Johnston, Sarah Iles

Project on Greek Myth

My book on Greek myth will focus on what I argue are five particularly salient features of not only Greek myth but myth more generally. The first, ‘naming’ explores the unrecognized importance of the fact that Greek myths are populated by well-known characters. In contrast to the work of (e.g.) Walter Burkert, I emphasize not that Greek myths shared narrative plot lines, but rather that by drawing actors from a pool of characters whose names are already associated with well-known histories and personalities, Greek myths were able to gesture towards a great deal more than they stated; they could invoke ideas or themes that need not (and sometimes should not) be made explicit.

The second, ‘creating,’ emphasizes the continual acts of bricolage that were performed by the narrators of myth: I argue that continual, and usually recognizable, acts of re-creation were crucial to the successful use of myth not only by poets but also by religious leaders. Related to this is my third topic of focus, ‘evoking and enacting,’ in which I examine the ways in which the narration of a myth establishes a paradigm or precedent for action by the gods in the here and now. Going beyond the usual ‘myth and ritual’ theories, I suggest that the evocation of a mythic situation by merely a few words was understood to effect powerful change.

My final two foci build on important recent work by classicists. ‘Concatenations’ develops John Scheid´s and Jesper Svenbro’s argument that a myth is a ‘concatenation of categories’ (categories such as ‘weaving,’ or ‘marriage’) that engenders culturally significant stories, rituals and images. In particular, I emphasize the kaleidoscopic way in which such categories can slide into and out of relationship with one another to create webs of interlocking, yet independently meaningful, myths. ‘Affordances,’ builds on Maurizio Bettini’s important insight that the animals, plants, and other objects that populated a myth remained ‘open’ to multiple, sometimes even contradictory, readings. I take this further, arguing (in contrast to the usual ‘symbolic’ readings of myths) that it is precisely the possibility of simultaneously evoking multiple meanings that enables myth to do its ideological work.

Selected Publications

Johnston, S.I., Ancient Greek Divination (Blackwell 2008).

Johnston, S.I., Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets (with Fritz Graf) (Routledge 2007).

Johnston, S.I., Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece (U California Press 1999).

Johnston, S.I., Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide (editor-in-chief) (Harvard University Press 2004).

Johnston, S.I., Medea. Essays on Medea in Ancient Literature, Art, Philosophy and Myth (co-editor with James J. Clauss) (Princeton University Press 1997).