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  • An Ancient "Passing" Novel:Heliodorus' Aithiopika
  • Judith Perkins

In the third century, the figure of the Ethiopian appears to have held a privileged position in discussions of identity. Lucian employs the proverb "to wash an Ethiopian white," Αἰθίοπα σμήχειν (adversus Indoctum 28, quoted by Snowden 1970.5), to indicate the futility of trying to change a person's nature, and Origen, quoting Jeremiah, draws upon this same cultural trope to signal the radical consequences of Christian conversion when, through the power of the Word, the Ethiopian will change his skin and the leopard his spots (Jeremiah 13.23). This imagery continued in Christian discourse on conversion; Jerome's words in fact suggest that he may really have thought that blacks turned white upon baptism: "though it is against nature, the Ethiopian does change his skin . . ." (Epistulae 69.6.7-8). In the discourse of the period, the blackness of the Ethiopian stood for the intransigent condition of human identity.

In this context, Heliodorus' decision to focus his romance, the Aithiopika, on his white heroine's rediscovery and recovery of her Ethiopian identity takes on added significance. Through this choice of topic, the Aithiopika explicitly locates its narrative focus on identity and authenticity, on place and displacement within a wider cultural dialogue.1 The linear plot of Heliodorus' romance (much complicated in the telling) narrates the birth of a white daughter to the black king and queen of Ethiopia. The queen, [End Page 197] fearful that the legitimacy of her baby will be questioned, exposes the child. An Ethiopian gymnosophist rescues and raises the baby until he hands her over to a certain Charikles from Delphi who adopts her as his own and names her Charikleia. Years pass and the girl, although a priestess of Artemis pledged to chastity, falls in love at a festival with a handsome Thessalian, Theagenes, a descendant of Achilles. An Egyptian priest, Kalasiris, helps bring them together; the three flee Delphi and undergo various adventures until they finally arrive in Ethiopia. Here more tests take place before Charikleia is recognized, accepted, and is able to reclaim her rightful place and "real" identity. At the conclusion of the romance narrative, Charikleia and Theagenes are inducted into the royal priesthood and marry. There is even a hint that they turn black (Doody 1996.121, Morgan 1989.318).

Critics have identified the plot of the Aithiopika as another example of the genre of "returns": a nostos, like the Odyssey, depicting a hero's (or in this case a heroine's) return home and recovery of rightful identity (Konstan 1994.90). I will suggest that Heliodorus' narrative of the white Ethiopian functions rather to interrogate the whole notion of "identity" as a given either/or dichotomy, a given ontological condition. This story of the white Ethiopian passing as the quintessential Greek maiden appears to define identity as more the assumption of a role, a performance dictated by changing circumstances, than as a fixed essence (Robinson 1994.715-16). The reader's discovery of Charikleia's multiple identities in the Aithiopika works to destabilize any easy understanding of identity as a unitary state.

My reading of the Aithiopika benefits from the contemporary critical work on "passing" novels-those that depict blacks "passing" as whites in American society. These novels have been shown to pose an implicit challenge to those definitions of identity that suggest that identities are stable, unchanging presences.2 Fundamental to such essentialist definitions of identity is the concept of difference. To be white in the U.S. is above all not to be black. The categories of "black" and "white" are posited as separate and fixed, and understood to signify some basic difference of being. "Passing" narratives expose the weakness of this understanding. Their focus on characters that assume a white identity and "pass" for [End Page 198] white raises questions about what it means to be "really" black or "really" white, if there is no way through appearance "to tell the difference." "Passing" narratives challenge the fixity of the categories "black" and "white" and are therefore inherently disruptive of any construction of "otherness" based on race (Holmes 1990.6). The function of any such constructions of "otherness" in a...


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