Whose "Life" Is It Anyway?

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    Whose "Life" Is It Anyway?Thse et l'imaginaire athnien: Lgende et culte en Grce antique by Claude CalameReview by: Robert GarlandArion, Third Series, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Fall, 1997), pp. 207-221Published by: Trustees of Boston UniversityStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20163679 .Accessed: 12/06/2014 21:57

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  • Whose Life Is It Anyway?


    Claude Ca?ame, Th?s?e et l'imaginaire ath?nien: L?gende et culte en Gr?ce antique, 2nd edition, with preface by P. Vidal-Naquet

    (Editions Payot Lausanne), 491 pages, paper, Fr. 50.

    p A RESENT DAY nationalism works effectively enough without the aid of flag-bearing heroes to symbolize the national

    spirit. Our modern day heroes, such as they are, tend to engage in

    more trivial or at least less lethal pursuits than leading us aspir

    ingly onwards and upwards. That is no doubt all to the good, so

    far as good may be detected in the tide of patriotic pride which

    post-Cold War politics has ushered into our world. But if, as I do,

    you happen to believe4n the power of Greek religion to work mira

    cles, it may be seriously questioned whether Athenian imperialism would have achieved such devastating successes in the fifth cen

    tury without the spiritual assistance, for want of a better phrase, of the quintessentially non-Athenian Theseus, who, fortunately

    for himself and perhaps more fortunately for the Athenians, was

    never subjected to a searching investigation into his origins and

    affiliation by passport control at the borders between Megara and Attica.

    For there can be no question that Theseus' infiltration into the

    Athenian consciousness and his subsequent absorption into the

    Athenian cultic calendar represents an unprecedented coup on the

    part of a foreign interloper. Even after everything has been said

    which can usefully be said to account for it, the modern sensibility, or mine at least, still finds itself in awe of the circumstance that

    such a palpable and, from a modern historical perspective, easily detectable falsehood could have foisted itself upon his otherwise

    sophisticated adoptive countrymen. The reason why no one blew

    the whistle on Theseus, in contradistinction to the Tyrannicides, the fallaciousness of whose patriotic myth both Herodotus (5.55;

    6.123) and Thucydides (6.54-9; cf. 1.20.2) trenchantly exposed as

    a blatant example of the re-writing of history for self-seeking ends, was due to two main reasons: firstly, to the obscurity of the era in

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    which Theseus was alleged to have lived, about which almost any

    thing could be said with impunity; and secondly, to the overriding necessity that the Athenians felt in affirming the mythic cycle con

    nected with his name to be rooted in fact.

    In other words, if the Athenians apparently accepted without

    demur the authenticity of Theseus' attachment to their city, this was because Theseus, more than any other of the approximately three hundred heroes and heroines known to us by name who

    resided within Attic territory,1 came to be emblematic of, and even

    to personify, their democratic constitution, their national unity, their distinctive and venerable religious system, and their much

    vaunted freedom from foreign domination. So intimately did the

    Athenians take the hero to their hearts that not even the ultra-criti

    cal Thucydides seems to have raised so much as a supercilious eye brow when he credited Theseus with being the architect of the

    synoecism (2.15). Thucydides' unblushing acceptance of the his

    toricity of the deeds and person of Theseus is one of the most inter

    esting facts about Greek historiography, although we would do

    well to bear in mind that the distinction between myth and history in fifth-century Athens was distinctly permeable?more perme

    able than we often are prepared to allow. Hypercritical as we think

    of Thucydides as being, he did not deny outright the possibility of

    the existence of monstrous races such as the Cyclopes and Laistry

    gonians (6.2.1). As Finley2 once commented, "The atmosphere in

    which the Fathers of History set to work was saturated with myth. Without myth, indeed, they could never have begun their work."

    But perhaps another reason for Thucydides' acceptance of Thes eus is the fact that to have done otherwise would have been even

    more unpatriotic, say, than suggesting that the Royal House of

    Windsor comprised a bunch of jumped-up foreign johnnies. The defining moment in Theseus' elevation to the status of

    national hero, the moment, we might say, when he was officially

    granted honorary citizenship, occurred in c. 476/5 when, as Plu

    tarch reports, the Athenians received instructions from Apollo's oracle at Delphi "to recover the bones of Theseus and, after giving them honorable burial, to watch over them."3 Before c. 510 Thes

    eus was a figure of very minor significance in Attica, as is demon

    strated by his comparative unimportance in Athenian art. He was,

    moreover, vastly overshadowed by his rival Herakles, on whose

    life his own deeds and career appear to have been quite self-con

    sciously modelled. If his elevation was due to one person primar

    ily, that person was undoubtedly Cimon, whose father Miltiades

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  • Robert Garland 209

    had been chiefly responsible for the spectacular victory at Mara

    thon. For it was Cimon who dutifully recovered Theseus' putative remains from Scyrus, an inhospitable island in the northern Spor ades, where they had been languishing neglected for several hun

    dred years, after our hero had allegedly been murdered by

    Lycomedes, the opportunist local king of the island.

    Cimon subsequently gave Theseus' old bones honorable burial

    at a still unidentified location in the center of Athens, in symbolic

    acknowledgment of his role as Athens' true founder or oikist?s, since only individuals of comparable rank could be buried intra

    murally. The Athenians accorded Theseus this unique honor on

    the grounds that it was he who had single-handedly bestowed on

    Athens the status of polis by unifying the demes out of which she was composed. It was in large measure due to this re-burial, which

    the Athenians conducted in the unshakable belief that they were

    regaining an essential part of their heritage, which we in turn who

    claim to know better maintain had never been theirs, that the

    Athenians succeeded in generating their own political renewal and

    resurrection in the aftermath to the Persian Wars. After all, we

    should not ignore the fact that these wars, however triumphalist in

    tone they might have been in their final stages, had caused the

    destruction of all that was dearest and most precious to them, viz., their temples, statues, graves, homes, the lot. All Attica, except the

    Acropolis, had been evacuated in the wake of the Persian invasion.

    The return of her citizenry thus more than justified the decision to

    re-consecrate and revive the polis in this formal way by reburying and resurrecting their "national" hero through a spiritual sleight of hand which makes Christianity's eschatological promises appear moderate by comparison.

    It is Calame's self-professed task in part to attempt to arrive at a

    definition of the semantic configuration of Theseus by identifying within the narrative of his life what he calls "its essential isoto

    pies." These are defined as "the repetition of figurative elements

    which give the narrative its semantic coherence, in the same way

    that the canonical schema contributed to its syntactical coher ence" (59). Calame's methodological technique is intended to ren

    der intelligible the unconscious formulations which the Athenians

    imparted to the figure of their chosen hero, through a series of

    what are seen as closely interconnected and thematically apposite

    legends. The author does this by conducting a near-exhaustive

    investigation into "all the phenomena in which common sense

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    observes evidence of the symbolic" (37), including ritual, mytho

    logical narrative, and the figurative arts, both sculpture and vase

    painting. He claims to examine both the "semio-narrative syntax"

    and the "semio-narrative semantic." The assumption upon which

    this exercise rests is given as follows (38):

    In semiotics ... it is agreed that we recognize the existence of

    the natural world ... by the significative vision of the subject and the cultural group to which it belongs. For us Westerners, the world around us that is informed by meaningful visions

    presents itself to us as a physical and biological reality that

    is particularly subject to modifications which are imposed on

    it whether by linear developments (human growth), or cycli cal developments (seasonal growth), or by unforseeable


    Calame's purpose in L?vi-Straussian terms may thus be described as an attempt to show "not how men think in myths, but how

    myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact."4 Myth is meta-language or, to use Louis Hjelsmlev's con

    cept, a "semiotic connotative," or, as even the least Continental of

    us can perhaps agree, it is, as Ca?ame puts it on one occasion with

    unimpeachable simplicity, what is "l? pour autre chose" (30). It has been said rather uncharitably of modern French critics

    that, envious of the prestigious signs of physicists, they now com

    pete by chalking up theorems and theories of their own, words

    having failed them. No one could accuse Ca?ame of having been

    failed by words, even though he, too, resorts to theorems that

    involve Subject, Anti-Subject, Disjunction, Conjunction, and

    Predicate, along the lines of Algirdas Greimas's "grammaire actan

    tielle" (57). This is a long book on a subject extremely rich in

    interpretive potential and with vast implications for our under

    standing of the genesis of myth and its application in the service of a distinctive political ideology, since Theseus' life and exploits served to explain to the Athenians more about their religious insti

    tutions than did those of any other single figure in their legendary or historical past. More cults were established in consequence of

    Theseus' expedition to Crete and his subsequent slaying of the

    Minotaur than of any other event.

    Calame's first chapter, entitled "Symbolic Creations," investi

    gates, at a level of somewhat vertiginous abstraction, the chestnut

    ridden connection between myth and ritual, which will be one of

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  • Robert Garland 211

    the author's principal concerns throughout the book. Disarmingly introduced as "a chapter of anthropological elucidation," and

    acknowledged in the preface by Pierre Vidal-Naquet to be "diffi

    cult reading, to be sure" (12), it is in places almost impenetrable,

    being chockful of the obscurantist terminology of Greimas's S?m

    antique structurale (cf. especially 55-60, which are none the less

    essential reading as an introduction to the author's analytical


    Chapter 2, entitled "The Adventures of Theseus," offers a voy

    age around the narrative of Theseus' life, analyzed syntactically in

    a way that seeks to extrapolate a logically structured coherence

    from the sum of its parts. The discussion proceeds chronologi

    cally, beginning with the establishment of Theseus' claim to the

    Athenian throne as the son of Aegeus. It concludes with his acces

    sion upon returning from his Cretan adventure and following the

    suicide of his father. As Ca?ame (70) points out, everything about

    Theseus is highly irregular, in the best traditions of a structural

    anthropological analysis of his life:

    The very conception of Theseus situates itself at the point of

    divergence from normality, and this from a triple perspective:

    spatial (outside of Athens and of Troezen, on an island),

    juridical (outside the legal ties of marriage), and social (out side the values assigned to a person of adult years).

    It is in Calame's eyes further testimony to the hero's pervasive

    marginality that all the exploits that he undertakes in order to

    insert himself into Attica and obtain political power reveal not the

    tactics and strategy of a fully-fledged hoplite but rather those of an

    ephebe. So, too, in his military role as guardian of Athens' borders

    Theseus is associated with the skira, land that is uncultivatable

    and characteristic of the frontier zones where ephebes did their

    military service. And it is the skira, accidentally on purpose, which

    happens to be the kind of terrain where Ca?ame himself did

    anthropological field work in New Guinea among peoples called

    the Iatmul and Kuma, to whom he alludes briefly with personal

    insight in Chapter 1 (27-28).

    Aegeus' death, which, as everyone knows, was caused by the

    hero's fatal failure to hoist a white sail announcing his victory to

    his father on shore, effectively put an end to the chain of murders

    which began with the assassination of Androgeos and which

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    prompted Minos' demand for human tribute (123). As Ca?ame

    points out, whether Theseus' lapse of memory was deliberate or

    involuntary, a question which became a popular subject of debate

    in later Greek and Roman literature, it...