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] The figure of the nothos is the problematic point of convergence where concerns about women, sexual reproduction, and marriage meet those about citizenship and the composition of the citizen body. To explore the metaphor world of nothoi, then, is to expose the implicit tensions and contradictions in these cultural categories and the dynamics of such concepts in cultural artifacts.

Some problems surrounding the determination of legitimacy in ancient Greek society are illustrated in a narrative related by Herodotus about the Spartan king Demaratos (Histories 6.61–69). As Herodotus tells it, the Spartan king Ariston tricks a friend into giving his wife to Ariston. When she gives birth to Demaratos “not having filled out her ten months,” Ariston “counting the number of months on his fingers” declares that it cannot be his son. He later regrets this statement, which he had made in the presence of the ephors, when he becomes convinced over time that Demaratos really is his son. When Ariston dies, Demaratos succeeds him, but his legitimacy is challenged by one of his own kinsman, Leotychides, whose own bride Demaratos had stolen. The ephors are asked as witnesses about the father Ariston’s statement. When they affirm that he did state his doubts about his paternity, an embassy is sent to consult the oracle at Delphi about the matter. Cleomenes, who is working with Leotychides, bribes the priestess at Delphi with the result that the reply denies that Demaratos is Ariston’s son. Demaratos is deposed. Later insulted by Leotychides at the Gymnopaidiai, a festival at which new citizens are enrolled, [3] Demaratos then sacrifices an ox to Zeus, hands some of the entrails to his mother, and asks her who really is his father. He explains that some say it is her former husband, but others say it was a donkey-keeper slave. His mother tells Demaratos the story of his conception, claiming that either the hero Astrabakos is his father (who approached her in the form of her husband Ariston) or Ariston is. She also explains that children are not always born in the tenth month, and she curses those who say his father was the donkey-keeper slave that their wives should have such children.

This brief episode in the Histories demonstrates the complexities that can surround a question of legitimacy. Demaratos asks his mother the central question in a patrilineal society: “Who is my father?” The need for this question demonstrates the problems of determining paternity and, in turn, identity. The extent of the uncertainty (for only one’s mother really knows) is such that the gods must be consulted. We see in this narrative also the importance of witnesses concerning the circumstances of the birth of the child (and the worrisome possibility of bribing). This narrative points to concerns about the control of women’s sexuality and desires as well. These concerns often (as here) find expression in the possibility of a low-status man as the sexual partner of a high-status woman. It also suggests that public discussion of another man’s wife and child might result in an all too close examination of one’s own household. Within this historical narrative we also find elements more often seen in a mythical context: the possibility of a god or hero as the father, for one, and unusual marital arrangements as well: Ariston gains a wife by deception and Demaratos does so by outright theft. Extraordinary marriages or arrangements for procreation and deception are both indicators of illegitimacy that will be explored further. The detail of the insult at the Gymnopaidiai suggests questions surrounding citizenship or the role of the illegitimate person in the city.

This narrative, focused on a question of legitimacy, accumulates detail after detail that intensify the original anxiety of whether the “prematurely” born Demaratos could really be Ariston’s son. The poetic narratives examined in the following chapters also present the point of view that there is legitimacy, where everything is in place and according to the rules, and that “illegitimacy” is everything else. So despite protestations in mythical narratives of the formerly high status of one’s mother, such as we see in Sophocles’ Ajax, when Teucer asserts that he is royalty on both sides of his family, or in Euripides’ Andromache, where it is often remarked that Andromache (who is the mother of the only child left in the house of Peleus) was of the highest status in Troy before it fell, the narratives seem to take for granted that children of non-Greek “outsiders” are nothoi. Similarly, poetic narratives do not confront what has often been a conundrum of the modern debates concerning Athenian bastard status —whether the offspring of two unmarried Athenians was a nothos—but instead reinforce a strict definition of proper marriage as necessary for legitimacy.

Yet, at the same time, in several narratives there is an overdetermination of illegitimacy; that is, the child’s parents are both unmarried and of different ranks and/or ethnicities. Thus, there is frequently an abundance of markers of illegitimacy and problems that would have to be overcome for legitimacy. These narratives leave little doubt about illegitimacy—when that status is what is to be emphasized. As we shall see, there are narratives in which the illegitimacy of one character can be highlighted precisely because the same standards are not applied to others. For example, Teucer’s status as nothos in Sophocles’ Ajax is emphasized, but that of Eurysakes is glossed over. Also, in Euripides’ Hippolytos, much is made of the outsider status of Hippolytos’s mother, but although Phaedra’s Cretan origins are made explicit, her children with Theseus are nevertheless considered legitimate within the drama. In the cases of Teucer and Hippolytos, the term nothos is applied, again to remove any doubt. There are other cases where the term nothos is not used, such as in the story of Danaë and Perseus, but the imagery employed again shows an overdetermination. Narratives may also provide a legitimization that could not occur in reality, once again showing that they do not concern the specific legal issue of who is a nothos but a more diffuse question of legitimacy.

My underlying assumption in examining these narratives of illegitimacy is that a nothos is a child whose parents were not married, or, at Athens, whose parents were not both Athenians. These criteria seem to be the definition of illegitimacy in Athens after the Periclean citizenship law of 451/0 b.c. Most of our full narratives about nothoi come from Athens, but those that come from other Greek cities also emphasize in particular the different status of the mother of the child, and this difference is often figured in her not being a “wedded wife.” In any case, this general definition of a nothos fits the portrayal in the narratives, which, as I have mentioned, usually feature multiple indications of illegitimacy.

Laws and norms about illegitimacy developed over time, of course, and a similar development can be detected in the poetics of illegitimacy. [4] The two developments are similar in the sense that both laws and poetry reflect the culture from which they spring, but the development of the poetics has many factors, and a strict correlation between the legal definition of nothoi and the poetic exploitation of the status is to be avoided. As the polis develops, its relationship to the individuals who comprise it or are subject to it in some way fluctuates as well. Poetry can reflect this ongoing negotiation in its own way, but poetry is not the only way of negotiating it. In other words, I am not using the poetry as evidence for the historical reality of nothoi or the quality of their lives. Rather, this investigation explores the representation of the nothos and the types of associations made with illegitimate status. Whatever the reality of nothoi—whether they were common or not, how they were treated by their families and their fathers in particular, etc.—nothoi seem to be “good to think with,” as evidenced by their prevalence in poetic narratives. Nothoi are good to think with because of the complexities of the status. The scholarly problems in determining just who qualified as a nothos and under what circumstances these regulations should be enforced are themselves evidence of these complexities.

Metaphors and Meaning

In this investigation of the metaphors of illegitimacy, I understand metaphor as an interaction between terms: in I. A. Richards’s famous formulation, between the tenor, the literal expression that frames the metaphor, and the vehicle, the metaphorical expression itself. [5] As an interaction, a metaphor is not simply a comparison and cannot be replaced with a literal expression; rather, it creates meaning in its context by seeing one thing in terms of the other. [6]

The very expression “seeing one thing in terms of the other” suggests the visual qualities of a metaphor. As a figure of speech, metaphor combines the verbal and the visual—it has what has been called the “picturing function of metaphorical meaning.” [7] The metaphorical expression, though expressed in words, projects one image onto the other. And, as Paul Ricoeur has said in his discussion of metaphor and imagination: “Imaging or imagining … is the concrete milieu in which and through which we see similarities. To imagine, then, is not to have a mental picture of something but to display relations in a depicting mode.” [8] That is, the imagining connected with the vehicle organizes our understanding of the tenor through the selection of and emphasis on particular qualities.

Because metaphor operates in the realm of the imagination, the qualities envisioned do not necessarily have to accord entirely with reality—yet they must be part of what Max Black has called a “system of associated commonplaces” which can be “readily and freely evoked” by members of a culture. [9] Metaphors are culturally bound, and the metaphors a culture produces and (reciprocally) understands are guided by principles embedded within that culture’s language and society. As Ricoeur provocatively suggests: “the figure of speech that we call ‘metaphor’ allows us a glance at the general procedure by which we produce concepts.” [10] The framing of an abstract notion in terms of the more imaginable quality of a metaphorical expression shapes the very conception of that notion.

Employing this approach, this study examines how metaphors (and the visual clues present in them) that are used in poetic narratives about nothoi can help us decode some of the many associations that ancient Greek culture would make with this complex status. That is, how the metaphors connected with nothoi shape the concept of illegitimacy. Again, my approach is to uncover how illegitimacy is imagined, not necessarily the historical reality of actual individuals who were living nothoi. For as Gloria Ferrari points out in her study of metaphors and riddles in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon: “Knowledge of a real object to which the image may refer is not a key that will unlock a metaphor, because images represent ideas, not things. The task requires instead access to a ‘system of associated commonplaces’ that guides the way members of a particular community thinks about that (real or imaginary) object.” [11] To fully exploit the possibilities of decoding metaphors concerning illegitimacy, I am particularly interested in elaborated narratives about nothoi.

In chapter 1, “Where the Girls Are: Parthenioi and Skotioi,” the metaphor of darkness is examined, exemplified in a word used for illegitimate children, skotios. We will see that other metaphors and imagery related to marriage inform the metaphor of ‘darkness’, such as the torch light that accompanies a wedding procession and the underground vault in which a betrothed but not yet married woman is imagined to inhabit. We will also see that the nothos is conceptually affiliated with women and imagined to be a perpetual boy.

In chapter 2, “Teucer, the Bastard Archer,” the character Teucer, illegitimate son of Telamon, is the focus, and his appearance in several narratives allows us to examine the structural importance of his illegitimate status in opposition to his legitimate brother Ajax. These narratives bring forward associations of nothoi with other secondary statuses, such as archers, slaves, and foreigners. The question of knowing one’s father is also a central one in the portrayal of Teucer.

In chapter 3, “Images of Fertility and Sterility,” I will examine narratives in which nothoi are connected with metaphors of hyperfertility, on the one hand, and sterility, on the other. The narratives of the Spartan Partheniai, in which both hyperfertility and sterility figure, lead us to consider the metaphor of a mule as a nothos. Particularly important in this image is the sterility of the mule because of its “mixed” parentage. Also in this chapter I consider how the sterility of women figures in Euripides’ Andromache and Ion. These representations of human sterility again prompt questions about women’s sexuality and the need for it to be controlled within male-controlled cultural boundaries.

In the fourth and final chapter, I turn to the nothos Hippolytos in Euripides’ drama. Euripides’ characterization of Hippolytos allows us to visit many of these metaphors again and also acquaints us with the important metaphors of monetary exchange and counterfeit coinage. The coinage metaphors are explored through the archaic poetry of Theognis, where they are used for philoi in general, and I argue that there is a civic angle to the metaphor that can be seen in Euripides’ characterization of Hippolytos.

As we have already seen in Herodotus’s story of Demaratos, the questions of legitimacy in these narratives are complicated by multiple details that point to possible illegitimacy. Many of the questions necessarily remain unanswered, even if that particular nothos gains some sort of legitimacy within the narrative, as we will see in the stories about Teucer, the Partheniai, Ion, and Hippolytos. For these narratives can provide this legitimacy without fully supplying the answers to the complex questions. This lack of resolution should again serve as a reminder that we are dealing with the metaphor world, and not the legal statutes, of illegitimacy. Yet decoding the metaphors provides answers to an important, albeit different, set of questions. What does the depiction of illegitimacy in these narratives tell us about ideologies of marriage and those of citizenship? How was the concept of illegitimacy shaped and reshaped in this poetry and in the culture that produced it? And in what way can we better understand these texts once we recognize the implications of these metaphors? The imagining of illegitimacy is an intricate web of connections that we must take apart strand by strand to approach such questions, and an examination of the mental pictures of metaphors is a first step in this process.


[ back ] 1. The billboard was posted in the Harvard MBTA station in Cambridge, MA, in April 2001. The advertisement was for CBR Laboratories in Boston, MA.

[ back ] 2. Roy 1999.5 points out that the polis relied on the oikos to demonstrate that its sons were eligible for citizenship. Part of this demonstration consists in witnessed ceremonies, beginning with the amphidromia, to create a “record” of the child’s legitimacy and eligibility for later citizenship. See Ogden 1996.88–106 for his discussion of the oikos as the “site” of legitimacy.

[ back ] 3. See Robertson 1992.147, 153–154 on this passage and the Gymnopaidiai.

[ back ] 4. Ogden 1996.32–82 traces the development of laws regarding bastardy in Athens. He also covers bastardy in Sparta and in the Hellenistic period, arguing for difference in definition from one polis to another and across time. Patterson 1990.47 uses the narratives of the Homeric poems in an attempt to understand what the definition of nothoi was in archaic and classical Greece, and particularly Athens.

[ back ] 5. I. A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric (Oxford, 1936).

[ back ] 6. See Black 1962.37–41. See also Black 1962.44 for a description of how the interaction works both ways. In his example: “If to call a man a wolf is to put him in a special light, we must not forget that the metaphor makes the wolf seem more human than he otherwise would.”

[ back ] 7. See Ricoeur 1978.144 for the “picturing function of metaphorical meaning.” Ricoeur 1978.151: Metaphorical meaning “denies the well-established distinction between sense and representation. . . . By blurring this distinction, the metaphorical meaning compels us to explore the borderline between the verbal and the non-verbal.” See also Ferrari 1997.5: “Word and image do indeed come together in the trope of metaphor, which is defined precisely by its visionary quality, its capacity to ‘put before the eyes’ the abstractions of logical discourse. . . . [M]etaphor does, indeed, entail a measure of visualization. The definition of the trope adopted here is not the classical one, but that of metaphor as ‘interaction.’ According to that definition, metaphor does not consist in exchanging one term for another, but in seeing one thing in terms of another. It is the process of drawing connections between two concepts in such a way that one (the image-laden one, the vehicle) provides a grid that organizes and guides our understanding of the other (the abstract one, the tenor).”

[ back ] 8. Ricoeur 1978.150.

[ back ] 9. Black 1962.39. Ricoeur 1978.147: “This insight into likeness [referring to Aristotle’s theorein t o o moion] is both a thinking and a seeing.” See also Ferrari 1997.5: “while the figures of its metaphors reveal the principles that hold a society together, they are no more immediately accessible to the outsider than its language, because, like language, they are cultural constructs. The dense metaphors of poetry, in particular, remain impenetrable unless the reader is equipped with the correct mental image. The recovery of that figure is essentially an exercise in code-breaking.”

[ back ] 10. Ricoeur 1978.149.

[ back ] 11. Ferrari 1997.5. The metaphor from the billboard with which we started is a good example of how a system of associated commonplaces works. The actual legal standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Yet the phrase “beyond the shadow of a doubt” is still commonly associated with the American legal system.