Emily Baragwanath and Mathieu De Bakker (Eds.), Myth, Truth, and Narrative in Herodotus

By Lateiner, Donald | Ancient Narrative, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

Emily Baragwanath and Mathieu De Bakker (Eds.), Myth, Truth, and Narrative in Herodotus


Lateiner, Donald, Ancient Narrative


EMILY BARAGWANATH AND MATHIEU DE BAKKER (eds.), Myth, Truth, and Narrative in Herodotus 2012. 384 pp. Oxford University Press. Oxford University Press. Hardback 75 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 978019969397-9.

Narrative has always powerfully transferred memories, fantasies, and understanding to other men's brains. Many sorts of fiction and history, biography, drama, and judicial briefs either organize themselves entirely along a consecutive story-telling axis or insert fractured narratives, whether proleptic, analeptic, or "alloleptic", into a necessarily linear presentation of words in an oral-aural telling or on an inscribed stone, written roll, scroll, tablet, or printed page, or even a glowing computer screen. Book reviewers often follow in the steps of their targets' organization, so they rarely tell a story in chronological order. Herodotos, unlike Heliodoros (one of his admirers), often tries to begin at the beginning, although he often spirals back into the story behind his story, and there always is one. This method (once called "epic regression") is natural to human story-tellers, as any reader who has been a narrator knows well.

Myth and Truth--our title's other abstractions--need not be opposed, although they often are. (1) Myths present communities' central narratives of the distant past (creation, end times, social organization, migrations), often involving supernatural intervention, stories that one specific group (or groups) finds helpful, comforting, and explanatory of woes and blessings. Ancient debates continue, of course, on designing pigeon-holes for the multi-level labyrinth housing discourses of knowledge. Legends deal with a past less remote, conceivably historical, like the Trojan War, the Theban Expedition, Napoleon's napping on horseback and before battle, Washington's or Lincoln's exemplary honesty encapsulated in tidy anecdotes. These narratives function to promote ethnic or national cohesion and reduce anxiety. Mythic ideas are always embedded in narrative procedures of coherence, although truths are not. Myth and truth are both slippery concepts, although, or perhaps therefore, good to think with. (2) The variously inclined classicists assembled here supply, or sometimes choose not to supply, (3) their own definitions, and the different frontiers between history, legend, and myth consequently (possibly unavoidably) remain blurred.

In their fifty-six-page introduction, (4) de Bakker and Baragwanath acknowledge the reaction in Herodotean studies to Jacoby's masterful RE article of 1913 (Suppl. II. 205-520). One still must read the stimulating German studies of Wolf Aly (Volksmarchen, Sage und Novelle, 1921) and Max Pohlenz (Herodot, Die Erste Geschichtschreiber, 1937), and an American refugee from Nazism, Henry R. Immerwahr, who published five deft articles even before his pioneering structural study of Herodotos' Histories. (5) Decades passed before the full tsunami force of these interpretations--more unitarian (less focused on the order of logoi-composition) and acknowledging Herodotos' greater control of his material--enabled the flood of Herodotean historiography in the last two decades. More of these analyses have attended to his perceptible mental habits, intellectual milieux, and historiographical methods than to his historico-geographical "facts." Historiographical "patterns" (v) emerged that, for some, diminished the chances for excavating any facts and factoids lurking in Herodotos' text, while, for others, these patterns revealed manners of organization, essential for comprehending any study that tries to sort the chaos of past events. Familiar story-patterns create presumptions of how narratives end: crime impels punishment; effective governments permit the growth of imperial power; oath-sealed crafty bargains come a cropper; and greed (personal and imperial) prompts come-uppance. Herodotos' pessimistic Histories highlight more failures than successes.

Historians (e. …

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