Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.12.22

Ruth Padel, Whom Gods Destroy: Elements of Greek and Tragic Madness. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. Pp. xviii + 276. $29.95. ISBN 0-691-03360-9.

Reviewed by Michael R. Halleran, University of Washington (

Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream" has come to represent, as well as anything else, the disintegration and alienation of the modern self. The tortured and ghost-like individual, raised hands accentuating the outline of a misshapen head, cries out, while the disturbed background of color and movement offers an outward representation of the pained inner state. This familiar and haunting picture adorns the cover of Ruth Padel's Whom Gods Destroy. The title, of course, is allusive: "Whom gods destroy they first make mad" (Quem deus vult perdere, dementat prius). A Latin phrase, but it reflects (and perhaps even translates) a familiar Greek notion -- gods bring about a person's destruction by instilling madness. The dust jacket's juxtaposition of modern and ancient well suits the book's exploration of Greek concepts of madness and (to a lesser degree) their modern-day counterparts.

As in her earlier In and Out of the Mind (rev. BMCR 3 [1992] 471-4), of which this book is a continuation, P. is very much interested in language, how the words used by the Greeks allow us to get closer to them, unfiltered as much as possible by later history's lenses. Her method is to bring all she can (anthropology, history, psychology) to bear on extraordinary and often heavily charged texts, most of them poetic. She has little truck with the "original" or "real" meaning of a word, but rather, with her poetic sensibility, seeks to explore the full range of its semantic panoply.

The book is divided into five parts (plus Introduction and Appendix-on ate) and twenty-two chapters, which in turn are sub-divided into sections (113 in all). The great number of smaller sections reflect P.'s approach. Although she does have several overarching arguments, she focuses very much on the particulars -- many mini-essays on words relating to madness. "This is a book of ingredients," she tells us in the Preface (xiii), and the many ingredients do not always blend together. There is also a certain amount of repetition from section to section.

P. starts (Part I: "Language and Timing") with some of the basic words for madness. Madness drives one "out" (E)K-) or "aside" (PARA-) from one's wits, causes one to wander, makes one "other". Orestes and Io both are made to wander literally in their madness. Mania's possible etymological connection to menos suggests its violence; it is a "fit of madness". Madness is typically seen as temporary, something that accounts for a particular behavior (from which one infers the madness), not an underlying condition. The way the Greek language describes madness -- with verbs (esp. participial forms of verbs) -- points to madness as action, what happens more than what exists. Even those who are chronically mad (Io and Orestes are again the examples) suffer from intermittent fits of madness, not a permanent state of frenzy. The model of Greek medicine, which focused on the manifestations of acute illness, provides a parallel to this construction of madness.

In the next two parts ("Darkness and Vision" and "Isolation: Wandering, Disharmony, Pollution"), P. explores what madness is like, first from the inside then from the outside, although, as P. readily acknowledges, these two perspectives often blend. First and foremost, madness is black. The mind is darkened by madness; so are one's innards; Furies are children of the Night. Melancholao (lit. "I'm full of black bile") serves as a somewhat crude synonym for the more refined mainomai. In the theory of humors, too much black bile could cause madness. Sophocles' Ajax, one of the extant tragedies which foreground madness, provides much useful material here for P.'s discussion. Whereas many when mad have their vision perverted, like Ajax, and see things differently from the way they are, prophets enjoy another type of madness. Prophetic madness (one of the four types of mania classified by Plato in the Phaedrus [244e]) differs in that the person inspired by mantic frenzy does not merely see things differently from the sane but things that are not accessible to the sane; the prophet sees things "truly".

Madness seen from the outside highlights distance and otherness. The mad are often by themselves, separated from their communities. Their madness cuts them off from sane society. This distance is both inner (the mad have been driven "away from" the path of good thinking) and outer (the mad keep themselves -- and are kept -- physically away from others). The wandering that characterizes Orestes and Io especially serves as an homology for the interior wandering of their wits. For the ancient Greeks, to be without a community was to have a diminished self. Madness from the outside was also imagined as a kind of dancing, violent irregular movements. The Greeks associated it with various outward signs, including rolling eyes and skin sores. Madness was also, unsurprisingly, connected with pollution, which also kept others at a distance.

In part four ("Damage") we find the most sustained, and rewarding, argument. P. begins with a discussion of ate, especially as found in Homer. Her treatment of the notorious two-sidelines of ate ties in very much with her overall approach of discussing both the inner and outer states of madness. She sees ate as part of a sequence, one which begins with inner "damage", which then in turn causes a damaging outward act, which act might itself bring about further damaging consequences. Ate, then, is what one experiences, what one does under its influence, and what may follow as a result. The gods who cause one to experience ate can then punish the mortal for the actions stemming from it. The same doubleness applies to the Erinyes as well (177). Since, P. argues, this chain of disaster lies at the heart of tragedy, the tragedians could not use ate in the same way without "overloading" things (188). Madness, then, replaces ate. "Madness slipped into the pre-prepared ate apparatus of relating cause of crime to consequence and punishment" (188). Madness could, of course, serve as either the gods' punishment (as with Orestes) or its instrument (as with Heracles). Hamartia, referring to different shadings of error, is related by P. to madness, since behind it "as tragedians use the word, seems to be the basic insight that 'mistaking' where your own interests lie may be bad and mad. 'Error' shades into madness." (200) At the end of part four, P. returns to the gods as the cause as well as the agents of madness. In her view the gods place mortals in a "double bind", as we are forced to live in a world of conflicting divine loyalties.

In the book's final part "(Madness: A Rough Tragic Grammar"), P. advises caution for those who tread the path of her inquiry, emphasizing that one must respect the constructions and categories of other cultures. In particular she points to the pitfalls inherent in some psychoanalytic approaches to this material, especially when it ignores other avenues such an those offered by anthropology. The final chapter gives a summary of Greek tragic madness, the appropriate connections of Dionysus to madness (namely the god's violence, interest in illusion, and outsider status) and the connections between the tragic hero and the madman. An appendix on the "thinning" of the semantics of ate in tragedy, a list of works cited, and a useful index conclude the book.

On a fundamental point I disagree with P. Madness, while undeniably fundamental to several of our extant plays, and ancillary to many others, does not, in my view offer the privileged paradigm for understanding tragedy that P. suggests. P. at times overstates her case. Take for example Hippolytus and Antigone, two plays in which P. holds that madness figures prominently. While Phaedra's bizarre (love-sick) behavior leads the chorus to wonder whether she is possessed by a god (141-4), and Phaedra herself claims that in her "delirium" she was mad (241), madness is not presented as fundamental to the play. The chorus in that same choral song offer several other non-manic explanations for Phaedra's behavior. And, although Phaedra's intense passion is divinely caused and drives the action of the play, the play's many pivotal decisions -- Phaedra's to confess her passion and later to take her life, the Nurse's to intervene, Hippolytus' to take and to keep his oath, Theseus' to curse and to exile his son -- do not stem from madness. The Nurse regrets her decision, as does Theseus, but neither of these mortals nor the god Artemis in her explanatory role at the end ascribes the reason for their mistakes to madness. Even Antigone does not blame for the madness for the destruction it presents. Creon was guilty of a mistake, bad judgment not madness (see esp. 1261-9). Antigone herself, although intemperate and head-strong, is not mad. The gods, to be sure, play a role in the destruction of the Labdacids (see esp. the often cited 622-5), but they do not effect this destruction through madness. The story of Lycurgus told by the chorus (955-65) is filled with madness but the connection of this tale to the drama is oblique and indeterminate.

Like In and Out of the Mind, this book has metaphor at its core. In reviewing that earlier book, I suggested that P. needed to address metaphor more directly. Unfortunately, she does not do that here. She asserts that before the fourth century there was no such thing as metaphor for the Greeks: "Fifth-century Greeks did not distinguish between literal and metaphorical meaning, or not in the ways that we do" (158); "We cannot speak of a relationship, or slippage, between literal and metaphorical, concrete and abstract meaning in pre-fourth-century Greek" (169). This is an interesting and provocative claim, but the argument for it is never made. P. deals with the matter indirectly in discussing "hyperbolic" madness (cases where someone says, "You must be mad to believe X") (194-6), but this is not developed. I don't doubt that the fifth-century Greeks had a different feel for metaphor from our own. But I cannot accept at face value the claim that they had no such thing. At the very least, as early as the Homeric poems the Greek language had varying degrees of literalness. Metaphor, to be sure, is not a simple phenomenon, but P. is well equipped to approach the topic directly and profitably. It is a disappointment that she chose not to.

P. has produced another provocative and intriguing study. Not all of her connections will persuade but they will make one think. And there are many unexpected -- and savory -- ingredients along the way (e.g., on Christian "folly", 93-4). P.'s style is consistently forceful and confident; one cannot help but enjoy reading the book (and where else will one find the Erinyes described as a "gang of muggers", 79?). Those with an interest in Greek culture or constructions of madness will enjoy this lively work.