Skip to main content
European Commission logo print header

Family Myths: Phraseology and Inherited Indo-European Thematic Structures in Greek Myth

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Family Myths (Family Myths: Phraseology and Inherited Indo-European Thematic Structures in Greek Myth)

Reporting period: 2018-05-01 to 2020-04-30

My project, Family Myths, consists in a comparative study of mythological narratives belonging to the largest and most widespread linguistic family in the world, Indo-European (IE). In the same way as the single Indo-European languages are genetically related to one another, so their religions, mythologies and literatures are cognate. Indeed, entire stories belonging to diverse IE traditions may display macroscopic similarities. However, comparativists have long struggled with methodological issues, as for the individuation of matches among two or more narratives, documented in diverse but related traditions. This project addresses these very problems from a linguistic point of view. Historical linguistics offers powerful methodological tools for the study of (1) lexicon and onomastics; (2) phraseology—combinations of words in specific contexts; (3) themes—core-events of a story. By focusing on these dimensions of the texts, my project tried to recompose the scattered limbs of inherited myths, which survived in Greek narratives from the Archaic and Classical Ages (5th–8th century B.C.E.).
The project has three main objectives:
(i) to classify Greek thematic structures in terms of primary motifs and narrative proliferations;
(ii) to locate correspondences between Greek narratives and rituals/worship praxis associated with a certain cult/character or event;
(iii) to identify possible parallels for a given mythological narrative in other IE traditions.
After analyzing and classifying a variety of mythological accounts, my study succeeded in reaching all three objectives in connection with different groups of narratives, namely: those concerning the ‘Sun-myth’ and those concerning the ‘Fire-myth’.
The results of my project not only contributed to cast grasp single aspects of narratives, which looked inconsistent if considered in a single cultural context, but it also worked on the core of ancestral structures, namely: myths, mythological dynamics and the ‘mythological’ thinking. Structures of this description had a pervasive impact on aesthetic and intellectual products of the Western civilization. As stated in previous literary criticism, classics “hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious” and “persist as a background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway” (I. Calvino). Thus, a deeper insight into these constitutive components is an asset for a more balanced perception of our cultural identity, a primary need in the complicated patchwork of the modern society.
Through the lexical, phraseological and thematic analysis of my primary texts, I succeeded in identifying a number of narrative avatars, i.e. narrative proliferations of a character connected with a certain story in Greek and other IE traditions. The identification of narrative avatars allowed me to ‘track down’ disguised characters among different Indo-European traditions and to identify striking similarities among stories which, at first sight, did not seem to have much in common.
The results of my research thus concern different stories or parts of stories, which I selected on the basis of their outstanding narrative and stylistic features (above all: inconsistencies and traditionality). Specifically:
(a) In connection with stories involving light-deities in the diverse IE traditions, I pointed out that the Greek Sun-god, the Old-Indic Twin-gods, and the Latvian Sun-goddess perform their diurnal and nocturnal journeys by means of the same vehicles and animals.
Furthermore, my study on the IE Dawn-goddesses shows that an ancient IE myth may ultimately underlie the modern fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. In most ancient versions of this story the protagonist is named after a ‘dawn-like’ prerogative (Brianda ‘the lofty one’, Thalia ‘the young/flourishing one’, Aurore). Moreover, like IE Dawn-goddesses Sleeping Beauties are Awakening Beauties, who are also victims of rapes.
Finally, through my study on gender-differentiation of the Sun-deities in Greek, Vedic and Baltic I tried to provide a relative chronology for the origin of male and female deities in different IE pantheons.
(b) In connection with narratives involving characters associated with the element ‘fire’ in Greek, Old Indic, Ossetic [Iranian], and Old Norse texts, my comparative study on Prometheus and Hermes pointed out that these two figures share a variety of common traits, reflected on a phraseological level. They are both skillful and mischievous characters, who are somehow associated with the element ‘fire’. Therefore, I provide new support to the hypothesis that Hermes is the Greek continuation of an IE fire-deity: Hermes is not only comparable to the Vedic Fire-god Agni but also to the Iranian (Ossetic) hero Syrdon, who has been never juxtaposed to him before. Like Hermes, Syrdon invents a musical instrument after stealing a cow. In turn, Syrdon shares significant achievements with Old Norse Loki.
Finally, my study on a typical prerogative of fire-gods, i.e. ‘hunger’, contributed to recognize another fire-avatar in Greek, namely: Erysichthon. This hero is punished by Demeter with insatiable hunger, after cutting a sacred grove of her. As such, his destiny strikingly resembles that of Old Indic Agni in the Mahābhārata and that of Loki in an episode from the prose Edda.
Thanks to the Marie Curie scholarship I could give great visibility to my work: I organized an international conference, set up a Youtube channel, and a dedicated page on the social media (Facebook, Instagram). In two years participated to ca. 15 conferences/talks and other cultural events (although some of them were delayed or rescheduled because of the COVID-19 outbreak) and wrote/re-ealborated ca. 10 papers on mythological, phraseological and methodological matters.
As for the field of Comparative Mythology within Indo-European Studies, the results of my project contribute to (i) clear up how a given character (hero or god) achieved a certain role in a certain narrative, (ii) understand the ‘background’ and the fortune of a character and/or an entire thematic structure; (ii) elaborate a new, effective methodology for the identification of narrative proliferations (avatars) of a given character or story and thus to easy the process of ‘tracking down’ a certain character among cognate traditions; (iv) locate new comparanda for Greek narratives within cognate, unexplored linguistic traditions; (iv) support the ongoing research on the ‘branching’ of the IE linguistic family, by cross-referencing lexical, phraseological, and thematic data with the archaeological and linguistic evidence.
Some of my results have an impact on other fields, namely: Classics and History of Religions; Gender-Studies. As for Classics and History of Religions, my research on Hermes as a god inheriting distinctive prerogatives of an IE fire-god could change forever the way classicists and historians of religions look at this deity.
As for the field of Gender-Studies, the study on the distribution of the gender of IE deities seeks to break the boundaries between History of Religions, Gender-Studies and Indo-European Studies. For this work ultimately aims at using the category of ‘gender’ as a heuristic device for approaching ancient polytheism.