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Mythic Passages - the magazine of imagination

Routledge Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World series
(New York: Routledge-Taylor and Francis), edited by Susan Deacy

Dowden, Ken. 2006. Zeus.
Dougherty, Carol. 2006. Prometheus.
Griffiths, Emma. 2006. Medea.
Edmunds, Lowell. 2006. Oedipus.
Seaford, Richard. 2006. Dionysos.

Reviewed by William Doty, Ph. D.,

This series is one of those great services to scholarship that a large international publisher can provide. Editor Deacy (Roehampton U, London) has assembled an impressive group of specialists from British classical studies (and some North American scholars). Their work is stimulating and often quite in depth. They display interest in (according to the repeated editor's foreword) "how and why these figures continue to fascinate and intrigue" us, as well as in exploring "their strangeness" in terms of contemporary sensitivities.

With respect to traditional mappings of the Olympians, there is ongoing revisionism here, according to which these stalwart figures were considered "open to continual reinterpretation, with the result that we should not expect to find figures with a uniform essence"—and indeed the volumes do emphasize unique aspects as well as some similar elements. A common referent is the body politic, the polis, as the context for as well as in tension with the strong mythic figures studied.

This scene is often identified with "paganism" in a manner that remains apparently less out-of-date in Britain than would be considered permissible in North America, where it would be regarded as smacking of intolerant "Orientalism" or other colonialist perspectives. Fewer forms of Continental conservatism are evident, and authors have been advised "to interest the general reader as well as [...] the needs of students in a wide range of fields [in works that will be] accessible and refreshing."

I find the later two adjectives appropriate, but for the "general reader," several of these volumes are tough slogging indeed, with the sheer mass of information itself distracting from the main arguments. But their rich details promise many rich forays.

Some general remarks about the publications, and I will turn to the first five volumes that Routledge supplied for review (the sequence is just my sequence of reading them—each certainly stands well as an independent volume).

There is a standardized format for each volume of about 150-70 pages: (1) An introductory segment warranting attention to the subject of the volume; (2) Key themes and ideas, origins, myth, cult, and representations in literature and art (while illustrations are plentiful and appropriate, unfortunately they are almost uniformly printed so dark and murky as to be of little relevance); (3) The reception of the figure since antiquity (defined primarily as the Greek classical period).

Then there are Works Cited keyed to the short titles in the (mostly very few) endnotes, and sometimes excellent suggestions for Further Reading: outstanding in Edmunds and Griffiths, almost negligible in most. Zeus has a helpful chronological table and a couple of maps, Oedipus has several maps.

I found a magnifying glass necessary to read the many block citations: the minuscule sans-serif font in which they were printed was amazingly lightly inked. On the other hand, the series covers benefit notably from the excellent medallions designed by Keith O'Hagen: they remind me of the splendid ancient designs for warriors' shields and the straps by which they were held by their assistants (the Greek term for which became the basis for "therapist").

Dowden, Zeus.

While I found Dowden's The Uses of Greek Myth (same publisher, 1992) highly insightful in its explication of how classical Greek mythology functioned, I confess that I found this volume often confusing. It seemed that the author (University of Birmingham) deemed it necessary to document so many details, to present indeed an overload familiar from many classical studies, and the reader was often left to draw inferences: in fig. 4, p. 25, for instance what is significant in the differences between Adler and Shiering's reconstructions of Pheidias' famous statue of Zeus?

At other times one needs the detail to understand the continual interplay between the pan-Greek (Hellenic): "Zeus is the most widespread Greek God" (7), and an epichoric (regional) version that "shows very clearly how local cults introduce variant and inconsistent elements into the portrait of a Greek God" (35). Dowden returns to the importance of cult in nearly every chapter. I especially like his recourse to epithets of Zeus as a way of explicating this complex figure. At times I am reminded of the early German reference works in the classics, which often featured lists of the divine/cultic epithets, and in fact I once approached the figure of Hermes precisely (and solely) from such a direction.

The author's interpretive observations are frequently very useful: I have often pondered how it is that Zeus appears so variously to various mortals. Dowden's suggestion (5) is that "unlike other gods, he has no human shape in which to appear and therefore, usefully for stories, can only appear in disguises, or transformed" (although there certainly are standard representations in the arts!).

"The mythology of Zeus, from all over the Greek world, is one dominated by his sexual adventures [which] can be understood in different ways. On one level, the mythology reflects some of the psychology of Greek males in their male-dominated society. On another level, they display his enormous and irresistible power to command the service of beauty wherever it is found. But most important, they cause him to be the foundation of the society of gods and the society of men, because when you for instance trace a Greek people back to its origin, the answer is so often Zeus. He has been Zeus-father since Indo-European times" (52-53).

Dougherty, Prometheus

Dougherty (Wellesley College) notes that while the Greeks conceived of Prometheus as "forethinker," recent linguistic research "links the meth component to a Sanskrit root math— meaning to steal — suggesting that the actual etymology refers to theft [...] and links the Greek Prometheus myth with other similar myths from the Caucasus" (4). Surveying the ancient materials, she notes that the myth "is infinitely flexible" (8; perhaps the most flexible, 11; "incredible elasticity," 86), a theme about the key figures that recurs in several volumes in this series.

But then of course this reflects the fact that the myths were never, before the Alexandrine period (Apollodoros), told from beginning to end; "precisely because everyone already knows the stories, they are always only partly retold" (10) and always contemporanized (which leads the author to mention how the recent movie Troy (2004) infuriated classicists, but was carrying on a very ancient tradition of adapting mythological materials to contemporary interests. Hence also, a drama may embed a fairly unique telling; for instance "The myth of Prometheus forms the basis for Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, but the myth is not synonymous with the play. Aeschylus' drama offers us just one reading of it [...]" (11).

This volume is fulsome in its survey of post-antiquity presences of Prometheus in literature (Goethe, Byron, Shelley, Mary Shelley). I am surprised that the author gives so little attention (115) to Hans Blumenberg's Work on Myth (trans. Robert M. Wallace. Cambridge UP, 1985), since the mythic figure recurs repeatedly, and is focal across the last fifth of that philosophical work.

Griffiths, Medea

As noted initially, the figures discussed in this series were chosen as having contemporary relevance, but as Griffiths (U of Manchester) notes, Medea "is known by those who have never read a Greek tragedy; the subject of art throughout the western tradition, she has been used as a figurehead by political movements, and her name is frequently mentioned when society confronts an act of infanticide," even though she "is not an obviously sympathetic figure for modern audiences" (3).

Nonetheless her action "in killing her children places her at the center of a complex of ideas about the female body and the relationship of children to their mother, ideas which have social and political implications" (5). These are certainly complex notions, which Griffiths finds already in the layers of myth that are imbricated within the classical representations.

"The connection between the different layers of myth is complicated, and we should remember that works of art or literature which shape the material according to their own particular ends were seldom designed to give any comprehensive overview of the myth" (6-7). Griffiths explicitly repudiates the emphasis upon presumed universalities of mythic meaning developed in the nineteenth century (5).

Indeed, even recounting that "Medea killed her children" represents "only one version of the myth (as told at a particular time, by a particular figure, for a particular purpose)" (11, my emphasis). We dare not presume "an unbroken line along which the myth develops, and older versions can be lost or distorted" (12); the most we can do is to develop a sort of cultural encyclopedia of views that we discover in the ancient world and put that along our reconstructed history of the reception of the mythic material, while recognizing that "mythology is inherently malleable" (13).

Of the first five volumes in this series, I find this one most useful for attention to storytelling and transmission of mythological material. And to what the author calls "visual storytelling," which can be as important as verbal materials (22) — "the traditions of literary and plastic art have their own interests and motifs" (25), as demonstrated so well in Timothy Gantz's Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources (1993) and the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (8 double vols., 1984-99).

In comparison with several other Greek figures, Medea appears as a figure at and often outside the boundaries, as a liminal mytheme, with several links to initiation rituals (54-57). Finally, "Medea is constantly associated with transformation and metamorphosis" (96) — doubtless a strong factor in a world comprised today of so many instances of those processes. The very etymology of her name, "planner," indicates a figure who can take the long view ahead.

Edmunds, Oedipus

Edmunds (Rutgers-The State University of New Jersey) echoes Griffiths in emphasizing the selectivity of mythic transmission: "To retell the Oedipus myth is always to retell someone's version and, in so doing, ultimately to give one's own" (3). We recognize this today particularly in Freud's application of the Oedipal story from Oidipous Tyrranos/Oedipus the King; and any chance at tracking back to a primal/initial version fails when we realize that the Oedipus story had already undergone centuries of transformation by the time of Homer's Odyssey (4). Freud's version omits what must have been particularly striking those centuries ago, namely the suicide of Jocasta, and especially the life of Oedipus after the self-blinding (8).

What's more, Sophocles himself develops variations of his basic account in each of the dramas of his trilogy (4). And alongside the more formal artistic and literary renditions by the tragedians, we ought to consider the likely presence of "popular tradition parallel to the poetic one. It can be shown that oral traditions of this kind concerning Oedipus, attached to hero cults honoring him persisted down into the fifth century BCE" (5).

Edmunds's publications on Oedipus are numerous (listed 160) and widely respected; I was surprised at the omission of the useful collection he compiled with folklorist Alan Dundes, Oedipus: A Folklore Casebook (1983). As with several ancient mythic stories (the Gilgamesh epic is one strong example), the Oedipus mytheme was occluded for at least a millennium in the West, being rediscovered only during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries — though in recent mythopoesis ("creative work that brings the old story into the present," 10), "Oedipus surpasses even Achilles and Odysseus in the degree to which he has permeated Western art, literature, and thought [...]".

Edmunds's elegant prose recalls the pre-Sophoclean trajectories: the Delphic oracle antedates the origins of the myth, possibly replaced as a motivation for Oedipus's exposure by a dream of Jocasta or Laius, or a prophecy by the seer Teiresias (17).

So too the cross-cultural riddle of the Sphinx (in folklore studies coded as the Bride-Winning-Riddle, 20) must be considered in the intertextual chaining in which familial, genealogical, and other relationships flex through the literary and visual traces of what we know as Greek mythology (Dowden's Zeus does this in his tracking of the dalliances (and progeny) of Zeus). Certainly the modern tendency in philosophy and art to make the Sphinx episode central would have astounded Sophocles (128).

Seaford, Dionysos

"The name of the god Dionysos first appears on a clay tablet from the Greek bronze age, over three thousand years ago. And so he is "our oldest living symbol" (3, my emphasis-though I'd consider shamanic and other motifs found in European cave art more impressive). And yet the author is quick to note that what the symbol meant varied enormously: "The various processes and experiences associated with Dionysos may seem to us to have no connection with each other" (3).

Certainly, "Dionysos provides a perspective on the narrowness of modern religious experience" (4), perhaps largely because "when Christianity was establishing itself in the ancient Mediterranean world, the cult of Dionysos was its most geographically and deeply rooted rival" (4), having already been practiced for a millennium.

Seaford (Exeter) provides a very efficient survey of previous major interpretations of the figure (obviously Nietzsche, but also his friend Rohde, Harrison, Otto, Nilsson, Kerényi, Detienne, Vernant, and others-6-10). He finds at the center "the power of Dionysos to transform individual identity" in mystery-cult (11): He "exists in our own world as an irreducible symbol for the antithesis of something basically wrong with our society" (12). Such negative examples are especially clearly drawn, to my opinion, in Arthur Evans's transformation of the Bakkhai in his The God of Ecstasy: Sex-Roles and the Madness of Dionysis, 1988, not cited in the bibliography, but named on p. 5). Seaford considers the book "a sustained invocation of Dionysos as embodying the forces required to save our civilization from militarism, individualism, unfeeling intellect, greedy destruction of the natural environment, male-dominated hierarchy, and the conversion of people into objects."

While all the volumes in this series heed the need to supplement verbal records with what we can reconstruct about the ritual/cultic aspects, Seaford places the most emphasis upon these dimensions. But then that makes sense in the light of the fact that he regards crucial issues such as the commonality of the polis — still today, when "consumer capitalism disintegrates the emotional wholeness of communality" (26). And he sees Dionysos as balancing the lack of attention to ritual, or the city-state in Homeric epic (27), where of course Dionysos remains "weak and marginal, with no presence on Olympos" (32).

Seaford sees "the opening up of the mystic ritual to the whole polis at the City Dionysia [as] a factor in the genesis of tragedy" (35). And Dionysos remains closer to humanity than any other deity (44 — although I recall epithets of Hermes that make a similar claim). He is specifically the "free-er," as purifier or healer: "His healing power consists in the social unity achieved by communal ritual and by his status as an outsider" (44).

Comparison with the contemporary experiences of religio-psychological possession in candomblé (Brazil) and the Hausa bori (105) bring the reader back to the book's initial focus upon studies of cultic practice. And they remind us of the reason why Dionysos "was therefore a serious rival to Jesus, whom in some respects he resembled" (120)—namely that Christianity was heavily influenced not only by classical Jewish, Greek, and Roman religious praxis, but as well by the elaborate ritualistic features of several non-Western Hellenistic mystical religions and associations.

As late as the fourth century, Augustine (354-430 CE) could still criticize "public revelry in honor of Dionysos, in which notables participate" (126). And of course imagery associated with the Dionysiac cult was highly influential in Christian imagery, including to be sure the grape and its vines and contribution to sacramental wine. Examine altars and communion tables closely, and you will see such imagery now well-baptized into Christian iconography.

(Volumes in this series scheduled for 2007 publication include:
Larson, Jennifer. Ancient Greek Cults.
Graf, Fritz. Apollo.
Deacy, Susan. Athena.
Johnston, Sarah Iles. Demeter/Persephone.
Ginister, Fay. Diana.
Stafford, Emma. Herakles.)

William DotyWilliam Doty, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Humanities and Religious Studies at the University of Alabama and former editor of Mythosphere: A Journal for Image, Myth and Symbol. Dr. Doty is a prolific writer, translator, and editor who has published more than twenty books and seventy essays in a wide range of journals on topics including religious studies, anthropology, psychology, classics, and art criticism. His best known books include Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals, Myths of Masculinity, and Myth: A Handbook.

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