Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry Part I: Twelve Olympian Essays Essay 5, Excursus on methods of reconstruction

2022.07.18 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. Before I proceed to analyze various myths about athleticism that can be traced back, by way of reconstruction, to Indo-European mythological traditions, I present here, as an excursus, a summary of methods I use in reconstructing such myths. This excursus is extracted from a short essay, which originally concerned a different major subject, in Classical Inquiries 2017.03.23, which was in turn extracted from a much longer essay, which concerned yet another different major subject, in Nagy 2011. In the first eighteen paragraphs, I repeat the paragraph-numbers (preceded by “§”) for the observations I had put together in Classical Inquiries 2017.03.23 (except that I omit the original §§8–10), and I add the paragraph-numbers (preceded by “¶”), where relevant, from Nagy 2011.

“The Scribe” (1927). Arthur Szyk (1894–1951). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1/¶10. For reconstructing either backward or forward in time, both diachronic and historical perspectives are needed:

A. diachronic perspectives need to be correlated with synchronic perspectives

B. these two perspectives, diachronic and synchronic, need to be correlated in turn with historical perspectives.

§2/¶11. In using the terms synchronic and diachronic, I rely on working definitions recorded in a book stemming from lectures given by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1916:117). Here I paraphrase these definitions from the original French wording:

A synchronic perspective has to do with the static aspect of linguistic analysis, whereas a diachronic perspective deals with various kinds of evolution. So synchrony and diachrony refer respectively to an existing state of a language and to phases of evolution in the language. I note especially the equation here of the words diachronic and evolutionary.

§3/¶12. And now I need to add that a diachronic or evolutionary perspective is not the same thing as a historical perspective.

§4/¶13. The remark that I just added here about diachrony and history is based on the following formulation (Nagy 1990a:21n18 at 1§9):

It is a mistake to equate diachronic with historical, as is often done. Diachrony refers to the potential for evolution in a structure, whereas history is not restricted to phenomena that are structurally predictable.

§5/¶15. In the same general context, with reference to synchronic as well as diachronic approaches to the study of cultural evidence (Nagy 1979/1999:xv with n3 at §25), I quote a relevant formulation by the anthropologist Pierre-Yves Jacopin: “Both synchrony and diachrony are abstractions extrapolated from a model of reality” (Jacopin 1988:35–36).

§6/¶16. A key word in the formulation by Jacopin is model. Both synchronic and diachronic perspectives are a matter of model building. We can build synchronic models to describe and explain the workings of a structure as we see it attested in a given historical context. We can likewise build diachronic models to describe and explain how that given structure may have evolved from one of its phases into other phases. What we have built, however, is a set of models to be tested on historical realities. The models are not the same thing as the realities themselves. And the realities of history as a process are not dependent on such models. History may either confirm or upset any or all aspects of our models, since the contingencies of history do not need to follow the rules of existing structures.

§7/¶17. The aim, then, in applying synchronic and diachronic perspectives is to build synchronic and diachronic models for the description of structures and for visualizing the evolution of these structures. And the building of such models may be applied not only to linguistic structures but also to the cultural structures of traditions in general (as I showed both in Nagy 1979/1999 and in Nagy 1990a).

[The original §§8–10, and a part of the original §7, have been omitted here.]

§11/¶20. Before I continue, I need to delimit further my use of the terms synchronic and diachronic, as well as my use of the term historical.

A. The terms synchronic and diachronic need to be applied consistently from the objective standpoint of an outsider who is thinking about a given structure, not from the subjective standpoint of an insider who is thinking within that structure (Nagy 1990a:4 at 0§11). Such an objective standpoint enhances the synchronic as well as the diachronic perspectives that are needed for describing structures and for explaining how these structures evolve. This way of looking at a given structure helps avoid the pitfall of assuming that one’s own synchronic or diachronic perspectives are identical with the perspectives of those who were part of the culture in which that structure was historically anchored. Such an assumption runs the risk of misreading the historical context in which the structure is attested.

B. Whereas synchronic and diachronic perspectives are needed to describe a given structure as it exists at a given time and as it evolves through time, historical perspectives are needed to describe what actually happened to that structure. As I noted already, what happened in history can be unpredictable, since we cannot predict the contingencies of history. So, when it comes to reconstructing what happened to a given structure, it is not enough to use a purely diachronic perspective. As I have also already noted, a purely diachronic perspective is restricted to phenomena that are structurally predictable.

§12/¶21. And now I add a third delimination: in analyzing a given structure, synchronic and diachronic perspectives need to be applied before historical judgments or prejudgments can be made.

§13/¶22. The third delimitation I have just added is especially important in situations where we find little or no historical evidence for earlier attestations of a given structure. I am addressing here one of the biggest problems that historians face when they try to view structures over time. If they apply only a historical perspective as they reconstruct a given structure backward in time, back to the era when that structure is actually documented, they find themselves limited to the realities they find in that era. And the only way they can reconstruct further back in time is to find further documentation stemming from earlier eras.

§14/¶23. By contrast, a diachronic perspective provides also for the reconstruction of realities that that are historically undocumented. And reconstruction from a diachronic perspective is not restricted to the hindsight of history. A diachronic perspective not only makes it possible to reconstruct backward in time by tracing the evolution of a given structure back to undocumented phases of that structure. It also makes it possible to reconstruct forward in time.

§15/¶24. In my own work on linguistics (Nagy 1972|2008:19), I applied the concept of reconstructing backward and forward in time with reference to the term Common Greek, which refers to a diachronic model developed by linguists. I offer here a summary:

I am speaking here about the historical evidence for a chronological demarcation between pre-documented and documented eras of the Greek language. Experts used to place this demarcation somewhere around the eighth century BCE, which is the era when alphabetic writing was first being introduced into the Greek-speaking world. The Greek language as it existed in what was understood to be the pre-documented era on the farther side of this demarcation could only be reconstructed diachronically, all the way back to a hypothetical proto-language known to linguists as Common Greek. This proto-language, Common Greek, is not a historical reality but a construct, a diachronic model. But then a major shift in demarcation took place, signaled by the decipherment of Linear B, which was a system of syllabic writing that dates back to the second millennium BCE. Once the decipherment revealed that the language written in this script was an earlier form of Greek, the documented era of the Greek language needed to be pushed back into the second millennium BCE, and this newly demarcated older era could now reveal new historical facts about the language. These new facts in some ways confirmed but in other ways contradicted the reconstructions achieved by way of diachronic perspectives that had already been developed before the decipherment of Linear B (Nagy 1972|2008:33). Those previous reconstructions, which were dominated by the hindsight of later history, needed to be modified in the light of earlier history. So now a new diachronic model of Common Greek needed to be built by way of reconstructing backward in time, even farther back than before. And, now that an earlier historical phase of Greek had been discovered, this discovery required re-adjustments in how we reconstruct forward in time from that earlier phase to later phases.

§16/¶25. From this example, we can see that the diachronic process of reconstructing forward as well as backward in time depends on the data provided by historical evidence. But the actual reconstruction of structures depends primarily on diachronic and synchronic perspectives and only secondarily on a historical perspective. I say this because the historical perspective works only by hindsight, whereas the diachronic perspective allows for foresight as well, so to speak, by way of the procedure I describe here as reconstructing forward in time.

§17/¶26. For a prime example, I highlight here a set of findings achieved by applying another diachronic model. This model is another construct built by linguists, and this one is even vast than the model of Common Greek. The diachronic model I have in mind here is what German-speaking linguists call Indo-Germanic and other linguists call Indo-European or Common Indo-European or proto-Indo-European. I focus here on an example of what kinds of things we can find when we reconstruct forward as well as backward in Indo-European linguistics (Nagy 1979/1999:339–340 at §21):

The example centers on the etymology of the Greek word pontos (πόντος) ‘sea’, which is cognate with the following words in other Indo-European languages: Latin pōns ‘bridge’, Armenian hun ‘ford’, Old Church Slavonic рǫtǐ and Old Prussian pintis ‘path’, Sanskrit pánthāḥ and Avestan pantå ‘path’. When we reconstruct all these words backward in time, back to an undocumented common proto-language known to linguists as Common Indo-European or proto-Indo-European, such reconstruction backward in time does not help us fully comprehend the semantic relationship of the meaning ‘sea’ in Greek with such divergent meanings as ‘bridge’, ‘ford’, and ‘path’ in the other Indo-European languages. It is only after we reconstruct forward in time, taking into account all the comparative evidence we derive from the cognate languages that we factored into our reconstruction backward in time, that we can comprehend more fully the convergent meaning that unifies diachronically the divergent meanings of these words. This convergent meaning has to do with a crossing, over a dangerous body of water or over some other dangerous zone, that sacralizes the one who succeeds in achieving such a dangerous crossing (Nagy 1972|2008:48–49, following Benveniste 1954|1966:296–298). Only then, only after we have reconstructed forward in time, can we understand the contexts of the word pontos (πόντος) ‘sea’ in the earliest attested phases of Greek poetry, where we see expressions of dread about dangerous sea crossings and references to the sacralizing effect of such crossings. Further evidence comes from the derivative form Hellēs-pontos (Ἑλλήσ-ποντος), which is the name of a famous strait that we know as the Hellespont and which means etymologically ‘the crossing of Helle’, referring to a myth about a dangerous crossing of this strait by a girl named Helle and by her brother, who are being carried across the dangerous waters by a ram with a golden fleece: the girl falls off the ram and drowns in the Hellespont while her brother succeeds in crossing the strait and is thus sacralized.

§18¶27. This example shows that diachronic analysis, by way of reconstructing forward in time, can enhance not only historical analysis but also synchronic analysis, since a purely synchronic analysis of the attested contexts of pontos (πόντος) would yield only the meaning ‘sea’. The underlying sense of a dangerous crossing that sacralizes would be impossible to recover without applying a diachronic perspective.

§19. In my own work on mythology in general and on Greek mythology in particular, I have found it useful to apply—and to integrate—three different comparative methods: (1) typological, (2) genealogical, and (3) historical. For definitions and explanations of these terms, I cite §§3–6 of my article “The Epic Hero” (Nagy 2006). Here I concentrate on the second of the three methods I just listed, genealogical comparison. I will elaborate on the terminology in the paragraph that follows, but I should emphasize, even before elaborating, that such comparison centers on “genealogies” of the structures of myth, not of the personalities who figure as the “dramatis personae” of myth.

§20a. First, I comment on the term genealogical comparison. Here is an epitome of what I say about this term in §5 of the article (Nagy 2006) that I just cited:

The method I call genealogical comparison involves finding parallels between structures related to each other by way of a common source. I describe this comparative method as genealogical because it applies to parallelisms between cognate structures—that is, structures that derive from a common source, which would be an earlier structure. In the field of linguistics, such a genealogical method used to be called simply “la méthode comparative,” as we see in the title of a most influential book by Antoine Meillet, La méthode comparative en linguistique historique (1925). What is really meant by this title, however, is something more specific than just any kind of comparative method. That something is a structuralist method of comparison that depends on both synchronic and diachronic analysis of cognate structures being compared. While synchronic analysis views language as it exists at a given time and place, as I pointed out already in the Excursus, diachronic analysis views language as it evolves through time (Saussure 1916:117).

§20b. Second, I comment further on my mode of comparison as “genealogical,” based in part on findings I once gathered together in a single book, Greek Mythology and Poetics (Nagy 1990b). There I say at the very beginning that I accept in general the methods of comparative mythology as demonstrated perhaps most clearly in a three-volume series, Mythe et épopée, by Georges Dumézil (the original years of publication were 1968, 1971, 1973). The general approach of Dumézil was to take the comparative methodology of Indo-European linguistics beyond the level of pure language and to apply it on the level of myth as expressed by language. In this sense, it is appropriate to think of comparative mythology, more broadly, as comparative philology. I quote from Dumézil (1985:15; my translation):

One of the services that “comparative philology” can render the “separate philologies” [as, for example, Classical philology] is to protect them against their own unchecked attitudes concerning “origins,” to orient them toward the kind of empirical process, positive or negative, that goes beyond the uncertainty and consequent arbitrariness that can result from evaluating facts purely from a Greek or Roman or Indic or Scandinavian point of view.

§20c. Third, I comment further on the value of “comparative philology” in the study of Greek mythology. I epitomize here what I already said in Greek Mythology and Poetics (Nagy 1990b:7–8), though I have slightly adjusted my formulation to fit more closely the comparative evidence that we are about to consider:

Just as the Greek language is cognate with other Indo-European languages, including Old Norse, so also various Greek institutions are cognate with the corresponding institutions of other populations speaking other Indo-European languages. In other words, such diverse societies as represented by the ancient Greek and Roman and Germanic populations—to name just three, for now—have a common Indo-European heritage not only on the level of language but also on the level of society. To appreciate the breadth and the depth of this Indo-European heritage in Greek institutions, one has only to read through the prodigious collection of detailed evidence assembled by Émile Benveniste in Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes (1969). For now, however, I focus on Dumézil’s argument that one such Indo-European “institution” is the tradition of myth in general—and of epic in particular.


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