Foundation Myths in Ancient Societies: Dialogues and Discourses

Foundation Myths in Ancient Societies: Dialogues and Discourses

Foundation Myths in Ancient Societies: Dialogues and Discourses

Foundation Myths in Ancient Societies: Dialogues and Discourses


Throughout the ancient world, origin stories were told across the ancient world in many different ways: through poetry, prose, monumental and decorative arts, and performance in civic and religious rituals. Foundation myths, particularly those about the beginnings of cities and societies, played an important role in the dynamics of identity construction and in the negotiation of diplomatic relationships between communities. Yet many ancient communities had not one but several foundation myths, offering alternative visions and interpretations of their collective origins.

Seeking to explain this plurality, Foundation Myths in Ancient Societies explores origin stories from a range of classical and ancient societies, covering both a broad chronological span (from Greek colonies to the high Roman empire) and a wide geographical area (from the central Mediterranean to central Asia). Contributors explore the reasons several different, sometimes contradictory myths might coexist or even coevolve. Collectively, the chapters suggest that the ambiguity and dissonance of multiple foundation myths can sometimes be more meaningful than a single coherent origin narrative. Foundation Myths in Ancient Societies argues for a both/and approach to foundation myths, laying a framework for understanding them in dialogue with each other and within a wider mythic context, as part of a wider discourse of origins.

Contributors : Lieve Donnellan, Alfred Hirt, Naoése Mac Sweeney, Rachel Mairs, Irad Malkin, Daniel Ogden, Robin Osborne, Michael Squire, Susanne Turner.


Naoíse Mac Sweeney

Beginnings are important. the beginning sets the agenda, the tone, and the standard. Throughout antiquity, there was considerable interest in stories about beginnings, especially in those about the origins of cities, states, and peoples. Foundation myths were told across the ancient world in many different forms and through many different media. They can be found in poetry and prose, represented visually in monumental and decorative art, and played out in civic and religious rituals. Stories of origin were sometimes recounted in their entirety, forming the central narrative in a text. But even more frequently foundation myths were alluded to obliquely or used as reference points for narratives on other subjects. Stories of beginnings and myths of foundation were ubiquitous in classical antiquity.

One notable characteristic of ancient foundation myths is their plurality. in many instances, several stories existed simultaneously to explain the origin of a single city or group of people. One foundation could have a range of myths attached to it, with several different accounts or alternative versions of a given story. in the classical period, for example, the Athenians were simultaneously said to be autochthonous and also to be descended from the Ionian branch of the Hellenic genealogy the existence of such alternative stories can present an interpretive challenge as from a modern perspective, these two accounts of Athenian beginnings may seem to be mutually exclusive. in antiquity, however, such apparent inconsistencies seem not to have been as problematic. Alternative versions of foundation myths were common, often circulating simultaneously among similar audiences, in similar social contexts . . .

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