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Eros and Animal Bodies in Xenophon’s Cynegeticus

Alex Petkas

Princeton University

This paper examines the complexities of the human-animal interface in hunting by focusing on key differences in the treatment of the dog and the hare in Xenophon’s Cynegeticus.

            Well known structuralist treatments of hunters in Greek culture have correctly identified how hunting is marked as a fringe or liminal activity (Segal 1978) and that this aspect is essential in its incorporation in rituals of initiation (Vidal-Naquet 1981).  But recent studies of human-animal interactions reveal another aspect generally overlooked by structuralism: that the human subject develops (or reinforces) a conception of him/herself as human through such interactions.  Thus (in the case of hunting) the essential moment of identity formation may not be so much at the point of re-entry and reintegration into society, but rather at the point of furthest extreme into the realm of ‘nature’ when one encounters the prey animal amidst companion-helper animals (dogs).  This analysis does not directly conflict with structuralist approaches since civic/social identity formation and ‘anthropogenesis’ are not the same thing, but it suggests new potential for interpreting the cultural phenomenon of hunting in the Greek world.

            Xenophon’s (Gray 1985 defends authenticity) Cynegeticus, is a mainly technical treatise on hunting, though it is bookended by a mytho-critical preface and an anti-sophistic postscript.  Despite its purportedly instructive purpose, it is in many aspects more record of hunting experience than guidebook, and certain passages serve more to evoke the mood of the hunt than to contribute to a practical purpose (Hutchinson 2009).  Schnapp, emphasizing its normative aspects, has even described it as an ideological apology (1973), and Johnstone (1994) interprets the text as essentially reinforcing Greek aristocratic values and education.  Without fundamentally disagreeing with such treatments of the text’s social function, I propose a more anthropological examination of certain of its literary features in light of recent trends in Animal Studies.

            The main question I ask of Xenophon in this paper is, why hunt?  He offers several explicit justifications for hunting in the opening and closing sections of the treatise: it was invented by the gods; famous heroes hunted; hunting teaches military virtue, etc.  But in contrast to these explicit justifications I argue that he offers a reason that is less explicit and, I suggest, prior: pure desire.  Many passages (cf 2.1; 2.3; 12.7; 12.8; 12.22; 13.17;) discuss the pleasure (hedone) of hunting and the desire (prothumia, chairein) which incites the human to take up hunting.  One passage is most illustrative: the hare makes such a charming spectacle that the sight of seeing one tracked, found, chased, and caught would make someone forget whatever – or whoever – they desire (ἐπιλάθοιτ’ ἂν εἴ του ἐρῴη) (5.33).  While the hare (alongside other animals) as an erotic gift from erastai to eromenoi, well attested on pottery, is important background (Barringer 2001), the hare in particular and the hunt in general are conceived here as objects more desirable than or at least independent of the eromenoi of aristocratic pederasty-ritual.  This sentiment comes at the end of an extended description of the hare’s anatomy, which is praised in terms that evoke the ideal of harmony, balance, and beauty; it is an aesthetic contemplation of the prey animal.  Moreover the Xenophon inverts the usual comparison: erotic relationships themselves now become the ‘absent referent’ (cf. Adams 1990).  This account stands in striking contrast to the normative description of dog anatomy in chapter 4 and dog behavior in chapter 3: dogs “should” be of specific dimensions (the ribs should not (χρὴ…μή) sink to the ground but be straight, etc).  The dog, like the human in whose society she interlopes, can be good or bad (or shameful/ugly) (cf. Franco 2014), and is the second-person object of naming (7.5) and exhortation (6.17, 20).  But the hare is chiefly beautiful, attracting both human and dog (the latter is also capable of experiencing pleasure in the hunt (4.4)) to an inter-species encounter which promises both knowledge and pleasure.

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Animal Encounters in Classical Philosophy and Literature

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