Recap: Cléo Carastro on Polytheisms and Cosmologies

Comparative Perspectives on Ancient Greece and Contemporary Nuna Societies (Burkina Faso, West Africa)

Written by Alba Curry

The Center for Hellenic Studies would like to extend their greatest thanks and appreciation to all of those who participated in the fourth meeting of the Comparatism Seminar. We would also like to thank Cléo Carastro for her talk, “Polytheisms and Cosmologies-Comparative perspectives on ancient Greece and contemporary Nuna societies (Burkina Faso, West Africa)”

Carastro’s presentation began with a set of questions: What does it mean to compare contemporary and ancient societies? And what happens when, instead of comparing ancient societies, we open comparison to traditional contemporary societies for which we have no reference? These questions raise the immediate concern of the asymmetry of sources. When it comes to ancient Greece, we have a rich landscape of texts and a lot of tools, whereas, when it comes to the Nuna material, the cultural and social settlement is unknown. We lack basic linguistic instruments like dictionaries, lexica, and collected texts. In other words, when it comes to studying the Nuna oral society, Carastro is the collector of data. However, a deeper asymmetry is revealed by the role we give to ancient Greece and contemporary Nuna society in our social, cultural settlement. It is not only a question of acknowledgement of a different inheritage. The colonial divide is there even if we manage to find social or political parallels.

Furthermore, is it worth the risk of exoticizing other cultures like that of the Nuna by constructing them as other? After all, Carastro pointed out, Jane Harrison popularized the idea of Greek otherness by comparing it to so-called primitive societies. But there is a more reasonable method of regional (or arial) comparativism in which the comparativism is often explained in terms of borrowed elements from one culture to another. This kind of tampered comparison, which is legitimated by reference to the tradition of comparative linguistics, is based on the idea of enlarging the frontiers but also pushing otherness far away from family resemblances. This conception rests on a kind of atomistic conception of social phenomena, where the totality corresponds to the sum of its parts. Carastro instead proposed an approach in the tradition of Durkheim and Vincent Descombes: a holistic comparison that looks to comparable problematics rather than isolated pieces.

Carastro’s talk drew on philology and anthropology to illustrate her comparative method. One topic she touched on was magic. Scholarship on magic in ancient Greece, she argued, unhelpfully applies modern categories to the ancient phenomenon. Carastro presented findings from her fieldwork in Burkina Faso, learning from traditional healers there and realizing that they made no distinction between religion and magic, an insight she then applied to ancient Greece. Another point of comparison in the talk was the performative aspects of writing. Carastro presented several ancient spell tablets, analyzing how the inscriptions not only say something but actually enact something at the same time. Utilizing work on ritual theory, she argued that such tablets have a kind of agency, and that the stone tables themselves are an audience for the written words just as the reader is an audience for the incantation.

Carastro explained that she wanted to begin from a place of unfamiliarity: the sort of feeling one has upon encountering a new polytheism and its various artifacts and ideas. One question she posed was whether we should continue to use the distinction between divine and human agency or power. The actual material evidence like spell tablets often reveals a far more entangled view of human beings in relation to external sources of power, which suggests our simplistic dichotomies may not serve. While notions of self and agency will certainly differ between, for instance, Greek and Nuna cultures, in both cases the rituals and artifacts give us good reason to at least reassess and question our default categories.

We would like to extend a special thanks to Professor Lisa Raphals from the University of California, Riverside for her work as organizer of this semester’s Comparatism Seminar Series. Comparatism has become a key issue in Classical Studies, both within the ancient Mediterranean and more broadly. This one-semester seminar investigates current research and methodologies. Topics include perspectives from anthropology, epic, gender, the study of language and metaphor, philosophical debates, and practices of cult and sacrifice. Any interested researchers should write to for more details about the series schedule.