BMCR 2022.09.17

Monsters in Greek literature: aberrant bodies in ancient Greek cosmogony, ethnography, and biology

, Monsters in Greek literature: aberrant bodies in ancient Greek cosmogony, ethnography, and biology. Routledge monographs in classical studies. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2021. Pp. 210. ISBN 9780367555450 $160.00.

Fiona Mitchell has produced a helpful study on monsters in some foundational texts in Greek literature. Mitchell is aware of the relevance this topic has to historians of Greek culture as well as its cachet in popular culture. Beyond her helpful introduction, however, the monograph focuses on the literature specified in her subtitle. Nevertheless, the discussion she engenders is clearly meant to contribute to a wider conversation happening among ancient historians for whom the monster is a common motif.

“As a result of their boundary crossing nature, and their ability to be invested with cultural values,” Mitchell explains that monsters constitute an insightful topos for understanding those who imagined them (15). With this as its premise, the study considers, in turn, theogonies (Hesiod and Orphic), ethnographies (Herodotus, Ctesias and Megasthenes) and biological texts (Aristotle) to uncover the ways that the monstrous loomed in the Greek intellectual imagination.

Starting with Hesiod, Mitchell notes the inherently hybrid nature of the monsters that populate cosmogony and how they constitute a kind of parallel genealogy to the gods, set apart by the constitution of their bodies and their relationship to the created order. The Theogony’s genealogical organization and its long-standing influence make it a formative starting point for understanding the role of monstrousness in the literature that follows. Mitchell lays out two categories for how Hesiod arranges the monsters in the economy of creation––the bodily hybrids that sit outside of the natural order, and the under-described, but still ambiguous, creatures that are not monstrous in Hesiod’s telling, but are depicted that way elsewhere. For example, Mitchell spends considerable time with Typhoeus, the child of Gaia and Tartaros, noting his peculiar genealogy and complex hybridity.  By contrast, the Gorgons that appear in Hesiod are not depicted in the way they are in other Greek literature, but they are still situated outside the world, “beyond the Ocean, near the Hesperides” (37). As a side note, Mitchell pays admirably broad attention to parallel themes in ancient near Eastern literature, including the Enuma Elish, deutero-Isaiah, Ezekiel and the Psalms (41-43).

Mitchell turns next to a group of fragmentary theogonies attributed to Orpheus, the backgrounds of which she treats with careful attention to contextual details that are tangential to her subject, but useful for the reader. Here Chronos is given a full treatment as perhaps one of the most consequential monstrous figures in the mythos. Mitchell is descriptive in her account, and expansively so, drawing connections between the Orphic texts and a sweeping range of classical texts to portray Chronos as the entity who “through his own existence and that of his offspring… creates a suitable state in which creation can come about” (58). Turning to the other monstrous subject in the Orphic theogonies, Phanes, Mitchell gives an account of his birth, coterminous with the beginning of creation, with the latter being imitative of the former. As throughout, Mitchell excels at navigating the textual materials that bear on Phanes, especially the motif of Zeus consuming Phanes and his “creative capacity” (65). She contrasts how the Orphic texts present these monstrous entities by noting how the cosmos itself is patterned after their appearance (68).

Mitchell shifts out of the explicit, mythic topoi of Hesiod and the Orphic texts to consider the ethnographic literature of Herodotus, Ctesias and Megasthenes. Her approach in these chapters is to survey relevant monstrous forms and motifs in these texts, while also paying careful attention to the mythology that is always underfoot when dealing with the theme of monstrosity (103). In explaining the elements at play, Mitchell provides textual parallels from related literature, making these chapters an extraordinary resource for tracing certain motifs.

In Herodotus, Mitchell first considers geographically peripheral human beings and those with hybrid or undefined bodes. Next, she considers precious materials and “acquisitive monsters,” (i.e., monsters that uncover or collect specific materials) including aromatics and abnormal animals (these include “frankincense and winged-snakes [91-94],” “cassia and bat-like flying creatures [94],” “cinnamon and huge birds [94-96],” and “ledanon and goats [96-98]”), as well as gold (griffins [98-99] and gold-digging ants [99]). Mitchell then addresses “monstrous omens” that are said to appear in the periphery of Greece. These include the account of king Meles and the lion he carried around Sardis (105-107), the horse of Xerxes that gives birth to a hare (107-109), and fish that return to life, which the prisoner Artayctes interprets to be a warning to himself (109-110).

After surveying Herodotus, Mitchell considers the fragmentary texts of Ctesias and Megasthenes. She provides a thorough account of these Eastward-looking authors, situating them within the ethnographic tradition (though, in practice, this involves heavy comparisons with Herodotus). Mitchell sifts out of these texts the way sensory dimensions, especially color, factor into portraying monsters (126). She goes on to survey examples, starting with the varied colors of the bittakos described by Ctesias (127-8), griffins that are associated with precious stones, (especially gold items and blue stones like lapis lazuli [128-31]), and the unicorn-like kartazonos, which appears in both authors and is distinct not only in color, but also in sound (131-3). Mitchell is careful to explain that these color distinctions are not what makes these figures monstrous, but their descriptive inclusion emphasizes their monstrous abnormality.

Mitchell’s survey through these ethnographic authors concludes with an account of peoples who are monstrous in the sense that they diverge in substantial ways from what is deemed to be “normal” for human groups. She begins with an account of the Pygmies, who appear as early as Homer but are elaborated on by both Ctesias and Megasthenes. This is paralleled in the treatment of the kynokephaloi, dog-headed people, who are treated at length in Ctesias and who are portrayed particularly monstrously (or, at least, animalistically, Mitchell notes) by Megasthenes (139-142). Mitchell’s concluding remarks about these authors focus on the way the monstrosity here does not adhere to a strict cultural logic, nor are the monsters themselves always in a consistent place with respect to broader society. What makes one monster does not necessarily define another.

Mitchell’s final chapter considers the biological discourse developed by Aristotle, especially in the Parts of Animals, Generation of Animals, and History of Animals. Mitchell distinguishes Aristotle’s biological corpus from Hippocrates and Galen precisely because of how monstrosity figures into Aristotle’s account of hybrid, monstrous individuals (τέρατα) and whole species with a shared deformity (those that are πηροί; 156-7). This typology is premised on Aristotle’s assumption that Form (εἶδος) is “the driving force of the development of individual organisms, but the replication of the Form of the species is the impetus behind reproduction” (159). To distort Form is to foster monstrosity, in Aristotle’s view. Terata and creatures that are pēroi occupy Aristotle’s category of monsters, and the terms are used primarily to signal those offspring that significantly differ from parents or species (166). The deformed (pēros) is the category that figures most uniquely in Aristotle, who develops it into a more subtle account of deformations––he includes crocodiles, seals, apes and ostriches as examples of animals that are distinct from a related species (176-77). Mitchell carefully unearths some additional examples that do not fall neatly into the category of terata or that of pēra. In this group are animals with deformed internal organs as well as women, who are deemed by Aristotle to share a “Form” with men, but in men that form is, as Mitchell writes, “more fully actualized” (184). These last cases are not precisely monstrous, but they are positioned with respect to what is, making monstrosity a central category for Aristotle (182-4).

This study is a welcome contribution to an area of scholarship that is ripe for elaboration. The monstrous appears throughout all kinds of literature, and Fiona Mitchell has taken a group of texts and used their contrasting depictions of monsters to understand their relationship to one another and to the literature that follows them. I would describe this work as a generous and attentive survey or as a guided tour. This is the study’s strength, but also points to a limit of its scope, which is that its engagement with the subject of monsters is, at times, under-theorized. In Mitchell’s exposition, a monster is sometimes a hybrid, “abnormal” or “animalistic,” but these categories are not analyzed very far beyond the portrayals made by the ancient authors in question. Given the intricate dimensions of the subject that Mitchell elucidates, and especially because of the highly theorized nature of monsters in contemporary media, some discussion of how this idea is constructed and deployed by these authors would add insights to this already deeply engaged study.

Mitchell points to the theoretical literature that makes the subject of monsters so interesting in her introduction, but the engagement largely ends there, to the detriment of the resulting monograph. Instead, this study functions as a magnifying glass that develops upon the work of those who have treated how monsters appear in Greek and Roman literature.[1] Mitchell’s focus on the range of bodies as they are described in these texts becomes the conceptual anchor that links these genres together. And, fundamentally, that is the contribution that Mitchell offers to this scholarly conversation.

Mitchell does not focus on developing an argument or an interpretive claim about monsters, as such. Instead, she carefully lays out the dimensions of monsters and monstrous themes in a carefully arrayed body of literature. This is a credit to the text, but it also leads one to wonder what other projects might evolve out of this one. Mitchell’s thorough tour of this literature invites further exploration and further cataloguing throughout other relevant Greek literature, as well as in related sources. However, that project may require many collaborators, and it would amount to a sizeable endeavor. What Mitchell has compiled in this volume––one that feels slimmer in hand than it does in one’s mind––is a worthy resource for beginning it, and for pointing the way to those with interesting questions that bear on this rich and complex literature.


[1] Mitchell specifically calls out the narrow focus of essays focused on individual texts in the volume Monsters and Monstrosity in Ancient Greek and Roman Culture, edited by Catherine Atherton (Bari: Levante, 1998). My reading finds a similar focus in Mitchell’s chapters, which also treat a discrete author or genre type.