Imagining Illegitimacy in Classical Greek Literature

Introduction. Metaphors of Illegitimacy

On a billboard advertisement for a DNA paternity testing service, the selling line is “because you want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt.” [1] Doubt over the child’s parentage casts a metaphorical shadow, one that may be imagined to cover the child himself or herself. The image exploits anxieties about proving paternity that remain even in our technologically advanced society and assures that the test can provide the certainty that may otherwise be elusive. The phrasing of the advertisement also hints at a common use of DNA paternity testing: that is, as evidence in a law court. Although not actually employed in any legal standard, the phrase “beyond a shadow of a doubt” nevertheless evokes this type of situation in which one may want proof of paternity since it is commonly confused with the legal phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Ancient Greek poetry also employs a metaphor of “shadowy” to describe nothoi, or ‘illegitimate children’. This metaphor, as we shall see, conjures up different mental connections, and we cannot assume that a shadow in current American culture has the same implications as one in ancient Greek society. Yet the metaphor functions in a similar manner in that it evokes implicit associations with the nothoi so described. This study is an investigation of this and other metaphors of illegitimacy in classical Greek literature. I concentrate in particular on the way in which the nothos is imagined in narratives. These narratives present a complex portrayal of illegitimacy, and an exploration of the conceptualization of the nothos will reveal cultural assumptions behind these representations. Because metaphors are culturally bound, my task is to reassemble the mental connections that come so immediately to the cultural “insiders,” similar to the way that we can easily understand the implications of the phrase “beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

Legitimate birth is also a cultural definition, and the very concept of legitimacy discloses an attempt to regulate sex and procreation within the social community. When legitimacy is made a requirement for citizenship or particular political roles, the political community then becomes involved in, or at least interested in, the determination of who is legitimate and can thus be included in the polis. [2]