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Peter v. Möllendorff

From a functional point of view, metalepsis can be defined as the shift of a figure within a text (usually a character or a narrator) from one narrative level to another, marking a trangression of ontological borders. This procedure makes the reader or addressee aware of the fictional status of a text and ensures the maintenance of a specifically aesthetic distance, thereby counteracting any experience of immersion in the literary work. At the same time, it can be used as an effective instrument for producing enargeia (vividness), and through its sudden and surprising character it can also create strong effects of pathos as well as comedic effects. Thanks to the specific demands of a culture poised between orality and literacy, ancient literature knows primarily “smooth” metaleptic transitions, that is, ones that do not involve a strong sense of “jolt.” As procedure for transgressing borders between narrative levels, it has many manifestations in antiquity; as a literary motif, however, it appears rather seldom. The study of metalepsis in classical literature started with de Jong’s fundamental article of 2009.


Heliodorus was the author of the Aethiopica, the latest and longest Greek novel to survive from antiquity. In his work, Heliodorus claims to be a Phoenician from Emesa, but there are good reasons against treating this as an authoritative autobiographical statement. The Aethiopica tells the adventures of Charicleia, the white daughter of the black queen and king of Ethiopia. Her mother abandons her, and she is brought up by foster-fathers in Ethiopia and Delphi. There she falls in love with the young Greek Theagenes, with whom she travels via Egypt to Ethiopia. They are almost sacrificed to the local gods, but Charicleia’s parents eventually recognise her. The protagonists become priests and marry. The novel is a narratologically ambitious work that draws on the structure of the Odyssey (in mediis rebus beginning, embedded heterodiegetic narratives) and takes these devices to a whole new level. A wide range of topics play important roles in the Aethiopica, such as religion, multiculturalism, identity, and epistemology.