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The Function of irony in Mythical Narratives. Hans Blumenberg and Homer's ludicrous gods

Nadia Sels (UGent)
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Abstract
Dealing with Greek mythology, one inevitably encounters the problem of the ambiguous treatment of the Olympic pantheon. It seems that for the Greeks, the gods could be both the object of sincere reverence and the source of ironic laughter. This apparent paradox is especially striking in the epics of Homer, where solemn veneration can in a few verses turn into mockery, and vice versa. To rationalise this ambiguity, classical scholars have often attempted to artificially separate these two attitudes by ascribing them to different authors, ages or poetic registers. This point of departure, however, was motivated by the expectations of a monotheistic and thus anachronistic model they enforced upon Greek mythology. I want to argue that these seemingly incompatible attitudes are two sides of the same coin, and that this ironic streak of Greek mythology is inherent to its function. For this hypothesis, I base myself on the theories of Hans Blumenberg. This philosopher and classical philologist approached myth not as a particular archaic genre, but as a continuous process of symbolisation that enables man to reduce what he called the ‘absolutism of reality’ (Wirklichkeitsabsolutismus). This liminal concept refers to a condition of being totally overwhelmed by the undifferentiated threat of the outside world. The polytheistic pantheon and the stories that surround it are considered to be the primitive means by which man succeeded to differentiate this threat, and thus to restrict it. Mediated by myth, the absolutism of reality becomes both sublime and manageable. Irony forms a part of this process. To concretise and illustrate these theories, I will apply them to some excerpts from the Homeric epics wherein the gods are depicted in an ironical way: the battle of the gods (Il. XX), the story about the entrapment of Aphrodite and Ares by Hephaestus (Od. 8.266-369), and, in particular, the beguilement of Zeus by Hera (Il. XIV).
Keywords
mythology Blumenberg Homer irony

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Chicago
Sels, Nadia. 2010. “The Function of Irony in Mythical Narratives. Hans Blumenberg and Homer’s Ludicrous Gods.” In New Perspectives on Myth, ed. Wim Van Binsbergen and Eric Venbrux, 5:409–426. Haarlem: Shikanda.
APA
Sels, N. (2010). The Function of irony in Mythical Narratives. Hans Blumenberg and Homer’s ludicrous gods. In W. Van Binsbergen & E. Venbrux (Eds.), New Perspectives on Myth (Vol. 5, pp. 409–426). Haarlem: Shikanda.
Vancouver
1.
Sels N. The Function of irony in Mythical Narratives. Hans Blumenberg and Homer’s ludicrous gods. In: Van Binsbergen W, Venbrux E, editors. New Perspectives on Myth. Haarlem: Shikanda; 2010. p. 409–26.
MLA
Sels, Nadia. “The Function of Irony in Mythical Narratives. Hans Blumenberg and Homer’s Ludicrous Gods.” New Perspectives on Myth. Ed. Wim Van Binsbergen & Eric Venbrux. Vol. 5. Haarlem: Shikanda, 2010. 409–426. Print.
@incollection{1092900,
  abstract     = {Dealing with Greek mythology, one inevitably encounters the problem of the ambiguous treatment of the Olympic pantheon. It seems that for the Greeks, the gods could be both the object of sincere reverence and the source of ironic laughter. This apparent paradox is especially striking in the epics of Homer, where solemn veneration can in a few verses turn into mockery, and vice versa.
To rationalise this ambiguity, classical scholars have often attempted to artificially separate these two attitudes by ascribing them to different authors, ages or poetic registers. This point of departure, however, was motivated by the expectations of a monotheistic and thus anachronistic model they enforced upon Greek mythology. 
I want to argue that these seemingly incompatible attitudes are two sides of the same coin, and that this ironic streak of Greek mythology is inherent to its function. 
For this hypothesis, I base myself on the theories of Hans Blumenberg. This philosopher and classical philologist approached myth not as a particular archaic genre, but as a continuous process of symbolisation that enables man to reduce what he called the {\textquoteleft}absolutism of reality{\textquoteright} (Wirklichkeitsabsolutismus). This liminal concept refers to a condition of being totally overwhelmed by the undifferentiated threat of the outside world. The polytheistic pantheon and the stories that surround it are considered to be the primitive means by which man succeeded to differentiate this threat, and thus to restrict it. Mediated by myth, the absolutism of reality becomes both sublime and manageable. Irony forms a part of this process.  
To concretise and illustrate these theories, I will apply them to some excerpts from the Homeric epics wherein the gods are depicted in an ironical way: the battle of the gods (Il. XX), the story about the entrapment of Aphrodite and Ares by Hephaestus (Od. 8.266-369), and, in particular, the beguilement of Zeus by Hera (Il. XIV).},
  author       = {Sels, Nadia},
  booktitle    = {New Perspectives on Myth},
  editor       = {Van Binsbergen, Wim and Venbrux, Eric },
  isbn         = {9789078382072},
  keyword      = {mythology Blumenberg Homer irony},
  language     = {eng},
  pages        = {409--426},
  publisher    = {Shikanda},
  series       = {Papers in Intercultural Philosophy and Transcontinental Comparative Studies},
  title        = {The Function of irony in Mythical Narratives. Hans Blumenberg and Homer's ludicrous gods},
  volume       = {5},
  year         = {2010},
}