CHS Fall 2017 Fellows | Laura Massetti

Kestós Himás: Phraseology and Thematic Indo-European Inherited Structures in Greek Myth

In the Fourteenth Book of the Iliad Aphrodite loans her kestós himás, her girdle, or bra, to Hera, in order to help her to seduce Zeus. The himás is a magical amulet, containing several allegoric elements, such as love, desire, persuasion and all means of seduction for the human minds. My current project, entitled Kestós Himás: Phraseology and Thematic Indo-European Inherited Structures in Greek Myth, is an investigation of the thematic structures which underlie a variety of mythological accounts, in search for linguistic and thematic parallels in other Indo-European languages. Indo-European is the proto-language from which Greek and its sister languages spoken throughout Eurasia descended. The systematic comparison of grammatical structures of cognate languages allows us to reconstruct linguistic aspects of the protolanguage and to explain how the daughter languages derived from it. In the same way, systematic resemblances among characters, objects and events of mythological accounts can point to a common thematic ancestor, or proto-text. My project aims to recover aspects of the primitive society which are reflected through the language but actually go beyond the level of pure language, such as complex conceptual patterns, poetic features, structural elements of a given primitive story. In other words, I seek to uncover allegoric and complex entities enclosed in a given classical text, as if it were a sort of literary amulet, so that we can learn how Greeks and their ancestors spoke about “love,” “desire,” and other complex emotions through poetry.
In order to do so, I concentrate my analysis on the phraseological evidence: I compare words and phrases attested in a limited number of Greek stories with those attested in similar accounts of other Indo-European languages. This kind of work resembles that of an archaeologist or a restorer, who re-assembles a big mosaic of a story by putting back together tiny tiles, hidden within diverse but related literary traditions. In some fortunate cases, a close phraseological analysis reveals parallel details for single stories. These significant coincidences are the basis upon which we can reconstruct the aspect of a certain theme shared by Proto-Greek and other Indo-European languages in their previous phases.
After completing my studies in music and classics in Milan, I moved to Germany to complete my Ph.D. in Historical and Comparative Linguistics at the University of Cologne. Literature and art are a structural component of my paideia, but I developed a linguistic interest towards Greek texts and methodology during my doctoral program. In my dissertation, the linguistic reconstruction focused on the language of Pindar and Bacchylides on a word- and thematic level. By carrying out my previous research, I was fascinated by the great potential that the linguistic reconstruction has to offer to our understanding of ancestral conceptual patterns, such as those underlying mythological accounts. Indeed, “myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth” (J. Campbell). The genetic study of the origins of myths, which lie within the folds of our individual and collective experience, changes the way we look at Greek literary texts and at our archetypes as well. On one side, it enables us to perceive the uniqueness and the traditionality of the single authors, their way of storytelling, their relationship with their own tradition. On the other, it helps us to develop a balanced perception of our cultural identity.
The Fellowship at Center for Hellenic Studies thus represents for me the chance to start a new project in a thriving scientific environment, surrounded by excellent scholars and with optimal research instruments at my disposition. The Center for Hellenic Studies embraces the study of Greek culture in a comprehensive way, considering every aspect of its manifestation. As such, it represents the perfect environment for my project.

Laura Massetti

Laura Massetti was trained in classical philology and music in Milan. She received a PhD in Historical and Comparative Linguistics at University of Cologne in 2016. Her research addresses linguistic and textual issues, namely, word-formation, nominal composition, phraseological analysis and cultural reconstruction (religion, mythology and poetry) of Greek and other Indo-European (IE) languages. During her fellowship at CHS she will be working on a project about comparative mythology, “Kestós Himás: Phraseology and Thematic Indo-European Inherited Structures in Greek Myth.
Applications for the CHS fellowship program 2018-19 are open until October 29, so learn more here. For a full list of the fall 2017 fellows visit the dedicated webpage.