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How To Do Things Without Maps | New Cartographies & the Cyclops

Nolan Epstein

Stanford University

Mapping a Greek drama is practically impossible. The problem with making a clear representation of explicit and implicit references in a play is that this genre—more so than others—is constantly gesturing to outside locales and returning to the (fictional) deictic context. If one tries to visualize the sequence of place-references in a drama, as I do to begin the paper, the result is a tangled web—paths everywhere, constantly doubling back to touch home-base. The dramatists were masters at using all forms of deixis to guide their audience’s minds seamlessly back to the fictional hic-et-nunc even while drawing on imagery from all corners of the ancient world. An audience followed a play’s geography like tethered ping-pong balls, snapping back to the center as soon as being shot outwards. Instead of wrestling with how to fit complex itineraries onto modern borders, coastlines, and Cartesian grids, we ought to uncover a mode of visualizing dramatic topographies that better approximates a world that was (so Purves, 2010) proto-cartographic. If, as Suksi (in Hawes, 2018) argues, the idea of the map was crucial to the tragedian’s conception of his poetic function, “Thus, it is not only in early prose narratives, but in Attic tragedy also that we see the appropriation of the divine cartographic vision of epic and an independence from the Muses for the project of mapping the world” (220), then we must develop map-making techniques better suited to the ancient context and to the dramatic interplay of real and imaginative topographies.

Recently, classicists have taken to cartography. We have maps of Callimachus’ Aitia (Asper in Acosta-Hughes et al., 2011), the Homeric Hymns, Herodotus, and Thucydides (in Barker et al., 2016), and Homer’s Catalogue of Ships (Jasnow et al., 2018). Yet all these maps use aerial views that, familiar to GPS-users, were foreign to ancients. Striving to respect Greece’s cartographic context, the second half of this paper will explain how to construct plots of absolute distances between places in Euripides’ Cyclops (a short, and so instructive, satyr-play). Such plots resemble musical staffs: each place, like each note, has its own line while gaps between lines respect geographic magnitudes. Plotting a text in this way is visually un-cluttered and easy-to-read. We can display information that cannot be crammed into world maps: line numbers along the x-axis tracking the play’s progression; color-coding for time/tense; connections between points representing continuous/discontinuous itineraries; and, diagrams of the persistent back-and-forth between the setting (i.e., Polyphemus’ Aetnean cave) and the outside world.

I next present the several advantages of visualizing the Cyclops with this tool. Advantages include: i.) the ability to zoom from proximate to distant orientations on the dramatic topography (e.g., we can effortlessly compare the shapes of localized itineraries around Sicily to larger orderings such as Odysseus’ wide-ranging list of Poseidon’s cult sites throughout Greece, 285-312); ii.) the capacity to see how different characters strategically deploy geographic rhetoric, such as how Odysseus (in the passage cited above) uses an intricate itinerary to bring Sicily notionally closer to mainland Greece, how Polyphemus (316-346) resists Odysseus by compressing his world-view to achieve a closed-off conception of Sicily’s place in Greek geography, or how the Satyrs capture the divine expansiveness of Dionysius’ wanderings (1-26); iii.)the capability to contrast visualizations of this Sicilian play (the only one of its kind to survive) with representations of other ancient texts pertaining to the island (e.g., Pindar’s odes, the Odyssey). I conclude that these advantages facilitate understanding of how Euripides tried (or did not try) to treat Sicily as a real locale with a tangible and contiguous topography with which audiences may or may not have been familiar. Taking this innovative approach, modern readers may readily follow the imaginative movements of the dramatic action, thereby coming closer to the real effects that Euripides’ play had on his audience’s spatial experiences and memories.

Session/Panel Title

Topography and Material Culture in Fifth-Century Drama

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