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Classical Association of Ireland

The Greeks and Anthropology

Author(s): Paul Cartledge
Source: Classics Ireland, Vol. 2 (1995), pp. 17-28
Published by: Classical Association of Ireland
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25528275
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The Greeks and Anthropology1
by Paul Cartledge

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 cit?
antique (1864), when Classics was still relatively
speaking in its heyday and Anthropology its

1 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 AnthroDoloev Todav. 10 (3). Tune 1994.

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CARTLEDGE: Greeks and Anthropology

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

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CARTLEDGE: Greeks and Anthropology

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 o?
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 icuia-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

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CARTLEDGE: Greeks and Anthropology

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


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CARTLEDGE: Greeks and Anthropology

heritage and cultural ancestry could be neatly side

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

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CARTLEDGE: Greeks and Anthropology

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

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CARTLEDGE: Greeks and Anthropology

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


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CARTLEDGE: Greeks and Anthropology

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

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CARTLEDGE: Greeks and Anthropology

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 Winkier, 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

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CARTLEDGE: Greeks and Anthropology

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, plO), 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?


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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' Inl 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 Antropolog?a Storica del Mondo Antico Florence.
Dodds, ER. 1951. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley, LA.
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 Gr?ce 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, LA.
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. Princeto.


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CARTLEDGE: Greeks and Anthropology

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.
Nippel, W. 1990. Griechen, Barbaren und "Wilde". Alte Geschichte und
Sozialan thropologie. 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.

Clare College


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