This paper considers how Greek and Roman writers distinguish human and animal olfaction. I show that an episode from Diodorus Siculus’ Library enriches smell theory while questioning how normative categories—especially human and nonhuman, male and female—are constructed.
Greek and Roman writers generally believe that human olfaction is inferior to that of animals (Lilja 1972), and medical practice agreed. Doctors rarely employed their own sense of smell to diagnose illness (Totelin 2015) but used smelly substances to attract or repel the wandering womb, often understood (in Aretaeus’ famous formulation) as an “animal within an animal” (Faraone 2011). According to these writers and practitioners, nonhuman animals have merely a stronger sense of smell, not a different one.
A fabulous story from Diodorus Siculus’ Library (2.16-19), however, complicates this picture. Semiramis, queen of Assyria, decides to invade India. Knowing the Indoi have war elephants that will greatly disadvantage her expedition, she constructs a fleet of giant elephant eidola to fool them. These elephants are hybrid constructions of human, animal, and inert plant life: ox-hides stretched over wooden frames and driven from the inside by men on camels. Though the Indoi discover the ruse in advance, their horses are surprised in the middle of battle. The fabricated elephants look like real elephants at a distance, but up close “the smell that struck the horses was unfamiliar, and then all the other differences, being very great, threw them into total confusion” (2.19). The Indian horses are not merely attracted to or repelled by the smell of the fabricated elephants (which humans cannot detect), they discern the nature of the elephants by comparing what they smell to what they see, and what they know live elephants look and smell like. Diodorus’ text claims that horses have not only a stronger sense of smell than humans, but one that allows them to tell species apart.
Yet even as this scene affirms the difference between human and animal olfaction, Semiramis’ story as a whole questions the benefits of defining human, animal, and other categories. The fabricated elephants are hybrids, and this hybridity gives Semiramis an advantage in the battle; the eidola are more effective at disrupting the horses than live elephants would be. Like the eidola, Semiramis is something of a hybrid herself: a human who has been raised by birds (2.4) and whose mother later becomes a mermaid (2.2). She is also a woman who in many respects behaves like a man, hunting, building, conquering, and conversing with men as their equal. This disconnect between her gender presentation and performance is just as confusing to the Indian king as the smell of the eidola is to his horses. On the eve of battle, the Indian king calls Semiramis a hetaira and threatens to crucify her. Semiramis laughs, replying that her aretē will be decided by erga (2.18). In her fabrication of hybrid elephants and a hybrid self, Semiramis exploits normative categories and undermines them.
2In reading Diodorus, a historiographer, in conversation with medical and scientific theory, I follow Thomas 2000.
3Ctesias is considered the source for much of this material, but I follow Baron 2013 in only cautiously speaking of fragmentary “authors,” and for the purposes of this paper deal solely with Ctesias’ cover text (i.e. Diodorus).
4ἥ τε ὀσμὴ προσέβαλλεν ἀσυνήθης καὶ τἄλλα διαφορὰν ἔχοντα πάντα παμμεγέθη τοὺς ἵππους ὁλοσχερῶς συνετάραττε
From Plants to Planets: Human and nonhuman Relations in Ancient Medicine