As I look back over the essays I’ve posted over the last year, I see that I haven’t posted much about Classical Philology per se. That’s odd. Classical Philology is the foundation for most of what I do, even when I talk about modern literature; the method and the manner of my work depend on what I have learned as a Classical Philologist. So I thought I should write a few essays on Classical Philology and on a Philological project I’m currently working on. This is a project on local myth and ritual as found in the ancient travel writer Pausanias. I begin by discussing the different between local myth and PanHellenic myth.
There are many ways to think about Greek myth, and all of them, I suppose, have some value. You can study Greek myth as literature, or you can look for related myths in other societies, or you can use Greek myths to identify psychological archetypes. These approaches and others are interesting and valuable ways of thinking about myth. But that’s not what the project is about. This particular project asks how the Greek myths functioned within ancient Greek society. One of the goals of classical philology, in my opinion, is the attempt to recover, insofar as we can, what it actually felt like to be alive at some time and place in the classical period. And one of the ways to do that is to think about the myths not just as stories, but as stories that were told in a particular cultural context, stories that were told in a particular time and place.
I want to begin with the distinction between Panhellenic Myth and Local Myth. Here is what Gregory Nagy had to say about the local and the Panhellenic in his book The Best of the Achaeans, back in 1979:
“A recent archaeological synthesis by Anthony Snodgrass has made it clear that the eighth century B.C., the very era in which the Iliad and the Odyssey approached their ultimate form, was a watershed in the evolution of Hellenic civilization; alongside the emergence of the polis ‘city-state’ as a general institution with a strong trend of localized traditions (cult, law, etc.) there emerged a commensurately strong trend of intercommunication among the elite of the city-states—the trend of Panhellenism.” (7)
Nagy goes on to list some of the manifestations of Panhellenism: the establishment of the Olympic Games; the establishment of the sanctuary and Oracle of the Pythian Apollo at Delphi; organized colonizations, and the proliferation of the alphabet. Another manifestation of Panhellenism, the manifestation which most interests Nagy, is the development of the Homeric epic tradition. He says,
“From the internal evidence of its contents, we see that this poetic tradition synthesizes the diverse local traditions of each major city-state into a unified Panhellenic model that suits most city-states but corresponds exactly to none; the best example is the Homeric concept of the Olympian gods, which incorporates, yet goes beyond, the localized religious traditions of each city-state.” (7)
The idea here is that Greek culture before the eighth century was fragmented and local. Each region, for instance, had its own pottery styles, its own political institutions, its own athletic contests, and the people in each region were telling their own stories. But the various communities were not sharing their institutions, they weren’t sharing their pottery styles, they weren’t holding joint athletic contests, and they weren’t sharing their stories and poems. Beginning in the eighth century, however, we begin to see sharing of institutions, and the result is a kind of Panhellenic culture. The process that Nagy describes is a gradual move from local traditions, traditions which belong to a specific region, to traditions which are common to the whole Hellenic world, traditions which are Panhellenic, particularly among the elites.
The traditions of a particular region, including the kinds of traditional stories that we call myths, included specific details which varied from place to place. But as traditions became Panhellenic, the local details got washed out. Thus the development of a story from local to Panhellenic can involve a kind of abstraction or generalization. When the story gets pulled away from its local context, it tends to lose the specific details which tie it to its origin, and it keeps the elements which are more generally interesting or applicable to people outside the original location.
This process of abstraction can have further stages. Thus when we read a myth in a Latin author, such as Ovid, it may be abstracted again, because Ovid isn’t interested in the Greek details of the stories; and when today we read a myth as told by Freud or Jung—or for that matter by Margaret Atwood or the Disney studios—it loses its ancient context and develops in ways that are interesting or applicable for a modern audience. There is nothing wrong with this process (though sometimes the changes make me wince). It’s perfectly okay for a modern writer to modernize a myth. As a classicist, however, I have an interest in trying to see how the myths functioned in their original local contexts.
The distinction between the local and the Panhellenic at first looks nice and neat and tidy, but if you look more closely it’s not quite so simple. Here are a couple of questions I have about this distinction. First, how widespread does a tradition have to be for us to say that it’s Panhellenic? The process that Nagy describes is gradual. Let’s take the Homeric epics as an example. Presumably they began somewhere sometime, though the specific details are not known to us. Then they began to spread through a wider and wider territory. At what point can we say that the Iliad and the Odyssey were Panhellenic? At what point can we say that pretty much everyone in all regions of ancient Greece knew these two epic poems? Here we have to make a distinction between the specific Homeric epics and the more general Tale of Troy. Probably some stories about the Trojan War were widely known very early, perhaps even as an inheritance from the Bronze Age, but that doesn’t mean that everyone knew the Iliad and the Odyssey in something like the form that we know them, or in the form that an Athenian of the fifth century knew them. Anthony Snodgrass wrote an interesting short book on this topic, Homer and the Artists (Cambridge University Press, 1998); he argues that the visual evidence, the evidence of vase paintings in particular, suggests that the artists who painted incidents from the Tale of Troy were not generally using the Iliad and the Odyssey for their models. Gradually, however, the two epics became the standard version of the Troy Tale, or the major part of the standard version at least. At what point in this process can we say that the epics became Panhellenic?
Here’s a second question, related to the first: How do we know that a particular tradition or institution really is Panhellenic? What kind of evidence do we need and how much do we have? A lot of our knowledge of ancient Greece is quite fragmentary. We know that there were hundreds of small communities scattered around the Greek world, but mostly we don’t know much about them. Many of them didn’t leave much in the way of literary records, so we can’t necessarily tell what they were doing or saying or thinking. A lot of our knowledge of ancient Greece is really knowledge about Athens. It’s not easy to get outside of Athens to see what people were doing or thinking or saying in other places.
And here’s a third question: What happened to all the local traditions? Did they just disappear when the Panhellenic traditions started to develop? Or did they persist in their own localities? This last question is really at the heart of what interests me in this project.
I do not in any way doubt the importance of Panhellenic institutions. The Olympic Games; the sanctuary and Oracle of the Pythian Apollo at Delphi; organized colonizations; the alphabet; the Homeric epic tradition; and also Panhellenic myths—all of these were very important features of Greek life. But they aren’t the whole story. In this project I want to investigate some of the local myths and traditions and rituals of ancient Greece. And in my next couple of posts I will give examples of local myths and rituals drawn from the travel writer Pausanias.