This book concentrates on what ancient Greek society inherited through its language, described by linguists as belonging to the Indo-European language family. The span of time covered is roughly between the eighth and the fifth centuries B.C. My emphasis on the language of the Greeks, calling for comparison with the testimony of related Indo-European languages including Latin, Indic, and Hittite, reflects my long-standing interest in Indo-European linguistics, a discipline that has in the past been successfully applied to the systematic study of society in such pioneering works as Emile Benveniste's Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes. [1] This discipline of Indo-European linguistics aims to reconstruct, from various related Indo-European languages, a proto-language once described as "a glorious artifact, one which is far more precious than anything an archaeologist can ever hope to unearth." [2] To put it in more modest terms: the attempt to reconstruct a proto-language translates into an attempt to recover various patterns in society as articulated by language. Throughout the pages that follow, the primary aim is to examine the Greek language, by way of comparison with cognate languages, as a reflection of Greek society, with special attention to the function of language as a vehicle of mythology and poetics.
The emphasis of this book, however, is not on the Indo-European heritage of the Greek language. Rather, it is on the forces that transformed this Indo-European heritage into a distinctly Greek heritage; let us call it Hellenism. As for the process of transformation, let us call it {1|2} Hellenization. Hence the titles of the three parts into which the book is divided:
  • I: The Hellenization of Indo-European Poetics
  • II: The Hellenization of Indo-European Myth and Ritual
  • III: The Hellenization of Indo-European Social Ideology
The use of such terms as "poetics," "myth," "ritual," and "social ideology" will be brought into sharper focus as the discussion proceeds, but another question of meaning must be addressed at the very start. The term "Indo-European" will never be used here as any sort of racial or ethnic classification: to say that something is Indo-European is merely to reconstruct an aspect of that thing by way of comparing cognate languages, inasmuch as language is a reflection of society and its institutions. [3]
In the case of ancient Greek society—and the same goes for the Romans and the Hittites and so on—it is misleading to speak of it as "Indo-European" just because comparative linguistics has established that the Greek language is predominantly Indo-European in nature. Still, the story of Hellenization can be at least partly retold in the history of an Indo-European language that has settled into a Mediterranean setting.
In the historical context of the ancient Greeks, the Indo-European heritage of their language can be expected to elucidate some, though hardly all, the inherited institutions of their society. Other institutions will have been inherited from layers of language speakers that preceded the Indo-European layer. Still others will have been borrowed at different times from different societies. One thing is sure: all Greek social institutions, whatever their provenience, will have continued to interact and change in the course of history. That process of interaction and change I am describing as Hellenization. In this book, the distinctive Hellenism or "Greekness" of Hellenization is the decisive empirical given. [4]
It follows that there can be no such thing as a controlling Indo-European model for the Greek heritage of mythology and poetics. In particular, the influence of the Near East is pervasive in the ongoing process of Hellenization. In the poetics of Sappho, for example, as we shall see in Chapter 9, the Indo-European myths about the Morning Star and Evening Star have merged with the Near Eastern myths about the Planet {2|3} Ištаr, known to the Greeks as the Planet Aphrodite, and to us as the Planet Venus.
A particularly valuable contribution to the issue of cultural interaction in ancient Greece is the work of Walter Burkert, who has consistently mined the vast testimony of the Near East for valuable parallelisms with various Greek institutions that have long defied our understanding. [5] For example, he can show that the various myths and rituals of the Greeks connected with the goddess Demeter are closely matched by the patterns inherent in the Hittite Telepinu- and the Mesopotamian Inanna/Ištar figures. [6] Call it Urerlebnis or archetype, the fact is that in this particular case Burkert finds no other closely corresponding figures as he surveys other cultures of the world in search of further matches. It is difficult, then, to resist the conclusion that we are dealing here with some sort of contact or borrowing; further analysis of such parallelisms may benefit from techniques of investigation that have been employed by linguists in studying the phenomenon known as Sprachbund. [7]
Mention of the myths and rituals connected with the goddess Demeter brings us to a major problem in the history of classical scholarship, where studies of myth and ritual have tended to be segregated. For example, the longtime standard work on Greek religion, Martin Nilsson's reliable Handbuch, [8] studiously avoids any consideration of myth as it relates to ritual, with the one notable exception being the myths of Demeter, which even Nilsson cannot divorce from the corresponding rituals. [9] In Chapter 1, I offer working definitions of myth and ritual. For now, however, I stress only the methodological need to treat them as interrelated phenomena in society, along the lines of Burkert's hand book, Greek Religion. [10] {3|4}
To grasp the essence of Greek religion, I suggest, is to understand the relationship between myth and ritual in the historical context of ancient Greece. [11] Moreover, it is at times impossible to achieve an understanding of a given myth without taking into account a corresponding ritual, or the other way around: in the myths and rituals of Adonis, for example, we can see clearly that the factor of sacrifice in ritual corresponds to the factor of catastrophe in myth, and that "play acting" the catastrophe of Adonis in sacrifice is supposed to avert catastrophe for the sacrificers. [12]
The relationship of myth to ritual can have a direct bearing on poetics. In the myth of the Divine Twins, for example, the rituals connected with these figures are a key to understanding not only the historical setting of the dual kingship at Sparta but also the poetics of Alcman PMG 7, concerning the alternating kôma of the Twins, their death-sleep. In the case of the Adonis myth, for another example, the connections of this figure with rituals of mourning are pertinent to a general anthropological assessment of mourning as demonstrative self-humiliation and self-aggression. [13] Further, these connections are pertinent to the poetics of Sappho, where the explicit theme of mourning for Adonis may be connected with the implicit theme of Sappho's self-identification with Aphrodite. [14] In this context, we may note Burkert's observation that the standard mythmaking sequence, as formulated by Vladimir Propp, of a successful quest ending in marriage finds its inverse in Sappho's poetry as the disquieting and Adonic sequence of love's abruptly ending in failure. [15]
Some of the essays collected in this book took shape some years ago, the one on Sappho as early as 1973 (recast as Chapter 9). Another of the essays appeared recently, in 1987 (recast as Chapter 12). For this reason and for the purposes of the ensemble in general, there has had to be a great deal of reorganization and rewriting. New references to additional secondary sources, however, have been kept to a minimum. Such new references as there are tend to concentrate on those works that had a role in reshaping various specific lines of argumentation. There are undoubtedly many other works that should have played a role, but some of these have been saved for future reference in altogether new projects to be undertaken. [16] {4|5}
The frequent cross-references to the author's other publications, most of which represent later work, are intended as a continuation and reinforcement of the arguments here presented, not as empty self-advertisement. With the publication of Greek Mythology and Poetics, in combination with the books published in 1974, 1979, 1985 (with T. J. Figueira), and 1990 (Pindar's Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past), as listed in the Bibliography, all of the author's major works from 1973 to date have become easily available. {5|6}


[ back ] 1. Benveniste 1969.
[ back ] 2. Haas 1969.34; cf. Watkins 1969.хх, 1973b.
[ back ] 3. Here again I look to the démarche of Benveniste 1969.
[ back ] 4. I stress the distinctness or "otherness" of Hellenism, not its perceived affinities with "Western Civilization." Such perceptions lead to the impulse of "Orientalism," as dissected by Saïd 1978.
[ back ] 5. Cf. Burkert 1984 on the era stretching between roughly 900 and 600 B.C.
[ back ] 6. Сf. e.g. Burkert 1979a.139.
[ back ] 7. Jakobson 1931. In the work of Burkert 1984, I note in particular the emphasis on Lhe role of itinerant artisans, who are described as dēmiourgoí 'artisans in the community [dêmos]' at Odyssey xvii 381-385. (On dêmos 'administrative district, population' in archaic Greek poetic diction in the sense of 'local community’, with reference to a given locale's own traditions, customs, laws, and the like, see N 1979a.H9 §11n6; also Donlan 1970.) The professions listed in that passage are the aoidós 'singer, poet', the mántis 'seer’, the iētḗr 'physician’, and the téktōn 'carpenter’; elsewhere, the term dēmiourgós applies to the kêrux 'herald' (Odyssey xix 135), and we may compare other passages where the aoidós is juxtaposed with the téktōn and the kerameús 'potter’ (Hesiod Works and Days 25-26). Such a class of artisans was socially mobile not only within the Greek-speaking area (on which sec further at N pp. 233-234) but also far beyond, and we must also take into account the possibilities of inter-changeability between Greek and non-Greek artisans.
[ back ] 8. Nilsson 1967/1974.
[ back ] 9. Discussion in Burkert 1979a.138.
[ back ] 10. Burkert 1985.
[ back ] 11. A crucial work in this regard: Burkert 1970.
[ back ] 12. Cf. Burkert 1979a.121.
[ back ] 13. Burkert 1979a.99-122, esp. p. 121. A definitive work on the Greek institutions ofmourning: Alexiou 1974.
[ back ] 14. See pp. 259ff.
[ back ] 15. Burkert 1979a.121-122.
[ back ] 16. Notable examples: Gamkrelidze and Ivanov 1984, Witzel 1984.