Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.16

Sandrine Dubel, Alain Montandon (ed.), Mythes sacrificiels et ragoûts d'enfants. Mythographies et sociétés.   Clermont-Ferrand:  Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2012.  Pp. 494.  ISBN 9782845165199.  €20.00 (pb).  


Reviewed by Froma Zeitlin, Princeton University (fiz@princeton.edu)

Table of Contents

The 25 essays that comprise this collective volume originated in a colloquium at the Université Blaise Pascal in 2008 under an interdisciplinary program devoted to explorations of intergenerational violence found in mythic repertories the world over. In this instance, the ambitious aim was to explore three major representations of mythic infanticide in all its transgressiveness, especially in the relations between parent and child as between gods and mortals. These include 1) exposure of the newborn, that is, indirect death according to certain religious, social, and political norms. 2) sacrifice proper of progeny by a parent carried out in a bloody ritual demanded by divine authority 3) swallowing and devouring of children by gods, ogres, and especially fathers. The scope of investigation covers a broad assortment of authors and genres (e.g., epic, tragedy, lyric, short story). It equally ranges in time from antiquity (Hebrew Bible, Greece and Rome, and early Christian texts) to works by later major authors (e.g., Racine, Goethe, Hoffmann) along with other European writers from the 16th to the 18th centuries up to the modern day. Included as well in the repertoire are folktale types of different cultures. This is an ambitious undertaking, with the usual problems of a collective volume with contributions of varying degrees of quality. The useful resumés in French and (occasionally fractured) English can be downloaded from the above website. In what follows, I will offer capsule summaries of the essays (whose French titles I offer as best as I can in translation) with some general observations at the end.

The organization of the essays follows neither generic nor chronological patterns but rather groups them under three rubrics: First is “Ancient Archetypes and Their Rewriting: The Scandal of the Belly.” The core myths and canonical texts are addressed in ten essays. These include the Biblical account of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (Gomez-Géraud); Hesiod’s account of Cronos and his ingestion of his children in the Theogonie (Hunziger, Delattre); the banquet of Tantalus and the culinary fate of his son, Pelops (Gangloff); the symbolism of Lycaon’s sacrifices of his grandson, Arcas, to Zeus and the question of Arcadian identity (Kossaifi); the iconography of the myth of Itys, killed by his mother Procne with the help of her sister, Philomela, and served up to his father, Tereus (Chazalon), and the relationship of Ovid’s account of the same myth to the overarching theme of metamorphosis (Vial). These essays are followed by three studies of reception in later European literature: Gruffat on the treatment of the sacrifice of Iphigenia in Rotrou and Racine; Humbert-Mougin on the banquet of Thyestes on the European stage in the 18th century, and finally, Winkler on Goethe’s Iphigenie in Tauris with reference to his ballad, The Bride of Corinth. No doubt, all these are the foundational myths when it comes to the unnatural slaying of one’s progeny, although the case of Iphigenia hardly fits the subtitle, “Scandal of the Belly.”

The second very Gallic rubric is entitled “Stories of the Mouth: From the Flesh of the Tale to the Origin of the Book.” What this means, as it turns out, is a shift from the guilty actors of these deeds to the victims themselves. Instead of a focus on maternal and paternal figures and on relevant parts of the body (belly, womb), these next essays address stories of childhood as well as reinterpretations of the myth of the scapegoat child, whether that child is sacrificed, devoured, or exposed, generally adopting the child’s point of view. That is, these narratives shift the emphasis from the mouth that swallows or engulfs to the mouth that is capable of speech. Two essays address folklore types: Aranda studies the type no. 720 (“my mother killed me, my father ate me”) to claim that the mother and the son are both locked in a struggle against their respective opponents. Courtois, for her part, looks to European, North African, and African versions of the tale type no. 327 (“the children and the ogre”) that represent an ogre who, far from being an uncivilized creature, actually has sufficient social forms of behavior, which, because they are not fully mastered, ironically cause his downfall by a cunning little hero, both in the interpretation of signs and in verbal exchanges. “The speaker is stronger than the eater.” Odysseus and the Cyclops is here the ancient point of reference. Bost analyzes the figure of Charles Perrault’s little fellow: Poucet (Tom Thumb, Hop o’ My Thumb’), in reference to the myth of Cronos. Like the child in the previous essay, Poucet is a cunning and clever adversary, who like Hermes, is a trickster figure. His fast talking in the craft of telling stories, exemplified in two modern novels: Sylvie Germain, Magnus, and Günter Grass, The Tin Drum. The last two essays study further literary examples: Montandon (“To Drink the Blood of Innocence”) analyzes a horror story of E. T. A. Hoffman, “Ignaz Dennet”) in which a mysterious stranger in league with the Devil turns out to be a vampiric father; Lysøe (“Fantastic Sacrifices and Exposures: From Flesh to the Book”) takes a wider purview to enter into the realm of fantasy and science fiction, in which the typical mythemes we know are displaced, or condensed, or duplicated but still articulated in the name of intergenerational violence. The authors studied are Erkmann-Chatrian, Philip Pullman, and Ursula LeGuin. Finally, Nissim examines a group of texts by five contemporary Francophone sub-Saharan authors. She argues for a shift of emphasis that no longer connects the ritualistic child to mystical or religious practices, as in traditional African cultures, but rather maintains their status as victims in newly violent, even anthropophagic, contexts. Lycaon is an especially relevant mythic figure in these horrific tales of war, famine, and perversion of values.

Part 3, entitled “Practices, Fantasies, and Ideologies: Towards a Rhetoric of Infanticide,” returns mostly to the ancient world of Greece, Rome, and early Christianity. These nine essays concern “the reinvestment of mythic motifs and figures in different types of discourses,” to ascertain the value of these murderous acts, whether in relation to ritual, phantasms, or political realities. We are back on familiar ground. Viscardi’s learned essay, “The Consecration of Girls to Artemis: the Return of Iphigenia from the Tauride to Brauron,” revisits the cult of Artemis at Brauron with the aim of connecting the initiatory sacrifice of the daughter to the barbarian practices of human sacrifice in the Tauric Chersonese. De Cremoux examines the anomalous case of Menoiceus in Euripides’ Phoenissae, with the aim of demonstrating the shift of the ritual act to that of its theatrical function by reasons of its dramatic surprise and distraction from the main plot of the play in the encounter between the two enemy brothers. Damet, in “Feminine and Masculine Roles in Infanticide: From Realia to Tragic Representations,” takes a gendered point of view in examining themes of exposure of children and infanticide as these differ from what we know of practices in classical Athens and representations in the theater. Against the normal authority of fathers to expose their newborns, there is the contrary example of Creusa in Euripides’ Ion. If baby girls were more often exposed than boys, tragic plots, by contrast, concern male children (Oedipus, Ion). When it comes to infanticide (a mythic rather than actual occurrence), male and female assume different roles. “Women cook, men eat.” Think of Cronos, Tereus, Thyestes (the latter two unwitting victims themselves). Female motives, however, are prominent: to cause pain to a husband who has rejected or dishonored them (Procne, Medea). When men do harm to their children, the motive is linked, not to the domestic scene, but to the uses of power – its dynastic transmission or the threat of political unrest. Politics is uppermost in the next essay (“The Tyrant and the Children of the City”), Kefallonitis studies the figures of tyrants, from antiquity on, who are famously linked to violence of one sort or another towards children of the city in an effort to foreclose the question of succession and assert absolute power. Taking off from two historical instances: Periander of Corinth and Aristodemus of Cumae, she argues for resemblances to the case of Ouranos and Cronos. Plato’s portrait of the tyrant in the Republic), both real and fantastic, remains a touchstone for assessing the boundaries between myth and history when it comes to later instances such as Idi Amin of Nigeria and Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the CAR. De Giorgio offers the only instance of a Latin text. His essay, “When Fathers Desire the Death of their Sons and Mothers Welcome Them in Bed,” takes off from Catullus 64 and the story of Peleus and Thetis with the figure of Ariadne at its center. Observing the happy circumstances of an epithalamium, he explores the relevance of the epilogue (397-408), which invokes fratricides, incest, and unnatural behaviors between parents and children. Echoes of Hesiod’s Age of Iron and other Greek intertexts along with Roman internal references that gesture to political uncertainties result in a subtle reading of the poem.

Finally, Dionysus!! In the next essay, we arrive at the major figure around whom myths of technophagy cluster. Wyler in her “Casseroles of Children in Dionysiac Rites? Recipes of a Legend” proposes two mythic matrices at opposite ends of the spectrum: the death of the child Dionysos, on the one hand, and on the other, mythic murders of young progeny by one of their parents, as a punishment for having provoked the anger of the god. The ingredients of this dish, as she calls it, are, first, the Orphic myth in which the child Dionysos is captured, killed, dismembered, boiled and eaten by the Titans: next comes parents, especially in the Theban milieu, who in the grip of Dionysiac madness, tear their children apart (e.g. Agave, Lycurgus, Minyades); add Livy’s account of the Bacchanals of 186 B.C.E. where the corruption and murder of the young were supposed to take place. Further negative propaganda comes mainly from Christian writers, like Clement, who, it is argued, depends also on Hellenistic Jewish texts, like The Wisdom of Solomon. However, the iconographical evidence (Greek but mostly Roman), depicting children involved in Bacchic ceremonies, probably gestures towards children as initiates of the god. Latin Christian texts are the topic of Solier, “Technophagic Agapes, A ‘Pagan’ Literary Elaboration in the First Latin Christian Literature’? Also framed as a question, his essay addresses the distortion of the Eucharist in Greek and Latin apologists (e.g., Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch. Athenagoras, and Eusebius) who counter the claims of cannibal consumption in Christian banquets. He argues for the influence of Roman satire (its cena thyestea), especially in Juvenal, Petronius, and Juvenal, as an added factor in the formulation of these accusations. The last two essays turn once again to later instances of technophagy, which depend on ancient archetypes. Bernard looks at the figure of the cannibal mother in texts of the 16th century (Agrippa of Aubigné, Jean de Léry, Simon Goulart) during terrible famines in Paris and Sancerre. Whether credible or not, it is argued that the specter of such atrocities look back to an anecdote in Josephus’s The Jewish Wars. Cremona rounds out the collection with, “Medea and Atreus Revisited: the Revival of Greek Myths of Infanticide in Tragic Short Stories in the 16th and 17th Centuries,” to argue for the paradoxical relationship between myth and fiction in the elaboration of increasingly bloody narratives.

Taken as a whole, this collection of essays has much to offer an individual reader, who can pick and choose among the selections. Most are closely argued with heavy annotation that this reviewer could not hope to summarize. What emerges clearly is the persistence of the mythic archetypes that dote on horrifying inversions of normal relationships. Imagination most often trumps reality in the charting of this persistent fascination with the challenge to what we hope is our humanity. Human sacrifice, while one element in these myths, is a general topic that will not go away. Two recent collective volumes, published in 2013, continue the trend: Sacrifices Humains. Dossiers, Discours, Comparaisons, eds. A. Nagy and F. Prescendi (Brepols) and Sacrifices humains : perspectives croisées et représentations: Human sacrifice: Cross-cultural Perspectives and Representations, eds. P. Bonnechere and R. Gagné (Liége).

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