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Mapping the World in Greek Tragedy

Aara Suksi

This paper builds on a recent discussion of map-making and early Greek prose narratives, by adding a consideration of some world-mapping narratives in Athenian tragedy. In Space and Time in Ancient Greek Narrative, Alex Purves observes a distinction in epic narratives between the divine worldview, which can see the whole universe at once, and the human one, which is limited. Thus the bard, about to recite the catalogue of ships, invokes the Muse; he needs the help of divine vision to outline his map of the world (Purves 36). Purves notes that when the first maps began to be drawn, there also appeared the first descriptions of the world which do not rely on the Muse for divine inspiration (97ff), and she points specifically to the prose narratives of Pherecydes and Herodotus as marking a break from the divine monopoly on world-making in epic poetry.

A discussion of Athenian tragedy is outside the scope of Purves’ book. This paper takes tragedy into account as a non-prose genre offering important examples of narrative world-mapping which do not rely on the Muses’ vision for inspiration or information.

For instance, Prometheus’ description of Io’s wanderings in Prometheus Bound can be compared with Herodotus’ account of the world structured as a journey-narrative. Further, like Pherecydes’ prose account of Zas’ gift to Chthonie of a map-robe, which transforms her from something invisible and unknowable into the visible Gaia, or surface of the earth (Purves 100-108), Prometheus’ map-making, as he offers it to Io, navigates the process of her transformation from the unknown daughter of a river, concealed in an alien natural form, into a renowned bride of Zeus. Io’s identity here, as in Aeschylus’ Suppliants, marks and divides the surface of the world with the words ‘Ionia’ and ‘Bosphoros’ (Seaford 143). This map-making is a tragic response to the Hesiodic cosmogony, inspired by the Muses, but in Prometheus Bound, we have an explicit and subversive displacement of divine Mnemosyne and her daughters by the new technology of the alphabet, an invention claimed by the humanistic champion Prometheus earlier in the play (γραμμάτων τε συνθέσεις, μνήμην ἁπάντων, μουσομτορ᾽ ἐργάνην… 460-61). Admittedly, Prometheus himself is divine, but his role here is to defy and replace the old order with technologies enabling humans to be independent of Zeus and the Muses. About to describe at length the extensive map of Io’s future wanderings (πολύδονον πλάνην, 788) Prometheus exhorts her to “inscribe it on the remembering writing tablets of [her] mind” (ἐγγράφου σὺ μνήμοσιν δέλτοις φρενῶν, 789).

Equally defiant in her subversion of the established order is Clytemnestra, whose beacon speech in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon lays claim to a new technology that supplants the slower map-making of her husband’s epic Trojan expedition (Rosenmeyer 116-117). Goldhill discusses (50-51) the function of this speech as the presentation of a new system of signs, which Clytemnestra goes on to interpret for the chorus, as she constructs her own narrative about the fall of Troy. As Clytemnestra inserts herself here into the epic tradition, she is informed not by the Muses but by the semiotic devices she herself has invented.

Purves’ observation is compelling, that graphic map-making and prose travel narratives appear at the same time in Greek culture, but these pre-Herodotean examples of map-making narratives in Greek tragedy, a non-prose genre, add a further dimension to the discussion, and suggest that the role of increasing literacy in general should be taken into account in a consideration of the conceptual ordering of space in the Greek imagination in the archaic and classical periods.

Session/Panel Title

Greek Tragedy: Rhetoric, Cartography, and the Death of Astyanax

Session/Paper Number

68.2

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