Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.04.15

Catherine Atherton (ed.), Monsters and Monstrosity in Greek and Roman Culture. Nottingham Classical Literature Studies Midland Classical Studies vol. 6.   Bari:  Levante, 2002.  Pp. 135.  ISBN 88-7949-290-X.  EUR 25.00.  

Reviewed by Monica Ressel Giordani, University of Trieste (
Word count: 1700 words

The papers of the compelling conference held in Nottingham in 1998 are now available in volume 6 of the series NCLS (Nottingham Classical Literature Studies) by Levante Editori. This is a very important book for all who are interested in better understanding an unfortunately often-neglected topic, Monsters and Monstrosity in Greek and Roman Culture. In fact, despite the enormous bibliography on each specific monster, not much has been said until now about what a monster is, what it represents and why it is "good to think with".1 Five recognized British scholars (Ray J. Clare, Alan H. Sommerstein, Ismene Lada-Richards, Richard Buxton and Ken Dowden) analyse and apply modern interpretation to different themes dealing with the main topic in order to reach an answer that is probably fated to remain not univocal.

The book opens with a clear and cunning introduction by Catherine Atherton, who admittedly plays the devil's advocate (p. xix), questioning the legitimacy of the anthropological methodology (cfr. p. xxviii) applied in some papers, with particular reference to Mary Douglas' taxonomies (p. xx). She is rightly worried about the "validity and defensibility of our own self-understanding as explainers of other people's words" (p. xxiv) since taxonomies are mere products of a specific cultural context and thus variable and relative (cfr. p. xxi). Atherton's introduction proves to be very useful by raising questions, putting the scholars' results in a different light and by reminding the reader that every single exegesis is as ambiguous and fluid as the object it tries to describe: anthropologists (and classicists) do not have access to categories which are more reliable, more true, than those of their object-cultures (p. xxix).

In the first essay "Representing Monstrosity: Polyphemus in the Odyssey" (pp. 1-17) Ray Clare demonstrates that monstrosity "is a quality to be found in the eye of the beholder" (p. 17). Clare focuses his attention on Odyssey book 9, which he considers "an exercise of self-justification" (p. 7), by stressing the ongoing tension between the voice of Odysseus-the-narrator-of-the-drama and the actions of Odysseus-the-actor-in-the-drama. In this respect Polyphemus' negative credentials are pre-ordained on one level, still to be ascertained on another. Indeed, in the Odyssey the Cyclops can be described in different ways according to the interests of the narrator: for instance, in book 10.431-37 and book 12.208-12 Eurylochus and Odysseus respectively would appear to be manipulating their version of the tale to support their rhetorical purposes (pp. 2-3), while Zeus in book 1.70-73 by applying to the Cyclops the epithet ἀντίθεον would appear to qualify Poyphemus for the role of epic hero rather than epic monster (pp. 4-5). In addition, at the beginning of book 2 in the Telemachy, Polyphemus is clearly presented as brutal, savage and anthropophagos, while from a Cyclops' point of view not only there is nothing monstrous in Polyphemus, but also "otherness" can be perceived in Odysseus (cfr. p. 16).

Starting from the perceptive work of Mastromarco and aiming at its improvement,2 Alan H. Sommerstein's "Monsters, Ogres and Demons in Old Comedy" (pp. 19-40) analyses the surviving fragments of Epicharmos, Sophron, Kratinos and Krates in order to discover a traditional pattern in the treatment of the hero vs. monster theme and then to understand to what extent Aristophanic plays are either consistent or innovative. After defining monsters as terrifying and too powerful for ordinary humans (p. 19) but nonetheless fated to be defeated by a true hero or controlled by ritual means (p. 21), Sommerstein rigorously singles out the development from the well-established type of comedy in which a hero or a minor god like Hermes symbolically (cfr. p. 31) kills a fearsome, man-destroying (often man-eating) monster (p. 24) to a) the Heroism of the Little Man, b) the Heroism of the Comic Poet and finally to c) the Heroism of the Monster himself (p. 38) as displayed in Acharnians (pp. 25-27), Knights (pp. 28-31), Wasps (pp. 31-33), Peace (p. 33) and Frogs (pp. 33-37). Indeed a) the monstrous and gigantic Lamachos is downgraded, derided and defeated by the "Little Man" Dikaiopolis as the noisy Typhoeus-like Paphlagon-Kleon is mocked and reduced to silence by the Sausage-seller; b) Aristophanes-Herakles in the Wasps' parabasis stands up against Kleon and in Peace 422 boasts of having fought for his audience against this monster; c) the beast-giant Aeschylus becomes a saviour-hero by defeating Euripides.

""Foul Monster or Good Saviour?" Reflections on Ritual Monsters" (pp. 41-82) by Ismene Lada-Richards is a challenging essay mainly concerned -- as the title points out -- with the study of Mary Douglas' taxonomies aiming at the definition of monsters as good or evil. Though aware of the relativity of the man-made taxonomies and of the dangers of Douglas' categorization,3 Lada-Richards accepts Douglas' definition of monsters as boundary-crossing anomalies, since monsters are primarily "of such a kind as to blur and confuse some of the categories that their society's ordered system strives to keep distinct" (p. 49; the example of the Erinyes at p. 71). Since she is mainly interested in the monsters' potential for rites of passage, Lada-Richards investigates literary and iconographic sources in order to explain the function of monsters during the liminal phase and why they cause dense patterns of ritual symbolism to converge (p. 53). In this respect the research is devoted to the image of the devouring monster studied by Eliade, which allows one to mimetically represent and symbolically act out the initiatory ritual death and resurrection (Sphinx and Jason's dragon at pp. 53-55).4 Lada-Richards does not forget to take into account Victor Turner's fundamental studies on liminality when she states that "the monster embraces a wider spectrum of experience that the initiands must get thoroughly familiarized with" (p. 58; cfr. p. 59),5 though in her paper she would rather exploit Douglas' 1975 studies by recognizing a correlation between people's attitude to boundary-crossing anomalies and attitudes towards the community's boundaries themselves (p. 66)6 and thus finding Greek monsters as ambiguous as the territory they inhabit (p. 67). Therefore, Greek monsters are neither good nor evil but liminal, and because of their marginality they have the power to ensure that others can transcend the boundary for good (p. 68).

Richard Buxton's "The Myth of Talos" (pp. 83-112) cleverly reconstructs the fragmentary and confused story of the bronze giant/statue Talos killed by a wound in the ankle. Being made of bronze, not-quite human and not-quite statue, vulnerable and yet with ἴχωρ (at the very same time blood of the immortals and sign of mortality, pp. 105-106) in his veins, Talos is difficult to classify and thus raises all kind of issues relating to borderlines and boundaries: Talos' myth is about anomaly and the mixing of categories (p. 107). Starting from Apollonios Rhodios (pp. 84-88), Buxton traces the uncertain genealogies of Talos the Cretan from Kres, Oinopion and the Bronze Race, which point to radically different positionings within the spectra constituted by oppositions between divine/heroic, natural/artificial, human/animal (p. 89). In addition, he compares two different traditions in Crete and Athens, which present very many overlaps and inversions as testified by Diodoros 4.76 and Ovid Metam. 8.236-59. With the help of iconographical evidence (pp. 90-94) Buxton identifies two themes in the myth of Talos -- vulnerability (pp. 98-105) and ichor (pp. 105-107) -- that he skilfully elucidates in a fruitful comparative analysis. Taking advantage of the famous studies of Brelich, Bremmer, Federico and Vernant on the weakness or imperfection in the leg of many mythological figures (pp. 100-103), Buxton stresses the importance of symbolic wounds inflicted on young hunters/warriors as a prelude to adulthood, the role of Talos in the initiatory practice of Cretan homosexuality and the link between lameness and abnormal sexual relations/generation. The example of Achilles' vulnerability in the heel is a starting point to discover that a wound in the foot can symbolically refer to sexuality (pp. 103-105) since the ankle (or heel) and genitals are literally connected, as suggested by Hippocratic treatises and by later writers.

The last essay -- "Man and Beast in the Religious Imagination of the Roman Empire" (pp.113-135) -- is the only one devoted to Roman culture. In order to illuminate how beasts and animal signify in Imperial authors, Ken Dowden investigates earlier Greek ideologies, the function of beasts in religion (pp. 115-123) and the importance of animals in popular culture, Carnival (pp. 123-27) and Mithraism (pp. 127-32). Like Tambiah,7 Dowden draws a line between wild and domestic animals and rightly perceives both their "sameness" and "otherness" to man (p. 114). On the road from man to monster, wild beasts represent a menace to civilization and arouse respect and fear and therefore have particular metaphorical power and can thus be viewed with adoration (p. 115).8 In this respect, animals are often associated with gods by being either their attributes or their actual divine epiphany (theriolatric model or zoolatry; p. 116). In Greco-Roman religious imagination the theriolatric model is rare, though the ritual use of zoomorphic masks seems to be an important exception (p. 117). On the other hand, in Egypt, this is a very common model, condemned as a mark of cultural inferiority by those Roman authors (Virgil, Juvenal) aware of the Platonic tripartition of the soul, which put the divine above, man in the middle and beasts below (pp. 118-20). A different attitude toward zoomorphic gods was promoted by Plutarch and Philo, who stressed their symbolic value, and by popular religion, which found animal-headed gods of striking interest as a challenge to think of a man-made other (p. 125).9 Some of this popular culture comes to the surface in Imperial authors (Philostratus and Apuleius) and is evident in Mithraism, where animals (especially leontocephalic figures) are signs of something other and mark an otherness by their distance from the initiate's normal condition (p. 129).

The topicality of monstrosity, which has already stirred anthropological theoretical interest, should encourage further researches in Greek and Roman culture. This is just a first step in a challenging task and, though many themes have been widely analysed, many have been just quoted or unfortunately completely neglected.10 Many problems remains unsolved and many questions arise, but the beauty of this book is precisely its power to make us think and doubt everything that seems to be the ultimate explanation.


1.   Recently a very good survey on this topic was made by David D. Gilmore, Monsters. Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors, University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2003, who produced an interesting anthropological study on monstrosity in different cultures, devoting chap. III to ancient Greek and Roman monsters. Among the classicists it is worth mentioning F. Böll, "Griechische Gespenster", Arch. f. Religionwiss. 12, 1909, pp. 149-51; W. D. O'Flaherty, Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts, Chicago, 1980; J. Strauss Clay, "The Generation of Monsters in Hesiod", Cl. Phil. 88-2, 1993, pp. 105-16; C. Mainoldi, "Mostri al femminile", in R. Raffaelli (ed.), Vicende e figure femminili in Grecia e a Roma, atti del convegno di Pesaro 28-30 Aprile 1994, Ancona, 1995, pp. 69-84 (figg. at pp. 85-92); N. J. Bremmer, "Monsters en fabeldieren in de Grieske cultur", Vereniging van Vrienden Allard Pierson Museum Amsterdam: Medelingenblad 68, 1997, pp. 2-5; E. Pellizer, "Figures de croquemitains féminins en Grèce antique", in J. Berlioz - D. Alexandre-Bidon (edd.), Le croque mitaines. Fair peur et éduquer, Le monde alpin et rhodanien, 2-4 trimestres, Grenoble, 1998, pp. 141-51.
2.   G. Mastromarco, "La parabasi aristofanea: tra realtà e poesia", Dioniso 57 (1987), pp. 75-93; "L'eroe e il mostro (Aristofane, Vespe 1029-1044", RFIC 117 (1989), pp. 410-23; Introduzione a Aristofane, Bari, 1994.
3.   Besides the direct critique of Douglas' work in D. Sperber, "Porquoi les animaux parfaits, le hybrides et les monstres sont-ils bon à penser symboliquement? ", L'Homme 15-2, 1975, pp. 5-34 (rightly quoted by Lada-Richards at p. 49, n. 23); R. Bulmer, "Why is the Cassowary not a Bird? A Problem of Zoological Taxonomy Among the Karam of The New-Guinea Highlands", Man 2, 1967, pp. 5-25 and S. J. Tambiah, "Animals are Good to Think and Good to Prohibit", Ethnology 8, 1969, pp. 423-57, noteworthy is B. Lincoln, Discourse and the Construction of Society. Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual and Classification, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1989, pp. 142-59 and most of all pp. 160-74, according to whom taxonomies have social rather than epistemological value since they are meant to strengthen a given ideology or social structure by a symbolical inversion. Nothing is really authentically anomalous, but depends on the nature of the taxonomizer, who denies some classifications.
4.   The motif of the swallowing, gulping, devouring monster is also well-known in Africa; see D. Paulme, La mère devorante. Essai sur la morphologie des cantes africains, Gallimard: Paris, 1976. Unfortunately -- due to the extent of the area of research -- Lada-Richards does not stress the fact that usually the gulping monsters are female (S. I. Johnston, The Restless Dead: Encounter between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece, University of California Press: Berkeley, 1999, cap. V) and that in myths there is a symmetry and inversion between up and down (mouth and vagina) and an isotopy between eating and copulating; see C. Lévi-Strauss, La pensée sauvage, Libraire Plon: Paris, 1969, pp. 116-20 (in particular pp. 119-20).
5.   See V. Turner, "Process, System, and Symbol: A New Anthropological Synthesis", Daedalus 106, 1977, p. 68; Id., The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, Cornell University Press: Ithaca, N. Y., 1967, p. 105. Cfr. K. Dowden, The Uses of Greek Mythology, Routledge: London -New-York, 1992, p. 141.
6.   M. Douglas, Implicit Meanings, Routledge and Kegan: London, 1975, p. 289.
7.   S. J. Tambiah, "Animals are Good to Think and Good to Prohibit", Ethnology 8, 1969, p. 433. Dowden does not quote this famous paper, though it would have enriched his already well-documented essay.
8.   This is precisely the role played by deep forest animals in the village of Baan Phraan Muan; S. J. Tambiah, op. cit. , p. 440.
9.   This is precisely the function of ritual monsters according to V. Turner, loc. cit.
10.   For example, in this book the reader will find no mention of hybridism, morphological distortion, ancient philosophical or modern psychoanalytical interpretations. In addition, little attention is paid to female monsters and to boogies.

Read Latest
Index for 2003
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:33, Friday, 03 April 2009