Sea in the Greek Imagination

Sea in the Greek Imagination

Sea in the Greek Imagination

Sea in the Greek Imagination

Synopsis

The sea is omnipresent in Greek life. Visible from nearly everywhere, the sea represents the life and livelihood of many who dwell on the islands and coastal areas of the Mediterranean, and it has been so since long ago--the sea loomed large in the Homeric epics and throughout Greek mythology. The Greeks of antiquity turned to the sea for food and for transport; for war, commerce, and scientific advancement; and for religious purification and other rites. Yet, the sea was simultaneously the center of Greek life and its limit. For, while the sea was a giver of much, it also embodied danger and uncertainty. It was in turns barren and fertile, and pictured as both a roadway and a terrifying void. The image of the sea in Greek myth is as conflicting as it is common, with sea crossings taking on seemingly incompatible meanings in different circumstances.

In The Sea in the Greek Imagination, Marie-Claire Beaulieu unifies the multifarious representations of the sea and sea crossings in Greek myth and imagery by positing the sea as a cosmological boundary between the mortal world, the underworld, and the realms of the immortal. Through six in-depth case studies, she shows how, more than a simple physical boundary, the sea represented the buffer zone between the imaginary and the real, the transitional space between the worlds of the living, the dead, and the gods. From dolphin riders to Dionysus, maidens to mermen, Beaulieu investigates the role of the sea in Greek myth in a broad-ranging and innovative study.

Excerpt

The sea is everywhere in the Greek landscape. From rugged mountaintops to low-lying plains, the Mediterranean is rarely out of sight. For islanders and coastal villagers the sea is more than a geographical reality, it is a way of life. This was even truer for the Greeks of Antiquity, who were excellent seafarers and sustained fisheries from the earliest times onward. In fact, the Greeks relied on the sea not only for sustenance and transportation, but also for news, warfare, commercial and political exchange, as well as scientific development. The sea also held a large place in the religious life of the Greeks. Seawater was used for various kinds of purification, many rituals were held on the seashore, and some festivals required throwing offerings to the gods into the sea. Seafaring was also the occasion for numerous rituals. In this way, the sea pervaded many aspects of ancient life.

Looking at the Mediterranean, bright blue in the Greek sunlight, one might expect to find the sea associated with positive concepts in Greek literature, especially nourishment, beauty, and divinity. Homer calls the sea ἅλα δῖαν “the bright sea, the divine sea” (e.g., Il. 1.141). Myths tell of beautiful Nereids living in the water and of lucky finds on the seashore. In part for these reasons, psychoanalysts have viewed the sea as a representation of the mother figure. For instance, in the Iliad, Achilles comes to the seashore to lament his trials and is comforted by his divine mother, Thetis, who comes out of the sea to help her son. In this episode, the sea provides a backdrop for maternal reassurance. Thetis, as a Nereid, can also be thought to represent the maternal aspects of the sea since she is a kourotrophic divinity, a goddess who helps rear the young. In the same line of thought, the sea has been put in parallel with the earth as a nurturing mother, particularly in view of the sea’s role in the Greek cosmogony. In the Theogony 131, the sea (Pontus) is one of the children born out of Gaia’s parthenogenesis. Thus, the sea is one of the primeval elements that help conceive and shape the world. Similarly, the Titan Oceanus, the river that encircles the world beyond the sea, is called the father of all . . .

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