Friday, January 26, 2018


Tua Korhonen, Erika Ruonakoski, Human and Animal in Ancient Greece: Empathy and Encounter in Classical Literature. Library of classical studies, 15. London: I. B. Tauris, 2017. Pp. ix, 262. ISBN 9781784537616. $65.00.

Reviewed by Giulia Maria Chesi, Humboldt-Universit├Ąt zu Berlin (

Version at BMCR home site


In recent years, since the inception of animal studies, Classics has taken part in the research in the field.1 The present volume joins the academic debate with important insights, potentially relevant to all fields of literary study, by critically assessing the human-animal relation in Greek literature, and the supposedly chauvinistic anthropocentrism of the Greeks. Contrary to the common misconception that Greek anthropocentrism was the first step towards "the total separation of humans and non-humans" (Latour), Korhonen and Ruonakoski plausibly argue that the idea of the human in extant literary texts is inherently plural, and mediates the inter-subjectivity between human and non-human animals.2

The first chapter maintains that any discourse on animality, in antiquity as well as today, has to adopt a human point of view, since discourses are products of human language, and therefore of human thought. Yet, the anthropocentric perspective is not a legitimization of the dichotomy between the human being and the animal. As Korhonen and Ruonakoski argue, from a phenomenological perspective humans (and thus, of course, the ancient Greeks as well) experience themselves primarily as having a sensuous body, which acts as the norm of embodiment, along with a norm of the first-person sensuous and mental awareness. By having a body, though, we become also sympathetic with other humans—and non-human animals—to the extent that our body understands the body of the other. In other words, embodiment allows humans to recognize subjectivity in the other and to empathize with him. As Korhonen and Ruonakoski put it: "As long as the Greeks were living and experiencing, as long as their bodies were sensuous human bodies in the same sense as ours are, they must have empathised with animals: they must have recognised the bodies of non-human animals as centres of subjectivity and they must have been able to experience empathetic sensations pertaining to the movements of animals" (p. 23). Empathy with the non-human animal, then, is at the core of Greek anthropocentrism, which situates subjectivity in the point of intersection between human and animal inter- subjectivity.

The second chapter ("Encounters with animals in Greek literature") is a discussion of the encounters with animals in Greek poetry. While in the preserved texts animals usually serve as a representation of the human world, there are instances where the animal perspective is adopted, arousing empathy with the animal situation. This is the case with Argos dying in the Odyssey, while Odysseus cries upon seeing the miserable condition of his dog. In Oppian's Cynegetica, the reader is invited to identify with a hunted bear (4. 406-411), and we have similes comparing animals to humans (e.g. 4. 189- 195). In an epigram attributed to Xenophanes, Pythagoras is said to pity an abused dog, because he heard the voice of a friend in the dog's barking. Addressing animals with the vocative "you" represents a privileged technique meant to arise feelings of pity. In Iliad 17, Zeus pities Achilles' horses Xanthus and Balius crying for the dead Patroclus, and uses the pronoun "you". Other poems encourage directly the reader to feel the animal body. In a passage of Works and Days (529-535), the reader would inhabit the body of wild cattle and goats, which, with their "teeth chattering mournfully", are running among the rocks, looking for a shelter to hide from a snowstorm. In the fifth victory ode of Bacchylides, the movements of the flying eagle are so vividly described that one might identify with his body. If Greek poetry questions the supposedly anthropocentric view of the animal, this does not seem the case with Greek poetics, whose primary focus is the human (Pl. Resp. 10. 63c; Arist. Poet. 3. 1448a). Yet, the division between poetic production and poetics might arise suspicion. Alcman's fr. 39 can be read as a poetics manifesto: Alcman states that he learned to compose poetry from the voice and the language of the partridges (with "geglossamenan" referring to the birds, not the speaking voice in the poem). A discussion about the animal situation in Greek poetry in relation to Greek poetics should include this fragment. Ancient views of animal language and their interconnection with human language have been explored by Bettini (2008), in a crucial book on this topic, which is missing from the bibliography of this volume.3

Chapter three ("The spectrum of human-animal relationships in Greek antiquity") explores Greek literary representations of human-animal relationships in everyday life. Animals were subjects of human watching. In Odyssey 19, Penelope reports a dream in which she enjoys watching her geese; Isocrates tells of bears and lions performing by whirling around in the attempt to imitate humans (Antidosis, 15. 213). Humans were looking at animals during the public sacrifices and it is possible that women's cries would conceal the animals' laments. Animals were also the subject of human care, and sources testify human sympathy and respect for domestic and working animals. An epigram of Adaeus of Macedonia reports that one Alcon spared his ox's life out of respect for the ox's work (AP 6. 228). Pericles' father let build a statue of his dog to commemorate his faithfulness: the dog swam after him as he left Athens by boat, before the battle of Salamis, and ultimately died of exhaustion. Animals were respected also insofar as they were perceived as sacred to a god.

The chapter ends with sophisticated remarks on metamorphosis and the supposedly negative image of animality in Plato. Human transformation into an animal is often the "acknowledgment of a failure to be human" (p. 94), as in the case of Tereus. Yet, narratives of metamorphoses also testify to a belief in the continuity between human and non-human world. In a similar vein, the animal is not just the negation of the human in Plato and Aristotle. The tyrant has a predatory (theriodes) and savage (agrios) nature (Resp. 9. 571c-d; 10. 619b-c); bestial (theorides) people eat their babies (NE 7.5.1148b16-32). Yet, the most savage of all living beings is a man without education (Leg. 7. 776; Pol. 1.1.1253a34-37). Thus, the opposition is not between man and animal, but between predatory and tame living beings, whether animal or human. If this section provides strong evidence of the thesis that domestic and working animals in the literary texts were not passive objects of human care and working activities, it nevertheless omits to discuss a crucial point in the Greek literary conceptualization of human-animal relationships: how life among domestic and working animals turns human communities into a more-than-human sociality, that is a hybrid of human and non-human interactions, where animal agency plays an active role in the shaping of the social script. This seems to apply, for instance, to the case of the dog of Pericles' father discussed by the authors: since the dog's behavior matches human social values, supposedly the animal is also capable of internalizing them, shaping the master-dog bond as a hum/an/imal relation in which each part deliberately takes care of each other.4

The final chapter explores Greek representations of animals and human-animal relations in different genres: epic (Iliad); drama (Sophocles' Philoctetes and Aristophanes' Birds); epigram (Anyte's animal epigrams). In the Iliad, several similes focus on the animal point of view, and on the agency of the animal body, provoking in the reader empathetic feelings with the animal situation. A passage in Iliad 11 (172-180) praises Agamemnon's warlike value: like a lion attacks the flock, making all his prey run away except for one that faces "sheer death", so Agamemnon attacked the Trojans and killed many of them. Yet, the simile also illustrates the point of view of the animal prey at the moment of his death, which makes "that individual specific" (p. 107). Some similes emphasize the movements of the animal's body and its agency. Achilles flies away like a black eagle, the strongest and the swiftest among the winged creatures (Il. 17. 460-461). In Il. 12. 299-311, Sarpedon is compared to a lion who is hungry for meat (krea) and whose spirit (thumos) compels him to attack a farm; a few lines further, Sarpedon incites Glaucus to fight by evoking the memory of their shared meat meals (krea). Both the animal and the hero possess thumos, are meat-eater and face a dangerous situation. In Il. 13. 571-572, Adamas is dying of a wound in the chest, and writhing like a wild ox in the attempt to wiggle out of the laces that were forced on him by men. While the animal's pain is instrumental to the description of the hero's suffering, the simile also invites the reader to share the painful struggle of the ox.

In Philoctetes, Philoctetes' apostrophes to animals are usually read as signs of his savage animality. Yet, they can also be interpreted in the light of Philoctetes' gradual recognition of his own human 'animality'. As animals are prey of the hunter Philoctetes, so the hero might end up becoming their prey (955-960; 1148-1154). When he confesses to be unable to hunt and invites the birds, who avoided him for fear of being captured (1087-1094), to his cave, he sympathizes with their distress. While Philoctetes' own reduction to an animal source for food can be seen as debasement of humanity to savagery, it also indicates that "he understands the interdependency of animal life" (p. 144). Moreover, as predatory animals attack humans, so Philoctetes might be ready to attack and kill Odysseus and Neoptolemus (75-76).

The Birds blurs the division between humans and animals by representing the animal life in an ornitho-centric way, and by staging a human metamorphosis into birds. The faculty of flight is for the birds a means to know more (1470-1472); the birds sing several bird eulogies (676-684, 737-751, 770-783); the world is described as originating from a cosmic egg, and birds as the offspring of Eros and Chaos (691-703). Furthermore, they condemn bird torture (522-538) and establish laws to prevent bird-selling (1077-1087); the human-bird hybrid Peisetaerus maintains to be a bird (1353, 1600).

In Anyte's animal epigrams, the animal body encourages the reader to contemplate the interconnection between human and animal life from the animal's point of view. In the Dolphin epigram, the lyric I is a dolphin, and the description of its joyful movements as it swims in the sea invites the reader to identify with his body sensations, and somehow to feel that freedom through the animal body. As the dolphin is also aware of death, the animal mortality reminds the reader of the limits of human life. Similarly, the Marauder, Dog, Grasshopper and Cicada epigrams focus on death from the animal point of view, underlining the continuity between the fragile animal and human life.

The book is written in an elegant style and one would hardly guess it was co-written. It also received due editorial care: I spot only two minor mistakes (p. 47: "mise-en-abyse" instead of "mise en abyme"; at p. 59 the text references to Argos should read "17. 304-5, 326-7" and not "17. 304-5, 326-7, 304-5").


1.   Cf. Annetta Alexandridis, Markus Wild, Lorenz Winkler-Horacek (eds.), Mensch und Tier in der Antike (Wiesbaden, 2008); Mark Payne, The Animal Part (Chicago, 2010); Gordon Lindsay Campebell (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life (Oxford, 2014); A. Matsuoka and J. Sorenson (eds.), Rethinking Dogs and Other Canids, Montreal [forthcoming].
2.   Cf. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge Mass., 1993), p. 104; similarly, Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge, 2013), pp. 13-25, 67-81. For a re-evaluation of Greek anthropocentrism and human and non-human relationships, cf. Catherine Osborne, Dumb Beasts and Dead Philosophers (Oxford, 2007).
3.   Cf. Maurizio Bettini, Voci. Antropologia sonora del mondo antico (Torino, 2008), chs. 2-4.
4.   On more-than-human social ties and animal social agency, cf. Cristiana Franco, Shameless. The Canine and the Feminine in Ancient Greece (Berkeley, 2014), pp. 176-177ff.

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