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Hesiod: Ritual Enactment and Literary Embodiment

Hesiod: Ritual Enactment and Literary Embodiment

We have come a long way in our understanding of myth, ritual and their literate expression since the celebration of Joyce’s “mythic method,” Frye’s quadripartite “seasonal myth” and the notion of Shelley’s “mythmaking.” A more exacting historical and analytic approach to mythology in the ancient world has recently proven instrumental. “In some respects mythology itself,” writes Carolyn Highbie, “can be seen as a counterpart to chronography in early Greece, especially in the hexameter catalogues that record the names, families and deeds of the gods and heroes.”

 Myth is no longer to be understood apart from the familial, social and political contexts in which it is embodied, not to say defined. “Neither ‘myth’ nor ‘religion’ constitutes a category native to Greek thought,” explains Claude Calame, thereby questioning earlier acceptations of these two terms. “Neither myth nor religion were conceived as such by the Greeks – neither myth as a corpus of (fabulous) tales of gods and heroes dependent on a frame of comprehensive thought, nor religion as a set of beliefs and practices relative to a divine configuration . . .”


Hesiod’s Theogony, like the “text” of Angkor Wat (the two textual underpinnings of Her), is a poetic compendium of the forces in, above and beneath the earth that determine its nature and dynamics. Pre-scientific, it is also in a sense pre-poetic, for it has no overarching narrative, nor any scheme of emotional affect. Some modern readers ignore Hesiod, regarding him as neither lyric, dramatic nor epic, whereas the ancients regarded the Theogony as a central epic, one that we now understand described, in poetic form, “the heroic past of Greek cities or the Greek community.”

 “Considered as religious practices, the stories that we identify and place within the rubric of ‘myth,’” says Calame, “reveal themselves to exist only in particular poetic forms,” among which the Homeric Hymn, the Dithyramb, the Epinicia and the Cult Song, as well as the Theogony. “It is the rules of the genres, divided between institutional ritualities and regularities of discursive order, that contrive to make myths ‘socially and ideologically active.’” This represents a different view of myth from the Romantic conception that persisted through Frazer and his followers.


“Supported  by poetic genres, this or that episode of the divine and heroic past of the Greek community” – known as “to Hellenikon” from Herodotus forward – “is inscribed,” says Calame, “in a specific cult institution and in a form of ritual poetry.” Myth, tout court, is inseparable from its poetic expression. “These poetic forms make from narratives, appearing to us as mythic, an active history, inscribed in a collective memory realized through ritual.” So much for the disembodied formulation, “Greek mythology,” that viewed “myth” as independent of ritual and literary mode.

“Far from forming a system of thought, far from being inscribed in some structure of the human consciousness, far from constituting a particular language, the ensemble of the myths in the Hellenic tradition is characterized by a certain plasticity that allows for religious and ideological paradigms offered by a polytheism, one that varies with the multifarious civic space and time of the cities of Greece. It corresponds to a polymorphous cultural memory . .  .  ,” “fulfilled in a performative manner by the acts inscribed in the cult calendar of Athens and Sparta, Delos and Delphi . . . .”