BMCR 2004.12.17

From Ikaria to the Stars: Classical Mythification, Ancient and Modern

, From Ikaria to the stars : classical mythification, ancient and modern. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xxi, 324 pages). ISBN 0292797559. $55.00.

G[reen] offers here a collection of previously published essays on a variety of works, ranging from logical coherence in mythic narratives to historiographic commentary, and from reviews of recently published works to his own historical investigations. The diversity of materials makes an overarching theme difficult to perceive at the outset, even with G’s statements in the Introduction about the centrality of “myth” to these essays. The coherence that eventually emerges rests upon the ways that G. uses the label “myth” to identify and compare “irrational” elements in ancient authors and modern historiography. Unsurprisingly for an historian of his accomplishments, the essays are, individually and as a whole, extremely engagingly written, insightful, and well-argued. In many instances G’s style presents a humorous entrance into the historiographical field, one that acknowledges the political and ideological perspectives of modern historians as factors in the questions they ask and answers they offer. This is a useful procedure, if at times G’s tone is rather acerbic. G.’s personality comes through immediately and to useful effect in these essays, and this is another enjoyable aspect of the text. The book is attractively produced with almost no typographic errors.

Because the 15 essays and 2 appendices collected here cover such a diversity of topics, I will summarize them each briefly before moving on to substantive remarks about the book as a whole.

Chapter 1, “‘These Fragments Have I Shored Against My Ruins’: Apollonius Rhodius and the Social Revalidation of Myth for a New Age.” G. provides a discussion of the ways that Apollonius Rhodius’ choice to compose a traditionally-oriented epic poem stood in relation to larger intellectual currents of the Hellenistic period. Notable as well is his use of Robert Buxton’s Imaginary Greece: The Contexts of Mythology (Cambridge University Press, 1994) to explain how myth functioned in general in Greek societies. G. elucidates the thorny and problematic vitality of the traditional corpora of narratives in the years after the Archaic and Classical periods had drawn to a close, and bourgeois rationalism and elite philosophy had begun to shape expectations and worldviews.

Chapter 2, “The Flight-Plan of Daedalus.” This is one of the few essays actually devoted to what is normally considered “myth” in Classical Studies, and here G. demonstrates his abilities as a reader of such narratives, offering useful insight into their historical transmission from a Greek to a Roman setting. By emphasizing the function that homophony served in transferring narratives, he provides a satisfying explanation for why Daedalus, as detailed by Ovid, apparently could not fly in a straight line to save his (or rather, his son’s) life.

Chapter 3, ” Works and Days 1-285: Hesiod’s Invisible Audience” This chapter is the hardest to fit into the focus of the overall collection. While G.’s argument concerning the intended audience and the rhetorical strategies that this entails are fascinating and generally convincing, are we to take from this that this poem is a “myth?” There is the hint, here, of a definitional issue concerning “myth” that will become clearer in later essays. G. himself seems uneasy with its inclusion in this collection, and offers some comment in a concluding footnote to the effect that he could not resist the chance to republish it.

Chapter 4, “Athenian History and Historians in the Fifth Century, B.C.” This review of the 3rd edition of the Cambridge Ancient History, Donald Kagan’s The Archidamian War, and (briefly) Mark Munn’s The School of History: Athens in the Age of Socrates ranges widely over issues relevant to modern historiography, as well as offering G.’s own readings of various episodes. One gets from this essay the clearest sense of G.’s own approach to ancient history, with the insistence that economic and social factors should be taken seriously as causal elements for events. By presenting this in the context of an engagement with the symbolically freighted figure of Thucydides, G. emphasizes the role that ideology and counterfactual presuppositions play in historiographical method.

Chapter 5, “The Metamorphosis of the Barbarian: Athenian Panhellenism in a Changing World” serves as G.’s clearest focus on the ways that certain taxonomic or conceptual categories are reified and taken as being ahistorical. By running through the various referents of the name “barbarian” in Classical and post-Classical authors, he demonstrates that these labels are conditioned and rhetorical. G. ends the essay with a reference to recent events in the Balkans as a way of arguing for the universal nature of the desire to use such labels. This is crucial, as it is the first major introduction of his notion of psychological motivations for counterfactual beliefs.

Chapter 6, “Text and Context in the Matter of Xenophon’s Exile” introduces a more narrowly focused historical analysis. G. as historian is particularly impressive, and his sympathetic reading of Xenophon as a (sometimes difficult) patriot is worth the attention of anyone interested in the man.

Chapter 7, “Rebooking the Flute-Girls: A Fresh Look at the Chronological Evidence for the Fall of Athens and the Eight-Month Rule of the Thirty” is a similarly focused analysis on the titular subject. The most noteworthy aspect of this is his equation of the way Plutarch telescoped some historical events (in this case, those connected with Lysander’s actions in Athens) to create a more compressed narrative with modern historiographical misreading, and with ancient mythopoeia in general.

Chapter 8, “A Variety of Greek Appetites” is a review of James Davidson’s Courtesans and Fishcakes and Andrew Stewart’s Art Desire and the Body in Ancient Greece. Of particular interest is that, aside from his extended and enthusiastic discussion of the first book’s strengths, this essay contains one of G.’s most sustained discussions of what he believes is wrong with modern theory (and it is Davidson’s and Stewart’s relations to “French-inspired literary and artistic theorizing” (page 171) which, in part, explains G.’s recommendation of Davidson).

Chapter 9, “Alexander’s Alexandria” again demonstrates the acuity of G. as historian, but in this case the demythifying mode is more clearly oriented towards removing mistaken beliefs.

Chapter 10, “The Muses’ Birdcage, Then and Now” focuses on the question of biographical data for ancient poets. In contrast to Mary Lefkowitz and Alan Cameron, G. argues that we can and do know significant and useful information about the biographies of Apollonius Rhodius and Callimachus. More generally, he urges scholars to be cautious about jettisoning the plain sense of ancient texts, and to be less devoted to theories when studying such topics. He also demonstrates a sharp wit when dealing with his own rivals.

Chapter 11, “How Political Was the Stoa?” is a review of Andrew Erskine’s The Hellenistic Stoa: Political Thought and Action and, more importantly, a discussion of the ways in which modern scholars occasionally partake of projection and wish fulfillment in their treatment of ancient sources. In this case, G. disagrees with Erskine on the specifically Stoic and utopian elements of Cleomenes’ attempted Spartan cultural and political revolution. More broadly, G. argues against the unreflectively Romantic image of the learned philosopher as political actor. Romanticism and the allure of ancient antecedents certainly constitute a regular temptation to modern thinkers, and this essay demonstrates a trenchant treatment of that fact.

Chapter 12, “Ancient Ethics, Modern Therapy” is a review of Martha Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. G. again engages with issues of philosophy and politics and once more demonstrates (this time, in accord with the author whom he is reviewing) that the idea of philosophy-as-panacea is historically difficult to substantiate.

Chapter 13, “Getting to Be a Star: The Politics of Catasterism” ventures once more into the realm of “fantastic” ancient claims. In this case, G. is interested in the somewhat ad hoc and strictly historically conditioned thinking about catasterism and how this made an application of the principle to historical figures an exercise in interpretive violence and conceptual muddling. It is also notable that this essay is where G. links “mythic modes of perception” (pages 237-238) to specific socio-cultural needs, which are in turn linked to psychological needs and images (G.’s word in this regard is “archetypal”).

Chapter 14, “The Innocence of Procris: Ovid AA 3.687-746” is primarily an exercise in literary exegesis and inter-reader criticism. Once again the principle for inclusion has to do with how G. overcomes the ideologically motivated readings of other scholars, in this case (as so frequently beforehand) to devastating effect.

Chapter 15, “Magic and the Principle of Apparent Causality in Pliny’s Natural History” is by far the most extended discussion, in this collection, of rationality and the divergence between modern and ancient perspectives on the cosmological principles governing effective action and knowledge of the universe. Since G. links these issues with the concept of “myth” (which, if not a main focus of his text, is certainly a leitmotif and the concept that connects all of these essays), this chapter sums up much of his thinking about rationality and irrationality as they pertain to human psychological and cultural processes. The considerable insight into, and practical sympathy for, the ancients’ experimental and empirical conditions demonstrated by G. is undercut by the selective application of the term “rational” to modern scientific perspectives only, as though rationality were measured primarily by agreement with our own factual knowledge.

Appendix A, “Tanglewood Tales for the Yuppies” begins as a review of Robert Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony but quickly moves to discuss what G. calls “the suburbanization of Hellenic myth” (Page 281). In regards to the use of myth, here G. seems to be on more customary ground, but his understanding of myth is now linked to a problematic claim about how myth functioned in Greek societies. This point deserves some specific comment, as myth, literal interpretations of myth, and theology are linked by G. in a way that assumes that the third term is based upon the prior two, and that reason would automatically erode all three in time, if not for the resurgent irrational element in human psychology. When he returns to the subject of Calasso, G. the Classical scholar and G. the literary translator (and lover of poetry) clearly coincide in a scathing indictment of the worthlessness of Calasso’s novel.

Appendix B, “Homer for the Kiddies” is a review of NBC’s Odyssey which is, aside from the technical critiques, a call for a more mature and adult retelling of myths for modern audiences. He offers a reading of why modern productions (unproductively) tend to simplify and bowdlerize myths: the studios wrongly categorize Homer as less serious than Shakespeare or Jane Austen, and therefore treat it as no more than “a totally unreal fancy-dress party” (page 296).

The contents of the various chapters are disparate in focus and points, and I have underscored that the unifying factor determining their inclusion in a single collection is that G. sees all the subjects analyzed as suffering from “myth.” Despite his repeatedly stated dislike for parti pris definitions, it is important to note that the essays collected in this volume have a consistent sense of what is and is not “myth” without necessarily articulating that definition succinctly or clearly. So what does G mean by “myth?” And, because it forms the subject of the book’s subtitle, it is also fair to ask what does he mean by “mythification?” Although the specific meanings vary a bit from essay to essay, underlying them all is the idea, laid out most emphatically in “The Metamorphosis of the Barbarian: Athenian Panhellenism in a Changing World” that he understands myth to be “a fertile source of fantasy and special pleading” (page 105). Myth, to G., may be an entrenched and intractable methodological or ideological position; and it may be a deliberate deemphasis of empiricism for a more amorphous or malleable geography of the past (as in his essay on the Argonautika of Apollonius Rhodius), or for the non-rationalized or non-empirical elements of a narrative (“monsters,” for instance). Most importantly, it is both an ancient and a modern phenomenon. Myth is something from which history is to be “rescue[d]” (page 193), something that “contaminate[s]” (page 183).

Like Paul Veyne in his “Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?” G is intellectually interested in what are, to us, fantastic elements in these narratives. In other essays “myth” (= the “fantastic”) is functionally equated with the “counterfactual,” which has the unfortunate effect of eventually reducing “the mythic” to “the erroneous.” The word “myth” (= falsehood) serves as a solvent for a fairly wide array of cultural and methodological phenomena, all of which are joined by the fact that, in G’s view, they are based on poor readings, deliberate avoidance of empiricism (whether modern or ancient), or irrationality. The word “mythification” points to this: it suggests how something non-mythic (i.e., factual) becomes, over time, mythic. His role as a historian is to uncover these poor readings or instances where ancient and/or modern individuals and groups prefer the fictitious to the real; he wants to “get behind [myth]” (page 175) in his own investigations — towards Truth, one assumes (and I am not suggesting naivete on his part; G. specifically takes a stand on issues of empiricism and factuality as goals for the historian). At the same time, in the “Introduction” G. argues that he has come to appreciate the value and importance the mythic has for human societies. Given his debunking procedures and tone throughout, he clearly does not share this value. If anything, his repeated disdain for what he calls relativism in the humanities, and assertion that facts do exist, suggests that he sees himself as a pugnacious demythifyier working against (mostly French) theory, which he sees as the source of much modern mythification. All this obviously means, in the end, that G.’s book does not set out to be a definitive statement on myth as a category of analysis. It has more to do with the failings of history.

On the other hand, G is clearly thinking about what he perceives to be a universal psychological need for powerful stories which organize and portray the world in fashions that reduce complexity, or defy empirical verification but serve some other purpose (he is even, on page 283, a Platonist and then a Functionalist vis-à-vis myth when he claims that myths could be, in a pinch, “a source of moral and social validation”). This is nowhere clearer than in his “Metamorphosis of the Barbarian,” which ends with a strong appeal to moderns concerning the historical contingency of definitions of self and other, definitions which arise from rhetorical strategies that are both fluid and self-effacing and serve purposes that are often more nefarious than we would like. In general, his demythifying method is to reinsert economic and social factors into historical explanations, thereby combating ideologically motivated disregard for what he terms the “banausic.” G. argues for particularity and close readings rather than wide-ranging and inherently misleading generalizations (G.’s concerns and expertise as a translator are most apparent when he argues eloquently for the nuances of meaning in ancient texts). This allows him to offer interesting arguments about various puzzling historical data and is certainly methodologically appropriate in the early 21st Century. However, the figures whom he criticizes are as often 19th century German historians as moderns, and some of his criticisms directed at modern authors have as much to do with theory and “relativism” as with their specific readings. This leads G. to label historiographic methods with which he disagrees as “mythic,” which is unfortunately obfuscatory.

Overall, this book is (unsurprisingly) more about historical method on specific topics which, G. feels, have suffered in analysis due to historians’ ideological motivations, or to irrational factors, than it is about myth. With that in mind, it is useful to think about the reasons why G. decided to use “myth” as a way of naming these factors (because, in so doing, he rhetorically links them with other things commonly called myths). G.’s idea of myth is reminiscent of David Bidney’s, as stated in the classic essay “Myth, Symbolism, and Truth,”1 where myth “is the term that connotes a hegemonic, unreflective, closed spirit, ‘science’ the term that connotes a liberating, critical, and open spirit.”2 If we transposed the word “rationality” for “science,” we would have a nice summary of G.’s approach. Both Bidney and G. are equal opportunity critics, focused as much on the idiosyncracies and problems of their contemporaries as on those they perceive in other cultures and time periods and in both cases arguing for the skeptical and inquisitive stance of a truly modern thinker as an antidote to the problems that “mythic” thinking creates.

However, the utility of defining “mythic” (given its other meanings in Classics, Anthropology, Religious Studies, and various Areas Studies) as “false” or “irrational” seems negligible except as a rhetorical method of criticism by association. G.’s equation of “rationalization” with de-mythification will likely leave some unsatisfied. When discussing Dionysius Skytobrachion’s Argonautai, for example, G. emphasizes with surprise that D.S. has no problem with the several fantastic elements (sea monsters, oracles, the Samothracian mysteries, etc.) of the Argonauts’ story (pages 28-29, footnote 85). We might rather ask ourselves, why should Skytobrachion have had difficulty with those things? When G. equates “rational” with “logical” and therefore presents beliefs or conclusions different from his own as making no sense (he sometimes calls them, at best, “pseudo-rational”), it is unclear how we are to think about the fact that such beliefs did make sense to people. Moreover, by suggesting through repeated usage that “rational” has a concretely factual field of reference, he prejudges what he understands as factually false (or inaccurate) as also being somehow incoherent and illogical. This has a greater cogency as a tactic in the modern Birdcage of the Muses than as a clear heuristic strategy. G. views modern physical knowledge and understanding of the universe as simply “reality,” rather than a socially-mediated construct, and seems to judge the rationality of others’ knowledge strictly in terms of how much or little their understanding of reality is similar to our own. This can cause problems. For example, when G. claims that “even for Galen — despite his vast medical expertise — astrology was not only rational (once granted its premises, an understandable assumption), but empirically demonstrable” (page 268) he begins to deconstruct his own ahistorical idea of rationality. Why should Galen’s “vast medical expertise” make him any more or less likely to believe in astrology? Similarly, after laying out several of the logically coherent principles by which ancient magical healing worked, he claims that only desperation would lead one to actually use such cures (page 279). This seems unfair: to be factually mistaken is not automatically to be irrational. G. is strongest when examining instances when historians and authors have been overly subject to their own assumptions and received knowledge. Using the term “myth” to characterize this methodological problem is itself more a rhetorical strategy than a clear diagnosis.


1. Bidney, David. “Myth, Symbolism, and Truth.” in Myth: A Symposium. Thomas A. Sebeok, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965. Pages 3-24.

2. Shrempp, Gregory. “David Bidney and the People of Truth.” in Myth: A New Symposium. Gregory Shrempp and William Hansen, edd. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. Pages 46-57.