Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient Near East

Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient Near East

Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient Near East

Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient Near East


There is a parable in Sanskrit literature which relates that, once upon a time, Mind and Speech came before God and asked Him to decide which of the two was the superior. God decided in favor of Mind, on the ground that Speech but imitated its actions and walked in its footsteps.

The parable contains a profound lesson for students of ancient literature. What it teaches is that the literary products of the past ought not to be approached on a purely verbal level -- as a collection of "texts" to be expounded and translated by dictionary and grammar alone. Rather must they be viewed as being, in a very real sense, a branch of the humanities -- an expression and projection of life; and never will they be fully understood until their mental and cultural framework is retrieved and the concepts and categories which inform them are recovered. Words are at best but shrunken garments. We must get behind the symbol to the thing which it seeks, so inadequately, to convey. If we cling to the tattered coat-tails of Speech, we should do so only in order that we too may follow in turn in the footsteps of Mind.

Unfortunately, this lesson has been but imperfectly learned. We still continue, by and large, to regard the interpretation of ancient writings as primarily the province of the philologist -- the man concerned with speech and word; and the anthropologist and folklorist -- the man concerned with life and culture -- is but tolerated, like Ruth, to "gather after the reapers," when -- so it is thought -- the main harvest has already been gleaned and when he can do little harm to the crop.

The error of this conventional approach is that it misunderstands both the nature of ancient literature and the meaning of meaning.

In the first place, much of what has come down to us as ancient literature was not, in fact, mere artistic creation, but possessed a strictly functional character within the structure of communal life. Texts which we have been wont to regard as the products of this or that author's individual fancy and genius were, in fact, the traditional 'books of words' of religious ceremonies, inspired by a goddess more practical than the Muses an fully intelligible only if read against the background of the rituals which they accompanied. Accordingly, far more is needed for their elucidation than a mere translation of words. They have first and foremost to be placed in their appropriate cultural context -- their Sitz im Leben -- and they must be viewed as expressions and not as forms. Who, for example, could properly understand the English Mummers' Play from the bare text alone and without reference to the occasion for which it is designed and the time-honored traditional lore which it embodies?

In the second place, it has to be remembered that words connote as well as denote. They are but a device for reproducing, by purely approximate symbols, a whole congeries of impressions and associations, nuances and suggestions, mental and emotional overtones and undertones. To find the nearest corresponding symbol in another language is, therefore, merely to . . .

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