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Review of K. Dowden’s – The uses of Greek Mythology

March 26, 2013

I wrote this review at the start of my course last year and just found my copy of the text. I was having a look through and it reminded me how fantastic this book by Dowden is. It is a fascinating introduction to Greek Myth and I thought I would share my review with you.

Review Article – Use of Mythology

What is Greek Myth? What is its purpose? Plato considered its purpose in educational terms, ‘tales are of two species, the one true and the other false?…and education must make use of both…that we begin by telling children fables, and the fable is, taken as a whole, false, but there is truth in it also.’ (Pl. Rep. 2.376e – 377a) Plato was outlining how myth can be used as an educational tool. In a modern context the examination and analysis of mythology has been an area of interest for innumerate years with no definitive conclusion. This is in part due to the size of the field of Greek Mythology but also the various theories and interpretations developed by researchers such as Vernant and Cohen.

Ken Dowden’s The Uses of Greek Mythology endeavours to provide a detailed overview. The monograph is part of the Approaching the Ancient World series that provides an introduction to the study of ancient history with consideration given to those who do not read Greek, as quotes are in English or explained where a translation cannot be provided. Dowden walks the reader through the subject matter providing the necessary degree of understanding before proceeding onto subsequent chapters. This is not to say that the work is simplistic; the arguments presented are challenging and leave questions that the reader wants to explore further.

The book is divided into four parts with the first introducing the subject matter; defining terminology, outlining theoretical perspectives and identifying key themes. It is in a sense a summary of what is to come but highlights a particular theme that forms the central pillar of the book; myth is not history. Dowden outlines in the subsequent parts a number of purposes that myth had. These are broadly broken down into: laying claim to a particular site, territory or kingship, development of cult sites, initiation rituals and the production of a Greek landscape populated by mythic sites.

There is a keen focus in part two on myth having been used as a marker to claim a territory. The theme of war having been used to lay a claim through colonisation is one such example with myth the justification for the encroachment. Dowden provides two examples of this thesis with one being the Trojan War. Dowden states that although it is likely that Troy existed the war did not happen. Myth legitimised the colonisation of the area by the Greeks. Dowden proceeds to make an early conclusion that, ‘mythology tells us nothing of value about wars in the Mycenaean period. Even if it is based on a kernel of truth…it adds nothing to that kernel. It is simply not what myth was for’ (49). It is a weakmess of Dowden’s here to make a rather stark conclusion at this point as it leaves us in a position where we think there will be such pronouncements made throughout the book. There are in fact no further such conclusions; comment and observation leads to an open ended assessment where the reader is encouraged to think about the subject matter and make up their own mind.

This open ended assessment is successfully demonstrated within the subsequent chapter particularly with the examination of the use of eponyms. These were used to bring towns into existence and develop tribal cohesion. Dowden also provides numerous examples of myths that legitimate the power of a city through genealogy such as Lykaon who, it is claimed, found the first city and major cult in Southern Arcadia and how there developed a sense of unity between settlements ruled by Lykaon’s sons.

Within part three Dowden examines the interrelationship of myth and religion focusing initially on cult site development through the concept of arrival myths. Dowden’s analysis of this suggests that there are reasons for the founding of a cult site presenting a number of myths to support his thesis such as Apollo’s victory over Python to claim Delphi. The same approach is adopted with initiation rituals identifying how bear mythology formed the basis of the rights for the cult of Artemis. Detailed analysis develops a confidence in the hypotheses presented. However, as Vernant (1990:223) observes myth ‘constitutes the common pool for Greek culture, providing a framework of reference for not only religious but also other forms of social and spiritual life…[whilst]…within this same civilisation it seems to have no recognised position.’ Dowden’s arguments are compelling but there are other perspectives that require consideration regardless of how robust the argument presented is.

The latter chapters in part four review the world of myth and in particular the mythic landscape. Dowden provides an insight into some of the characteristics that provide significance to the land such as the river where Zeus bathed following birth observing that the, ‘landscape reflects mythic history and mythic history defines the landscape’ (87). These locations were important to the Greeks providing a sense of pride and a link to their past. This view is similar to that of Cohen (2007:327) who considers that ‘The Greek mythological landscape was fundamentally a body scape…the motifs of nature served primarily to frame human actions and movements’. Dowden places more emphasis on the importance of the mythic site to the local population whereas Cohen the use in art. Dowden presents a systematic analysis of evidence in order to support his views with little room for initial doubt of his hypothesis although as noted the concept of the mythic landscape may warrant a wider consideration.

Dowden’s The uses of Greek Mythology is well edited and priced appropriately being comparable with other books covering this subject matter. I found the arguments to be compelling, well constructed delivering on what Dowden outlines in the introduction. The book considers numerous primary and secondary sources from current scholarship but in doing so Dowden does not hold back; pushing forward the debate. It is anticipated in the conclusions drawn by Dowden that he will answer the central question of the book ‘What are the uses of Greek Myth?’ However, this is not the case. Dowden summarises the general conclusions developed throughout the book but leaves the reader to their own interpretation stating, ‘I have no intention of imposing this list as a definitive conclusion. Readers must compose their own’ (121). True to this Dowden provides a detailed list of notes and a topical bibliography enabling the reader to research further the subject matter and draw their own conclusions.

Bibliography

Dowden, K. The Uses of Greek MythologyLondon: Routledge, 1992.

Cohen, A. ‘Mythic Landscapes of Greece’ in R. Woodward (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Vernant, J. Myth and Society in Ancient GreeceNew York: Zone Books, 1990.

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