- Purchase/rental options available:
American Journal of Philology 121.4 (2000) 637-641
[Access article in PDF]
The latest book from the pen of Irad Malkin is a substantial, creative contribution to the discourse in classical studies on ethnicity and ethnic identity. Malkin rejects the now familiar binary opposition between Greek and Other and argues instead for "the intricate, sometimes hybrid, mutually reflecting world of exploration, contacts, colonization, and coexistence involving various Greek and native populations" (xi). Readers should be aware, however, that myth and other written sources are the means by which "group identity and ethnicity" are principally traced.
The basic premise of the book appears in the brief preface: "myths, especially . . . Greek myths of the returns of Odysseus and other heroes, were used to mediate encounters and conceptualize ethnicity and group identity" with the inhabitants of Albania, Apulia, and southern Italy (xi). A lengthy introduction serves as a précis of the entire work. Malkin agrees that myth is a cultural representation productive of meaning, one which actively influenced history (5). At the outset, a distinction is drawn between nostoi, the narratives of heroes returning from Troy, and Nostoi, those who returned. The most important figure early on is Odysseus, an exceptional Nostos, fit for the protocolonial more than the colonial experience. Later, Greeks who colonized in the Near West (Sicily is left to the side for the most part), turned to other Nostoi "for site orientation and articulations of ethnicities, genealogies, and identities and often of cult."
Malkin further proposes that non-Greeks used these myths in their own ways and perhaps in turn affected Greek views of nostoi. For this Malkin calls upon a notion of "the middle ground" (as formulated in the very stimulating book of that title by Richard White), a space both physical and cultural where each side in colonial encounters acts according to the assumed perceptions of the other to create a world comprehensible to both. In effect, Malkin suggests that the nostoi and their contexts serve as Middle Ground for the Greek colonial experience. That non-Greek populations were regarded less as Others, barbaroi, and more as xenoi seems hard to square with colonial encounters which were far from peaceful, however, and readers might keep in mind that in White's Great Lakes "middle ground" the center did not hold: the accommodation failed by the early nineteenth century.
The work unfolds over eight chapters and an appendix which covers various "Homeric issues." This final section might usefully have been incorporated [End Page 637] into the introduction or first chapter; there is also a sometimes confusing amount of redundancy between sections. Chapter 1 extends the introduction; in the very first sentences Malkin sets out an explicit assumption: "that the Greeks had the nostoi in their heads" (33) in the ninth century B.C.E. or even earlier. Here Malkin lays out his views on the relationships between stories (i.e., the extant epics to other stories known from the Cycle), and of images in art from the eighth and seventh centuries to stories. Malkin insists that stories which are often considered to be later than Homer are in fact only possible alternatives. The book nearly implies that the nostoi were actually created in the ninth (or tenth) century, as an active and history-making myth. Not all readers will agree with Malkin's conclusions, but all will have to confront what kind of mythology the Greeks had before Homer and before early figurative art.
Chapter 2 sets the historical stage by outlining sailing and settlement in "the Sea of Returns," which refers both to an idea and the Ionian and Adriatic Seas. Malkin strongly criticizes the work of other scholars which he regards as insufficiently historically specific, especially that of Carol Dougherty, whose approach, as he also acknowledges, is complementary to his own (readers may be interested in her forthcoming The Raft of Odysseus: The Ethnographic Imagination of Archaic Greece, from Oxford). Malkin'...