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Play, Pathos, and Precocity: The Three P’s of Greek Literary Childhood

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter looks at the themes and motifs typically associated with children throughout Greek literature, arguing that they give us an indication of the way children and childhood are conceived of in Greek culture rather than a picture of social reality. The chapter uses three examples as paradigmatic (Apollo compared to a child knocking down a sandcastle in Iliad 15; Astyanax in the Iliad; and Pindar’s treatment of Achilles’ childhood in Nemean 3). Three motifs commonly associated with children and childhood in Greek literature—play, pathos, and precocity—are examined, and their connections to other important motifs, such as choral dancing, laughter, parental care and indulgence, the natural world, exposure, and survival are discussed. These create a general conception of childhood as, ideally, a carefree time of life characterized by laughter, play, and whimsicality, in which children are expected to be carefully tended and protected.

Keywords: Artemis, Dionysus, Hephaestus, Hermes, Zeus, dance, laughter, music, pais, parthenos, play, precocity, toys, tragedy

Introduction

The two earliest representations of children in Greek art, apart from small mourners in Geometric funerary scenes, are Astyanax being killed at the Sack of Troy and the young Achilles being handed over to the centaur Chiron to be educated (Rühfel 1984: 45–74; see also Oakley in this volume). One child murdered, another abandoned by his parents to a monster: the brute facts of Greek mythology can seem awfully harsh to children. Yet these two images beautifully represent two major threads in Greek literature’s largely sympathetic presentation of children: pathos and precocity, two opposing but complementary modes of viewing essential to Greek literature’s conception of the child. The one thread asks the audience to sympathize with the peculiar weakness and vulnerability of the child; the second provides an important counterweight by emphasizing the independence and extraordinary strength and resilience of certain children.

To be clear, neither the murdered Astyanax nor the centaur-reared Achilles represents typical childhood experience in ancient Greece; like much of what we see in Greek literature the events themselves are extraordinary. Literature prefers the atypical to the typical, ideals and startling deviations from them to the messy and banal reality of most people’s lives, so I do not claim that we can construct a clear picture of how most children lived from looking at these literary treatments.1 Yet, though not typical of childhood experience, the examples I will look at are paradigmatic for Greek culture’s conception (p. 228) of the child: the emotions they evoke and their broad associations, the way these figures and related ones are used and reused, I claim, tell us a great deal about how the Greeks felt about and conceptualized children and childhood.

A third major thread “the playful child” combines with the pathetic and the precocious to create what I characterize as the three P’s of Greek literary childhood: play, pathos, and precocity. These three common threads are woven together in multiple ways to create a complex picture. Overall, I find Greek literature, for all its horrific tales about children, strikingly sympathetic to and indulgent of children, with a tendency to condemn adults who mistreat children and to ask the audience to identify with children and those who care for them. Moreover, the sense that childhood should be an easy time of life, in which children play and are cared for by loving adults, pervades Greek literature and serves as the implicit foil of the many exceptions it portrays. The high mortality rate for children in antiquity (see the chapter by Parkin in this volume) does not lead to an unaffectionate or distant attitude toward them in popular literature; rather, if anything, it seems to have intensified the feeling that children ought to be treasured and indulged during their brief existence. On the other hand, increasingly in the fifth century BCE, the idea that the child needs to be toughened up so that he can survive and compete against others begins to emerge as an alternative to the indulgent attitude that prevails in early hexameter.

Greek literature encompasses a large body of material, and I will therefore have to be very selective in presenting my evidence. I have tried to give greater attention to works that might be considered popular, particularly Homeric epic and Attic drama, as well as other early works, such as Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, the victory odes of Pindar, and Herodotus, that probably were known through oral performance to people beyond the reading elite and that established topoi that later authors respond to. I have pulled more selectively from other and later sources that seem to me less broadly representative, primarily to show continuity of theme or important deviations. Mark Golden’s chapter in this volume on Latin epic in this volume will further reveal the importance for later authors of these same images and ideas, of Asytanax and Chiron in particular.

Apollo and the Playful Child

The etymological connection between pais (child) and paizein (play) suggests that this is a fundamental association, and Greek literature bears this out. My paradigmatic example of the playful child is the figure of the child building and destroying sandcastles, who appears in a simile in the Iliad compared to Apollo destroying the wall protecting the Greek forces at Troy:

And [Apollo] tore down the wall of the Achaians

very easily (ῥῖα μάλ᾿), as when a child (πάι) piles sand by the sea-shore

when in his innocent play (νηπιέῃιν) he makes sand towers to amuse himself (p. 229)

and then, still playing (ἀύρων), with hands and feet ruins and wrecks them,

So you, lord Apollo, piled in confusion much hard work

and painful done by the Argives and drove terror among them.

(15.361–6, adapted from Lattimore translation)

This simile reflects a recurring theme in Greek literature regarding playful children: the gods resemble them, and they resemble the gods. In the simile here, the whimsicality of the action and its lack of consequence in the eyes of the actor creates the connection between Apollo’s rampant violence and the childish destruction of the sandcastle. By pointing to the contrast between Apollo’s ease and the toil and pain that the Achaeans have invested in the wall, the poet reminds his audience of a contrast, essential to the overall ethos of the Iliad, between suffering mortals (adults) and immortals (children) with their lives free of pain and effort. Playful children, like gods and unlike adult mortals, are both careless and carefree. Their actions come easily to them, with less physical and mental effort and less painful consequence, than do the actions of burdened adults. Like gods, children at play are better off than human adults, because they are happier and more at ease. They are of course also less responsible, caring, and careful, and this carelessness can lead to problems, as it does for the Achaeans in the simile here. For example, Patroclus when small (τυτόν) kills another boy in a dice game (Il.23.85–88), a mark of intemperate youth frequently implied in the word νήπι (88); a simile comparing the Myrmidons to boys (παῖδ) stirring up a wasps’ nest also confronts the possibility of harm caused by boyish playfulness (Il.16.257–62). Childish play is not always innocent (cf. Golden in this volume on Amata’s spinning top.)

Eros, boy god of love, inherits the role of the god as playful child, careless and carefree, with attendant notions of wanton destruction and whimsicality (cf. Cupid in Golden in this volume.). Beginning in lyric poetry of the sixth century, Eros is associated with youthful play. In brief fragments, Eros joins with the nymphs and Aphrodite in play (Anacreon PMG 357) and hits the poet-narrator with a “purple ball” calling him out to play with a girl (Anacreon PMG 358). But, like Apollo’s in the simile, Eros’ play has a destructive, frightening side: “The dice that Eros plays with/are raving madness and battle din” (Anacreon PMG 398, translation Bing and Cohen). Later poets self-consciously play the small size and youth of Eros off his power and capacity for giving pain (see, e.g., Anacreontea 33.10–11; Theocritus, Idyll 19; Leucippe and Cleitophon 2.1); however, the underlying assumption of such passages is that, unlike Eros, children do not normally have much power or effect.

Anacreon also reverses the analogy between god and the paides who are the objects of his eros; if Eros is playful, the pais is divine. In a well-known anecdote, when asked why he wrote hymns not for gods but for paides,2 he is supposed to have replied, “Because these are our gods” (schol. Pind. Isth. 2.1). Presumably, the physical charms (p. 230) of these paides are divine, but in addition the poet seems to see himself mastered by more potent youth. Where we may see the preying of these older lovers on younger people as victimization, the erastes-poet instead tends to present himself as the victim of an Eros-like boy or girl, who carelessly plays with the erastes’ feelings, as a child with a toy or like a powerful and unfeeling god. It is reasonable to ask just how much fun these “Games of Eros” actually were for the young beloveds who served as the objects of the poet’s admiration but whose voices are largely absent (see the speeches of Phaedrus, Agathon, and Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium for interesting representations). But it seems possible that social constraints on the erastes may have given the younger beloved more control over the degree to which the relationship developed than in a more closeted, secretive culture where the problem is aggravated by shame and concealment.3

The baby Hermes in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes is likewise a playful child and whimsical torturer of his older brother, and the hymn represents nicely certain additional topoi of literature associated with children. After “leaping” (όρ, 20) from his mother’s loins, the baby Hermes does not remain long in his cradle but rushes forth, displaying the characteristic impetuousness of youth. Hermes’ play in the hymn more explicitly represents positive, creative aspects of childish play as well as the mischief-making of Eros and Apollo, as his first achievement, at midday on the first day of life, is the invention of a lyre from a tortoise, which is repeatedly referred to as his “toy” (ἄυρμα, 32, 40, 52). The music he is able to create on the lyre later reconciles him to his older brother, angry over Hermes’ clever and inventive theft of his cattle; music making is celebrated here as the particular province of children. Laughter too falls into the province of children (Halliwell 2008: 19–25, 155–7), and Hermes both laughs (upon first finding the tortoise, line 29) and provokes laughter. Near the end of the hymn, Apollo laughs with joy (γηήα) at the beautiful music Hermes creates on his lyre (420–1). More surprisingly, Hermes’ clever rhetorical arguments in which he defends himself as a tender-footed baby, born yesterday (273), who cares only for sleep, mother’s milk, swaddling clothes about his shoulders, and warm baths (267–8), give us a brief image of the Greek view of the essentials of babyhood and earn an indulgent (ἁπαλόν) laugh from his aggrieved brother (281). A similar prevarication with a neatly evasive oath elicits a loud laugh from his father, Zeus (389). The laughter of Zeus is a rarity in early hexameter but occurs particularly in connection with his children; in the Iliad, Zeus laughs more than any other individual god, that is, exactly twice. Framing a scene where the younger gods, including his favorite daughters, are rather obviously misbehaving in childish ways, he laughs first (21.389–90) with joy (γηύνῃ), once (21.508) with pleasure (ἡδύ).4 The tendency of Zeus to respond with indulgent laughter (p. 231) to his children’s misbehavior seems both to reflect and to model appropriate adult responses to naughty children.

But all of the examples of childish play in Greek literature do not carry the paradoxical qualities exemplified by naughty gods; childish play in the form of dancing choruses can also be a source of unmixed adult pleasure, and early hexameter poetry particularly associates children of various ages, human and divine, male and female, with music and dance. Though dancing choruses had broad cultural significance (see Calame 1991; Lonsdale 1993), the language of these passages clearly presents dance and other kinds of music as play, and this is the most characteristic activity of teenaged children, both mortal and immortal, in early hexameter poetry. So in the Homeric Hymn to Gaia, it is characteristic of people favored by the goddess that:

...Their children (παῖδ) exult in their newly sprouted happiness

and the maidens in flower-picking choruses with joyful spirit

playing (παίζυαι) gambol in the soft blooms of meadow.

(H.H. 30.13–15)

The positioning of these playful children in a gentle natural scene, with maidens picking flowers, is also typical. In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, Apollo dances with other young gods, including Hebe, while his parents, Leto and Zeus, take pleasure in watching him playing (παίζντα) (200–6). The beauty, grace, and joy of playful children dancing recurs again and again, clearly evoking a world of peace, of leisure and festival, characteristic of the gods, one of the consistently positive ideas associated with children that occurs repeatedly in early hexameter.

A passage from Odyssey 6, where Nausikaa and her age-mates go to the river to wash the laundry, offers a rare but not unparalleled example of a playful girl and one of a relatively small group of images of children working in Greek literature. Strikingly, in this case, a tedious chore quickly seems to become a game:

Now when they had come to the delightful stream of the river,

where there was always a washing place, and plenty of glorious

water that ran through to wash what was ever so dirty,

there they unyoked the mules and set them free from the wagon,

and chased them along the bank of the swirling river

to graze on the sweet river grass, while they from the wagon

lifted the wash in their hands and carried it to the black water,

and stamped on it in the basins, making a race and game of it

until they had washed and rinsed all dirt away.

(Od. 6.85–93, Lattimore trans.)

The lovely setting and the very cooperative river contribute to a sense that doing the laundry, which must have been a real challenge in antiquity, is a pleasant and effortless task. The chasing of the mules and the competitive cleaning likewise lend an overall sense of fun to the scene, so that the maidens, though shown at work, appear to live a life of ease and pleasure. Labor is dissolved; play is paramount. (p. 232)

Indeed, this impression, suggested in this initial passage, becomes more explicit, when after laying out the laundry to dry the girls throw off their veils to play ball:

And among them

it was Nausikaa of the white arms who led in the dancing:

and as Artemis, who showers arrows, moves on the mountains

either along Taygetos or on high-towering

Erymanthos, delighting in boars and deer in their running,

and along with her the nymphs, daughters of Zeus of the aegis,

range in the wilds and play, and the heart of Leto is gladdened (γέγη)...

(Od. 6.100–9, Lattimore trans.)

As the playful Apollo resembles a child, the dancing Nausikaa resembles a goddess. Here again we see dance as a form of play that inspires parental delight. Something similar happens on the shield of Achilles in the Iliad in which children are shown doing small agricultural chores made light and easy, partly by the addition of music and song; like Leto, a king watches them with pleasure (γηόυν) (18.555–72). Ease of movement and adult pleasure at viewing are also associated with older children (ἠίι, παρένι) dancing on the outside rim of the shield (18.594–605). Images of children dancing and playing define the worlds of peace and prosperity that predominate on the shield (see also Il. 18.490–6).

Nausikaa is, of course, on the brink of adulthood, as the themes surrounding her actions in Odyssey 6 suggest. Odysseus’ appearance on the scene naked with only a branch covering his genitals reminds us of the threat to her childhood, but for the moment she is still in childhood and still a child at play. Greek literature tends to show more interest in boy children than in small girls, but parthenoi, girls on the brink of adulthood, constitute an exception, and literature shows considerable interest in girls of Nausikaa’s age, often with a tender sense, as with Nausikaa here, of the fleeting nature of their childhood. Nausikaa’s close relationship with her father is also characteristic of parthenoi, as exemplified by the relationship between Zeus and his favorite child, Athena, as well as a close relationship with his other daughter who remains a parthenos, Artemis.5

Childhoods of pleasure and ease are normative so that suffering adults in literature may contrast their own difficulties with the blissful ignorance of children. Sophocles’ suffering Ajax encourages his son to enjoy his childhood in ignorance of life’s miseries, feeding “on light breezes, basking / In the tenderness of your young life, giving your mother joy” (Ajax 558–9, Moore trans.). A character in Sophocles’ Tereus sees a girl’s life in the house of her father as the happiest of all human existences (ἥδιτν...ἀνρώπων βίν), (p. 233) “for ignorance (ἁνία) always fosters children (παῖδα) in pleasure” (τρπνῶ; Radt 583.3–5). In a fragment by Simonides (PMG 543), Danae contrasts her own suffering with her baby son’s peaceful bliss, sleeping unknowing of their danger, as they float in a chest on the sea, put out to die by her father. Though in all three passages it is the child’s ignorance that permits their happiness rather than the playfulness of the previous passages, the contrast with suffering adulthood creates a feeling of nostalgia for childhood (cf. Medea 46–8). Though these representations of childhood are admittedly through the eyes of adults, they are written by people who have been children. Memories of childhood may be unreliable but provide some testimony about what it actually felt like to be a child in ancient Greece.

Astyanax and the Pathetic Child

Greek literature is equally capable of using children to evoke tears as well as laughter to emphasize children’s vulnerability and weakness rather than their vigor and beauty. The Iliad, for all the humor it derives from depicting the gods behaving like children, shows a mature awareness of the way war can interfere with a mortal child’s careless, carefree life through the figure of Astyanax. In three separate moments in the Iliad, the poet derives particular pathos from the figure of Astyanax, creating a broadly representative sampling of the way war can affect children.

The first passage, at the end of Iliad 6 where Hector meets his wife and child on the walls of Troy, offers a portrait of a nuclear family, bound by ties of intimacy and love, in which both parents are invested in and comfortable with their baby. It provides strong evidence for certain basic assumptions about parent–child relationships that are transhistorical and for the Iliad’s own particular ethos in which parents are seen as ideally caring and supportive (Pratt 2007). Hector’s prayer that his son will surpass him represents a conventional view of paternal aspirations but gains considerable pathos through the audience’s knowledge that Hector’s wishes are in vain and that both father and son will die young. Similarly effective is Astyanax’s tearful reaction to Hector’s helmet, which provokes his parents’ laughter, a familiar parental reaction but here nested in a complex mixture of smiles, tears, and laughter that “transforms the significance of laughter from the merely, sentimentally natural into the richly, disquietingly symbolic” (Halliwell 2008: 54). The child’s tears and fears are ostensibly foolish, typically childish. Yet the audience’s knowledge that the cozy, loving family will soon be dissolved makes the child’s tears a moving form of insight, as like his mother he seems to see all too clearly the consequences of Hector’s bravely nodding plume.

Andromache’s lament over the dead Hector in Iliad 22 imagines Astyanax as a pathetic orphanos, a fatherless son,6 isolated and uncared for in the absence of his father: (p. 234)

You cannot help him,

Hektor, any more, since you are dead. Nor can he help you.

Though he escape the attack of the Achaians with all its sorrows,

yet all his days for your sake there will be hard work for him

and sorrows, for others will take his land away from him. The day

of bereavement (ὀρανικόν) leaves a child with no agemates to befriend him.

He bows his head before every man, his cheeks are bewept, he

goes, needy, a boy among his father’s companions,

and tugs at this man by the mantle, that man by the tunic,

and they pity him, and one gives him a tiny drink from a goblet,

enough to moisten his lips, not enough to moisten his palate.

But one whose parents are living beats him out of the banquet

hitting him with his fists and in words also abuses him

“Get out, you! Your father is not dining among us.”

And the boy goes away in tears to his widowed mother …

(Il. 22.485–99; Lattimore trans.)

The passage simultaneously creates a bleak picture of weak social support for the fatherless child while demanding sympathy for that same child, acknowledging a split between sympathetic feelings toward fatherless children and a dearth of social institutions that support them (strikingly foreshadowing modern attitudes, I note!). But, though vivid and moving, clearly stirring up sympathy for the fatherless child, the speech is odd, as Andromache here does not seem to have grasped the full implications of Hector’s death, imagining as she does an intact city and surviving social structure. Aristarchus consequently athetized this passage as describing circumstances inappropriate to Priam’s son. He comments, however, that this scene is a good generic description of life for a fatherless son, and I suggest therefore that its inclusion is no accident, but that Andromache’s vision dramatizes for the audience the consequences of war for many children, especially fallen Greek warriors or Trojan allies. The sorrow these children will experience when their dead father does not return is mentioned several times in the battle narrative of the poem, creating a background motif, which Andromache’s effective vision animates.

Andromache’s lament contrasts this bleak vision to Astyanax’s life prior to Hector’s death, a formerly coddled child who “sitting on his father’s knees, once ate only marrow and the rich flesh of sheep” and slept in soft beds or in the arms of his nurse, “delighting in feasts” (22.500–4). Pathos is created from the stark contrast between the expected childhood of happiness, comfort, and ease, where the child is cared for tenderly, and his isolation and need at the loss of his powerful and protective father. This idealized version of the child’s life is clearly one in which the parent shelters the child and even spoils him; the idea that the child of a warrior such as Hector might need to be toughened up by hardship is not raised in this tender portrait.

The final mention of Astyanax in the poem is brief in comparison with these two earlier treatments but includes the detail that clearly left a deep impression on both artists and tragedians. In her final words in the poem, her formal lament for Hector, (p. 235) Andromache imagines for Astyanax two more likely ends for a child in a conquered city: enslavement alongside his widowed mother, performing unseemly deeds (ἔργα ἀικέα) toiling for a bitter master (ἀλύων πρὸ ἄνακτ ἀμιλίχυ) (24.733–4), a result of war that must have been common for children throughout antiquity, or death, as “one of the Achaians grabbing him by the arm will hurl him from the high wall, a mournful death, angered because Hector killed a brother perhaps or a father or even a son...“ (24.734–7). Both fates are clearly presented as pitiable, as seen through the eyes of the child’s mother.

Greek tragedy sometimes also uses Iphigeneia to represent the loss of innocent youth in war. In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Artemis, “angry at the eagles’ feast” (i.e., at the death of innocent young) demands that Agamemnon sacrifice Iphigeneia so that the commander can experience the grief he will inflict on other parents through his pursuit of the war. Aeschylus evokes the audience’s pity with such details as “her cries of father” (228), “her maidenhood” (229), “the curb on her lovely mouth” (235), “the pitiful look from her eyes” (241), and the loving way (ίλω) she has sung a paean of good fortune for her beloved (ίλυ) father in the past (245–7). Euripides’ Iphigeneia at Aulis provides one gut-wrenching moment after another, as the maiden, first joyful in her ignorance, greets her anguished father with love (IA 640–78), later piteously appeals to his paternal feelings for his firstborn favorite (IA 1220–32, 1238–42) and invokes the perceptive heart of her watching baby brother (IA 1241–6), and finally bravely determines on self-sacrifice in Greece’s interest, becoming nobler than any adult in the play (IA 1375–end).

The sacrifice of Iphigeneia is, of course, just one of many stories of parents accidentally or deliberately destroying their own children in Greek tragedy and in Greek literature more generally, and this has sometimes been used to argue that the Greeks were particularly hostile toward their children (Slater 1971; deMause 1974). Much likelier, however, is that these many stories of parents destroying children represent Greek culture’s particular fears or anxieties (Pache 2004; see also Garland 1990: 148–9); in a culture where it was a challenge to raise your child to adulthood, what could be worse than destroying him or her? Again and again, the tragedians evoke pity for the children,7 for their family and caregivers, and even often for the murderers themselves, who may be mad like Heracles or delusional like Autonoe in Euripides’ Bacchae. The figure of Niobe, who indirectly destroys her own children through her prideful boasting, and the nightingale (later Procne), who murders her son “when the madness was on her,” are consistently presented as figures of particular sorrow, mourning eternally for the children they have themselves destroyed (e.g., Il. 24.602–17; Od.19.518–23; Aesch. Suppl. 60–7, (p. 236) Ag. 1142–8; Soph. Ant. 823–33; Eur. Suppl. 79–82). The murder of children in tragedy is typically surrounded by many conventional statements by the chorus and other characters about the love of parents for children, which the tragedians use to intensify the emotional impact of the murder (e.g., Eur. HF 633–6), and in almost every case, including Medea, the murderous parent expresses anguished love for the child he or she kills; it is precisely the conflict between the familiar parental emotions and the dark actions that feeds the pathos. Therefore, if these murders do also in some way represent dark recesses of the Greek psyche, we need to acknowledge that identical recesses are evident in the media frenzy surrounding contemporary mothers who kill—we are repelled, horrified, and perhaps titillated in the same way as the Greek tragic audience. The fascination exerted by mothers who kill is rooted in assumptions about the normal maternal role as fundamentally defensive, an assumption Euripides’ choruses and characters show that he was well aware of (see, e.g., IA 1255–6; Phoinissae 355–6).

There are also poignant moments generated by the loss of parents in tragedy, where loss is seen through the eyes of the child, though this is far less common, possibly because such losses are expected or, more practically, because adults play most roles in tragedy. Alcestis’ son has several pathetic speeches as his mother is dying, including such lines as “Hear me, mother, listen to me, oh please, listen, it is I, mother, I your little one lean and kiss your lips and cry out to you” and “Father, I am too small to be left alone by the mother I loved so much” (see, e.g., Alcestis 393–404, 406–15). Alcestis’ reflection on what her daughter will lose at her death also shows special sympathy for the girl child’s lot at the loss of her mother (Alcestis 302–19).

In addition, an elegiac mood may be generated by the passing of the parthenos from child to adult. This is hinted at in the Nausikaa passage discussed previously but is manifest in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter’s treatment of the rape of Persephone. The beginning of the hymn showing Persephone with other girls picking flowers and then enticed by a special flower, which is described as a toy (ἄυρμα), makes clear that her rape by Hades represents a move from childhood to adulthood as well as from life to death. The motif of flower picking frequently foreshadows death in stories of child heroes for boys as well as girls (Pache 2004: 99), the picked flower an appropriate symbol for a sudden loss of the freshness and vigor of youthful life. Men are allowed in Greek thinking to be children longer and to pass more gradually out of childhood into adulthood, but the loss of childhood is “a violent rupture” for girls (Garland 1990:170–4).

These passages, most of which are drawn from epic and tragedy, have a significantly different tone from the passages describing the playful child yet support a similar underlying ideology: children are vulnerable and need the love and support of their parents; absent that, their lives are pitiable, tragic when those who should love and protect them instead destroy them, and usually terrible for the destroyer as well. Adult pursuit of war is particularly hazardous to the young, but marital infidelity or terrible impiety can also be dangerous (unsurprisingly!). Childhood should be easy and pretty, marked by toys, flowers, and a close connection to the natural world; its loss is a source of sorrow. (p. 237)

Achilles and the Precocious Child

The story that the young Achilles was separated from his parents and turned over to the centaur Chiron, who brought him up in a cave in the wilds of Mt. Pelion, though far from a tale of ordinary Greek childhood, is similarly paradigmatic, representing a particularly common theme in Greek literature’s depiction of children: the wondrous precocity of a child god or hero. Unlike my other two paradigms, this story is not found in the Iliad and is even contradicted by it, as the Iliad presents Achilles growing up in Peleus’ house, tended by a surrogate human father Phoenix, accompanied by Patroclus (23.84–8), and hearing his mother “boasting” in the halls of his father “often” (1.396). Phoenix’s fond recollection (9.485–95) portrays Achilles as an ordinary fussy baby, not a precocious hero. Chiron is mentioned briefly (4.219, 11.831, 16.143–4), but not as a foster parent. Accounts of Odysseus’ childhood are similar in presenting vignettes that are within the realm of normal human experience (Od. 24.337–42, 21.15–35, 19.399–466). The precocious child becomes ubiquitous in Greek literature only in the fifth century BCE, perhaps under the influence of the Cyrus story, though there are earlier prototypes associated with baby gods rather than with human children. But vase painting suggests the story of Chiron rearing Achilles was known as early as 650 BCE and became quite popular (Rühfel 1984, 61; see also Oakley in this volume); though not Homeric, the story had cultural resonance from an early period.

Pindar gives us the earliest surviving literary version of the Achilles–Chiron story in Nemean 3 (ca. 475 BCE). His version brings out clearly the precocious child motif so beloved by Greek literature: “Blond [Achilles], while still a child at play about Philyra’s house, performed deeds of might (παῖ ἐὼν ἄυρ μγάλα ἔργα): often brandishing his iron javelin, swift as the wind, he battled savage lions to their deaths and slew boars, dragging their bodies, trembling in the last gasp, to Chiron the centaur; this from the time he was six and ever after. Artemis was amazed and bold Athena marveled to see him killing stags without the help of hounds or traps: he ran them down on foot” (Pindar Nemean 3.43–52, Nisetich trans.). Here Pindar combines the motif of the playful child with that of the precocious child: deeds of might and speed that would be impossible even for an ordinary adult are forms of play for the six-year-old hero. Even Artemis and Athena are impressed.

Four major overlapping motifs recur in association with precocious children that are prominent in the Achilles–Chiron story: the separation of the child from parents at a young age (Shapiro’s absent father syndrome; Shapiro 2003: 89–95); the rearing of the child in the natural world rather than amid the comforts of civilization, for example, in Chiron’s cave, a detail repeatedly mentioned by Pindar (see also Rühfel 1984: 65–9 on the representation of nature in vase paintings on this theme); the performance of extraordinary deeds typically beyond the capacity even of adults; and the child’s interaction with wild animals or other creatures that would normally frighten a child, often including a beast who turns out to be friendly. Pindar’s version contains a friendly monster as well as the wild animals that Achilles subdues, but the wild (p. 238) animal can also nurture the child as in Pindar’s story of the pair of gray-eyed serpents that nourish the abandoned baby Iamos on bees’ “harmless venom” (ἀμέμι ἰῷ, an oxymoron that reminds us of the potential harm of bee stings) (O. 6.45–7).8 Each of these subthemes is a deliberate inversion of cultural assumptions about what children need (loving parents, protection from the elements and other dangers) and are (relatively weak, vulnerable).

Early prototypes of the precocious child story are tales of the gods: Hephaestus, hurled from Olympos by his mother, ashamed at his “shrivelled feet,” then taken up and raised by Thetis and Eurynome for nine years surrounded by the swirling currents of Ocean with its “foaming, roaring rush that never died” (Il. 18.394–405, H.Ap. 316–20);9 Zeus, turned over to Gaia to rear in a remote cave in Crete to protect him from his destructive father (Theogony 479–84); and Dionysus, who first is hidden from the hostile Hera in a cave in Nysa, is nursed by wood nymphs (H.H. 26), and later leaps into the sea to escape the threats of Lycurgus and is taken up by Thetis (Il. 6.132–37). Though these early examples are less obviously about precocity,10 the gods’ survival in the face of these childhood dangers suggests the special power of these babies, who lack the most frequently mentioned source of support for mortal children, attentive parents. That nature, as represented by nymphs of forest and sea and by Gaia herself, nurtures rather than destroys the otherwise unprotected babies suggests the close connection to the natural world characteristic of children in these tales: what would kill other children—exposure in the woods or immersion in the sea—preserves them.11

The idea of a peculiar strength demonstrated by separation from parents and rearing in the natural world far from home also underlies Pindar’s conception of Achilles’ rearing by Chiron. Heroes, like the athletes Pindar celebrates in his Odes, achieve most when they come out from the protective wing of their parents and escape the softening effects of the civilized world and parental care. Such young men emerge with a stronger and better “natural” virtue superior to the virtue of carefully tended and protected youths who may become corrupted by the comforts of civilization. Because parents are perceived to protect their children, literature frequently separates exceptional children from parents (p. 239) to emphasize their achievements under more challenging conditions. Separation from home to promote maturity, as in the story of Telemachus in the Odyssey, is a less extreme version of the same phenomenon.

Pindar particularly likes to use Chiron as an educator for young heroes in these contexts, his hybrid character perhaps reflecting the hybrid nature of the child itself, a mixture of the human and the animal, of natural instinct with human form. Pindar also associates Chiron with Jason (N. 3.54, P. 4.115), with Asclepius (N. 3.54, P. 3.5–7), and even with a precocious girl child, Kyrana (= Cyrene), who “cared nothing for pacing back and forth at her loom or for dining at home with her friends, — instead, fighting with bronze javelins and sword, she slew beasts of prey” (P. 9.18–22, Nisetich trans.). When Apollo witnesses this unusual parthenos wrestling “alone and weaponless with a mighty lion” (P. 9.26–8), he calls on Chiron to “leave your sacred cavern to marvel at a woman’s power, marvel at her courage, how she struggles with head undaunted, a girl keeping her heart above the battle” (P. 9.30–2). Apollo marvels too at her living in the “hollows of the shadowy mountains” (P. 9.34), another characteristic mark of her exceptionality. Though Kyrana is not evidently Chiron’s ward like the boys, Apollo’s address to Chiron, which goes on to ask for permission to “pluck the honeyed fruit of love,” may suggest that she is under his protection. In any case, Chiron’s invoking in connection with Kyrana reflects her hybrid nature, still an untamed creature of the wilds, undomesticated, though human.

Another example that clearly emphasizes childish precocity is the story of the baby Heracles strangling the twin snakes sent against him by Hera, which is also told by Pindar (N. 1.33–72) and again later by Theocritus (Idyll 24). Like the Chiron–Achilles story, it becomes a popular subject in Greek art; Nemean 1 is the earliest extant literary version, approximately contemporary with the earliest extant image (ca. 480 BCE) (Woodford 1983; see also Oakley in this volume). Both Pindar and Theocritus emphasize the baby-like qualities of Heracles, Pindar mentioning his recent birth, his saffron swaddling bands (“the equivalent of royal purple diapers” as Rosenmeyer 1969: 242 comments), and his cradle, while Theocritus puts him at ten months and describes Alcmena’s tender care, including bath, nursing, and lullaby.12 But despite these details suggesting how Heracles is similar to other infants, the overall point of the story is clearly to show the extraordinary nature of the baby hero. Theocritus explicitly contrasts Heracles’ response to the snakes to that of his mortal half-brother Iphicles, who cries and kicks off his blankets and becomes “rigid with terror” (Gow trans.), as his powerful “twin” leaps for joy and laughs, crushing the snakes in his paradoxically tender hands. Despite the threat to the child, these examples seem to revel in playfully mixing childish qualities with the heroic, delighting in the cute effects achieved by visualizing the small child or hero acting in a superhuman way. (p. 240)

The Heracles story is a variant of a story that becomes increasingly common in literature beginning in the fifth century, the story of “the boy who lived,” the child exposed (typically) or otherwise assaulted, who manages to survive into adulthood to become something extraordinary, often with significant dramatic irony (such as he lives to destroy his would-be destroyer, as in the Perseus tale and in the contemporary version, the Harry Potter series). Particularly famous examples include the story of Cyrus as told in Herodotus and Sophocles’ Oedipus, but these stories are absolutely ubiquitous in drama, staples of tragedy, satyr play, and new comedy and are found elsewhere as well, including in Longus’ novel Daphnis and Chloe.13 I group these stories under the precocious child heading, because they are defined by the absence of the most normative feature of child life, the child’s dependence on parental care. The natural world, which is typically intended to destroy the untended child, instead nurtures him, as in the early stories about gods, and the child faces wild animals and beasts showing his resilience (Huys 1995: 270–98) and often performing other marvelous feats that reveal his natural superiority in difficult circumstances (Huys 1995: 335–63). As the story pattern of the “boy who lived” gets transferred from heroes and gods to ordinary children including girls in New Comedy, there is less emphasis on the exceptional qualities of the child. However, even in Daphnis and Chloe, where the children’s parents are ordinary citizens, Longus emphasizes the extraordinary nature of the two’s good fortune and suggests that they are particularly favored by the gods in their beauty and innocence, both becoming “more beautiful than country children usually are.” Like Harry Potter, these children are simultaneously just like normal kids and extraordinary, making them perfect vehicles for fantasizing.

These stories celebrate the potential, resilience, and strength of the child. Though they have been used as evidence of adult hostility toward children in Greek antiquity and are sometimes still cited as evidence for the social practice of exposure despite scholarly skepticism about their verisimilitude (see Evans Grubbs in this volume), these stories are largely about the child, celebrating his survival against the hostility of more powerful adversaries under dangerous conditions without the support of parents. While in real-life cases of exposure death may not always be the intention (see Evans Grubbs in this volume), literature tends to focus on stories where adults set out to destroy the child to emphasize further the extraordinary nature of the child. The popularity of the Harry Potter series, which clearly adapts these motifs, shows the contemporary appeal of stories in which parentless children overcome more powerful adversaries who have tried to destroy them. These stories are, at a very basic level, about growing up and reaching one’s potential, so that although they often feature “special” children, gods, or heroes (or wizards!) they promote identification with the child hero. (p. 241)

In contrast, the adults responsible for the exposure, sometimes of negligible importance, may be criticized for their cruelty or poor judgment and may be brutally punished (e.g., Hdt. Hist. 1.119–20). There is frequently comment on the callousness of or the terrible suffering of the parent who exposes the child (see esp. Ion 340–68, 503–8, 954–64, 1369–79, 1489–1500; OT 1175; cf. Hdt. 1.109) and on the superior humanity of the rustics who pick them up (Hdt. 1.111–2; OT 1178). In Daphnis and Chloe, the rustic picks up the child because he does not want to be outdone in humanity (ιλανρωπία) by the goat that nurses it (1.3). Longus comments too on parental shortsightedness when Daphnis’ father explains that he was forced to expose Daphnis because he could not support his growing family but then was bereft when his other children died of disease (4.24), and Chloe’s father acknowledges his error in exposing her due to poverty and then being incapable of having further children when he became wealthy (4.35). Though here and in New Comedy the parents are rewarded rather than punished, by the survival of their children and their happy reunion in apparent wish fulfillment, the exposure and separation are presented as serious errors from which the parents would suffer if not for the improbably satisfying outcome. Thus, the prevalent use of exposure as a plot device in literature should not be taken as casual endorsement of the social practice.

The precocity theme also becomes increasingly common in the Hymnic tradition beginning in the fifth century and is prominent in surviving fragments of and testimonia about satyr plays. In both contexts, it is unsurprisingly humorous rather than tragic and frequently combined with the motif of play. Though the Homeric Hymn to Hermes already discussed provides a beautiful early example of the weaving together of these themes, Callimachus’ Hymn to Artemis gives an amusing later example, showing continuity but also applying these themes to a female child. The three-year-old Artemis bravely faces the monstrous Cyclopes, sources of terror for the nine-year-old Okeanides, whose mothers deliberately make Hermes impersonate the powerful creatures to scare the girls into good behavior. When Brontes takes the little Artemis on his lap, she tears out his chest hair, permanently depiliating him, a detail reflecting a babyish propensity to pull hair but with divine strength (73–80). She goes on to wheedle a bow, quiver, and arrows from the Cyclopes, noting that she is Leto’s child as much as Apollo, a nod to sibling rivalry, and promising them meat in return, mirroring Achilles’ bringing of animals to Chiron. Equipped with gear, the self-possessed three-year-old races off to Pan in Arcadia to collect dogs for hunting; like the boy-child Hermes and the swift-footed Achilles, she displays the impetuousness of youth.

Aeschylus’ satyr play Dictyoulkoi uses the familiar theme of the “boy who lived,” but the baby Perseus, who has come ashore with his mother, Danae, in the chest in which they were exposed, is taken up not by Chiron but by another hybrid monster, the crude and unsentimental father of the satyrs, Silenus. In a surviving fragment, Silenus offers a parodic glimpse of Achilles’ rustic life with Chiron:

  • Silenus [To baby Perseus]: Come he[re], diddums!
  • (He makes clucking noises.)
  • Don’t be frightened! Why are you whimpering? (p. 242)
  • Let us go over here to my sons,
  • so that you can come to my kind,
  • protecting (παιδτρόυ) arms, dearie,
  • and find pleasure in the martens and fawns
  • and baby porcupines,
  • and you can make a third in bed
  • with your mother and your father here.
  • And daddy shall give his little one some laughs (γλῖα)
  • and a healthy upbringing, so that one day,
  • when you’ve grown strong, you yourself—
  • for your father’s losing his grip on his fawn-killing footwork(?)—
  • shall chase down beasts without a spear,
  • and shall give them to your mother for dinner,
  • in the same way as do your stepbrothers,
  • among whom you’ll be earning your keep.

(Dictyoulkoi fr. 47a, 802–20, trans. adapted from the Loeb and Henderson)

Unlike the apparently dignified and noble Chiron of Pindar’s Odes, the satyr’s attentions are clearly self-interested, allowing him access to the bed of the beautiful Danae and providing him with a convenient source of meat in the future. But the familiar elements of the natural existence of the heroic life are identifiable, including the spearless hunting, the outrunning of the prey, and the connection to animals, though here of a more humble variety. In this passage the baby Perseus appears to be whimpering (804)—either the satyr is scarier than Chiron or Perseus more cowardly than Achilles. However, the passage immediately preceding shows the baby laughing (786) and reaching for Silenos’ phallus (or bald head?), and earlier in the play he speaks “with tender sounds” to Silenus “as though his honored nurse” (47). Indeed, even more than the centaur, the playful, uncivilized satyrs, with their close connection to the natural world, their irresponsibility, naïvete, and carelessness, their perpetual motion, their unceasing pursuit of pleasure, as sources of laughter, reflect the child’s own nature; the satyrs are in fact themselves in many ways childlike, as their father comments and his paternal presence consistently demonstrates (Griffith 2002: 220–7). Satyr play thus seems fond of combining two favorite themes: the playful child (represented by the satyrs); and the precocious child. Alcibiades’ extended comparison of Socrates to a satyr in the Symposium plays off this tradition of satyrs as educators of precocious young heroes. Notorious for his playing (παίζων), Socrates makes a suitable heir to the satyrs. Alcibiades suggests another connection in his conflation of two adages “wine and children are truthful,” suggesting that both, perhaps like Socrates, reveal truths that sober adults might be incapable of attaining with their civilized tact and conventional morality.

The precocious child stories depart self-consciously from cultural norms whereby parents protect and care for children amid the comforts of civilization, while children are weak and incapable, fearful, and ignorant. In so doing, the stories affirm the norm but also question it by hinting at a stronger natural potential in children to excel without (p. 243) parental interference. These stories exhibit a certain nostalgia for the child left behind, a desire to retain the child’s nature, not to destroy it with culture, to preserve the natural and the monstrous, the childish and the playful, not to overcivilize with a false veneer but to allow the unvarnished truth to emerge, to appreciate the wisdom represented by nature and wine and play. Though adults frequently, and even parents occasionally, figure in some versions of these stories as hostile adversaries, ultimately these stories do not reflect a cultural hostility toward children. Rather, they are celebrations of childhood triumph over adversity, about attaining independence from parents and other adults.

Conclusion

When reading Greek literature about children, I cannot help but be reminded of the anecdote about Solon and the Egyptian reported in Plato’s Timaeus (20d–27a), in which Solon tells the Egyptian priests at their request the most ancient Greek things, stories about the first man, the flood, and the like, only to be rebuked by a very aged priest, “You Greeks are always children, and there is not an old man among you” (22b5). Though the Egyptian priest is referring to the greater antiquity of Egyptian traditions and condemning Greek tradition as less well-established, later authors detach the adage Ἕλλην ἀὶ παῖδ (You Greeks are always children) from context and reapply it with broader significance,14 suggesting perhaps a certain childishness fundamental to Greek identity. The childish propensity toward play, laughter, and invention, toward misbehavior that overcomes stuffy authority so characteristic of children in Greek literature, seems also fundamental to Greek literature’s own self-awareness. The eternally playful (παίζων) Socrates (Plato Symp. 216; cf., e.g., Rep. 7, 536c) is philosophy’s child, the impetuous, ever youthful Achilles epic’s. Plato’s story in the Timaeus of Solon and the Egyptian is complexly nested in a characteristically Platonic way that I cannot adequately address here. Notably, however, it is told by Critias, who first heard it at the Apatouria, a boys’ festival (see Garland in this volume), when he was about ten. Critias concludes his reflection by saying that he would be surprised if he forgot any details of the story for “the lessons of our childhood make a wonderful impression on our memories” due to “childish delight in listening;” he contrasts this with his tendency in old age to forget what he learned only yesterday (cf. Rep. 7, 536d–e). Thus, though in the Egyptian’s mouth the maxim “the Greeks are always children” is ostensibly a critique that demeans both Greeks and children, Plato seems to assert through context a contrary view of children (and thereby of the Greeks) that is more positive: they delight in stories, have impressionable memories, (p. 244) and perhaps also exhibit an essential playfulness and inventiveness that may help to mitigate the often dire circumstances of real-life conditions for children (and others) in ancient Greece.

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                                                Notes:

                                                (1) See Garland 1990; Golden 1990 for useful discussions of actual childhood experience in ancient Greece.

                                                (2) Paides is often translated “boys,” and Anacreon was associated with boy-love in the later tradition. But his own poetry suggests an interest in girls as well (e.g., PMG 358, 373), and a passage in Plato (Laws 8.836a) makes clear that paides can refer to both male and female erotic interests.

                                                (3) Horn and Martens 2009: esp. 225–32; things do not necessarily improve for children under Christianity, despite changing attitudes toward pederasty. For discussion of constraints on the older lover in pederastic relationships, see Cohen 1991: 171–202 and critique of an earlier version of that argument by Golden 1990: 57–62. On pederasty see also Beaumont’s chapter in this volume.

                                                (4) Halliwell 2008: 67–8 discussed this scene in the larger context of divine laughter in Homer.

                                                (5) Other examples include Antigone and Oedipus (OC), Iphigeneia and Agamemnon, and Chryseis and Chryses (Il.1). Electra’s preference for her father is also marked. Such examples provide strong evidence against the claim of Slater 1971 that parent–child relationships across gender were generally hostile or problematic.

                                                (6) On fatherless sons in general, see Huebner and Ratzan 2009; in Homer particularly see Wöhrle 2009.

                                                (7) The children of Medea and Heracles, as well as other babies and children who experience early death in Greek myth, are also immortalized in Greek hero cult, where they are celebrated for their beauty and mourned; they must receive compensation for their early deaths in the form of funeral games, for example at Isthmia or Nemea, or in other kinds of ritual (Pache 2004). They thus suggest that even in a culture where infant and child mortality is common, early death is not simply accepted but requires myth and ritual to be tolerable.

                                                (8) That snakes can also be seen as threatening to children is evident in the story of the infant Heracles and of the baby Opheltes killed by snakes. See Pache 2004: 95–134 for this story. For the motif, more generally, see Huys 1995: 270–98.

                                                (9) Hephaestus’ hurling by his father Zeus described at Il. 1.590–95 fits the pattern less neatly, and Halliwell’s 2008: 60 suggestion that this story is a spontaneous invention by Hephaestus may be right.

                                                (10) In the Iliad 6 passage, Dionysus does perhaps show one sign of his special divine capacities by leaping, despite his apparent infancy, into the surf, but the emphasis on his childlike fear in the passage is not typical of later pictures of precocious divine or heroic infants who are shown to be superior to normal children, less prone to fear and tears, and more capable of protecting themselves.

                                                (11) The nymphs’ role as destroyers is recorded on the gravestones of young children (Garland 1990: 112). Aphrodite turns Aeneas in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite over to the nymphs to rear out of her shame at being impregnated by a mortal, the earliest surviving literary work to apply this motif to a mortal. There is ambiguity in the nymphs’ role here and elsewhere: are they kourotrophoi, or is this a way of describing exposure among the trees—to which the hymn clearly equates the nymphs (H.Aphr. 264–8)?

                                                (12) See Pache 2004: 107–11 on the way the mother’s lullaby often carries themes of menace and foreshadows danger to the child.

                                                (13) Huys 1995 examines the use of this story pattern in Euripidean tragedy and offers a compelling survey of the many stories associated with exposure across various cultures, updating important earlier analyses by Binder 1964, who uses the Cyrus tale as paradigmatic, and Delcourt 1944, who starts with the Oedipus tale. See also Ogden 1997.

                                                (14) Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ars rhetorica 11.4.7; Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica 10.4.19; John Chrysostom, In epistulam ad Ephesios (homiliae 1–24), 62.92.19; De Babyla contra Julianum et gentiles, sect. 108, line 11.