book review · history & philosophy · textiles in literature

Book Review: The Craft of Zeus

Scheid, John, and Jesper Svenbro. The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric. Trans. Carol Volk. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996. {Link}

Ancient histories, etymologies, and myths of origins have always fascinated me. As a child, the early chapters of Genesis provided some of my favorite Bible stories, glimpsing, as they do, the primeval history of mankind. As a scholar of literature and writing, I’ve retained this fascination with ancient images and early definitions — not because they remain static across time and history, but because they provide vivid  insight into the ways our ancestors saw the world and narrated their worldview within families, tribes, nations, and faiths.

Not surprisingly, then, I was intrigued when I read the publisher’s summary of The Craft of Zeus, a work by Jesper Svenbro, a Swedish poet and philologist, and John Scheid, a French historian:

“The fundamental gesture of weaving in The Craft of Zeus is the interlacing of warp and woof described by Plato in The Statesman–an interweaving signifying the union of opposites. From rituals symbolizing–even fabricating–the cohesion of society to those proposed by oracles as a means of propitiating fortune; from the erotic and marital significance of weaving and the woven robe to the use of weaving as a figure for language and the fabric of the text, this lively and lucid book defines the logic of one of the central concepts in Greek and Roman thought–a concept that has persisted, woof and warp crossing again and again, as the fabric of human history has unfolded.”

As they trace this “fundamental gesture of weaving” through ancient Greek thought, Scheid and Svenbro identify three major metaphorical categories represented to the Greek mind by weaving: marital union, the political state, and the poetic text. They call these metaphorical roles myths to emphasize that “the metaphor of weaving and fabric is a shared one—part of what is usually referred to as ‘common knowledge’ — and not an individual creation. It is a figure used by an entire civilization, repeated, modified, and resurrected over time without ever becoming fixed or dead” (2).

The three main sections of the book detail the lively ways in which figures of weaving and textiles shape Greek concepts of marriage, text, and ritual. They maintain that the most fundamental significance of the weaving “myths” is that of marriage, in which the sumploke (interlacing) of stimon (warp) and kroke (weft) — figuring the union of man and woman–becomes the image upon which “the political and poetic idea of fabric is built” (13). Reading this work as a newlywed, I was struck by the durability of these images: for example, marriage often involved one spouse (usually the wife) leaving her household to enter her groom’s. A woven blanket, then, represented not only the union of man and wife, but welcome into a new household, as the spouse “at home” would cover the “foreign” spouse in a woven blanket, signifying their union as a place of safety and rest. 

As a scholar of literature, I was most interested in the book’s final section, on the myth of weaving shaping the relationship between a writer and reader. As with marriage, the writer-reader relationship can be figured through weaving: “the warp here is the writing, which awaits the woof of the reader’s voice to be fully realized. This first “text” […] unites the writing and the voice in the act of reading, which means that it refers to a dynamic relationship rather than to a static object” (126).

At every point in their analysis, Svenbro and Scheid provide examples from ancient authors: Plato and Homer, as well as many others. They demonstrate that the myths of weaving shaped the Greek imagination as it worked on questions of marriage, statecraft, poetry, nature, and the human body. Along the way, a curious reader will collect all sorts of interesting facts, such as the Greek association between the halcyon bird and a weaver’s shuttle, or the relationship between these myths of weaving and the idea of our bodily “tissue” (woven fabric).

The book is not easy to read, both because it is a translation and because its subject is, undeniably, erudite. However, as a novice weaver, amateur classicist, and scholar of literature, I enjoyed every page of it. Readers with only a passing curiosity about the metaphorical uses of weaving may find The Craft of Zeus tedious, but for anyone deeply interested in questions of marriage, statecraft, literary theory, and of course, weaving, this book rewards careful attention and long aquintance.  


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