Comparative Anthropology of Ancient Greece

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

Chapter 2. Being Born Impure in the City of Cadmus and Oedipus [*]

Human vanity is a limitlessly entertaining subject, and if I have chosen to ask myself, “how can one be autochthonous?” it is because the pride of being rooted or of believing oneself to be of cleansed blood is a sickness as laughable as chicken pox. Its consequences, however, can be the death of thousands, or millions, of innocent people. In my opinion, it is not a futile exercise to put groups of natives, proud of their roots, in perspective—yes, by comparing them with each other. For example, I find interesting the idea of comparing the invention of autochthony in Athens, which took place around 450 CE, and that of old-stock French from Maurice Barrès to the Far Right of the 1980s and into the present. Two myth-ideologies, one of which valorizes being born in an exceptional land, thus guaranteeing purity and authorizing the disdain of all immigrants, while the other places importance in tracing one’s roots and one’s dead all the way back to the prehistoric period. Athenian vanity is founded on the repetitive discourse of funeral orations, while the pride of the old-stock French feeds on the continuity of the history of France and of stories about France produced by historians.

This is off the subject, but when I look at the traditions of Thebes, the city of Cadmus, I cannot help thinking of about Greater Serbia and the pure-blooded Serbs, purifying Kosovo of its impure Albanians. Thebes–Athens: I do not intend to play with the anti– (Thebes, anti-Athens, or reciprocally). I would rather come back to the contrast between being autochthonous and to found, implant, establish. Common sense—and it awakens us every morning—seems to make a strong distinction between being born, growing up, sprouting up out of one’s soil and one’s land, always the same, on the one hand, and, on the other, coming from the exterior, arriving from abroad, to create a village, a town, or a city. Between the eighth and the fourth centuries BCE, the Greeks founded in this manner tens, maybe hundreds, of cities in Magna Graecia, in Sicily, and on the banks of the Black Sea. In the eyes of the pure autochthons from Athens, those who emerge in the middle of the fifth century and who, fortunately, are sneered at by Euripides and a few others, all of the cities of Greece, including the Arcadians or the Argives, are made up of immigrants, people who have come from who knows where and who cannot claim to be autochthons like the children of Athena, and I might add, of Poseidon. Indeed, one has only to go back to the mythological history of Athens, following Euripides’ account in his Erechtheus, in order to discover that autochthony must be founded—yes, dear Athenians, it has to be rooted, much the way Poseidon does when he pushes Erechtheus, the Born of the Land, straight into the rock of the Acropolis, under the Erechtheum, right where Poseidon-Erechtheus received official worship next to Athena Polias. Autochthony and foundation are combined in Athens. In Thebes, the two methods intertwine differently and in a way that puts blood in the foreground, blood shed and to be shed. If we lend importance to {12|13} the past, at Athens it appears to be in short supply. Thucydides is harsh when he evokes the olden days of Attica: [3] stones without a past, a land good for fugitives and exiles; and, as a matter of fact, Solon naturalized anything that passed within proximity. [4] All the while, Thebes, as early as the eighth century, received its noble pedigree from a vast epic, the Thebaid, that tells of the great deeds of the City of Seven Gates brought up in the Odyssey. Thebes is the only Greek city that can rival Troy, the well founded, the city of impregnable walls. In recent years, archeologists have found the correspondence of Cadmus or, at least, the Mycenaean archives of his palace. There is even evidence of a lyre player, a lurastês, undoubtedly a storyteller like Demodocus or Homer, in the service of the Theban Alcinous. [5]

Born in Delos, Apollo then leaves to firmly establish in Delphi the sanctuary from which any and all foundations will henceforth be instituted. Apollo is a walking god. He crosses a good part of Greece. And he begins to act quite {13|14} strangely as he nears Thebes. First, Thebes goes unmentioned in the version of the Homeric Hymn. A huge untamed forest is raised in its spot. The city will rise up, but later, after Delphi; and Apollo continues on his way. [8] Another vision is found in the Hymn to Delos by Callimachus, poet of the Alexandrian library. His Apollo, only seven months along, travels in the womb of Leto, his fleeing mother. The anger of Hera, the legitimate wife, forces them to flee forever further away in the night. As they near the city of Cadmus, Apollo starts to move, he vituperates and threatens Thebes—the Thebes that is to come. Apollo insults her. He is telling Thebes to run, to run from the inescapable arrows. What is this all about? Apollo of only seven months already sees his bow drenched in blood, the blood shed by a mother with an impudent tongue. This primordial mother is, assuredly, Niobe, another autochthonous woman in the landscape of Thebes; Niobe, proud, too proud of having given birth to six sons and six daughters, and who commiserates with Leto and her twins: two children? Is that all? Apollo declares loudly in the night that he does not want to be born in Thebes. He makes it very clear: “Pure (euagês), I only want to be in the hearts of those who are pure, (euagês).” [9] Strange, as if even before the arrival of Cadmus and his foundation for autochthons, there is contamination in the air, a stain that is “already there”!

Here is the site chosen by Apollo of Delphi for Cadmus who is wondering what has happened to his sister Europa. Apollo knows what will happen in the future Thebes; he knows its past, its present, and its future. Apollo is there to take care of Cadmus’ city and his progeny—the rest, in short. The water of the fountain is clear. One needs only to draw it from the coils of a serpent, a serpent all the less likable for being born from the love of Ares and Erinys. Seeing that two, and then four, of his companions fail to return, Cadmus becomes angry. He slits the throat of the dragon at the fountain without suspecting that here, at the site of the future city, he is shedding the blood of the son of Ares and Erinys, two powers heavy with resentment and experts in indelible stains. Ares will never cease to recall this first bloodshed, to each generation and through the children, from the sons of Cadmus to Oedipus and to Menoeceus, Creon’s son.

The second act can begin with Earth (Gaia) a polymorphous power in the pantheon of Thebes. In the meantime, Cadmus, back with the lustral water, sacrifices the guide animal, undoubtedly invoking, like all founders, Apollo Arkhêgetês, the god who accompanied him to found the promised city. The warrior dragon had a beautiful set of teeth. On Ares’ advice, Cadmus sets about sowing them. They hardly touch the furrows in the ground before a terrible crop of men at arms sprouts up, cousins of the Giants and, like them, devoted to unlimited war. Having barely brushed off the soil, the Sown, {15|16} who are the Spartoi in Greek, throw themselves at each others’ throats. A horrible massacre ensues. The only survivors are five Spartoi, Cadmus’ first companions, who will be consecrated citizens of Thebes. [15] Let us stop here for an instant. If the founder sent by Apollo to a more or less untamed land is of an easily recognized type, what characterizes autochthony on Theban ground? First, there is what is signified by Ares, called Palaichthon, the Quite-Anciently-of-the-Earth, the Earth where the Erinys sprouts up from a drop of Uranian blood. [16] The Erinys Tilphousa is even more local in provenance than her lover. Next, there are the true natives, the Sown, authentically born of the land. Their blood, impure from the beginning, waters the furrows of Gaia who, on this day of foundation mixed with autochthony, drinks joyfully of the red juice from the first fruits of the city of Cadmus’ Firstborn.

To be born impure: we quickly see what this signifies in the city of Laius and Oedipus. The children born of the land of Cadmus kill each other, in murder after murder for generations, a stain that is unendingly revived. Who leads the game being played in Thebes? Who has been conducting it since the appearance of Cadmus? A great god, alone, even if his accomplices are present: he whom one of his most famous victims will designate by screaming, “It’s he, it is he who did it.” [17] The tragedies made of Theban matter constantly bring to mind the powerfully maleficent role played by the Master of Delphi. [18] Some evidence, in the form of texts: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. The text by Aeschylus has been lost, unless some undergraduate copied it and his master threw it away in a garbage can of Fayum. At the opening of the Sophoclean tragedy there is a plague (loimos) that strikes the earth and the women with sterility. It is a consuming fire, it is even a god called Fire Bearer (Purphoros). [19] The chorus will soon say: “It’s Ares!” [20] What can be done? Invoke Apollo. Is he not the god of medicine, Apollo Iatros, the god of Thebes, the one who knows so well how to get rid of plagues? [21] Very quickly, in the same chorus, the anxiety peaks, the type of anxiety that is caused by the appearance of a plague, a sickness of the earth and of an entire city (a loimos, a nosos). Is there some debt (chreos) to be paid? An old debt? [22] Apollo’s blind {16|17} prophet, Teiresias, comes onstage. Upset by Oedipus—Freud would say that this Oedipus character has problems—he throws out the truth like a thunderbolt, the truth that no one can bear: the impurity that you are looking for, the stain that you have cursed, it is you, Oedipus, and Apollo is here, he is ready to carry out what must be done (ekpraksai, he is in full praxis). [23]

Is this enough for Cadmus’ Thebes? Everything must continue. Oedipus is not, he cannot be, the so-called scapegoat, a pharmakos—ambiguous of course, but whose limits Apollo knows better than anybody: he, the official god of the Thargelia, the feast with pharmakoi. [26] Ares, the god of Thebes who is so close to him, is already coming back onstage. This time, it is in the Phoenician Women. (Euripides is a great mythologist.) At the opening, there is “Ares’ resentment” (palaia mênimata), explicit, displayed. Cadmus killed one of his sons, the bloodthirsty and murderous serpent. Cadmus shed Ares’ blood, and old murders awaken new murders. Polynices believes that he is invoking the Apollo of his house, the god of roads, Apollo Aguieus—like Jocasta on the morning of the day that everything is going to change—and it is the Apollo of the Labdacids that responds, the one who, by means of Teiresias’ oracles and exhaustion, demands from Thebes, supposedly in order to save her, that the blood of a child born from the mouth of the dragon be shed. They must give to the earth the red life of a pure descendant of the Spartoi: through the mother as well as through the {17|18} males. He is there; it is the son of Creon, slitting his own throat in libation to the forever-thirsty earth of Thebes. Teiresias says it again so as to be clearly understood: it is the consequence of the old resentments conceived by Ares against Cadmus. There is no salvation for Thebes. Menoeceus’ blood has barely emptied itself into the earth when the sons of Oedipus, still in the Phoenician Women, kill each other, when Jocasta puts an end to her deplorable days, and when Oedipus, more and more stained, goes off toward other adventures. [27]

Pure, impure, the contexts are numerous, and at different times in the history of a single culture, several types of pollution must be hypothesized. I am aiming specifically at the complexity of the configurations that link the impure to the pure. My goal is not to do comparative studies in a field that certainly has a need for it. I merely need to make a rapid incursion into societies of western Africa, thanks to the complicity of ethnologists who have helped me to clear what they call the “fields of stain.” [29] On the Ivory Coast, among the Senoufo, there seems to be a strong tie between a type of stain and a social space. This tie is established by a power, sometimes anonymous, that sanctions the stain that occurs within its jurisdiction. What stain? There is murder, but also the stain of sex, that designates a social space at the limits of which its effects spread and make themselves felt. All those who belong to this social space are thus affected, contaminated by the effects of the stain of one individual. More specifically, what is this social space? It can be that of an altar, said to be an altar of the earth, all of whose members are affected. A stain, in this case, indicates that a segment of space is suddenly polluted. Let us go more quickly: a field of stain seems to be thought of like a body, a body- {18|19} space. It is a full and closed body that the murder (or the stain of sex) comes to injure in the form of a first cut. How does the ritual of purification proceed? Pure-impure make a pair, I insist. The ritual, the object of our reflection in the context of the Senoufo, does not aim to purify the agent of the stain, but to redefine the limits of the social space that has been affected, wounded. The procedure set in motion seeks to encase the stain, to encyst it in the interior of the wounded social space. Very specifically, to set the stain on an altar made for this purpose: a so-called altar of murder, for example, with murderers gathered in a fraternity to serve it. In a context that we would call Greek, in general, the murderer and his stain must be expulsed, chased out. The African example that I chose for its dissonant character leads us to valorize the stain, in particular that of murder. There are societies like that: masculine initiation includes murder. So be it. It is a choice, an orientation. In other societies, the stain does not affect a territory or a body-space: it touches people and statutes exclusively. In Vedic India, according to interpreters like Charles Malamoud, to get rid of a stain that affects a person or a statute, it is placed in the earth. The earth is a garbage can. My, how bizarre these people are!

Here I will limit myself to just a few observations: there are social spaces where the stain is transmissible. (I keep the stain of spilled blood, leaving aside that of sex: incest of the second degree does not stain—and, for a certain Oedipus, this could be of interest.) Infection, contagion, contamination—there are implicit models, explicit theories, that one can expect to find in certain Greek cities where doctors mull over what we call epidemics, whereas rituals and purifiers are charged with the treatment of different types of stains.

Take the question of space, social places, affected by the impure, the major stain, that of spilled blood. We know some of them quite well: the basins of lustral water and the entrances to public or consecrated places (agoras, meeting places, sanctuaries), banquet-room kraters. All altars and sanctuaries. These are the living parts of the urban social body; this is where the stain {19|20} infects the worst and the most quickly the entirety of the social body. So the murderer is prohibited from entering, is excluded from these social places, and is thus already in exile. And he will be totally exiled if he is found guilty. Very early on, Greek cities invented tribunals, and first for spilled blood. In cases of homicide, yes, not incest, it must be repeated.

It is in this context of stain transmitted through time, of ancestral and very ancient impurity, that we can try to understand what it means to “be born impure in Thebes.” In Thebes, insofar as it is the city of Cadmus and Oedipus.

So, one last step remains: how can one be Theban? Son of a city that is rich in feats of war, those of the Aegeids who will be the masters of war for the Spartans; those of the victorious phalanxes of Epaminondas; and those of so many victors of the Isthmian, Pythian, and other games? Or perhaps Theban in the manner of Pindar who celebrates Dionysus, Heracles, Apollo, the warrior saints of the city of Cadmus; and who chooses to throw a cloak over all of the spilled blood, to forget … the unforgettable, the stain that goes so far back in time and that, as Laius’ son says over and over, was orchestrated by Apollo. Unless the god of Delphi was himself lured into doing what he did, without wanting to and without knowing it. Should Leto’s embryo plead guilty or not guilty? For the time being, we have a god who is intimately mixed up with the question of evil. He is not the only one, we must remember. It is a good question for those who like to contemplate the notions of blood and autochthony—cleansed blood, pure and impure blood, the Land, the Dead, and the Ancestors, of so many different colors. {21|}


[ back ] *. This chapter is a revision of an article published in Arion 10.3 (Winter 2003) 35-47.

[ back ] 1. Cf. Devyver 1973.

[ back ] 2. Cf. Attias and Benbassa 2001.

[ back ] 3. Thucydides 1.2.5–6.

[ back ] 4. Cf. Ruzé 2000.

[ back ] 5. Bernardini 2000.

[ back ] 6. Vian 1963.

[ back ] 7. Detienne 1998a:186–194.

[ back ] 8. Ibid., 22–23.

[ back ] 9. Callimachus Hymn to Delos 86–98 Gigante.

[ back ] 10. Detienne 1998a:175–234.

[ back ] 11. Vian 1963:76–113.

[ back ] 12. Detienne 2003a:80.

[ back ] 13. Vian 1963:107–108.

[ back ] 14. Hesiod Theogony 173–187. Cf. Detienne 1998a:163–167.

[ back ] 15. Vian 1963:106–113.

[ back ] 16. Aeschylus Seven Against Thebes 104. Cf. Vian 1963:108.

[ back ] 17. Sophocles Oedipus Rex 377.

[ back ] 18. Detienne 2003a:84–87.

[ back ] 19. Oedipus Rex 27–28.

[ back ] 20. Oedipus Rex 190–192.

[ back ] 21. Detienne 1998a:208, 330, 344.

[ back ] 22. Oedipus Rex 155–157.

[ back ] 23. Oedipus Rex 350–353, 377.

[ back ] 24. Oedipus Rex 469–472.

[ back ] 25. Oedipus Rex 1327–1330.

[ back ] 26. Detienne 2003a:88–90.

[ back ] 27. Ibid., 92–97.

[ back ] 28. Euripides Phoenician Women 821.

[ back ] 29. Detienne 2003a:97–100; also Cartry and Detienne 1996.

[ back ] 30. Detienne 2003a:100–102.

[ back ] 31. Ibid., 102–104.

[ back ] 32. Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus 964–965, 966–968.

[ back ] 33. See Jameson, Jordan, and Kotansky 1993.