The wisdom of Thales and the problem of the word IEPOΣ

Classical Quarterly 45 (02):296- (1995)
Abstract
Those who write about early Greek literature often assume that each item in the ancient vocabulary answers to a single concept in the world-view of its users. It seems reasonable to hope that the body of ideas represented by a particular Greek word will frame one's discussion better than any question that could be asked in English: so that a cautious scholar might prefer to discuss the phenomenon called αδς, for example, than to plunge into a study of Greek ideas of ‘honour and shame' irrespective of whether those anthropologists’ labels mark off a single body of ancient ideas. But the question is not merely one of common sense: in recent years, for example, a strategy of extrapolating deep ideas from single words has been deliberately developed by such scholars as Gregory Nagy, who constantly moves back and forth between the semantic patterns of individual words and corresponding thematic patterns found in myths. Here is a recent example from his analysis of Pindar's conception of the unity between athletic victory and mythical heroism: In Pindaric usage εθλος applies equally to the contests of athletes and to the life-and-death ordeals of heroes. We have already seen from the myth of the chariot race of Pelops that the ordeals of heroes on the level of myth correspond aetiologically to the contests of athletes on the level of ritual, in that the myths can motivate the rituals. Now we see that a word like εθλος can collapse the very distinction between the myth and the ritual
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