Monsters in Greek Literature

Fiona Mitchell, Monsters in Greek Literature: Aberrant Bodies in Ancient Greek Cosmogony, Ethnography, and Biology (New York: Routledge, 2021). 9780367556464

Reviewed by Grace Zanotti, Milken Community School, gracemzanotti@gmail.com

In the introduction to Monsters in Greek Literature: Aberrant Bodies in Ancient Greek Cosmogony, Ethnography, and Biology, Fiona Mitchell sets out her purpose clearly: she will examine representations of monsters in Greek literature in order to better understand “the ways in which ancient Greek authors delineated the time, space, and bodies which we inhabit” (14). Combining philological perspective with contextual and comparative close readings, Mitchell offers a focused analysis of the construction of monstrosity in texts of ancient Greek cosmogony, ethnography, and biology, as well as the ways those monsters function structurally to further the narrative ends of those genres.

Part I (“Cosmogony”) consists of two chapters, each focused on a different account of the creation and development of the cosmos. Chapter One examines Hesiod’s Theogony, while Chapter Two takes up two fragmentary Orphic cosmogonies, the Hieronymus and Hellanicus Theogony (HHT) and the Rhapsodic Theogony (RT). Both chapters provide thorough overviews of the major events of their respective texts as they relate to the subject at hand—monsters—as well as of the history of the texts’ transmission (particularly relevant to the Orphic theogonies, as they are reconstructed from fragments in the work of later Neoplatonists and Christian apologists) and relevant debates regarding their interpretation.

Mitchell has organized Part I in this way to demonstrate that monstrosity is not consistent or stable even within the same genre and in fact functions differently according to the teleology of the narrative. For example, following her taxonomy of monsters born to Ouranos and Gaia or to Phorkys and Keto, the analytical centerpiece of Mitchell’s chapter on Hesiod’s Theogony is the battle between Zeus and Typhoeus, the hundred-headed, many-voiced, monstrous child of Gaia and Tartaros. Mitchell emphasizes that the disordered, hybrid bodies of some of the monsters of the Theogony mark their unfitness to remain in the ordered universe of Zeus’s rule; Typhoeus is especially threatening because, in combining multiple types of bodies and voices (including one that speaks “as though for the gods to understand”), he fails to conform to the Olympians’ anthropomorphism, but approaches them in power. In this way Typhoeus becomes a case study for the function of monsters in the Theogony more generally: they serve as “villains” whose contrast and opposition to the anthropomorphic Olympians allow the latter group “to demonstrate their superiority and therefore fitness to preside over the cosmos,” exemplified by Zeus’s ultimate rule (44). By contrast, the two monstrous figures Mitchell examines in the Orphic theogonies, the creator gods Chronos and Phanes, likewise have “disordered” bodies that combine multiple animal forms, but because they appear early in the chronology of these cosmogonies—in contrast to Typhoeus, who appears late in the Theogony—their bodies merely reflect different stages in the creation of the cosmos and its creative potential rather than representing a threat to an already established order. Moreover, Mitchell notes that while both Orphic theogonies do include an account of Zeus gaining power over the universe, the Rhapsodic Theogony doesn’t end there: instead, the final part of the development of the cosmos is the creation of humans from the remains of the Titans and Dionysus. That the end of the RT “focuses not on a god of order and kingship but one associated with ecstasy, an abnormal birth, and wild animals” demonstrates that the abnormal bodies of Phanes and Chronos are not at odds even with the later stages of the cosmos; thus, monstrosity in cosmogonies is not inherently a sign of danger—in fact, “monstrous” figures can be (in Mitchell’s words) peaceful and benign (67).

Like Part I, Part II (“Ethnography”) spans two chapters: Chapter Three focuses on a single complete work (Herodotus’s Histories) and Chapter Four on works preserved in fragmentary form in the writings of later authors (the Indikas of Ctesias and Megasthenes). Mitchell takes care to establish the three authors as part of a continuous tradition of geographic and ethnographic writing, and highlights the similarity in both content and method among Herodotus, Ctesias, and Megasthenes. Not only do certain creatures and peoples recur across the three authors (such as the griffins at the far northern or eastern reaches of the world, the one-eyed Arimaspians, and the dog-headed Kynokephaloi), but the ethnographers also share similar ways of acquiring and transmitting information: they report on “what they can see for themselves, what they can hear from others, and what they can deduce from the information they have” (83). Mitchell suggests that this “human perspective” (as opposed to the divinely inspired knowledge of Hesiod or the Orphic theogonies) contributes to the ways monsters appear and function in Herodotus’s Histories and the Indikas of Ctesias and Megasthenes. As Greeks had more access to knowledge of India in the times of Ctesias and Megasthenes, monstrous peoples and animals are pushed to the edges even of that far-off land, marking both the strangeness of India and the limits of the populated world. In the absence of direct knowledge of distant places, by contrast, Herodotus reports on strange peoples or magical occurrences (such as the Pygmies in Libya, isolated by a supposedly impassable desert) through second- or third-hand accounts, creating “chain[s] of information in which it is possible for there to be a mistake” in order to distance himself from accusations of inaccuracy (99). Despite the similarities in content and method, however, Mitchell also distinguishes each author’s approach to describing and mobilizing monsters in their work: Ctesias uses the sensory experiences of sound and color to augment the strangeness of creatures like the bittakos and martichoras; Herodotus’s monsters often appear as part of “mythological digressions” that collapse chronological and spatial distance and serve to bring peripheral locations and peoples closer to Greece; and Megasthenes, whose Indika contains the most peoples who are physically but not always socially abnormal, can lapse into paradoxography—the cataloging of miraculous occurrences.

Over the course of both chapters, Mitchell forcefully rejects the idea that the fantastical elements in each of the texts renders them less valuable or worthy of serious study, as well as the trend in scholarship to view these elements as “mistakes” from which the texts need to be saved, either by rationalization or by finding a factual counterpart (for example, the identification of the giant, gold-digging ants in the Histories as marmots in Peissel’s The Ant’s Gold). Instead, she makes a case for attending to those fantastical elements in context, with an eye to how they function in these ethnographies: as a narrative strategy, turning to mythical precedent in order to render unfamiliar places comprehensible or to emphasize the strangeness of distant locales by the presence of monstrous peoples and animals, as an argumentative strategy, providing evidence or precedent for other phenomena described in the ethnographies, and as a reflection of how the Greeks understood the structure of the world. That particular understanding might be either geographical–in terms of an asymmetrical north-south model or a center-periphery model–or social and cultural, as the abnormal bodies and social practices of monstrous peoples reinforce an understanding of what properly human bodies are “supposed” to look like and be able to do.

In Part III (“Biology”), Mitchell argues that Aristotle’s classifications of monstrous creatures in his biological writings continues this work of delineating the boundaries of human and animal groups, and even creates a hierarchy of value among different life forms. Mitchell analyzes four different categories of abnormal creatures in Aristotle’s Parts of Animals, Generation of Animals, and History of Animals: hybrids, terata (“monsters”), peroi (“deformed”), and creatures who fall somewhere between teras and peros, a group that includes “women, metachoira [pigs with a birth defect affecting their size], and animals with improperly formed internal organs” (179). Although Aristotle never directly theorizes a hierarchy of living beings, Mitchell asserts that his categorizations of difference across these three works, in which monsters play an important part, form a background structure which places the most value on human life (as the closest to the divine, having the capacity for true intelligence), and in which individual deviations from a species’ ideal Form represent a threat to its continuation. Aristotle explicitly connects Forms to the reproduction of species in his Generation of Animals: because mortal creatures cannot in themselves be eternal, they approximate eternity by continuously reproducing the Form of their species.

Mitchell highlights both the unusual prevalence of monsters in Aristotle’s biological texts compared to other biological writers of his era and the degree to which the capaciousness of his use of “monster” words (teras, peros, and their derivatives) dilutes the perceived monstrousness of the creatures he catalogs. If any creature that does not sufficiently resemble its parents is a monster, the criteria for monstrosity are wide indeed, encompassing everything from human babies born without fingernails to sheep with misplaced spleens to creatures born with defects that make them unrecognizable as members of their species. Partly as a result of such frequency, Aristotle is able to fold these “monsters” into his account of the workings (or failings) of the natural world and use them to mark the boundaries of species: even as “monsters” deviate from the physical norms for their species, their similarities to those species render them intelligible, ultimately shoring up those same norms. In this way, Aristotle’s monsters, while not “the bizarre creatures of narrative, but rather the strange and distorted bodies of real creatures,” still conform to the uses of monsters in the more narrative genres of cosmogony and ethnography (184–85).

While Mitchell’s overarching claim that monsters “explore and define what it is to be human” (195) is already something of a commonplace in the literary humanities (as Mitchell herself is aware, given her citation of scholars like Stephen Asma and her brief survey of the field of monster studies in her introduction), her arguments about how monsters are constructed and how they function differently according to genre are truly innovative. Mitchell’s careful attention to the transmission history of the texts she is analyzing—especially the ones transmitted via fragments preserved in the works of other authors—and her insistence on interpreting the texts on their own terms, without imposing modern expectations of (for example) strict realism, enable her to perform incisive close readings that yield surprising insights. I’m thinking in particular of her claim in Chapter One that the “chronological distortion” of presenting later monsters killed by human heroes early in the Theogony allows Hesiod to foreshadow Zeus’s ultimate victory over Typhoeus, and her later observation that Tartaros is an apt prison for the Titans because, as a place in which time does not pass, it “[denies] them the progression of time they would need to develop into a threat” (38). Similarly, by refusing to rationalize the monstrous creatures of Herodotus’s Histories, Mitchell sheds light on the way those creatures work throughout the text: not merely “entertaining additions” or “bad history,” descriptions of creatures like the winged snakes serve as evidence to support other claims Herodotus makes about the workings of the world in adjacent passages (93). Especially in instances like these, thinking with Mitchell as she guides her reader through these texts is a delight.

If there is one monstrous topic I expected to be addressed in more depth that was not, it is gender—but this may be an expectation that I bring to the text, rather than one Mitchell invites and then disappoints. She explores gender only in Chapter Five, in the context of her analysis of monsters in Aristotle’s biological texts and only because Aristotle himself explicitly compares human women to monstrous or deformed creatures. While female monsters do appear in Parts I and II, on cosmogony and ethnography, their gender is not the relevant analytic, as Mitchell focuses on the monsters’ narratological function rather than how their gender might contribute to their monstrosity, or how their monstrosity constructs their gender. I think this is a fair approach, as much scholarship has been generated on representations of women as monstrous in other genres (notably tragedy and epic), and expanding the scope of her book beyond the three genres she already tackles would have rendered Mitchell’s project unwieldy. In all, Monsters in Greek Literature is a welcome addition to any classicist’s bookshelf, and will be especially useful to those interested in the genres and authors Mitchell examines, monster studies, and narrative structures.

Table of Contents

Introduction (1–20)

Part I: Cosmogony (21–76)

1. Hesiod (23–48)
2. The Orphic theogonies (49–76)

Part II: Ethnography (77–152)

3. Herodotus (79–117)
4. Ctesias and Megasthenes (118–52)

Part III: Biology (153–91)

5. Aristotle (155–91)

Conclusion (192–95)

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