There are several things that cause monsters. The first is the
glory of God. The second, his wrath.
–– Ambroise Paré, On Monsters and Marvels
Since the Greeks and Romans believed that the birth of a strong and healthy infant was dependent upon the goodwill of the gods, and therefore the birth of a disabled one testified to the gods’ hostility. According to our own myths about antiquity, the child in question was usually exposed (i.e. killed) by its parents. However, although exposure evidently was practised at a certain time, our modern myths about the killing of disabled babies and the horrible treatment of congenitally disabled adults are certainly not entirely true. Based primarily on mythology, most modern literature about the treatment of new-borns with visible physical variations offers surprisingly little in-depth analysis of the surviving historical evidence.
In the mythological imagination, a human-animal hybrid was often the product of a union between a mortal man or woman and an animal. The most famous of such myths is the story of Pasiphae, the wife of the Cretan king Minos, who desired a bull. Desperate to achieve a union with the subject of her passion, the queen sought help from the famous Athenian craftsman Daedalus, who constructed for her a life-like cow inside which she would hide and be taken out to pasture where the bull was grazing. Pasiphae’s conquest was successful, and she gave birth to the Minotaur, commonly represented as having a human body and the head of a bull, who was hidden away in the depths of the labyrinth until his death at the hands of Theseus.
This story has often been seen (by Garland, for example) as evidence of horrible mistreatment of children with physical variations, just put into a mythological framework. However, the reception of myths is not so simple. It is practically impossible to judge what the myth ‘originally’ meant, since the myth is not Greek but Cretan in its origin, and Cretan mythology has mainly been passed down to us via its Greek and Roman interpretations, which were in disagreement already in antiquity. What is certain, however, is that it fits into the moral frame of Greek polytheism.
Unlike, for example, Christianity, Greek and Roman religions did not have a clear set of rules and definitions of 'sin'. This role was fulfilled by mythological stories which served as warnings against amoral behaviour. Stories about 'monstrous births' of human-animal hybrids were especially fit for this. First, the birth of such 'monsters' was believed to be the result of the gods' anger at its parents or even grandparents. Second, it was often painted as a consequence of adultery.
The Minotaur myth clearly fits this pattern. First, the gods are hostile to both his ‘parents’. Minos, competing for the throne with his brothers, had asked Poseidon for a sign to confirm his right to rule. The sea god sent him a snow-white bull that Minos would later have to sacrifice, thus ‘returning’ it to the god, but the king decided it was too fine to be killed and substituted it with another, provoking the god’s wrath. As for Pasiphae, there is a tendency among the descendants of
Helios, her father, to fall for ‘wrong’ males and commit acts of horrible sin because of them – compare her to Medea, who was Pasiphae’s niece and killed her brother and later children out of mad passion for Jason; to Ariadne, Pasiphae’s daughter, who also killed her brother to save Theseus, an enemy; Phaedra, another of her daughters, who fell in love with her stepson. This has sometimes been explained as Aphrodite’s revenge on the daughters of the god who betrayed her affair with Ares to her husband, Hephaestus. Whether it was the wrath of Poseidon or Aphrodite, or both, it lead to Pasiphae’s perverse adultery with the white bull, which on its own was considered enough to produce a monster.
However, one must not forget that this is one of the warning-myths, and it does not mean that the parents of a disabled child were castigated as sinners. Historical evidence (see Rose) suggests that this was never the custom in ancient Greece. Even within the myth itself, the 'sinfulness' of the Minotaur's birth is only known to the parents and the narrator. Moreover, this story shows that even the most unusual physical variation would not necessarily prevent the parents from raising the child.
In other myths, such as the one about the centaurs' origin, the birth of a human-animal child did not even require an animal parent.
Generally depicted as as creatures having the head, arms and torso of a human attached to a headless and neckless body of a horse, they are represented in Greek myth as wild, savage and uncivilised by their very nature. Their origin is surprisingly similar to that of the Minotaur, involving the rage of the gods and an affair.
The centaurs’ father was Ixion, a Thessalian king, who desired Hera. To hinder him from achieving this desire and to have an excuse to punish him, Zeus transformed Nephele, a cloud nymph, into a likeness of Hera. Nephele was then seduced by Ixion and gave birth to either centaurs themselves, or a boy, named Centaurus. In the Centaurus version, he later fathered the centaurs by mating with Thessalian mares. It is clear what these two stories attempt to do. The latter (and later) one makes an attempt to find the most logical explanation of the dual nature of the centaurs by giving them a human and an animal parent, while also serving as a stern warning against bestiality. But the earlier version, although it seems less ‘logical’ today, would make as much sense to an ancient Greek, explaining the ‘monstrous birth’ through the sinful behaviour of the parents. Other tales of the centaurs’ birth follow a very similar pattern.
But the true origin of these half-horse creatures in the Greeks' mythological imagination is quite different.
As is often the case in Greek mythology, the birth-myth emerged later than other stories about them and had a specific agenda, since it was long forgotten how exactly such unusual creatures came to inhabit Greek art. The most unusual thing about the centaurs is their possession of three pairs of limbs – one pair more than either of their supposed parents. Some scholars have even suggested that the centaurs’ possession of too many limbs for either a human or a horse is almost un-Greek (Fox), others – that they are indeed not Greek but Indian in their origin and should be identified with the Indic Gandharvas, wild mountain goblins which can assume animal form (Dumézil).
It is more plausible, however, that the convergence of man and horse is due to a miscomprehension or misrepresentation of a mounted horse-rider first encountered by pedestrian Greeks, or that the centaurs were originally a wild and uncivilised but indeed human race. The Greeks believed they could turn into animals, and the half-horse images show them mid-transformation. This latter theory is supported by the fact that the earliest texts to mention centaurs, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and the Homeric Hymns, do not seem to regard them as having a composite form at all (Il. I.267-268, Od. 21.295-305, Homeric Hymn to Hermes 222–225).
Therefore the negative narratives of the centaurs’ birth could only have emerged significantly later, along with other similar stories this chapter describes, as warnings against sin and infidelity.
The most bizarre origin narrative was created for Pan, the goat-legged shepherd-god.
His parentage has always been unclear – Roscher finds eighteen various combinations of parents. This is because, like in the case of the Minotaur, Pan’s cult emerged in a somewhat un-Greek culture. His principal place of worship was in Arcadia, in the Peloponnesian highlands – a region that was always distinct from the rest of Greece. Herodotus, although he does not go so far as to call them a different people, notes that the Arcadians are the ‘aboriginal’ people of Greece (8.73). Their cult of Pan was unfamiliar to other Greeks, who made attempts at integrating him into the pantheon by association with similar deities like Hermes or Dionysus, consequently distorting what was probably the ‘original’ story.
One of the more informed commentators, Nonnus, states that Pan’s mother was one Penelope of Mantineia (a city in ancient Arcadia), who had him with Dionysus, (Dionysiaca 14.92) – a very slight distortion of what was probably the original myth of a human woman being impregnated by the harvest god to give birth to the patron of shepherds. This Penelope, however, easily got confused with the most famous Penelope of Greek myth – the wife of Odysseus. From this confusion emerged the ever-so-fitting myth of infidelity resulting in the birth of a monster. Herodotus and Apollodorus both tell the story of Penelope cheating on her husband with Hermes, giving birth to goat-legged Pan, and being subsequently banished to Arcadia, thus becoming ‘Penelope of Mantinea’. (Herodotus 2.145, Apollodorus Bibliotheca 7.38). Other ancient Greek sources, for obvious reasons accepted later by Christian commentators, record that Penelope had slept with all one hundred and eight suitors and gave birth to the beast-like Pan as a result. This reflects the folk-etymology that derives the name Pan (Πάν) from the ancient Greek word meaning 'all' (πᾶν), – as well as generally the moralistic nature of this kind of origin myth.
Thus this story, too, attributes the birth of a bizarre-looking child to the anger of the gods with the sins of its parents, serving as a stern warning against adultery.
But one must be careful not to immediately see this pattern, repeated in all the myths discussed, as a reflection of reality. Although the birth of a child whose appearance differs significantly from the average was likely to be seen as a manifestation of the ill-will of the gods, there is little evidence to suggest that the parents of such a child would be stigmatised as sinners. ‘There is nothing to indicate that the parents of a congenitally deformed infant were themselves castigated or treated as social outcasts,’ writes Garland. Although they would receive little support (moral or financial) from society, there were no laws in either Greece or Rome to enforce the punishment of parents who chose to raise a disabled child. Moreover, as the Minotaur myth shows, the parents of even the most bizarre-looking child, born from an adulterous union, would often choose to keep it, – although unfortunately no surviving version of the myth deals with Minos’s reaction to Minotaur’s birth and his motivation to rear him. However, what is evident from the myths is that they combine two explanations of unusual children’s births that serve two very different purposes. The ‘consolation’ myth places the responsibility for such an occasion on the gods, and possibly the sins of one’s ancestors, and the ‘warning’ myth urges one against perversion and adultery. One should therefore be extremely cautious of concluding straightaway from such myths that all congenitally disabled babies were regarded as monsters. As can be seen, the real origins of human-animal hybrids in Greek mythology lie centuries (and often miles) apart from their interpretations, and the interpretations often serve a very clear religious purpose.
It was not only the human-animal hybrids that were believed to be born in this way. The same ‘wrath-of-the-gods + sins-of-the parents’ pattern is present in the mythical narratives that deal with congenitally disabled people and gods.
‘If it was an unenviable fate to be a handicapped human being,’ writes Garland, ‘hardly less unenviable was the fate of the crippled fire-god Hephaistos, a solitary misfit among an unageing population of divinely perfect deities.’ Whether Hephaestus’s story is truly so negative is addressed elsewhere. Here the origins of his disability and its meaning for Homer’s audience in antiquity are discussed.
The circumstances surrounding Hephaestus’s birth were thoroughly unpropitious. According to Hesiod (Th. 927), Hera bore him without intercourse in order to spite her husband Zeus, – apparently for having given birth to Athena on his own. There seems to be some confusion as to whether Hephaestus’s lameness was congenital or not, Homer’s Iliad alone stating both that he broke his legs when he was thrown down from Olympus by Zeus and that it was Hera who exposed him because he was born lame (Il. 1.590-4, Il. 18.395-7). The former view certainly predominated and is still the more popular one today.
Again, like in the myths discussed above, it is unlikely that when the myth of Hephaestus’s birth emerged it had such negative connotations. The parallels between him and Athena, closely associated in cult as the patrons of artisans and craftspeople, are quite significant, and Athena was physically normal. It is likely, however, that Hephaestus ‘became’ lame by birth in later versions of the myth created in the emerging patriarchal society. His disability thus confirmed the popular theory that the man was solely responsible for the generation of new life, and the woman was but the ‘nurse’ of it (compare to Aeschilus Eum. 658-60), thus making Hera incapable of producing a healthy child on her own. The myth may also refer to the so-called ‘theory of maternal impressions’ – a popular belief that the mother’s mental state at time of conception is capable of influencing the appearance of her future child.
Thus again it is evident that the mythical story has elements that it acquired at a relatively late stage in its development, as an attempt at explaining the form of a cult that has existed long before. The explanation is promoting a certain worldview – in this case one in which a woman on her own cannot be responsible for conception, and therefore is dependent on the man. Moreover, the myth of Hephaestus’s birth follows the traditional pattern where unusual conception results in the birth of an unusual child. As for Hera’s rejection of her son, it should not be interpreted as a reflection the social situation but rather as a demonstration of her character. As said before, the exposure of a child in antiquity depended on many more factors besides physical appearance, and it was by no means shameful to choose to keep a disabled child. For Hera, living among perfect-bodied gods, of course, it must have been different, but in her case, exposure was not physically possible, since Hephaestus was born immortal. Therefore, her choice to throw him off Mount Olympus should rather be regarded as an act of rage, much like when she conceived him in the first place.
As has been shown, the ancient Greek myths that deal with the birth of disabled children and ‘monsters’ clearly serve the purpose of warning against sinful behaviour, and most of them were created as attempts by later commentators to explain the position of a particular creature or deity within the Greek religion. Moreover, as Garland points out, although the Greeks did occasionally draw a connection between the birth of a deformed child and a forthcoming catastrophe, it is only very rarely that such births are recorded by historians or mentioned in literature as significant.
The choice of rearing or not rearing a child with physical variations in ancient Greece and Rome rested on a number of factors – from aesthetics to the political and religious life of the state, but not purely on disability as one we understand it today. This is not to say that the Greeks or Romans were particularly humane and enlightened in their attitude to congenitally disabled. Two things, however, are evident from the texts studied that challenge the modern perception of this attitude in modern popular culture.
First, it must be admitted that even within the boundaries of the Greco-Roman world congenital disability was treated differently in different times and regions. Second, that myths should not be regarded as exact reflections of reality since, as has been shown, origin myths of ‘monsters’ are temporally quite distant from their characters’ real origins. Moreover, these myths demonstrate that even the worst departure from the norm in the ancient mind – a crossover between the human and the animal – would not necessarily prevent the parents from deciding to rear the child. The common misconception that all disabled children were killed at birth says more about our present-day beliefs rather than ancient Greek realities.
As can be seen, the myths that are used to perpetuate the belief that congenitally disabled infants were regarded as 'evil' is based on myths that served as warnings – not as socio-historical documents.