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The Quest of the Historical Pythias

September 24, 2012

This blogpost will make its quest of the historical Pythias a bit crookedly. I’m excited about a new book, so more on that below.

I think it’s easier to start elsewhere, in more familiar territory for most. When it’s “the quest of the historical Jesus,” then we all know which particular Jesus is meant by that. Never mind that his name was probably pronounced as יְהוֹשֻׁעַ‎‎ Yĕhôshúa’ and, as such, could easily have been confused dozens of others whose namesake is the post-Pentateuch Ἰησοῦς of the “Book of Joshua.” Yes, even this character may be more fiction than fact, if the source is simply, what William H. Propp, Baruch H. Halpern, and David Noel Freedman conclude is “the book of Joshua,” or “a literary creation, a historico-theological fiction, whose primary sources were the already exiting literature of Israel.” So we look back. There are allusions and perhaps disambiguated confusions before Joshua and the book of Joshua. These are in Torah, very specifically with reference to this name, in bəmidbar Sinai. For example, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, particularly in Numbers 13:16, we read of this historical moment: “And Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun Joshua.” Well, I’m now quoting from the 4 century old King James Version, which renders Matthew 1:21 as follows: “And she shall bring forth a son, and you shall call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.” One story draws from another, one history from another, one fact or fiction from another. The remarkable thing about the quest of the historical Jesus is that we all understand who the quest is about. We don’t really have to start with fact or with fiction just so long as we all agree on which Jesus is, or is not, the historical one. So let’s say there was a real Jesus in history. Yes, that one. What, then, do you or I require of him?

As I start this post, I’m trying to get at the fact that good “historical” literature is not only burdened by “faith.”

It is so very much the case, nonetheless, that religious literature — that the Gospels of Jesus, the various ones of them — do make the case for faith. Our BLT co-blogger Theophrastus reminds us of this in a recent comment after an earlier post: given the faith burdens put on religious historical literature by Protestant readings of the gospels in particular, “it must be a fact that Moses received the Torah at Sinai, Jesus physically ascended into heaven, Mohammad visited Jerusalem, Moroni gave Joseph Smith the plates, Buddha was enlightened under the tree (perhaps the same tree from which the apple zonked Isaac Newton), Krishna advised Arjuna, etc.” I’m tempted to suggest that “faith” in the Protestant hermeneutic is somewhat literary or, vice versa, that what’s literary sometimes really looks like Martin Luther’s Glauben.

Moving along in this post, I’m trying to get at the fact that good “historical” literature is not only burdened by “faith.” History writing and history reading is burdened with going beyond the facts if it’s to be real history. History making and the reception of history really is about good story telling too. There’s an a-religious belief in it, or else it’s not, well, believable.

Aristotle, even the historical one who wrote The Poetics supposedly, said something like “It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” Yes, I get the fact that, in English, originally, this was the historical Samuel Taylor Coleridge saying these words that sound so much like our Aristotle. All this reminds me how Catherine Elgin (in her book, Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary) talks about what has happened, through history, when we try to speak of our historical figures; she writes about us as we talk (or write) about Aristotle:

Aristotle, of course, was not named “Aristotle”; the name he went by had a different pronunciation and a different spelling. So the claim that our use continues the chain that began with his being baptized “Aristotle” needs refinement. Then there is the worry that chains that originate in a single stipulation may later diverge. In that case a term has two different reference classes despite its link to a single introducing event…. Ambiguity occurs because correction… allows for alternative continuations of the causal chain…. Each continues the chain, but the two uses of the word… are not coextensive. Nor do we always succeed in referring to what our predecessors did, even when we intend to do so.

Well, then. Let’s just back up. We must agree that “fake” history can be written. We want to agree that that’s “not history”; it’s not real history anyway. Let’s also agree that when Jesus tells a fable, aka a parable, in one of the Greek gospels, it might not co-incide with facts of history. None of us wants to be duped. Nobody reading true truth or real reality or historical history wants to make it only believable as a matter of religious faith. And yet readers of the Greek gospels can and do get into discussions of whether a certain Lazarus in the bosom of a certain Abraham or a certain Jonah or a certain Adam were historical for the Jesus about whom the Greek gospel writers wrote. What does it matter?

So what I’m trying to come to is our agreement that good history written (or told) works like fiction in most cases. None of us really asks for “just the facts.” Philip Yancey, writing his history of Jesus (aka The Jesus I Never Knew) gets at some of this reading another historian:

Pulitzer Prize winning historian Barbara Tuchman insists on one rule in writing history: no “flash-forwards.” When she was writing about the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, for example, she resisted the temptation to include “Of course we all know how this turned out” asides. In point of fact, the Allied troops involved in the Battle of the Bulge did NOT know how the battle would turn out. From the look of things, they could well be driven right back to the beaches of Normandy where they had come from. A historian who wants to retain any semblance of tension and drama in events as they unfold dare not flash-forward to another, all-seeing point of view. Do so, and all tension melts away. Rather, a good historian re-creates for the reader the conditions of the history being described, conveying a sense that “you were there.”

Anyone who has seen the film Titanic twice may still get that twinge of hope, while watching the second time, that maybe not all will be lost in the end. There’s something in the literary, in the literature of history, in what some like to call historiography, that goes beyond facts. That something never necessarily goes against the facts. But the story telling of the history is most believable when it’s not just a timeline of verified “fact checked” facts.

Historian and feminist and rhetorician Cheryl Glenn knows that even the factual writing of good history requires more than just the facts. (Again, we’re not talking about blind religious faith or any sort of gullibility). Glenn looks at how men through the ages, since Socrates, have been willing to fill in around the facts, to rely on stories, say, written by Plato and by Xenophon and by Aristotle as if factual. The best histories of Socrates do not reduce to facts. Nobody writing about Socrates since Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle has just offered only the facts. (Again, we’re not talking about merely religious fancy either). Glenn gives her defense then for writing a history of Aspasia, based on stories by Plato for example. Men write histories about Socrates, and so her history of Aspasia, I will claim here, is as good as any written. Glenn’s method? Just as good as anybody’s:

We must risk, then, getting the story crooked. We must look crookedly, a bit out of focus, into the various strands of meaning in a text in such a way as to make the categories, trends, and reliable identities of history a little less inevitable, less familiar. In short, we need to see what is familiar in a different way, in many different ways, as well as to see beyond the familiar to the unfamiliar, to the unseen.

I’m taking an awfully long time to say something I really want to stress. There’s an exciting new book out about a woman, a woman of history. It’s written by a woman who seems to put a lot of herself in the history. The historian and the subject of her history even look the same. Here’s the author of the history (a photo) and her book cover (an artist’s painting of the one about whom the history is written). Notice the resemblances:

I really don’t know if that’s to make the one more realistic, more believable, or not. What I’ve been reading is that the author has had to go on a lot of imagination in her quest of the historical Pythias.

When we say the quest for the historical Jesus, then we all know which Jesus we’re talking about. But when we say Pythias, we don’t have much to go on. Which one? The wikipediaists still haven’t added this one whom this new history has been written about: Here’s a half page from an old encyclopedia:

Here’s a bit of a close up view (updated spellings and some footnotes elided); this is from that old encyclopedia that men in history (namely Pierre Bayle, John Peter Bernard, John Lockman, Thomas Birch, George Sale) wrote —

PYTHIAS, the daughter of Aristotle, was married three times, first to Nicanor, according to her father’s last will;then to Proclus descended from Demaratus King of Lacedæmon, and lastly to Metrodorus the Physician, who was the Disciple of Chrysippus of Cnidus, and the Master of Erasistratus. The two sons she had by her second husband studied Philosophy under Theophrastus. The son she had by Metrodopiricus, was named Aristotle.It appears from some sentences, which are ascribed to her [C] that her Father had given her a very good education. Observe that Pythias was the name of her mother.

[C] Some sentences which are ascribed to her] She said among other things that the finest colour that can be seen on the face of a man was that of shame or modesty…i. e. “They report many grave sayings of Pythias, Aristotle’s daughter, by which it appears that she was educated not so much in her father’s lap, as by his discourses and learning; for no man was ever more ingenious, witty, and agreeable, than Aristotle. Among her sayings the following has been transmitted down to us; namely, that it is impossible to behold a finer colour upon an honest man’s face, than that which is occasioned by modesty.” See Erasmus, in the VIIIth book of his Apophthegms.

Notice how this Pythias, this historical one, is written in relation to men. Even the words we have of her in our histories are “by his discourses and learning,” that is by her father’s discourses and learning, by Aristotle’s discourses and learnings (according to Erasmus). Notice how I’ve ranted about this before. I’ve insisted that we can’t really do the quest of the historical Aristotle without really doing the quest of the historical Pythias:

But what do we know of Phaestis (Aristotle’s mother), Erpyllida (the foster mother), Arimneste (the older sister), Pythias (the first wife who bore their daughter), Pythias (the daughter), Herpyllis (the second wife who bore their son Nichomachus, the namesake of Aristotle’s father)? Who are Aristotle’s grandmothers, and what do we know of them, and what did he know because of them? Does anyone still hear the voices of these women who Aristotle, likely, could not help but hear?

And I’ve ranted about this before:

And he names his most famous treatise on ethics after his father and his son, both named Nikomachus; but he never does anything like that for his mother Phaestis or his concubine (second wife) Herpyllis who bore him his son or his wife Pythias who bore him only a daughter, whom he named Pythias after her mother. Then, again, he studied males and females very carefully and concluded by his logic that females are defective males.

Aristotle might laugh at the book I’m about to tell you more about. We imagine, he might laugh, this historical factual Aristotle.

But the historian is an archaeologist, a forensic scientist, a forensic anthropologist. Today, according to one reviewer, this historian actually learned from the methods of a forensic anthropologist:

To conduct such research, [this historian] journeyed to Greece in May 2010 with a group from Carleton University’s department of classics.

“I’m so glad that I did because there’s so much that ended up in the novel that wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise,” she said.

Those elements include the types of food the characters eat in the story, the tools they use, and their ancient practices, one of which is burying dead babies with puppies.

[The historian] learned of that practice from a forensic anthropologist.

“She’s like ‘CSI: Ancient Greece’ woman,” [the historian] said with a laugh. “She would examine bone remains and figure out how people had died. … Some of the work that she had done and written about was excavating these old dry wells from ancient times and they were full to the brim of these bones of babies and of puppies.”

Experts concluded some of the babies were born with physical deformities and were likely victims of mercy killings by midwives who buried them with puppies so they had companions as they moved on into the next world.

[The historian] also learned about the magic women practised in those days to try to control their fertility and love lives, among other things.

“When we think of ancient Greece, we think of centaurs and Zeus throwing thunderbolts and stuff, but we don’t think of these women trying to take some kind of control of their lives,” said [the historian] .

Well, the book is fiction. It’s a history. It’s about as much as we know factually of the historical Pythias, in our quest. It’s by Annabel Lyon, blogger, novelist. It’s getting some good reviews. I’ve already ordered my copy and have read the book’s opener available online free. I hope this opens up more conversations about our quests, our histories, our stories, and our suspensions of our disbeliefs. I hope we learn more about Pythias, just as we can easily learn more about Joshua and Aristotle and Jesus.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Sophie Benshitta Maven permalink
    September 27, 2017 1:00 pm

    Very interesting. Definitely alters one’s relationship to history…ok, my relationship to history. Instead of vehemently resisting the inaccuracies I say exist, consider them the poetic license of the author in service of excitement and atmosphere…

    I like it. That new attitude makes a lot more book enjoyable… As Aristotle (lol) said: It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it… as in accepting it as the truth… Thank you.

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