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Sons, Wives and Mothers: Reality and Fantasy in Some Modern Greek Ballads Margaret Alexiou This paper examines a group of songs in order to explore two series of problems concerned with the question of how myth is related to society. First, is there a consistent pattern of oppositions which might be related to a wider "mythical system" in Greek folklore?1 If so, what does it reveal about the expression in folk song of fundamental attitudes to such vital issues as kinship, marriage and death? Second, to what extent can the songs be related to their social context, either directly, as a reflection of traditional values, or indirectly, as a projection through fantasy in mythical form of the tensions and conflicts inherent in such a society?2 *This article is developed from a paper delivered to the Modern Greek Studies Association in Philadelphia (November, 1980), and subsequently to the Women's Study Group at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire (November, 1980) and to the joint Classics/Folklore and Mythology Seminar at the University of California in Los Angeles (May, 1981). I am grateful to participants in discussion for many invaluable suggestions. In particular I should like to thank R.M. Beaton, J. du Boulay, L.M. Danforth and M.F. Herzfeld for their critical reading of the paper and for their detailed comments on a wide range of aspects. Any errors or omissions are my own responsibility. ■"Myth is not the mere succession of words or simple story, but a chain of relations, a succession of concepts, a system of signifying oppositions distributed on different planes at various semantic levels" (M. Détienne, Dionysus Slain [Baltimore/London, 1979], 7). Detienne's systematic structural analysis of ancient mythical tradition provides a useful model for the folklorist in spite of the differences in the type of material. The implications of a structuralist approach to modern Greek folk song are discussed by R.M. Beaton, in Folk Poetry of Modem Greece (Cambridge, 1980), 112-35. 2C. Geertz develops the theory of cultural patterns as inter-transposable models both of and for reality, hence their double aspect, giving meaning (in conceptual form) to social and psychological reality by shaping themselves to it and it to themselves ("Religion as a Cultural System," in The Interpretation of Cultures [London, 1975], 87— 92). Détienne argues cogently that "one can never deduce the real from a mythical narrative," since mythical thought has an indirect rather than a direct relationship to social data (Dionysus, 15). The idea of "projective inversion" is developed by A. Dundes, ("Projection in Folklore: A Plea for Psychoanalytic Semiotics," Modern Languages Notes 73 74 Margaret Alexiou In the five ballads selected for detailed analysis, the recurrent pattern of protagonists is mother I son/ daughter or daughter-in-law, while the focal conflict in each centers upon the issue of marriage. To forestall possible objections that I have, like a bad structuralist, selected my texts to prove my argument, I would make the following points: first, the present analysis is intended as a preliminary and exploratory exercise for a deeper study, and specifically to suggest some architectonic , thematic and metaphorical similarities which underlie the whole song tradition, cutting across the accepted taxonomic classifications;3 second, any inter-textual comparison must begin with specific, not generalized, themes; and third, the stylistic similarities between the five texts justify—and invite—some initial comparison. All structural analysis is to some extent arbitrary and subjective, and the model I propose is only tentative. At the same time some classification of major oppositions can highlight significant similarities and differences in focus, combination of characters and situations, and in final outcome. I. THE DEAD BROTHER "The Dead Brother" is known in different versions throughout the Balkans, and is thought to be related to the European "Leonora" ballad, or "The Dead Lover."4 The Greek version is diffused throughout the Greek-speaking world in approximately 262 variants.5 It is tightly structured, more dramatic than narrative in mode, each episode underlining a linked series of oppositions. A mother with nine sons jealously guards her only daughter, washing her hair by night so she should never be seen by the sun. These precautions precipitate...


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