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Cosmography and the Idea of Hyperborea in Ancient Greece. A Philology of Worlds

Fritz Graf
p. 339-341
Référence(s) :

Renaud Gagné, Cosmography and the Idea of Hyperborea in Ancient Greece. A Philology of Worlds, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2021. 1 vol. 14,5 × 22,5 cm, xv+553 p. ISBN : 978-1-108-83323-3.

Texte intégral

1The title of Renaud Gagné’s book hides as much as it reveals. Hyperborea, R.G.’s name for the country of the Hyperboreans, is attested in a wide variety of ancient texts on those fascinating and enigmatic people of the farthest North, of which the A. proposes a “slow reading”: this reading is also a test case in which he tries out his “anthropological philology”. “Philology” might seem too narrow a term, since R.G. does not only look at the texts that talk about the Hyperboreans from Hesiod to the Roman Empire or, in Homer’s case, that do not talk about them, but also at images on vases and temple pediments; images are important enough that he adds a critical excursus on Alfred Gell’s theoretical terminology (p. 159 sq.). This material is all part of what the A. sees as the archive of Greek knowledge on the Hyperboreans, from which each individual text we possess helped itself and at the same time, by its own composition, contributed to it. Cosmography on the other hand is the resemantization of a term that might have been coined as a title of an otherwise unknown work that Diogenes Laertius listed among Democritus’ φυσικά; late Roman and early modern authors used this term, in parallel and opposition to geographia, for the description of a well ordered world in its totality. R.G. uses the term not in the same sense as his ancient and early modern colleagues, to characterize his own scholarly effort, but as a category for the work of an author such as Pindar whose Olympian 3 he uses as an introductory example and who composes “possible worlds that coexist on a stage of conflicts and alternatives”, what he also calls “total space” (p. 27).

  • 1 See esp. M.L. Ryan, Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory, Bloomington, 1 (...)
  • 2 See the summary in Ph. Descola, La Composition des mondes. Entretiens avec Pierre Charbonnier, Pa (...)

2The resemantization of a traditional concept of universal geography happens not just on the background of a by now almost undisputed relativist approach to historiography, but more specifically through two theoretical approaches that focus on the narration of space, and that supplement each other. One is the narratological “Possible Worlds Theory” that understands fiction “as a mode of travel into textual space”.1 The theory distinguishes a possible world created in narrative fiction from other “non-factual worlds”. But this description also carries with it the ontological distinction between non-factual and factual worlds, following the popular use of “fiction” as invention. For R.G., this crucial distinction has become irrelevant through Philippe Descola’s “felicitous expression” (p. 24) that the composition of any world is an act of “worlding”, of (to turn to Descola’s slightly more elegant French) “mondiation”. The discursive act of mondiation creates in its totality a possible world: when one refuses to accept a special ontological status for one specific “true” world, any world is just this, the outcome of a discursive, narrative creation of a possible world.2

  • 3 As a curiosity, I cannot refrain from pointing out the subclass “PM Hyperborean languages” in the (...)

3But R.G.’s book is not just an anthropological philologist’s answer to Plutarch’s “On the Malice of Herodotus”—or, more seriously, a necessary corrective to the historian’s traditional quest for a true and a false account and to the scholarly fight about authority and the concomitant essentializing of some answers, but not others. This the book is as well: it imports into the study of the ancient world Descola’s rejection of certain anthropological accounts and justifies R.G.’s rejection of any anthrolopogical, historical or linguistic reality of the Hyperboreans, be it in ancient or modern discourse.3

  • 4 This auctorial creation of possible worlds explains (and perhaps even justifies) the philological (...)

4More importantly, R.G.’s five chapters offer a “slow reading” (p. 410) of the possible worlds that Greek literature created in its narrations on the Hyperboreans.4 The chapters 3 to 5 present, in diachronical sequence, the main ancient texts on the Hyperboreans, from the Hesiodic Catalogue (Chapter 3) to the “Hellenistic reconfigurations” by, among others, Hekataios of Abdera, Megasthenes and the shadowy Simmias of Rhodes (Chapter 5); the historian of religion will be interested in the mythical prefiguration of the grain tithe to Eleusis in a lost speech of the orator Lycurgos where the orator uses the Abaris story to buttress and legitimize the Athenian claim (p. 368 sq.). In a few cases (such as with the texts from Attic tragedy), the detailed presentation of the archive feels somewhat heavy going; on the other hand, discussions such as that of Herodotus on the Hyperboreans (p. 299–319) or of the often neglected archaic epic poem Arimaspeia of Aristeas of Proconessus (p. 243–265) as a product of the “Milesian cultural orbit” are impressively insightful, and the suggestions on the role of the Metapontine Pythagoreans in shaping of the tradition on Abaris and Apollo are provocative, even if they have to remain very tentative (p. 282–294). This core of the archive is preceded by a long introductory chapter that endeavors to do two things. First, it presents R.G.’s understanding of Greek narrative cosmography, illustrated by a discussion of Pindar’s Olympian 3, with its story of how Heracles, in order to provide the athletes in his newly founded sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia with shadow and a source for wreaths, imported olive trees from the Hyperboreans (p. 1–24; the Greek text and English translation of the poem is added on p. 77 sq.). Secondly, a well-informed chapter treats the development of the Greek and Latin term “cosmography” between Democritus and early modern Europe, with an emphasis on the late antique and early modern uses, with the aim to contrast the ancient and early modern meaning of the term from Gagné’s own use (p. 24–79).

5Most relevant for the study of Greek religion, the first two chapters that together form Part 1: “Sanctuaries of Cosmography”, focus on the few Greek sanctuaries that were thought to have a Hyperborean connection (p. 83–200). With the exception of the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia, they are all connected with Apollo: besides the great Apolline sanctuaries of Delos and Delphi, there are two less prominent monuments of this connection. One is the altar of Apollo and a statue of Aristeas on the agora of Italiote Metapontium, founded according to local tradition by Aristeas himself (Hdt. 4.15; Gagné, p. 282 sq.). The other one is the connection of Apollo Didymeus with the Pontic North expressed in the text of an intriguing bone tablet from the region of Olbia that is dated, with some reserves, to the late sixth century BCE. This unique object, whose form vaguely recalls a series of smaller bone tablets from the agora of Olbia, contains lines that are best understood as an oracular blessing of the Milesian colony by the Apollo of the main Milesian sanctuary (analyzed on p. 88–104).

6Greeks could thus think about their sanctuaries in terms of their place in the overall structure of the world, with a claim that lifts a few sanctuaries out of their ordinarily restricted local role and relevance and legitimizes their claims for a wider role in the Greek world. Apollo enters this complex because he is an epiphanic god (R.G. [p. 144] nicely remembers Wilamowitz’s label “der Wandergott” for Apollo). R.G. explores these Apolline epiphanies in Chapter 2, among other things by a detailed analysis of the notoriously difficult pediments of his temple in Bassai and the easier one of the Alcmeonid temple of Delphi: in both cases, the divine epiphany is connected with his music. Apollo’s epiphanic arrival from far away is explained not because he is a foreign god, as historicising scholars argued two generations ago, but because Apollo’s musical presence creates the sanctuary space in the words and sounds of the hymns; they do the same in the case of Dionysos, another epiphanic Wandergott who shares with Apollo the ritual year in Delphi, and whose presence is also musically articulated, as the large inscription of Philodamos’ Paean (p. 195 Powell) demonstrates; I understand its musical notation as an attempt to bring the very sound of the hymn back into the sanctuary space. It is, however, important to understand that this role assigned to Apollo’s epiphany simplifies things: divine epiphanies usually demonstrate the helpful divine intervention in a crisis, as in the case of the Galatians attacking Delphi (R.G., p. 187–200), and the Bassai Apollo got his epiclesis “the Helper” from his intervention in a military crisis, as Pausanias claims (8.41.7); one should also recall Apollo on the West pediment of the Zeus temple in Olympia, where music is far away.

  • 5 On the reception of Descola, see e.g. P. Skafish, “The Descola Variations. The Ontological Geogra (...)
  • 6 As does the well-informed recourse to narratology, as exemplified recently in Sarah Iles Johnston (...)

7This short summary does not do justice to the rich and complex discussion that is based on a large number of ancient texts and documents and underfed by an almost frighteningly large bibliography (p. 419–520). Besides the many detailed insights, the merit of the book is its attempt to open the study of the ancient world up to the paradigm-shift that Philippe Descola’s Par-delà nature et culture is slowly inaugurating in cultural studies, although not to the Descola of the notorious four “modes of identification” but of the conceptualization of mondiation/“worlding” to describe what happens in the process of perception.5 Even though the most problematic items of our scholarly inheritance have been discarded a while ago, I agree with R.G. that “the romantic and evolutionist programmes […] will long continue to undergird research on myth”. Slow reading of the relevant dossier and a deep understanding of narratology, be it with or without the recourse to Descola, will help finally to wean us off.6

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Notes

1 See esp. M.L. Ryan, Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory, Bloomington, 1991.

2 See the summary in Ph. Descola, La Composition des mondes. Entretiens avec Pierre Charbonnier, Paris, 2014, p. 238.

3 As a curiosity, I cannot refrain from pointing out the subclass “PM Hyperborean languages” in the categorization of the Library of Congress; the category goes back to the biologist and explorer of Siberia, Peter Leopold von Schrenck (1816–1894).

4 This auctorial creation of possible worlds explains (and perhaps even justifies) the philologically idiosyncratic coinage “Hyperboria” as a country-name.

5 On the reception of Descola, see e.g. P. Skafish, “The Descola Variations. The Ontological Geography of Beyond Nature and Culture”, Qui Parle 25, no. 1/2 (2016), p. 65–93.

6 As does the well-informed recourse to narratology, as exemplified recently in Sarah Iles Johnston’s The Story of Myth, Harvard, 2017.

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Fritz Graf, « Cosmography and the Idea of Hyperborea in Ancient Greece. A Philology of Worlds »Kernos, 35 | 2022, 339-341.

Référence électronique

Fritz Graf, « Cosmography and the Idea of Hyperborea in Ancient Greece. A Philology of Worlds »Kernos [En ligne], 35 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 février 2024, consulté le 09 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/kernos/4286 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/kernos.4286

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