Imagining Illegitimacy in Classical Greek Literature

Chapter 3. Images of Fertility and Sterility

Teucer’s emerging role in Euripides’ Helen (examined in the last chapter) as the founder of New Salamis on Cyprus is an example of the way in which narratives can provide a legitimization process within themselves. Teucer, rejected by his father, leaves behind a place and a life in which he is illegitimate. As the founder of a city, however, he becomes the symbolic father and confers legitimacy himself, since he is destined to undertake the creation of city institutions and the allotment of land in the settlement. [1] Another example of this type of narrative in which illegitimate children are sent out as colonists (as a form of exile) is the story of the Partheniai of Sparta. The narratives about the Partheniai are grounded in another set of metaphors of illegitimacy, namely, those of fertility and sterility. These metaphors in turn intersect with imagery associated with colonization and, as we will see in the case of Euripides’ Ion, of autochthony. The question implicit in these narratives is how to determine who belongs to the city and who profits it.

There are multiple variants of the story of the Partheniai, but they have significant elements in common. The accounts given by Ephorus and Antiochus are the fullest and will be examined in detail. [2] The first common element is that the Partheniai were born while the Spartans were fighting the first Messenian War. In the various versions, there was a group of men who did not go to war at all because they were cowards, or they were boys who were too young, or they were too young at the beginning of the war but joined the Spartan army later as the war continued. In any case, these men are distinct from the main group of the Spartan citizens, who had sworn an oath not to return home until they had conquered Messenia. The second common element is that while the Spartans were away at war the children born during that time were called the Partheniai. In some versions, the helots left behind have intercourse with the Spartan women. In another version, the Spartan women complain that there will be no new generation of Spartans, since the men have been gone so long, and so the younger men who did not take the same oath are sent back to sire a new generation with the young women (with the instructions that each young man should sleep with each unmarried woman to improve the chances of conceiving). In each version, the children born from the unusual arrangement, whatever its details, are later denied political rights and stage a revolt because of their unequal status. Again there are varying details with respect to how the revolt is staged. [3] The solution to this crisis is their expulsion from Sparta, and they leave to colonize Taras in southern Italy.

Even with the variety of details, the key factor for the Partheniai as a group is their illegitimate status, which in turn results in their lack of citizen status and the ensuing conflict. [4] The illegitimacy is framed as the result either of the slave status of their fathers or of the indiscriminate sexual relations through which they were conceived. As Pierre Vidal-Naquet has pointed out, the constant in the story is that “the women ensure the continuation of the population. In short, the Partheniai are the sons of young women before they are the sons of men… [T]he fathers of the Partheniai both are and are not of the city—they are marginal.” [5]

The name Partheniai has the same base form, of course, as the adjective parthenios that I examined in chapter 1. The Partheniai are marked as illegitimate and associated with their mothers. And, similar to what we saw in the case of Teucer in chapter 2, the narratives also associate the Partheniai with slaves: either their fathers are slaves, or, in Ephorus’s version (in which their fathers are the younger men of Sparta) the Partheniai join with the helots in a revolt. The lack of civic rights (and the reciprocal association with women and slaves) is doubly determined within the narrative: the Partheniai are denied rights because they know only their mothers, not their fathers (who may themselves be slaves), and this rejection groups them together with rebelling helots.

The solution presented, as mentioned above, is to send this group out of the city. In the version of Antiochus, the oracle at Delphi tells Phalanthus, the leader of the Partheniai, quite straightforwardly to found the colony at Taras (Σατύριόν τοι δῶκα Τάραντά τε πίονα δῆμον οἰκῆσαι, καὶ πῆμα ̓Ιαπύγεσσι γενέσθαι, recorded in Strabo 6.2.2). In another version, however, mediated by Diodorus Siculus, the oracle presents a riddle about the proper place to found the colony. [6] The oracle’s riddle is still rather specific, directing them to look to Satyrion and Taras, but it also prescribes that the colonists build Tarentum on the spot where they find a goat that loves salt water, dipping the tip of his gray beard. The riddle is solved by understanding a metaphorical connection between a he-goat and a wild fig tree, a metaphorical connection based on associations of male sexuality, as Carol Dougherty points out. [7] That is, the site to build the colony is found to be where a wild fig tree dips its silvery branches into the salt water, and so the colonists must understand the connection between the licentious male goat and the wild fig, which is understood as the “male” inseminator of the domestic fig, the “female” recipient. [8]

Thus the Partheniai found their new city on a site that is recognized through connected images of male sexuality within nature. Dougherty concludes her discussion of this oracle with this remark: “It is appropriate that this eroticized oracle be delivered to the Partheniae, themselves a product not of a legitimate marriage but of a promiscuous free-for-all.” [9] It should be noted, however, that it is only appropriate to the illegitimate colonizers before they found the new city. As Dougherty herself argues, colonization and marriage can be used as metaphors for each other on the basis that both are “institutions of integration and acculturation, concerned with uniting opposites and transforming that which is wild and foreign into a fruitful and productive experience.” [10] Both processes are imagined as instruments of a movement from nature to culture in terms of sex. [11]

The Partheniai found their city on a spot that is wild when they first find it, but they will transform it into a place of culture, an organized city with cultivated plants and domesticated animals. The Partheniai themselves will undergo the same transformation. The exchange of metaphors between colonization and marriage provides the illegitimate Partheniai with legitimacy through this replacement marriage. And instead of being outside the city as they were in Sparta, they become the citizen body of the new city and are therefore legitimate in this new place. The actual practice of founding a new city makes this legitimacy as citizenship a reality, but narratives about colonization also represent the foundation of the city as a process of legitimization.

The origins of the Partheniai in these narratives also provide important clues to a connection between illegitimacy and the wrong kind of fertility, which can be figured as either sterility or uncontrolled growth. And, in different versions of the narratives, images of both hyperfertility and sterility appear, hinting that the two are inverted versions of the same idea. In Ephorus’s version of the story of the Partheniai, the women of Sparta complain to their husbands about a lack of fertility in that there will be no new generation of men in Sparta. [12]

δεκάτῳ δ’ ὕστερον [ἔτει] τοῦ πολέμου τὰς γυναῖκας τῶν Λακεδαιμονίων συνελθούσας ἐξ ἑαυτῶν πέμψαι τινὰς παρὰ τοὺς ἄνδρας τὰς μεμψομένας, ὡς οὐκ ἐπ’ ἴσοις πολεμοῖεν πρὸς τοὺς Μεσσηνίους (οἱ μὲν γὰρ μένοντες τεκνοποιοῦνται, οἱ δὲ χήρας ἀφέντες τὰς γυναῖκας ἐν τῇ πολεμίᾳ ἐστρατοπέδευον), καὶ κίνδυνος εἴη λιπανδρῆσαι τὴν πατρίδα.

In the tenth year of the war, the women/wives of the Lakedaimonians having come together sent some of their number to censure their husbands in that they were not waging war on an equal basis against the Messenians (for they, remaining at home, were producing children, but the Spartans, leaving their wives as widows, stayed in their camp) and that there was the risk that the fatherland would be in want of men.

The women point out to their absent husbands that their enemy is still producing children, since they are fighting from their own city, but the Spartans (who are uncharacteristically far from home for a long time) have not been keeping up, since, according to their oath, they will not return to Sparta until they have conquered Messenia. The solution to the problem is to send back the youngest group of men, who have only recently joined the fighting and had not taken the oath. [13]

οἱ δ’ ἅμα καὶ τὸν ὅρκον φυλάττοντες καὶ τὸν τῶν γυναικῶν λόγον ἐν νῷ θέμενοι πέμπουσι τῆς στρατιᾶς τοὺς εὐρωστοτάτους ἅμα καὶ νεωτάτους, οὓς ᾔδεσαν οὐ μετασχόντας τῶν ὅρκων διὰ τὸ παῖδας ἔτι ὄντας συνεξελθεῖν τοῖς ἐν ἡλικίᾳ· προσέταξαν δὲ συγγίνεσθαι ταῖς παρθένοις ἁπάσαις ἅπαντας, ἡγούμενοι πολυτεκνήσειν μᾶλλον· γενομένων δὲ τούτων οἱ μὲν παῖδες ὠνομάσθησαν Παρθενίαι.

The men, both keeping their oath and thinking over the message from their wives, sent the most vigorous and also youngest of the army, whom they knew did not take part in the oath because they were still children when they came out with those in their age-class. They ordered all of them to keep company with all the parthenoi, thinking that this would produce more children. When this happened, the children were called the Partheniai.

The Spartans have fallen behind in producing children, and so they attempt to make up for it with hyperfertility in this scheme. The sex between the young men and women reverts to a state of nature—and indiscriminate, chaotic nature at that. The cultural control of sex that marriage provides is absent; sex and procreation occur in a prolific but haphazard manner. As a result, the children can be sure only of who their mothers are and thus are named after their mothers’ unmarried status. The hyperfertility, marked as outside of culture, is a manifestation of hubris. [14]

The version of the story found in the account of Antiochus (fragment 14, FGrH) figures this fertility gone wrong in a different but analogous way. In these versions, the fathers of the Partheniai are helots in one form or another. The sexual union of slave-status men with citizen-status women is another form of procreation outside of the controls provided by marriage. This mixing of different classes is something that Theognis warns against in his poetry. He says that people make sure to breed animals such as rams, asses, and horses carefully but do not take the same care with their own marriages:

        Κριοὺς μὲν καὶ ὄνους διζήμεθα, Κύρνε, καὶ ἵππους
        εὐγενέας, καί τις βούλεται ἐξ ἀγαθῶν
185  βήσεσθαι· γῆμαι δὲ κακὴν κακοῦ οὐ μελεδαίνει
        ἐσθλὸς ἀνήρ, ἤν οἱ χρήματα πολλὰ διδῶι,
        οὐδὲ γυνὴ κακοῦ ἀνδρὸς ἀναίνεται εἶναι ἄκοιτις
        πλουσίου, ἀλλ’ ἀφνεὸν βούλεται ἀντ’ ἀγαθοῦ.
        χρήματα μὲν τιμῶσι· καὶ ἐκ κακοῦ ἐσθλὸς ἔγημε
190  καὶ κακὸς ἐξ ἀγαθοῦ· πλοῦτος ἔμειξε γένος.
        οὕτω μὴ θαύμαζε γένος, Πολυπαΐδη, ἀστῶν
        μαυροῦσθαι· σὺν γὰρ μίσγεται ἐσθλὰ κακοῖς.

We seek, Kyrnos, rams and asses and horses
that are well bred, and anyone would wish to breed them
from good stock. But a noble man does not care that he
marries a base woman from a base father, if he gives him lots of money,
nor does a woman refuse to be the wife of a base man
so long as he is rich; indeed she prefers the rich man to the good.
They honor money, and a noble man marries the daughter of a base man,
and a base man marries the daughter of a good man; wealth mixes up breeding.
Thus do not be surprised, son of Polypais, that the breeding of the citizens
is being darkened. For the noble is mingling with the base.

Theognis 183–192 [15]

According to these lines of Theognis, marriage between the agathoi or esthloi and the kakoi is confusing the genos of the citizens, and in fact “darkens” it. [16] The situation is the same in those versions of the Partheniai narrative in which the fathers are kakoi in that they are cowards who refused to go to war and/or are slaves. The wrong “mixing,” the wrong kind of reproduction, leads directly to the illegitimate status of the Partheniai.

The hyperfertility or uncontrolled procreation in Sparta is figured as a cause of illegitimacy, and excessive production in nature is also an image of hubris. Hubris is in turn represented as a cause of conflict (stasis) in the poetry of Theognis, and this cause and effect relationship holds true in the narratives of the Partheniai as well. [17] The resolution to the conflict is found in sending out the illegitimate men as a colony. The founding of a colony is a narrative process through which they are transformed into legitimate citizens. In the new city, the wild fertility of nature is then controlled through culture, as in the imagery of marriage that is metaphorically associated with colonization. [18]

Figures of Sterility: Mules and Poor Soil

The mention of horses and asses together in the above verses of Theognis calls to mind the connected but opposite image of hubris as sterility. [19] The product of mixing the breeding of horses and asses is, of course, the sterile mule, and the imagery of a “mixed” offspring shares connections with illegitimacy (as we saw in the versions of the Partheniai narratives in which the fathers are helots) as well as sterility. Trying to prevent sterility, in terms of a lack of offspring, the Spartans “overcorrect” with hyperfertility, which leads to stasis (a result of their hubris) and another kind of sterility in the illegitimacy of the children born as a result.

A parallel between illegitimate offspring and mules is drawn in an argument by Socrates in Plato’s Apology. Socrates is refuting the charge that he does not believe in the gods, although the prosecution has conceded that he believes in daimones. He describes daimones as the illegitimate children of the gods: “If, then, the daimones are certain illegitimate children of the gods, either from nymphs or from some other women (whose indeed they are said to be), who of human beings could believe that there are children of the gods, but no gods?”: εἰ δ’ αὖ οἱ δαίμονες θεῶν παῖδές εἰσιν νόθοι τινὲς ἢ ἐκ νυμφῶν ἢ ἔκ τινων ἄλλων ὧν δὴ καὶ λέγονται, τίς ἂν ἀνθρώπων θεῶν μὲν παῖδας ἡγοῖτο εἶναι, θεοὺς δὲ μή; (Apology 27d8–10). [20] Socrates then says that believing in daimones but not gods would be as strange as someone believing in mules, the children of horses and asses, but not in horses and asses themselves. [21] The underlying comparison in the argument is that daimones, the nothoi paides of the gods, are of “mixed” parentage, like mules, especially when they are the children of the gods and “something else.” It is this mixed parentage, of course, that makes them nothoi. Mules, then, who are of mixed parentage, and their sterility (a by-product, in fact, of their mixed parentage) are associated with illegitimacy.

The narrative of Cyrus is a well-known example of a person of “mixed” parentage compared to a mule on account of this fact. In Herodotus’s account, Croesus asks whether his reign shall be a long one, and is given an oracle that when a mule becomes king of the Medes, Croesus should flee (1.55). Croesus interprets this oracular message as a good sign, since he thinks no mule will ever be king (basileus), but when Cyrus defeats him it is revealed that Cyrus is the mule that the oracle meant, for he was born of two ethnicities, with a superior Mede mother and inferior Persian father (1.91). [22] The helot-father versions of the narrative of the Partheniai have the same “mixed” parentage as Cyrus: a superior mother and inferior father. [23] The result for the Partheniai is also sterility, figured as the stasis in the city. In Athens after the Periclean citizenship law of 451/450 b.c., the children of “mixed” parents, that is, one Athenian and one non-Athenian, are considered nothoi. [24] Although it is generally assumed to be cases of Athenian men producing children with non-Athenian women that this law was intended for and applied to once enacted, the result of the difference in status is nevertheless illegitimacy.

Herodotus also reports a proverbial saying from a Babylonian about the sterility of mules. The Babylonian taunts Darius and the Persians, saying that they will take the Babylonian city “when mules gives birth”: τότε γὰρ αἱρήσετε ἡμέας, ἐπεὰν ἡμίονοι τέκωσι (Herodotus 3.151). [25] The sterility of mules can also be transferred to the image of the illegitimate child who has “mixed” parentage. [26] As nothoi such children were not heirs (they were not part of the ankhisteia), and so could not continue the family line and the oikos. [27] Thus without legitimate children (and so heirs and future citizens), the situation could be imagined as one of sterility, the lack of children altogether. In Plato’s Laws (841d), the Athenian speaker groups together illegitimate procreation with concubines (which he describes as “sowing the unhallowed and illegitimate seed [notha spermata]”), on the one hand, and sterile (agona) sexual activity with men, on the other. Both kinds of “sterile” sex are opposed to the legitimate reproduction of the citizen with his wife.

Just such a situation of “sterility” is imagined in Euripides’ Andromache, where the family line of Peleus is threatened with a lack of legitimate heirs. Peleus, in saying that Menelaos is responsible for the death of Greek warriors in the Trojan War, tells him he has left old women bereft of children (παίδων τ ̓ ἄπαιδας) and old men, himself among them, weeping for their wellborn sons (εὐγενῆ τέκνα). [28] Thus he connects a loss of legitimate children and a sterility that ends family lines (Andromache 611–614). To make matters worse, Hermione, the wife of Neoptolemos, has not produced any children. [29] When Hermione plots to kill Neoptolemos’s son by Andromache, now a concubine, Peleus accuses Hermione of wanting to spread her sterility to everyone else (711–712). The parentage of the son of Andromache and Neoptolemos, Molossos, is doubly “mixed” in that his mother is both a slave and a foreigner, and he is very much marked as a nothos. [30] Peleus defends the value of his great-grandson, though he is illegitimate, by comparing him to agricultural produce from dry land:

πολλάκις δέ τοι
ξηρὰ βαθεῖαν γῆν ἐνίκησε σπορᾷ,
νόθοι τε πολλοὶ γνησίων ἀμείνονες.

Often, you know,
dry land is superior to thick soil for a sown seed,
and many bastards [nothoi] are better than legitimate children.

Andromache 636–638

These lines compare illegitimacy to poorer soil—an image of sterility, or at least lesser fertility. [31] But he reverses the normal image by asserting that dry land can bring more fertility and nothoi can be better than legitimate children. This reversal is reinforced at the end of the play when Thetis explains to Peleus that their family line will not be destroyed (anastatos) because Molossos will carry it on and begin a long line of kings in Molossia (1246–1250). Thus what is normally sterile, the nothos, turns out to be a source of long-lasting fertility. Note, however, that this is true only when he rules in another place, as we saw also in the case of the Partheniai.

Returning to the mule as an image associated with mixed parentage, sterility, and illegitimacy, we can look to the explanations of the sterility of the mule in scientific writings for another type of cultural understanding of this metaphor cluster. In a fragment of Empedocles, the sterility of the mule is said to be the manifestation of a coupling that is contrary to sameness of descent (παρὰ τὴν συγγένειαν). [32] Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, points to the mule as an example of something generated that is not of the same kind as what generates it, and says that this happens contrary to nature (παρὰ φύσιν). [33] The seed of generation, Aristotle then argues, contains the potential form of the offspring, and the generator has in some sense the same name as the product (not necessarily exactly the same name such as the case of “man” being produced by “man,” for woman is also produced by man); the exception is when the product is a freak (πήρωμα). This is why a mule is not produced by a mule. [34] In these descriptions of the mule, it is described as preternatural and against norms of lineage, since mules are not the same animal as their fathers. Such ideas about the abnormality or unnaturalness of the mule and about its sterility could also apply to the illegitimate child and the sterility he brings with him. [35]

Daniel Ogden argues that narratives about illegitimate or otherwise lowborn monarchic figures of archaic Greece follow a pattern similar to that of teras babies and scapegoats. The term teras encompasses meanings such as ‘portent’ and ‘monster’—that is, the deformed child is a sign as well as an abnormality. In this narrative pattern, the teras child must be exposed in a place outside of the community to save the community from pestilence and sterility. Teras babies, like the generation of mules, are said to be contrary to nature (para phusin), and the lack of resemblance to their parents (especially to their fathers) that defines their very condition also links them to bastards who result from adultery, who themselves do not resemble their supposed fathers. [36] The figure of the teras child is a related kind of narrative type to that of the Partheniai, in which illegitimacy is connected to a problem of sterility that must be resolved by the removal of the illegitimate(s) in order to recover fertility. [37]

The Bastard Who Restores Fertility: Euripides’ Ion

We seem to have come full circle in our exploration of the interrelated metaphors of illegitimacy with colonization, hyperfertility and/or sterility, and mixed parentage (examined in detail in the figure of the mule, which introduces the preternatural or deviant element). Euripides’ Ion, however, will present us with a reversal of this pattern. The narratives that Ogden examines have the motif of an illegitimate baby (perhaps figured as a teras in some way) that is exposed to restore fertility to the community. Ion, however, is an illegitimate baby whose exposure causes sterility for his mother and in turn for Athens (since she is the queen and the last representative of the autochthonous lineage of the Athenian royal house). And in Euripides’ tragedy, fertility is restored only when the nothos Ion is reincorporated into his family and native city. Let us look more closely at the sterility metaphor in connection with the Ion and the resolution to that problem as presented in the drama.

Kreousa’s lack of fertility, her childlessness, is emphasized throughout the drama and is, in fact, the driving force behind the plot. [38] Figures of fertility and sterility are grounded in Kreousa’s rape and her exposure of the baby Ion. Charles Segal has argued that Kreousa’s rape (and especially the description of her being snatched while picking flowers) portrays her as another Persephone. [39] Like Persephone, her rape then causes a lack of fertility, but in Kreousa’s case, that sterility is her own and is linked to the exposure of her child. That the child should be a sign of fertility and life rather than sterility and death as Kreousa makes him out to be is symbolized in the olive branch that she wraps around the baby as she exposes him. [40] The renewal of life that the olive branch signifies will occur for Kreousa only when she recovers the son whom she exposed with that token.

Kreousa and her husband Xouthos have come to Delphi precisely because they are childless and are seeking a remedy. In another narrative about such a situation, the oracle might direct the petitioner to found a colony as the solution to such a problem, thus restoring fertility in an analogous way. [41] But colonization does not happen in Euripides’ drama until after fertility has been restored to Athens, with the birth of Kreousa’s two further sons and Ion’s four sons. [42] As much as the figure of Ion may be associated with colonization, it will be in these new generations (Kreousa’s sons and also Ion’s grandsons) that movement away from Athens will occur, and these cases are not represented here as crises of sterility. Instead the current sterility is solved only by bringing back the son who has been sent away through exposure as an infant.

The prologue of the drama makes it clear that Apollo and Kreousa are the parents of Ion, and that Ion is illegitimate. [43] Hermes tells the story of Ion’s conception and birth, naming both Kreousa and Apollo as the parents (Ion 10–17). Apollo’s fatherhood is emphasized again when Hermes relates the instructions that Apollo himself gave him when he took the exposed infant from Athens—Apollo explicitly tells Hermes that the child is his (ἐμὸς γάρ ἐστιν, ὡς εἰδῇς, ὁ παῖς, 35). As soon as Ion arrives in Delphi, however, his parentage is obscured: Hermes says that the prophetess of Apollo raised the child, and she did not know that Apollo was the father or who the mother was. He adds that Ion himself does not know who his parents are (49–51). From this point on until the final resolution, Ion’s understanding of who his parents are fluctuates. [44]

In his entrance song, Ion declares that he has no mother or father (he is ἀμήτωρ ἀπάτωρ, 109). The song is about his service to the temple of Apollo, and, in that context, he praises Phoebus as his progenitor, the one who nourishes him, saying that he calls his benefactor by the name of father (136–140). [45] He also tells Kreousa that he considers the prophetess of Apollo to be his mother (321). Ion can only call those who have raised him his parents, but he speaks of himself as having no parents at all (313).

When Kreousa makes her entrance, she relates to Ion her whole family history, but then says she has no children (304). The disruption caused by the exposure of Ion leaves the two of them with blank spots in their families: Kreousa can relate the past but needs to consult oracles about the missing future, while Ion is missing the past. [46] The break that causes these parallel deficits is also connected to the sterility of Kreousa’s marriage to Xouthos. [47]

The permutations of Ion’s parentage seem to play with different scenarios of illegitimacy. He is the foundling without parents, as we have seen. Then he is the son of Xouthos and of an unknown woman, which again earns him the epithet ‘motherless’ (837), perhaps a play on the normal “fatherless” bastard (and he is called Xouthos’s bastard son at 1105). When he discovers that Kreousa is his mother, he then loses Xouthos as his father, and his illegitimacy is once again emphasized (1473). He does not believe Kreousa when she says that Apollo is his father, asking her whether she is not one of those girls who is seduced and so claims that a god is the father of her child (1523–1527). It takes confirmation from Athena before Ion will believe that Apollo is indeed his father. [48]

With Athena’s pronouncements, however, Ion ends up with an overabundance of parents—not two but three—for she says that Kreousa should not tell anyone that Ion is her son and allow Xouthos the pleasure of believing that Ion is his (1601–1602). This silence that is enjoined on Kreousa is also one typical of a situation of illegitimacy—a woman passes off her son by another “man” as her husband’s. But the return of Ion to Athens and his legitimization as the son of the royal household restores fertility, for Kreousa has more children with her husband, and Ion has four sons of his own. Ion’s children will become the founders of the four old phylai (so-called “tribes”) of Athens, providing continuity to the phratries of the Athenians in the audience. [49]

The phratries associated with these phylai of Athens are part of the process of legitimization of citizens. This indirect reference to the phratries at the very end of the drama may in turn hint at the questions of legitimacy that are left open even as the narrative concludes. The arrangement established by Athena provides Ion with both a private legitimacy (as son of the autochthonous Kreousa and a god) and a public one (as son of the king Xouthos). Yet, this splitting does not necessarily solve the question of what it means to be legitimate, since the public and social legitimization is based on a lie. [50] And so the continuation that Ion provides to the present-day Athenians, the all-important line traceable back to an autochthonous origin for the citizenry of Athens, is surprisingly made a secret, private matter between mother and son. [51] And fertility is only restored when both Kreousa and Xouthos (under opposite circumstances) embrace an illegitimate son as a true heir.

Autochthony is, of course, the corresponding opposite of colonization, for an autochthon has never come from somewhere else. [52] But autochthony, too, has its fertility problems. As Nicole Loraux points out: “The list of children of the earth afflicted by apaidia (barrenness) is a long one,” and she supposes that Kreousa’s barrenness is a displacement of the childlessness that threatens any autochthonous being. [53] The concomitant fertility of humans and fertility of the earth under the just king (as seen in Homer and Hesiod) is confused by autochthony, where the earth’s fertility actually produces human beings. [54] But after being born from the earth, the autochthon must find another way to reproduce, and thus the problems of sexual reproduction enter the picture.

The ideal of autochthony spurns bastards and foreigners, and Ion (as the son of Xouthos) sees himself as both. [55] Yet the autochthonous line needs both the foreigner Xouthos and the bastard Ion for its continuation. Intensely problematic scenarios of sexual reproduction solve the sterility crisis here, whereas such scenarios were at the root of the problem in the narratives of the Partheniai. The solution in the Ion is an ambiguous one, however, leaving many questions in its wake.

The story of Anaxandrides, as Herodotus tells it, relates a solution to a sterility crisis that is similar to what we have seen in Euripides’ Ion. The “public” story agreed upon at the end of the Ion (and the one that Xouthos himself believes to be true) is that Xouthos has been reunited with his son by a woman not his wife and that the acceptance of this bastard is what now allows the wife to conceive. Anaxandrides is in a similar situation as a king of Sparta who was childless with his wife. [56] The ephors in Sparta, concerned that the royal line (which was continuous back to Herakles) would die out, ordered Anaxandrides to take another wife. [57] He refuses to divorce his current wife, and so the ephors allow him to keep his first wife but order him to take a second one with whom he can have children. Herodotus describes this arrangement as “not at all the Spartan way” (οὐδαμῶς Σπαρτιητικά, 5.40). As soon as the second wife has a child (named Cleomenes), the first wife suddenly finds herself pregnant. The relatives of the second wife accuse the first wife of faking her pregnancy, saying that she plans to pass off a suppositious child as her own (ἄλλως βουλομένην ὑποβαλέσθαι). The mistrust of the first wife is great enough that the ephors stand guard while she gives birth! [58] The first wife gives birth not only to this son, Doreius, but also two others, while the second wife never has another child. Cleomenes (son of the second wife) is made king when Anaxandrides dies, for he is counted the eldest. Doreius, who is superior to Cleomenes in every way but birth order, cannot stand to live under his half brother’s rule, and so leaves to found a colony.

Here, too, the need for an extraordinary sexual arrangement to rid the city of a kind of sterility leads to a hyperfertility and then conflict, as the elder but less qualified son is chosen as king. And the “losing” party in the conflict is sent out of the city—the form of the exile is colonization of a new city. This pattern is familiar by now, but we also see again how the Ion plays with it. The incorporation of the “outsider” Ion into Athens, supposedly the son of Xouthos with another woman, solves the fertility crisis of the royal family, and more sons are born. The elder son stays as king, and the younger sons, those of Kreousa and Xouthos together, Dôros and Akhaios, will be the founders of other Greek peoples. But, of course, this scenario is deceiving, because in this case, the child of the “other woman” is in fact the true heir to the throne. He will continue the line of rulers descended from the autochthonous Erichthonios in Athens, while the sons of the foreign Xouthos will be the ones sent out to other places. The problem of legitimacy is nevertheless left open.

Charles Segal has argued that the use of underlying allusions to chthonic and Olympian struggles in the Ion “links the recovery of individual happiness with the restoration of cosmic order” and that the ending of the drama privileges “the private over the civic solution.” [59] In a drama that, as we have seen, twists and plays with several narrative patterns, the end inverts the usual ascendancy of the polis over the needs of the oikos, by equating the oikos and the kosmos. In narratives such as that of the Spartan king Anaxandrides, we saw that unusual arrangements of marriage were forced on the oikos in order to protect the continuity of the institutions of the polis. Although the oikos seems to triumph at the end of the Ion, the secretive nature of the arrangement of Ion’s acceptance leads to another exceptional arrangement to provide similar continuity in Athens. And the normal movement of the son from the oikos to the polis is also confused, since the bond between mother and son is restored at the very time of his life when the son should enter the world of the polis, the company of men. [60] The exclusion of the nothos from the oikos was shown to cause problems for the polis (which in the form of the royal autochthon Kreousa are one and the same), but even as the sterility crisis is solved, the struggle with the complexities of double filiation and the sexual reproduction it requires will continue after the drama’s conclusion provides legitimacy for Ion himself.


[ back ] 1. Ogden 1997.2 and passim argues that “(super-)legitimacy” derives from illegitimacy in narrative patterns concerning the bastardy and/or deformity of colonists and tyrants. See Dougherty 1993.21–26 for the role of the founder in ordering the new city and for the cult of the founder as a driving force in making the colony an independent city.

[ back ] 2. Strabo 6.3.2–3 records those of Antiochus (Antiochus fragment 14, FGrH) and Ephorus (Ephorus fragment 53, FGrH); Diodorus Siculus 8.21 gives a similar story about a group in Sparta called the e peunaktoi, who receive an oracle about settling Taras. Vidal-Naquet 1986.212–214 discusses the many variants, as does Ogden 1997.73–75.

[ back ] 3. See Dougherty 1993.17, 35 for the Partheniai as political dissidents and the losing faction in a civil war. See Ogden 1997.75–76 for the varying signals for revolt in the narratives.

[ back ] 4. In the version reported by Ephorus (fragment 53 FGrH), it is explicitly stated that the Partheniai were denied a share in the city because they were not born in wedlock: οὐκ ἐκ γάμου γεγονότας.

[ back ] 5. Vidal-Naquet 1986.213–214, original emphasis.

[ back ] 6. Diodorus Siculus 8.21.3. See Dougherty 1993.45–60 on riddling oracles in colonial narratives and 1993.49, 73–74 on this riddle in particular. Vidal-Naquet 1986.214, however, believes that the tradition about the oracles connected to the foundation of Tarentum have been “contaminated by traditions about the foundation of Rhegium.”

[ back ] 7. Dougherty 1993.73–74.

[ back ] 8. The wild fig as “male” also figures in the riddling oracle of the foundation of Rhegium, and this is where Vidal-Naquet sees the “contamination” (note 185). See Dougherty 1993.55–56, 73 for the oracle about Rhegium, as reported in Diodorus Siculus 8.23.2. Charles Segal has pointed out to me that the place where the fig tree touches the salt water is also a threshold between land and sea, a marginal place between fertility and barrenness, which also makes it appropriate to the Partheniai.

[ back ] 9. Dougherty 1993.74.

[ back ] 10. Dougherty 1993.61.

[ back ] 11. Dougherty 1993.62.

[ back ] 12. Ephorus, fragment 53, FGrH.

[ back ] 13. Ephorus, fragment 53, FGrH.

[ back ] 14. Michelini 1978 examines h ubris and plants. She observes that plants described as acting hubristically exhibit excessive wood or leaf production in fruit-bearing plants. Thus this type of growth in these plants is directed at “self-aggrandizement” rather than their proper social role of producing fruit (Michelini 1978.38–39). She also notes that through metaphors of human children, however, which compare children to shoots or branches, the branch growth, although it is in place of fruit production, can be seen as both fertility and sterility (40–41). Hyperfertility or production in plants is parallel to excessive sexual relations for producing children in this narrative. Michelini’s point that such excessive growth is opposed to a proper social role is applicable here as well: the production of children was supposed to be for the good of the Spartan society, but the manner in which it was achieved only caused greater problems because of the lack of social standing for the offspring. Compare the image of cultivated, fertile plants as a mark of good rule, as in O dyssey 7.112–132 and 19.106–114.

[ back ] 15. The text is from D. Young 1971 (Leipzig: Teubner). The translation is my own.

[ back ] 16. See my discussion of these lines in chapter 1, note 93 in conjunction with the term s kotios for illegitimacy. See also Nagy 1985.54–55 for the connection between these lines of Theognis and the bastardy of Kyrnos.

[ back ] 17. See the remarks of Nagy 1990.182 on Theognis 40, 44 for the movement from h ubris to s tasis.

[ back ] 18. See also Dougherty 1993.26, 56 for the representation of colonization as restoration of order after chaos. In the case of the Partheniai, the chaos of the sexual relations that produced the Partheniai is brought to order by their legitimation as citizens in the new city.

[ back ] 19. Nagy 1990.312 explains the connection: “natural phenomena can be correlated with human events in the grand old tradition that we see in Hesiod when the voice of the poet says that the city of dikê ‘justice’ will be fertile while the city of its opposite, hubris ‘outrage’, will be sterile (Works and Days 225–247).”

[ back ] 20. The “certain others” seems to mean human women. See chapter 1 for a discussion of the offspring of gods and humans as n othoi.

[ back ] 21. ὁμοίως γὰρ ἂν ἄτοπον εἴη ὥσπερ ἂν εἴ τις ἵππων μὲν παῖδας ἡγοῖτο ἢ καὶ ὄνων, τοὺς ἡμιόνους, ἵππους δὲ καὶ ὄνους μὴ ἡγοῖτο εἶναι, A pology 27d10–e3.

[ back ] 22. See Nagy 1990.335–336 for the story of Cyrus as a mule and a comparison to a fable of Aesop about a Lydian mule. Note especially the remark, “The symbol of the mule in Greek traditions of myth and ritual serves to define, as a negative foil, the very essence of political power and legitimacy.”

[ back ] 23. We might also recall the story of Demaratos (Herodotus 6.61–69) that I discussed in the introduction. In that narrative, the rumor is that his father is a slave who is a donkey-keeper. The occupation of the slave and alleged father enacts this same construct of the inferior father as a donkey. For another example of a metaphor of a base father engendering illegitimate children, see Plato R epublic 495d–496a, in which Socrates colorfully compares the man who comes to philosophy from the mechanical arts to a little, bald-headed workman who now has some money, has recently freed himself, has had a bath and is dressed in new clothes, making himself a bridegroom to his former master’s daughter. The sort of thing that such a pair is likely to engender is illegitimate (n otha) and base (p haula).

[ back ] 24. See Aristotle A thênaiôn Politeia 26.4; Plutarch P ericles 37.

[ back ] 25. A saying that seems to be of the same sort as our “when pigs fly.” Much to the surprise of the Babylonians, a mule is reported to give birth soon after, which the Persian general takes as a sign that he can now conquer the city (Herodotus 3.153). The other portent of a mule giving birth is a negative sign for the Persians: when a mule gives birth to a hermaphrodite foal (7.57). In this portent we can see again how hyperfertility, in both a supposedly sterile mule giving birth and the double sex organs of the foal, is the related inverse of sterility. That Xerxes ignores the portent may be a sign of his own h ubris, for which the sterility/hyperfertility of the portent provides the image.

[ back ] 26. Ogden 1996.207–208 briefly discusses associations that connect bastardy, sterility, and disease.

[ back ] 27. Isaeus 6.47 quotes a law from 403 b.c. that excludes n othoi from the a nkhisteia. See Patterson 1998.90 and Ogden 1996.34–37 for arguments that this legal separation of the n othos from the household goes back to Solonic law.

[ back ] 28. Peleus also calls himself ‘childless’ after the death of Neoptolemos (a pais, 1207; a teknos, 1216).

[ back ] 29. See A ndromache 29–35, 157–158 for Hermione’s sterility and her accusations that Andromache is causing it with drugs.

[ back ] 30. Andromache refers to herself as a slave at A ndromache 12, 30, 64, 99, 110, 114, 186, 328, 401; others refer to her as a slave at 155, 302, 434, 933. Andromache explicitly says that her sons will be slaves (200); Hermione refers to Andromache’s children as ‘bastard-engendered half-slaves’, h êmidoulous nothageneis (942), invoking the slave identity and perhaps also alluding to the image of the mixed mule, or ‘half-donkey’ (h êmionos) as well. Andromache is called b arbarê by Hermione (173, 243, 261), Menelaos (649), and the Nurse (870). Menelaos calls Andromache’s children b arbaroi as well (665). Note also A ndromache 222–225, when Andromache says that when she was in Hermione’s position, she actually nursed the n othoi of her husband Hektor!

[ back ] 31. The comparison of woman to arable land is, of course, a common one, seen in a variety of contexts from Menander’s phrasing of giving the woman in marriage for the “plowing” of legitimate children (P erikeiromene 1013–1014) to Plato’s famous description that women imitate the earth when they give birth (M enexenos 238a), in which the earth is the first mother and ultimate source of fertility. For the prevalence and significance of these metaphors of women as earth or soil, see duBois 1988 and Loraux 2000.

[ back ] 32. Empedocles fragment 82 (D e generatione animalium B 8.747a 24).

[ back ] 33. Aristotle M etaphysics 1033b29–1034a2. He goes on to say that the mule would, however, have in common whatever the horse and ass have in common.

[ back ] 34. Aristotle M etaphysics 1034a33–1034b7. For more on the generation of mules, see also Aristotle D e generatione animalium 746a19–749a9.

[ back ] 35. In the passage from Plato L aws noted above (841d), the ‘sterile’ sex of men with other men is also called ‘against nature’ (p ara phusin).

[ back ] 36. Ogden 1997.1–14.

[ back ] 37. See Ogden 1997.73–80 for his discussion of the Partheniai. He places greater emphasis on their leader Phalanthos, whose baldness, Ogden argues, is a type of deformation that marks him as a scapegoat.

[ back ] 38. Kreousa or her situation is described as a teknos nine times (at verses 65, 305, 608, 613, 658, 790, 817, 1303, and 1463, where she says she is childless no more) and also a pais thirteen times (304, 306, 408, 488, 513, 619, 620, 680, 824, 840, 950, 1302, and 1463).

[ back ] 39. Segal 1999.71.

[ back ] 40. Segal 1999.79–81 draws out the important implications of the token of the olive branch.

[ back ] 41. One such narrative is that of Myskellos of Rhype, as told in Diodorus Siculus 8.17.1. See Dougherty 1993.18, 31 for this narrative and the motif of childlessness, and Ogden 1997.62–72 for another reading of this narrative, especially 63 for the sterility of Myskellos.

[ back ] 42. See I on 1589–1594 for Kreousa’s sons Dôros and Akhaios, the forefathers of the Dorians and Achaeans, respectively; see 1575–1585 for the four sons of Ion, who will colonize the Cyclades and Asia Minor and call themselves Ionians.

[ back ] 43. See chapter 1 for the implications of illegitimacy in the description of Kreousa’s rape and pregnancy

[ back ] 44. See also Loraux 1993.217: “As he oscillates, however, between rival filiations, Ion finds himself always to be born elsewhere.”

[ back ] 45. The play’s setting in Delphi places Ion in his father’s “house,” a situation for a legitimate son, but puts him outside of Athens, no situation for an autochthon. The setting at Delphi may also play on the association of the Delphinium, a shrine of Apollo at Athens, with legitimacy and citizenship—it was here that a mother might swear an oath attesting the paternity of her children (see Isaeus 12.9, where it is said that the mother of Euphiletos is willing to swear such an oath, and Robertson 1992.7).

[ back ] 46. See Segal 1999 for his detailed discussion of time in the I on.

[ back ] 47. See Loraux 1993.223–224 for the connection between Kreousa’s barrenness and her role as p arthenos.

[ back ] 48. See Goff 1990.107, who in comparing the role of Artemis at the end of the Hippolytos to the role of Athena here, argues, “Athene’s narrative in the Ion supersedes all those which have proliferated in the play about the hero’s birth and descent.” The situation has come to the point where a goddess is needed to explain what has happened so that the bastard son may become legitimate.

[ back ] 49. See Saxonhouse 1986.256 for the importance to the Athenians of this connection back to their autochthonous origins and also Loraux 2000.15: “It is well to occupy the land, but even better to maintain the autochthonous tradition, in order to strengthen the ties that bind the present to the time of origin.”

[ back ] 50. Segal 1999.70 notes the “asymmetrical parenthood” of Kreousa and Xouthos in the resolution that the play presents. He later (93) notes that this resolution only “masks rather than cancels out the deep conflicts between male and female in Athenian society,” and argues that Kreousa is defined at the end primarily as a mother with allegiance to her son instead of her husband. Tyrell and Brown 1991.138 argue that such a split existed for fifth-century Athenians as well because of the multiple groups in which Athenian males were accepted for legitimacy and citizenship: “Athenians lived according to two contradictory definitions of what constituted a citizen: birth in a particular place in the land (deme) and blood kinship through descent from a common parent (phratry).” If the Athenians themselves perceived such conflicts in their own situations, those in the play would have that additional dimension for the audience.

[ back ] 51. See Loraux 1993 and 2000.13–27 for the importance of the myth of autochthony for the self-portrayal of the Athenian democracy. See Zeitlin 1996.335–337 for her view that the institution of adoption is the solution offered by and to Athens, and the dramatization of the importance of the bond between mother and child in the I on. See Loraux 1993.216 for a different view: that in the description of Ion’s descendants, no mother is mentioned, and that the emphasis is once again on male filiation. Segal 1999.81–82 argues that the I on changes the lost child pattern of the story of Demeter and Persephone into a mother-son story.

[ back ] 52. For more on the theme of autochthony in the I on see Walsh 1978, Saxonhouse 1986, and especially Loraux 1993.184–236.

[ back ] 53. Loraux 1993.215. Loraux 2000.3 continues this line of thought: “humankind exists because there were ‘first men,’ yet the greatest difficulty is not to assign them birth, but to give them posterity.” Tyrell and Brown 1991.142 also note “the failure of autochthons to perpetuate themselves.”

[ back ] 54. Loraux 1993.214 argues that Ion’s question to Xouthos about his purpose in consulting the oracle (“Have you come about the crops of your land or about children?” 303) demonstrates the problem: “What should in principle be kept separate—the fecundity of the soil and sexual reproduction—has been confused right from the start in Athens since, in the idiom of autochthony, k arpon (fruit of the earth) is quite naturally considered synonymous with g êgenês.” She also notes (2000.2) that in the myths of autochthony “the semantic fields of sexual reproduction and plant growth are inextricably intertwined.” See also Segal 1999.68 for the contrast between autochthony and common human fertility in the I on.

[ back ] 55. See Ion 589–592, where his status is explicitly contrasted with autochthony: “They say that famous Athens is autochthonous, not an imported race, where I will find myself having acquired two problems, being both the son of an alien father and illegitimately born.”

[ back ] 56. H istories 5.39–42.

[ back ] 57. The ability to trace their descent back to Herakles is important for the Dorian story of their own invasion or settlement of the Peloponnese from the myth of the return of the Herakleidai. The significance of this line of descent is comparable to that of the Athenians tracing their descent back to the autochthonous kings.

[ back ] 58. Demand 1994.146–147 notes that male doctors were trusted to ensure that the pregnant woman neither aborted the child nor introduced a suppositious child (as was believed could happen with a midwife attending the birth). The mistrust implicit in both the scenario in Herodotus and the one Demand describes is part of the general mistrust of women’s sexuality.

[ back ] 59. Segal 1999.89, 98.

[ back ] 60. Segal 1999.93 points out that the intimacy between Kreousa and Ion belongs properly to the oikos.