[This book is an English translation, by Janet Lloyd, of Calame’s Poetique des Mythes dans la Grece Antique (2000), but ought to be thought of as a revised second edition of the French original.]
Those who have kept abreast of the substantial body of work, in Greek poetry and (what is typically called) mythology, of Claude Calame, the tremendously learned and tremendously opinionated Director of Studies at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, will find much that is familiar herein. This slim but dense volume is nothing less than an assertion, and a justification, of the particular methodology (and, perhaps, ideology) expressed in his earlier works, both a practical essay for students in the field and, in his own words, “a kind of act of faith” (ix) containing a “genuine personal sense of commitment” (266), an expression of opposition to structuralist analyses that over-universalize their subjects, focusing excessively on the common factors of diverse symbologies while neglecting their specific qualities and (particularly) performance contexts.
This is by no means an overall study of critical approaches to classical mythology; indeed, Calame’s view of “structuralism”, the approach against which this book is a polemic, could well be argued to be an unfair pastiche thereof. Despite Calame’s qualifier, in the preface to this edition, that these approaches are “totally legitimate”, and merely taken too far (ix), his interpretation reads them as contributing to a nefariously colonialist scholarly zeitgeist. In Calame’s view, the study of myth, from Plato to modern scholars, has tended to be consistently anticontextual; the anthropologist or mythographer ‘skeletonizes’ the literary expression of a myth, reducing muthoi (created things, brought into being by specific poietai for specific purposes and contexts) to mere collections of names and sequences of events. These narrative summations allowed scholars to, in a sense, universalize myth, to create an ontology in which commonalities in the (summarized forms of the) myths of disparate cultures indicate a fundamental category difference, a “universal mode of savage thought” (8) which contrasts with, and ultimately progresses to, ‘enlightened’ modes of Western thought. Subjected to this paradigm, ancient Greek mythology is not only ‘othered’ but infantilized; the tremendous semiotic richness and particular cultural and symbolic value of specific discursive instantiations is lost. So with the story of Demeter and Core (the example-‘myth’ Calame draws upon for his introduction), a wide range of modern critical approaches have summarized and distilled the various muthoi featuring the pair, and in so doing reduced their figures to abstract, transcendental entities with universal or allegorical meaning – the sacred marriage, the corn-mother and corn-maiden, the cycle of vegetative death and rebirth, and so on.
Calame, though, warns us (strongly, oh so strongly!) that such an interpretative hermeneutic is incomplete; in reality, muthoi do not exist as transcendent universals, but only in the particular version in which its audience receives it; they “cannot to be said to have had any existence if they are isolated from the forms of discourse and poetic composition that brought them to their public” (5). With all due respect (which, in this text, is not particularly great) given to the value of a structuralist critique, only in the specific instantiation of the story of Demeter within the Homeric hymn, for instance, can we recognize that the rape of Persephone is inseparable from the botched apotheosis of Demophoon and that both are inextricably linked to the cult of the goddesses at Eleusis. The poietai were craftsmen, ‘makers’, and each work of verse was a particular artifact, a creation of technical skill meant for a specific place and purpose; the muthos existed at the moment of performance, and at that moment only. From this, Calame draws his own ‘enunciative and pragmatic approach’: every formulation of a ‘myth’ is the result of a particular discursive production spoken by a particular voice, the ‘I’ of the speaker/narrator and the vehicle of utterance, one which relates to the specific moment of reception in which the fictional narrative manifests in reality. Importantly, the discursive production cannot be understood apart from genre; in conforming to the conventions and traditions of some (extra-discursive) institution, the muthos can become (for instance) a religious act, a generic association with song and cult and festival that is lost completely when the ‘storyline’ is divorced from its enunciative context. Returning to his introductory example, Calame points out that allegorical interpretations of Demeter and Core come relatively late in classical history, only after (and perhaps because) mythographers had reduced the multiple instantiations of the goddesses to a single storyline; only by interpreting a specific enunciation of the story according to the rules of the genre in which it is expressed can one rediscover the values inherent in that specific narrative, the close associations between marriage, cereal production and civilization, as well as a pragmatic aetiological justification of the cult at Eleusis.
In the six studies following this introduction, focusing on the enunciative dimension of narratives governed by the rules of a variety of genres, Calame provides wide-ranging and learned discourses focusing specifically on ‘problematic’ instantiations of Greek myth, offering carefully contextualized interpretations of specific muthoi that shed light on factors that more structuralist interpretatory schemes struggle to explain. The story of Bellerophon as told by Glaucus to Diomedes as part of his heroic genealogy in book 6 of the Iliad, which (strangely, to structuralists) lacks (what they see as) vitally important aspects of the myth, the role played by Pegasus and the hero’s ascent to Olympus, is demonstrated to be governed by the contextual constraints of a verbal duel in epic. Pindar’s Pythian XI shows what function the crimes of Clytemnestra and Orestes serve in the poetics of praise; the power of moral judgment is seized by the narrative ‘I’ to transform Orestes into a model of heroic behavior. The differing itineraries of Io related in in Aeschylus’ ‘Prometheus Bound’ and ‘The Suppliant Maidens’ are shown to reflect the evolving Greek conception of their place in the world, particularly with regard to Persia (as both variants have Io tracing the eastern boundaries of the Greek world). While the former version has Io travel through savage and mostly unknown regions, where there be monsters, reflecting the harsh dualism of a world divided between civilized Greeks and savage, monstrous ‘others’, the latter speaks of comparatively mild areas in the borderlands of Greece, reflecting a world where the essential humanity of the non-Greek (i. e., the Persian) is better known, and Io (as her wanderings perform the essential act of ‘bordering’ Greece) defines those borders in terms of the shared blood, culture, and language of the Greeks. The various (and contradictory) stories of Helen are fertile ground for this interpretative framework; Calame looks at the story of the Egyptian Helen as told by Herodotus, how he not only reports the story of the Egyptian Helen which he heard from priests in Memphis — a story which, Calame points out, is best understood (in its Herodotean version) as part of the story of Proteus, the Pharaoh who received Helen into Egypt, as well as a report merely transcribed by Herodotus — but also, “in a far more decisive way than usual”, asserts the truth of this particular version, no longer a muthos but a logos (161; Hdt 2.116-120). In this, Herodotus’ purpose is to strip Helen of her central role in the Trojan War in order to better interpret said war as a paradigm of conflict between West and East, Greece and Persia, driven by historical necessities (the ordained boundary between Asia and Europe) rather than by the faults and desires of individuals. Calame then turns to the story of Tiresias in Callimachus’ Hymn V, ‘On the Bath of Pallas’, not so much concerned with which version Callimachus chose as to why a poet of Hellenistic Egypt turned to a myth set in Thebes to provide the mythological foundation for an Argive ritual. Beginning with the role of the aetiological myth and the link it forges between present and past, Calame shows in what ways the story-within-a-story of Tiresias in Hymn V functions as such a story in the context of a Hellenistic (and other) audience. While Calame does suggest, in passing, various intricate connections between Argos and Thebes, the answer ends up being unimportant; he notes that this is far from the only special shift taking place in the poem (for instance, the story-within-the-story of the death of Actaeon) and warning us that, in the end, the ritual setting produced by such a talented literary figure as Callimachus might be “not only fictional but […] purely ficticious” (218). In the final essay, Calame continues this theme of myth as foundational, looking at an author whose work is not generally considered mythology in and of itself, that is, Pausanias, and his description of the site of Troezen, how it shows Pausanias defining both times and places by means of heroic logoi connected to local sanctuaries.
In interpreting myth as interconnected with every aspect of genre, society and culture, these discourses are useful both in their own right and as demonstrations of the methodology which Calame hopes to encourage. But despite his stated intent, to “provide useful teaching […] for a readership of students seeking to initiate themselves into the Hellenistic culture by reading Greek texts” (ix), this book is not for every student of the classics, even those seeking “cultural initiation”. Students may find some of the more involved essays hard going, particularly where Calame draws on his enormous knowledge of the obscurities of Greek culture to contextualize his subject. At times, it appears that his chosen methodology produces little new information (as in his Callimachus essay) about the poem itself, which can be disappointing to the seeker of new insights. Finally, a general reader seeking greater understanding of Greek myth in general — a concept Calame would characterize as a category error — is likely to leave disappointed. “Greek Mythology”, as a title, is misleading in this respect: what Calame offers is not an overview of Greek ‘mythological’ literature, but rather a new perspective on it, a different way of thinking about individual texts; the student is expected to henceforth implement this methodology on his or her own (a methodology, by the way, valuable not only to the student of classical mythology, for all Calame’s focus on the Greek poet as crafter and technician). Calame sets out to teach the student-reader not what to think, but rather how to think (and, to some degree, how not to think) about mythology. That is the true value of the essays presented herein: not so much their particular insights as that they demonstrate the value, and the necessity, of dealing with a text on its own terms rather than dismissing discrepancies with other versions as unimportant or mistaken deviations from the ‘real story’. To someone wishing to “initiate” themselves, in Calame’s word, to understand where and how and why a given narrative was performed, Calame’s methodology is — and will immediately appear as — a valuable hermeneutic. Someone looking for a more universal perspective, seeking to understand the wider cultural value of themes that appear throughout Greek myths with widely separated performance contexts, will be told instead why he or she should not in fact seek that perspective, a somewhat dissatisfying experience despite the value of the alternate mode of thought Calame demonstrates.