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Centaurs and Amazons

Women and the Pre-History of the Great Chain of Being

Page duBois

Publication Year: 1991

In Centaurs and Amazons, Page duBois offers a prehistory of hierarchy. Using structural anthropology, symbolic analysis, and recent literary theory, she demonstrates a shift in Greek thought from the fifth to the fourth century B.C. that had a profound influence upon subsequent Western culture and politics. Through an analysis of mythology, drama, sculpture, architecture, and Greek vase painting, duBois documents the transition from a system of thought that organized the experience of difference in terms of polarity and analogy to one based upon a relatively rigid hierarchical scheme. This was the beginning of "the great chain of being," the philosophical construct that all life was organized in minute gradations of superiority and inferiority. This scheme, in various guises, has continued to influence philosophical and political thought. The author's intelligent and discriminating use of scholarship from various fields makes Centaurs and Amazons an impressive interdisciplinary study of interest to classicists, feminist scholars, historians, art historians, anthropologists, and political scientists.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Women and Culture Series

Title Page

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p. iii-iii


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pp. iv

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pp. vii-viii

This book began as a study of Amazons, the band of fearless, independent creatures so often inspiring to women now, near the end of the twentieth century A.D. Studying the myth of the Amazons in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., however, I realized that just as a new Amazonian myth belongs to our history of...

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pp. ix

I want to thank the friends, colleagues, and teachers whose support helped me to write this book: the late Robert C. Elliott, whose generosity was boundless and who is sorely missed, Froma Zeitlin, exemplary scholar and friend, Jean-Pierre Vernant, from whom I have learned so much, Alain Renoir, who taught me the...


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pp. xi

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pp. 1-24

The transition from predominantly narrative discourse- history, tragedy, and comedy-to the discourse of a new philosophy, a transition which occurs in the fourth century B.C., is one of the most significant shifts in the history of Western culture. It marks, in part, the change from a mythic, literary, poetic consciousness...

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I. Centaurs and Amazons

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pp. 25-48

Since the transformation at issue here involves a shift from implicit to explicit reasoning about difference, it is necessary to describe the earlier period's assumptions without reference to explicit statements on the subject.1 The statement of Thales about his good fortune is one mode of self-definition. This first...

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II. Centauromachy/Amazonomachy

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pp. 49-77

The last chapter showed how the myths of Amazons and Centaurs were seen to be implicated, in Greek culture, in a pattern of speculation about endogamy, marriage, and exchange, with notions of boundaries defining a norm. This chapter will elaborate these themes, in particular focusing on the representations of...

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III. Greeks and Barbarians

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pp. 78-94

It is commonplace, in discussion of the idea of racial difference in Western culture, to point out that the ancient world had no racial prejudice, that the Greeks and Romans were not subject to the racial hatred which has characterized later centuries, especially since the period of Western colonization in the fifteenth...

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IV. Humans and Animals

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pp. 95-109

If the structure of the Persae, describing one side of the agon of the Persian Wars, evokes that of the early classical metopes, it is not surprising, since the literary and artistic texts share a notion of difference based on the polarization of kinds. In this chapter I will look at another such polarity, the human/animal doublet, the...

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V. Men and Women

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pp. 110-128

The metope is a graphic representation of the agon, the confrontation between two kinds of beings seen by the Greeks as utterly different, polar opposites. War, polemos, is the proper relation between such creatures; it clarifies their difference and asserts the selfhood of the maker of the work of art, the citizen architect,...

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VI. Hierarchy

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pp. 129-149

The analogical model, typical of fifth-century speculation about difference-racial, sexual, species-defined the Greek male human in terms of a series of polarities which together articulated his nature. The others, that is, female, barbarian, and animal, were like spokes radiating from the hub of a wheel. At the center...

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pp. 150-152

The invention of the new philosophical discourse in the fourth century B.C. meant not just the evolution of logical procedures for reasoning about the world. It involved the justification of a social order based on ideas of hierarchical difference, of the natural inferiority of women to men, of foreign slaves to citizens, of animals to slaves. The shift from analogical poetic...


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pp. 153-161

Image Plates

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E-ISBN-13: 9780472021543
E-ISBN-10: 0472021540
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472081530
Print-ISBN-10: 0472081535

Page Count: 176
Illustrations: 15 b&w
Publication Year: 1991

Series Title: Women and Culture Series