Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 278-294
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Homer's Human Animal: Ritual Combat in the Iliad
Freud called Darwin's revelation of man's animality a blow to human narcissism on par with Copernicus's finding that Earth is not the center of the solar system. While Darwin hinted at our bestiality in the Origin of Species, in later publications he conveyed the disturbing and fantastic news that our ancestors were, as he playfully wrote in private notebooks, "monkey men." 1 Adam and Eve were not lovingly molded from the clay; they were the rude grandchildren of a "hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World." 2 Darwin's news was greeted by his contemporaries with a range of responses, from hooting derision to holy indignation, to resigned acceptance. Yet his hypothesis has been amply verified by the work of geneticists, primatologists, biologists, archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, and others. Nowadays we are not too chagrined to hear that we share a common ancestor with the other apes; it is orthodox evolutionary theory.
But perhaps we give Darwin rather too much credit for this discovery. Surely he deserves esteem for deciphering the mechanism of evolution in natural selection, for helping demonstrate our kinship with other primates, and for providing subsequent scientists a head start for their research. He also deserves the less technical distinctions of giving human self-regard a terrific bloody nose and of helping to sire the modern existential crisis. But while Darwin may be responsible for giving scientific credibility to the notion that humans do not stand aloof from the rest of the animal kingdom, he was far from the first to come to this realization. [End Page 278]
The artists of every age and the builders of mythology have come, with wondrous unity of conception, to similar conclusions. In fact, the world's earliest known pictorial art conveys this message. The hundreds of paintings and etchings adorning the walls of the Chauvet Cave in France, though over thirty thousand years old, include depictions of human-animal compounds, including a figure that is half-human and half-bison. 3 This ancient suggestion that the human and animal realms overlap is likewise indicated in the common mythological figure of the human-animal hybrid. As Dorothy Dinnerstein says: "Myth images of half-human beasts like the mermaid and the Minotaur express an old, fundamental, very slowly clarifying communal insight: that our species' nature is internally inconsistent; that our continuities with, and our differences from, the earth's other animals are mysterious and profound." 4 So Darwin did not invent the concept of the human animal. Rather, he marshaled the evidence and developed the theoretical model that established scientific credence for an ancient belief.
The Ancient Greeks were particularly fascinated by hybrids blending human and animal morphology. Their mythology abounds with queer, conflicted, compound creatures. And so does their literature. Their first and greatest poet, Homer, was characteristically Greek in his attention to half-human creatures. The sirens, the centaurs, the minotaur, the chimera, Scylla, "Ox-eyed" Hera, and "Owl-eyed" Athena are all present or alluded to in his work. All of these figures symbolically insinuate that beasts dwell under every human skin.
But Homer's suggestions of human animality do not cease with these compound creatures. In the Iliad, he presses this theme with depictions of warriors who are, physically, fully human. Homer suggests, however, that their dispositions and behavior patterns are, often, fully brutish. For Homer, the human animal is the most incongruous crossbreed of all: he is queer, conflicted, inconsistent, godlike, and brute. It is the "in-betweenness" of the human animal that makes him tragic. His soul would gravitate toward the empyrean, but his body roots him steadfastly in the blood and filth of animal life. The father Zeus, perhaps recognizing this, says: "In truth there is nothing more wretched on earth than man, of all things that breathe and move." 5
The Iliad suggests human animality in a variety of ways. First, we are aligned with...