BMCR 2008.09.05

En soufflant la grâce: Âmes, souffles et humeurs en Grèce ancienne. Collection HOROS

, En soufflant la grâce : Eschyle, Agamemnon, v. 1206 : âmes, souffles et humeurs en Grèce ancienne. Collection Horos. Grenoble: J. Millon, 2007. 246 p. ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9782841372072 €25.00 (pb).

This book announces its central question and goal in two successive sentences on the first page of the introduction. First, the question: “qu’est-ce que le souffle ( pneûma) pour les Grecs?” The goal is more specific: to defend Erich Bethe’s century-old theory that the Greeks “conceived of sperm as the vehicle of the soul.” In the course of his famous argument that “Dorian” pederasty originated in a primitive initiation rite, Bethe had also suggested on the basis of etymology and cutting-edge comparative anthropology that a Dorian erastês was believed to transfer aretê to his erômenos by injecting him with semen, literally “breathing it in.”1 Rather than the much-discussed question of initiation it is the more specific theory that Edoarda Barra-Salzédo wishes to resurrect from what she sees as a century of scorn and neglect. Together with the question about pneuma, therefore, the Greek conception of “sperm as the vehicle of the soul” serves as a useful summary of her own book’s point of departure.

By the time one encounters on the book’s second page the surprising claim that, with the single exception of Jeanmaire in 1939, no other scholar has since taken Bethe’s theory seriously, doubts begin to emerge. What about Harald Patzer’s decidedly serious attempt in Die griechischen Knabenliebe (Wiesbaden, 1982) to explore and confirm Bethe’s theories about not just initiation but also “Spermübertragung” in Greek pederasty?2 While Patzer’s study inspired a number of thoughtful responses from some of the century’s most influential specialists, investigation of the present book suggests that these have escaped the author’s notice along with Patzer and other supporters of Bethe.3 Further investigation reveals that with the exception of Bethe and the slightly garbled citation of a 1901 article by Wilamowitz, no German-language items appear in the bibliography at all.4 This may help to explain Patzer’s absence, as well as that of a number of studies whose findings might have significantly enriched En soufflant la grâce.5 If these were isolated bibliographical quibbles occasioned by a footnote one would hesitate to mention them at all, much less at the beginning of a review. As it is, however, initial doubts about the construction of its raison d’être are not dispelled by the rest of the book, even as it pursues its fascinating topic with some energy across an otherwise impressive array of sources.

Barra-Salzédo begins with the tragic phrase that inspired the book’s title. “En soufflant la grâce” refers to Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1206, where Cassandra tells the chorus about Apollo’s “breathing his grace” on her. Neither semen, nor soul, nor pneuma, it might be observed, figures explicitly in this line but the extended discussion later in the book (198-225) ought to convince any beginners or skeptics about the importance of divine pneuma in the context of prophetic inspiration. The author herself is more interested in the manifestly sexual context of Apollo the panting “wrestler,” breathing his charis on the human object of his desire. The wide-ranging implications of breath and breathing, then, especially as they relate to contact and continuity between people and gods, sexual and otherwise, comprise a second major theme of the book.

I refer to themes and points of departure rather than thesis or argument because of Barra-Salzédo’s clear preference for finding echoes and exploring implications rather than searching for origins, offering definitions, identifying difference, or tracing change over time. The “ancient Greece” of her book’s title is a big and unexpectedly homogeneous place, its chronological, geographical, and evidentiary diversity no more visible than the frontières disciplinaires eschewed by the series in which it appears. The emphasis on echoes, hints, and elusive double-meanings depends not just on the author’s preference but more explicitly on her subject, as the introduction insists with engaging intensity: the book’s topics are “taboo” (12-14), in antiquity no less than in 1907 when Bethe first dared to write about Knabenliebe. This is reflected in a decided flair for scholia and fragments at the expense of explicit texts and systematic explanations.

In specific cases the results are sometimes unconventional—although perhaps not quite so radical as the author, grimly resolved to endure sundry “anathemas” and the risk of being labelled “une ‘névrosée d’aujourd’hui'” (12), seems to think—but they are gained at a high cost. As it turns out readers are less likely to be troubled by the breaching of ancient or modern taboos than by their inability to discover just what the book means, or assumes its sources mean, by the words and concepts that lie at its heart. The final paragraph concludes that “one cannot speak about pneuma without taking into consideration the connections it was thought to have with l’âme, l’esprit, le logos et la semence” (225). But one searches the rest of the book in vain for contextualized or general explanation of any of this sentence’s five technical terms—all of them the subject of sustained debate and the most diverse definitions across time, space, and genre (among other things) in the long history of ancient Greece.

Three long chapters organize the book. The first addresses Homer and the Hippocratic corpus respectively in two unrelated sections, analyzed in more detail below. Chapter two, “Un régime ‘pneumatique’,” turns to a thematic structure: food, sacrifice, and the “commensality” between people and gods. The title of the third and final chapter, “Là où l’emportent les souffles d’Aphrodite,” alludes to its emphasis on breath as both “the symbolic substitute of the erotic act” and the means by which gods literally (Zeus and Io) or figuratively (Apollo and the Pythia) impregnate their victims. The last two chapters explore a particularly wide range of topics and sources, many of them not obviously related to the book’s central questions. While these chapters also advance several provocative arguments—ranging from a remarkably literal interpretation of the “inspiration” offered by the cicadas in Plato’s Phaedrus (127-138) to the unveiling of a new (and exceptionally well hidden) joke in Aristophanes involving cunnilingus and musical tropoi (139-150) to rather breath-taking speculations about hitherto unsuspected Greek initiation-to-marriage rituals featuring oral sex, based on late accounts of a lost Stoic allegorical interpretation of an otherwise unknown painting of uncertain provenance that seems to have depicted Hera fellating Zeus (168-186)—one suspects that few readers will be entirely convinced by those conclusions that go beyond what has been well-established elsewhere. The remainder of this review will focus instead on the problems and possibilities raised by Homer and Hippocrates.

In its venture down the well-worn path of Homeric anthropology En soufflant la grâce reminds us above all that breath was very important, especially when it comes to functions we might associate with “soul.” Barra-Salzédo evocatively describes the Homeric body as “a plurality of members, animated by a kind of vapor in which several vital breaths are mingled, a vapor that interacts with the breaths of the gods” (17). She applies the label “breath-soul” ( âme-souffle) to many of the most important psychological words in Homer: not just psychê and thumos but also aiôn, êtor, and menos (18-24). In general, then, under the broad rubric of souffle she prefers—with good reason, it seems, and following a number of distinguished predecessors—to stress important material and psychological continuities among the soul words instead of sealing them off in sharply distinguished mental or physical categories. This renders puzzling the absence of any discussion about “breath” itself. We are told on the chapter’s first page that pneuma is for Homer “le mode opératoire des dieux” and that it must also be “the material support of the soul.” But this suggestive summary founders (perhaps not quite fatally) on the apparently unnoticed fact that Homer never actually uses the word pneuma. There is plenty of breath and blowing, to be sure, described in words that have been the subject of learned investigation from antiquity to the present, just as there are many Homeric contexts where later authors might readily invoke pneuma. Comparative analysis of change over time, lexical and otherwise, might have turned an awkward fact into an important piece of evidence for archaic conceptions of breath. But the complex history of pneuma (which begins to ramify in earnest with the Hippocratics) is nowhere to be found in this or later chapters. While a systematic history would require a different book, even a brief discussion could help prevent confusion, or the doubtless unintentional implication that pneuma in Greek can always be translated as “souffle.”

Possibly because words for semen, unlike words for pneuma, do not appear in Homer,6 the second section of the first chapter turns to the Corpus hippocraticum in search of “the symbolique du sperme” (44). Recognizing diversity among medical conceptions of the soul’s constitution, Barra-Salzédo concludes that the Hippocratic authors nevertheless found “a veritable consubstantiality” between soul and semen since they said both were made of the same stuff, whether it be fire, water, air, or some combination of these. For this broad and striking claim a single example is offered, not in a manner that inspires confidence. The author of Regimen, we are told, “identifies the soul with fire” and also writes that semen contains fire (45). While that sometimes obscure treatise does indeed suggest very close links between psychê and sperma, it does not identify the human soul with fire. On the contrary, it twice says quite clearly that psychê is a “blend of fire and water.”7 Barra-Salzédo otherwise argues persuasively that semen is best seen as “containing” soul rather than identical with it (57).

But it seems more important still to recognize that the psychê of Regimen is one of the most enigmatic “souls” to have survived from antiquity. Despite an explicit (and oddly exclusive) link with phronêsis many of its features will seem as startling to the student of Homer or Plato as they will to the unsuspecting ordinary reader who finds in the present book only the word “âme.” In other words, Regimen advances a fascinating but highly technical conception of psychê that may or may not represent contemporary medical theory and practice.8 About this idiosyncrasy, however, En soufflant la grâce has nothing to say—nor indeed about the telling fact that, so far from being ubiquitously identified by Greek doctors as “consubstantial” with semen, the soul is almost never mentioned at all, explicitly or otherwise, in the rest of the Hippocratic treatises the book covers in detail, and never in the context of semen, reproduction, or sexuality.9 The reader is left to assume without notice or explanation that Regimen‘s singular version of a manifestly material psychology is evidence for a more or less universal Greek conception of the soul’s composition.10 While this reviewer happens to think it may well be, his grounds for thinking so have not here been solidified.

As a whole, then, as in its parts, En soufflant la grâce leaves unexamined the relationship between the explicit technical arguments of selected theorists and its vision of hidden, nearly unconscious Greek assumptions over the course of a millennium or so. In the first category the book usefully brings to our attention quite unambiguous claims from Diogenes of Apollonia, the Hippocratic author of Regimen, Plato, Aristotle, and certain Stoics about the close relationship between the composition of human semen and at least some part of the human soul. Apart from Regimen, none of these statements (some but not all of which include reference to pneuma, air, or breath) is examined in context or detail. So do these technical accounts bear witness to a profound symbolique du sperme, unified by fundamental and ubiquitous ideas about both pneuma and soul throughout the Greek world? Perhaps they do, but it is a crucial question that has been inadvertently raised rather than resolved by the book under review.

As for arguments about deep assumptions on the part of the Greeks, and especially their secret or censored beliefs about breath and sex, these are as hard to evaluate as they are to pin down. In its pursuit of echoes and things left unsaid Barra-Salzédo’s allusive and episodic approach to “doing anthropology with the Greeks” (12) inevitably and sometimes explicitly recalls earlier trail-blazers from Jean-Pierre Vernant to Giulia Sissa. If En soufflant la grâce showed comparable mastery of its primary and secondary sources, one would be more inclined to offer the benefit of the doubt when silence is invoked as proof rather than its opposite (183-186). As it is, the issues raised above, together with a small crowd of relatively minor but still troubling concerns,11 mean that the book must be read with constant reference both to its ancient sources in their full context and to more reliable modern investigations, whether or not these have attracted its author’s attention.


1. E. Bethe, “Die dorische Knabenliebe: ihre Ethik und ihre Idee,” Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 62 (1907): 438-75, esp. pp. 460-472.

2. Harald Patzer, Die griechische Knabenliebe (Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1982). While Patzer, after careful analysis (p. 13, n. 11), does not support Bethe’s etymological argument from εἰσπνήλας, he makes use of more recent comparative anthropology to support the likelihood of semen as a “bearer” or transmitter of virtue from lover to beloved (pp. 76-79). He also draws attention (p. 75) to Bethe’s explicit influence on the anthropological literature, not just the other way round. For enthusiastic and detailed endorsement of Bethe’s sperm-transmission theory see esp. Gisela Bleibtreu-Ehrenberg, Mannbarkeitsriten: Zur institutionellen Päderastie bei Papuas und Melanesiern (Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein, 1980), pp. 75-79; cf. Thorkil Vanggaard, Phallós: A symbol and its history in the male world (London: Cape, 1972), pp. 62-66.

3. E.g., David M. Halperin, “One hundred years of homosexuality,” review of Die griechische Knabenliebe, by Harald Patzer, Diacritics 16 (1986), 34-45 (revised and reprinted in two parts in Halperin’s 1990 book of the same name, pp. 15-40, 54-71); the review by K. J. Dover in the Journal of Hellenic studies 104 (1984), 239-40; and especially Dover’s “Greek homosexuality and initiation,” in The Greeks and their legacy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 115-134, with a detailed examination of Bethe’s arguments about “inspiration” (pp. 123-24). Cf. Jan Bremmer, “An enigmatic Indo-European rite: Pederasty,” Arethusa 13 (1980): 279-98. For (guarded) support of Bethe prior to Patzer, see Paul Cartledge, “The politics of Spartan pederasty,” Proceedings of the Cambridge philological society 207 (1981): 17-30, pp. 23-24; Georges Devereux, “Greek pseudo-homosexuality and the ‘Greek miracle’,” Symbolae Osloenses 42 (1967): 69-92, pp. 80-81; and (implicitly) Devereux, “Breath, sleep and dream (Aischylos, Fragment 287 Mette),” Ethnopsychiatrica 2 (1979): 89-115, p. 106, with n. 2. The last ten pages of Devereux 1979 might have been useful indeed to Barra-Salzédo since they address not only Bethe’s theory but also a remarkable number of the same themes and sources as her book, including an analysis of Aeschylus Ag. 1206, stressing the sexual implications of Apollo’s wrestling, his charis, and the importance of divine insufflatio (pp. 105-106); a discussion of fellatio based on Ael. VH 3.12 (pp. 106-107); an argument that “the notion that semen is a vehicle of ‘moral qualities’ . . . is certainly both ancient and widespread” (p. 107); the importance of heavenly odors signalling the presence of gods (p. 108); breath and the Homeric soul (p. 108); the Greek belief that “the wind was able to impregnate goddesses, mammals and birds” (p. 109); beliefs that gods literally consumed smoke, among other things (p. 110-111); the Pythagorean doctrine that “beans, being full of wind, partake of the nature of the soul” (p. 111); and finally, “the nexus between the psyche and the pneuma,” including the fact that pneuma has been called “the carriage of the soul” (p. 112).

4. For “Die hipp. Schrift περὶ ἱερη νόσου” (p. 240) read “Die hippokratische Schrift περὶ ἱερῆς νούσου.” It must be admitted that mistakes in the bibliography are hardly limited to its two German items (although the entry for Bethe has both misspelled a word and dropped another from the title). Compared to the text and notes, there seems to be a much higher incidence of spelling, typographical, and other basic mechanical errors (e.g., alphabetization, p. 232) in the bibliography.

5. Among many possibilities one thinks of Franz Rüsche, Das Seelenpneuma: Seine Entwicklung von der Hauchseele zur Geistseele (Paderborn, 1933); or Thomas Jahn, Zum Wortfeld “Seele-Geist” in der Sprache Homers (Munich, 1987), with its metrically sophisticated conclusions about the semantic flexibility of Homeric “soul words.”

6. If in certain archaic contexts menos implies semen (pp. 31-33), then Od. 2.270-272 is a potential if decidedly oblique exception. Cf. Anne Giacomelli, “Aphrodite and after,” Phoenix 34 (1980): 1-19 (an article imperfectly grasped by the book under review; see pp. 31-33 and n. 116); Michael Clarke, Flesh and spirit in the songs of Homer: A study of words and myths (Oxford, 1999), p. 110; and now James Davidson, The Greeks and Greek love: A radical reappraisal of homosexuality in ancient Greece (London, 2007), p. 258, who would add Il. 24.6 to the list.

7. Regimen 1.7; 1.25. Barra-Salzédo seems to be thinking of Regimen 1.10, where part of the cosmic world-governing fire is said to contain psychê, nous, phronêsis, and so on. She clearly knows about this passage (see p. 56) and about the difference between micro- and macrocosm, which makes the initial summary on p. 45 all the more puzzling.

8. See David B. Claus, Toward the soul: An inquiry into the meaning of ψυχή before Plato (New Haven, 1981), pp. 151-152.

9. These are: Nature of man; Aphorisms; Nature of bones; Generation/Nature of the child / Diseases 4; Breaths; and Nature of women. Only Nature of man and Breaths refer to psychê (or any other term that might be translated “l’âme”), once each.

10. For a similarly misleading attempt to make a Hippocratic text talk about l’âme see p. 58, where a passage from Nature of man 2 is said to “demonstrate clearly” that “à la fin du Ve siècle ou au début du IVe, les humeurs de l’homme fournissaient matière à des débats publics, entre conférenciers opposés, sur la nature de l’âme où chaque participant pouvait invoquer toutes sortes d’humeurs, et pas uniquement le sperme ou le sang, pour appuyer ses théories.” Apart from a passing reference some four chapters later Nature of man actually has nothing to say about the soul, explicitly or otherwise, much less about “public debates on its nature.”

11. E.g., all within a few pages of the end of the book: Diotima is called “un être ‘intermédiaire'” on the basis of Pl. Symp. 202e-203a (p. 214); Cicero and his brother are systematically reversed as the speakers in books 1 and 2 of Cic. Div., which seems to have led to the surprising (if not wholly indefensible) characterization of Cicero as one of the “pieux esprits” who wrote about divination (p. 220); Plut. Amatorius 763A ( οὗτος οὐ δαιμόνιος σάλος τῆς ψυχῆς) is translated as “N’est-ce pas une agitation de l’âme démoniaque?” (p. 222); despite the inclusion of quotation marks and Greek words, the book’s concluding quotation from Plutarch’s E at Delphi (385D) is actually a paraphrase that replaces a reference to two specific inscriptions with “chaque chose présente à Delphes” (p. 225).