Greek Mythology and Poetics

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Greek Mythology and Poetics is the second book in the Myth and Poetics series. My goal, as series editor, is to encourage work that will help integrate literary criticism with the approaches of anthropology and that will pay special attention to problems concerning the nexus of ritual and myth.

Since the ancient Greek concept of politeíā serves as the foundation for the very word “civilization” and for our concept of Western civilization, more than one of the books in this series will deal primarily with ancient Greece and the ancient Greek city-state, or pólis. The testimony of the Greeks is particularly instructive with regard to our central concern, the relationship between ritual and myth. The very word “myth,” {vii|viii} as derived from Greek mûthos, is a case in point: the meaning of this word brings to life, in microcosm, the relationship between myth and ritual in ancient Greek society.

In order to grasp the special meaning of Greek mûthos, let us consider the distinction between marked and unmarked speech (in the terminology of Prague School linguistics). We find that marked speech occurs as a rule in ritual contexts, as we can observe most clearly in the least complex or smallest-scale societies. It is in such societies also that we can observe most clearly the symbiosis of ritual and myth, and the ways in which the language of ritual and myth is marked, whereas “everyday” language is unmarked. The Greek language gives us an example of these semantics: múō means “I have my eyes closed” or “I have my mouth closed” in everyday situations, but “I see in a special way” or “I say in a special way” in ritual. Hence mústēs is “one who is initiated” and mustḗrion is “that into which one is initiated, mystery (Latin mysterium).” Hence also mûthos, “myth”: this word, it has been argued, is a derivative of múō and had at an earlier stage meant “special” as opposed to “everyday” speech.

A later Classical example of such early patterns of thought occurs in Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 1641-1644: the visualization and the verbalization of what happened to Oedipus in the precinct of the Eumenides at Colonus are restricted, in that the precise location of his corpse is a sacred secret (1545-1546, 1761-1763). Only Theseus, by virtue of being the proto-priest for the Athenians of the here-and-now, is to witness what happened, which is called the drṓmena (1644). This word is what Jane Harrison used to designate “ritual” in her formulation: “myth is the plot of the drṓmenon.” Thus the visualization and the verbalization of the myth, what happened to Oedipus, are restricted to the sacred context of ritual, controlled by the heritage of priestly authority from Theseus, culture-hero of the Athenian democracy.

Viewed in this light, myth implies ritual in the very performance of myth. And that performance is the essence of poetics.


[ back ] 1. V. Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects af Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, N.Y., 1967), and P.-Y. Jacopin, La parole générative: De la mythologie des Indiens Yukuna (diss., University of Neuchâtel, I981).

[ back ] 2. See especially M. Détienne, L’invention de la mythologie. (Paris, 1981), and my review in Annales: Economies Sociétés Civilisations 37 (1982) 778-780.

[ back ] 3. R. P. Martin, The language of Heroes; Speech and Performance in the Iliad (Ithaca, N.Y., 1989).