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Kinship Myth in Ancient Greece.

Kinship Myth in Ancient Greece. By Lee E. Patterson. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2010. Pp. xiv, 255. $60.00.)

This new book is wide ranging, well researched, and well organized. Painstaking and at times labored, Lee E. Patterson's study is also conscientious and cheerful about regarding primary source conundrums concerning mythical ancestry in Greek and Hellenizing kinship diplomacy as being "a puzzle box [that] beckons to the historian" to resolve (165). He raises fascinating political and cultural questions about interstate relations among Greeks and several Hellenizing non-Greeks, Macedonians, and Jews: Why, when forming diplomatic ties, did the participating representatives sometimes go beyond the norm of claiming kinship (sungeneia) with one another, a topic already studied by Patterson's recognized predecessor, C. P. Jones, in Kinship Diplomacy in the Ancient World? Why did they occasionally also claim that their kinship goes back to a specific mythical male ancestor, mortal (e.g., Aeolus) or god (e.g., Dionysus)? What functions did this added mythical dimension serve? To what degree did the signatory parties and their respective communities really believe that they shared these diplomatically crafted ancestral forefathers? The last question extends Paul Veyne's Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? [1988] to Greek and Hellenizing kinship diplomacy, and it is the driving interest motivating Patterson's study.

With these questions in view, Patterson explores fictive kinship as a broadly Greek and Hellenizing phenomenon (chapter 1), the ostensible credulity of Greek historians (including Thucydides) regarding mythical ancestry as historical (chapter 2), and the literary and epigraphic evidence on kinship diplomacy that includes claims about shared mythical forefathers (chapters 3-5 and 6-7). He provides a concluding chapter 8, three detailed appendices explicating the literary evidence, and two helpful indexes, especially an extensive primary-source index.

The questions are stimulating, and Patterson raises many an intriguing suggestion toward answering them. Yet the primary sources pose challenges to making decisive headway. First, significant aspects of the literary evidence are dubious (e.g., Herodotus on Xerxes supposedly claiming Argives as diplomatic kin since Perses). This limits the usefulness of the literary chapters for the book's driving questions. Fabricated or confused primary evidence about a particular custom shows little about what the alleged participants thought or believed about it.

Second, though the epigraphic chapters are better grounded in actual diplomacy, here, as Patterson acknowledges, "the specific circumstances" of introducing ancestral forefather myths into the diplomacy generally remain unstated in the inscriptions and as such "beyond our reach" (110-111). Without these circumstances being known, it is difficult to know much about the beliefs informing them, including whether they can fairly be called "credulous" (11). As mentioned in C. P. Jones's study, "diplomatic kinship was usually not, so far as can be judged, a fiction to the actors" (the reviewer's emphasis), but beyond that the sources make it hard to go.

Nonetheless, Kinship Myth in Ancient Greece retains considerable merits. It is rare to see historians of ancient Greece even using words like "mythopoeic" and treating Greek myths about seemingly contrived mythical ancestors as worthy of serious attention in the study of Greek and Hellenizing interstate politics, let alone doing so with such energy, erudition, and many a suggestive insight into the cultural thinking, symbolism, and practices involved.

Kathy L. Gaca

Vanderbilt University
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Author:Gaca, Kathy L.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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