Marie-Claire Beaulieu. The Sea in the Greek Imagination. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, pp. 280, $79.95.
*I’d like to express my gratitude to University of Pennsylvania Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.
The sea plays an integral role in Greek mythology and history. Marie-Claire Beaulieu (Assistant Professor in Classics) attempts to understand the sea as a boundary that “mediates between the worlds of the living, the dead, and the gods” (3). Rather than attempting to establish a universal pattern in Greek myths, Beaulieu focuses on how various Greek writings interact with and appropriate aspects of this basic definition. In doing so, she cogently illustrates the variety of ways of which the sea played a role in the Greek imagination.
So, each chapter focuses on a different aspects regarding the sea as a boundary in Greek imagination: visible/mortal and invisible/immortal; Heroic, male rites of passage; marriageable age, female rites of passage; extensions of the mediating role of the sea through dolphins; leaps into the sea as entrance into the afterlife; and locus for Dionysiac worship. Simply put, the sea represents transitions and movements through life in the Greek imagination. Though not a universal pattern, Beaulieu’s proposal which ties the sea together makes the sea as a concept much more digestible for readers of classic texts. For both understanding Greek conceptions of the sea and for comparison with adjacent cultural pattern in Mesopotamia, her work is a valuable contribution. Additionally, the simplicity of the book is wonderful because she writes clearly in a story-like tone. This is, of course, no surprise because Beaulieu is involved in digital humanities and making the ancient world more accessible.
While she demonstrates great knowledge and understanding of Greek literature, her arguments could be bolstered through independent analysis of archaeological, numismatic, and ceramic records. Although these are sometimes incorporated into her arguments, one should not assume a priori that they reflect textual records. Thus, independent consideration of these various elements may have strengthened, or perhaps nuanced, her conclusions regarding the sea as a mediator.
In conclusion, Beaulieu’s work is a wonderful contribution the Classical Studies. The price ($79.95) is unfortunate because it will make her work more difficult to disseminate and less accessible. This is not her fault, though. While there may be other works among the “sea” of research (please forgive the pun), her work is essential inasmuch as it is quite understandable the average non-specialist. While it may not be the most helpful book for specialists, it is a valuable book for smaller libraries seeking comprehensive, yet digestible, works on Greek mythology.