BMCR 2006.01.25

Kékrops, le Roi Serpent. Etudes Anciennes

, Kékrops, le roi-serpent : imaginaire athénien, représentations de l'humain et de l'animalité en Grèce ancienne. Collection d'études anciennes. Série grecque, 129. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2004. 472 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 225132657X €39.00 (pb).

This book is dedicated to a mythological hero — Kekrops — whose image among scholars is something of a paradox: although playing a central role in the mythic history of Athens, Kekrops is known to us only from a paragraph of Pseudo-Apollodoros’ Library and a meager collection of literary fragments, indirect quotations and iconographic evidence. Despite this intrinsic difficulty of treating the subject, however, Gourmelen’s undertaking — redrawing a complete profile of Kekrops’ figure and cultural functions — in my opinion has been extremely successful.

In mythical representations of Kekrops, two features appear to be most relevant: his being “diphues”, half man/half snake, and his being “gegenes”, born of the earth. Accordingly, Gourmelen’s interpretation takes these two ideas as points of departure.

As a half-human/half-animal creature, Kekrops qualifies as the ideal agent to draw the line between the world of primitive bestiality and the world of human society. Kekrops is the perfect “mediator”. Consequently, the mythical tradition credits him indisputably as marking several fundamental steps towards civilization. Who carried out the first ‘unification’ of the scattered communities of Attica, creating a new form of social life? Kekrops. Who established new and wise matrimonial laws, finally recognizing the importance of the father in reproduction? Kekrops, the “diphues”, the creature who knew ‘both sides’ of life. Who dictated the rules of a strictly vegetarian sacrifice, in order to emphasize the civilized nature of the Athenian ‘menu’? Kekrops, of course.

On the other hand, as a creature born of the earth (“gegenes”), Kekrops qualifies as the ideal interpreter of the fundamental Attic myth: autochthony. This quality is obviously also emphasized by the chthonian nature of his animal half, the snake. The snakelike “gegenes” was “there” from the beginning: this is the message conveyed by the mythical attributes of Kekrops. Consequently, he gave his name not to the city — from whose “politized” space he remained somehow excluded — but to the land destined to host and “mediate” the birth of Athens, the Kekropis. No doubt then that the autochthonos / gegenes perfectly fit the role of arbiter in the primeval eris between Athena and Poseidon, a central event in the future political order of Athens. But is it only by chance that Kekrops also played witness to the birth of Erichthonius? Certainly not: we are dealing with a gegenes who mediates the advent of a second gegenes, another cultural hero who in many respects duplicated and developed the cultural features of his predecessor.

Gourmelens’s book demonstrates in conclusion that behind the intricacies of Attic mythology a coherent and purposeful structure is at work. If at a first sight the multiplicity of heroes and events appears disconcerting, redundant and even contradictory, a more careful investigation shows that it is not. The precision that the author is able to obtain in this is due not only to his sophisticated methodology, but also because he never shrinks from taking into account other mythical strands — even when they appear tangential to the main narrative — if their analogies and connections with Kekrops’ story may contribute to an understanding of its symbolism. From this point of view, I find commendable the parallels established between Kekrops on one side, and the “first man” of Argos (Phoroneus) and Arcadia (Pelasgos) on the other; and even more so, the contrastive analysis developed between Kekrops and Lycaon (the “good” and the “perverted” sacrificer, respectively).

This book stands as one of the finest examples of the kind of scholarship on Greek myth recently undertaken in France. It belongs to a tradition that — at its best, as in this case — is marked by a rare capacity to take myth seriously — without turning it into the dim palimpsest of some “hidden reason” or, even worse, into an endless parade of pretentious archetypes. Gourmelen is a mature scholar, who can move among different fields and disciplines both with competence and with originality: from historical linguistics to the history of religion, from the hermeneutic of “texts” to the hermeneutic of “images”. In this respect, I would like to emphasize that in this book the iconographic materials are always a part of the general process of interpretation, and a fruitful one at that, never playing a secondary or purely ornamental role. In fact, Gourmelen draws on iconographic evidence for much of his interpretative support. The book is enriched by an excellent bibliography and (last, but not least) by several precious footnotes that offer synthetic but complete insights into some major questions of the anthropology of Athens and Greece in general. We may, in conclusion, remark upon the multiplicity of technical competencies, and the methodological variety, that the author brings to bear in his research, giving the book what I would call a certain “polyphonic” tempo. Themes are introduced, developed, momentarily left aside, taken up again and finally resolved through a series of passages that maintain throughout the echoes of various strains of melody. Is this a reflection (a deep one, if it is the case) of the musical approach to the “mythologies” inaugurated by Claude Lévi-Strauss? If so, it is certainly welcome. In any case, the elegance of the style and the intimate passion of the writer — that without doubt will captivate a sympathetic reader after even only a few pages — make of this work not only a fine scholarly contribution, but a book that will be read with pleasure (quite a rare phenomenon indeed in the field of Classics).

Such a vast, ambitious and original work obviously also contains several arguments that could be revisited or developed in different ways. I will limit myself to sketching some major points that for obvious reasons will be developed only briefly:

The Egyptian origin of Kekrops suggested by some sources (pp. 75 ff.). Concerning this old and controversial question, it may be interesting to recall that the authenticity of this tradition had already been rejected, with some disdain, by K. O. Müller (the celebrated ‘founder of scientific mythology’), who called the “Saitic origin of Kekrops… an historiographical sophism” and considered it simply “derogatory” to call the Athenians “Egyptians” (K. O. Müller, Prolegomena zu einer wissenschaftlichen Mythologie, Göttingen 1825: tr. it. Prolegomeni a una mitologia scientifica, Napoli Guida 1991, 127 ff.). Such a strong rejection was presumably due not only to the legitimate requirements of historical method, but also to the desire of keeping Greek civilization “pure” of any oriental contamination. It is not a mystery that in the 19th and 20th centuries the question of the influences exerted by Mediterranean cultures on the birth of Greek civilization frequently provoked a rather strong ideological reaction.

The matrimonial laws promulgated by Kekrops (pp. 97 ff.). Gourmelen’s analysis clearly shows that the first king of Athens did not “invent” patrilineal filiation, as is commonly put forward. But I do not believe that Kekrops was even thought “avoir fondé une filiation bilatérale”, as Gourmelen suggests. It is possible that the situation is different, that what was at stake was not so much the rules of filiation, but the conceptual models of conception. A fragment by Charax from Pergamon (FGrH 103, F 38), quoted and discussed also by Gourmelen, states the following: “… Kekrops was called a creature of double nature (diphues) because, thanks to him, the humans discovered for the first time that they were born of two persons”. In other words, it seems that the “primitive” condition of mankind consisted not in the fact that the newborn did not know “who” its father was, but in the fact that it simply did not know that it “had” a father. In other words, before the advent of Kekrops people only knew that they were born of a mother (a definitely apparent condition), without relating pregnancy and birth to the active role of a father. If this is so, we would be faced with a rather interesting fact: that Greek mythology already contained an “avatar” of the scholarly legend — quite current among the evolutionary anthropologists of the 19th and 20th centuries — according to which “primitives” could not consider pregnancy and copulation related. This is a scholarly legend that was taken quite seriously by anthropologists such as Frazer and Malinowski (especially in reference to the Australian aborigines), before being disavowed by later research (E. Leach, Genesis as Myth and Other Essays, London Cape 1969, 117 ff.; S. D’Onofrio, Le parole delle cose, Congedo Galatina 1998, 59 ss.). To trace this ‘mythical’ approach to supposed “primitive beliefs” about conception back to Greek mythology could add an interesting chapter to the history of anthropological thought.

The marriage of Kekrops (pp. 135 ff.). According to the sources, Kekrops married the daughter of Aktaios, a man bereft of male offspring. Gourmelen interprets this mythical marriage using the matrimonial model elaborated by C. Leduc referring to the world of Homer (Comment la donner en mariage? La mariée en pays grec, in G. Duby and M. Perrot, eds., Histoire des Femmes, I, L’antiquité, P. Schmitt — Pantel, dir., Paris 1991, 259 ff.). According to Leduc, in the society mirrored by the Iliad and the Odyssey we find two basic types of marriage. The first occurs when a woman is married to the son of a family who, after the death of his father, will become the master of the house. In this case the bride, who brings wedding gifts to the house of the bridegroom, would be called (still according to Leduc) a “bought woman” (ktete gyne). The second type of marriage — much less desirable — happens when a father has no male offspring. Consequently, he chooses a bridegroom for one of his daughters and he makes this son-in-law his heir and successor. In this case, the woman (still according to Leduc) would not be called a “bought woman” (ktete gyne), but a “married woman” (gamete gyne); in addition, the son-in-law would acquire the status of “brother” (kasignetos) of the father-in-law. Applying this matrimonial model to the marriage between Kekrops and the daughter of Aktaios, Gourmelen draws the conclusion that this woman was a “gamete gyne” and Kekrops became a “kasignetos” of Aktaios. Unfortunately, the model created by Leduc is as seductive as it is fragile. The texts do not support it. The supposed difference between “ktete gyne” and “gamete gyne” is based only on a peculiar exegesis of a single line (406) of the Works and Days of Hesiod (in reality the text only deals with an opposition between “wife” and “woman slave”); the other cases of supposed “bought wives” recorded in the Homeric poems also refer to women slaves. In addition, there no examples of the term kasignetos referring to the father-in-law (cfr. H. Phelps Gates, The Kinship Terminology of Homeric Greek, Indiana University Publications in Anthropology and Linguistics, Memoir 27, Supplement to International Journal of American Linguistics, 37, 4, 1971, 14 ff.). Therefore, I think that the marriage of Kekrops should be interpreted under a more suitable and reliable perspective (that of the Athenian epikleros, also explored by Gourmelen, certainly appears more solid and promising).

The snake and the cicada (pp. 351 ff.). In one of the more fascinating parts of his research, the author sketches a cultural profile of the cicada, at Athens in particular. The argument is developed quite accurately (we can only signal the omission of the excellent essay by C. Brillante, Il vecchio e la cicala, in Studi sulla rappresentazione del sogno nella Grecia antica, Palermo Sellerio 1991, 112 ff.). Given that the cicada — such a central symbol in Athenian culture — is also described by our sources as “born of the earth”, Gourmelen inserts this insect among the mythical resonances of Kekrops, even to suggest that Kekrops, the snake-king, “aurait pu être une cigale” (362). This perspective is quite fascinating and the analogies — pointed out by Gourmelen – between the mythical world of Kekrops and the cultural milieu of the cicada, are interesting. But it is possible that, in this case, the author is pushing too far. The core of the hypothesis — Kekrops, the cicada-king — is based on the existence of a cicada called “kerkope”, i.e. “provided with a tail”. Once again the analogy is seductive, but there is a difficulty. A tail called “kerkos” is normally a short one: this is why “kerkos” can also mean the penis, a handle, a pin, etc. Consequently, this expression does not fit the very long, snakelike appendage that regularly characterizes the body of Kekrops. The relation between “Kekrops” and the “kerkope” could be purely casual, as frequently happens in the world of words and sounds — a simple homophony. In any case, what we can scarcely concede to Gourmelen’s argument is its conclusion: “Kekrops aurait pu être une cigale, donc. Mais alors, que faire de son ophiomorphisme …? La réponse se devine aisément. Il est possible de formuler l’hypothèse selon laquelle, à l’origine, le personnage a pu être considéré comme une cigale … mais sous l’influence déterminante du mythe de la naissance d’Erychthonios, le serpent s’imposa comme seul et unique symbole de l’autochtonie”. In this excellent book, Gourmelen’s interpretation/reconstruction of the mythic material always steers clear of the temptation (so rarely resisted elsewhere in classical scholarship) of conjectural evolutionism, something I consider among the best qualities of his research. I would have preferred that in this case, too, conjectural evolutionism not play a role in the analysis.