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Loneliness as Openness: The Concept of Eremia in Pindar’s Mythical Adoptions

Rebekah Spearman

University of Chicago

In Pindar’s Thebes, adoption [thesis] and exposure [ekthesis] were framed as opposite aspects of one problem—fertility’s failure to follow supply and demand.  Aelian explains that “it was not possible for a Theban to expose [ektheinai] a child and to throw it out into the wilderness [eremian] under pain of death” (Aelian, Varia Historia, 2.7).  While Athens did not share Thebes’ qualms about infant exposure, eremia was also linked to adoption there.  Menecles explains that “there is one escape from loneliness [eremias]… namely the possibility of adopting whomever [one] wishes” (Isaeus II.13).  Thus, on both sides of the fertility problem, whether unwanted children or childlessness, eremia awaited the unattached person. 

Pindar’s Olympian IX develops this double-ended loneliness.  However, by framing eremia as receptivity to divine gift, Pindar suggests that the unenviable fate of loneliness is in fact a boon.  In the first mythical example, Pyrrha and Deucalion appear in an empty world.  In their eremia, they found a family and demos of stones (Ol.9.44-45).  Their adoption of the earth itself expedites the process of repopulating the world and provides a city and family to their loneliness.  The couple’s eremia is also framed as Διὸς αἴσᾳ “by the dispensation of Zeus” (Ol.9.42).  While, as G.B. d’Alessio observed, the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women emphasizes Zeus as the cause of the great flood, Pindar identifies him as its alleviation (Ol.9.52).  His dispensation permits Pyrrha and Deucalion’s survival and their adoption of a new family and demos (Ol.9.42-44).  Their loneliness allows them to become agents in Zeus’ plan and to produce children who are both “autochthonous” and “sons of the strongest of the Kronidai” (Ol.9.56).  Such a combination of autochthony and divine birth suggests an even more powerful nation than other founding myths.  And of course, the combination is only possible through adoption.

Likewise, in the adoption of Opus by Lokros, we see Zeus’ dispensation bring strength back to a failing kingdom.  The descendent of Pyrrha and Deucalion, King Lokros, is identified as “an orphan from family” (Ol.9.61) not because he lacks forebears but because he lacks a son.  His sterility makes him an orphan, leaving him in jeopardy of exposure to the eremia of childlessness.  But, Zeus supplies an adopted son [theton huion] (Ol.9.62) from his own paramour with whom “he made love in the Mainalian glens” (Ol.9.58).  Even though the nameless girl conceives in a literal wilderness, the existence of her and her son relieves Lokros from the bleaker wilderness of age and supplies him with a demigod as heir, thus revivifying the failing family tree. 

By framing these adoptions in the context of literal and figurative wildernesses or eremia, Pindar suggests that loneliness is a gift that leaves humans open to divine dispensation in their lives. As such, Pindar pushes for a new way of viewing adoption.  It is not a lamentable stopgap to sterility but an opportunity to introduce something newer and stronger into a dying world.

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The Powers and Perils of Solitude in Greek Literature

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