Book and article reviews: Scheid and Svenbro

John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro. La tortue et la lyre: Dans l’atelier du mythe antique. Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2014. ISBN 978-2-271-07883-4. 229pp. €22.00.

Yves Peyré


How were Greek myths elaborated? How can we understand them? What critical tools can help us develop a pragmatic approach towards “a poetics of myth”? Such are some of the questions to which John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro offer new answers in their exploration of “the workshop” of the myths of Antiquity. Their inquiry, which started in their preceding book, Le métier de Zeus: Mythe du tissage et du tissu dans le monde gréco-romain (Paris: La Découverte, 1994; rep. Paris: Errance, 2003), is not only continued, but deepened and strengthened in La tortue et la lyre.  A myth, the authors contend, is not primarily constituted by its narrative structure; it is rather an original element—material object or polysemic name—that generates a mythical narrative in a given culture, in the same way as it also generates a pictorial representation or a ritual. The roots of this approach are to be traced in Louis Gernet’s study of the notion of “value” in ancient Greece, Marcel Détienne’s work on the mythical statute of the olive tree, and Jean-Pierre Vernant’s analyses of the name of Oedipus.  At the same time, while taking stock of Lévi-Strauss’s masterly theoretical contribution to the study of myth, John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro dissociate themselves from his proposition that philology, though it might prove marginally useful, is not primordial in mythological studies. Their method, in contrast, is based on detailed textual commentary and careful philological analysis.


The foundation myth of Carthage with Dido’s oxhide trick belongs in a series of foundation myths where bovines are shown to take a symbolical part and is related to the story of the foundation of Alexandria, whose limits were circumscribed with flour, a symbol of prosperity, but also of the interface between wheat (raw and outside the city) and bread (cooked and inside the city). Pre-existing symbolical associations generate these mythical narratives. Similarly, the association of the tortoise shell with a stone, and consequently also a tombstone, together with the crafting of the first lyre out of a tortoise shell, bring about an imaginative nexus in which funerary slabs, which prevent the dead from coming back to life, are in direct opposition to the lyre, which is operative in helping to return from the after-world. In this nexus, Hermes’ stealing Apollo’s herd of cattle is articulated on the one hand with the story of Battos’ unreliability and on the other hand with the myth of Orpheus. The three associated myths of Orpheus, Amphion and Kerambos provide an elucidation of the contrast between the lyre and the “aulos” (flute), enlightening considerations on pastoralism as a metaphor for the writing of poetry, an intriguing analysis of Orpheus as “orphos” (sea-perch), and a fascinating interpretation of Orpheus leaving behind, under the guise of Eurydice, his feminine self, before he became a man. Certain myths tend to coalesce, like those of Hyakinthos and Krokos, with the discus as “generator”, or those of Hyakinthos and Ajax, generated by the linguistic structure of their names. For Scheid and Svenbro’s “generative mythology” is as carefully attentive to “the voice of words” as to “the voice of things”. The myths of Philoctetes, of Herakles or of Vertumnus are shown to unfold from the very names of the characters.


In the course of their demonstration, Scheid and Svenbro shed new light on the literary texts they reread. Vertumnus as metamorphic god leads to an interpretation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as metaphorizing the translation of Greek culture into Roman culture.  An examination of myths dealing with woven material leads to an explanation of Herodotus’ story of Syloson’s cloak and a compelling interpretation of Horace’s Ode, I, 5—on which interesting light is thrown, incidentally and unexpectedly, by the passage in the Odyssey where Leucothea lends Ulysses a veil to save him from shipwreck.


One of the general conclusions is that, although a “tragic moment”, in Vernant’s phrase, can be discerned in ancient Greece, no equivalent specifically mythopoietic period can be delimitated; according to the authors, one does not observe an age of mythical creation followed by an age of exegesis; mythical thought is still operative in the Hellenistic age in Greece, and in imperial Rome as well. Myth offers the possibility to explore the collective imagination that invents a culture. 


A highly cultured and highly readable book, La tortue et la lyre originates in seminars held at the École pratique des hautes études (Paris) in the 1990s and the Collège de France in 2003. From these origins it transmits a climate of intellectual energy, a poised combination of scholarly precision and bold innovation that keeps the reader’s inquisitiveness constantly on the alert.


How to cite


John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro. La tortue et la lyre: Dans l’atelier du mythe antique. Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2014. Reviewed by Yves Peyré. In Studies in Early Modern Mythology 3 (2015).

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