Monday, August 26, 2013

On "Kinship Myth in Ancient Greece" by Lee Patterson ***

This book takes on the subject of how myth is related to diplomacy--and most specifically to diplomacy in ancient Greece. If one knows Greek mythology well (I don't), then this book might well prove of quite a bit of interest. I found myself, however, lost in the details, while I found the general idea of the book quite compelling--that is, exploring how we create myths to forge desired relationships. Conquering another country, for example, sounds a lot better when the venture is constructed in as imperialism but as "freeing a people" from other oppressors or "reuniting" an old kingdom. If one can pose your political and military ends as attempts to aid your fellow family members from long ago, perhaps your victims may well feel placated or your own peoples will find strong enough reason to support your purposes. Patterson, in his introduction, gives the example of Hitler claiming early on that the British shared his Arian roots, extending olive branch while he did as he wanted with the mainland of Europe--the Brits didn't buy it.

The most interesting discussion of a specific incident in the book for me was the one that was loosely linked to the Bible, the stories of which I am much more familiar with. Knowing the particular myth and peoples under discussion aids understanding--and interest--a lot. The incident involves letters being sent between Sparta and the high priest Jonathan, claiming kinship with one another. Patterson investigates the supposed roots of such kinship and also whether the letters were likely authentic. Patterson notes that the roots may stem back to Daenus, a son of Abraham through Keturah, though the myth itself seems focused more on Moses. Apparently, descendents of Daenus may have fled from Egypt for Greece instead of the Promised Land. (There are also legends about the tribe of Dan trading with--and partly settling in--Greece, which Patterson doesn't broach.) Anyway, the idea that a Greek king would write to Jonathan about their common ancestry in Abraham, Patterson finds to be dubious. More likely, the correspondence was more due to Jonathan than to the Greeks--hence, the emphasis on common ancestry in Abraham rather than in a Greek figure. The details of the story would have, perhaps, helped Jonathan strengthen his position among the Jews by appeasing certain Hellenic Jews. Anyway, it was an interesting discussion of how a story about one's past--true, fabricated, or some combination thereof--can be put to use for power ends.

Patterson was my roommate for two years of graduate school, and part of this research started as he was working on his thesis. I'm glad to finally have had the chance to read the final results.

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