Scholia Reviews ns 6 (1997) 8.
John Scheid & Jesper Svenbro (tr. Carol Volk), The Craft of Zeus, Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Cambridge Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 1996. Revealing Antiquity 9. Pp. viii + 226, incl. two appendixes and index. ISBN 0-674-17549-2. UKú25.50.
University of Cape Town
This subtle and thought-provoking book examines the network of associations which, Scheid and Svenbro (S&S) believe, surrounded the process of weaving and the idea of fabric in antiquity. As they explain in their introduction (pp. 2f.), they prefer to speak of this network as a myth rather than a metaphor, arguing that it constituted a `figure of thought' capable of generating new narratives and rituals throughout Greco-Roman antiquity (p. 4). S&S state that they are not following any particular theoretical model, but it becomes clear from a reading of their text that their approach is essentially a structuralist one, which finds an underlying mentalite/ -- the `myth' of warps, woofs, weaving and fabric -- to be a principle that organized ancient thinking about phenomena as different as politics, marriage and written texts. Central to their argument is the idea that the myth of weaving always comprehended the notion of combining and reconciling opposing elements.
S&S trace the myth of weaving through three sections, each containing two chapters the first of which looks at Greek material, the second at Roman. Section I, `Peplos' (pp. 7-50 ), takes its starting-point from a ritual, mentioned by Pausanias (5.16.2), in which 16 women from the cities of Elis wove a peplos for Hera, signalling the end of hostilities between Elis and Pisa. With this the authors associate the weaving of the new peplos for Athena at the Great Panathenaea, the sustained discussion of `political weaving' in Plato's Statesman (279b-283a, 305e-311c), and weaving metaphors in Aristophanes' Lysistrata (e.g., 567-68). The conclusion drawn is that `Rituals can represent . . . social peace as well as the comic poet or the philosopher, using the same elementary myth of dissimilar and opposing threads' (p. 32). In the second chapter of this section the authors argue -- on the basis of very little evidence, and therefore unconvincingly in my view -- that a similar ritual of offering a peplos to the goddess in times of crisis existed also in the Roman world. And they tease out links between labyrinths, weaving, and the `Troy Game,' described notably by Vergil in Aeneid 5.545- 74, arguing that the myth of weaving together disparate political elements was a powerful one not only for the Greeks but also the Romans.
Section II, `Chlaina' (pp. 51-108), examines the notion of erotic weaving, seeing this process too as a combination of opposed elements -- the stiff, vertical `male' warp thread, and the pliable, horizontal `female' woof thread. S&S here place a good deal of weight on the argument that, when applied to a range of female deities, the -thronos part of epithets such as poikilothronos, protothronos etc. has a `vestimentary significance,' and should be derived from throna, `flowered garment,' not thronos, `throne'. And they identify this garment with the cloak , symbolizing marriage, which is often said to cover married couples and lovers. I found it difficult to agree with S&S that, in the Greek world, `the union of spouses beneath the same nuptial blanket constitutes the norm' (p. 72). On the evidence they themselves present it hardly seems necessary to assume, as they do, that associations of marriage are evoked every time a couple under a cloak are mentioned -- any more than in Western society talk of `bed' should inevitably evoke marriage, just because `the marriage bed' is a potent symbol in this society. The second, `Roman,' chapter of this section offers an involved, suggestive, reading of Catullus 64. S&S present the arguments of Margherita Guarducci for a Roman wedding ceremony in which a large piece of fabric served as a symbol both of the union and of the husband's protection of the wife.[] They conclude, `what makes fabric the symbol or "myth," of marriage, are . . . material properties [`the interlacing of sexually dissimilar threads'], transformed into metaphors of conjugal relations . . . ' (p. 88). On this foundation they then construct their discussion of the extensive `vestimentary register' in Catullus 64, finding a web of associations between the coverlet on the marriage-bed of Peleus and Thetis, the clothing that slips from the body of Ariadne, the thread that guides Theseus through the Cretan labyrinth, the sail on his ship which he disastrously forgets to change, the spinning of the Fates, and the `crane dance' on Delos (this last item not is mentioned by Catullus, but forms part of the myth).
Metaphors, `myths,' of weaving signifying literary composition are investigated in `Textus,' the final section of the book (pp. 109-56). S&S cite the observation of Snyder that weaving, as a figure for the composition of poetry, is not used by Homer, but occurs first in the choral lyric poets.[] In their view this is due to the fact that, whereas Homer belonged to `a closed, unified world,' Pindar and Bacchylides belonged to `an open and contradictory world' (p. 120), in which they had to weave together the competing claims of poet and client, performer and audience. S&S find a rather different application of the myth of weaving in Plato's Phaedrus (228e). Here, according to them, the dialogue suggests that Phaedrus, in reading aloud a text by Lysias, is `weaving' his voice with the mute written words: `Once the reading is over, its fabric will unravel into the written warp and the vocal woof -- so that the warp can be used in other weavings, in other readings. The writing remains identical and stable, while the number of "texts" it makes possible is theoretically infinite' (p. 126). In their last chapter, via consideration of the story of Arachne in Ovid's Metamorphoses (6.1-145), of sustained references to weaving in the Ciris, of Ciceronian uses of texere in various genres of writing, S&S arrive at the conclusion that Roman authors too used the `metaphor of language weaving' to express a range of oppositions: `of the poet's expertise with the imposed subject matter, of the Latin language with the Greek reality, of the Roman reality with the Greek language . . . the demands of the present with the fixed word of tradition' (p. 150). The authors believe that Roman cultural life, unlike Greek, was heavily influenced from the beginning by the practices and materials of writing, and that the Romans' awareness of the interlacing structure of the papyrus they wrote on gave a `scriptural orientation [to] the metaphor of fabric' (p. 148).
Two appendixes round off the book, the first, `A Note on Biological "Tissue"' (pp. 157-63), looking at the metaphor of weaving as applied to flesh and bodies, the second, `Note on Cosmic Weaving' (pp. 165-9), arguing that Lucretius' use of terms such as textura and textum for the fabric of the universe are closely related to the idea of his own poetic text as something woven with words.
It is very difficult through the medium of a review to give a sense of what this book is `about.' The authors present not so much a sustained, easily summarizable argument, as a series of examples, case studies, of the myth/metaphor of weaving in antiquity; their method is suggestive and inductive rather than deductive, they proceed by juxtaposition rather than demonstration. I believe that S&S certainly succeed in showing how deeply the practices of weaving had penetrated the consciousness of Greeks and Romans. As for their examples and the subtle links they suggest between apparently unrelated cultural phenomena, I can only say that I found some of them convincing, some not.
A couple of criticisms of a general nature. S&S sometimes talk of the characters of ancient poetry in a curiously naive way (rather in the fashion of old Bradlerian Shakespeare-criticism) as if they were real persons with a life beyond the text. Thus, for example, in discussing the `marriage' of Aeneas and Dido in the Aeneid, S&S write, `During their first union in the grotto, one might imagine, Dido and Aeneas were covered by this [Aen. 4.262] nuptial laena' (p. 95). Again, in the Odyssey (2.99) Homer says Penelope was weaving a shroud for Laertes, but, S&S object, `are we to believe that Laertes - this "opulent man" -- possessed no garment that might serve as a shroud?' (p. 69). My response in these (and other) cases would be that questions of this sort about matters of fact are simply illegitimate if the text has nothing to say about them. Further, if one is to build one's argument, as S&S do, by suggesting links and affinities, then these must be based on actual elements of the relevant text, and not on the critics' second-order reading of that text. To give just one instance: S&S say of Theseus in Catullus 64 that he `forgets not only the "nuptial cloth" . . . but also another cloth [the sail of his ship], thus causing the the death of his own father. Twice he forgets a cloth . . . ' (p. 98). But the text speaks of his forgetting Ariadne and his relationship with her, not of a `cloth,' hence the connection with the ship's sail seems forced.
But I would not want to leave the reader with a negative impression. I found this a stimulating and illuminating book, written in a mercifully clear and accessible style, very well translated into English by Carol Volk. The volume, beautifully produced by the Harvard University Press, is a pleasure to read and handle.
[] Margherita Guarducci, `Il conubium nei riti del matrimonio etrusco e di quello romano,' Bullettino della comissione archeologica comunale di Roma 55 (1927) 205-24.
[] Jane McIntosh Snyder, `The web of song,' Classical Journal, 76 (1981) 194.