Comparative Anthropology of Ancient Greece

  Detienne, Marcel. 2009. Comparative Anthropology of Ancient Greece. Hellenic Studies Series 17. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Chapter 1. The Art of Founding Autochthony: Thebes, Athens, and Old-Stock French [*]

Yes, there is an art in founding what some call their roots and others autochthony. I have chosen this approach, valid both for the present and the past, for two reasons. These have to do with two complementary lines of inquiry, two systems of collective thought which concern both historians and anthropologists, including those who are at present studying contemporary phenomena in societies far distant from one another.

The first line of inquiry, which began about fifteen years ago, was directed at the ways of creating a territory, and aimed at answering the question, apparently so simple: what is it to found? Rather than trying to make a typology of founding or to draw up a morphology of founding, it has seemed to me more interesting first to ask the question, what do we invest in the art of founding which seems to be at the heart of establishing territory? Very likely this would involve the uniqueness of a specific space identified by a name, with individual features and boundaries assigned within a larger space. To which must be added a beginning in time, in history, in chronology, with something like an initial event that is separate, recognized, extraordinary, even solemn. Founding seems to require a significant start, ready to become part of the flow of historic process. Finally, in thinking of founding, we are alluding to an act, a group of gestures, a ritual or a ceremony inseparable from an individual who is at the origin of the ties with, the rootedness in, this place that is considered unique. This first collective line of inquiry inspired me to look into the roads taken by Apollo and to follow this founding god who wanders, knife in hand, among the first Greek cities established after the sanctuary at Delphi. [1] To think comparatively is, quite simply, to engage in a conceptual analysis of what it means “to establish territory in terms of founding by doing the {3|4} rounds,” with these questions in mind and in the company of a number of friendly informants from societies which are more or less in the process of establishing their territory. [2] Some of these will be doing so by means of hard-core founding, others by purely and simply setting up a viable economy. The most disparate societies are also those that inquirers find the most stimulating—given their “incomparability.”

The second and most recent line of inquiry has its point of departure in a question similar to the first: how does one become autochthonous? That is a question that should bewilder the brains of all old-stock Athenians, Serbs, or French. Indeed, how can one be rooted? a nomad wondered on the evening after a long day’s march. This is a good opportunity to suggest that autochthony, as it was understood by Herodotus, Plato, or Euripides, and yes, the autochthony of yesterday and today, is being continuously established and reestablished. Historians and mythologists never stop laboring to increase its importance. Especially in those cases where autochthony declares itself to be pure and claims to be born of itself and itself alone, it admits that it needs what gives it foundation, roots, quite as much as it needs what goes into building it up. How does one become autochthonous? How can one call oneself old stock? By taking a special look at the comings and goings between Athens and Thebes, it is possible to reflect on the strong ties made by nationalist tribes between the cult of roots and a religion of the dead, between heritage and heredity. To a French ear, The Earth and the Dead reverberates far back into the past, while the German version Blut und Boden still freezes the blood of those born a little before the author of Mein Kampf executed his mad plans for conquest and destruction. [3] Like many others I was delighted when Germany renounced that right of birth which made homo germanicus so detested. Is the phrase The Earth and the Dead so redolent of Maurice Barrès that it is no longer in current use? For at least the last two hundred years Europe, old and new, has once again been inhabited by the dreams of nations whose history, it appears, is unique, cannot be compared. There is France, with its powerful extreme Right always ready to join forces around its old-stock Frenchman. [4] In the former Yugoslavia, we saw pictures on our television screens every evening of Serbs intoxicated by the idea of a Greater Serbia, declaring loud and clear as they set out (it was in the summer of 1999) that they would return to Kosovo, to the land consecrated by the blood of their ancestors—the blood spilled six centuries earlier in a battle lost to the {4|5} Turks. Next door is Hungary with its post-Soviet rituals of reburial, [5] Romania with its cult of the earth hallowed with its children, not to mention Holy Russia, or the modern state of Israel discovering the symbolic power of tombs which establish the rootedness of its people, those tombs of the patriarchs found on the West Bank and which, very opportunely or very unfortunately according to your point of view, give a rootedness to Palestinian autochthony.

A sketch may be drawn with three strokes: (1) We are the autochthons, born of that very earth we have inhabited since the beginning of time. We are the genuine autochthons, born of an earth whose inhabitants have been the same from their origins, without any break. It is a land which our ancestors have passed on to us; heritage, heredity, the past, in a direct line. (2) The Others: all other cities are made up of immigrants, foreigners, people from elsewhere, and their descendants are the metoikoi ‘the aliens,’ in the Athenian sense of the word, which is not quite the same as ours but which is just as derogatory. So, outside Athens, it is clear: there are composite cities, towns with a mishmash of every origin. Only the Athenians are pure autochthons, pure in the sense that their blood has not been mixed with or contaminated by foreign blood. [10] These are phrases that resound in the Menexenus, which, although a pastiche of funeral orations, is a truer one than all the speeches made before or after Plato. Our city feels pure unadulterated hate for the tribe of foreigners, declares the ringing voice of Aspasia-Socrates, invited to make the funeral oration that year. [11] (3) The place of the dead given back to the earth: our ancestors, inhabiting from time immemorial their mother-fatherland, were nourished by the Earth. So they have made it possible for their sons, once they have died, to repose in the familiar places of Her who brought them into the world and gave them suck. For, let us note in passing, the female body is given a place of honor, what with Mother Earth, Earth as Matrix, the mother who bore Ericthonius, the first Athenian autochthon, and opposite her, Athena, the woman of power, the trenchant goddess, hard as a lance.

In mythology, as elsewhere, every detail is important. For example, what if we want to understand how a specific configuration of autochthony has been constructed when its foundation element has been discreetly erased by the moderns, as in certain versions by the ancients? Let us return to the Bibliotheca said to be by Apollodorus. [12] It begins by recalling that the gods, one fine day, discover that men have invented the city, and even a number of cities. So the cities are there; the gods neither plan towns nor found cities for mortals. At a later date, the gods decide to take possession of the political establishments {6|7} on Greek soil so that each may receive a share of selected honors. It is at this time that the immortals become poliades, that is to say, principal divinities of a territory or a city, a polis. This results in challenges, exchanges, compromises. And in Attica, or rather, “Cecropia”(?), there it is, reigning over a few natives, the first living being to be called autochthonous and whose name is Cecrops, a hybrid figure, half snake, half human. Then along comes a god, the first to want sovereignty over the land and city of Cecrops: Poseidon. He very properly carries a trident, plants it in the middle of the Acropolis, and out gushes a little sea that the local people today call Erectheis. Mythology says so, and so, one suspects, do others. After Poseidon comes Athena. She begins by asking Cecrops to serve as a witness, then causes an olive tree to sprout and grow, the tree that can still be seen today in the place called Pandroseion. Which of the two candidates will be victorious over the other? Zeus, the king of the gods, appoints a jury, made up of gods, the Twelve. Elsewhere, as at Argos, the members will be autochthons. After they have deliberated, Cecropia is given to Athena. The reason: Cecrops testified that Athena was first and planted the olive tree. No argument. Still, Poseidon too made a gift to Cecropia; the little sea, that symbol of maritime wealth and power. The sea god feels that he has been duped. Should he get Cecrops to witness that he was the first to demonstrate his power? Athena, arriving after Poseidon, seems to act as part of a jury about to render its verdict. Poseidon is vastly irritated. Salt water inundates the land of Cecrops that will soon become the city of Athens.

It is murmured that Poseidon has once more been evicted. But history does not stop there. It continues under the reign of Erechtheus. Euripides takes this as the plot of his play called Erechtheus. [13] Poseidon returns for round two, by way of Eleusis, where his son Eumolpos, the Tuneful Singer, is king. War breaks out between the Athenians of Erechtheus and the Thracians associated with Eumolpos and Poseidon—a real war between Athena’s clan and Poseidon’s. The city of Athens is in great danger. An oracle, coming posthaste from Delphi, announces that the blood of Erechtheus must run so that Athens can be saved. One of the daughters of the royal autochthon must have her throat cut, either on the altar of Persephone or else in honor of the Earth, of Gaia who thirsts for the blood of her children. It is Praxithea, the strong woman of Athens who will force her husband, Erechtheus, to spill the pure, necessary blood. Soon Praxithea will be consecrated Athena’s priestess for life. Previously, it seems, Poseidon, furious at having witnessed the death of his son Eumolpos, had precipitated himself on Erechtheus and had buried him {7|8} in a deep, open crevice in the center of the Acropolis, at the exact spot where between 421 and 420 BCE the Erechtheum will be raised. The very place, too, where Poseidon, arriving first, caused the little sea to spurt up. The legitimate autochthon then reigning over Athens is thus violently entombed in the earth from which, according to tradition, he was born. The temple-sanctuary called the Erechtheum thenceforth belongs to the god who had laid a prior claim to Attica. Poseidon is worshipped there under the name of Poseidon-Erechtheus, the murderer bearing the name of his victim.

And now, the god who had offered the sea to the native sons of Attica is coupled with Athena at the summit of the Acropolis. One family (genos), called the Eteoboutades, will inherit and share among themselves all the priestly functions for Poseidon-Erechtheus and Athena Polias. Erechtheus, already evoked in the Iliad as born of the earth, receives his offerings and sacrificial victims on the altar of Poseidon, who thus offers his hospitality to Athena’s protégé. In an Athens exalted by the idea of its pure autochthony, it is noteworthy that the dead, those who died in the war, do not make for the kinds of good ancestors or illustrious predecessors that Barrès’s nation demands. When all is said and done, the only illustrious dead man in this mythology written between 450 and 340 BCE is Erechtheus, shoved into his native soil by the power of Poseidon, the god of bedrock and unshakable foundations, at least when Athena’s accomplice is not in a seismic humor. At the heart of the Erechtheum, Erechtheus the Firstborn signifies the rooting of the Athenians, whose autochthony is thus solidly planted. So autochthony, we see, can be founded. Without the help of Poseidon there is no truly rooted Athenian.

We should not, then, let ourselves be hoodwinked by the Athenians in that short time between the first funeral orations and the last. These speeches pass over in silence not only the founding role of Poseidon but also the series of political foundations in Athens; from Solon, so careful to make sure the laws, the thesmoi of communal life, would last, right up to Cleisthenes, who refounded the political field, fashioning it on the colonial model familiar to so many Greek cities. The navel-gazing of the Athenians seems to have fascinated the moderns to such an extent that most of them have not understood that foundation and autochthony have to be looked at together. Without a doubt, a comparative inquiry conducted together by historians and anthropologists on the question of creating a territory would allow us to put into more direct perspective (on one hand) the modalities of founding, beginning, creating, and (on the other) ways of being born of the earth, of growing in a furrow, or, as in certain Amerindian societies, of having the earth cling to the {8|9} soles of one’s feet in a territory that has no name, no distinguishing marks, no tombs, and no fixed sites.

Nothing is commoner in Greece or elsewhere than to proclaim oneself an autochthon. Every village has its first man; some, like the Arcadians, know with certainty that the first living being made his appearance even before the moon appeared in a sky dominated by the sun alone. In remote antiquity, Thebes, as famous as Troy, was alive with stories about its foundations—which also constitute its autochthony. [14] Being born of the earth and founding are, in effect, closely associated in the city of Cadmus, which is also one of those shared by two great gods, Apollo and Dionysus. Cadmus, the founder, sets out from Delphi. The Apollonian oracle enjoins him to follow an animal, future victim for the first sacrifice: its throat will be cut on the spot where it collapses exhausted on a site chosen by Apollo. Before the blood, which will soon flow, there is water. The search for the water necessary for the sacrifice sets in motion the process of founding. In the case of the future Thebes, the site is strongly marked by one already there. Apollo knows this not only through his omniscience but also by intentionality. First there is Ares, god of violence in warfare, the purphoros ready to burn Oedipus and his sons. Ares has copulated with a haughty Fury called Tilphousa, a power of resentment and vengeance, born of the Earth, of Gaia, when she received from emasculated Uranus the drops of blood from which also sprang the Giants and the Furies. The epichoric water is lodged in the deadly folds of the serpent born of Ares and Tilphousa. Murders and defilements are present at the origin of Thebes, for Ares’ dragon kills the men who are searching for water. He in turn is killed by Cadmus, the first defilement marking Cadmus the founder. His exile will do nothing to purify him. The earth is ready for the second act: the dragon’s teeth sown, on Ares’ advice, in the furrows of Gaia, will cause to spring up from the earth new giants, men fully armed. The sown men, the Spartoi, wait only for a signal, rashly given by Cadmus, to kill and cut one another to bits. Where do we find autochthony in this? Ares, the already-there, bears the title of Palaichthôn, the ‘one born of the soil,’ the rooted. As for the Spartoi, the sown of Thebes, they are said to be born of the earth. Their blood, already impure, waters the furrows. So Gaia receives the blood of the firstborn sown at the same time as she drinks the red libation of the first victim sacrificed in the Apollonian manner of the god Archegetes-Founder. The god of Delphi is never absent from the history of Thebes. It is he who finishes off the story of Oedipus, crime upon crime; it is he who is waiting, watching at his gate, the {9|10} seventh, when the two brothers born of the incest of son and mother murder one another.

So, what kind of city can come into being because of leftovers, those five men who survive the bloodbath which inaugurates the city of Cadmus? It will have to be a city that can never pride itself on its origins as does Athens, a city tragically torn between founding and autochthony. This is what is shown in Oedipus Rex, the end of the Bacchae, and also the Phoenician Women. In this last tragedy, saving Thebes requires that the blood of an autochthon should be spilled. Ares thirsts for blood, again and again, never-endingly. The god of Delphi and Thebes, Apollo, lets it be known that the god of war and original defilement demands as victim a pure-blood descendant of the race of the Spartoi on both his mother’s side and through the male line. Menoeceus, the chosen one, is to kill himself, cut his throat, and spill his blood near the gates of Thebes so the city may then be solidly rooted. This picks up the theme of the gates or fortifications of Athens, which required, in the reign of Erechtheus, autochthonous blood, whether that of Agraulos or another woman born of the very earth of the Firstborn.

One is not old-stock French as one is an autochthonous Theban or Athenian. There are ten or twenty ways of founding one’s autochthony. Just let the circle of inquiry be widened to include historians and anthropologists. But, one might ask, what is the use of comparing cultural experiences dispersed through time and space? I would reply without hesitation: in analyzing some experiences in the light of others, we provide ourselves with the means of better understanding those murderous throbbings of identity which pulse in the human societies of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. {10|}


[ back ] *. This chapter is a revision of an article published in Arion 9.1 (Spring/Summer 2001) 46-55.

[ back ] 1. Cf. Detienne 1998a.

[ back ] 2. One of the last: Liberski-Bagnoud 2002.

[ back ] 3. Barrès 1899; Glaser 1978:151-161; Linke 1999.

[ back ] 4. Cf. Robichez 1997, with several quotations from Braudel 1986. More in Detienne 2003a:121–149.

[ back ] 5. Losonczy and Zempleni 1991.

[ back ] 6. Cf. Robichez 1997.

[ back ] 7. Cf. Nora 1997.

[ back ] 8. Quotation from Furet 1982:119–120.

[ back ] 9. Cf. Loraux 1981.

[ back ] 10. Cf. Detienne 2003a:19-59 (“Une authochtonie d’immaculée conception, nos Athéniens”).

[ back ] 11. Menexenus 237d–238a.

[ back ] 12. Bibliotheca III 14.2.

[ back ] 13. Euripides Fragments (Jouan and Van Looy 2000), Erecthée fr. 13–14.

[ back ] 14. Cf. Detienne 2000a:61-120 (“Naître impur à Thèbes”).

[ back ] 15. Jameson, Jordan, and Kotansky 1993, and comments in Georgoudi 2001.