The Invention of Greek Ethnography: From Homer to Herodotus

By Joseph E. Skinner | Go to book overview
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Mapping Ethnography

HAVING DEMONSTRATED THE RELATIVELY high levels of interest in and engagement with a wide variety of foreign or mythical peoples in the years prior to the Persian Wars, we shall now examine the interlocking systems of knowledge and understanding through which they found order and expression. Mapping out this “ethnography before ethnography” will entail consideration of individual categories such as epic poetry and list songs, epithets and stereotyping.1 However, it will also stress their essential connectivity within an overarching imaginaire, unhampered by epistemic distinctions that privilege rational and objective prose—“fact” over fiction.

3.1 Naming and Describing

The history of humanity’s engagement with questions of social and cultural difference is as old as society itself. There is neither time nor space here to explore the nature or origins of cognitive skills intrinsically bound up in evolutionary processes that accompanied the emergence of early human societies— what evolutionary anthropologists refer to as the “social brain.” 2 It should also be emphasized that knowledge of foreign peoples—or, indeed, anything or anyone considered strange or different—does not have to be particularly detailed or even accurate for it to be important. Knowledge of foreign people can ultimately be pared down to two inherently basic and interrelated

1 Cf. Robert 1980.

2 The starting point for this study is contingent upon the survival of sources and materials relating to ancient Greece. Such myopic Hellenocentricity can perhaps be off set by recent/ ongoing research into the perception of foreigners in ancient Egypt, China, and the Ancient Near East; see chapter 1, fn. 48 for references. For classificatory schemas in general, see Lloyd 1966, 2002; Goody 1977.


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The Invention of Greek Ethnography: From Homer to Herodotus


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