Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.04.07


Page duBois, Centaurs and Amazons: Women and the Pre-History of the Great Chain of Being. Women and Culture Series. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1982; paperback re-issue 1991. Pp. ix, 161. ISBN 0-472-08153-5. $14.95 (pb).


Reviewed by Ronnie Ancona, Hunter College.

The book's title, Centaurs and Amazons: Women and the Pre-History of the Great Chain of Being, while attention-getting, does not do justice to the book's scope, especially when shortened to Centaurs and Amazons. One might easily expect a book just about Amazons and Centaurs, rather than a wide-ranging exploration of modes of discourse throughout a culture.

In this book, which examines the dominant modes of discourse in fifth and fourth century B.C. Greece, the argument is put forth that a shift or "rupture" takes place from the fifth to the fourth centuries which is characterized by a change in modes of speculation from one based on polarity and analogy to one based on hierarchy and logic. The author's interest lies not only in elucidating shifting modes of thinking among the Greeks but also in explaining the background to the development of the hierarchical thinking of Plato and Aristotle which has been so influential in the continuing history of Western thought: "This question is important in part because of the influence of Greek philosophy on all subsequent Western philosophy. Hierarchical ideas of difference formulated by Plato and Aristotle continue to define relations of dominance and submission in Western culture and in philosophical discourse today" (p. 9). Taking the key terms "polarity" and "analogy" from G.E.R. Lloyd's Polarity and Analogy, Two Types of Argumentation in Early Greek Thought (Cambridge, 1966), and utilizing the notion of "the great chain of being" (discussed by, among others, A.O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, A Study of the History of an Idea [Cambridge, Mass. 1936]), duBois argues that with respect to issues of difference -- specifically, difference of sex, race, and species -- the Greek mode of thought changed from one based on a notion of exclusion (e.g., male is the polar opposite of female, i.e., male is not female) to one based on a notion of hierarchy or the great chain (e.g., male is superior to, better than woman). The three areas of difference discussed are male/female, Greek/barbarian, human/animal.

DuBois' interest in and focus on difference is clearly part of the contemporary project within feminist scholarship to explore gender difference. Indeed duBois acknowledges her interest in including feminist scholars outside of the field of classics among her readers (p. viii). In addition, the hierarchical thinking she associates with Plato and Aristotle has obvious implications for current ways of viewing women and men. Yet duBois does not use this feminist impulse to see gender as an isolated issue, but rather to see notions about sexual difference as related to notions of other kinds of difference, namely, those of species and race.

The book is organized into six chapters plus introduction and conclusion. Chapter One (Centaurs and Amazons) examines in detail the myths of these creatures who are used as emblematic of the kinds of difference to be addressed throughout the book. They are viewed as liminal figures which allowed the Greeks to explore the boundaries of difference seen in the polarities of male/female, human/beast, Greek/barbarian. Each half of the polarity is defined against its opposite, and through analogy the terms on one side of the polarity become identified with each other. In their hostility to marriage, for example, Centaurs and Amazons exhibited bestial, uncivilized, and distorted male/female characteristics. This allowed the Greeks to explore the importance of marriage to the foundation of their own culture. Chapter Two (Centauromachy / Amazonomachy) focuses on how these liminal creatures are represented in fifth century art. Among the examples of monumental art discussed are the Athenian treasury at Delphi, the Parthenon, and the temple of Apollo at Bassae. These three monuments show, in turn, a development from the appropriation of the myth of the Amazons for Athens' definition of itself (Athenian treasury), to exploitation of the analogy of Centaur, Amazon, and barbarian to represent Athens' victory over the Persians (Parthenon), to the entrance into sacred space, and hence into the city, of the violence of the Centaurs and Amazons (temple of Apollo). Chapter Three (Greeks and Barbarians) is a discussion of the Greek/barbarian polarity in Aeschylus' Persae. The play is seen as part of the Athenian process of self-definition, a defining of self through a defining of its opposite. Chapter Four (Humans and Animals) explores Deianeira in Sophocles' Trachiniae as both passive innocent touched by the beast from without (a Centaur) and, through her analogy with the enemies of Herakles (Centaur, Amazon, and Hydra), as destructive actor from within. Chapter Five (Men and Women) connects the breakdown of the notion of enemy as "other," experienced during the Peloponnesian War, in which Greek fought Greek, with Euripides' contemporary treatment of Medea as embodiment of the collapse in the polarities of difference, of male/female, Greek/barbarian, and beast/animal -- a "marginalized marked figure who is nonetheless the center of the tragic drama" (p.118). Chapter Six (Hierarchy) discusses the shift to hierarchical thinking as seen in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. The model of polarity and exclusion used to define male, Greek, human, is supplanted by a hierarchical model based on subordination and domination, the "great chain of being". DuBois sees this shift from analogical thinking to hierarchical thinking not merely as part of a changing history of ideas, but rather as a development that has its roots in specific cultural changes within the Greek world.

Centaurs and Amazons is a wide-ranging book which seeks to define and explain a basic shift from the fifth century to the fourth in how the Greeks viewed themselves and the world. Its great virtue lies in its bringing together of material in various fields, e.g., literature, philosophy, art, and history in order to characterize basic ways of thinking in a culture. While specialists in these fields may take issue with specifics of interpretation or with occasional generalizations of too broad a nature, the book succeeds admirably in identifying and elucidating significant patterns of thought among the Greeks.