Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.09.36 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.36

Catherine Darbo-Peschanski, Frédérique Ildefonse (ed.), L'acte fou : analyses comparées d'un mode d'action et de présence. Kaïnon : anthropologie de la pensée ancienne, 7.   Paris:  Classiques Garnier, 2017.  Pp. 264.  ISBN 9782406057758.  €36,00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ilaria Calini, École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Madness, folly, insanity: There are many names for such a troublesome and multifaceted subject, which has fascinated plenty of writers, artists and scientists. In contemporary times, it has given rise to a large number of studies, from The Greeks and the Irrational by the classic philologist Eric Dodds1 to Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique by the philosopher Michel Foucault,2 or Dialogue avec l'insensé, a collection of essays by the psychiatrist Gladys Swain,3 to the most recent Histoire de la folie. De l’Antiquité à nos jours by the French historian Claude Quétel.4

The book under review is the publication of the proceedings of a two-day interdisciplinary congress organised in Paris in June 2010 by the CNRS, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and the École Pratique des Hautes Études. By bringing together specialists from several academic fields, the goal of this symposium was to characterise, through an anthropological and comparative approach, not only the acte fou – that is, any action that could be perceived as a deviation from the benchmark system of a given society – but, most importantly, the act itself. The volume comprises nine articles in French, dealing with different configurations of deviating behaviour, focusing especially on Antiquity; two of these articles also focus on modern and contemporary realities. In her opening introduction (pp. 7-12), Frédérique Ildefonse takes the example of a medical essay of 1884, Les fous et le mal de mer,5 showing in order to show the deep connection between the inner turmoil of human mind and its external reflection. In doing so, she intentionally echoes the famous study of Foucault through the classical image of the Stultifera navis,6 symbol of the physical and psychological distance of folly from society.

The first four articles deal with ancient Greek epic, tragic and philosophical texts. The essay by Catherine Darbo-Peschanski questions madness in the Homeric epics by focusing on the notions of μένος – a kinetic energy which animates living beings by causing a movement towards a form of action typical of belligerents – and ἄτη, the definition of which is especially problematic. In the case of μένος, we deal with a force requiring a particular kind of relational process in order to direct itself; in the absence of this process, the isolated energy turns into a self-referential and repetitive movement that leads to depletion. The second element, ἄτη, is a form of bewilderment caused by an external agent – human or divine – which relies on the internal force of the victim, its θυμός, eventually pushing the subject to be trapped in internal turmoil. The examples chosen by Darbo-Peschanski clearly demonstrate the inside/outside dynamic illustrated by the Homeric acte fou, for in both cases deviating behaviours derive from isolation and not from a deficient or pathologic mental state. In the case of Hector (Iliad, IX, 237-239; XII; XIII, 726-728), the enraged Trojan prince is often intoxicated by his μένος, so that he repeatedly refuses to listen to anybody, and his attacks are ineffective, turning into pointless carnages. Ἄτη is well illustrated by Agamemnon: in his speech in front of the Achaean assembly (XIX, 83-89) he states having been tricked by the Gods when he decided to take Achilles’ spoils of war.

Renée Koch-Piettre analyses the nature of another particular kind of Greek madness, ἀφροσύνη, by taking as a starting point the case of Phaedra in Euripides’ Hippolytus 141-169. In her essay, which is very dense and rich in textual cross-references, the author outlines an itinerary through Euripides’ tragedies, the Hippocratic corpus, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and Plato’s dialogue Charmides, in order to analyse the divine power hidden behind Phaedra’s delirium. Here the lovesick insanity of Phaedra, caused by her forbidden desire, is fully externalised in front of the theatre audience, as a sort of “bipolarism” that alternates between delirious speeches and return to reason. . n In his dialogue, Plato explores a different dimension of the concept, through the analysis of the aporetic quest for the σωφροσύνη, the proper behaviour, which eventually leads Socrates and Charmides to “foolishness”. But this is a more maieutical form of acte fou with respect to Euripides: caused by the choice of the master and the disciple to stay under a reciprocal influence, it will be a sort of inspired mania resulting in dialectic and productive reasoning.

Charlotte Murgier examines the negative connotations of madness in Platonic texts and the reflection on their natural, moral or social causes. Thus, the Platonic acte fou represents an action that breaches community social and moral rules in Protagoras and Euthyphro; a state of ignorance that does not allow for a proper assessment of the situation in Protagoras and Laches; an obstacle to distinguishing the guiding principle of action in Meno and Euthydemus, especially when it affects the ability to recognise what is better for oneself, as in Alcibiades II. The author then considers the association between madness and tyranny theorised in the Republic as resulting from the subjugation of the soul to transgressive desires. Finally, the double origin of ἄνοια – foolishness brought by extreme pain or pleasure – is discussed in Timaeus. Through Platonic reflexion, the possibility to be victim of madness seems more a universal human contingency than a mythical exception.

The essay by Ivonne Manfrini offers an interesting study of iconographic representations of excessive acts, specifically Athenian vascular paintings from the VI and V century B.C., which show on one hand Hector’s dead body dragged by Achilles’ chariot, and on the other hand Priam asking for his son’s corpse. Her discussion, which centres on the value attached to Achilles’ action – a tolerated excess or a form of acte fou to be condemned? –, inevitably raises the issue of the conception of war and its autonomy from or dependency on ethical and religious norms in ancient Greece, a subject well analysed in the classical study by Jean-Pierre Vernant Problèmes de la guerre en Grèce anciennes.7 The author highlights the narrative, spatial and temporal concentration which characterises the paintings, where elements belonging to different parts of the poem are often combined to convey tension and emphasise the disproportion of Achilles’ acts. A particularly striking point is the choice of depicting Hector’s outraged corpse in scenes representing king Priam negotiating with Achilles: there again, the visual arrangement of the scene, where Hector’s body frequently lies abandoned under Achilles’ banquet table, accentuate the excessive humiliation inflicted by the chief of Myrmidons to the Trojan prince. Therefore, the iconographic dimension of the myth offers a further formulation of madness in ancient Greece, exhibited as excessive violence and disrespect to the dead, thus violating the ethics of the community and of warfare.

Silvia D’Intino’s article moves to the East, dealing with madness in Brāhmaṇa texts. The author focuses, on one hand, on the character of Manu, progenitor of humankind, whose actions manifest a form of mania called śraddhā. The term, which is usually translated as “faith”, corresponds in fact to the firmly held conviction that the deity will be responsive to a well-performed rite: it’s a “sacrificial madness”. On the other hand, she analyses the “foolishness” of the Asuras in their conquest of ritual knowledge, doomed to failure because of the absence of the reciprocal relation between inner identity and outer alterity.

“La valeur de l’extraordinaire. Stratégies de contrôle et d’intégration de l’incompréhensible dans la culture syro-mésopotamienne antique”, by Maria Grazia Masetti-Rouault, offers a fascinating assessment of Mesopotamian thought, enriched by elements of comparison with the Biblical tradition. The author provides a critical view of traditional interpretations of Mesopotamian ideological system, widely perceived as irrational due to the explicit connection between religious and political spheres. Masetti-Rouault firstly examines the case of the sacrifice, during which the king destroys an important part of the agricultural production in order to feed the Gods, then transforming this deeply insane act into something useful, even vital, for the survival of society. Yet several literary works have challenged this “contradictory balance” in Mesopotamian culture, notably the poem of the Righteous sufferer.8 Another important form of deviancy can be found in prophetic acts, where the connection established between the prophet and the Gods results in a temporarily altered mental status of the seer, who loses control of his body and his mind. Then the God fills the gap of his absent conscience in order to communicate a message addressed to the king, usually claiming for offerings or providing guidance on political matters. Records of this practice are particularly evident in the royal archives of Mari – especially during the reign of Zimri-Lim (first half of the XVIII century B.C.) – and of Neo-Assyrian Nineveh.9 The author analyses Akkadian terms designating prophets and the various symbolic actions to which they are related, considering a great variety of sources, notably epistolary documents, lexical lists, rituals and royal inscriptions. In particular, she pinpoints the importance of the term maḫû – “to go into a trance”, a verb which evokes a state of sacred frenzy – to identify the semantic domain of madness. In comparison with the methodical approach of the deductive divination performed by the diviners of the royal court, the foolishness of prophetic acts appears as an alternative way to connect the human and the divine spheres. If both practices play a part in Mesopotamian culture and in the proper functioning of the political system, they follow a different logic: deductive divination limits the meaning of foolish acts by correlating them to a series of catalogued “epiphenomena”, prophecy brings to light their extra-ordinary and uncontrolled character.10

The essay by Pierre-Henri Ortiz examines narratives about madness in the Western Roman Empire during Late Antiquity. He considers the cases of several Christian authors: firstly, the simultaneous presence of contradictory interpretations of folly in Tertullian, who combines the medico-philosophical reflection upon the relation between body and soul with elements of the Sacred Scriptures. Secondly, he turns to Lactantius and Augustine. The physiological and demonological interpretations of altered mental status coexist in these authors, and Augustine adds to them mental retardation.

The last two essays of the volume concern modern and contemporary realities. The article by Thomas Brisson focuses on mental disorder and exorcism practices in Japan, notably the case of “fox possession” as described by Basil Hall Chamberlain in his work Things Japanese of 1890.11 The “fox possession”, an ancestral experience seen erroneously as an acte fou by the Meiji government, is emblematic of an imperialist period marked by the absorption of European science and rationality. However, it did not disappear and continued to ironically represent the contrast between tradition and modernity.

Finally, Odile Journet-Diallo analyses the closeness between madness and possession in African Jόola society, where every form of foolishness is seen as a manifestation of creatures called ukiin. Acting like mediators between humans and the Creator, these beings can cause states of trance, pushing their host – usually a woman, seen as God’s messenger – to deviating behaviour, such as drinking from a pit where the community has poured the remains of several days of sacrifice. They also punish the transgression of sacrificial rules by causing diseases and violent behaviours which can pass on from one generation to another, thus producing a diachronic connection between different forms of madness.

The final essay by Pierre Ginésy draws general conclusions for the volume, building a complex network of interrelations between the various issues discussed in the previous contributions, and highlighting convergences and differences. He points out, on one hand, the characterisation of “foolish acts” as “anomalies” rather than abnormal pathologies and, on the other hand, the importance of their temporal dimension, both synchronic – the “relational dynamics” of Homeric epics – and diachronic – when dealing with, for example, past traditions or prophecies and premonitions of the future. Ginésy By taking into account the reflexion of great scholars like Sigmund Freud, Georges Didi-Huberman, Bertolt Brecht and Gilles Deleuze, paints a comprehensive portrait of the meanings attached to foolish acts, resulting in a subtle example of comparative reasoning.

This is a good quality publication, with few typographical errors. It includes a comprehensive bibliography, abstracts and not less than five indices, a very useful tool for comparative research.

Table of Contents

Frédérique Ildefonse, Introduction. Les fous en bateau, p. 7
Catherine Darbo-Peschanski, Formes des actes fous dans l’épopée homérique, p. 13
Renée Koch-Piettre , Ce que peut la folie, l’aphrosunê (ἀφροσύνη) entre Aphrodite et la Mère des dieux. Euripide, Hippolyte 141-169, p. 37
Charlotte Murgier, La folie au principe ? Descriptions et usages de l’acte fou chez Platon, p. 55
Ivonne Manfrini, Achille et le corps d’Hector. Actes fous en images ?, p. 73
Silvia D’Intino, La perte des Asura et le secret du sacrifice. L’« acte fou » dans les récits des Brāhmaṇa, p. 101
Maria Grazia Masetti-Rouault, La valeur de l’extraordinaire. Stratégies de contrôle et d’intégration de l’incompréhensible dans la culture syro- mésopotamienne antique, p. 119
Pierre-Henri Ortiz, D’une folie à l’autre. Troubles du comportement et maladie spirituelle dans les discours chrétiens de l’Antiquité tardive, p. 139
Thomas Brisson, Le psychiatre et le renard. Acte fou, « désordre mental » et exorcisme dans le Japon du XIXe siècle, p. 163
Odile Journet-Diallo, Quelques figures africaines de la « folie des dieux ». L’exemple jóola jamaat (Sénégal/Guinée-Bissau), p. 183
Pierre Ginésy, Acte fou, acte fol, p. 209


1.   Eric R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational. (Berkeley, 1951).
2.   Michel Foucault, Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique. (Paris, 1972).
3.   Gladys Swain, Dialogue avec l’insensé. (Paris, 1994).
4.   Claude Quétel, Histoire de la folie. De l’Antiquité à nos jours. (Paris, 2015).
5.   Barbier, « Les fous et le mal de mer ». Journal de Médecine et de Pharmacie de l'Algérie, Vol. 9, 1884, pp. 227-229.
6.   Michel Foucault, Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique. (Paris, 1972), pp. 13-55. See also Sebastian Brant, Das Narrenschiff. (Basel, 1494).
7.   Jean-Pierre Vernant (ed.), Problèmes de la guerre en Grèce anciennes. (Paris; La Haye, 1968).
8.   Wilfred G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature. (Oxford, 1960), pp. 21-62; Amar Annus and Alan Lenzi, Ludlul bēl nēmeqi. The Standard Babylonian Poem of the Righteous Sufferer. (Helsinki, 2010).
9.   Jean-Marie Durand, Antoine Jacquet (ed.), Magie et divination dans les cultures de l’Orient. (Paris, 2010); Simo Parpola, Assyrian Prophecies. (Helsinki, 1997).
10.   Jean Bottéro, « Symptômes, signes, écritures en Mésopotamie ancienne », in J.-P. Vernant et alii (ed.), Divination et rationalité. (Paris, 1974).
11.   Basil H. Chamberlain, Things Japanese. (London, 1890).

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