BMCR 2020.05.15

Wandering myths: transcultural uses of myth in the ancient world

Lucys Audley-Miller, Beate Dignas, Wandering myths: transcultural uses of myth in the ancient world. . Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. liv, 427 p.. ISBN 9783110416855 €129,95.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

How do myths wander?

In their detailed introduction, the editors point to the transcultural perspective of the volume (B. Dignas, L. Audley-Miller, “Preface. Wandering Myths: Transcultural Uses of Myth in the Ancient World”, VII–XXXI). In order to respond adequately to the complexity of the phenomenon and to avoid limiting themselves to a single theory, they refrain from defining myths by stressing their essentially dynamic nature (cf. VII–VIII). Instead of presenting “a singular consensus view,” the volume “proposes a series of different ways of examining these questions with both overlapping and different interpretations” (XII). By bringing together papers from three workshops and an international conference and by highlighting responses, interconnections, and also contradictions between various contributions of the volume, the editors have done an admirable job. The carefully edited, well-illustrated volume, which is even more useful because of the detailed index, offers a broad, interdisciplinary panorama of various methods of approaching myths. It includes contributions on the topic of wandering heroes by academic ‘heroes’, among them Martin L. West, whose last paper forms part of the book. Depending upon the nature of the respective case studies (as well as the theoretical presuppositions of their authors), the papers oscillate between various kinds of investigations into the people and media that made myths wander.

Openness to various approaches and the assumption of wider connectivity appearing in local case studies undergird the approaches of the whole book. Accordingly, the volume is divided into three sections that refer to geographic spaces, which serve as a framework to discuss the wandering of Greek myths: within Anatolia (Part I), between Greece and Italy (Part II), and in connection with the Near East (Part III). In addition to the preface, the text is framed by R. Lane Fox’s “Introduction. Travelling Myths, Travelling Heroes” (XXXIII–LIV) and R. Parker’s “Epilogue” (397–403), which both demonstrate the interconnectedness of the books’ contributions in a personal way.

By posing challenging questions on the relation between wandering myths and wandering heroes, R. Lane Fox recalls not only the title of the volume, but also the title of his own monograph.[1] In his opinion, not rituals, but people, with their creative misunderstandings in cross-cultural communications, are the channels transmitting myths from one place to another, through three types of contact: conquest, sex, and missionaries. Moreover, some myths were non-travelling and deeply rooted local myths, in contrast to others that were adjustable to many communities. This essay serves as an “Introduction” insofar as the other authors refer to his statements by following or criticising him, yet more evidence for the coherence of the whole volume.

Part I: Changing Cultural and Mythical Landscapes in Anatolia, opens with a sceptical paper by I. Rutherford, “Kingship in Heaven in Anatolia, Syria and Greece. Patterns of Convergence and Divergence” (3–22). By drawing attention to the fact that the most probable solution, according to current ways of thinking, does not have to be the only one, he makes a good point in opposition to Lane Fox’s theory of diffusion caused by identifiable travellers as a reason for similar story-patterns. Similarly, C. M. Draycott, in “Making Meaning of Myth. On the Interpretation of Mythological Imagery in the Polyxena Sarcophagus and the Kιzιlbel Tomb and the History of Achaemenid Asia Minor” (23–70), is conscious of methodological traps and argues against the trend of interpreting the re-use of myths as “expressions of political ideologies.” Instead, Draycott asserts that economic reasons for displaying myths and the creation of tombs as visual events demonstrate the social status of the deceased. In contrast, T. S. Scheer, in “Myth, Memory and the Past. Wandering Heroes between Arcadia and Cyprus” (71–91), adheres to the most common constructivist conviction and argues against the positivist view in previous scholarship. Myths wander because of present and immediate needs to define identity, but, despite Lane Fox’s presumptions, such myths do not need the mediators travelling themselves, since sending a cult image or votive could achieve the same effect.

Part II: Reception and Innovation of Mythological Programmes between Greece and Italy has a clear focus on the visual arts. N. T. Grummond looks at decidedly local products of oral traditions in contrast to common standards of Greek culture (“From Mezntie to Mezentius? The Stratigraphy of a Myth in Etruria and Rome”, 95–123). L. Giuliani, in “Pots, Plots, and Performance. Comic and Tragic Iconography in Apulian Vase Painting” (125–142), argues in favour of the autonomy of vase painting influenced by motifs also present in Attic drama, but not simply representing dramatic scenes. Though myths wandered from one medium to another, he claims that the relationship was much looser than often supposed. By departing from a focus on the viewer, K. Lorenz also refrains from supposing overly general story patterns underlying the performance of myths by demonstrating the individual uses of motifs in domestic decoration (“Distributed Narrative. A Very Short History of Juxtaposing Myths on Pompeian Walls”, 143–167). B. E. Borg, in “No one is Immortal. From Exemplum Mortalitatis to Exemplum Virtutis” (169–208), treats metropolitan Roman sarcophagi and shows major shifts in the ways myths were applied to influence the viewer. Finally, B. C. Ewald directly compares Attic and Roman sarcophagi (“Attic Sarcophagi. Myth Selection and the Heroising Tradition”, 209–262).

Part III: Wandering East, Wandering South” begins with M. L. West’s paper onGilgāmeš and Homer: The Missing Link?” (265–280). In agreement with Lane Fox, he proposes an explicit channel through which common themes and figures may have wandered between Near Eastern and Greek literature: bilingual poets who contributed to a now lost epos called “Herakleia” as the missing link between the Near Eastern Gilgāmeš story and the Homeric poems. By reconstructing the content of the lost epics, West offers a much more optimistic picture than the one Rutherford provides, although West denominates his reconstruction a “house of cards” (266. 278). In “Myth, Memory, and Mimesis. The Inaros Cycle as Literature of Resistance” (281–307), R. Sérida wanders south to Greek and Roman Egypt. By looking at collective identity, cultural pride and legitimacy, the approach is in line with the one by Scheer outlined above. L. Pitcher explores the uses of mythology in Greco-Roman historiography and stresses that tracing the routes travelled by myths is a complex task and even more so when the “local” is not easy to define, as in the case of Diodorus (“Death on the Nile: The Myth of Osiris and the Utility of History in Diodorus. Egypt In Greco-Roman Historiography”, 309–326). R. Wood, “Wandering Hero, Wandering Myths? The Image of Heracles in Iran” (327–355), investigates the story of a hero who at first glance fits well with Lane Fox’s wandering heroes. Yet, by illustrating the selectivity in adjusting the mythical figure of Heracles to the needs of local communities in the region of what is now Iran within the period between the Macedonian conquest and the establishment of the Sasanian Empire, the study serves as a warning against looking for easily describable intercultural movements of myths. Last but not least, K. M. D. Dunbabin, in “The Transformations of Achilles on Late Roman Mosaics in the East” (357–395), presents a “multi-faceted Achilles” (390), who could inspire a wide range of people educated by the Homeric epics, from the schoolchild to the professional rhetorician.

In sum, this is a volume in the best Oxford tradition: an impressive multi-disciplinary panorama put together by some of the best qualified scholars on the topic, conscious of methodology, but also driven by state of the art scholarly perspectives, among which historical-constructivist approaches dominate: “This is not, then, a book seeking to make bold statements about definite origins, versions or clearly discernible developments of myths. Rather, our aim is to explore how stories ‘wandered’ and were subject to ongoing redefinition” (XXII). Who would argue against this aim? However, there are limitations to the two principles guiding the volume, and these limitations hint at avenues for future research. First, the openness to varying methods and definitions of myth, or the resistance to orthodoxy on how to treat myths, is contradicted by comments like Lane Fox’s dismissal of structural analysis (XLI), or his explicit statement that the “historico-geographic approach is (…) the right one” (XXXIV). Is that not a too narrow perspective? Recent hylistic-stratigraphicapproaches to myths demonstrate that they can and should be explicitly used as a means of gaining insights into the development of story-telling.[2] Structural and historical analysis do not necessarily exclude each other.

Second, connectivity is a fundamental concern of the volume, not only in form, but also in content. The assumption of the widely connected “small world”[3] seems to be taken as a given fact. Is it really a given fact? When trying to describe the working of myths and their wandering, there is no other measure than the “investigation of what triggered the surfacing and adaptation of myths in local contexts” (IX). The editors have chosen regional approaches to present their topic. In other words, connectivity is only realised through the local responses to these broader connective networks. This choice goes to the very core of recent debates on how to balance the tension between the apparently overwhelming connectivity in the Ancient World and strong tendencies of regionalism, or even locality.[4] This volume does the best that such a volume can achieve, opening up more questions and pointing the way for current scholarship to tackle them.

 

Table of Contents

Dignas, L. Audley-Miller, “Preface. Wandering Myths: Transcultural Uses of Myth in the Ancient World” (VII–XXXI)
R. Lane Fox, “Introduction. Travelling Myths, Travelling Heroes” (XXXIII–LIV)
Part I: Changing Cultural and Mythical Landscapes in Anatolia
I. Rutherford, “Kingship in Heaven in Anatolia, Syria and Greece. Patterns of Convergence and Divergence” (3–22)
C. M. Draycott, “Making Meaning of Myth. On the Interpretation of Mythological Imagery in the Polyxena Sarcophagus and the Kιzιlbel Tomb and the History of Achaemenid Asia Minor” (23–70)
T. S. Scheer, “Myth, Memory and the Past. Wandering Heroes between Arcadia and Cyprus” (71–91)
Part II: Reception and Innovation of Mythological Programmes between Greece and Italy
N. T. Grummond, “From Mezntie to Mezentius? The Stratigraphy of a Myth in Etruria and Rome” (95–123)
L. Giuliani, “Pots, Plots, and Performance. Comic and Tragic Iconography in Apulian Vase Painting” (125–142)
K. Lorenz, “Distributed Narrative. A Very Short History of Juxtaposing Myths on Pompeian Walls” (143–167)
B. E. Borg, “No one is Immortal. From Exemplum Mortalitatis to Exemplum Virtutis” (169–208)
B. C. Ewald, “Attic Sarcophagi. Myth Selection and the Heroising Tradition” (209–262).
Part III: Wandering East, Wandering South
M. L. West, “Gilgāmeš and Homer: The Missing Link?” (265–280)
R. Sérida, “Myth, Memory, and Mimesis. The Inaros Cycle as Literature of Resistance” (281–307)
L. Pitcher, “Death on the Nile: The Myth of Osiris and the Utility of History in Diodorus. Egypt In Greco-Roman Historiography” (309–326)
R. Wood, “Wandering Hero, Wandering Myths? The Image of Heracles in Iran” (327–355)
K. M. D. Dunbabin, “The Transformations of Achilles on Late Roman Mosaics in the East” (357–395)
R. Parker, “Epilogue” (397–403)
Index (405-458)

Notes

[1] R. Lane Fox, Travelling Heroes: Greeks and their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer, London 2008.

[2]  C. Zgoll, Tractatus mythologicus. Theorie und Methodik zur Erforschung von Mythen als Grundlegung einer allgemeinen, transmedialen und komparatistischen Stoffwissenschaft (Mythological Studies 1), Berlin 2019. An abbreviated introduction to the method is provided by C. Zgoll, Myths as Polymorphous and Polystratric Erzählstoffe: A Theoretical and Methodological Foundation, in: A. Zgoll, C. Zgoll (ed.), Mythische Sphärenwechsel. Methodisch neue Zugänge zu antiken Mythen in Orient und Okzident (Mythological Studies 2), Berlin/Boston 2020, 1–82.

[3] Cf. I. Malkin, A Small Greek World: Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean, Oxford 2011.

[4] Cf. H. Beck, Localism and the Ancient Greek City-State, Chicago 2020, who strongly stresses the local character of ancient Greek worlds.