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The Invention of Greek "Literature"

Ruth Scodel

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Ancient Greek has no word for “literature” (“μουσικήwithout a requirement for music or the main content of παιδεία?).   Yet Greeks created institutions, public and private, Panhellenic and local, supporting the creation and transmission of literature, including rhapsodic competitions, dramatic festivals, and symposia.  Schools taught both performance and reading; with further literacy, there were libraries, a book trade, and the apparatus of auxiliary texts— glossaries, commentary, epitomies.  Greeks clearly treat some verbal productions as having particular qualities, and they developed canons and debated the hierarchy of genres and texts.  Yet they never theorized a clear division between “high literature” as textual products deserving of aesthetic evaluation and aspiring to special status and other, less worthy kinds of text.  They surely made such a distinction, especially in the selection of texts for educational curricula, but criticism does not overtly police this boundary.  The Poeticsargues about the mimetic in the definition of poetry and praises some works over others, but Aristotle does not worry about doggerel.  If a text counted as literature, it was always assumed to have an author, whose fictional biographies reflect broader cultural concerns (Beecroft 2010, 60-170), even amid uncertainty about who that author was, and Greeks had respect for the textual integrity of literature.   Works purely for practical use could be freely altered for particular purposes and authorship could be ignored.  However, this distinction does not easily divide literature from technical writing, since mathematical and scientific treatises also had authors and textual integrity. The Pinakesof Callimachus divided authors by genre, but there was no basic division between literature and everything else (Blum 1991); the full title, Πίνακεςτῶνἐνπάσῃπαιδείαδιαλαμψαντωνκαὶὧνσυνέγραψαν, is revealing:  Callimachus records only the outstanding, but seems to take a definition of paideiafor granted.  

The peculiarities of how Greeks created a specifically literary culture without ever defining literature probably belong to the contingencies of history and the way literacy developed.  Greeks absorbed from elsewhere took crops, technologies, divinities, mythology, narrative patterns, imagery, iconography, luxury goods. In literature specifically, they adopted beast-fable (Holzberg 2002, 14-16); the Succession Myth of Hesiod’s Theogonycomes from Hurrian through Hittite (Rutherford); most scholars believe that Gilgameshhas influenced the story of the Iliad (Schein 1984, 17-18, Haubold 2013): and the Flood myth reverberated in Greek poetry both directly and indirectly. Even if the reader is convinced by only a small fraction of the arguments for Eastern origins of Greek material (Bachvarova 2016, Currie 2016, Habubold 2013, West 1997), it is a considerable body.  Yet the first Greek translation of a literary text is the Septuagint. These phenomena, surely are not unrelated.  One connection is surely the persistence of oral performance as the most familiar and often most prestigious medium for Greek literary practice.  Early Greek absorbed but did not translate because all poetic and narrative creation and transmission was oral and so subject to variation at every stage.  The transition to writing was gradual and was entangled from its beginning with canon-formation, which was in part a side-effect of festival organization and prestige-competition among poleis. By the time written texts circulated in a way that might have invited translation, Greek assumptions of their own superiority probably inhibited it.

Even the earliest Greek poetry includes depictions of and reflections on performance (Hesiod, Theog. 98-103).  In early texts, poetic performance is primarily a source of delight and a refreshing distraction from everyday concerns, but poetry is simultaneously a purveyor of wisdom.  As Greek systematic theorizing developed, the poetic genres came to be the center of a system of family resemblances.  History, for example, like epic, was narrative concerned with important events of the past, while oratory, like poetry, evoked powerful emotions.  So Greeks were able to not only have a literary culture that could in turn be adapted by others, but to theorize a field they never really defined.

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Ancient Mediterranean Literatures

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