CLASSICS IRELAND

1995 Volume 2
University College Dublin, Ireland

The Greeks and Anthropology

Paul Cartledge

Clare College
Cambridge

Therefore look up and search deep and when you have found it
Take hold of it boldly and duly. If fate has called you,
The bough will come away easily, of its own accord
(Vergil Aeneid, trans. Seamus Heaney)

J.G. Frazer borrowed the title of his anthropological - or should it be anthroposophical? - extravaganza The Golden Bough (original edition 1890) from this famous passage of Vergil's no less golden Latin epic. But to conventional late Victorian Classicists he was better known or respected for the six-volume commentary he published eight years later on Pausanias, the ancient Greek Baedeker, who had embarked on a curiously proto-Frazerian pilgrimage of religious antiquarianism around what was to him even then in the second century of our era 'ancient' Greece.

By 1898, the relationship between Anthropology and Classics was an established if a still a little shaky fact. It had begun as a trial marriage in such foundational works as H.S. Maine's Ancient Law (1861) and Fustel de Coulanges' La cité antique (1864), when Classics was still relatively speaking in its heyday and Anthropology its infancy. By 1908, when a group of distinguished scholars was brought together by R.R. Marett to contribute to a collection entitled Anthropology and the Classics, not only consummation but something like parity of esteem had been achieved. Or so one might have been forgiven for thinking. Actually, divorce proceedings were already in the offing.

Traditional Classicists repined then against what one august American Hellenist dubbed 'the anthropological Hellenism of Sir James Frazer, the irrational, semi-sentimental, Polynesian, free-verse and sex-freedom Hellenism of all the gushful geysers of "rapturous rubbish" about the Greek spirit' (a loose reference to the 'Cambridge Ritualist' school of Jane Ellen Harrison, F.M. Cornford and others). For their part, cutting-edge ethnographic anthropologists were about to be - as many still are - deep into Malinowskian participant observation, reporting back to base with mint-fresh data on living societies and often scornful of the dead cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, not to mention History more generally.

By 1960, when Clyde Kluckhohn delivered a lecture-series at Brown University under the same title as the Marett collection, the decree absolute had been granted. In so far as intimate relations still existed, the flow was almost entirely unidirectional, from the erstwhile junior to the now seriously moribund elder partner. E.R. Dodds' The Greeks and the Irrational (1951) both protested eloquently against and by its title neatly illustrated one of the chief reasons for this stand-off. Classicists still basking in the afterglow of Victorian self-identification with the Glory that was Greece were not impressed by Dodds' forays into alleged shame-culture and shamanism, let alone the paranormal, in Classical Greece. When Moses Finley's The World of Odysseus was published on this side of the Atlantic in 1956 (it had originally appeared in New York in 1954), his unashamed attempt to illuminate Homer from the writings on the potlatch and kula-ring of the Durkheimian anthropologist Marcel Mauss was thought to need the imprimatur of a pukka Classical humanist (Maurice Bowra). Yet in retrospect Finley's little masterpiece can be seen as the seed of the present flowering of anthropologically-related studies of ancient Greek culture and society.

First, though, spare a thought for one ethnic or national group that was by no means entirely thrilled by the growth of the discipline of social anthropology or displeased by the divorce of Anthropology and Classics - the modern Greeks. Ever since the creation of the Greek state, and its paternalistic-imperialistic appropriation by powers further to the north and west, a battle royal has been waged for the hearts, minds and above all heritage of the Greek people.

For some foreign devotees of the Hellenic ideal and their local acolytes, a Greek is a Greek is a Classical Greek, whether she is a denizen of Classical Athens, Byzantine Constantinople or nineteenth-century Kalamata. In anthropology J.C. Lawson's Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion (1910) or R. and E. Blum's The Dangerous Hour. The lore of crisis and mystery in rural Greece (1970) represent this ideological construction of Greekness as an essence, a Classicizing essence to be sure, impervious to such historic changes as that from paganism to Orthodox Christianity, or from subsistence peasant agriculture to more or less internationally market-driven capitalist farming.

For others, it makes all the difference in the world what historical epoch of Greece is being imagined as ancestral. To some Greeks of a relativist persuasion, for example, the Classical heritage is just one more facet of The Misfortune to be Greek - the title of a recent best-seller by Nicos Dimou prompted by the perception that the West's desire for the modern Greeks to live up to their ancestors' supposedly glorious past has always been a huge burden. It is this challenged sense of ethnic and national identity that lies behind, for example, the current furore over ex-Yugoslav Macedonia. It has been expertly analysed by American anthropologists Loring Danforth and Michael Herzfeld, leading lights of the small but vigorous American- and British-based community of anthropologists of modern Greece, which acknowledges a debt to the inspiration of John Campbell's Honour, Family and Patronage (1964). Yet it is surely telling that Campbell should have chosen for his fieldwork the Sarakatsani of Epeiros in north-west Greece on the border with Albania, a group of Greeks as marginal figuratively (then) in their politics and economy as they were literally in their geography. That way, issues of modern Greek heritage and cultural ancestry could be neatly side-stepped.

But if the modern Greeks, for all their deep-rooted tradition of philoxenia (friendship and hospitality towards strangers), remain dubious of the benefits of being anthropologised, modern scholars of ancient Greece have participated with an unparalleled zest and gusto in the perception current across all the humanities, that anthropology is, if not the, at any rate one of the paradigmatic and architectonic disciplines. No one has done more to make this appear to be the case than Clifford Geertz, patentee of the ethnographic discourse known almost onomatopoeically as 'thick description' - notwithstanding his own typically ironic claim that, compared with law, physics, music or cost accounting (!), anthropology is a relatively minor cultural institution. Students of the agonistic and masculinist public culture of the ancient Greeks tend to find that his dissection of the Balinese cockfight strikes a particularly resonant chord.

It is, however, the work of Finley mentioned above that has been decisive for the anthropological turn in Anglo-American Classical scholarship. Finley was himself an American refugee to these shores from McCarthyism, but apart from his technical knowledge of land and credit in ancient Athens he brought with him also a wider, largely German intellectual inheritance of Weberian historical sociology, as expressed in the work of the Frankfurt School, and the economic anthropology of Karl Polanyi. The other major tributary of the scholarly flood of anthropologising Hellenism, of which Finley himself availed, is French. Taking its rise in Durkheimian sociology and Maussian anthropology, it flowed through the wide-ranging work of the Hellenist Louis Gernet and the historical psychology of Ignace Meyerson into the 'Paris School' of cultural criticism founded by Jean-Pierre Vernant (originally trained as an ancient philosopher) and the historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet.

It is impossible to list here more than a sample of recent work, and selection is invidious. But in the last half-dozen years alone historians of ancient Greece (both terms are to be interpreted generously) have drawn on comparative anthropological data and/or models to illuminate such institutions and cultural 'imaginaries' as age-setting (Sallares), agriculture (Gallant), burial-rituals (Humphreys, Morris), the family (Humphreys, Strauss), gender-protocols (Halperin, Humphreys, Just, Winkler and Zeitlin), law (Cartledge, Millett and Todd), religion and mythology (Bruit, Schmitt), ritualised guest-friendship (Herman), science (Lloyd), sexuality (Cohen, Just, Winkler), slavery (Cartledge), and tragic drama (Vernant, Vidal-Naquet).

However, no less important than the sheer range and depth of this anthropologising research is the sharp - and, almost inevitably, binary - divide that separates its practitioners into two more or less hostile camps, partly for theoretical, partly no doubt also for ideological reasons. On the one hand, there are those who believe it is possible and fruitful both to generalise across all modern Greece (and sometimes more broadly still, to 'the Mediterranean world', for example) and to use such generalised comparative data to supplement as well as interpret the lacunose primary data of antiquity, either on the assumption that like conditions produce like effects or, more strongly, in the belief that there has been substantial continuity from antiquity to the present. On the other hand, there are those who either believe on principle or are simply struck by their supposedly objective observation that such comparison should be used chiefly to highlight fundamental cultural difference rather than homogenise heterogeneous cultures or fill gaps in the extant primary sources. (Not that this is a dispute peculiar to students of ancient Greece, it hardly needs adding.)

A couple of examples, one from each interpretative tradition, addressing the same problematic of gender and sexuality may help to make the distinction of approach more concrete and precise. To represent the 'lumpers' as it were, I choose David Cohen's enormously stimulating and generally well-received monograph (already into its second reprint) on classical Athenian sexuality as that was policed both formally by popular adjudication in the law courts and informally through customary norms. Cohen is very widely read - his theoretical model draws freely on the sociological work of Bourdieu and especially Giddens as well as a vast range of ethnography from all round the eastern Mediterranean, among Muslim and Arab communities in addition to Catholic and Orthodox religious traditions.

Cohen's basic contentions are twofold: that male-generated law was just one, and by no means the largest, part of the normative honour-and-shame system designed to regulate Athenian sexual behaviour, and that the 'Mediterranean model' suggests we should imagine quite radical dissonance between the moral norms as publicly expressed and officially enforced and the practical negotiation of them in private between the sexes. This is an important and plausible hypothesis, but one of the dangers of homogenisation (to which Cohen is generally alert) in this instance is making insufficient allowance for the difference between classical Athens, a sovereign democratic community, and a modern village in Lebanon or Greece whose acknowledged norms may be at odds with those of the officially sovereign national legal culture. Apart from anything else, the boundary between public and private must inevitably be located and function differently in such disparate political contexts.

To represent the 'splitters' I single out the collection of essays by the late Jack Winkler on gender-protocols in 'ancient Greece', which he interprets more widely than Cohen to include texts written in Greek in Egypt or elsewhere in the Greek-speaking half of the Roman empire as well as in democratic Athens. Indeed, the close reading of texts is of the essence for Winkler's anthropological hermeneutics of ancient Greek culture - a deliberate challenge to the conventional philological approach to the Classics which claims to find anthropology either irrelevant or positively harmful, and an especially attractive strategy for students of Greece (and Rome) who find themselves engaged in often contentious dialogue with - and about - a multicultural society and its canons (literary or otherwise).

Thus Winkler, like Cohen, studies the way the Athenians 'laid down the law' on sexual propriety and agrees that simply knowing the protocols does not tell us how people behaved. But in studying, additionally, the constraints of desire imprecated by or implicated in the necessarily private genre of erotic magical spells, he is able not only to move beyond Cohen's frame of reference but also to provide contemporary evidence that questions the validity of the supposed norms themselves (in this case denial of female sexual pleasure).

At the risk of attracting yet more wrath from my already exasperated colleagues, let me summarise what I take to be my own objective observation of fundamental and irreconcilable differences between the mentality of the Classical Greeks' ideological constructs and those of any modern Western society, including that of contemporary Greece. I take comfort - or refuge - in the fact that, whatever similarities may be apparent, for whatever reasons, between the ancient and the modern Greeks, one institution that was arguably central and fundamental to ancient Greek culture and society but is unarguably absent from modern Greece is slavery: at the limit the total deracination and depersonalization, the social death, involved in the chattel slavery experienced by slaves in Athens, at best a vague limbo status 'between slavery and freedom' such as the Helots of Sparta enjoyed.

Slavery, I contend, was the governing paradigm of human worth in Classical Greek antiquity, affecting not only economics and politics but also, more subtly, the ideological representations of, and interpersonal relations between, the sexes. There have always been Classicists who have objected to anthropologising cross-cultural study of the ancient Greeks, precisely because it seems to focus on their least edifying traits. To them I would reply that slavery however distasteful was an essential and formative part of a culture that was - in many other ways - admirable, and indeed a continuing source of cultural inspiration, most obviously in the visual and performing arts.

Let me, therefore, end on an upbeat note. Like Robin Fox (Anthropology Today, Oct 1993, p10), I look forward to a genuinely universal 'Science of Mankind'. But alongside the massed ranks of his archaeologists and anthropologists I would hope and expect to find arrayed also an international brigade or two of anthropologising Classicists. Why not?

References and further reading

Bruit Zaidman, L., and Schmitt Pantel, P. 1992. Religion in the Ancient Greek City. Cambridge.
Burke, P. (ed.). 1991. New Perspectives on Historical Writing. Oxford.
Campbell, J.K. 1964. Honour, Family, and Patronage. A study of institutions and moral values in a Greek mountain community. Oxford.
Cartledge, P. 1993. The Greeks. A portrait of Self and Others. Oxford.
Cartledge, P., Millett, P., and Todd, S. (eds.). 1990. NOMOS. Essays in Athenian Law, Society and Politics. Cambridge.
Cohen, D. 1991. Law, Sexuality and Society. The enforcement of morals in Classical Athens. Cambridge.
Danforth, L.M. 1984. 'The ideological context of the search for continuities in Greek culture' Jnl Modern Greek Studies 2: 53-85.
Danforth, L.M. 1989. Firewalking and Religious Healing: the Anastenaria of Greece and the American Firewalking Movement. Princeton.
Di Donato, R. 1990. Per Una Antropologia Storica del Mondo Antico. Florence.
Dodds, E.R. 1951. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley, L.A.
Dubisch, J. (ed.) 1986. Gender & Power in Rural Greece. Princeton.
DuBoulay, J. 1974. Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village. Oxford .
Finley, M.I. 1978. The World of Odysseus. Revised edition. Harmondsworth.
Finley, M.I. 1986. 'Anthropology and the Classics' (1972), repr. in The Use and Abuse of History. 2nd edition. London.
Gallant, T. 1991. Risk and Survival in ancient Greece. Reconstructing the rural domestic economy. Oxford.
Geertz, C. 1988. Works and Lives. The Anthropologist as Author. Oxford.
Gernet, L. 1968. Anthropologie de la Grèce antique. Paris.
Gernet, L. 1983. Les Grecs sans Miracle, ed. R. Di Donato. Paris.
Halperin, D. 1990. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and other essays on Greek love. London.
Halperin, D., Winkler, J. and Zeitlin, F. (eds.). 1990. Before Sexuality. The construction of erotic experience in the ancient Greek world. Princeton.
Herzfeld, M. 1987. Anthropology through the Looking-Glass. Critical ethnogaphy in the margins of Europe. Cambridge.
Herman, G. 1987. Ritualised Friendship and the Greek City. Cambridge.
Humphreys, S.C. 1978. Anthropology and the Greeks. London.
Humphreys, S.C. 1993. The Family, Women and Death: comparative studies. Ann Arbor.
Hunt, Lynn (ed.). 1989. The New Cultural History. Berkeley, L.A.
Just, R. 1989. Women in Athenian Law and Life. London.
Kluckhohn, C. 1961. Anthropology and the Classics. Providence.
Lloyd, Christopher. 1993. The Structures of History. Oxford.
Lloyd, G.E.R. 1991. Methods and Problems in Greek Science. Cambridge.
Loizos, P., and Papataxiarchis, E. (eds.). 1991. Gender and Kinship in Modern Greece. Princeton.
Mauss, M. 1970 [1925]. The Gift. Forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. London.
Morris, I. 1992. Death Ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge.
Nippel, W. 1990. Griechen, Barbaren und "Wilde". Alte Geschichte und Sozialanthropologie. Frankfurt/Main.
Redfield, J.M. 1991. 'Classics and Anthropology'. Arion (Spring) 5-23.
Sallares, R. 1991. The Ecology of Ancient Greece. London.
Strauss, B.S. 1993. Fathers & Sons in Athens. Ideology and society in the era of the Peloponnesian War. London.
Vernant, J.-P. and Vidal-Naquet, P. 1988. Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, trans. J. Lloyd. N.Y.
Vidal-Naquet, P. 1986. The Black Hunter. Forms of thought and forms of society in the Greek world, trans. A. Szegedy-Maszak. Baltimore & London.
Winkler, J.J. 1990. The Constraints of Desire. The anthropology of sex and gender in ancient Greece. London.


The Editor would like to thank the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland for permission to publish this article which first appeared in Anthropology Today, 10 (3), June 1994.

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