The presentation last Thursday went very well… I’ve attached a copy of the slide show that went with the presentation, if anyone wants to view. Below that (behind the “more” link) is roughly what I said with each slide, although as I did it on the fly (rather than reading from the sheet) the actual presentation would have been different.

Presentation Notes – Independent Research Project


Death or neglect, ridicule or pity: An analysis of the disabled in Ancient Greece



Section 1 – Cover slide (1 slide)


Morning! I’m going to talk this morning about the disabled in Ancient Greece. This isn’t a straightforward subject, and is hugely affectely by modern perceptions of how the ancient greeks viewed disability, we’re going to be looking at those perceptions, at what the various sources, artwork and skeletons actually tell us to try to see past those perceptions and arrive at a clearer idea of how the Ancient Greeks actually viewed disabled people.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< perceptions 1


Section 3 – Modern Perceptions (2 slides)


Modern perceptions of how the Ancient Greeks treated the disabled and the deformed – particularly by non historians – as you can see, from this still from the film 300, are not good. There’s this idea that the disabled were destroyed or persecuted back then.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< perceptions 2


This theme is continued with the bit that a lot of us have heard of – and that films such as 300 do nothing to correct – where the Spartans chuck deformed babies off the mountain top. Its particularly prevalent, sadly, in anything to do with disability education or rights, presenting the idea that we’re so much more enlightened now and that life for the disabled is so much better in modern times.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< beauty


Section 4 – Beauty vs the beast (1 slide)


We all know the Ancient Greeks loved beauty. We see it in their statues, their vase paintings, the drive in men to be great athletes. The flip side of this, however, is that anyone who especially wasn’t beautiful – the deformed or the disabled – were regarded with, at best, pity, at worst, with horror – and they, like many non-disabled people now – would probably rather just have forgotten that people like that existed. So they didn’t write about them. There is very very little in the primary sources about them, so its a difficult subject to research.


In addition, the study of the disabled in wider history, just as with other minority groups, has been largely neglected until the last twenty years or so.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< definitions


Section 5 – Definitions and Distinctions (1 slide)


Its important to realise that definitions and terminology have changed over time, not just because of language changes but because of our better understanding of medical causes of disability. For example, someone with a dislocated hip might have been described as “lame”, whereas now we’d say “hip problems”. In addition, the Ancient Greeks regarded some conditions as being disabled or deformed that we wouldn’t today – such as intersex conditions. This problem with language change and definition is the reason why I decided to confine this project to physical disabilities – getting into mental health definitions in ancient history is even more difficult and I realised early on I just would not have space in the essay.


The Greeks themselves saw disability in different ways. A “weakness” of the body – such as people who were lame, deaf, blind – was regarded very differently to a congenital disability where something was missing, deformed, or an extra bit added, such as people with a just one eye. People like that were regarded as being monsters, or Terata. This greek word is at the root of the modern word Teratology, which is the study of abnormalities in physiological development.


Finally, the Greeks also considered the cause of a disability. If a man had gone blind because of drinking too much alcohol, he was regarded very differently to someone who had been born blind, or someone who had gone blind through receiving an injury in war.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< paleopathology


Section 6 – Paleopathology (1 slide)


Intact skeletons from Ancient Greece are fairly rare, and of course, not all disabilities can be observed from skeletal remains – such as deafness, for example. However, paleopathology on surviving Grecian skeletons have shown incidents of clubfootedness, congenital spine malformations, hip dislocation and Spina Bifida.


Modern estimates of congenital disabilities – that is, disabilities from birth – currently sit at about 3% of births. There’s no reason to think that the Ancient Greeks had a lower figure – if anything, it was probably higher due to malnutrition, disease or interbreeding.


With postnatal disabilities (after birth), at least 10% of all known skeletons from the period have fractures, and of those 10, 4 out of 5 are male. Where the skeletons are female or children the supposition is that the underlying cause would have been malnutrition, as women and girls would have been fed less than their male counterparts.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< mythology


Section 7 – Disabled in Mythology (5 slides)


The Ancient Greeks regarded their mythology as the centre of their history – for them, it wasn’t mythology, it was actual events that happened. Examining the mythology is thus crucial for a complete understanding of their culture. There’s plenty of examples of the disabled in mythology.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< hephaestus


The most obvious is Hephaestus, the disabled god – he’s the blacksmith. He’s also one of the few Greek gods with an obvious “job” – Hermes the Messenger being the other. He had a pretty tough life – he was rejected by his mother, Hera, then thrown out of Heaven by Zeus, betrayed by his wife, Aphrodite with Ares… you’d think he’d offer a cautionary tale! However, he works his way back – Zeus accepts him back, he works hard as a blacksmith doing jobs for the other gods, and becomes indispensible, gets revenge on his mother – he actually comes back stronger, despite everything that’s happened to him. Quite a role model.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< odipus


Oedipus is another who suffers various disabilities – from lameness to blindness – and who finds redemption in spite of his problems. Oedipus’s story is of course covered a great deal by the Greek playwrights, and audiences would have been very familiar with it – which, quite apart from the other messages it gives, also gives the audience a more positive impression of disability in a very subtle way.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< polyphemous


But of course, there are others examples – from Polyphemous the Cyclops;


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< molione


to the Molione Twins in the Illiad, possibly a description of a set of siamese twins competiting in – and winning – a chariot race; and


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< philoctetes


Philoctetes, who receives a terrible wound in his ankle that won’t heal in the Illiad. They’re all over the place once you start to really look.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< apothetae exposure


Section 8 – Apothetae / Exposure (1 slide)


The apothetae (throwing unacceptable children from the Taygetas mountain in Sparta) and exposure (the practice of leaving a child outside to die) gets mentioned more than anything else when people are discussing the ancient greeks and disability. Unfortunately for them, historians have recently realised that there are only five primary sources describing the practice.


If you read those five sources its clear that exposure and the apothetae were known to happen, but its also not clear that its the automatic, commonplace occurrence that many people make it out to be. Mostly it seems to be that when it did happen, it was with babies that were deemed to be terata – that is, monstrous – rather than having a weakness, but family demographics and the political situation at that time would also have been considered. For example, a deformed baby girl born into a poor family, the seventh child, at a time of famine would be far more likely to be exposed than a disabled male child born to an older mother, the first child of a wealthy family at a time of stability. The parents would have been very aware that a disabled child would have been seen as a burden by the rest of the family, especially after the parents were dead and gone and needed to be sure that letting them live was the right thing to do – addressing the issue of quality of life, which is much the same approach we take today with abortion.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< pharmakos


Section 9 – Pharmakos (1 slide)


Pharmakos is an Ancient Greek word for scapegoats. This is where, in times of great crisis, a scapegoat would be chosen by the community and punished in order to correct whatever wrongdoing the community had done, as decided by the gods. This practice can be seen in the Legend of Perseus – Andromeda was essentially a Pharmakos, although she is rarely described that way. Usually the pharmakos was someone ugly, disabled, or deformed, who was at the bottom of the social pecking order. There was speculation that this practice involved human sacrifice, but no primary source evidence confirms this, except Philostratos who describes a mob assault on a disabled man in a city suffering from plague: he was stoned to death. Otherwise the pharmakos would have been beaten, given food, and driven out of the city – exile, as a punishment. There’s speculation too that the practice of ostracism was based on pharmakosism.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< careers 1


Section 10 – Potential Careers (7 slides)


Assuming a disabled child survived exposure and wasn’t neglected, as many children probably were, what career options were there for the disabled? Much depended on the type of disability they had.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< dwarf a


Dwarfs probably found opportunities in the entertainment industry…


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< dwarf b


as did obese women,


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< hunchback a


and hunchbacks –


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< hunchback b


this can be seen in the many vase paintings such as these that show them in these roles.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<<blind a


Blind people were often associated with poetry or singing, the idea that removal of one sense heightens the others – so much so that it was a popular idea that you had to be blind to be a poet, despite only two being on record as being actually blind – Xenokritos of Lokira and Tyrtaios, who I’ll talk about later.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<<blind b


There’s also no proof of this but people at that time also believed that Homer was blind, and he may well have been, which would fit in with the idea that the Odyssey and Illiad were part of an oral tradition – blindness would be irrelevant for a poet conducting oral performances.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< hermaphrodite


Religious service also wasn’t banned for the disabled, despite many people seeing disabled babies as a sign of the gods’ displeasure. The intersexed, for example, or what the Ancient Greeks would have called hermaphrodites, would often serve as priests in the Hermaphrodite cult which was very popular in Ancient Greece.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< unemployment


Section 11 – Unemployment (1 slide)


What if a disabled person had a disability so bad they were prevented from working? Primary sources say that Athens, at the very least (and probably other poleis) made financial provisions for people like this. Some were probably dependent on charity or begging, but you could apply to the Boule for a pension of between 1 and 3 obols a day. This is most clearly shown in a passage where a lawyer called Lysias is called to defend a tradesman receiving this pension, and who is accused of falsifying his disability in order to get the money. You only have to look at recent events with the government trying to reduce the number of people claiming disability benefits to see that some things just don’t change! The institution of this pension probably came about because of the amount of disabled war veterans present in various poleis. Exactly who put it in place is disputed – one source says Psistratus, the other says it was Solon, who instituted it because of a man called Thersippus who was maimed in war.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<< conclusion


Section 12 – Conclusion (1 slide)


Its clear then that the idea of “the ancient greeks killed all the disabled babies and persecuted the rest!” is overly simplistic, that the picture is much more complex than that. Some disabled people were able to find a niche in society to be productive and live out their lives in relative peace and quiet.


Even the Spartans, despite being pictured as obsessed with the ideal of perfection and a warrior society, were able to accept the disabled as they were: they accepted Tyrtaios, a half blind, crippled man, becomes one of their most important poets, and Agesilaus II, a cripple, survives the Apothetae and the Agoge and becomes one of their Kings. So much for male deformed children being routinely thrown from the mountain at birth!


Yes, some disabled people were undoubtely killed, neglected, ridiculed, persecuted, abused and pitied, just as they are today, as can be seen in any newspaper. But just as they are today, many others were brought up by loving parents and lived peaceful, productive lives.


>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANGE SLIDE <<<<<<<<<<<<<<


Section 13 – Any Questions (1 slide)


Any questions?