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  • “The Horror of the Terrifying and the Hilarity of the Grotesque”: Daimonic Spaces—and Emotions—in Ancient Greek Literature
  • Esther Eidinow


The title of this paper quotes a phrase from Jean-Pierre Vernant’s discussion of the Gorgon that focuses on the ways in which representations of the gorgoneion (a Gorgon mask) were depicted as “disrupting the features that make up a human face,” producing “an effect of disconcerting strangeness that expresses a form of the monstrous that oscillates between two extremes: the horror of the terrifying and the hilarity of the grotesque” (1991.113).1

This portrayal ushers the reader into a murky world of concepts of alterity: as Vernant puts it, the Gorgon’s mask “expresses and maintains the radical otherness, the alterity of the world of the dead, which no living person may approach” (1991.121), and his analysis reveals this otherness as comprising a network of ideas that associate not only the realm of the dead, but also night, some particular qualities of the female, and monstrosity. [End Page 209] The Gorgon, an offspring of Phorkys and Keto, is, as he notes, “at home in the land of the dead”; she and her siblings play “the role of watchmen, even bogeys, who bar the way to forbidden places” (1991.122). Following Hesiod, Vernant lists among this grim retinue the Graiai, Geryon, and the Echidna. For Vernant, such creatures are expressions of the “Power of Fear” for adults, and he describes “fear as a category of the supernatural.” He traces their origins to what he calls the “sphere of popular superstition and the child’s world,” citing Plato’s discussion in the Phaedo (77e) of the adult anxiety that the wind will disperse the soul as it exits from the body—a fear of death that is compared to a childish fear of mormolykeia. Where the adult fears the Gorgon, Vernant argues, the child fears Lamia, Empousa, Gello, and, above all, Mormo (1991.128). It is these creatures of childhood terror that are the focus of this article.

But what is it that am I discussing? These figures are hard for modern scholarship to categorise. Vernant describes them as “a variety of revenants, phantoms, Doppelgänger, eidola and phasmata,” (1991.129);2 Karl Schefold and Luca Giuliani (1992.85) call them “monsters” and “daimones”;3 Alan Griffiths calls them “daimones” and “bogeywomen” (1995.102 n.49). In his handbook on Greek and Roman folklore, Graham Anderson uses “bogeymen” and “gremlins” (2006.126). This apparent uncertainty about terminology reflects, in turn, the ambiguity of the ancient sources, which in part, seems to arise from their appearance (as we shall see below) in primarily oral, rather than literary, accounts. This may also have prompted the changes in terminology used to describe them which emerge over time in the literary material. Consider the different descriptions of Empousa found in, on the one hand, Aristophanes’ Frogs and, on the other, the scholia commenting on the play. In the play, Empousa is portrayed by Xanthias as a therion or “creature” (Ar. Ran. 293). But the scholiast defines her in terms of her, as it were, “daimonicity”: phantasma daimoniodes.4 Similarly, we find the mention of Empousa in [End Page 210] the Ekklesiazousai explained by the scholiast with reference to daimones.5 This allusion may be, in part, related to—it certainly does not contradict—the characterisation of these creatures as phasmata or ghosts (as in the previous scholion): the term daimones is used to refer to the dead, and it may also capture these creatures’ close relationship, even identification with, the goddess Hekate.6

Since emic terminology does not help to us to understand the nature of the daimonic, there may be alternative ways to approach this category of creatures—ways which focus on their representation. One potentially fruitful strategy is to examine them in terms of the “spaces” they inhabit—considering “space” to indicate not only a physical but also a conceptual possibility, and, as well, the ways in which the physical and conceptual interact.7 This approach draws on the discussion by Jonathan Z. Smith of the idea of the “demonic as a locative category...


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