5. Reading Myths*

Research on the cycle of becoming had to be linked with cosmology. Speculation on ordered movement and the birth of time occupied a central place. The refutation of the thesis that there were two parallel and opposite cycles in Empedocles, under the headings of Love and Hatred (or Strife), was a decisive preliminary condition for the reconstitution of Empedocles’ system. And the origin of the arts and of civilization was grafted onto that of the reproduction of living beings. The thematics included a zoogony, a paleontology, and above all a natural, biological, and social anthropology. This narrative of origins is found in an organized and fragmentary form in almost all the poets and philosophers of antiquity. We can observe the construction of the remythified and rethought history that is being substituted for the ancient myths of mythology. Following my own work on Empedocles, I set out to demarcate the corpus of this history, in the seminars I was directing and in the work I was preparing on the subject. Certain books had appeared that tended to establish complex and often fictitious filiations among these speculative narratives and to identify the common structures that were being perpetuated. [1] These were the remote precursors of philosophies of history.
Here again, it was necessary to learn how to read, and how to understand the organization of the elements used when these elements are not treated in themselves, as is the case in Epicurus and Lucretius, on the basis of data that had been sufficiently analyzed to be exempt from conjecture. This is not how Aristotle proceeded. In the present book [La Grèce de personne], where “myths” that interrogate myth are concerned, he is opposed to Plato, with whom, on this topic, he is so closely linked. I have addressed this theme more recently in relation to the historical speculation of Theophrastus, in the study I devoted to the philologist Jacob Bernays (1996), Un homme d’un autre monde (A Man from Another World). We can in turn interrogate the reduction to the biological paradigm that Aristotle adopts, and conclude that he diminishes in his own way, through accidental catastrophes, the impact of the subject matter addressed, by granting the smallest role possible to an evolution that of course he could not entirely deny, and thus the largest possible role to an eternity co-present with becoming, which supplied the cognitive model for his study. The use of this model is a necessity whenever we envisage myth in literary texts. The autonomy of these narrative and compositional spaces, [2] open to reflection, largely separated from belief and ritual, has since led me to work toward the same end on the lyrical portions of tragedies.
It is only by going very far back in time that the relation with ritual can be usefully considered, at a different anthropological level, before the conclusion of a systematic body of knowledge, in the problematic and provisional zone of an authentic literary prehistory. At least the question cannot be raised directly for “nuclear” elements—material that is unchanging, untransformed and untransformable material. The problem of this differentiation between the mythical tradition and its intra-literary itinerary has been raised several times in my work.
The insertion of a text into a context remains linked to the modalities of a continuing process of transformation. The distance between text and context grows deeper and deeper. Marcel Detienne tries to resolve the problem in his own way, by a synthesis, distinguishing between two manifestations of myth. For the overall structure of thought he refers to Lévi-Strauss; it would be rather a network of references that, in the course of the construction he sets up, allows him to read the whole set of texts as a summation, in their modes of relation, he says, “in unitary fashion.”
In a methodical synchrony Detienne goes beyond the schema of a mythical body of thought that remains dependent on an archaic society, a schema defended on several occasions moreover in Jean-Pierre Vernant’s work. Within the confines of a Hellenic ethnic group, Detienne projects the idea of a single myth that would be diversified indefinitely in the testimonies that historians consult and interpret. The pre-rational mode of thought, which for Ernst Cassirer is linked with the presence of objects, is concretized by Detienne in the representations that can be identified within a mobile, matricial mass. Detienne then has to introduce cultural traditions, in a different form, as a supplement; these are the mythical continuities of knowledge, which allow him to assign a place to narrative structures in what can only be called a strategy. [3] The myth is lost in its own totalization; it turns up doubled in its narrative realizations and in the linking of histories. The analyst thus has a conceptual support at his disposal, with the antitheses and antagonisms of power among the gods, all the interrelationships of an inherited system to which the histories of “myth-knowledge” then refer in a second phase, even as they operate within that system. Detienne appears to offer a status to the composed texts, whether oral or written; but this is only an illusion, since the contents with which we deal, productions or creations, are predetermined in this case by a substitute meaning inherent in the mythical tradition proper that, at the outset, is extrapolated from it.
Thus it was that, in 1962, at a point when I was beginning to direct a group working on archaic texts, those of Hesiod or Anaximander, Jean-Pierre Vernant was radically calling into question the presuppositions of the enterprise, in Les origines de la pensée grecque. [4] If dialogue was difficult, indeed almost impossible, it was because he was maintaining, in a new form, an ancient and undoubtedly arbitrary split between muthos and logos, which precluded searching for the reasoning, or the organizing principle, in written myths, and precluded understanding how reasoning had been separated from that framework and had been given new references. At the same time, the myth of Oriental sovereignty provided him with the explanatory principle for the Theogony, and the latter corresponded to a given social system, whereas Ionian thought presupposed a different system. When Hesiod was writing, the hour of isonomia (equality of political rights) had not yet come. Hesiod “lacked” the possibility “of representing to himself a universe subject to the rule of law,” [5] as Anaximander would do. The affirmation of an autocratic power exercised its empire; our reading sought in Hesiod a nuanced reflection on the limits of power.
In a symmetrical way, the principle of the agora and the equality of rights did not directly supply a key, as I saw it, to the reading of the fragment from Anaximander. My idea of mediation was quite different. I thought that the form given to the organization of the divine in the dynamism of the Theogony remained to be understood in relation to the project of the work that I was identifying at the same time. No matter what transformations of earlier or foreign narratives may have been used to contribute to the elaboration of the work, the text did not primordially document an already determined body of thought reflecting a state of society. I was seeking history, in the full sense of the term, in a form. By means of a double mediation, the utterances reinterpreted social realities as well as earlier explanatory systems. [6]
The problem struck me with new intensity when, in my work on the tragic poets, I undertook to carry out a rigorous dissociation between the mythical tradition and its translated version, which are already two different things. The re-fabrication had been accomplished according to a point of view, and thus according to an intellectual or aesthetic aim. The meaning that was being discovered was not inscribed in the reality of the myth, which undoubtedly had its own meaning. We do not grasp directly this basis in the past that we can reconstruct. In this sense, Hesiod does not belong directly to the mythical universe either; he uses traditions as freely as he reworks and invents them.
As for the myths to which Homer refers and to which the tragic poets return, drawing upon a stock of epics that we no longer know, it is clear that, taken as a whole, they formed a coherent and connected set into which the poets, in their guilds, were initiated. The material was of a referential nature, familiar because it was constantly being taken up again, but at the same time it formed the underpinnings of rearrangements, acts of re-signification that changed the stories into objects made enigmatic and in need of decoding. The transformation that the material underwent as it was reused would not have been possible if this material had not presented itself as a corpus, and if the figures of the myths had not retained consistent features in the process.
One can try to go further back, straying a bit in the meanderings of a reconstituted tradition, and imagine the condition under which this corpus, so fundamentally precursory, with its Helens and its Clytemnestras, was born. Would it not be necessary once again, for such a remote era, for a prehistory of all literatures, to imagine an operation comparable to the one we are trying out on the texts, and tell ourselves, while methodically separating the stages, that a body of specialists, masters of an art whose principles narratologists have tried to reformulate in their wake, must have given the stories their form and—already—their meaning, and must have created a transmissible mythical tradition out of whole cloth? Semantic productions are as ancient as that.

Works Cited

Blaise, F., P. Judet de la Combe, and P. Rousseau, eds. 1996. Le métier du mythe: lectures d’Hésiode. Cahiers de philologie 17. Villeneuve-d’Ascq.
Bollack, J. 1996. Jacob Bernays, un homme d’un autre monde. Repr. with corrections, 1998, as Jacob Bernays, un homme entre deux mondes. Lille.
———. 1997. La Grèce de personne. Paris.
Cole, T. 1967. Democritus and the Sources of Greek Anthropology. Cleveland.
Detienne, M. 1988. “La double écriture de la mythologie entre le Timée et le Critias.” In Métamorphoses du mythe en Grèce antique, ed. C. Calame, 17–33. Geneva.
Lämmli, F. 1962. Vom Chaos zum Kosmos: Zur Geschichte einer Idee. 2 vols. Basel.
Spörri, W. 1959. Späthellenistische Berichte über Welt, Kultur und Götter. Basel.
Vernant, J.-P. 1962. Les origines de la pensée grecque. Paris.


[ back ] * Originally published as “Lire le mythe,” in: Jean Bollack, La Grèce de personne: les mots sous le mythe (Paris, 1997), pp. 131–136.
[ back ] 1. See, among others, Spörri 1959, Lämmli 1962, and Cole 1967.
[ back ] 2. See the study of the composition of the Hecate episode in Bollack 1997:175–179.
[ back ] 3. Among other studies by Detienne on this theme, see Detienne 1988.
[ back ] 4. Vernant 1962.
[ back ] 5. See Vernant 1962:96–114, “Cosmogonies et mythes de souveraineté.” Vernant later partially modified this viewpoint (see the preface to the 5th edition [1992]).
[ back ] 6. For recent studies, see those collected in Blaise et al. 1996.