Formalism: approach to textual analysis that focuses on recurring patterns and themes. It is related to structuralism.

The classical dragon slayer: Heracles and the Hydra (sarcophagus from Perge)
The classical dragon slayer: Heracles and the Hydra (sarcophagus from Perge)

In the nineteenth century, people studying texts were especially interested in what the author had meant to say. The hermeneutic method was developed, in the words of Friedrich Schleiermacher, as “the art of understanding each other’s words”, implying that the intention of the speaker/writer was what mattered.

A new way to look at texts was be introduced in Johann Georg von Hahn’s Sagwissenschaftliche Studien (1876). He pointed out that Greek myths shared motifs and patterns with stories written in other Indo-European languages. For example, in fairy tales about dragon slayers, the hero

All these motifs are applied to Heracles, but you will also find them in the Icelandic saga about Sigurd. The Russian linguist Vladimir Propp (1895-1970) did similar research on fairy tales, in which he found thirty-one recurring motifs. Certain formulas (from “once upon a time…” to “they lived happily ever after”) are applied time and again, and even locations can be quite stereotypical. For example, when Herodotus presents the Median residence Ecbatana as a city with seven walls, this is a typical fairy tale motif that can also be found in medieval poetry.note

A comparable approach is called “structuralism”. Words don’t have a fixed meaning; their meaning is defined by their relations to other words, with which they are structurally connected. For instance, “white” is opposed to “black” and “up” is connected to “down”. This is not only useful for understanding the significance of words, but is also a useful tool for understanding foreign or ancient cultures. Countless books have been written about “the construction of the Other”, in which classicists and historians describe how, for example, the Greeks used the Scythians as a mirror image of themselves – and this tells more about the Greeks than about the Scythians.

The main legacy of formalism was the recognition of the importance of orality in ancient literature; we cannot take the ancient literary texts at face value, we must understand that they often have their roots in an oral society and are influenced by recurring patterns. Structuralism’s main legacy is equally disturbing: it showed how great the bias of ancient texts may be.

This page was created in 2014; last modified on 21 April 2020.