The Library as a garden of the Muses

2020.06.05 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. In the Candide of Voltaire, first published in 1759, the last words famously read: mais il faut cultiver notre jardin ‘but we must cultivate our garden’. Following such a mandate, I return here to cultivate a garden of my own delights—the idea of the ancient Library of Alexandria as a garden of the Muses. The occasion for my return is a feast day of sorts, a Festival of the Muses, celebrated in June 2020 at the Center for Hellenic Studies in its own lush garden, virtual as well as real.

Statue of Voltaire placed in an unplanted flowerbed in the middle of a lawn surrounded by bushes and trees. Nearby is a wheelbarrow full of flowers in bloom, evidently about to be planted in the flowerbed.
Statue of Voltaire by Léon-Ernst Drivier, installed in 1962 in the Garden Honoré-Champion, on the Rue de Seine, Paris. Photo, Alamy.


Statue of Voltaire placed in the middle of a bed of flowers in bloom.
The same statue of Voltaire, surrounded by flowers in bloom. Image via Flickr, shared under a CC BY 2.0 license.


§1. The inspiration for my return here to the Library of Alexandria comes from a fond memory. I go back, mentally, to a sunny day in May 1998. I was in Lisbon, and I found myself in a garden. At the time, I was thinking of the right words to say for a talk I would soon be presenting at an international colloquium dedicated to celebrating the ideals—if not the realities—of European culture. The event had been sponsored by a foundation named after its original benefactor, Calouste Gulbenkian (1869–1955). There I was, in the garden that he founded, in his garden. What caught my eye in that garden was an overpowering sight, and it will not let go of me, even now. It was a statue made in the image of Gulbenkian: you could see the figure of a man, of slight stature, just sitting there—and overshadowed by a hulking figure standing over him. That figure was and is a statue as well. He is the Egyptian god Horus. His head, the head of a falcon, is sternly glaring ahead, beyond the man of slight stature. This dyadic statuary of man and god had been inspired by a photograph of the same man, then much younger. You can see him in a photograph, dating from 1934. There he is, an eager visitor in Egypt, and you see him sitting in the shadow of a colossal ancient statue of the same god. This visualization of the god Horus, son of the goddess Isis and living embodiment of his dead father, the god Osiris, turned out to be my own inspiration for what I wanted to say in May 1998 and what I want to say again, though differently, in June 2020: the dead body of Osiris, destined to come back to life through the power of sacred letters, would be the link to what I ended up saying then in 1998—and what I need to say now, with 20/20 vision, I so hope, in 2020.

Photograph of statue of Gulbenkian, overseen by Horus, in the garden, Lisbon.
Photograph of statue of Gulbenkian, overseen by Horus, in the garden, Lisbon. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Photograph of Gulbenkian, with Horus, 1934, in Egypt.
Photograph of Gulbenkian, with Horus, 1934, in Egypt. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


§2. What I finally got around to saying, back in 1998, when I presented my talk in Lisbon, need not be repeated here, for the most part. The full text of my talk as presented in 1998 was published in print three years later, in 2001, and, for the record, that text is now available online, Nagy 1998b/2001. The only part of my original talk that I need to repeat here—and to rewrite—is where I speak about the Library of Alexandria in terms of a powerful metaphor that had applied in ancient times to the Library. It terms of that metaphor, the Library could be viewed as a corpus, as a body, comparable to the body of the god Osiris. In rewriting here that part of my original talk, I merge my rewritten text with another piece of rewriting. In this case, the rewritten text is part of a talk I presented in June 1999 on the festive occasion of another international colloquium, this one bearing most tellingly the title Des Alexandries, which celebrated the original founding of the Library of Alexandria. A French-language version of that talk was published in print two years later, in 2001, and, for the record, an English-language version of the text is now available online, Nagy 2001. In that other talk, I spoke about the Library of Alexandria in terms of another powerful metaphor that had applied in ancient times to the Library. It terms of that other metaphor, the Library could be viewed not only as a corpus but also as a cosmos—as a universe ruled by a universal king, the Pharaoh of Egypt, a prototype for whom was the god Osiris, brought back to life by his loving wife, the goddess Isis, and by their devoted son, the god Horus. My brief summary of the inherent theology here follows the reasoning of Plutarch in his essay On Isis and Osiris, as analyzed in an ongoing commentary-in-progress, Nagy 1999–. (I hope to convert that commentary-in-progress into an ongoing project for a future posting in Classical Inquiries.)

§3. That said, I am ready to present a brief rewriting of relevant parts of my online texts published as Nagy 1998b/2001and Nagy 2001. Since these two texts have in common an introduction that can be read in fuller form elsewhere, in an overall essay of mine about the Libraries of Alexandria and Pergamon, posted in Classical Inquiries (Nagy 2020.06.03), at paragraphs §§1–21, with footnotes 1–26, I will dispense here altogether with the text of that introduction.

§4. In the Library of Alexandria, as founded by the dynasty of the Ptolemies, that is, the Lagidai, we can see interconnections between the idea of a Library and the political realities of its foundation. Let us examine the following description, by Strabo (who lived in the first century BC/CE), of the physical setting of the Library, which was the sacred precinct of the Muses, the Museum or Mouseion:


ἃπαντα μέντοι συναφῆ καὶ ἀλλήλοις καὶ τῷ λιμένι καὶ ὅσα ἔξω αὐτοῦ. τῶν δὲ βασιλείων μέρος ἐστὶ καὶ τὸ Μουσεῖον, ἔχον περίπατον καὶ ἐξέδραν καὶ οἶκον μέγαν ἐν ᾧ τὸ συσσίτιον τῶν μετεχόντων τοῦ Μουσείου φιλολόγων ἀνδρῶν. ἔστι δὲ τῇ συνόδῳ ταύτῃ καὶ χρήματα κοινὰ καὶ ἱερεὺς ὁ ἐπὶ τῷ Μουσείῳ τεταγμένος τότε μὲν ὑπὸ τῶν βασιλέων νῦν δ’ ὑπὸ Καίσαρος. μέρος δὲ τῶν βασιλείων ἐστὶ καὶ τὸ καλούμενον Σῶμα, ὃ περίβολος ἦν ἐν ᾧ αἱ τῶν βασιλέων ταφαὶ καὶ ἡ Ἀλεξάνδρου. ὃ περίβολος ἦν ἐν ᾧ αἱ τῶν βασιλέων ταφαὶ καὶ ἡ Ἀλεξάνδρου· ἔφθη γὰρ τὸ σῶμα ἀφελόμενος Περδίκκαν ὁ τοῦ Λάγου Πτολεμαῖος κατακομίζοντα ἐκ τῆς Βαβυλῶνος καὶ ἐκτρεπόμενον ταύτῃ κατὰ πλεονεξίαν καὶ ἐξιδιασμὸν τῆς Αἰγύπτου.

Strabo 17.1.8 C 793–794

My working translation:

All [the buildings] are connected to each other and to the harbor and what lies outside the harbor. The Museum is also part of the royal complex. It has a walkway [Peripatos] and an Exedra and a great building that houses the place where the philologoi who take part in the Museum dine in common. Property, too, is held in common by this assembled group, and at their head is the priest who is put in charge of the Museum, who used to be appointed by the kings, but now by Caesar [Augustus]. Another part of the royal complex is the so-called Sōma. This is an enclosure where the tombs of the kings and of Alexander are located. For Ptolemy, the son of Lagos, took his [Alexander’s] body [sōma] away from Perdiccas, thus edging him out. Perdiccas had been bringing it [= the body] back home from Babylon and had detoured toward Egypt, moved by greed and by the ambition to make that country his own.

§5. This whole description of the Museum or Mouseion, the sacred space that contains the Library, abounds in traditional metonyms that reveal the connections of power, wealth, and prestige. By “metonym” here I mean, as a working definition, the expression of meaning by way of connection—as opposed to “metaphor,” by which I mean the expression of meaning by way of substitution.

§6. I list here four kinds of metonym, which will help explain the metaphors of comprehensiveness, completeness, and universality associated with the idea of the Library:

§6.1. Metonymy of part-for-the-whole. The first and most obvious metonymy to notice in Strabo’s description is the idea that the Library is “part” of the Museum or Mouseion, that is, of the sacred precinct of the Muses. Here we see the specialized metonymy of synecdoche, in that the Library is viewed as a part of the whole, an aspect of the totality that is the Museum. Strabo’s statement of this contiguity is placed in the larger context of his overall statement that all buildings are contiguous in Alexandria.

§6.2. Metonymy of contiguity between the Museum and the royal precinct, between the sacred and the political. Within this contiguity is the body of men who are an assembled group (sunodos) that eat together and share their wealth as if they were one. The synecdoche of the body in the context of a Library recalls a narrative, in the Letter of Aristeas, about the assembled group who act as one in simultaneously “translating” into Greek the sacred books of the Jews (analysis of the Letter in Nagy 1996:196–197; see also Canfora 1996:7–8).

§6.3. Metonymy of contiguity between the Museum and the royal Ptolemaic tombs, especially the tomb of Alexander the Great. By extension (where “extension” itself becomes a metonym), there is the contiguity between “tomb”/sēma and “body”/sōma—a contiguity that is embodied in the synecdoche of naming the sēma ‘tomb’ of Alexander as the Sōma ‘Body’ par excellence.

§6.3.1. The manuscript tradition of Strabo has Σῶμα/Sōma, literally meaning ‘body’, but modern editors conventionally emend to Σῆμα/Sēma, meaning ‘tomb’. I submit that Σῶμα is the lectio difficilior. (I now retract my reading Σῆμα in Nagy 1990:272n110.)

§6.3.2. In the Alexander Romance 3.34.5, it is made explicit that the taphos ‘tomb’ of Alexander was named the σῶμα Ἀλεξάνδρου ‘the Sōma of Alexander’. The traditional name of Alexander’s tomb works as a metonymy (specifically, a synecdoche), whereby the body (sōma) par excellence is the tomb (sēma). The phonetic parallelism of sōma/sēma serves to reinforce the metonymic device. (On the Orphic identification of sōma and sēma, see Plato, Cratylus 400c. See also Payne 1991:164–181.)

§6.3.3. The Library is envisioned as contiguous with the body of the king, as if it were one overall corpus. The notional and even physical contiguity of the library with the sōma of the king is I suggest a traditional concept inherent in the very idea of the Library. The corpus of books is coextensive with the corpus of the king. Cicero borrows the Greek word sōma in referring to a “corpus” of books: Letters to Atticus 2.1.4, Letter to Luceius. I note too the expression τὸ σῶμα τῶν γραφῶν ‘the corpus of scriptures’ (drawn into a parallel with τὸ σῶμα τὸ Μωυσέως ‘the body of Moses’) in Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 6.132.2–3. For these and related earlier examples (Philo, On the Contemplative Life 78 and The Assumption of Moses 93), I recommend the analysis of van den Hoek (1989:250–254).

§6.3.4. Further, the preservation of the king’s body is coextensive with the preservation of the books. I start by quoting a most relevant remark made by Strabo (17.1.8 C 794): τὸ δὲ σῶμα τοῦ Ἀλεξάνδρου κομίσας ὁ Πτολεμαῖος ἐκήδευσεν ἐν τῇ Ἀλεξανδρείᾳ ὅπου νῦν ἔτι κεῖται ‘Ptolemy brought-home [komizein] the body [sōma] of Alexander and ritually-honored [kēdeuein] it in Alexandria, where it still lies, even to this day, though not in the same sarcophagus [as in the days of Ptolemy]’. Even this aetiological narrative, recorded by Strabo, concerning the ‘bringing home’ of Alexander’s body, is driven by a metonym: the verb komizein here, which can be translated in the specialized sense of ‘bring home’, conveys the preservation of either a hero’s body, as in Iliad 13.196, or a body of literature, as in “Plato” Hipparkhos 228b–c. In the Iliadic passage, it is said that the Achaeans κόμισαν ‘brought’ [komizein] the corpse of Amphimakhos. Subjectively, they ‘brought it back to their side’—which is here by necessity the substitute for ‘brought it home’. In the Platonic passage, it is said that Hipparkhos of Athens ἐκόμισεν ‘brought home’ [komizein] the epē ‘[poetic] words’ of Homer to Athens—as if this city had been the original home of that corpus.

§6.3.5. I have one more thing to say about my interpreting komizein as ‘bring home’, not just ‘bring’, in my translation of the passage in Strabo 17.1.8 C 794, where the body of Alexander the Great is being brought back ‘home’—even if this home turns out to be his new home, Egypt, not his old home, Macedon. Here too, the component ‘home’ of ‘bring home’ is “subjective,” reflecting the standpoint of the speaker. And the ex-post-facto concept of Alexander’s tomb at the Museum in Alexandria as his oikos ‘home’, which is made explicit in the Alexander Romance 3.24.4 (also 1.33.9), is connected to the traditional use of oikos to designate the tomb of a cult-hero (Nagy 1990:271–272).

§6.3.6. In the Alexander Romance, the dead body of Alexander is visualized not only in Hellenic religious terms, as the sōma of a cult-hero, but also in Egyptian religious terms, as a mummy. Notionally, the body of Alexander the Great is not only the heroic corpus of a Hellenic hero: it is also the royal corpus of the Egyptian pharaoh, whose dead body is destined to become immortalized into an ever-living body through the ritual of mummification—and whose identity is reshaped by the Ptolemies into that of the kosmokratōr, the Ruler of the Cosmos (Alexander Romance 1.7.3, 1.17.4; comments by Payne 1991:169, with bibliography). In Egyptian religious terms, the pharaonic king’s body is a prototypical re-enactment, as it were, of the god Osiris. According to the sacred narratives, the body of Osiris was the first ever to be mummified and thereby ultimately immortalized.

§6.4. Metonymy inherent in the concept of the Museum as the ‘sacred precinct of the Muses’. This concept links the preservative phase of the literary canon, as embodied by the Library, with the creative or productive phase of what we know as the Classical era of Greek literature, especially around the fifth century. From a Classical point of view, the Muses preside primarily over the production of belles lettres, only secondarily over their preservation (Nagy 1990:58–61, 77n21, 188–189). When I say “production” here, I include composition-in-performance as well as composition-for-performance. Between production and preservation, of course, is the concept of continuation: for the scholar-poets of Alexandria, continuity is the preservation of the old canonical literature and the production of new non-canonical (or, better, meta-canonical) literature (Nagy 1990:82–84). I should add that such a concept of continuation is perhaps the most ambitious metonym of them all.

§7. As we can see from the description of Strabo, the Library of Alexandria was contiguous with the sacred precinct of the Muses, who were the goddesses of the performing arts (I have more to say in Nagy 1989 about the Muses as performers). In this case, the very idea of the Library can be connected with the political impetus to control the application of the spoken word by controlling the text and keeping it in a secured place (Fraser 1972 1:334–35, 2:479–80, 493–494).

§8. It is the Library of Alexandria that makes it possible to visualize as “virtual libraries” all previous collections of texts recording the spoken word, including the archaic models of Polycrates and Peisistratos (Jacob 1996:62). The physical reality of the Library of Alexandria, that is, a comprehensive and holistic collection of the Classics as contained in scrolls stored on the shelves of its bibliothēkē  ‘book-repository’ (Canfora 1996:141) and catalogued in the 120 Pinakes or “Tablets” of Callimachus, becomes the virtual reality of the Library as a concept that can now subsume all earlier patterns of canonization or classicism (Nagy 1998a).

§9. The comprehensiveness and holism of the Library at Pergamon, in general terms as well as in specifics, is based on principles similar to those of the Library of Alexandria (Nagy 1998a). Whereas the operative metaphor in the case of Alexandria is “corpus,” it is “cosmos” in the case of the Library of Pergamon (Nagy 2001). Either way, the central idea is that of totality, wholeness.

§10. The Alexandrian idea of “corpus” depends, at least in part, on distinctly Egyptian religious visualizations of the pharaonic king’s body as a prototypical re-enactment, as it were, of the god Osiris, whose divine body is dismembered or disassembled in order to become ultimately reassembled as a model of eternal preservation (Nagy 1999–). But it depends also on distinctly Hellenic religious visualizations of the cult-hero’s body as a sacred talisman of fertility, prosperity, and eternally recycled life for the community that worships it (Nagy 1990:270–272). The conventional setting of hero-cults in gardens is a visible sign: the cultivation of gardens is coextensive with the cult of heroes (Nagy 1979:74–210, especially pp. 207–208).

§11. Moreover, the overall idea of the Library of Alexandria depends on the overall idea of the Museum, the sacred precinct of the Muses. Again, the visualization of this Museum, a garden with porticos filled with scrolls that preserve and perpetuate the belles lettres of the Classics writ large, is quintessentially Hellenic.

§12. These visualizations of the Library of Alexandria, partly Egyptian and partly Hellenic, are pertinent to some of the major questions of European cultural history and even to the ultimate question of European cultural identity. Most important of all, they show that the idea of  “Hellenic” is not at all incompatible with the cultural realities of ancient Egypt.

§13. Just as important, the idea of  “Hellenic” is equally compatible with the cultural realities of, say, “Asia.” A prime witness is one of the most prestigious cities of Asia Minor, Pergamon, with its Library proclaiming the cosmopolitan idea of Hellenism as “cosmos” itself (Nagy 2001). This macrocosmic cultural model of Hellenism pertains directly to the idea of Europe, since Hellenism defines itself as bridging Europe and Asia: the Hellespont, which physically separates the two continents from each other, is also the mythical and ideological “bridge” (etymologically, Hellēspontos means ‘the crossing of Helle’) which culturally joins them together. (For the mythological and ideological background on the Hellespont as the cultural “bridge” between Europe and Asia, as articulated primarily by the “father of history,” Herodotus, see Nagy 1990:268–273, in conjunction with the discussion of the meaning of Hellēspontos at p. 330. On the myth of ‘the crossing of Helle’ by way of the Hellespont, see Nagy 1979:339–344.)

§14. If Europe is to define itself as the cultural heir to Hellenism, then the hope is that Europe will perpetuate such models of cultural inclusion. In this light, let us look back at the symbolism of the statue of Gulbenkian in the garden of the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon: we see here the founder of the foundation, who was born in Istanbul, the city that straddles Europe and Asia. The statue is seated under the overarching presence of the Egyptian god Horus, the living heir of the dead Osiris. The setting of the statue—and, by metonymy, of the whole foundation—is a garden, which fills out the symbolism: it evokes the ultimate garden of the Muses, the Museum of Alexandria. To cultivate such a garden is to perpetuate the culture of the inclusive idea that is Europe.

§15. The hope for a perpetuation of such a culture is relevant to my own hope that Hellenism will save the Europe of the twenty-first century from becoming a mere ideology, which has been the fate of the very idea of the twentieth century.

§16. My hope is that the triumphalism of the twentieth century as a concept and, yes, as a self-congratulating ideology will give way to a new spirit of historicism in the twenty-first century—a spirit that refuses to fetishize itself as the be-all and end-all of human inquiry, as if the only thing worthy of study were the present—an artificial present frozen within a block of time that lasts, arbitrarily, for a hundred years. The sad legacy of the twentieth century has been a relentless elimination of previous blocks of time, as if nothing else mattered except the present and the recent past, as if students needed to study nothing that happened before the twentieth and, at best, the nineteenth century.

§17. So far, the twenty-first century has turned out to be no better—and, in some ways, worse—than the twentieth. My hope is that the twenty-first century will not become a false periodization that finishes off the job that the twentieth has started—the grim process of eliminating from memory, or trying to eliminate, everything that happened before itself. The idea of the library as a Classical model reveals an alternative.

§18. My hope is that Europe can play a special role. With its depth of history, with its depth of humanism contained within that history, my hope is that Europe can revitalize its own humanism by reestablishing its historical depth in time—and its historical breadth in space.

§19. The space of Europe, it is my hope, will be cultural, not territorial, embracing all the cultures to which it has been contrasted throughout its history—and which, all of them, have contributed to the depth and the breadth of that history.

§20. The very idea of Europe is hollow if Europe remembers only the so-called twenty-first and twentieth centuries. My hope is that it remembers all of its past.

§21. The idea of Europe is hollow if Europe remembers only what is contained within its fluctuating geographical boundaries. My hope is that it keeps in mind all of its cultural contacts in the present and the past.

§22. Europe is not Europe without the diachrony of ancient Egypt, of the ancient Near East, and all the other contiguities. The idea of the library as a Classical model shows the way. I think back to the gardens of the Museum of Alexandria, evoked by the gardens of the Gulbenkian Foundation, representing the old world of Europe. But I also think ahead, thinking of a new world. I think of the garden of the Center for Hellenic Studies. And I think of the Center itself, and of its legacy, as a garden of the Muses. Revenons à cultiver notre jardin!

§23. This essay needs an epilogue. It is about what happened after my visit to that garden in 1998. In 1999, I happened to be reading an honors thesis that had just been completed by Joanna Guldi, “Naturalizing Feminism: Reading Rousseau on Women’s Nature.” In this work, which I dearly hope will be published soon, Joanna writes about gardens as metaphors for learning. Most evocative for me was this formulation of hers, with reference to English gardens (Guldi 1999:9): “Art imitates life, the Garden imitates art—that is, Nature imitates art, both images and linguistic accounts.” I showed Jo’s work to my dear wife Olga M. Davidson, known to friends as Holly, and she was as inspired as I was by Joanna’s vision. This inspiration led to Holly’s own inspiration, which happened just a year later, when I was appointed in 2000 as faculty director of the Center for Hellenic Studies. Holly said to me, already in 2000: “let’s make this place a garden”—and that is what it became for me, thanks to her vision—and thanks to the dedication of so many colleagues and friends who have cultivated such a Garden as a lasting legacy. The continuation of my studies centering on the Library as a Garden of the Muses would never have happened without the inspiration of Holly, whose vision of the Center embodies, as a shining cultural artifact, the art of cultivating our garden.



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