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  • The Story of Myth by Sarah Iles Johnston
  • Daniel Peretti
The Story of Myth. By Sarah Iles Johnston. ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. Pp. x + 364, note on transliterations and abbreviations, notes, references, acknowledgments, index of names and terms, index loco-rum.)

Can we understand the past by studying the present? More specifically, can we understand how Greek myths worked in ancient Greek culture as narratives that stimulated and maintained belief in the factuality of the events they recounted by looking at the ways people in the twenty-first century tell and think about their own stories? Sarah Iles Johnston thinks that we can—in fact, that we should—and The Story of Myth is her demonstration of how we might go about doing so.

Johnston begins by lamenting the vagueness of definitions for myth proposed by classicists over the years. She spends the first chapter building toward her own definition, fueled by an awareness that ancient Greece had no canon. [End Page 356] The absence of a canon means that narrators could invent within the confines of what their audiences were willing to accept. Johnston's definition is heuristic: stories set in the distant past, though continuous with the present of the ancient Greek world and in geographically specific places, having to do with the gods and heroes that draw upon a large cast of specific characters in a network of relationships (pp. 7–11). She acknowledges that this definition isn't substantially different from those that have come before, but her way of approaching a description of these heuristic characteristics is both commonsensical and intriguing. Her approach is ecumenical, but it relies heavily on folkloristics in a manner that is unusual and effective.

Later in the first chapter, Johnston writes that myth is "an ongoing conversation about exactly who the gods were and what they had done during the early epochs of the cosmos' existence" (p. 27). Myth is neither codified nor set in stone; it is performed—this conversation takes place between "authors, artists, and their audiences" (p. 27). She is interested in the contexts of performance, but also in the effects that different kinds of performances would have had on the audiences. This is why she begins to draw upon contemporary scholarship, in which she finds useful works far afield from classics: among the scholars she cites are folklorists Dorothy Noyes, Gillian Bennett, Vladimir Propp, David Hufford, and Alan Dundes.

Her methodology draws upon numerous disciplines in order to lay the foundation for her arguments about the nature of myth and its relation to belief in ancient Greek culture. Johnston sees this relationship as complicated because of the particularities of Greek culture. For instance, she uses the concept of performativity to discuss the genre of historiolae as employed generally in the ancient world. These "brief myths that are recited in order to solve an immediate problem—most commonly, illness" (p. 68) became a useful means to cause something to happen in the real world, such as when mothers recited them as part of the process of caring for sick children. In Greece, however, the historiolae seem to have been inflected as metaphors.

Another example of her method comes in chapter 3 in a section called "Narrating Belief." Johnston uses a folkloristic understanding of contemporary personal experience narratives about encounters with ghosts, along with literary analysis of early twentieth-century ghost stories, to demonstrate that both oral and written narratives employ the same structural and narratological techniques to put the audience in a mode of apprehension conducive to belief. She relies on the work of a sociologist (Robin Wooffitt), two folklorists (Bennett and Kirsi Hänninen), and the fiction and nonfiction of M. R. James. She shows how narrators demonstrate their own credibility by establishing the normalcy of their lives prior to and after supernatural encounters. They introduce an ambiguity that allows the audience to experience the encounter as they did: through the power of narrative. Johnston then uses this example of memorates as an analogy for explicating in the subsequent section, titled "Ancient Narrators of Remarkable Incidents"—incidents reported by ancient writers such as Homer, Hesiod, Bacchylides, and Pindar. In this section, she...


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pp. 356-359
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