Panel 2.2: Animals and Food as Symbols

This panel was chaired by Ben Greet and included papers from Pietro Zaccaria, Harriet Lander, Chiara Blanco, and Virginia Mastellari, the abstracts, powerpoints, handouts, and audio for which are shown below.

Pietro Zaccaria, The University of Leuven

Title: Dogs, Fishes, and Bad Coins: New Insights into the Cynic Use of Metaphors and Symbols.

This paper deals with the role played by metaphors and symbols in Cynic philosophy. Metaphors were invented and used by the Cynics to characterize their own philosophy, and soon representing Cynicism through metaphors became a common practice among philosophers and biographers. While the use of metaphors by the Cynics is well known and has been extensively treated, the use of the same metaphors to speak about these philosophers still deserves discussion on various important points. The aim of the present paper is to put forward three new insights into the ways in which metaphors were used to represent the life of Antisthenes and Diogenes, the alleged ‘founders’ of Cynicism. Firstly, a new interpretation of Antisthenes’ metaphorical nickname Haplokyon is suggested. This nickname, which must mean the “dog with the unfold mantle”, in opposition to Diogenes, the “dog with the doubled mantle,” was invented to present Antisthenes as the real founder of Cynicism. It can be shown that this metaphor comprises a wide range of ideas related to the Cynic way of life. Secondly, a reappraisal of the vexata quaestio of the falsification of the coinage by Diogenes shows that this biographical episode is likely to have been ‘invented’ and discussed after the metaphorical use of the expression paracharattein to nomisma proposed by Diogenes himself in his Pordalos. Finally, a new interpretation of an anecdote found in Diog. Laert. 6,36 reveals how a fish like a saperdes could be considered by the biographical tradition as a meaningful and problematic symbol to represent Diogenes’ philosophy and way of life. This analysis shows a constant pattern: while metaphors were used by the Cynics to challenge the common values of society, the same metaphors were later used and discussed by the biographical tradition in the light of those very values which the Cynics wanted to dismiss.


Audio – 

Harriet Lander, The University of Nottingham

Title: Sappho’s Sparrows: A Reappraisal of Fr.1 in light of Eighteenth Century Translations.

Sappho is perhaps most well-known for being a symbol of lesbian erotic love. She is the reason that lesbian dropped the capital L and ceased to be merely a demonym. Semiotically, lesbian sex is the signifier for the word Sapphic, not Greek poetry. This is understandable: Sappho writes about her jealousy of girls taken away from her (fr. 51) and the shaking which grips her when she sees a beautiful woman (fr. 31). Therefore, what she has become a symbol for is unsurprising. Everyone knows that Sappho wrote about her desire for women. What this paper explores is – what if she didn’t?

I propose that in fr. 1 Sappho writes about sparrows and Aphrodite rather than her erotic desire for women. She writes about her love for nature more than she writes about the nature of her love. This is exaggerated by the early English translations of her poetry such as Ambrose Philips’s much-admired Ode to Venus from 1711, and John Addison’s and Francis Fawkes’s translations (1735, 1760). My paper highlights the significant discrepancy between the perception of Sappho as a symbol for erotic lesbian love elegy, and what those who first rendered her Aeolic Greek verse into English thought was the focus of her writing.

Through textual analysis and close-reading of these early translations properly contextualised, I propose that nearly all trace of the ‘beloved’ has been lost, in favour of depicting Aphrodite travelling down from her father Zeus’ house on her chariot drawn by sparrows. Examining these earliest English translations of Sappho’s work, I will shed light on the ways in which Sappho’s poetry and persona was received in this fundamentally formative period of her textual transmission.



Audio –

Chiara Blanco, The University of Cambridge

Title: Symbols of the Soul in Greece and Rome: The Butterfly, Soul of the Dead, and the Bee, the Pure Soul.

Both symbols of the soul in Classical thought, the bee and the butterfly were considered to be the bearers of two opposite semantic values. The evocative image of the ψυχή flying from the cocoon was responsible for the symbolic association between the butterfly and the soul of the dead. Firstly attested by Aristotle[1] with the meaning of ‘butterfly’, the word ψυχή began being attributed to the insect as a consequence of the spread of this symbolic association, substituting the older φάλαινα. The same association survived in Roman culture, as testified by funerary evidence[2]. Converse to the butterfly, the bee embodied what could be considered the purest of the soul’s manifestations, the one waiting for the incarnation before birth.  Symbol of a vibrant new life, a swarm of bees was supposed to be born from the rotten corpse of a young ox, through the peculiar and extremely violent ritual called ‘bugonia’[3]– a living emblem of the triumph of life over death. Consequent to the wide diffusion of their symbolic values, the sources emphasise the opposition between the insects. While Pliny[4] and Columella[5] underline the butterfly’s noxious habit of destroying the bees’ wax, spreading death in the beehives, Phaedrus[6] ironically depicts the butterfly mourning about its funereal destiny in the underworld with a wasp – like the bee, symbol of a new life. Bearer of two opposite symbolic values, the bee and the butterfly seemed to bear complex, attractive values in Classical culture, the investigation of which may reveal new perspectives on Greek and Roman religious thought.


Chiara requested the audio for her paper not be included on the blog.  

Virginia Mastellari, The University of Freiburg

Title: Food and Parties: Seduction, Erotic and Sexual Metaphors in Greek Comic Fragments.

It is possible to notice the role of the food in general and of the fish in particular in Greek comic fragments to persuade people from an erotic point of view. As Athenaeus (IX 402d) puts it: ‘the accounts of dinner parties offered by the comic poets provide more pleasure for one’s ears that one’s throat’ (tr. Olson 2008). The metaphor is thus played on a double level: firstly, the lists of foods have the specific role to persuade people to take part in these comic gatherings; the food often hides double entendres for male and female genitalia or is explicitly aphrodisiac. Second, the comic fragments linked to the food present a wide range of sexual metaphors, which are the perfect surround for these descriptions. An example is Mnesimachos’ fr. 4 K.–A., the longest (together with Anaxandrides’ fr. 42 K.–A.) comic list of food, counting 65 lines. I will start from this fragment to show all the aspects that I’ve listed above (persuasory power of the food, metaphors linked to the food – fish and meat in particular – and the other sexual metaphors that stud the whole text), giving examples and loci similes from other comic fragments about this use of the metaphor.


Audio –

[1] Aristot., HA , 551a, 14.

[2] CIL, II, 2146; VI. 26011.

[3] Verg., G., IV, 528-558; Ov., Fast., 363-380; Cass. Bass., XV, 2.

[4] Plin., HN, XI, 65

[5] Columella, Rus., IX, 14.

[6] Pha., App. Per., XXIX.


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