ C sets outs to identify the difficulties in employing generic classifications such as ‘myth’, ‘mythology’ and ‘mythic thought’ both in antiquity and in modern scholarship (p.3). His remarks are precise and his evidence convincing when he argues that the Greeks never produced a conclusive definition of myth and never distinguished a group of their narratives as mythic. C scrutinizes the early European academic efforts to classify myth in contrast with the employment of the word muthos by the Greeks to refer to certain narratives. He proves that the traditional scholarly classification of narratives into folktales, legends and myths put forward by the Grimm Brothers was not acclaimed by ancient Greek writers (pp. 4-8). He also acknowledges the much-needed attention that the work of Eliade (and others) drew to the social function of myths, which are performed for a specific community on a particular occasion. Although C’s review of the interpretations of Greek myth is careful and focused he does not always distinguish between clearly flawed views and ideas that could be still useful in the study of myth.2 He summarizes a long bibliography, yet the undergraduate and graduate students to whom he primarily addresses his book, could benefit enormously had he engaged in a longer discussion of mythological taxonomies.3

This brief recapitulation of theory serves as an introduction to issues more applicable to the case-study of Cyrene and its rich mythological tradition. The city was in fact a historical site, colonized by the Greeks in the second half of the 7th century BCE but known to them already since the Late Helladic III A and B periods (p.35). C undertakes the task of determining whether the Greeks classified the surviving narratives on Cyrene as myth or history. This is indeed a great step towards a more accurate understanding of mythology, which ought to be studied in its own historical and cultural environment. C also argues that the Greeks did not distinguish between myth and history in the modern sense of the division. Aristotle, who defined as muthos the plot of tragedies, talked of “traditional histories” which contain implausibilities that cannot be changed (p.13). Aristotle defends these narratives inasmuch as they serve the laws and the interest of the community and their mythic form is explained by the need to persuade the masses. C realizes that the major criterion for accepting or rejecting myths is their utility, a point to which he will return in the conclusion of his study.

C rightly points that the Greek preoccupation with the rationalization of their legendary past was primarily focused on the formulation of a ‘continual temporal succession that would make the heroes of legend the real founders of the present’ (pp. 20-1). Mythologies, distinguished by their lack of evidence to be exhibited and the multiple versions of the past actions they describe, are called on to play the role of archaeology. C argues that in antiquity the difference between myth and history is less prominent than that between historiography and poetry, which is often suspected for its fictionalizing character (pp. 21-2).

C uses throughout his work subtitles which will be much appreciated by the reader, yet he gives the impression of being short of breath in the sense that he does not always explain the next step in his thought. In a somewhat abrupt argument C suggests that through poetry myths can acquire symbolic manifestations. When a particular community experiences a modification affecting the emotional state of its individuals, it reflects this change in its mythic narratives (p.28). A literary work escapes the specific occasion of its enunciation and is subject to rereading and reinterpretation according to the cultural references of each audience.

C then tries to explain his semionarrative approach, in a section unexpectedly short and less clear than the outline offered by the translator in his introduction.4 C assumes that there is a “syntactic plan” of discourse (or semionarrative surface structures) within which the actorial figures change roles in relation to each other in space and time. We can distinguish 4 phases: manipulation that sets a narrative in motion, competence that valorizes the actantial subject to perform the set task, performance and finally sanction, which often produces a new narrative equilibrium. In observing how individual narratives subtly but consistently alter values and perceptions among their listeners C recognizes isotopies, repeated motifs or structures that recur both within specific narratives and across narratives treating similar subjects. Isotopies rely on deep semionarrative structures in which 2 or 3 contradictory terms are asserted simultaneously. In the second chapter of the book (35-113) C examines narratives about the foundation of Cyrene ranging from Pindar through Herodotus to the Alexandrian poets Callimachus and Apollonius. His observations show his great sensitivity to the modes of ancient texts, and indicate further levels of meaning than those previously acknowledged. However, C avoids quotations of the passages he discusses, which might work well for scholars but certainly not for students.

Pindar offers 3 narratives of the foundation of Cyrene, in Pythians 9, 4 and 5. In these narratives the moment and location of the performance of each epinician ode merges with the legendary past of the colony, in terms of the succession of generations or reigns, or by geographical connections, to achieve different meanings. “It is a matter of understanding how starting from empirical time (present and past), a ‘textual time’ is constructed through different modes of the symbolic process” (p.39). In the story of Cyrene the interweaving of the time of the poetic enunciation with the symbolic configurations drawn from the city’s legendary past forms the distinction between myth and history. A précis of the mythic versions surrounding Cyrene will make my points more lucid.

Pindar composed Pythian 4 for the Cyrenean king Arcesilas IV. His poem was an attempt to reconcile the tradition about the journey of the Argonauts to the Libyan lake Tritonis with the foundation of Cyrene by the Theran Battus, who had an Argonaut ancestor called Euphemus (Py. 4.19-56). Here C acknowledges 3 semantic values around which the foundation of Cyrene is organized (pp. 53ff.): a vegetal, a human and a mineral isotopy. According to legend, once in Libya the Argonauts encountered a daemon, son of Poseidon (cf. Ap. Rhod. 4.1551-61), who offered Euphemus a clod of Libyan earth as a token of friendship. The clod got temporarily lost in the sea but was washed up at Thera from where it returned home metaphorically when, several generations later, the Therans (under the leadership of Battus) founded Cyrene in Libya. C who exhibits the depth of his analytical skill best in this second chapter, distinguishes 5 temporal levels in this epinician that converge to give an illusion of autochthony to the Theran ancestors of Cyrene (pp. 43-50). C is very good at exploring the use of agricultural activities as metaphor for civilization and argues that the aforementioned clod of earth is perceived as the female element and the race of Euphemus as the male element, from whose metaphorical union the glory of Cyrene is to come. The explication of how Pindar achieved autochthony for the Therans from the depths of the sea rather than from the earth is exemplary, and C identifies in it a third type of autochthony to which Libya belongs. C’s suggestions presuppose a long and complicated nexus of ideas that Pindar intentionally and skillfully stitched together, but C convinces his reader that Pindar was that kind of poet. The arguments presented in this section of the book are valid and well supported albeit not always clear. C reveals to the reader only parts of his argument as he explores the structures of Pindaric poetry, which often create confusion. For example, on p.52 C states that the race of Euphemus actually moves from Lemnos to Lacedaemon to Thera to Cyrene but we are not informed of the Spartan connections until p.60.

Pythian 9 (Py. 9.5-70; cf. Hes. fr. 215 MW) celebrates the victory of Cyrenean Telesicrates in the hoplite race in 474 BCE. It tells the story of Cyrene’s rape by Apollo and the celebration on the Libyan coast of his union with the young huntress. This epinician engages with traditional images of hunting and husbandry. The fame of the city is explained as the sanction given to nymph Cyrene for her rape by Apollo along with the birth of an immortal son. This mythic version is explored according to the rites of passage prescribed by Detienne for young girls at a transitory stage.5 Through her wedding, Cyrene the nymph becomes a mother, while Cyrene the athlete gains political power (p.69). Nothing is said about the Theran colonizing expedition. Here marriage is employed as a medium for transformation of status: after a Greek nymph and a Greek god mated in Libya, we hear how Alexidemus, one of the first colonists won in race the hand of the Libyan princess of Irasa, an area that, according to Herodotus, hosted important battles of the Greeks against the indigenous population. Furthermore, throughout the ode the future wedding of Cyrenean Telesicrates, Alexidemus’ descendant (p.72), to one of the Cyrenean girls at Cyrene aspires to secure the masculinization and Hellenization of Libya.

Pythian 5 was composed for the victory of Carrhotus, the brother-in-law of Arcesilas, in the chariot race. Carrhotus’ return to Libya brings to mind Battus’ colonizing act. In this version of Cyrene’s past Pindar refers to the occupation of the site by the Theban Aegids who were joined by the Trojan Antenorids, accompanied by Helen, after the fall of Ilium. Cyrene is here endowed with the epic appeal of the Homeric past as Pindar seeks to establish links between Cyrene, Thebes (Pindar’s homeland) and the Homeric heroes in an attempt to explain and praise the heroic present that the Cyreneans celebrate. Battus features again as the founder of Cyrene, but the wanderings of his ancestors shift in location (p.81). By presenting the Aegids, who fought the Theban war after Oedipus’ death, and the Antenorids, who fought at the walls of Troy, as living together at Cyrene, Pindar has the Theban and the Trojan War coincide. This association helps efface the chronological distance between the destruction of Troy and the colonizing act of Battus. The hero cult reserved for Battus at Cyrene is also presented as matching the cults established for the major heroes of the Mycenaean past that fought at Troy. At this point C could have perhaps included a more expanded survey of the cults practiced on the site during historical times (i.e. the cult of Aristaios, son of Cyrene).6

Callimachus also employed the foundation of Cyrene in his Hymn to Apollo where he followed Pindar’s Pythian 5 as well as the logos of Herodotus. The latter influenced Callimachus in incorporating political connotations in his hymn (ll. 26-7). Here I ought to mention that part of the reader’s confusion is due to the fact that C refers to the Callimachean version after examining Pythian 5 but before referring to the version of Herodotus. Callimachus’ narration seems to evolve around a geographical and a social isotopy. It was said that Battus built a temple of Apollo Carneius at the indigenous site of Aziris where the Greeks danced the Carneia for the first time with the Libyan women. The social isotopy refers to the special relation of the Apollo with Greek civilization (p.77) and we should understand the Callimachean version in the context of the transfer of Greek culture from Athens to Alexandria during the 3rd century BC. In addition, Callimachus sets the fight of Cyrene with the lion in Libya, not Thessaly. Cyrene is now a shepherdess of the local king, Eurypylus who offers his kingdom to whoever defeats the lion. In this narrative Battus’ colonizing act and the divine foundation of the city by Apollo coincide. C recognizes a third isotopy in compliance with Callimachus’ Hellenistic literary interests: images of choral performance traverse the whole poem ensuring its coherence and stressing its contrast with the epic form of a Homeric hymn.

With Apollonius of Rhodes and Herodotus the Argonautic tradition and its associations with the foundation of Cyrene comes again to the foreground. Apollonius of Rhodes moves towards a unique theme of his own by merging generative autochthony with cosmogony. Cyrene’s ancestry puts her close to the founding gods of the Greek cosmos, but Apollonius also refers to a god-sent dream that advised the Argonaut Euphemus (cf. Pindar’s Pythian 4) to throw the clod of earth he received from Poseidon’s son to the sea. Thus, it would be transformed to the island of Thera (4.1731-64).

Herodotus’ work (4.156-166) is pierced by a political isotopy that attributes both marginal ancestry and physical handicap to the founders of Greek colonies. He initially comments on the peculiar Spartan institution of dividing political power between two royal families and attempts to explain it by identifying one of the families with the ancestors of Battus. This way Sparta’s association with Thera is understood as the result of a joint colonizing expedition on behalf of the two royal families. Since their circumstances appear to be most unfitting for guaranteeing political stability, these founders wish to gain a legitimate descendant through further colonization. The Cyreneans apparently believed that, when consulted, the Pythia appointed Battus as the founder because his name, which in Greek described his stammering deficiency, denoted a king in the Libyan dialect. The Therans, on the other hand, seem to have claimed that the Spartan king of Thera appointed Battus as the leader of the colonizing expedition because he belonged to the rival royal family, thus explaining the future antagonism between Thera and Cyrene. These symbolic narrative manifestations are incited by the need to legitimize the colonial enterprises of the Archaic period.

C explores the role of divinity in these expeditions (p.100) and detects images of the Golden Age in the Delphic promises of a new country. Libya, located on the fringes of the world, was an ideal place for evoking paradise metaphors. More research on this subject, especially on Apollonius Rhodius, who is not analyzed in depth, and the Stoic thought of the Hellenistic period could prove fruitful. In addition, C does not examine the character of Aristaios, son of Cyrene, as a figure bestowed with the ability to recreate a Golden Age existence (cf. Vergil’s Georgics, esp. Book 4).

It is interesting that although Menecles of Barce, a local historian, refers to a stasis that forced Theran Battus and his followers to search for a new home, he does not devalue the oracle of Apollo (cf. Plato, Laws 707e). For ancient Greeks the repeated intervention of the Delphic god asserts moira, divine predestination. Delphic oracles play a significant narrative role but they also had an influence over colonial movements as well as over political conduct at the time of Herodotus (p.105).

C observes that throughout these narratives there is no progressive rationalization or passage from muthos to logos (p.114). The historical foundation of the narratives is never the focal point of their literary treatment. On the contrary, it is the historical and social circumstances surrounding the retelling of the myth that make it plausible. Strabo argued that the first narratives were collected by legislators (not poets) for their educational value. The didactic value of Homer is undeniable, and fictional stories serve doubly as means for constructing the past as well as means for joining this past to the present. In 4th-century Athens muthos is still attached to poetic activity, if not specifically to honors given to the gods through musical composition. Therefore, the poetic creations that relate Cyrene’s foundation focus on different moments of the common past the city was celebrating in music. In ancient Greece connections with the past can only be symbolic.

C’s book makes a significant contribution both to the field of mythological theory and to the particular legend on the foundation of Cyrene by unfolding its multiple layers of meaning on the various occasions of its retelling. His work would be much more approachable to the students had he been less reserved in the explanation of his arguments and had he adopted a more linear structure of the material.


1. Mythe et Histoire dans l’Antiquité grecque: La création symbolique d’une colonie, Editions Payot Lausanne, Nadir s.a., 1996. For an English review of that first edition, see I. Malkin in Classical Philology 94 (1999) 223-227.

2. As mentioned, C accepts the usefulness of structuralism, and his point of departure focuses on his preoccupation with the cultural and social semiotics of each literary performance/adaptation. However, his critique of theoretical approaches of myth is sometimes vague: for example, his evaluation of Eliade’s work seems quite sketchy. Although, as he admits (Intro, xvii), a limited effort was made to Americanize the bibliography, in my view this effort should have been more thorough, given the importance of C’s new theoretical suggestions.

3. C’s ability to communicate his theory seems stronger in his article “Structuralism and Semiotics: Narrating the Foundation of a City: The Symbolic Birth of Cyrene” in L. Edmunds (ed.), Approaches to Greek Myth, John Hopkins University Press (1990) 275-341. Much of the content of this article was repeated in the present book, with the addition of the first chapter, which is expected to provide the theoretical background to the “case study” of Cyrene.

4. C has included a great number of references for each chapter at the end of the book. Part of the difficulty could arise from the fact that the editors opted for endnotes rather than footnotes, which makes following the minor yet vital points more difficult. C’s discussion could perhaps have benefited from two English volumes: C. Gill and T.P. Wiseman (edd.), Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World, University of Exeter Press (1993), particularly the three first chapters; L.H. Pratt, Lying and Poetry from Homer to Pindar: Falsehood and Deception in Archaic Greek Poetics, Michigan (1993).

5. M. Detienne, “The myth of the Honeyed Orpheus” in Myth, Religion and Society, R.L. Gordon, Cambridge (1981), 95-109 (esp. 99-103) [original publication 1974].

6. The poem also offers an explanation of the Carneia, a festival of Apollo, popular in the Dorian cities of the Peloponnese. Imported by the Aegids in Cyrene, these rites were performed in honour of the Trojan Antenorids (Py. 5.82-88).