‘Causes’ and their narrative consequences


When reading/listening/viewing fictional narratives, we process a sequence of semiotic cues in the text and transform them into a world of imagination, a ‘reading room’ of the mind created from the narrative map. These are our storyworlds and they require an invested reader.

The classical, structuralist narratologists failed to come to terms with the referential or world-creating properties of narrative, partly because of the exclusion of the referent in favor of signifier and signified in the Saussurean language theory that informed the structuralists’ approach. Over the past couple of decades, however, one of the most basic and abiding concerns of narrative scholars has been how readers of print narratives, interlocutors in face-to-face discourse, and viewers of films use textual cues to build up representations of the worlds evoked by stories, or storyworlds.
(Herman 2009: 106)

The fifth chapter of David Herman’s Basic Elements of Narrative concerns narrative’s third element, worldmaking/world disruption. He surveys a range of approaches to worldmaking e.g. possible worlds theory, deictic shift theory, transportation theory. Some of these are approaches aimed towards a more ‘fine-grained’ analysis, involving the slowing down and de-automatization of the mapping process (Herman 105f.) which readers do intuitively and do at speed. We read and we become immersed. However, not every semiotic sequence encountered need refer to the storyworld; unbound by Time and Space, the Narrating-I is free to wander elsewhere and when, can e.g. pass comment on unfolding events or digress from presenting events at all. What I wish to consider further here is a specific instance of such a narrative ‘deviation’, the ‘causes’ of my title.

‘Causes’ refers not to any perceived causal relations in the sequence of events unfolding in a storyworld but translates a Greek word αἰτίᾶ. These aitia (singular aition) are a common feature in my model-text, Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica. As the Argonauts voyage to Colchis and back, they leave traces of their passing on the landscape, traces which remain into the time of the narrator.

What I wish to do later in this post is to cite some of the scholarship on aitia (where it concerns their deployment in the Argonautica), and then to think about their effect in and on the reading-process. How does the reader negotiate narrative digressions containing temporal deviations when engaged in construction of the storyworld? How do they affect a reader’s immersion? Before that, however, let’s look at some short samples of narrative and look for world-mapping cues.

Ἡ δ᾽ ἔθεεν λαίφεσσι πανήμερος· οὐ μὲν ἰούσης
νυκτὸς ἔτι ῥιπὴ μένεν ἔμπεδον, ἀλλὰ θύελλαι
ἀντίαι ἁρπάγδην ὀπίσω φέρον, ὄφρ᾽ ἐπέλασσαν
αὖτις ἐυξείνοισι Δολίοσιν. Ἐκ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἔβησαν
αὐτονυχί· Ἱερὴ δὲ φατίζεται ἥδ᾽ ἔτι Пέτρη
ᾗ πέρι πείσματα νηὸς ἐπεσσύμενοι ἐβάλοντο.

A.R. 1.1015-20

The ship ran all day by sail, but with the coming of night the blast did not stay constant, but opposing squalls carried it violently back again so that they reached again the hospitable Doliones. That same night they disembarked, and the rock around which they hastened to cast the ship’s cables is still called the Sacred Rock.

Some information which would be available to the reader from the context: the ship is the Argo and ‘they’ are the Argonauts disembarking for a second time on Cyzicus. Accommodation (Werth 1999 following Lewis 1979) is the process by which the reader relocates when recognising, interpreting and mapping referential and deictic expressions found in the text. Within the six verses translated above, we find indicators that the world evoked by the narrative is somewhere other than the surroundings in which we are situated whilst reading. We start with the ship sailing by day. Time advances and the situation changes. Day becomes night and following winds become opposing winds. We do not have a specific date but we have a temporal framework for the action. We cannot from the brief extract alone map the location onto any location we ‘know’ but we can mark it as a return to an inhabited land (with friendly inhabitants). The Argonauts interact with the landscape and indeed the rock which we visualise them using to moor their ship acquires a name.

Our cognitive vantage point here is that of the extradiegetic narrator who exists outside the story, who is relating a sequence of events and relating them retrospectively. The past tenses which relate the actions performed on and by ship, wind, crew and rock signal these events as having taken place already but taking place again in a specific chronological sequence running through our imagination. That same imagination is also required to process qualifications which can be categorised as instances of qualia or ‘what it’s like’, which is the fourth and final of Herman’s basic narrative elements: ‘Narrative representations convey the experience of living through storyworlds-in-flux, highlighting the pressure of events on real or imagined consciousnesses affected by the occurrences at issue’ (2009: 137). The key semiotic cues here are the violence of the adverse winds and my inference that this causes the haste which qualifies their mooring.

I have italicised a deviation – ‘still’ (ἔτι, v. 1019 in the Greek text). References to ‘day’ and ‘night’ encourage a deictic shift into the time of the story but ‘still’ is the time of the Narration, a deictic shift away from storytime. Is this also a shift away from/against immersion? I want to look briefly at another narrative extract presenting a similar event sequence but first, some definitions to put and keep in mind on responses to deviation.

Responses to deviation are often referred to as foregrounding, with the latter being a well-established concept in literary and film studies, as well as in empirical research … It is important to distinguish three different definitions of foregrounding: (1) Foregrounding seen as textual features (in the present paper referred to as deviations); (2) Foregrounding seen as perception, that is, instances in which recipients’ perceive an element in the text as a deviation; and (3) Foregrounding seen as an experience, that is, how recipients sense or undergo the perceived deviation.
(Bálint, Hakemulder, Kuijpers, Doicaru & Tan 2016: 177)

This is taken from the article ‘Reconceptualizing Foregrounding: Identifying response strategies to deviation in absorbing narratives’ which reports the findings of a qualitative study analysing transcripts of reading (and viewing) experiences and we’ll return to some of the identified response strategies when formulating a possible response strategy for aitia. In the passage of the Argonautica cited, I am highlighting Ἱερὴ δὲ φατίζεται ἥδ᾽ ἔτι Пέτρη (v. 1019, ‘this is still called the Sacred Rock’) as an experienced deviation or foregrounding which might obstruct absorption. One more preliminary definition from the same paper:

Absorption is an umbrella term for all kind of states of immersion into the world of a fictional story accompanied by a reduced awareness of self, surroundings, and the passage of time (Busselle & Bilandzic, 2009; Kuijpers, Hakemulder, Tan & Doicaru, 2014). Studies showed that absorption influences audience members’ susceptibility to persuasion (Green & Brock, 2000). Absorption has been investigated in relation to different forms of media under the term transportation (Green & Brock, 2000), or story world absorption in literary narratives (Kuijpers et al., 2014); narrative engagement with cinematic narrative (Busselle & Bilandzic, 2009), or presence with virtual reality and video games (Lee, 2004; Slater & Wilbur, 1997).
(Bálint, Hakemulder, Kuijpers, Doicaru & Tan 2016: 179)

My reader might want to refer back to and compare with my quotation of Nick Lowe on immersion in The “Complementary Story”, but, pushing forward now, my analogous narrative.

On Aug. 14, 1904, Dr. Wiegand set out from Panderma in a steamer of 15 tons burden and 28 horse power, to circumnavigate the peninsula as far as Artace. In the night a strong north wind arose and the vessel had to put in at Perama, a short distance from the starting point. On the following day an attempt was made to proceed in spite of the elements. The result was that Dr. Wiegand was glad to get back in safety to the port of Panderma from which he had at first set out.
(Fitch 1912: 49-50)

Here we find fixed dates, a named character, named locations, and more particulars regarding the ship. There are plenty of references to enable our accommodation to the storyworld, to imagine Dr. Wiegand’s attempted voyage around this peninsula. Reading, we process a similar turn of events; travel affected by strong wind causing vessel (this time operating under steam power) to return more or less to the point from which it set out. Again there is a temporal framework of day into night (which is again the timing of adversity) and here extended on into the next day and the second attempt. And again, there are emotional cues. This was another stressful encounter with the weather. Dr. Wiegand was glad to get back to safety.

A reader might find the higher degree of specificity in this second narrative more conducive to worldbuilding and to transportation to that world. There might be more recognisable references here in e.g. the dating system, the character’s title, the type of boat, the locations listed that ease the immersive process, following Marie-Laure Ryan’s principle of minimal departure.

Yet if no textual or paratextual indicators block their default interpretive stance, readers or film viewers will abide by what Ryan terms the principle of minimal departure, which states that “when readers construct fictional worlds, they fill in the gaps… in the text by assuming the similarity of the fictional worlds to their own experiential reality” (2005b: 447). Thus readers of Hemingway’s story [Hills Like White Elephants] assume that the interlocutors are human beings rather than murderous aliens who have bodysnatched male and female earthlings in order to dupe the waitress and the other people at the bar. Even more crucially, perhaps, readers assume that the Ebro in the story is the same Ebro that exists in the actual world and runs through a particular valley in Spain.
(Herman 2009: 114)

Similarly the reader of Fitch’s narrative can assume (until the narrative suggests otherwise) that Panderma is a coastal city in Turkey (now Bandırma), that Dr. Wiegard is human and engaged (for motivations as yet unclear) in circumnavigation. Dr. Wiegard lived, we can assume, on our world and attempted this voyage a little over a century ago. A reader might find that chronological gap an easier one to bridge than to the indefinite time of myth in which the Argonauts suffered their own setback.

I did not, however, stumble upon this analogous narrative. It has been extracted from an article by Edward Fitch titled ‘Apollonius Rhodius and Cyzicus’. The passage is the summarised account of ‘the experience of a modern traveller’ and introduced as supporting evidence to Fitch’s contention that rather than ‘epic convention’, the adverse winds are ‘local color’ known to a poet who had consulted sources on the region (1912: 49). ‘28 horse power’: a cue for worldbuilding or evidence that the Argo (a sailing vessel) would have been blown back easily to the island (after all if a steamer operating under 28 horse power could make no headway… ). A cynical reader might find the narrative shaping of the material or the pressure of events on characters mapped a little too neatly.

Still, what Fitch is not doing, or stopped doing when bringing in his analogous travel narrative is undergoing immersion. It’s possible the parallel occurred in the reading process because all manner of experiences pop from memory in the mapping. However, Fitch’s is not a figurative mapping. What Fitch is interested in exploring is topography and he is explicit in stating this: ‘The purpose of this paper is to submit the passage to a new inspection from the point of view of the topography of the region’ (44). Every reader works their own act of creation, processing and interpreting cues and patterns, bringing their own experience and insights to their readings. I’m not going to spend (much) time engaging with Fitch’s reading (his paper is freely available here). What interests me is neither disputing his findings nor his method (and over the last thirty years the Argonautica has not lacked for apologists) but what is it about the presentation of this episode that conditions a reading process in which foregrounding dominates. Also whilst Fitch might mention Homer in passing (he’s certainly aware of the Laestrygonians), his is a reading devoted to source-hunting. E.g.

This passage of the Argonautica is, in form, poetry; in fact its chief interest is not poetical but topographical and antiquarian. He who reads side by side the narrative of Apollonius and the parallel accounts of Valerius Flaccus, 2. 614-3. 468, and of the Orphic Argonautica, 486-631, will mark this difference between the earlier and the two later poets: the adventure as Apollonius relates it is closely adjusted to a definite locality; the adventure as it is related by the other poets might have taken place at any port.
(Fitch 1912: 43)

As an aesthetic judgement, that first sentence is brutal. The episode might be composed in verse but this is not poetry, no, this is versified topography (not my idea of adventure). Though Fitch makes of this a virtue. Unlike the accounts which he places parallel for comparison, this narrative has specifics (immersive aids? artistic hindrances?). He also classifies this episode as spanning verses 936-1152, and being ‘one of the longer episodes of the poem’ (44). That range includes the voyage through the Hellespont and subsequent propitiation of the goddess Rhea on Mount Dindymum; an event which takes place on Cyzicus, to be sure, but is entirely concerned with the Argonauts on the mountain. There is no further contact with the Doliones who inhabit the island or reference to them in the narrative’s fictive present after v. 1077. In contrast, the preceding episode on Lemnos occupied verses 609-909 . On ‘longer’ episodes and the demarcation of episodes we can agree to disagree.

‘Topographical and antiquarian’: who is the antiquarian? The Argonautica’s narrator? Apollonius, the historical author? Or Fitch? Again, what in the text is generating this reading so resistant to storyworld immersion. My suspicion on working through Fitch’s analysis, his reconstruction (from references in the collected scholia) of a historiographical source text and his chosen examples, is that it is provoked to some extent by aitia.

Time now for that delayed exposition of some Classical scholarship on aitia. Fairly hefty chunks follow (along with a list of the aitia which occur in the Cyzicus episode), but we can read now with absorption (worldbuilding) and foregrounding (as experiencing deviation) in mind, and consider their dynamic (what Kuijpers (2014: 157) refers to as a ‘weaving in and out’). Annette Harder’s paper Anchoring through Aetiology begins with a concise overview which I quote here in full.

Aetiology is a popular concept, found all through Greek and Latin history in a great variety of sources, particularly in poetry. It helps to create a firm basis for the present in the past by showing that the present is the result or continuation of what happened or was begun in the past. Thus a story from the past is used as a means of legitimizing or explaining the present and of creating a sense of roots and continuity, i.e. of anchoring the present. We can find examples of this in poets like Pindar, Aeschylus and Euripides, but the device becomes increasingly popular in the Hellenistic period, when the need to trace one’s roots and to be part of an ongoing tradition seems to have been stronger than ever.
(Harder 2015: 1)

In the Argonautica, the story takes place in the time of myth whereas the time of the voice narrating the story is the Hellenistic period referred to by Harder (3rd century BC). The glossary in The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative defines Myth as ‘Stories set in or before the generation following the Trojan War’ (Lowe 2000: 266). The setting of our story lies securely within that time-period; amongst the Argonauts are fathers of warriors who fight at Troy (notably Peleus, the father of Achilles). Aitia, as deployed in the Argonautic narrative, bridge the temporal gap between the two, between a mythological past and a historical present.

Even more crucially, perhaps, readers assume that the Ebro in the story is the same Ebro that exists in the actual world and runs through a particular valley in Spain.

In Tradition and Innovation in Hellenistic Poetry, Marco Fantuzzi and Richard Hunter discuss this ‘then’ and ‘now’ in relation to a ‘self-conscious generic placement’ (2002: 92) in regard to Homeric epic. Character-Bards (and characters performing similar storytelling functions) within the Iliad and the Odyssey narrate stories either from their own time or from a time-period not so distant e.g. about the heroes of their preceding generation (the time of Argonauts). These are intradiegetic narrators with their own motivations telling stories about their world. E.g.

Phoenix evoked the deeds of ‘heroic men before us’ in order to encourage Achilles to emulation; the story which he proceeds to relate still lives in his memory, though it is ‘long ago, not at all recent’ (Il. 9.527). So too in the Odyssey, Demodocus sings of men and events of his own generation – Agamemnon, Achilles, Odysseus, the fall of Troy. Most striking of all, in Book 1 of the Odyssey Phemios sings of the nostos of the Greeks from Troy (Od. 1.326-7), events which are of very recent happening and are indeed, at least for Odysseus, still going on.
(Fantuzzi and Hunter 2002: 91)

Fantuzzi and Hunter do contrast this with the [spatio-temporal] positioning of the Homeric narrator who does draw attention to the distance between the time of the story and the time of the narrating but ‘does not in fact emphatically foreground the temporal distance between himself and the subjects of his song as Apollonius does in the very opening verse’ (Fantuzzi and Hunter 2002: 92). Thus, whilst the positioning of the Argonautica’s narrator is not a radical innovation but a modification, it is one with an increased emphasis on that temporal divide (between storytime and storytelling).

Ἀρχόμενος σέο, Φοῖβε, παλαιγενέων κλέα φωτῶν

A.R. 1.1-2

Beginning with you, Phoebus, I will relate the glorious deeds of people born long ago.

We looked briefly at Phoebus Apollo’s role(s) in The “Complementary Story” Revisited but here expanding the view onto the second part of the first verse which contains the summary subject of the narrative, it’s easy to see that foregrounding noted by Fantuzzi and Hunter. The epic poem begins by creating a temporal gap. This quest happened long ago; ‘Once upon a time’ but not ‘in a galaxy far, far away’ (blending familiar fairy tales). It happened in and around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. And it did happen, you see, because there’s evidence – physical and cultural – in the traces the Argonauts left behind, related in the Argonautica’s aitia.

We should not neglect that opening phrase or that future-orientated verb ‘I will relate’. Unlike Homeric epic, this epic begins with ‘beginning’ and an obtrusive Narrating-I. Unlike Homeric epic

First, foregrounding theory suggests that deviation does not diminish recipients’ focus but rather shifts their attention from content to form, that is, from story-world events to some aspect of the artifact (Jakobson, 1960; van Peer & Hakemulder, 2006; Hakemulder & van Peer, 2015). This shift of attention from what is told to how it is told may result in readers’ increased awareness of the artifact. As a consequence, recipients may involve themselves in a different kind of interpretation: Why is this story told in an unusual way? Does the deviation have an additional communicative purpose? Solving questions of this kind might lead to absorption deepening rather than diminishing. In addition, the processes of de-automatisation and refamiliarization that occur during a foregrounding experience may in and of itself be absorbing.
(Bálint, Hakemulder, Kuijpers, Doicaru & Tan 2016: 180)

We are weaving out before we can weave in. First on the category list of response strategies reported in ‘Reconceptualizing foregrounding’ is the Striking/Novelty Response Strategy: ‘participants expressed surprise and amazement upon encountering a new and unique way of presenting a story. The detected deviations were most of the time at the formal level of the narrative, i.e., novelty of the vocabulary, visual language, etc.’ (2016: 186).

The Argonautica begins with the participle ‘beginning’: ‘indubitably a powerful exercise in self-reflexivity; the beginning of this particular narrative straightaway draws attention to itself both in the act of beginning, and as an act of beginning’ (Clare 2002: 12). This poem begins by drawing attention to itself as a construct, to its fictionality and to its creating ‘I’ announcing the theme of the following performance. Sustained engagement with this here would take us far from the path of aitia but the similarity with the category of Striking Response Strategy struck me. For a reader/auditor of Homeric epic, this is a novel opening. And from this opening onwards, the Argonautica’s reader must negotiate between the familiar and the novel in both form and content in a poem which does not disguise its ‘articificiality’. Adapting Kuijpers’ phrase, from its beginning the reader is conditioned to weave in and out (or in Fitch’s case, unravel).

Aitia. Do they bind present or past? Do they draw attention to an unbridgeable divide? Are they an attempt to authenticate myth [‘this is based on a true story’]? Are they part of ‘an aesthetics of discontinuity’? These are some of the questions raised in Simon Goldhill’s overview of the scholarship in The Poet’s Voice, and that there are questions, disagreements, different interpretations of the functions and effects of aitia amongst ‘experienced’ readers in itself indicates an interpretative problem. Some examples of the range of Argonautic aitia:

Indeed, the many aetiologies of the Argonautica repeatedly produce the picture of a sedimented world, where each object, cult, ritual, name, may be opened, like Odysseus’ scar, into a narrative of origination [my italics] and where each narrative, each event, may lead to a cult, ritual, name, monument.
(Goldhill 1991: 325)

The potential then is there at any point in the reading-process for the reader to be confronted by an aition. Following an uneventful passage through the Hellespont on the outward voyage, the Argonauts make a landing at Cyzicus. The narrative of their encounter there with the Doliones and the Earthborn (measured from landing) spans A.R. 1.953-1077 but within that relatively short number of verses is contained a cluster of aitia. The first involves the changing of the ship’s anchor but following this are a succession of markers: a temple (960), a path and a harbour (988-91), a rock (1019), a burial-mound (1061-2), a fountain (1068-9), and a ritual (1075-7).

That’s eight within only 125 lines of text. This can be contrasted with the aitia which occur in the preceding Lemnian episode (A.R. 1.609-909) in which we find a total of two; one relating to the renaming of an island (from Oenoe to Sicinus) and another island-renaming only ‘seeded’ as the ‘pay-off’ for the reader is in a narratorial prolepsis in Book 4 (‘[Theras led them] to the island Calliste, and changed the name to Thera after himself. But these things happened after Euphemus’ (4.1763-4), discussed in Harder’s paper as an example of innovation via aetiology, viz., sanctioning the present through the past).

Something to be collected at a later date is data on distribution, i.e. one can observe frequency of features such as aitia (or any markers of narratorial presence, so e.g. Cuypers 2005 in a remarkable analysis of interactional particle frequency) but the text-space in which they occur needs also be taken into account – their contextually relative density. E.g. what is it about the Cyzicus episode which attracts aitia? We won’t analyse all of them but we can list them (note the temporal markers and present tenses italicised in my translations).

Aitia 1+2
Ἔνθ᾽ Ἀργὼ προύτυψεν ἐπειγομένη ἀνέμοισι
Θρηικίοις· Καλὸς δὲ Λιμὴν ὑπέδεκτο θέουσαν.

[955] Κεῖσε καὶ εὐναίης ὀλίγον λίθον ἐκλύσαντες
Τίφυος ἐννεσίῃσιν ὑπὸ κρήνῃ ἐλίποντο,
κρήνῃ ὑπ᾽ Ἀρτακίῃ· ἕτερον δ᾽ ἔλον, ὅς τις ἀρήρει,
βριθύν· ἀτὰρ κεῖνόν γε θεοπροπίαις Ἑκάτοιο
Νηλεΐδαι μετόπισθεν Ἰάονες ἱδρύσαντο
ἱερόν, ἣ θέμις ἦεν, Ἰησονίης ἐν Ἀθήνης.

A.R. 1.953-60

There the Argo pressed on, driven by the Thracian winds, and Fair Harbour welcomed the running vessel. And there at the suggestion of Tiphys, they unfastened the small stone being used as an anchor and left it beneath a spring, beneath the spring of Artacie, and took up another, one heavy and better fitted. Nevertheless, the small stone the Ionian sons of Neleus later on placed as an offering in accordance with the prophecies of the Far-Shooter, as was proper, in the temple of Athena, protector of Jason.

The smaller anchor-stone is discarded in the narrative and becomes a sēma, the first still (in narrating-time) visible marker of the Argonauts’ visit to Cyzicus. Just prior to this, the narrator had set the scene with exposition of the island’s layout and inhabitants but the following mention of the act of discarding the anchor-stone leads into a diversion – an account of the stone’s historical afterlife. ‘Nevertheless, later on…’ The Ionian sons of Neleus are colonists future to the Story-Time but past to Narrating-Time. In a blurring of temporal levels, the Argonauts (we are told) leave the stone and historical Ionian settlers move it into the temple of Athena ‘Protector of Jason’ (the first sēma is moved inside a second sēma). Then the narrative resumes by relating the meeting of Argonauts and Doliones.

Aitia 3+4
Ἠοῖ δ᾽ εἰσανέβαν μέγα Δίνδυμον, ὄφρα καὶ αὐτοὶ
θηήσαιντο πόρους κείνης ἁλός· ἐν δ᾽ ἄρα τοί γε
νῆα Χυτῳ λιμένι προτέρου ἐξήλασαν ὅρμον.
Ἥδε δ᾽ Ἰησονίη πέφαται Ὁδός, ἥν περ ἔβησαν.
Γηγενέες δ᾽ ἑτέρωθεν ἀπ᾽ οὔρεος ἀίξαντες

[990] φράξαν ἀπειρεσίῃσι Χυτοῦ στόμα νειόθι πέτρῃς,
πόντιον, οἷά τε θῆρα λοχώμενοι ἔνδον ἐόντα.

A.R. 1.985-91

At dawn some went up lofty Dindymum to see the paths of that sea, while others drove the vessel from its previous mooring-place to Chytus harbour. The path which they travelled is called Jason’s Way. But the Earthborn darting from the far side of the mountain cordoned the seaward mouth of Chytus at the entrance with immense boulders, as hunters ensnare a wild beast.

Following a reported conversation with Cyzicus, the young ruler of the Doliones, a group of Argonauts head up the mountain. Verse 988 is the episode’s third aitia as in another aside the narrator informs the audience that the route up the mountain is named after Jason. Recognition of the fourth aitia is translation-dependent: ‘Chytus’ = ‘Heaped-Up’. There is then a slight narrative anachrony – Heaped-Up harbour becomes Heaped-Up harbour (gets its future name) from the blockading action undertaken by the Earthborn.

Aitia 5
Ἱερὴ δὲ φατίζεται ἥδ᾽ ἔτι Пέτρη
ᾗ πέρι πείσματα νηὸς ἐπεσσύμενοι ἐβάλοντο.

A.R. 1.1019-1020

And the rock around which they hastened to cast the ship’s cables is still called the Sacred Rock.

Despite victory over the Earthborn (and suffering no casualties), the Argonauts leave the island immediately but are blown back during the night and in the dark do not realise they have returned to same island (discussed above). Their return occasions a second mooring which results in another sēma. The mooring point still exists and is called the Sacred Rock.

Aitia 6
ἔνθ᾽ ἔτι νῦν περ
ἀγκέχυται τόδε σῆμα καὶ ὀψιγόνοισιν ἰδέσθαι.

A.R. 1.1061-62

Where even to this day this barrow is piled, visible to posterity.

In the dark, Argonauts and Doliones fail to recognise one another and in the ensuing conflict, Jason kills Cyzicus. They bury him and honour him with games. Posterity will remember the young ruler for his barrow is still there to this day.

Aitia 7
καί οἱ ἀπὸ βλεφάρων ὅσα δάκρυα χεῦαν ἔραζε,
πάντα τάγε κρήνην τεῦξαν θεαί, ἣν καλέουσι
Κλείτην, δυστήνοιο περικλεὲς οὔνομα νύμφης.

A.R. 1.1067-69

And out of all the tears they poured from their eyes to the ground, the goddesses made a fountain, which they call Cleite, the famous name of the unfortunate bride.

Only a few lines after Cyzicus’ burial, his wife commits suicide and that event leads to another marker on the island’s terrain. The fountain which bears her famous name (the narrator indulges in some etymological wordplay – Κλείτην… περικλεὲς οὔνομα) is created by the tears of the nymphs who mourn her. Who are ‘they’ who call?

Aitia 8
Ἔνθ᾽ ἔτι νῦν, εὖτ᾽ ἄν σφιν ἐτήσια χύτλα χέωνται
Κύζικον ἐνναίοντες Ἰάονες, ἔμπεδον αἰεὶ
πανδήμοιο μύλης πελάνους ἐπαλετρεύουσιν.

A.R. 1.1075-77

There even to this day the Ionians inhabiting Cyzicus, when they pour annual libations for them, always grind the meal at the public mill.

A final aitia, again stressing that link into the now, links to the past via an ongoing ritual practice. Just as the Doliones went without food when mourning, so too the island’s current inhabitants remember what took place by not grinding their meal at home.

Now extracting from the text and supplying a little paraphrase as context is not a substitute for reading the whole, but hopefully these samples at least demonstrate the narrative occasions which can prompt the Argonautic narrator’s inclusion of aitia, some of the formal features (use of present tense and time phrases) and some of the content-type of these ‘narratives of origination’. The landings at Cyzicus and encounters with the inhabitants leave marks in Space, marks which are being used to establish dates. ‘Place,’ writes Susan Stephens, ‘was not simply where individuals lived. It serves as a mnemonic for cultural identity – rivers, mountains, gods, heroes, shrines, rituals, stories, even objects like rock formations link the present inhabitants of a place to their collective past’ (2011: 97). What about non-inhabitants? What about readers from other places and/or from other times? How does the modern reader accomodate?

In Minding the Gap: Aetiology and (False) Closure (a fine title), Markus Asper’s focus is on aetiology as a closure-providing device. An interest in endings is not the focus of this post, but Asper makes interesting observations which have implications for readers e.g. the way aetiology ‘crosses that divide [images of closure such as ‘nightfall’ and physical phenomena such as book-divisions] and thus translates into extra-narrative reality’ (Asper 2013: 63-4). This concept is further complicated by the variable temporal positioning of a potential reader.

Mythological narratives in ancient Greece and Rome usually contained some aetiological element: part of the narrative provided a cause for facts present to the audience. Since aetiologies are “tales of social relevance” [citing Kowalzig 2007: 25], it comes as no surprise that, for modern readers of ancient Greek and Roman poetry, aetiologies in ancient literature provide an alienating experience [my italics]. Not only does the modern reader often not know exactly what the ancient text tries to explain, but even if s/he knows, that fact might not be part of his/her world.
(Asper 2013: 64)

[Something for further exploration suggested by Asper’s ‘cause of facts’ is the classification of aitia as a text-type, whether as a subordinate narrative type or as a fuzzy hybrid of narrative and explanation – the folk explanatory mode of Bruner (discussed in Herman 2009: 99): ‘we organize our experience and memory of human happenings mainly in the form of narrative – stories, excuses, myths, reasons for doing and not doing, and so on’ (Bruner 1991: 4).]

In Goldhill’s reading, aitia contribute to the production of a ‘picture of a sedimented world’ [levels of Time]. It is the reader who processes the text and creates the picture. And if the reader is at a different temporal level themselves? Asper employs the terms ‘embedded’ and ‘detached’ to distinguish between aitia which provide ‘true’ closure (a circularity for ‘at the end of the story the audience arrives nowhere else but themselves’, Asper 2013: 69) and potentially ‘false’ closure identified via his categories of ‘hierarchy’, ‘frame’ and ‘separation’ (70).

Whereas ‘embedded’ aetiologies are part of a local culture and explain local facts (a much-simplified summary of Asper but e.g. ‘Aeschylus’ Oresteia could pass as an aetiological tale that explains the presence of the cult of the Eumenides at Athens on a very large scale’ (66)), ‘detached’ aetiologies are removed from their original geographical and cultural situation. Thus Callimachus’ Hecale whilst based on a local Attic myth (Theseus and the bull at Marathon) was composed in Alexandria in Egypt: ‘When exposed to these narratives, however, Alexandrian audiences could not experience the mythic past as ending with themselves: because they lived somewhere else’ (71-2). Unlike e.g. the Athenian audience witnessing the Oresteia performed at the City Dionysia in 458 BC but like e.g. the non-Athenian audiences witnessing reperformance and relocation ever since?

Additionally, in the case of the Hecale, Asper notes that the reading occasion ‘would not have been a commemoration of the myth remembered in the narrative’ and that intertextuality (an Alexandrian inevitability) exaggerates distance: ‘references to Homer and Athenian literature remove the narratives twice from local and immediate experience’ (72).

Let’s take a breath! The Hecale and the Argonautica share a time-period (roughly) for production and circulation (3rd century BC Alexandria) and so observations on ‘distancing’ might equally apply. How does this compare/contrast with the ‘alienating experience’ (experienced deviation) of the modern reader? Is it a matter of degree of separation? Our sample aitia concern an island in the Propontis visited by the Argonauts in the time of Myth. They are aitia extracted from an epic verse narrative composed in hexameters whose composition draws heavily on Homeric Greek, not the koine dialect of a contemporary Hellenistic readership. Yet Alexandria and koine is so much closer to Cyzicus and Epic than Manchester twenty-four centuries on and an anglophone with a dictionary.

The book also said that these stories belonged to the ‘Nordic’ peoples, Norwegians, Danes and Icelanders. The thin child was, in England, a northerner. The family came from land invaded and settled by Vikings. These were her stories. The book became a passion.
(Byatt 2011: 8)

We can take some initial comfort in Asper’s observation that the thrust of the Argonautica’s narrative impulse is not in itself aetiological but that aitia occur (as can be seen in some of the examples above) ‘often almost as an aside’ and that ‘the reader comes across foundation stories mapping out the travels of the Argonauts like pearls on a string’ (73, Asper’s ‘framing’ category). [Though alternatively, the ‘Calliste to Thera’ aition seeded on Lemnos (noted above with ref. to Harder’s paper) has been read by Anatole Mori (2008: 40) as the episode’s (and the poem’s?) (covert) narrative impulse: ‘from an aetiological perspective, the ultimate consequences of the stay on Lemnos outweigh even the recovery of the Golden Fleece… Jason’s quest is merely the heroic frame for what really matters: the establishment of a Greek community in northern Africa.’]

For if the audience receives the signal ‘until now’ or ‘still for us’ [see examples above!] or something similar, the question instantly arises of whose ‘now’ this is and who ‘we’ are: these deictic references, however, lead the reader only to the narrator’s world [and to the implied reader?]. The more pronounced the presence of the narrator is, the less naturally the audience will identify with him. In such cases, there remains a distance in time and place that prevents true closure and its typical circularity from being achieved, similarly to our reaction when we read, say, an aetiology in Apollonius: the story does not end with us, it ends with him.’
(Asper 2013: 74)

Harder, who has drawn attention to the future-orientated potential of experimental aitia might disagree with so strong a temporal endpoint in all circumstances (see Harder 2003: 290-306). Still, it seems reasonable in regard to the Cyzican examples where the narrator is drawing attention to the time of narrating, and alerting the reader to potential multiple distances; we move from reading time to narrating time to story time, and these levels are somehow to be negotiated, these gaps somehow to be bridged.

The Argonautica’s narrative is episodic and its presentation uneven. In the preceding episode on Lemnos, there was preliminary exposition providing background material and insight into the inhabitants’ (collective) consciousnesses (bookmarked for further reading on ‘intermentality’ Fludernik 2015). There were several occurrences of extended direct speech (including a character’s competing version of the narrator’s exposition!). There was a lengthy ecphrasis. On Cyzicus the storytelling is more economical, exposition is concise, motivations underdetermined and nobody speaks directly. Rather than an ecphrasis of a cloak modelled on an Iliadic shield and arming scenes, we find a catalogue of Dolionian dead modelled on Iliadic androktasiai. The Argonautica’s reader is constantly making adjustments. The Argonautica’s narrator is inconstant. He is subjective and intrusive, presenting himself as a scholar (aitia!) but also as ‘someone who prepared to react morally and emotionally to his narrative’ (Morrison 2007: 273, see ibid. chapter five for a detailed analysis of this character’s complexities).

What does happen on Cyzicus? The Argonauts arrive and are well-received by King Cyzicus and the Doliones. When attempting to survey their route ahead from the vantage point of Mount Dindymum, the ship comes under attack from the island’s other inhabitants, the Earthborn. This is the first outbreak of hostilities in the epic. These formidable creatures (or so the reader was led to believe) are dispatched with minimal effort and no Argonaut casualties. The Argonauts sail away and are blown back. Then the second encounter with Doliones and mistaken violence in the night. More deaths follow (no Argonaut casualties) including the death of Cyzicus at Jason’s hands. Cyzicus’ new bride Cleite commits suicide.

That’s a summary of an already economical narrative but I hope the potential can be seen there for immersion and emotional involvement and the narrative is not without such cues. Cyzicus is introduced as a young man newly married, trying to do the right thing (possibly). One could feel sympathy for the slaughtered Earthborn when imagining their bodies spread across the beach, prey for birds and fish alike. The narrator certainly makes his own voice heard commenting on the king’s death and notes the grief that accompanies the Argonauts’ realisation of the deed. Emotional cues are evident in Aitia 7 above on Cleite’s suicide. The nymphs mourn the unfortunate bride and invite the reader to do likewise. Though this presentation also incorporates potentially unsettling wordplay (deviation). Absorption – Deviation – Absorption – Deviation. It’s all too much for Edward.

Apollonius tells how the heroes left one of their mooring-stones, and how in later times the Milesian colonists by Apollo’s direction consecrated the relic. Of course the existence of this relic conditioned the narrative of Apollonius: here must be the first landing place of the Argo.
(Fitch 1912: 45-6. Aitia 1)

And further, Chytus Harbor owes its name to the event which is described in vss. 989-1011. Earth-born monsters with six hands, dwelling on the heights descended to the shore and “fenced in with rocks the sea-ward mouth of spacious Chytus Harbor, as if they were entrapping a beast”… This story is plainly aetiological in character. Chytus Harbor is Mole Harbor. The note in Etym. Magnum already cited describes the harbor as “shut in and built with rocks and artificial”. Apollonius essays to tell how this artificial harbor came to be what it was. His narrative is brief and is burdened with an anachronism, for the new name occurs in vs. 987 at a time when nothing existed to justify the name. In spite of this difficulty, which may well be due to the condensed form of the narrative, it seems to me clear that Apollonius meant to account for the peculiar formation of the harbor by this peculiar attempt upon the Argo. The scholiast to vs. 987 so understood it: he twice uses χόω the prose equivalent of χέω, χυτός, to describe the action of the monsters.
(Fitch 1912: 46-7. Aitia 4)

I’ve italicised some of Fitch’s struggles with obstructions. My ‘slight narrative anachrony’ noted above (the temporal deformation of narrative Order whereby Chytus is so named before the event which gives rise to the name is related in the narrative) has become an anachronism (a chronological bleed from time post-story but prior-storytelling) almost too much to bear. After the testimony of Dr. Wiegand (discussed above), he introduces Deiochus, a local historian of Cyzicus. This Deiochus is extracted from the scholia, recreated and Fitch then affirms his construct as the source of aitia (e.g. my 6 and 7 above), the list of the Dolionian dead and concludes whilst noting some divergences that ‘in the controlling outlines of the story Apollonius followed Deiochus’ (54). And this is done to vindicate the poet for an apparently baffling narrative structure (untidy? lacking in clear causality? riddled with deviations?). Accept the criticism and shift the blame. It’s a strategy for something.

My own analysis of the narrative shape of the episode was based on an interweaving of two prominent Homeric models, Odysseus’ encounters with Aeolus (Doliones) and Laestrygonians (Earthborn) with additional sprinklings of Phaeacians and Cyclopes. For example, in the Odyssey Odysseus is well-received by Aeolus who sends him on his way with a bag containing all the winds which might impede his speedy return home. Odysseus’ crew, both uninformed and curious, open the bag expecting some treasure and release the winds. The ship is blown back to the isle of Aeolus who is annoyed to see Odysseus again and offers no further assistance. For me, the Argonautic narrative recalls and modifies the Odyssean narrative. But, in terms of the process being carried out, my reading and Fitch’s reading are quite similar. We both look at macrostructures for the outlines. Fitch turns to references in the scholia to confirm readings whereas I look for the microstructural in Homeric intertexts e.g. lexical similarities. Neither of us are ‘on Cyzicus’ or rather we are and aren’t, weaving in and out of worlds.

‘Reconceptualising Foregrounding’ identifies seven response strategies towards perceived deviations. These strategies vary in degrees of associated absorption and degree of agency (how active or passive was the reader’s involvement/sense of control). What the paper’s findings do show is a tendency (differing in degree according to strategy) towards increased engagement with the narrative, towards a more intense reading experience. E.g. (2016: 201) on interruptions caused by deviations: ‘Far from spoiling the experience, we have seen that each of the seven strategies of dealing with deviations lead to its own sense of being absorbed, often more intense, profound and meaningful than prior to the “interruption.” And ibid. (196) on the Uncertainty/ Disambiguation Response Strategy: ‘Participants report a prolonged mental connection with the narrative, often coinciding with rereading, reviewing, and re-immersion in order to find an answer to the questions that the uncertainty leaves unanswered.’

Of the seven strategies identified, I’m still uncertain which best suits aitia (just as I struggle to find them a text-type). ‘Striking/Novelty’ is a response strategy which currently appeals (and to many features of the Argonautica besides aitia). The reader weary of temporal deformations, of being pulled out of the storyworld to be told about later settlers might opt instead for Obstruction/Adjustment and higher energy investment for less reward (if not an antiquarian). This preliminary discussion has already created a daunting reading list (see below), but I’m also buoyed by the suggestion that foregrounding and absorption co-occur, and that deviations can encourage second and third readings.

Response strategies offer one model for classifying Argonautic deviations. The world-building theories mentioned at the outset offer multiple models for mind-mapping the Argonautica’s world and populating it. Or worlds – the world of the Argonauts, the world of later settlers, the world of the narrator, the world of the reader.

Even more crucially, perhaps, readers assume that the Ebro in the story is the same Ebro that exists in the actual world and runs through a particular valley in Spain.


How many Ebros running one over the other and one into the other in sedimented worlds? There’s a lot of weaving still to be done. In and out.


Asper, M. (2013) ‘Minding the Gap: Aetiology and (False) Closure’ in F. F. Grewing, B. Acosta-Hughes & A. Kirichenko, eds., The Door Ajar, Heidelberg, 63-82.
Bálint, K., Hakemulder, F., Kuijpers, M., Doicaru, M., & Tan E. (2016) ‘Reconceptualizing Foregrounding: Identifying response strategies to deviation in absorbing narratives’, Scientific Study of Literature 6: 176–207.
Byatt, A. S. (2011) Ragnarok, Edinburgh.
Clare, R. J. (2002) The Path of the Argo, Cambridge.
Cuypers, M. (2005) ‘Interactional Particles and Narrative Voice in Apollonius
and Homer’, Caeculus 6: 35-69.
Fantuzzi, M., Hunter, R. L. (2004) Tradition and Innovation in Hellenistic Poetry, Cambridge.
Fitch, E. (1912) ‘Apollonius Rhodius and Cyzicus’, AJP 33: 43-56.
Fludernik, M. (2014) ‘Collective Minds in Fact and Fiction: Intermental Thought and Group Consciousness in Early Modern Narrative’, Poetics Today 35: 4.
Goldhill, S. (1991) The Poet’s Voice, Cambridge.
Harder, A. (2003) ’The Invention of Past, Present and Future in Callimachus’ Aetia‘, Hermes 131: 290-306.
Harder. A. (2015) ‘Anchoring through Aetiology’, Proceedings of Anchoring Innovation in Antiquity 17-20 December, Ravenstein.
Herman, D. (2009) Basic Elements of Narrative, Oxford.
Mori, A. (2008) The Politics of Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica, Cambridge.
Morrison, A. D. (2007) The Narrator in Archaic Greek and Hellenistic Poetry, Cambridge.

Further Reading

Bruner, J. (1991). ‘The Narrative Construction of Reality’, Critical Inquiry 18: 1– 21.
Busselle, R., & Bilandzic, H. (2009) ‘Measuring narrative engagement’, Media Psychology 12: 321–347.
Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000) ‘The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79: 701–721.
Kowalzig, B. (2007) Singing For the Gods: Performances of Myth and Ritual in Archaic and Classical Greece, Oxford.
Kuijpers, M., Hakemulder, F, Tan, E., Doicaru, M. (2014) ‘Exploring absorbing reading experiences: Developing and validating a self-report scale to measure story world absorption’, Scientific Study of Literature 4: 89–122.
Lewis, D. (1979) ‘Scorekeeping in a Language Game’, Journal of Philosophical Logic 8: 339– 59.
Ryan, M.-L. (2005) ‘Possible-Worlds Theory’ in D. Herman, M. Jahn, & M.-L. Ryan, eds., Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, London, 446-50.
Werth, P. (1999) Text Worlds: Representing Conceptual Space in Discourse, London.

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