Greek Mythology and Poetics

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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

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.

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.

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.