Afternoon Coffee Break: The Sea in the Greek Imagination by Marie-Claire Beaulieu

This blog post comes from Penn Press's Direct Mail and Advertising Manager, Tracy Kellmer, and continues a new series, the Afternoon Coffee Break, in which Tracy periodically shares her reflections and observations about a different Penn Press book that she has read. Read on and enjoy!

Just about every weekday afternoon you’ll find me at a coffee shop drinking a latte and reading a Penn Press book. There are many good reasons for wanting to work at a scholarly press, but my favorite one is that I get to read the books. I am not a scholar, and this is not a review.

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This week's book:

The Sea in the Greek Imagination by Marie-Claire Beaulieu

Why I picked it:

Like many children of the 1970s, I was introduced to Greek mythology through the amazing and wonderful movie Jason and the Argonauts. As a humanities student in college and graduate school, I was exposed to the Odyssey, Plato, and other mainstays of the Western tradition in due course. However, I had never read a treatment of Greek culture from an archaeological or classical disciplinary methodology. What better way to get my feet wet than a book about the sea?

What I discovered:

That I really enjoyed the careful attention given to interpreting the art of architecture, coins and pottery, and the telling and retelling of many versions of the same, or similar, stories. But I was struck very forcefully by my own limitations in connecting with the subject.

When a dolphin falls in love with a boy and accidentally drowns him, and brings the dead boy to the shore and purposefully beaches himself to die there as well, the narrative exhibits genuine pathos. I can understand a story about how a young man without a father can leap into the sea, and through the will of Poseidon, resurface as the divinely recognized, and rightful, leader of his people. When a woman has to endure the isolating trial of crossing the sea in a box only to be transformed by the gods into an aquatic bird, I can comprehend how this story may betray the anxiety a society can have about unmarried women. And I understand how a purposeful leap into the sea undertaken by worshippers of Dionysius symbolically represents the loss of control valued at certain times of the year, perhaps like Mardi Gras today. But these stories were not just myths to the ancient Greeks: they were the foundational texts of cults that inspired rituals of worship and touchstones of identity. In other words, they were the basis for religion, for faith.

Reading this book showed me that I am unable to accept any of these myths as true. And that is an insurmountable gap in understanding—no matter how well the book demonstrates that the sea was a symbol of the passage between life, death, and immortality, or tangible proof of the intervention of the divine in the human realm, I cannot truly see this through a believer’s eyes or feel it with a believer’s bones. It makes me wonder how long it will take before the truths of our current religions transform into stories, and what myths may take their place.

Favorite bit:

Isthmia was abandoned at the time of the sack of Corinth in 146 B.C. When Greeks from around the region and Hellenized Romans came back to Isthmia in 46 B.C., they found ruins and they knew a lot of stories about the area. When confronted with underground tunnels and reservoirs of water near a temple of Poseidon’s they interpreted the existence of these ruins as the tomb of Melicertes, who died when his mother Ino jumped into the sea holding him. (Some stories have her boiling him in a cauldron first.) According to the story, a dolphin “rescued” the lifeless body of Melicertes and brought him to shore, where King Sisyphus gave him a proper burial. A dolphin represented the will of the gods. So the new occupants imbued the ruins with the significance of a tomb marked by gods for worship. If they had done, or been able to do, the archaeologists’ work of finding out what the hydraulics were really for, they would have discovered it was a system to keep the track in the nearby stadium wet for games in honor of Poseidon himself.

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