Joseph Zehner

Generations: Anchoring through Genealogical Discourse

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Genealogies are lists of names, tracing their ancestry. As such, they serve to illustrate the importance of anchoring: they connect the people of more recent times to the distant past and show how the new depends upon the old. There are, however, limits to genealogy’s use as an anchor: often the past is a matter of dispute needing reconstruction. Disagreements arise, giving genealogy argumentative and agonistic qualities. These contentious circumstances demanded that authors innovate not just in the construction of genealogies but also in how they justified their fabrications.

First, this project investigates genealogical discourse itself: namely, how the ancient Greeks used family trees to define and legitimize individuals and groups of people. By connecting the living present with the distant past, genealogy “anchors” people by relying upon traditions of ancestral heroes and gods in ancient Greece. But the comparison of genealogies reveals that, although they are traditional representations of the past, they very often have novelties as their authors construct and interpret the past according to specific political purposes. Through the lens of anchoring, this project will show how genealogies are not simply inert records of the past but are themselves the innovative fabrications of their authors.

Second, this project investigates the discursive strategies which genealogical writers used to secure the authority of their genealogies. Since Greek genealogies extended into a past for which there was no reliable written record, authors invented new ways to ensure the acceptance of their genealogies. The authors of genealogies in early Greek epic relied on the Muses for justification. Within the scope of their narrative, the kleos of the family members serves as another justification. Later prose writers (e.g., Hecataeus of Miletus, Acusilaus of Argos, Pherecydes of Athens), however, used the epic tradition as a negative anchor for their own genealogies, while also inheriting key features from poetic predecessors like Hesiod and Homer. The discursive strategies each fall under the umbrella of anchoring since they aim to communicate newly fabricated genealogies as reliable representations of the past.