Imagining Illegitimacy in Classical Greek Literature


Building on the foundations of scholarship within the disciplines of philology, philosophy, history, and archaeology, this series concerns not just the archaic and classical periods of Greek traditions but the whole continuum—along with all the discontinuities—from the second millennium B.C.E. to the present. The aim is to enhance perspectives by applying various disciplines to problems that have in the past been treated as the exclusive concern of a single given discipline. Besides the crossover of the older disciplines, as in the case of historical and literary studies, the series encourages the application of such newer ones as linguistics, sociology, anthropology, and comparative literature. It also encourages encounters with current trends in methodology, especially in the realm of literary theory.

Imagining Illegitimacy in Classical Greek Literature, by Mary Ebbott, explores the idea of the nothos or ‘bastard’ in Greek poetry and prose. Other classical studies have focused on the historical realities of illegitimate birth and its social consequences in ancient Greek society. Ebbott’s work is unique, however, in being the first to show how such realities come to life in the literary traditions of that society. Her aim is not merely to extract from those traditions the history of ideas concerning what it is to be illegitimate. More than that, she shows how the literature of the ancient Greeks pictures the very idea of illegitimacy, and how this picture, this world of metaphors, has a history of its own. Carefully and intuitively, Ebbott pieces together this imaginary world, which casts new light on some of the best-known creations of Greek literature.

A salient example is her reassessment of the Hippolytos of Euripides: a reading of Ebbott’s book is sure to change the conventional view of this drama’s protagonist, Hippolytos himself. The character of this virgin hunter, born of an Amazon and sired illegitimately by the legitimate king of Athens, is illuminated by Ebbott’s thorough analysis of the metaphors she sees at work in the drama. The reader has now been prepared for a deeper—far deeper—look into the character and motivations of this most intriguing and compelling of tragic heroes.

Earlier chapters abound with other lively characterizations, driven by powerful metaphors evoking unforgettable images. Among these are oversexed girl-faced boys given to fits of violence, bantam archers darting from behind the body-covering shields of legitimate big brothers, and pale youths of questionable descent lingering in the shady recesses of households run by women while the menfolk are away making a living. Such literary imaginings are fueled by the mystique of the nothos, that distinctly Greek construct of a nonperson who defines what it is to be a person, what it is to have a Greek identity.

Gregory Nagy

General Editor