BMCR 2004.11.36

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.

[Disclosure: I also reviewed the book in manuscript form for Princeton University Press.]

Myth and History in Ancient Greece is certain to burnish Calame’s (C.) reputation as one of the world’s preeminent scholars of Greek mythology and cultural history. In certain respects, Myth and History can be seen as an outgrowth of and complement to C.’s earlier Le récit en Grèce ancienne: enonciations et représentations de poètes (and of a lengthy article in an anthology on approaches to myth).1 Both books are first and foremost concerned with methodology, and in both C. seeks to demonstrate how individual ‘myths’ are fundamentally shaped by the media and other contexts in which they are communicated. Myth and History has some important advantages over Le récit, however, especially for newcomers to C.’s work. Most important is that the latter is a collection of essays written and revised over the space of twenty years, while the former was conceived of as a unified whole, dedicated to comparative analysis of narratives pertaining to the foundation of Cyrene. The author notes that the English translation of the book is in effect “a second, updated, and enlarged edition” of the French original (x). It should now be regarded as the preferred edition of the book for professional scholars as well as for students.

C.’s attention to methodological rigor can be directly measured by the 34 pages devoted to it in his first chapter. He begins with a historical survey which demonstrates the inherent ambivalence in modern use of the terms ‘myth’ and ‘mythology’. He follows this with a review of ancient sources which shows that nothing like the modern conception of myth occurs until the time that the first mythological handbooks began to emerge. C. also notes the sheer diversity of conceptions that individual Greek authors could incorporate into their narratives of a city’s foundation. Cyrene’s own foundation mythology as recorded in Pindar (Pi.) includes: Apollo’s abduction of the eponymous nymph in Thessaly; his union with Cyrene, now a huntress of lions, on the shores of Libya; the arrival of the Antenoridae with Helen after the fall of Troy; and finally, the journey of a clod of Libyan earth, conveyed by one son of Poseidon to another until finally washing up on Thera, from which it is returned to Cyrene seventeen generations later by the colonizer Battus. These narratives are so unlike each other that they cannot be variants of a single foundation myth and hence cannot be used to reconstruct an ‘original’ account or homogenous category.

As is typical of Archaic choral lyric, each of the Pindaric odes also refers to the occasion of its own performance, and part of C.’s larger project is to map out the complex relationship between such references and the foundation narratives. As such, his study concerns the interplay between different configurations of time, specifically the relationships between the time of enunciation ( Erzählte) and time narrated ( Erzähltzeit). Thus, not only are these foundation accounts irreducible, they should not be abstracted from their narrative and occasional contexts, because context is the key to their meaning. His ultimate conclusion is that “there is simply no ontology to myth”: “‘Greek mythology’ only begins with mythography; its debut is the moment when an Apollodorus, fashioning himself a narratologue, reduces to their plots those narratives that in fact only exist in ritual situations and poetical works. ‘Myths’ are not ‘texts,’ but ‘discourses.’ Moreover, when we speak of narratives meant for a public defined by fixed conditions of enunciation, we must speak also of the precise social and cultural function involved” (27, 29). The stemmatic approach to mythology, in which comparisons of the variants are used to produce an Ur-mythos that is the proper object of study, is thus consciously reversed. The modern distinction between “myth”, “legend”, and “folklore”, first advanced by the Brothers Grimm, is viewed as equally unsatisfactory, and has no more basis in ancient taxonomies than do modern anthropological definitions of myth itself (it will thus potentially confuse some readers that C. uses ‘myth’ and ‘legend’ in a non-technical sense throughout the book). He also rejects teleological models which find a linear and irreversible development from ‘mythos’ to ‘logos’.

C. endeavors to recover the multiple contexts in which the narratives of Cyrene’s foundation are embedded through rigorous application of Greimassian Semiotics. Works investigated at length include: Pi.’s Pythians (P.) 4, 9, and 5, Herodotus’ Histories (Hdt.), Callimachus’ Hymn to Apollo, and Apollonius’ Argonautica. His approach is based on the following premises: “The exploratory or cognitive value of these narratives issues from the symbolic process…. But … this fiction … is meant to have a practical effect. Accordingly, these narratives are in general the object of belief on the part of their addressees. For this reason in particular they cannot be severed from the conditions of their enunciation in order to be reduced to pure objects of observation in the anthropologist’s study. The very process of discourse production excludes all immanence of text” (33).

In outline, Greimassian Semiotics distinguishes between different levels of semionarrative and discursive structure. Discursive structure is defined as the surface structure on which semionarrative readings are based: it includes the actors, who are either “actorial” or “actantial” and are inscribed into a specific temporal and spatial context by which features of the natural and social world are drawn into the narrative. Put differently, the discursive structure demands a frame of reference with which the intended audience can engage. In part because different cultural phenomena can convey an identical cultural message in different cultural settings, decoding this referential system allows C. to compare narratives belonging to very different contexts.

A second structure is the “semionarrative surface structure”, in which actors reorder the cosmos, seen as an integrated system of material and value: it is here that the relationship between the narrative and the circumstances of its production is most apparent. The semionarrative surface structure is organized by a canonical schema whose actorial roles include: Sender, Subject, Antisubject, and Receiver, and they can be played by different actors at different stages of its “syntactic plan”. C. thus arranges the characters in terms of their changing “actantial positions” in the course of the narrative.

The canonical schema has four distinct phases: a situation of lack motivates a manipulation, an action usually performed by the Sender. This is followed by competence, or celebration of the ability of the actantial Subject to perform the task demanded in the manipulation, an ability that often must be acquired. Demonstrated competence leads directly to the performance of the actual task by the Subject, and finally to sanction (the result of the performance), which often includes a moral by which the narrative returns to equilibrium (the state obtaining before the initial manipulation). Coherence within this narrative configuration is ensured by recurring semantic or figural elements (or ‘isotopies’), which engage directly with the taxonomies and axiologies of the social world on which the story draws. As a consequence, mythological “discourse can be seen as the effect of culturally and ideologically determined symbolic construction” (33).

Finally, there are ‘deep semionarrative structures’ which can make contradictory assertions that are nevertheless affirmed as true. These assertions are, moreover, generative, producing the isotopies seen at the second level of ‘surface structure’. We are thus in a world of polarity, analogy, and contradiction familiar from the work of Lévi-Strauss and his followers. At the same time, C. departs decisively from Structuralist scholars, who in his view fail to account for the cultural and literary context of the narratives from which they abstract schemas that they then proceed to superimpose on these very cultures. As noted, for C., such narratives must be understood precisely through the process of their production, and that process is the result of complex interaction between a narrative’s function in a given text, the literary medium in which it is composed, and the circumstances — including the time, place, audience, and occasion — of its production and enunciation. If context so inscribes the narrative with its meaning, then cultural transformations are responsible for corresponding transformations in a culture’s narratives. Yet the process is also reciprocal: narrative also helps create the realities it describes (what C. refers to as the narrative’s ‘pragmatic effect’). As Berman observes in his introduction, C. is not ‘anti’ but ‘post’ Structuralist (xvi).

C. thus begins his study of the foundation mythology of Cyrene by charting the narrative logic of Pi. P. 4 in terms of the canonical schema that organizes the semionarrative surface structure, along with the isotopies deployed throughout the text that help ensure its coherence, and the underlying themes generated by the isotopies. P. 4 celebrates a victory by the brother-in-law of Arcesilas IV in the four horse chariot race in 462, and was likely performed during a banquet in the king’s palace. The beginning of the ode refers to the time of its enunciation (1: sameron), identifies Apollo as the Sender of the king, the Subject of the action. At the same time, Apollo also inspires the creation of the ode, which sanctions the victory, thus preparing for a shift back in time (4: pote) to the story of the god’s inspiration of the Pythia to instruct Battus to found Libya. The poem thus begins with the end (the sanction) of the Arcesilas-narrative and quickly shifts to the beginning of the Battus-narrative ( phase of manipulation), with the result that the foundation of Libya seems to represent the manipulation that culminates in the sanction of Arcesilas’ victory.

At this point, the poet steps seventeen generations back in time, to the prophetic speech of Medea to the Argonauts in which she refers to the journey of Battus, to the metamorphosis of land from sea-girt Thera into Libya, and to a corresponding transformation of its future colonists, themselves descendants of the Argonauts, from sailors to masters of horses. In that Poseidon is the patron of both activities, these parallel transformations are further assimilated, while the seventeen generations separating the Argonauts from Battus are likewise effaced by situating both in the indeterminate past of ” pote“. And, when Poseidon greets Euphemus on the shore of lake Triton, he presents him with a clod of earth as a xeinion such as one offers a stranger at a banquet, thus prefiguring Pi.’s own gift of this very ode to Arcesilas IV at a banquet. This clod eventually arrives on Thera, where it acquires the generative force to become the “indestructible seed” of Libya. It is subsequently transplanted there by the descendents of the Argonauts, a genos produced from the seed of an analogous union with foreign women, and whose members have likewise undergone a journey that takes them from Lemnos to Lakedaimon, to Thera, and from there to Libya, under the leadership of Battus.

Two gods thus emerge as Senders of the human action, and while the manipulation of Poseidon results in the “autochthonous” creation of the land of Libya, that of Apollo results in an act of political foundation on Libyan soil (although again the transformation of the colonists from sailors to horsemen leaves them under Poseidon’s direct patronage). Mineral, vegetal and human isotopies overlap and are interwoven; none is hierarchically superior to another, and each becomes aligned with a deity, Poseidon, Zeus (whose rain fecundates the soil of Libya), and Apollo. This same relationship can be expressed spatially: Poseidon becomes aligned with the depths, Zeus the heights, and Apollo the surface of the earth (64f.). The mineral isotopy lends a cosmogonic dimension to the foundation of Libya in a way that mingles the categories of land and sea. It is thus through such complementary and overlapping webs of relationships, that Pi. ensures the coherency of his narrative.

The Argonautica of Apollonius provides an interesting point of comparison with the Pindaric account. The narrative follows a straightforward temporal and causal sequence: consequently, the Argonauts’ meeting with Poseidon serves as the manipulation of the foundation narrative of Thera, which is itself fully subordinated to the main story, and the foundation of Cyrene itself is not explicitly mentioned. Pi., by contrast, reverses this relationship by subordinating the Argonaut narrative to that of the foundation of Cyrene. And whereas Pi. carefully distinguishes between the manipulations of Apollo and Poseidon, Apollonius presents them together. Thus, “in the context of a distinct enunciation, the semionarrative syntax is transformed!” (49). In its observance of a quasi-linear chronology, the narrative also reflects the influence of ‘historical’ modes of thought, while at the same time it redeploys and transforms isotopies found in Pi.: for example, acting on an oracle by Apollo, Euphemus throws the clod of Libyan soil into the sea, where it becomes the island of Thera, the future home of his own descendents. The poet’s narrative goal is thus primarily etiological: autochthony has become cosmogony.

P. 9 was performed as part of the festivities honoring the victory of Telesicrates in 474, again during the reign of Arcesilas IV. Here the focus is on the foundation of the colonial city, integrated into the ode by means of a dense metaphorical network generated from a different isotopy, the union of Cyrene and Apollo. The narrative follows the canonical schema more closely than does P. 4: Apollo’s love of the nymph creates a situation of lack; his consultation with Chiron leads to a phase of manipulation in which the centaur paradoxically acts as sender of the god. Their union constitutes the performance, which through an accompanying spatial displacement is transformed into a “legend of foundation” (68). The birth of a son, Aristaios, sharing in the divine attributes of Apollo, provides the sanction.

The story of Cyrene also exhibits many of the common features of an adolescent rite of passage concluding in matrimonial union, but this is a strange sort of rite precisely because of its foundational elements: Cyrene is given the masculine attributes typical of liminal females, but she does not reject marriage with the god, so that she becomes the ruler of a newly founded territory, thus retaining her masculine role in adulthood, even as she assumes the feminine role of mother. Her displacement from Thessaly, where as a shepherdess she bears weapons and hunts lions, to Libya, where she gives birth and rules a colony of islanders, repeats this “simultaneous transformation into an adult woman and an adult man” in spatial terms (70).

The marriage of Alexidemus with Irasa, the future wedding of his descendent, Telesicrates, receiver of the ode, and the union of Alcmene with Zeus and Amphitryon — note here the overlap between Cyrene and Herakles as liberating the land of monsters — help give the ode its coherence through a common isotopy. Irasa is also the name of the place where the Cyrenaeans defeated a coalition of indigenous peoples and Egyptians under Apries a century before: the legend is thus “reformulated in the poems of Pindar to evoke, through particular figurative means, the Greeks’ struggle to impose themselves on the native population. It is an excellent example of the constant functioning of the process of symbolic creation and re-creation, stimulated by the succession of historical events, in this particular case especially by the Greek occupation of North Africa” (72). This reformulation is achieved in part by the marriage isotopy, which links it to the foundation narrative of Cyrene, while the imbrication of these different marriage accounts figures Telesicrates in the role of Apollo as the future husband of Cyrene. The ode should thus be read horizontally, as a series of marriage isotopies with a shared canonical schema, and vertically, as a narrative of the “progressive masculinization and Hellenization of Libya” (73).

C. again compares the Pindaric account to one by a Hellenistic poet, this time Callimachus’ Hymn to Apollo. The hymn is organized by four narrative programs sharing a geographic isotopy based on construction and a social isotopy based on personal relationships. The geographic settings of the poem proceed from Thessaly to Delos, and from there to Sparta and finally Cyrene by way of Thera. As was the case with the Argonautica, the narrative develops chronologically. Like P. 9, the poem celebrates the foundation of Greek civilization on foreign soil, and as such the activities of Poseidon are suppressed in favor of those of Apollo, whose most important act of foundation is none other than his enunciation and authorization of Callimachaean poetics at the close of the hymn. This helps account for why the poet transfers the struggle between Cyrene and the lion to Libya: the struggle now represents a civilizing act, one that leads to the assertion of Greek rule over the land. In P. 5, by contrast, Apollo is said to empower Battus with a voice able to terrify the lions infesting Cyrene, thus further reinforcing his role as civilizing hero.

Pi.’s P. 5 was performed in honor of a victory in the four horse chariot race in 462 by the brother-in-law of Arcesilas IV near the garden of Aphrodite in Cyrene, perhaps during the Carneia. The narrative of the poem is organized by a circular temporal path, and corresponding spatial displacements, leading us through a gallery of individual portraits that chart the ascendance of Arcesilas IV’s genos. It follows the same spatial course leading from Sparta to Cyrene as P. 4, but has as its point of origin Thebes instead of Lemnos, and traces the matrilineal line of the royal genos from the Theban Aegids, of whom Argeia was the wife of Theras. This genealogical link to the heroic age, and to heroic epic, explains the arrival of the Antenorids at Cyrene. Pi., moreover, conflates their arrival with that of Battus, who in fact arrived many generations later, by describing the Carneia festival as instituted by Battus and celebrated as part of the xenia shown to the Antenorids. It is in fact the theme of heroization, along with hospitality, that lends the ode its coherence at the semantic level, and this in turn elucidates Pi.’s use of Aegid genealogy: it gives Battus and his fellow colonists a Heraclid ancestry, and subtly connects the location of the poem’s creation with that of its performance, and the poet with his patron, both of whom are Aegids (83).

Hdt. situates the foundation of Cyrene in the context of Spartan history, beginning from the time that the Pelasgians drive the descendents of the Argonauts from Lemnos to Lakedaimon, where they encamp on the spurs of Taygetus ( situation of lack). The exiles ask to be granted citizen status based on their Minyan ancestry ( manipulation and competence), which the Spartans grant ( performance) and their status is sanctioned by marriage. When the exiles then demand an equal right to the kingship, the Spartans imprison them ( rupture of the contract and of the narrative equilibrium), but their wives enter the prison on the pretense of visiting their husbands and exchange clothes with them, thus allowing the men to escape ( performance, “reversing the terms of the matrimonial exchange” [87]), whereupon they once more encamp on Taygetus ( situation of lack). Theras, a descendent of Polynices, had acted as regent to his maternal nephews, Eurysthenes and Procles, but now that they had come of age he was preparing to lead a colony to the future Thera, where Cadmus had left his relative Membliarus on his way to settling Thebes. He is now joined by part of the Argonautidae, while his son goes on to found the Aegid line in Sparta. Unlike Pi., Hdt.’s narrative is ordered by a strict chronology, and the focus is on human political actors: a divine apparatus is entirely lacking, as is the story of the divine clod and the theme of autochthony. Hdt. thus replaces the animal isotopy involving lions that in P. 5 had affirmed Battus’ civilizing role in favor of a political isotopy involving the transformation of Battus from ‘stutterer’ to ‘ruler’ of Cyrene: since “Battus” is also the Libyan word for king, “the narrative creates a type of indigenous acknowledgment out of this political transformation” (97). Here the juxtaposition of Pi. and Hdt. is especially revealing, both of the texts themselves and equally of the hermeneutic power of C.’s approach: individual story elements play different roles and serve different functions in the canonical schema, while the media of epinician poetry and history produce often quite different isotopies to ensure narrative coherence.

Hdt. reports that, whereas the Spartans and Therans are agreed on the foundation of Thera, the Therans and Cyrenaeans differ on the foundation of Cyrene. The Theran account does not begin with a situation of lack : rather Apollo, through the Delphic oracle acts as Sender of the people of Thera, who are to colonize Libya. The oracle thus initiates the manipulation, with the Therans as Subject. At first, however, they lack the competence to complete the performance of colonization, as they do not know where Libya is. A sanction ensues in the form of a drought, followed by a new consultation with Apollo, whose oracle again mentions Libya. Consequently they make enquiries in Crete, where a fisherman named Corobius guides them to Libya: in this sequence, the Therans thus act as Senders and Corobius as Subject, who transfers to the Therans the necessary competence, which the Therans in turn delegate to Battus, son of Polymnestus. The Therans leave Corobius on the island Plataea with provisions; when these run out, a Samian ship arrives supplies him with further provisions, thus beginning a lasting friendship between the Samians and the Therans and Cyrenaeans.

The Cyrenaean version begins differently, though its sanction overlaps with that of the Therans: according them, Battus is the bastard son of Polymnestus and a daughter of Etearchus, a Cretan king. Born with a stutter — his name was linked to the verb battarizein — he seeks a remedy from the Delphic oracle, who declares that he is to colonize Libya. Apollo is thus again the Sender and Battus the Subject, so that the narrative centers on the person of the oecist (the Theran narrative, by contrast, foregrounds the Theran people, who act as Senders and on their own initiative acquire competence as colonists). Battus too initially lacks the competence to perform the task, and again a negative sanction ensues, thus creating a situation of lack and a further consultation of the oracle by the Therans. The oracle repeats her earlier message, this time adding the exact location of the future colony (thus eliminating the need for the Cretan subplot, though a connection to Crete is maintained in the story of Battus’ birth). Battus sails to Libya with two ships but shortly afterwards attempts to return to Thera, where he is prevented from landing by the Therans. It is here that the Theran and Cyrenaean versions coincide: at first the colonists attempt to settle the island of Plataea, but things go badly for them so they again consult the oracle, who insists that they are to settle in Libya proper. They next relocate to Aziris, on the mainland, but after a time the native Libyans act as a new Sender by leading the colonists to the future site of Cyrene, where Apollo’s Spring and the “pierced sky” marks an end to the drought from which the Therans have been suffering. “The Cyrenaean version thus marks a sharper separation between Therans and future Cyrenaeans, while erasing the friendship destined to bind the people of Samos with those of Thera and Cyrene” (92). The preceding discussion is designed to offer a detailed overview of C.’s findings and at the same time to help newcomers to C.’s work follow his often complex arguments (and in the case of Hdt. sometimes convoluted, owing to the nature of the material). In sum, as I hope is already clear, this is an important book, above all in its magisterial demonstration of how Greimassian semiotics can be applied to elucidate different accounts of the same event, in this case the foundation of Cyrene. It should be required reading by anyone doing work at the graduate and professional levels in the fields of mythology, cultural poetics, and Greek colonization and colonial narrative. Daniel Berman has produced a commendably reliable and accurate translation, together with a lucid introduction to C.’s methodology. C.’s Anglophone readers will also be grateful to the author for making a number of concessions to their specific needs, including extensive additions to the footnotes of scholarship in English (which unfortunately did not make it into the Bibliography). The result is a ‘cultural’ translation of the French original into English very much in keeping with the author’s own position on discourse production. I hope it is the beginning of a trend in translating works of continental scholarship into English.


1. “Narrating the Foundation of a City: The Symbolic Birth of Cyrene”, in Approaches to Greek Myth, L. Edmunds, ed. Johns Hopkins University Press. 1990: 275-341.