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  • Narrative and Community in Dark Age Greece: A Cognitive and Communicative Approach to Early Greek Citizenship
  • Vincent Farenga

In The Origins of Citizenship in Ancient Athens, Philip Brook Manville observes that Greek citizenship comprised more than the legal status of full membership in a city-state. Its “supralegal qualities” included “the more intangible aspects” of a citizen’s life, among them the “behavior, feelings and communal attitudes” accompanying a citizen’s obligations and privileges (1990.7). Unfortunately, Manville continues, describing these supralegal qualities is “tricky” because evidence for them is so scarce (1990.13). A few years before, another historian faced a similar dilemma about citizen behavior and attitudes when he assessed what archaeological evidence could tell us about how the polis originated: “there must have been psychological and spiritual forces,” Chester Starr concluded, “not visible in the physical evidence, which encouraged boldness in political revolution” (1986.42).

Why are the intangibles behind Greek citizenship so elusive, particularly at its earliest stage? Perhaps because, whether characterized as emotional, attitudinal, psychological, or spiritual, they are rooted in the cognitive and communicative capacities of the groups whose interests dominated communities in the city-state’s “Formative Era,” the Early to Middle Geometric period of the late Dark Age (c. 900-760 B.C.). 1 I propose to find a royal road to these cognitive and communicative capacities for [End Page 179] citizenship in narrative: in storytelling’s ability to organize the ways inhabitants of prestate and early state societies understood, evaluated, and symbolized experience through worldviews that maintained their coherence despite their differences from one another.

The first step on this road is to reconstruct the simple cognitive categories of time, space, and human agency behind Dark Age communities’ narrative understanding of the world using the available ethnographic, material, and literary evidence. I will argue that this understanding employed as a symbolic resource cognitive categories and criteria centered around ancestors who absorbed the present into the past in order to resolve two fundamental material and social dilemmas faced by almost all these communities: settlement instability and survival. Linking these dilemmas to the death of community leaders, I will indicate how the cognitive criteria of narrative understanding were operative in another major symbolic resource, funerary ritual, and were expressed in the speech genre of lament. My focus on lament and the related genres of genealogical poetry and epic will show: (a) how the latter two used the notion of a “heroic age” to realign the past and the present so that early state citizens might devalue traditional cognitive criteria in favor of criteria suited to an early city-state worldview; and (b) how all three genres used grief and pity to structure communicative interactions among social groups in ways appropriate to prestate and early state communities, respectively. Homer’s version of the Meleagros tale in Iliad 9 will exemplify how pity can characterize the cognitive shift from kin-dominated social relations to a more rationally intersubjective communication typical of citizenship.

Dark Age Social Life: Material and Ideological Dilemmas

Today the social life of Dark Age communities has begun to emerge from the obscurity that plagued earlier scholarship. A global description may not yet be possible, but new material evidence over the past twenty years, reinterpretations of earlier finds, and better navigation through confusing streams of evidence from archaeology, comparative ethnography, and Homer now allow us to highlight the following key features: settlement patterns, population levels, modes of production, degrees of social stratification, and forms of authority.

First, a few generalizations about the Dark Age. Its settlements were villages continuing the dominant pattern of the Bronze Age in which [End Page 180] an extended family’s oikos joined with several others to form a “nucleated” hamlet or village cluster. These Dark Age villages remained independent, much as they had been in the Bronze Age (except for the relatively brief period of palace-state formation in the Late Bronze Age). 2 Generally speaking, these autonomous villages (re)appeared within a generation or two of the Mycenaean collapse, around the start of the Protogeometric period (c. 1050 B.C.), flourished c. 900, and lasted until the city-state emerged between 800 and 750. They can be...

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pp. 179-206
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