Theories & Approaches

Above: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), Bacchus and Ariadne (ca.1740). Source/creator: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Fairytale in the Ancient World

Graham Anderson, 2000

In this, the first modern study of the ancient fairytale, Graham Anderson asks whether the familiar children's fairytale of today existed in the ancient world. He examines texts from the classical period and finds many stories which resemble those we know today, including: a Jewish Egyptian Cinderella; a Snow White whose enemy is the goddess Artemis; and a Pied Piper at Troy. He puts forward many previously unsuspected candidates as classical variants of the modern fairytale and argues that the degree of violence and cruelty in the ancient tales means they must have been meant for adults.

How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology

Luc Brisson, trans. Catherine Tihanyi, 2004

This study explains how the myths of Greece and Rome were transmitted from antiquity to the Renaissance. Luc Brisson argues that philosophy was ironically responsible for saving myth from historical annihilation. Although philosophy was initially critical of myth because it could not be declared true or false and because it was inferior to argumentation, mythology was progressively reincorporated into philosophy through allegorical exegesis. Brisson shows to what degree allegory was employed among philosophers and how it enabled myth to take on a number of different interpretive systems throughout the centuries: moral, physical, psychological, political, and even metaphysical. This work also describes how, during the first years of the modern era, allegory followed a more religious path, which was to assume a larger role in Neoplatonism. Ultimately, Brisson explains how this embrace of myth was carried forward by Byzantine thinkers and artists throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance; after the triumph of Chistianity, Brisson argues, myths no longer had to agree with just history and philosophy but the dogmas of the Church as well.

Savage Energies: Lessons of Myth and Ritual in Ancient Greece

Walter Burkert, trans. Peter Bing, 2001

We often think of classical Greek society as a model of rationality and order. Yet as Walter Burkert demonstrates in these influential essays on the history of Greek religion, there were archaic, savage forces surging beneath the outwardly calm face of classical Greece, whose potentially violent and destructive energies, Burkert argues, were harnessed to constructive ends through the interlinked uses of myth and ritual. For example, in a much-cited essay on the Athenian religious festival of the Arrephoria, Burkert uncovers deep connections between this strange nocturnal ritual, in which two virgin girls carried sacred offerings into a cave and later returned with something given to them there, and tribal puberty initiations by linking the festival with the myth of the daughters of Kekrops. Other chapters explore the origins of tragedy in blood sacrifice; the role of myth in the ritual of the new fire on Lemnos; the ties between violence, the Athenian courts, and the annual purification of the divine image; and how failed political propaganda entered the realm of myth at the time of the Persian Wars.

This innovative study posits that myths in general, and Greek theogonic myth in particular, have a latent meaning that is responsible both for the emotional energy inherent in myths, and for the special attraction they have even to those who no longer believe in their literal meaning. Caldwell describes, in clear and comprehensible language, aspects of psychoanalytic theory relevant to the understanding of Greek myth, implementing a psychoanalytic methodology to interpret the Greek myth of origin and succession, particularly as stated in Hesiod's Theogony. In reassessing this work, which tells the story of the world's beginning from unbounded Chaos to the defeat of the Titans, Caldwell addresses several unexplained problems-- why does the world begin with the spontaneous emergence of four uncaused entities, and why in this particular order? Why does Ouranos prevent his children from being born by confining them in their mother's body? Why is Ouranos castrated by his son, and why is Aphrodite born from the severed genitals? Why is it always the youngest son who overthrows his father, the sky-god, and what is the logic of the steps taken by Zeus to prevent the same thing happening to him? Presenting a new definition and analyses of the psychological functions in myth, this new study should appeal to a wide range of classicists, teachers and students of mythology, psychoanalysts, and those interested in the application of psychoanalytic methods to literature.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), Echo & Narcissus (1903).
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Creator: Google Cultural Institute. License: Public domain.

Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty

Georges Dumézil, trans. Derek Coltman, 1988

Georges Dumézil, founder of the new comparative mythology, discovered that all Indo-European religions are articulated according to three hierarchical functions: sacred sovereignty, force, and fecundity. In Mitra-Varuna he develops this general theory but concentrates on the most important of these functions: sovereignty. In particular, Dumézil shows that religious and/or political sovereignty - from India to Rome, from Iran to Scandinavia - is conceived as a dual category: on the one hand the magician-king (raj, rex), on the other the jurist-priest (brahman, flamen). Mitra-Varuna, combines extraordinarv scholarship and theoretical discovery with the pleasures of storytelling. A founding work of comparative, mythology, it is today a seminal essay in the archaeology of power.

Approaches to Greek Myth

ed. Lowell Edmunds, 2nd ed. 2014

Since the first edition of Approaches to Greek Myth was published in 1990, interest in Greek mythology has surged. There was no simple agreement on the subject of “myth” in classical antiquity, and there remains none today. Is myth a narrative or a performance? Can myth be separated from its context? What did myths mean to ancient Greeks and what do they mean today? Here, Lowell Edmunds brings together practitioners of eight of the most important contemporary approaches to the subject. Whether exploring myth from a historical, comparative, or theoretical perspective, each contributor lucidly describes a particular approach, applies it to one or more myths, and reflects on what the approach yields that others do not. Edmunds’s new general and chapter-level introductions recontextualize these essays and also touch on recent developments in scholarship in the interpretation of Greek myth. Contributors are Jordi Pàmias, on the reception of Greek myth through history; H. S. Versnel, on the intersections of myth and ritual; Carolina López-Ruiz, on the near Eastern contexts; Joseph Falaky Nagy, on Indo-European structure in Greek myth; William Hansen, on myth and folklore; Claude Calame, on the application of semiotic theory of narrative; Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, on reading visual sources such as vase paintings; and Robert A. Segal, on psychoanalytic interpretations.

The Modern Construction of Myth

Andrew von Hendy, 2002

"... one of the richest, clearest, and acutest surveys to date of the course of theorizing about myth from the eighteenth century on. I know of no more useful volume on the topic. Despite the postmodern connotations of the title, Von Hendy is writing not to expose the concept of myth but simply to show the array of ways in which it has been used from time to time and from place to place. A superb work." -- Robert A. Segal, University of Lancaster. Andrew Von Hendy offers an integrated critical account of the career of myth in modernity. He takes as its starting point some crucial moments in the 18th-century reinvention of the concept and then follows the major branches of theorizing as they appear in the work of theologians, philosophers, literary artists, political thinkers, folklorists, anthropologists, psychologists, and others.

Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture

Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1978

Ever since the rise of science and the scientific method in the seventeenth century, we have rejected mythology as the product of superstitious and primitive minds. Only now are we coming to a fuller appreciation of the nature and role of myth in human history. In these five lectures originally prepared for Canadian radio, Claude Lévi-Strauss offers, in brief summations, the insights of a lifetime spent interpreting myths and trying to discover their significance for human understanding. The lectures begin with a discussion of the historical split between mythology and science and the evidence that mythic levels of understanding are being reintegrated in our approach to knowledge. In an extension of this theme, Professor Lévi-Strauss analyzes what we have called “primitive thinking” and discusses some universal features of human mythology. The final two lectures outline the functional relationship between mythology and history and the structural relationship between mythology and music.

Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), Galatea (detail; ca. 1880). Source: Wikimedia Commons. Creator: Musée d'Orsay. License: Public domain.

Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship

Bruce Lincoln, 2000

In this work, Bruce Lincoln traces the way scholars and others have used the category of "myth" to fetishize or deride certain kinds of stories, usually those told by others. He begins by showing that mythos yielded to logos not as part of a (mythic) "Greek miracle," but as part of struggles over political, linguistic, and epistemological authority occasioned by expanded use of writing and the practice of Athenian democracy. Lincoln then turns his attention to the period when myth was recuperated as a privileged type of narrative, a process he locates in the political and cultural ferment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Here, he connects renewed enthusiasm for myth to the nexus of Romanticism, nationalism, and Aryan triumphalism, particularly the quest for a language and set of stories on which nation-states could be founded. In the final section of this wide-ranging book, Lincoln advocates a fresh approach to the study of myth, providing varied case studies to support his view of myth—and scholarship on myth—as ideology in narrative form.

Greek Mythology and Poetics

Gregory Nagy, 1990

Gregory Nagy here provides a far-reaching assessment of the relationship between myth and ritual in ancient Greek society. Nagy illuminates in particular the forces of interaction and change that transformed the Indo-European linguistic and cultural heritage into distinctly Greek social institutions between the eighth and the fifth centuries B.C. Included in the volume are thirteen of Nagy's major essays―all extensively revised for book publication―on various aspects of the Hellenization of Indo-European poetics, myth and ritual, and social ideology. The primary aim of this book is to examine the Greek language as a reflection of society, with special attention to its function as a vehicle for transmitting mythology and poetics. Nagy's emphasis on the language of the Greeks, and on its comparison with the testimony of related Indo-European languages such as Latin, Indic, and Hittite, reflects his long-standing interest in Indo-European linguistics. The individual chapters examine the development of Hellenic poetics in the traditions of Homer and Hesiod; the Hellenization of Indo-European myths and rituals, including myths of the afterlife, rituals of fire, and symbols in the Greek lyric; and the Hellenization of Indo-European social ideology, with reference to such cultural institutions as the concept of the city-state. A path-breaking application of the principles of social anthropology, comparative mythology, historical linguistics, and oral poetry theory to the study of classics, Greek Mythology and Poetics will be an invaluable resource for classicists and other scholars of linguistics and literary theory.

Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of Their Texts

Peter T. Struck, 2009

Nearly all of us have studied poetry and been taught to look for the symbolic as well as literal meaning of the text. Is this the way the ancients saw poetry? In this work, Peter Struck explores the ancient Greek literary critics and theorists who invented the idea of the poetic "symbol." The book notes that Aristotle and his followers did not discuss the use of poetic symbolism. Rather, a different group of Greek thinkers--the allegorists--were the first to develop the notion. Struck extensively revisits the work of the great allegorists, which has been underappreciated. He links their interest in symbolism to the importance of divination and magic in ancient times, and he demonstrates how important symbolism became when they thought about religion and philosophy. "They see the whole of great poetic language as deeply figurative," he writes, "with the potential always, even in the most mundane details, to be freighted with hidden messages." This book offers a new understanding of the role of poetry in the life of ideas in ancient Greece. Moreover, it demonstrates a connection between the way we understand poetry and the way it was understood by important thinkers in ancient times.

The Black Hunter: Forms of Thought and Forms of Society in the Greek World

Pierre Vidal-Naquet, trans. Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, 1998

"No one can fail to admire the brilliance of the connections Vidal-Naquet suggests . . . Audacity has been characteristic of Vidal-Naquet's career from the start; it marked his activities as a historian engagé in the political struggle; it is visible at work in every page of this book." -- Bernard Knox. The black hunter travels through the mountains and forests of Greek mythology, living on the frontier of the city-state, of adulthood, of class, of ethics, of sexuality. Taking its title from this figure, this book approaches the Greek world from its margins and charts the elaborate system of oppositions that pervaded Greek culture and society: cultivated and wild, citizen and foreigner, real and imaginary, god and man. Organizing his discussions around four principle themes―space and time; youth and warriors; women, slaves, and artisans; and the city of vision and of reality―Vidal-Naquet focuses on the congruence of the textual and the actual, on the patterns that link literary, philosophical, and historical works with such social activities as war, slavery, education, and commemoration. The Black Hunter probes the interplay of world view, language, and social practice "to bring into dialogue that which does not naturally communicate according to the usual criteria of historical judgement.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), The Abduction of Europa (detail; 1632). Source: Wikimedia Commons. Creator: Google Cultural Center. License: Public domain.