Decolonizing a Myth Class

This post is an explanatory (and exploratory) framework for a website I have started for a course on Classical Mythology. This website is developing as the central ‘text’ of my Classical Mythology Course at Brandeis University. The website and the following discussion are intended as adaptive and evolving responses to teaching Greek myth. 

 

Since the events of the most recent SCS Annual Meeting and its subsequent coverage, I have been thinking a lot about the state of the discipline of Classical Studies and what I can do (as well as what I must do) based on the various roles I play within the field and the University. I have been listening carefully to what people like Joy Connolly, Yurie Hong, and Rebecca Futo Kennedy have to say about the measures we can institute now, in the medium term, and in the long term; I have also seriously contemplated what Classicists of color have to say about themselves and the field—learning a lot in particular from Dan-El Padilla Peralta, Nandini Pandey, Jackie Murray (through her deep and powerful interview with Scott Lepisto on Itinera), Mathura Umachandran, Yung In Chae, and my own student Helen Wong, whose critique of my department’s focus on “Western Civilization” has been eating away at me for months now.

Through conversations with some of these generous people as well as other friends and colleagues (including Suzanne Lye, Amy Pistone, Kelly Dugan, Tara Mulder, Caitlin Gillespie, Robyn LeBlanc, Hilary Lehmann, Curtis Dozier, Justin Arft), I have clarified for myself that my actions must be commensurate with the roles I play. But they also must be made with the help of and participation of others. (And this is why I am trying to name everyone I have spoken to and listened to about these issues: none of us will change our fields alone; none of us is in this alone.) Envisioning and creating a community is essential, especially when the odds can seem so long and the voices eager to dismiss the need for change so many.

For me, this means trying to align my values with my actions over several separate domains: my ‘scholarship’, my work as a midcareer reader and editor, my role as department chair and in university governance, my mentorship of students at the graduate and undergraduate level, and, finally, but not of least importance, my role as an instructor. While these roles naturally influence each other, the classroom is a place where I know I can take direct and immediate action.

I am going to be working with my department to alter our curriculum, and to change the language of our mission (to align with what we actually do), and to reconsider the way we train graduate students. And I will likely write some posts here and there to talk about these efforts. But, for now, let’s talk about Classical Mythology.

 

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

I have had training at two institutions for what was called “Affirmative Action Advocacy” at one and “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” at the other. For the most part, my training has not been about creating inclusive classroom spaces or diversifying our disciplines; instead it has been about the workplace and hiring practices. At Brandeis University, I have learned a lot from training in our Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion over the past few years, and I think that the basic distinctions plotted by each category are useful both for understanding the manifold character of problems in our field and for adapting our classrooms.

Diversity is something most people can understand to an extent: it means creating and valuing a space that has people from different backgrounds, religions, language groups, genders, sexual orientations and identities, and abilities. But diversity alone can be no more sophisticated than collecting baseball cards if we do not recognize that because of structural and institutional prejudices (racism, sexism, ableism, and on…) the individuals who are representative of diversity do not start with the same knowledge, skills, or emotional stances towards education.

Equity means making the effort on institutional and individual bases to redress the unequal starting points (and this often gets some people riled up because equity is about achieving fair outcomes, but not about giving everyone the same thing). And Inclusion means modifying the space to accommodate the different abilities and perspectives of our community.

I have taken the trouble of spelling this out in part because there is much opportunity for confusion and in order to make my starting point clear. A good exercise before engaging in this activity is to take a self-test for implicit bias. I also think that Robin D’Angelo’s  “White Fragility” is an essential read. In addition, check out Amy Pistone’s round-up of a SCS workshop “Centering the Margins: Creating Inclusive Syllabi” (with Suzanne Lye, Yurie Hong, Robyn LeBlanc, and Rebecca Kennedy).

 

What is Decolonizing?

Decolonizing is a process with philosophical underpinnings in the middle 20th century which seeks to de-center the works of European colonial authorities, to recenter global voices which have been marginalized from our history and literature, and to re-frame the past by listening to the voices of those marginalized by their bodies and class. Decolonizing also means reading the work of scholars who have been traditionally marginalized from our fields and re-introducing non-canonical subjects as a historical corrective.

For literature courses and history courses, this process has been ongoing as curricula have change to be more inclusive and re-analyze the past from perspectives outside Europe and the United states. But this movement is not just about changing the content of our courses; it is also about the way we run our courses and treat the people who take them. Such a movement has, of course, been ongoing and has created its own series of backlashes from the staid and deceptive work of Harold Bloom to the more aggressive onslaught of Who Killed Homer.

The various disciplines of Classics have been slow to respond to this movement outside of various forms of reception studies because Classical Studies has been so thoroughly identified with Europe and, as Rebecca Kennedy has shown in a pretty convincing twitter thread, was intentionally weaponized as part of “Western Civilization” to justify and enforce colonialism, slavery and their associated horrors. As Cate Bonesho has recently argued, part of our disciplinary inheritance is denying connections with the Ancient Near East; and as the reactions to Martin Bernal’s Black Athena reveal, our field has mobilized to defend the centrality of European exceptionalism within the last generation.

So, the first question is: can you decolonize the classics? Can we decolonize a tool of colonialism? While the answer is complicated, I think we certainly can: courses that have focused on sexuality and gender, slavery, race and ethnicity, and non-canonical texts have sought to do this in their own way. But what about a myth course?

 

Decolonizing a Myth Class

There are, I think, two chief aspects of dealing with a Classical Mythology course. One has to do with the courses’ intention; the other has to do with its content. Some institutions and instructors may decide to go the way of Eva M. Thury’s and Margaret Devinney’s excellent Introduction to Mythology: Contemporary Approaches to Classical and World Myths (Oxford, 4th Edition). This book focuses on kinds of narratives across cultures (tricksters, heroes, creation stories) and does an admirable job of integrating major scholarly approaches with clear tellings of the myths involved.

The problem with this text is that it is a little expensive, the publisher puts out new editions with some frequency (changing page numbers, undermining the used book market), and the authors can’t sidestep the fact that the process of canonization in Europe has preserved sophisticated versions of the Greek and Roman narratives and, further, that our aesthetic and academic expectations have been shaped by the canon. I taught using this book for many years and found that the aesthetic inheritance of Greek and Roman materials causes students to ‘marginalize’ material from other traditions in their reception. (That said, I would recommend trying out this book to anyone who is starting a myth course from scratch)

Additional considerations when choosing how to teach a myth class include: the competence of the instructor and the curricular/educational intention behind the class. Let’s take up the second thing first. When I teach myth I always start with a discussion of why it is important to teach a myth course. I introduce what I see as the different methods (Edith Hamilton-style anthology vs. literature based deep context) and an overview of why we might even teach myth.

In the process of introducing the course, I explain that one longstanding reason for teaching myth is “cultural literacy”, namely that since so much of “western culture” is shaped or informed by Classical Myth, one needs to be conversant in it to ‘decode’ it. I trouble this notion from the moment I introduce it, emphasizing that (1) there is no single Classical Mythology (anthologies like Hamilton’s select and present narratives from different periods and social contexts erratically) and (2) “western” reception of that non-singular mythology is uneven and spectacularly strange. Artists and authors revel in the odd and obscure: any course of study set up to provide someone with cultural literacy would be a banal trudge through disconnected detail rendered for erudite allusion.

Yes, I tell my students, a Mythology course can function to educate us about elements used in the creation of the “Western Canon” and can thus be indispensable in mounting a critique of it. But I position my myth course as being about storytelling and the way that cultural discourse functions to shape the way we view the world and what we think our roles in it can be. In approaching myth this way, I start with a healthy dose of cognitive science and psychology on how stories shape the brain and our perception of the world; I also include information on the definition of discourse and ideology from perspectives informed by sociology, linguistics, anthropology, and post-modern theory. As such, I argue, myth should be taught with cultural contexts in mind and with an emphasis on the way stories are altered for specific needs and how they function to enforce and explore dominant ideologies.

Understanding how myth is part of how we see the world and how we are initiated into the act of understanding it, I tell my students, is part of developing a personal “user’s manual” for the human brain. Any deep well of traditional storytelling presented within the right framework can help us achieve this knowledge—any body of narrative from Mesoamerican, South Asian, African, East Asian to modern science fiction can contribute to the same ends. Cultural distance, indeed, helps us appreciate how storytelling shapes us. And instructor competence is critical in unpacking and reshaping the reception of myth.

 

Basic Principles of the Class

Much of what follows reflects what I do in many of my courses. But I have benefited a lot from talking with Kelly P. Dugan who was kind enough to share her syllabus for a myth course with me.

Transparency

One principle central to my ‘decolonizing’ of a myth course is transparency about what our goals are in the course and what my basic principles are in teaching it. While I do believe deeply that other storytelling traditions could do the same work, I cannot fully decolonize my myth course (that is, integrate other storytelling traditions into it) because of my own competences and because of the particular advantage myths from Greece and Rome present: anyone who speaks a European language or is engaged with the popular culture wielded as its own form of discourse by these language groups comes with a familiarity in the basic narrative patterns, assumptions, and aesthetics which are embedded in them. Introducing greater justice and equity in our culture means tackling these forces and assumptions head-on. From the foundational narrative of the triumph of patriarchy to the adoption of “the hero’s journey” as a dominant narrative paradigm, the traditions of Greek storytelling continue to have powerful (and often harmful) effects on our world.

On one test of decolonizing the curriculum, then, my approach is an abject failure: but this is, I think, a fate and a challenge all Classical Studies curricula must face head on: our subjects are products and producers of a racist paradigm. We can, I believe, start the hard work of transforming this paradigm on multiple fronts. Within the framework of a course on myth, I think this means we need to focus on the stories and how they functioned within their cultural contexts and also how they are ‘re-purposed’ as ideological tools in different contexts.

Rather than replicate some of the problems of an anthologized myth course which elides cultural differences, I teach an almost entirely ‘Archaic Greek’ myth course which traces the ‘teleologically’ minded cosmic history generalized through Panhellenism in the 6th and 5th Centuries BCE. I pay particular attention to providing studies with multiforms or allomorphs (terms I privilege over ‘variant’, which reifies the idea that there is a ‘master’ narrative from which other traditions diverge) and also to contextualizing these multiforms within particular places, periods, and expectations. I also heavily emphasize that the process of Panhellenization is one of ideological force, defining ‘Greekness’ by exclusion primarily through the creation of a unified other. In addition, I take every opportunity to reiterate the pluralism of “Greekness” (different dialects, peoples, polities, values) and the multicultural origins of much of what we have received as Greek.

The primary content of my course, then, is not particularly remarkable—I use Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and the Homeric epics with supplementary material drawn from Apollodorus, Ovid, Greek poets, and fragments I have translated on my own. I have begun the secondary step of decolonizing by providing students not just with the multiform traditions from ancient Greece but also to modern critical responses from diverse scholars (where possible).

 

Affordability and Accessibility

The biggest step I have recently taken is the creation of a website which uses only free sources for the core readings in the course. Rather than expect students to purchase a large selection of books, I have found appropriate alternatives online and have supplemented with my own translations where necessary (most of them from this website). I have created this space as an evolving and open course for others to use if they see fit and for even those outside of the academy to use as a starting point for researching Greek myth. Each class day has a brief summary, a list of authors who are discussed in the course that day, links to the open source translations, links to blog posts with additional information, and links to articles. There is a page for resources for researching Greek myth; there is also room for adding material by and for students. I am still working on ways to include my powerpoint slides on the website; for now, all slides are available on the University LMS for students. Since the LMS is clunky and not available outside the Brandeis community it is important to me that course material be made fully public.

 

Responsiveness

Developing new materials and responses to myth over time requires a level of knowledge I could not hope to attain on my own. Students have a large range of knowledge and experiences and bring a lot to the course. I encourage students to share links and material with me and I will integrate their work (when they do it and if they wish it) into the course over time. Sometimes this means I have to have difficult conversations in class about why Sparta is less than cool or why Jordan Peterson is a dangerous ideologue, but these are important moments in helping students develop a more sophisticated understanding of how to handle material from the ancient world. Even though I spend a the bulk of the course on Early Greek material, I use the last few weeks of the course to highlight how ‘Greek’ material is adapted to new contexts (and how different ‘Roman’ material is) and how storytelling functions as myth in modern genres like fantasy, horror, and science fiction.

 

Course policies

An essential pedagogical understanding is that students bring different experiences, learning modalities, and skills to the course. Some will have a strong grasp of the concept of discourse; others will know myriad details of myth which escape me (as happens every semester). I believe that a course must be created in such a way as to allow all students to succeed in attaining its stated goals. Many students are new to college and need to work or have other reasons for not being able to attend all classes: all students can make up any class or missed quiz by completing extra credit.

Because students have different responses to exams and come with different preparation for studying, I have an adaptive grading process. This means that all exams can be made up to full credit (in addition students can earn ‘extra’ credit at any time in the course by writing responses to supplementary material posted on line). This also means providing students with plenty of extra time for exams and assignments and honoring all accommodation needs without creating obstacles. Finally, the course’s activities need to be aligned with its goals: the course starts out lecture heavy to help create a common ground, but I increasingly move toward discussion and workshops. The final assessments are student-designed projects that allow them to work and rework ancient narrative structures. (In earlier versions of the course I have had some success in bringing storytellers to class and having students retell myths in their own words.)

 

Some Future Plans

I teach this course every other year. In addition to updating course materials and continually adding in the work of underrepresented authors and linking to comparative myths in other traditions (a particular weakness of the current format), I need to improve the accessibility of the course. I will eventually create audio versions of each class; but I also need to work with my campus accessibility services to make sure that the powerpoints and website material can work for students of varied abilities. One of the reasons I chose to use wordpress instead of my campus LMS for the material beyond opening up the course to the world at large is that the wordpress site populates to mobile devices fairly well.

In general, however, I hope to benefit from students and researchers who care enough about myth to add to the material on the website. I look forward to any comments and additions and will integrate them as I can. Please email me (joel@brandeis.edu) if you would like to be able to add supplementary material directly or if you have any advice for uploaded the powerpoint slides to the website. I am also profoundly unvisual and have an (unjustifiable) antipathy towards video. I would be particularly grateful, then, for links to appropriate, useful, humorous or otherwise significant video clips. Finally, I would like to integrate more material about reception, but this is another one of my weaknesses.

Farnese Sarcophagus from Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum

Greek to Make a Man Puke

Hugh E.P. Platt, A Last Ramble in the Classics:

“The false quantities made by scholars would furnish a curious list. When Joshua Barnes desired his wife to devote her fortune to the publication of his edition of Homer, and at last persuaded her to do so by assuring her that the Iliad was written by Solomon, in the joy of his heart he composed some Greek hexameters. One of these he began with εὐπρᾰγίης which Bentley said was ‘ enough to make a man spew.’ (Ribbeck lately complained that Madvig’s emendations of the Latin dramatists had the like effect on him, nauseam adferunt.)”

 

A Mythical Monday: The Minotaur’s Origin

Since Erik posted about Moonface’s Album of Songs about the Minotaur, I have been listening to it while driving my children to school. (They love it. They keep asking to listen to it. I think I have ruined them). The actual material about the Minotaur from ancient remains is mostly about Theseus. Here are some passages about Pasiphae and the Minotaur.

Hesiod, Fr. 145.13–17

“When he looked in her eyes he longed for her
[and she gave herself over to the bull]
After she was impregnated, she gave birth to a powerful son to Minos,
A wonder to see: for he had the appearance of man
Down to his feet, but a bull’s head grew on top.”

τῆς δ’ ἄρ’ [ἐν ὀ]φθαλμοῖσιν̣ ἰ̣δὼν ἠράσ̣[σατο
†ταύρωι̣.[…]ρ̣ι̣μενησ̣κ̣α̣μ̣ε̣ρ̣μ̣ιδαο̣τα̣[†
ἣ δ’ ὑποκ̣[υσα]μένη Μίνωι τέκε κα[ρτερὸν υἱόν,
θαῦμα ἰ[δεῖν·] σ̣α μὲν γὰρ ἐπ̣έ̣κ̣λ̣ι̣ν̣[εν δέμας ἀνδρὶ
ἐς πόδα̣[ς], α̣ὐ̣τ̣ὰρ ὕ̣π̣ε̣ρθε κάρ̣η τ̣α̣[ύροιο πεφύκει

Suda, Epsilon 1421

“In every myth there is also Daidalos’ corruption”: People say that because Pasiphae lusted after a bull, she begged Daidalos to make her a wooden cow and, once he had set it up, to put her in it. When the bull mounted her as a cow he made her pregnant. The Minotaur was born from this. For certain reasons Minos was angry at the Athenians and he took from them seven maidens and the same number of youths. They were thrown to the beast. Since origin and responsibility for these evils were attributed to Daidalos and he was hated for them, this was translated into the proverb.”

᾿Εν παντὶ μύθῳ καὶ τὸ Δαιδάλου μύσος· Πασιφάην φασὶν ἐρασθεῖσαν ταύρου Δαίδαλον ἱκετεῦσαι ποιῆσαι ξυλίνην βοῦν καὶ κατασκευάσαντα αὐτὴν ἐνθεῖναι· ἣν ἐπιβαίνων ὡς βοῦν ὁ ταῦρος ἐγκύμονα ἐποίησεν. ἐξ ἧς ἐγεννήθη ὁ Μινώταυρος. Μίνως δὲ διά τινας αἰτίας ὀργιζόμενος τοῖς ᾿Αθηναίοις ἑπτὰ παρθένους καὶ ἴσους νέους ἐξ αὐτῶν ἐδασμολογεῖτο· οἳ παρεβάλλοντο τῷ θηρίῳ. εἰς Δαίδαλον οὖν ἀρχηγὸν τούτων τῶν κακῶν καὶ αἴτιον γενόμενον καὶ μυσαχθέντα ἐξηνέχθη εἰς παροιμίαν.

Heraclitus the Paradoxographer, 7 Concerning Pasiphae

“People claim that [Pasiphae] lusted after the Bull, not, as many believe, for an animal in a herd—for it would be ridiculous for a queen to desire such uncommon intercourse—instead she lusted for a certain local man whose name was Tauro [the bull]. She used as an accomplice for her desire Daidalos and she was impregnated. Then she gave birth to a son whom many used to call “Minos” but they would compare him to Tauro because of his similarity to him. So, he was nicknamed Mino-tauros from the combination.”

Περὶ Πασιφάης.
Ταύτην φασὶν ἐρασθῆναι Ταύρου, οὐχ, ὡς πολλοὶ
νομίζουσι, τοῦ κατὰ τὴν ἀγέλην ζῴου (γελοῖον γὰρ
ἀκοινωνήτου συνουσίας ὠρέχθαι τὴν βασίλισσαν), ἑνὸς
δέ τινος τῶν ἐντοπίων, ᾧ Ταῦρος ἦν ὄνομα. συνεργῷ
δὲ χρησαμένη πρὸς τὴν ἐπιθυμίαν Δαιδάλῳ καὶ γεγο-
νυῖα ἔγγυος, ἐγέννησε καθ’ ὁμοιότητα τοῦ Ταύρου
<υἱόν>, ὃν οἱ πολλοὶ Μίνω μὲν ἐκάλουν, Ταύρῳ δὲ
εἴκαζον· κατὰ δὲ σύνθεσιν Μινώταυρος ἐκλήθη.

Bacchylides, Dith. 26 (P.Oxy. 2364 fr. 1)

“[in] Pasiphae
The Kyprian goddess [sewed]
Longing [….]
To the son Eupalamos
The wisest of the craftsmen
She told Daidalos [about]
Her sickness. Credible oaths
She ordered him to make [so that]
So that she might have sex with the bull
But keep it secret from her husband
Minos, the oppressive-archer,
The general of the Knossians.
But when he learned of the tale,
He was overtaken by worry and
[about his] wife….

[ ]θεα̣ καὶ γ[.].[ ]
φρα.[ ]
Πασι[φ]ά̣[α]
εν Κύπ[ρις]
πόθον [ ]
Εὐπαλά[μοι’] υἱε[ῖ]
τεκτόν[ω]ν σοφω̣[τάτῳ]
φράσε Δαιδάλῳ ά.[ ]
νόσον· ὅρκια πισ[τ]
[ τ]ε τεύχειν κέλευ[σε]
μ̣είξειε ταυρείῳ σ[ ]
κρύπτουσα σύννο̣[μον]
Μίνωα [τ]οξοδάμαν[τα]
Κνωσσίων στρατα[γέταν·]
ὁ δ’ ἐπεὶ μάθε μῦθο[ν]
σχέτο φροντίδι· δε[ ]
[ ]ἀλόχου[ ]

Image result for greek minotaur vase baby
This is the most superior image of the Minotaur by far. Pasiphae’s expression is perfect.

 

More Aeneid Through Buffy GIFs: Aeneas’ Perplexing Shield

Vergil, Aeneid 8.729-731

“Such images he wondered at on Vulcan’s shield, a parent’s present,
and he delights in the picture, although ignorant of the affairs
as he lifts upon his shoulder, the fame and fate of his descendants.”

Talia per clipeum Volcani, dona parentis,
miratur rerumque ignarus imagine gaudet
attollens umero famamque et fata nepotum.

I thought that the wonder left in the world had been exhausted once Christian Lehmann had finished telling the story of Dido and Aeneas through Buffy GIFs. But, lo, what do I know? Zeus can make the day like night at midday, and the Master Christian Lehmann can strike again! Last night, he pounded out the images on Aeneas’ shield. (This is reproduced from twitter with his permission.)

 

Image result for buffy's special slayer scythe
Buffy has her own special weapon too

Exploring Gender and Sexuality in Antiquity: The Trial and Consciousness of Callon

[Editorial note: We are happy to have this guest post by Cassie Garison who reached out to us after our recent reposting of intersex stories from ancient Greece and Rome. Cassie brings us a story we did not know and a fine discussion of ancient representations of the relationship between biological gender and the social performance of sex].

A note on translation: “sex-change” today is not a politically correct term to refer to people who choose to get gender affirmation surgery. However, I will use this language as it is a quite literal translation and a literal description of what is happening. In both cases that I will describe there was not agency or intent on behalf of those in reference, and they bear little similarity to those modern instances where there is.  There are also inconsistencies in the language of the translated excerpts, for instance when Tiresias or Callon are labelled men or women. However, gender and sex are not the synonymous, and when referring to anatomical features of the body (albeit even these are not binary in any shape or form) I will use the terms male and female. The language that the translators use to describe gender and sexuality are outdated.

Callon, a figure written into the ancient histories of Diodorus Siculus, demonstrates a unique and at times awkward telling, one that defies historical precedents and does not fit neatly into any known ancient systems. This account is critical to consider even in a contemporary context as it enlightens the way humans are prone and accustomed to projecting their anachronistic understanding of gender and sexuality on the queer body. It demonstrates both the limits of language and the influence of groups in power on history and written accounts. The closest figure to Callon comes in the more well-known in the mythological account of the well-known figure of Tiresias.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Tiresias struck two mating snakes with his stick, separating them. Spectacularly, Tiresias’s body changed, in this moment, from male to female. He[1] lived as female for seven years, until the eighth year when he stumbled upon the same pair of copulating snakes and, again, struck them with his stick with the hope that he would again change sex. He transforms, and “from man was turned to woman”(Ovid Met. 3.326). This mythological story is invoked and revisited by numerous ancient and modern authors alike, appearing on Sophocles, Homer, Petronius, Lord Alfred Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf,[2] and many more. Each time this story is iterated it is interpreted through a different lens, each time speaking differently to how Tiresias’s gender and sex cohere and flex.

Although Tiresias existed within only one body and consciousness, he possessed, at separate points, what are considered opposing binary sexual features. Despite his movement between binaries, Tiresias demonstrated an overarching understanding of what it is to live within the body of both male and female. When Jove and Saturn called upon Tiresias to tell them who—male or female—experienced more sexual pleasure, Tiresias responded that the female does, taking the side of Jove. Thus, Juno responded by taking away Tiresias’ physical sight, and Jove, disagreeing with this reaction, gave Tiresias the power to see the future (Ov. Met. 3.335-339). Thus one form of sight was taken away, and another was given, and Tiresias is redirected into both a mythological or oracular paradigm.

Similarly, in a story told by Diodorus Siculus[3], a figure name Callon[4] demonstrates a parallel depiction as a result of an unintentional and unpredictable change of defining sexual features[5]. Although this is a historical account—opposed to Tiresias’s literary mythology—the two are comparable in that both stories were passed down through oral history, then arrived on the page within the narrative bias ancient authors. They both highlight ideals and perceptions of gender, sex, and social construct within Ancient society through the author’s portrayal of events.

The story begins in Book 32 of The Bibliotheca Historica when a tumor appears on the genitals of Callo (their name before[6] the change of sex), described as a married woman from Epidaurus. This tumor causes excruciating pain, and no physician wanted to risk treating it. Then an apothecary stepped up to the task, facilitating the alteration (this translation is from Lacius Curtius):

He cut into the swollen area, whereupon a man’s privates were protruded, namely testicles and an imperforate penis. While all the others stood amazed at the extraordinary event, the apothecary took steps to remedy the remaining deficiencies. First of all, cutting into the glans he made a passage into the urethra, and inserting a silver catheter drew off the liquid residues. Then, by scarifying the perforated area, he brought the parts together.

τοῖς λειπομένοις μέρεσι τῆς πηρώσεως. τὸ μὲν οὖν πρῶτον τὸ αἰδοῖον ἄκρον ἐπιτεμὼν συνέτρησεν εἰς τὸν οὐρητῆρα, καὶ καθεὶς ἀργυροῦν καυλίσκον ταύτῃ τὰ περιττώματα τῶν ὑγρῶν ἐξεκόμιζε, τὸν δὲ σεσυριγγωμένον τόπον ἑλκώσας συνέφυσε.

Following this moment, Callon instantly must adjust and adopt a new social role in response to their newly-emerged male genitalia (Diodorus Siculus, 32.11):

After achieving a cure in this manner he demanded double fees, saying that he had  received a female invalid and made her into a healthy young man. Callo laid aside her loom-shuttles and all other instruments of woman’s work, and taking in their stead the garb and status of a man changed her name (by adding a single letter, N, at the end) to Callon.

καὶ τοῦτον τὸν τρόπον ὑγιοποιήσας διπλοῦν ἀπῄτει τὸν μισθόν· ἔφη γὰρ αὑτὸν παρειληφέναι γυναῖκα νοσοῦσαν, καθεστακέναι δὲ νεανίσκον ὑγιαίνοντα. ἡ δὲ Καλλὼ τὰς μὲν ἐκ τῶν ἱστῶν κερκίδας καὶ τὴν ἄλλην τῶν γυναικῶν ταλασιουργίαν ἀπέθετο, μεταλαβοῦσα δὲ ἀνδρὸς ἐσθῆτα καὶ τὴν ἄλλην διάθεσιν μετωνομάσθη Κάλλων, ἑνὸς στοιχείου ἐπὶ τῷ τέλει τοῦ Ν προστεθέντος.

This shift parallels the way that Tiresias’s physical sex-change redirects his social projection and performance, establishing mental and social expectations in direct response to genitalia. Female appearing genitalia are aligned with the actions of womanhood, and male actions are aligned with the performance of manhood, with little room for fluctuation of that binary principle. This is a principle that still governs much of today’s understandings of gender and sexuality.

Callon, before this physical and social shift, was a priestess of Demeter, and after this moment of alteration, “because she had witnessed things not to be seen by men she was brought to trial for impiety.” (Diodorus.Siculus 22.11)  Just as Tiresias has his sight taken away for possessing the knowledge and sight of what it is to live within both the body of male and female, Callon is brought to trial for impiety for having seen sacred rituals exclusive to females when they are no longer socially labelled as female, but still never truly was able to fulfill the proscribed role of an Ancient Greek male.

The physical descriptors of Callon’s body explain the effect and complications of Callon’s portrayal as portentous and prosecuted. Callon’s sight and experience are implicitly more than either male or female, even if they are only regarded as one or the other at any given time. They possess a double consciousness in result of the ambiguous genitalia and unstable body, rooted in the very fact that their body calls to question, multiple times, how tethered gendered performance is to sex.

This instability forces them to exist outside any normative variations of male and female projectiles within Ancient Greece, even the most extreme variations[7]. The manner of physical change—unprompted and unexplainable other than to attribute to divine agency— undoubtedly plays a large role in Callon’s mythic classification, in tandem with their inability to fit neatly within any gendered projectile, their fluctuating societal perception, and the Diodorus Siculus’s inability to find language that properly tethers Callon to a position in society.

Diodorus Siculus inducts the story as mythic separately from the actual telling of Callon. He situates the text directly after the sex-change of Herais (Diodorus.Siculus.XXXII.9), a change with similar anomalous conditions yet varying social implications.[8] Following these two stories, Diodorus Siculus injects his own lens for a reader to interpret the previous recordings (Diodorus, Siculus. 32.11):

Likewise in Naples and a good many other places sudden changes of this sort are said to have occurred. Not that the male and female natures have been united to form a truly bisexual type, for that is impossible, but that Nature, to mankind’s consternation and mystification, has through the bodily parts falsely given this impression. And this is the reason why we have considered these shifts of sex worthy of record, not for the entertainment, but for the improvement most our readers. For many men, thinking such things to be portents, fall into superstition, and not merely isolated individuals, but even nations and cities.

῾Ομοίως δ’ ἐν τῇ Νεαπόλει καὶ κατ’ ἄλλους τόπους πλείονας ἱστοροῦνται γεγονέναι τοιαῦται περιπέτειαι, οὐκ ἄρρενος καὶ θηλείας φύσεως εἰς δίμορφον τύπον δημιουργηθείσης, ἀδύνατον γὰρ τοῦτο, ἀλλὰ τῆς φύσεως διὰ τῶν τοῦ σώματος μερῶν ψευδογραφούσης εἰς ἔκπληξιν καὶ ἀπάτην τῶν ἀνθρώπων. διόπερ καὶ ἡμεῖς τὰς περιπετείας ταύτας ἀναγραφῆς ἠξιώσαμεν, οὐ ψυχαγωγίας ἀλλ’ ὠφελείας ἕνεκα τῶν ἀναγινωσκόντων. πολλοὶ γὰρ τέρατα τὰ τοιαῦτα νομίζοντες εἶναι δεισιδαιμονοῦσιν, οὐκ ἰδιῶται μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ ἔθνη καὶ πόλεις.

Diodorus Siculus invokes a deep mythological history, particularly by referencing the trope of the δίμορφον τύπον,  the “bisexual type.” This strings the events he has recorded into a chain of mythological dual-sexed beings. Some of these instances include the mythological narratives such as Hermaphroditus, the child of Polycritus, and the sleeping herms.[9] He poses these sex-changes as not isolated instances, but as a part of a larger theme of sexual ambiguity and transitivity. Nature, Diodorus Siculus believes, is this cause of these abnormalities, and therefore they must be regarded as indicative of something larger than just the instance, thus transcending their own context and the details of their existence.

The language used to describe Callon’s physical features provides critical clues to how Callon lived into adulthood and had to uphold binary roles for a sex and gender which their genitalia most closely resembled. Those functioning outside the gender and sexual binary were present within mythological accounts frequently, yet in historical accounts babies born with “ambiguous genitalia” were frequently exposed.[10]  This made it even more remarkable and incidental that Callon survived to adulthood, qualifying that Callon’s genitalia would have not been regarded as hindering their ability to marry and function domestically. The complication arises, however, in that the primary function of marriage and the oikos, or household, in Ancient Greek society was the product of a lineage for the male side of the family.[11]

Ancient Greek society, similarly to our contemporary society, was organized primarily by a system of opposing binaries that extended toward governing the gender and sex system. There was The Good and The Bad, citizen and non-citizen, male and female, among many others, all of which repelled and aligned accordingly.[12] However, there was room for transgression of these seemingly rigid binaries under certain circumstances if there was a pre-established system for these deviations For instance, the mythological idea of the demigod transgressed the binary of mortal and immortal. Within the medical realm, there were liminalities of this kind as well. Illness was considered neither to fall under good or bad, but to form a sort of triangulation in relation to the two, essentially because they had the potential to be balanced or remedied.[13] These liminalities reverberate into the description of Callon’s body, and permeate particularly the manner in which Callon has to participate in sexual intercourse. Before the change of sex, Callon’s genitals were described as such     (Diodorus Siculus, 32.11):

Now the orifice with which women are provided had in her case no opening, but beside the so‑called pecten she had from birth a perforation through which she  excreted the liquid residues.

αὕτη τὸν ἐπὶ τῆς φύσεως ἀποδεδειγμένον ταῖς γυναιξὶ πόρον ἄτρητον εἶχεν, παρὰ δὲ τὸν καλούμενον κτένα συριγγωθέντος τόπου ἐκ γενετῆς τὰς περιττώσεις τῶν ὑγρῶν ἐξέκρινεν.

Due to this, Siculus finds it necessary to describe how they engaged in sexual intercourse (Diodorus Siculus. 32.11):

On reaching maturity she became the wife of a fellow citizen. For two years she lived with him, and since she was incapable of intercourse as a woman, was obliged to submit to unnatural embraces.

εἰς δὲ τὴν ἀκμὴν τῆς ἡλικίας παραγενομένη συνῳκίσθη τινὶ τῶν πολιτῶν. διετῆ μὲν οὖν χρόνον συνεβίωσε τἀνδρί, τὴν μὲν γυναικείαν ἐπιπλοκὴν οὐκ ἐπιδεχομένη, τὴν δὲ παρὰ φύσιν ὁμιλίαν ὑπομένειν ἀναγκαζομένη.

There were power dynamics linked to Ancient Greek sexual encounters, and projected upon those engaging in certain behaviors. Due to Callon’s inability to engage in vaginal intercourse as they were expected to, they would have been forced to engage in anal intercourse, a practice of sex considered to be dirty, shameful, and deficient.[14]  They were able only to engage in intercourse in the fashion typical to a passive homosexual male, one that was not conducive to reproduction.[15] Although, oddly enough, aside from this inability to perform as a sexually normative female, Callon was still able to marry a man and fulfill that social and domestic facet of female-tethered performance,[16] albeit their inability to reproduce due to the implications of their ambiguous genitalia.

Even after the change of sex, Callon would have existed outside the normative gender-associated sexual performance of a male. Callon additionally cannot be assimilated into any previously established systems of sexual deviance, for instance, Eunuchs, the Orphean system of pederasty, homosexual behavior among the elite.[17] This speaks to both the importance of sexual activity to gender performance and to how Callon would have been perceived. Here the instance deviates from Tiresias, who was described as being able to enjoy sex as a man and woman—Callon, can have sex neither as a traditional and expected man or woman but as a passive role of the system, limited to a certain number of deviations outside of reproductive purpose.[19]

The physical and biological differences that the Ancient Greeks drew between male and female bodies bled inevitably into how the constructs of man and women formed and were expected to function. In classic description, males/men are portrayed as the agents of their own body, and in Greek and Roman thought were the considered “qualitative essence of a person,” capable of logical thought and possessing a sort of bodily hardness and structure. [20]

Females/women, on the other hand, are portrayed as the antithesis of this. They lack control over their own bodies. In tales such as the paradigmatic image of Pandora, female bodies are seen as possessing a “lovely exterior” which serves as a “deceptive disguise to conceal a corrupt and destructive interior.”[21] Callon is expected to uphold both of these roles at different periods of time, strung between two repellent binaries. Callon, however, would have been rendered outside of the binary in that they were neither male or female, good or evil, but instead as a neutral alternative in a system of binaries.

Diodorus Siculus narrates that Callon was expected immediately to shift from upholding the standards of one binary to that of another, without any sort of previous conditioning or socializing, as contemporary theory would define it. Callon puts down their weaving equipment—a symbolic facet of woman’s work that exemplifies the idea of a woman being domestic, loyal, and occupied in a controlled and moderated setting.[22]

Thus, taking up the garb and title of a man is undoubtedly an immediate thrust from one end of the binary to the other, with no social opportunity for in between. Callon’s body is deemed as defining the conditions of what is around them, and albeit they never exactly have the physicality of either a male or a female, they are forced to assume to social roles and labels of both and neither, consecutively and concurrently.

Central to this experience is Callon’s trial for impiety, which punishes them for existing outside of the established binary by no fault of their own. Callon fits much better into a mythological system of δίμορφον τύπον (Diodorus Siculus. 32.12), hence their experience, downfall, and mystification, which developed parallel to that of Tiresias. They actually fit quite neatly into mythological tradition, and are denoted by Diodorus Siculus to have been thought to have served as a portent in the sense that their existence indicated more than itself, and served as a greater predictor of fate. Other instances of the δίμορφον τύπον that Callon can be strung with include the mythological figures Hermaphroditus and Iffus.[23] There was no way to attain a medical explanation for the instance of Callon, and the only dominant paradigms for ambiguous genitalia in adults existed within mythological-literary models.

Thus, even Diodorus Siculus, struggles to handle Callon’s narration within the text. Diodorus Siculus does not demonstrate the pronoun usage to deal with the sex-change that he is describing, consistently using the Ancient Greek female pronoun, to address Callon throughout the passage, both before and after the sex-change. This is unusual considering that within the passage Diodorus Siculus conveys the name change, garb change, and performance change of Callon in response to their body, affirming them in other ways. Yet Diodorus Siculus does not present them with masculine pronouns when depicting them at any point, remaining partial to the feminine, even when Callon was put on trial for being a male who had seen events exclusive to females. Foxhall notes that “gender was constantly performed but almost never critically articulated,”[24] in ways retrospectively providing a reason for Diodorus Siculus’s lack of ability to handle this case with both gendered nuance and accuracy, exacting the binds and customs of his own era and understanding of the instance.

Applying contemporary gender theory to the ancient world is both a dangerous and powerful tool. It is dangerous in that one must constantly be wary of overwriting instances of history with our own connotations, denotations, stigmas and associations. It is powerful because as time passes we continue to let new and fresh understandings of the world and human complications live within anachronistic functions of language and time.

But on either side, they are tools to speculate about the lives of those before us and our own deep lineages and histories, especially in a society that is so prone to erase those unlike them. Above all, this research calls highlights the role that ancient authors and their social contexts have in preserving some experiences and voices and not others.

 

Cassie Garison lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and is a poet and a classicist. Cassie’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in River Styx, The Penny Dreadful, Nimrod International, Hobart, and others. Cassie’s classics related research and writing focuses on Gender & Sexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome.

 

Click on “More” for Bibliography and notes

Continue reading “Exploring Gender and Sexuality in Antiquity: The Trial and Consciousness of Callon”

Needful Tales: Intersex Stories from Ancient Greece and Rome

The New York Times reports that the current US administration is trying to narrowly define gender in order to strip transgender people of federal protections. Here are some ancient intersex stories we posted over the summer. Human beings have known that gender is not simply binary and is not simply about how we are born for a very long time.

Here are short tales from: Phlegon of Tralles’ On Marvels

6 Also in Antioch near the Maiander river there was an intersex person, when Antipater who was the Athenians and Marcus Vinicius and Titus Statilus Taurus were consuls. The person was called Kourbinus. As a maiden of famous parents when she was thirteen she was suited by many because of her beauty.

After her parents chose the suitor they wanted, they appointed the day for the marriage But the girl shouted out as she was about to leave the house when the most severe amount of pain over took her.

Those near her lifted her up and were taking care of her because she had pains in her guts and twisting within them. This pain remained for three days straight and her suffering made everyone confused, since they could not give her relief from the toils at night or day.

Even though the doctors in the city applied every type of healing to her they found no cause for the suffering. On the fourth day near dawn, the pains greatly increased and, as she shouted out with a terrible groan, suddenly the masculine parts descended from her and a girl became a man.

After some time, he was taken to Rome to be presented to Claudius Caesar. And he, on account of the fame, had an altar erected for Zeus the Defender of Evils on the Capitoline.”

Καὶ ἐν ᾿Αντιοχείᾳ δὲ τῇ πρὸς Μαιάνδρῳ ποταμῷ ἐγένετο ἀνδρόγυνος, ἄρχοντος ᾿Αθήνησιν ᾿Αντιπάτρου, ὑπατευόντων ἐν ῾Ρώμῃ Μάρκου Βινικίου καὶ Τίτου Στατιλίου Ταύρου, τοῦ Κουρβίνου ἐπικληθέντος.

παρθένος γὰρ γονέων ἐπισήμων τρισκαιδεκαέτις ὑπάρχουσα ὑπὸ πολλῶν ἐμνηστεύετο, οὖσα εὐπρεπής. ὡς δ’ ἐνεγυήθη ᾧ οἱ γονεῖς ἐβούλοντο, ἐνστάσης τῆς ἡμέρας τοῦ γάμου προϊέναι τοῦ οἴκου μέλλουσα αἰφνιδίως πόνου ἐμπεσόντος αὐτῇ σφοδροτάτου ἐξεβόησεν.

ἀναλαβόντες δ’ αὐτὴν οἱ προσήκοντες ἐθεράπευον ὡς ἀλγήματα ἔχουσαν κοιλίας καὶ στρόφους τῶν ἐντός· τῆς δὲ ἀλγηδόνος ἐπιμενούσης τρισὶν ἡμέραις ἑξῆς ἀπορίαν τε πᾶσι τοῦ πάθους ποιοῦντος, τῶν πόνων οὔτε νυκτὸς οὔτε ἡμέρας ἔνδοσιν λαμβανόντων, καίτοι πᾶσαν μὲν θεραπείαν αὐτῇ προσφερόντων <τῶν> ἐν τῇ πόλει ἰατρῶν, μηδεμίαν δὲ τοῦ πάθους δυναμένων αἰτίαν εὑρεῖν, τῇ τετάρτῃ τῶν ἡμερῶν περὶ τὸν ὄρθρον μείζονα τῶν πόνων ἐπίδοσιν λαμβανόντων, σὺν μεγάλῃ οἰμωγῇ ἀνακραγούσης, ἄφνω αὐτῇ ἀρσενικὰ μόρια προέπεσεν, καὶ ἡ κόρη ἀνὴρ ἐγένετο.

μετὰ δὲ χρόνον εἰς ῾Ρώμην ἀνηνέχθη πρὸς Κλαύδιον Καίσαρα· ὁ δὲ τούτου ἕνεκα τοῦ σημείου ἐν Καπετωλίῳ Διὶ ᾿Αλεξικάκῳ ἱδρύσατο βωμόν.

 

7 “There was also in Mêouania, an Italian city, in the home of Agrippina Augusta, an intersex person when Dionysodorus was archon in Athens and in Rome Decimus Junius Silanos Torquatos and Quintus Aterius Atonius were consuls.

The girl’s name was Philôtis and she was Smyrnaian in origin. When the time of her marriage came and she had been promised by her parents to a man, male genitals appeared on her and she became a man.”

᾿Εγένετο καὶ ἐν Μηουανίᾳ, πόλει τῆς ᾿Ιταλίας, ἐν ᾿Αγριππίνης τῆς Σεβαστῆς ἐπαύλει ἀνδρόγυνος, ἄρχοντος ᾿Αθήνησιν Διονυσοδώρου, ὑπατευόντων ἐν ῾Ρώμῃ Δέκμου ᾿Ιουνίου Σιλανοῦ Τορκουάτου καὶ Κοΐντου ῾Ατερίου ᾿Αντωνίνου.

Φιλωτὶς γάρ τις ὀνόματι παρθένος, Σμυρναία τὸ γένος, ὡραία πρὸς γάμον ὑπὸ τῶν γονέων κατεγγεγυημένη ἀνδρί, μορίων αὐτῇ προφανέντων ἀρρενικῶν ἀνὴρ ἐγένετο.

 

8 “There was also another intersex person in the same time period in Epidaurus, a child of poor parents who was called Sumpherousa first but was named Sumpherôn when he became a man. He spent his life gardening.”

Καὶ ἄλλος δέ τις ἀνδρόγυνος κατὰ τοὺς αὐτοὺς χρόνους ἐγένετο ἐν ᾿Επιδαύρῳ, γονέων ἀπόρων παῖς, ὃς ἐκαλεῖτο πρότερον Συμφέρουσα, ἀνὴρ δὲ γενόμενος ὠνομάζετο Συμφέρων, κηπουρῶν δὲ τὸν βίον διῆγεν.

 

9 “In Laodikeia there was also a Syrian women named Aitêtê who changed her form when she was already living with her husband and then changed her name to Aitêtos once she became a man. This was when Makrinos was archon in Athens and Lucius Lamia Aelianos and Sextus Carminius Veterus were consuls. I even saw him myself.”

Καὶ ἐς Λαοδίκειαν δὲ τῆς Συρίας γυνή, ὀνόματι Αἰτητή, συνοικοῦσα τῷ ἀνδρὶ ἔτι μετέβαλε τὴν μορφὴν καὶ μετωνομάσθη Αἰτητὸς ἀνὴρ γενόμενος, ἄρχοντος ᾿Αθήνησιν Μακρίνου, ὑπατευόντων ἐν ῾Ρώμῃ Λουκίου Λαμία Αἰλιανοῦ καὶ <Σέξτου Καρμινίου> Οὐέτερος. τοῦτον καὶ αὐτὸς ἐθεασάμην.

A note on translation. I was a bit dissatisfied with the translations available from the LSJ for ἀνδρόγυνος so I chose the modern “intersex”.

androgunos

Hermaphroditus was a figure of ritual in the ancient world

The story of Teiresias, Phlegon of Tralles, On Marvels 4

“Hesiod—along with Dikaiarkhos, Klearkhos, Kallimakhos and some others—relates these things about Teiresias. When Teiresias the son of Euêros in Arcadia was a young man he saw snakes copulating, he wounded one and immediately changed his form. He changed into a woman from a man and then had sex with a man.

But after Apollo prophesied to him that, if he saw snakes copulating again and wounded one in the same way, he would be as he was before, Teiresias took care to do the things which were prophesied by the god and thus regained his older form.

When Zeus was fighting with Hera and saying that in sex a wife surpassed her husband in the pleasures of intercourse—even while Hera was claiming the opposite—it seemed right to them to send for Teiresias because he had tried out both ways. When they questioned him, he responded that if there were ten portions, a man took pleasure in one and a woman took pleasure in ten.

In her rage over this, Hera took out his eyes and made him blind. But Zeus gave him the gift of prophecy and to live for seven generations.”

῾Ιστορεῖ δὲ ῾Ησίοδος καὶ Δικαίαρχος καὶ Κλέαρχος καὶ Καλλίμαχος καὶ ἄλλοι τινὲς περὶ Τειρεσίου τάδε. Τειρεσίαν τὸν Εὐήρους ἐν ᾿Αρκαδίᾳ [ἄνδρα ὄντα] ἐν τῷ ὄρει τῷ ἐν Κυλλήνῃ ὄφεις ἰδόντα ὀχεύοντας τρῶσαι τὸν ἕτερον καὶ παραχρῆμα μεταβαλεῖν τὴν ἰδέαν· γενέσθαι γὰρ ἐξ ἀνδρὸς γυναῖκα καὶ μιχθῆναι ἀνδρί.

 τοῦ δὲ ᾿Απόλλωνος αὐτῷ χρήσαντος ὡς, ἐὰν τηρήσας ὀχεύοντας ὁμοίως τρώσῃ τὸν ἕνα, ἔσται οἷος ἦν, παραφυλάξαντα τὸν Τειρεσίαν ποιῆσαι τὰ ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ ῥηθέντα καὶ οὕτως κομίσασθαι τὴν ἀρχαίαν φύσιν.

 Διὸς δὲ ἐρίσαντος ῞Ηρᾳ καὶ φαμένου ἐν ταῖς συνουσίαις πλεονεκτεῖν τὴν γυναῖκα τοῦ ἀνδρὸς τῇ τῶν ἀφροδισίων ἡδονῇ, καὶ τῆς ῞Ηρας φασκούσης τὰ ἐναντία, δόξαι αὐτοῖς μεταπεμψαμένοις ἔρεσθαι τὸν Τειρεσίαν διὰ τὸ τῶν τρόπων ἀμφοτέρων πεπειρᾶσθαι. τὸν δὲ ἐρωτώμενον ἀποφήνασθαι, διότι μοιρῶν οὐσῶν δέκα τὸν ἄνδρα τέρπεσθαι τὴν μίαν, τὴν δὲ γυναῖκα τὰς ἐννέα.

 τὴν δὲ ῞Ηραν ὀργισθεῖσαν κατανύξαι αὐτοῦ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς καὶ ποιῆσαι τυφλόν, τὸν δὲ Δία δωρήσασθαι αὐτῷ τὴν μαντικὴν καὶ βιοῦν ἐπὶ γενεὰς ἐπτά.

The tale occurs most famously in book 3 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (339-510).  But, as this fragment indicates, we have fragments of a Hesiodic version as well. Apollodorus also reports the version favored by Pherecydes and Callimachus–that Teiresias was blinded after seeing Athena naked.

What is a little different about this version is the presence of Apollo and the claim that Zeus lengthened Teiresias’ life as part of his ‘reward’. This second part helps to explain Tiresias’ presence from the birth of Dionysus to the fall of Thebes with the Epigonoi.

The Sex-change of Caenus

Phlegon, On Amazing Things 5 [Ovid tells a version of this tale.]

5 “Others tell the story that in the land of the Lapiths the king Elatos had a daughter whose name was Kainis. After Poseidon had sex with her he promised to make her into whatever she wanted. She said she wanted to be changed into a man who was invulnerable. When Poseidon did this—as was right—he changed her name to Kaineus.”

Οἱ αὐτοὶ ἱστοροῦσιν κατὰ τὴν Λαπίθων χώραν γενέσθαι ᾿Ελάτῳ τῷ βασιλεῖ θυγατέρα ὀνομαζομένην Καινίδα.

ταύτῃ δὲ Ποσειδῶνα μιγέντα ἐπαγγείλασθαι ποιήσειν αὐτῇ ὃ ἂν ἐθέλῃ, τὴν δὲ ἀξιῶσαι μεταλλάξαι αὐτὴν εἰς ἄνδρα ποιῆσαί τε ἄτρωτον. τοῦ δὲ Ποσειδῶνος κατὰ τὸ ἀξιωθὲν ποιήσαντος μετονομασθῆναι Καινέα.

This story is older than Ovid and Phlegon. It is detailed in the fragments of Akousilaus, perhaps alluded to in Homer, definitely indicated by Apollonius Rhodes, and present even in Plato. While the sex-change narrative remains an important element, the main feature of Kaineus’ tale is his hubris–because of his invulnerability he asks to be made into a god.

Akousilaus FGrH 2 fr. 22 [=P.Oxy. 13, 1611, fr. 1, col. 2, 38-96]

“Poseidon has sex with Kainê of Elatos. Then—for it was not right for him [sic] to have children with him nor anyone else—Poseidon turned him into an invulnerable man, who had the greatest strength of the men at that time. Whenever anyone tried to strike him with iron or bronze, [the attacker] was completely defeated.

Then [Kaineus] became king of the Lapiths and was warring with the Centaurs. After he set up his javelin in the agora he was asking to be included in the number of the gods. This was not pleasing to the gods. And when Zeus saw him doing this, he threatened him and raised the Centaurs against him. They struck him straight down into the earth and placed a stone above as assign. Then he died.”

«Καινῆιδὲ τῆι ᾽Ελάτου μίσγεται ΙΙοσειδῶν. ἔπειτα – οὐ γὰρ ἦν αὐτῶι ἱερὸν παῖδας τεκέν οὐτ᾽ ἐξ ἐκείνου οὐτ᾽ ἐξ ἄλλου οὐδενός – ποιεῖ αὐτὸν Ποσειδέων ἄνδρα ἄτρωτον, ἰσχὺν ἔχοντα μεγίστην τῶν ἀνθρώπων τῶν τότε, καὶ ὅτε τις αὐτὸν κεντοίη σιδήρωι ἢ χαλκῶι, ἡλίσκετο μάλιστα χρημάτων. καὶ γίγνεται βασιλεὺς οὗτος Λαπιθέων καὶ τοῖς Κενταύροις πολεμέεσκε. ἔπειτα στήσας ἀκόν[τιον ἐν ἀγορᾶι θεὸν ἐκέλευεν ἀριθμεῖν. θεοῖ]σι δ᾽ οὐκ ἦεν [ἀρεστόν, καὶ] Ζεὺς ἰδὼν αὐτὸν ταῦτα ποιοῦντα ἀπειλεῖ καὶ ἐφορμᾶι τοὺς Κενταύρους, κἀκεῖνοι αὐτὸν κατακόπτουσιν ὄρθιον κατὰ γῆς καὶ ἄνωθεν πέτρην ἐπιτιθεῖσιν σῆμα, καὶ ἀποθνήσκει.»

In this account, Poseidon seems to be changing Kaineus because of his inability to have children. This makes it rather clear what women are good for from this cultural perspective. In addition, it is interesting that Kaineus as an intersex figure is involved in the war between the Lapiths and Centaurs, a conflict which has its origins in a rapes at a wedding and is often seen as a reflection of the civilized Lapiths struggling against the primitive and violent urges of the Centaurs.

But, as can be seen from the relief below which dates to the early Archaic period, the punishment of Kaineus is a primary motif of the story tradition. In a way, if the sex-change and rape were equally ancient, this is a tale about a women who is raped ultimately being punished for surviving and thriving and exacting retribution for her suffering.

D Scholia ad Il. 264

“Kaineus was a son of Elatos and king of the Lapiths. He was a very beautiful virgin girl before. But after Poseidon had sex with her, she asked to be changed from a young woman into a man. And he became invulnerable, and the most excellent of those alive at the time. And after he stuck his javelin into the middle of the agora, he demanded to be entered into the number of the gods for this reason.

Zeus was annoyed by this request and he arranged the following type of payback from him for impiety. For, even though he was invincible, he made him less while he was fighting the Centaurs. For they were hurling and striking him with pines and oak trees and they drove him into the ground. Apollonius recalls this in the Argonautica saying this, “For the singers used to report the fame that Kaineus was killed by Centaurs, when he alone from the rest of the best drove them, they surged back. They were not strong enough to repel him nor to kill him, but he went under the earth, unbroken, unbent, pummeled by the striking force of powerful pines.”

Καινέα τε. Καὶ τὸν Καινέα. ὁ δὲ Και-
νεὺς ᾿Ελάτου μὲν παῖς, Λαπίθων δὲ βα-
σιλεὺς, πρότερον ἦν παρθένος εὐπρεπής.
μιγέντος δὲ αὐτῇ Ποσειδῶνος, αἰτησα-
μένη μεταβαλεῖν εἰς ἄνδρα ἡ νεᾶνις, ἄ-
τρωτος γίγνεται, γενναιότατος τῶν καθ’
αὑτὸν ὑπάρξας· καὶ δή ποτε πήξας ἀ-
κόντιον ἐν τῷ μεσαιτάτῳ τῆς ἀγορὰς,
θεοῖς τοῦτο προσέταξεν ἀριθμεῖν. δι’ ἣν
αἰτίαν ἀγανακτήσας ὁ Ζεὺς, τιμωρίαν
τῆς ἀσεβείας παρ’ αὐτοῦ εἰσεπράξατο.
μαχόμενον γὰρ αὐτὸν τοῖς Κενταύροις
καὶ ἄτρωτον ὄντα ὑποχείριον ἐποίησε.
βάλλοντες γὰρ αὐτὸν οἱ προειρημένοι δρυ-
σί τε καὶ ἐλάταις, ἤρεισαν εἰς γῆν.
μέμνηται δὲ αὐτοῦ καὶ ᾿Απολλώνιος ἐν
τοῖς ᾿Αργοναυτικοῖς λέγων οὕτως· Καινέα
γὰρ τὸν πρόσθεν ἐπικλείουσιν ἀοιδοὶ Κεν-
ταύροισιν ὀλέσθαι, ὅτε σφέας οἶος ἀπ’
ἄλλων ῎Ηλασ’ ἀριστήων· οἱ δ’ ἔμπαλιν
ὁρμηθέντες, Οὔτε μιν ἀγκλῖναι προτέρω
σθένον, οὔτε δαΐξαι· ᾿Αλλ’ ἄῤῥηκτος,
ἄκαμπτος ἐδύσσατο νειόθι γαίης, Θεινό-
μενος στιβαρῆσι καταΐγδην ἐλάτῃσιν.

This story is held up as a wistful impossibility by Plato in the laws. This passage is, well, upsetting.

Plato’s Laws 944d-c

“What then would be the right punishment for someone who has thrown away this kind of a power of a defensive weapon for the opposite? For it is not possible for a person to do the opposite of what they say the god did when he changed the Thessalian Kaineus from a women into a man. For one who throws away his shield, the opposite of this transformation, changing from a man into a women, in some way would be the best of all punishments for this.”

ζημία δὴ τῷ τὴν τοιαύτην ἀμυντηρίων ὅπλων εἰς τοὐναντίον ἀφέντι δύναμιν τίς ἄρα γίγνοιτ᾿ ἂν πρόσφορος; οὐ γὰρ δυνατὸν ἀνθρώπῳ δρᾷν τοὐναντίον <ἢ> ὥς2 ποτε θεόν φασι δρᾶσαι, Καινέα τὸν Θετταλὸν ἐκ γυναικὸς μεταβαλόντα εἰς ἀνδρὸς φύσιν ἦν γὰρ ἂν ἀνδρὶ ῥιψάσπιδι τρόπον τινὰ πρέπουσα πασῶν Εμάλιστα ἡ ᾿κείνῃ τῇ γενέσει ἐναντία γένεσις, εἰς γυναῖκα ἐξ ἀνδρὸς μεταβαλοῦσα, τιμωρία τούτῳ γενομένη.

More of Thersites with Achilles and Odysseus

Plutarch’s Moralia 1065c-d Against the Stoics on Common Conceptions

“Achilles would not have had long hair if Thersites had not been bald.”

καὶ οὐκ ἂν ἦν Ἀχιλλεὺς κομήτης εἰ μὴ φαλακρὸς Θερσίτης.

 

Plato, Republic 10 620c-d

“A bit farther along among the final souls, he saw that of the ridiculous Thersities taking on the form of a monkey. By chance, he came upon the soul of Odysseus last of all as it made its choice still remembering its previous sufferings and, having decided to rest from the pursuit of honor, was spending an excessive among of time seeking the life of an untroubled private citizen. He found it barely situated somewhere and ignored by the rest of the souls. When he saw it, he said that he would have made the same choice even had he drawn the first lot and was happen to make this choice.”

πόρρω δ’ ἐν ὑστάτοις ἰδεῖν τὴν τοῦ γελωτοποιοῦ Θερσίτου πίθηκον ἐνδυομένην. κατὰ τύχην δὲ τὴν Ὀδυσσέως λαχοῦσαν πασῶν ὑστάτην αἱρησομένην ἰέναι, μνήμῃ δὲ | τῶν προτέρων πόνων φιλοτιμίας λελωφηκυῖαν ζητεῖν περιιοῦσαν χρόνον πολὺν βίον ἀνδρὸς ἰδιώτου ἀπράγμονος, καὶ μόγις εὑρεῖν κείμενόν που καὶ παρημελημένον ὑπὸ τῶν ἄλλων, καὶ εἰπεῖν ἰδοῦσαν ὅτι τὰ αὐτὰ ἂν ἔπραξεν καὶ πρώτη λαχοῦσα, καὶ ἁσμένην ἑλέσθαι.

 

Galen, Hygiene 16-17k

“Accordingly, then, they differ from one another in  magnitude of more or less, just as the whiteness in show compares to the whiteness of milk: it is white for each it is not different in this, but it contrasts in being more or less white. In the same manner, if you will allow me to say, the health of Achilles does not differ from that of Thersites: inasmuch as it is health, it is the same, but it differs in another thing.”

κατὰ τὸ μᾶλλον ἄρα καὶ ἧττον ἀλλήλων διαφέρουσιν. ὥσπερ γὰρ ἡ ἐν τῇ χιόνι λευκότης τῆς ἐν τῷ γάλακτι λευκότητος, ᾗ μὲν λευκόν ἐστιν, οὐ διαφέρει, τῷ μᾶλλον δὲ καὶ ἧττον διαφέρει, τὸν αὐτὸν δὴ τρόπον ἡ ἐν τῷ Ἀχιλλεῖ, φέρε εἰπεῖν, ὑγεία τῆς ἐν τῷ Θερσίτῃ ὑγείας, καθ’ ὅσον μὲν ὑγεία, ταὐτόν ἐστιν, ἑτέρῳ δέ τινι διάφορος

Image result for greek underworld vase souls
The boatman doesn’t care.