After Antiquity: Greek Language, Myth, and Metaphor

After Antiquity: Greek Language, Myth, and Metaphor

After Antiquity: Greek Language, Myth, and Metaphor

After Antiquity: Greek Language, Myth, and Metaphor


With the publication of Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition, widely considered a classic in Modern Greek studies and in collateral fields, Margaret Alexiou established herself as a major intellectual innovator on the interconnections among ancient, medieval, and modern Greek cultures. In her new, eagerly awaited book, Alexiou looks at how language defines the contours of myth and metaphor. Drawing on texts from the New Testament to the present day, Alexiou shows the diversity of the Greek language and its impact at crucial stages of its history on people who were not Greek. She then stipulates the relatedness of literary and "folk" genres, and assesses the importance of rituals and metaphors of the life cycle in shaping narrative forms and systems of imagery.

Alexiou places special emphasis on Byzantine literary texts of the sixth and twelfth centuries, providing her own translations where necessary; modern poetry and prose of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and narrative songs and tales in the folk tradition, which she analyzes alongside songs of the life cycle. She devotes particular attention to two genres whose significance she thinks has been much underrated: the tales (paramythia) and the songs of love and marriage.

In exploring the relationship between speech and ritual, Alexiou not only takes the Greek language into account but also invokes the neurological disorder of autism, drawing on clinical studies and her own experience as the mother of autistic identical twin sons.


After Antiquity: Greek Language, Myth, and Metaphor, by Margaret Alexiou, is a work so far-reaching that it tests the limits of the Myth and Poetics series. The title of the volume tells the tale, and so too does the subtitle.

In the case of the subtitle, the tripartite arrangement of language, myth, and metaphor is asymmetrical. In other volumes published in the series, language has been correlated with myth or with metaphor. Such symmetries are challenged, however, by the three-way conceptualization of language, myth, and metaphor. One obvious sign of asymmetry in the subtitle is the fact that myth is missing its twin, ritual. Another sign is less obvious: metaphor, viewed in terms of Prague School linguistics as the “vertical axis of selection,” is not being paired overtly with its own respective twin, metonym, viewed symmetrically as the “horizontal axis of combination.”

The asymmetry of Alexiou’s subtitle—and approach—stems in part from the author’s systematic questioning of attempts to formulate and apply universal definitions of myth in the ongoing study of poetics and rhetoric. Other books in the Myth and Poetics series have challenged the universalization of myth, but Alexiou is the first to extend the challenge to metaphor. For her, universal definitions of metaphor tend to blur the local color, as it were, of its uses within the visual world of a given culture.

For other reasons as well, Alexiou downplays symmetries such as myth and ritual, metaphor and metonym. She resists mutually exclusive dichotomies. In her analysis of Greek traditions, both pairs, myth and ritual, metaphor and metonym, interweave. As a metaphor in its own right, the idea of interweaving is particularly apt, since the mechanical process of weaving combines the cognitive operations of metonymic and metaphorical . . .

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