Excavating truth from mythology

The Greeks and Us
June 8, 2007

We are not all Ancient Greeks, as Shelley wistfully hoped. But we could be, as Marcel Detienne seeks to persuade us, readers of the Ancient Greeks. And not just readers, but in a special sense also colleagues and collaborators. For what this one-time maître of the Paris School of ancient cultural anthropologists (and now an ornament of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore) insists we should be doing is "anthropology with the Greeks", not of them, and anthropology of a particular kind: experimental, constructive and comparative. Put another way, the Greeks are not, and should not be construed as, privileged ancestors of ours.

Ruthlessly, wittily, almost disarmingly, Detienne sets about discovering mythical emperors in all their nakedness, slaughtering sacred nationalistic cows and dethroning alleged democratic ancestors. The Greeks may have had an unusually plastic mythopoetic imagination, but, Detienne contends, the myths of pre-colonial America, Melanesia, Japan and ancient Israel, not to mention Rome, have their place in the scholarly sun, too, and the relationship of myth to abstract thinking is not a Hellenic given but a cross-cultural explanandum. Literacy, moreover - or rather alphabetic literacy, the world's first fully phonetic alphabetic sign-system - is indeed a spécialité of the Ancient Greek maison , but, Detienne reminds us, other cultures rubbed along, and in fact still do rub along, without such. Moreover, there is no intrinsic, necessary connection between alphabetic literacy of the ancient Hellenic sort and democracy (again, even of the ancient Hellenic sort, which, Detienne rubs in, is very different from any variety with which we may be familiar today).

In his chapter "The wide-open mouth of truth", Detienne revisits the scene of his earlier work Les Maîtres de la Vérité dans la Grèce Archaïque ; indeed, a subtly different version of this may be found in the latest French edition of that work. His point, as Geoffrey Lloyd observes in an illuminating preface to this excellent translation, is to disrupt any ex post facto impression or inference of a smooth and inexorable advance of and towards a uniquely Greek rationality.

The fifth chapter, "'Digging in': From Oedipus of Thebes to modern national identities", shows Detienne at his most political - and polemical.

Uncannily paralleling Jack Goody's recent The Theft of History , Detienne sketches a project for "a radical critique of the histories of identity that are inherited and developed more or less everywhere in Europe", but one in which destruction as well as deconstruction of Ancient Greek claims to autochthony would feature quite prominently.

Finally, another chapter with a primarily political focus that recuperates his methodological agenda besides: "Comparabilities viewed from the vantage point of politics". Specifically, Detienne surveys and analyses the politics of decision-making in public assemblies of very variegated sorts - from those of the Ancient Greeks, indeed, through those of medieval Italian city-states and France's revolutionary assemblies of 1789 to those of the Senofou of the Ivory Coast and the Ochollo of Ethiopia.

Ancient Greek may have given us our word "politics", but Ancient Greece's political assemblies were nothing special - or rather should not be specially privileged by us. In short, Detienne's Ancient Greeks are anything but incomparable. For that sharp reminder, we should be duly grateful and, as a historian of Ancient Greek politics and political thought myself and a dedicated comparativist besides, I would want to give this provocative book rousing cheers - though two, perhaps, rather than three.

Indeed, I have a shrewd suspicion that its author may himself be the nonpareilof anthropologist-historians and historian-anthropologists of Ancient Greek culture and - if he will permit the word - mentality.

Paul Cartledge is professor of Greek history, Cambridge University. His latest book, Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World , was published in paperback by Pan Macmillan last month.

The Greeks and Us: Marcel Detienne

Publisher - Polity Press
Pages - 180
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 9780745639000 and 9017
Translator - Janet Lloyd

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