Dissecting the Classical Hybrid

This is a slightly modified version of the following chapter: Hughes, J. (2010) 'Dissecting the Classical Hybrid' in Rebay-Salisbury, K.; Sorensen, M. L. S. and Hughes, J. eds. Body Parts and Bodies Whole. Changing Relations and Meanings. Oxford, UK: Oxbow, pp. 101–110.

‘At the place of transition where the Minotaur becomes man, beneath the breastbone where the ribs begin to drop away, he uses a medicinal balm. Over the years, despite his willingness to try new creams and curatives, the line remains tender, painful at times. The temperature of the scarlike ribbon and the flesh around it, bullish gray on one side, milky, translucent and human on the other, always seems a few degrees hotter than anywhere else on the Minotaur’s body, as if the fusion is still in process.’

Steven Sherrill, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break (2000, pp. 84–85)

 Scene from interior of an Attic black-figure kylix, c. 550BCe. Toledo Museum of Art.

Scene from interior of an Attic black-figure kylix, c. 550BCe. Toledo Museum of Art.


This chapter focuses on the anatomy of the classical hybrid, and its relationship to (whole) human and animal bodies. Both ancient and modern sources describe hybrid anatomies in the positive terms of construction and creation, of grafting and fusion. However, in this chapter I want to draw attention to a parallel tradition, which experiments with the theme of deconstruction, of disaggregation. e material introduced in these pages shows how ancient authors and artists often chose to highlight the instability of the hybrid body, by distributing its parts across the surface of an object, or through the lines of a written text. Once this trend has been established, I move on to explore the implications of this shift in emphasis – from construction to deconstruction – for how we see ancient hybrids functioning in their environment. Working from the insistent connection made in ancient thought between animality and fragmentation, I suggest that the hybrid’s ‘partible’ body can be seen to challenge the cultural as well as the biological boundaries that separated humans and animals in the Graeco-Roman world. The idea that the form of hybrid bodies reflects broader discourses about human-animal relations in a particular historical context is reinforced by looking at hybrid images from the 21st century, whose anatomies are radically different from those of their classical ‘ancestors’.

Hybrids in the Classical World

The hybrids of classical myth are a heterogeneous bunch, but Peter von Blanckenhagen has suggested that they can be divided into two broad categories. The first comprises “individual, unique, solitary creatures”, which often appear exclusively in encounters with the great heroes of Greek mythology: into this category we can put the (bull-man) Minotaur, (dog-woman) Scylla, (bull-man) Acheloos and (fish-man) Triton. The second group consists of those hybrids which live en masse – “tribes in which the individual is but a member of its group” (von Blanckenhagen 1987: 85). This group includes the (horse-men) centaurs and (horse-men) satyrs as well as (bird-women) sirens and (lion/eagle/serpent-women) sphinxes. However, these collectives do include notable individual members, such as the centaur Chiron, who was skilled in music and medicine, and the Theban Sphinx, made famous by her deadly riddle.

 Figure 1. Red-figure stamens, Odysseus and the sirens. c. 480-470BCE. British Museum, London.

Figure 1. Red-figure stamens, Odysseus and the sirens. c. 480-470BCE. British Museum, London.

Even a quick glance through the illustrations to this chapter shows the enormous range of contexts in which images of these hybrids appear. Some of the most striking narrative scenes are found on Greek pots. The early 5th-century BCE stamnos shown in Figure 1 depicts Odysseus sailing past the bird-bodied Sirens. As described in the Odyssey, he has voluntarily been tied to his ship’s mast, so that he can listen to the Sirens’ song without it drawing him in (his crew cannot hear the song at all, since they have wax stuffed into their ears). In Italy, images of hybrids crowd the painted walls and mosaic floors of houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum, giving some indication of their popularity in Roman domestic decoration. Across the ancient world hybrids decorated human bodies in both life and death, on carved gemstones and metal jewellery. They teem in the funerary sphere, from the sphinxes which sit atop funerary pillars in Greece, to the centaurs and satyrs that dance across Roman sarcophagi in ecstatic Dionysiac processions. ey are also used in the public realm, on large state-sponsored monuments. In fifth-century BCE Greece the battle between the centaurs and (human) lapiths was one of the most popular subjects for representing on temples: it appeared on the relief frieze of the temple of Apollo in Bassae and in the west pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia. The centauromachy on the south metopes of the Parthenon (see Figure 2) has been interpreted as an allegory of Greco-Persian conflict, configured here as the triumph of reason and civilisation over bestial brutality (see Castriota 152–154; for an objection to this reading see Osborne 1994).

 Figure 2. Metope from the Parthenon, lapith and centaur, c. 440BCE. British Museum, London. 

Figure 2. Metope from the Parthenon, lapith and centaur, c. 440BCE. British Museum, London. 

These Graeco-Roman hybrids have attracted a range of interpretations, from the historically-specific (e.g. the Parthenon centaurs as Persians) to the more general and encompassing (e.g. hybrids as apotropaic symbols). Amongst the most interesting are those which focus on the double-body of the hybrid as a symbol of the meeting of, or transition between, ontological categories. Vedia Izzet, for example, has recently pointed out that the gures most commonly represented on Etruscan temples are all dual-natured, and thus provide an ideal template for the meeting of the human and divine spheres:

All these creatures are, in some senses, between categories and transcend them, or, in the language of structural anthropology, they are all liminal... The gorgon is half woman, half beast; the satyr half man, half beast; Achéloos half man, half bull; and the maenad half mad, half sane. By virtue of belonging to neither and both categories simultaneously, these gures are ideal for mediating between one world and another, in this case religious and non-religious, and temple and non-temple (Izzet 2000: 45–46).

Other commentators emphasise the notion of change. Ismene Lada-Richards focuses on those hybrid creatures included in ancient initiatory ritual, suggesting that these amorphous bodies helped the initiates to accomplish their transition to a new identity (Lada-Richards 1998). David Napier has pointed out how frequently centaurs and satyrs appeared at rituals or festivals marking the changes in the seasons. He notes how “even the visual impression of half-human beings can epitomize, especially in the case of Centaurs, something in the midst of change – transfixed, as it were, in the act of a human becoming an animal or an animal becoming a human” (Napier 1986: 63–64). Helen King draws attention to the fact that the ‘good’ centaur Chiron figures in mythology as the tutor of several adolescent males, including the Greek heroes Achilles and Hercules, observing that “it is as if the process of instruction by which an individual moves from the category of boy to that of man is best achieved by a creature which itself straddles otherwise separate categories” (King 1995: 142). Analogous comments could be made of the numerous images of hybrids which occur in the funerary realm, in the context of transition between life and death, or life and afterlife.

These varied interpretations all attempt to map the double form of the hybrid body onto the world which produced it – a world which is seen to be organised around basic binary distinctions. The anatomical boundary which separates man from beast is seen to equate to those invisible cultural boundaries which demarcated self from ‘Other’, mortal from divine, ephebe from adult, initiated from uninitiated, and so on. However, many would want to challenge this essentially structuralist view of the Greek world, and to argue that any interpretation which explains the anatomy of the classical hybrid in terms of category distinctions risks imposing a modernist, metaphysical understanding onto the past (cf. Thomas 1996: 11–30), as well as distracting us from a range of other, potentially more interesting insights. This chapter thus offers an alternative view of how we might place ancient hybrids back into their historical landscape. It concurs with the structuralist interpretations in seeing the fundamental binarism of these creatures’ bodies as working in dialogue with other kinds of cultural institution. However, it moves away from a reading of the hybrid body as representing the meeting of/movement between categories, to investigate instead the hybrid as a symbol of disunity and fragmentation.

Hybrid Anatomies

The anatomy of the classical hybrid was not static, but changed over time and between places. The centaur, for example, became progressively more ‘animalised’ over the course of the 5th century (Baur 1912, Padget 2004). In the Archaic period, the centaur often had a fully human body, with only a thin horse ‘appendage’ protruding from its lower back (cf. Padgett 2004: 11, g. 6). During the course of the fifth century BCE, however, it became more common to show the centaur with equine rather than human forelegs (Fig. 10.2). Other hybrids were instead progressively humanised. Sphinxes, sirens and gorgons all gradually became more feminine and idealised over the course of the Archaic and Classical periods (Tsiafakis 2004). In the sixth century BCE, sirens are depicted as human-headed birds, but early Classical examples have arms (Figure 1 here is unusually old-fashioned in this respect: the vase dates to the Classical period but its sirens retain completely avian bodies); and by the late Classical/Hellenistic period the sirens were birds only below the hips, and “alluringly curvaceous” female nudes above (Buitron Oliver and Cohen 1995). This evolution in the siren’s appearance is given a functional explanation by Francois Lissarrague, who notes that hybrids are given arms only when these are needed, i.e. to play musical instruments (Lissarrague 2000: 138). However, Buitron-Oliver and Cohen remind us that the increasingly feminine appearance of the sirens would also have evoked comparison with ‘real’ Greek women, particularly in their roles as mourners, musicians and fatally sexualised beings.

While the bodies of hybrids transformed over time, one basic principle remained the same: they were all made from the combination of recognisable parts of other bodies. The hybrids discussed in this chapter are formed from parts of human and animal bodies; other classical hybrids combine animal with animal. e gri n, for instance, comprises the bodies of a lion and an eagle, while the chimaera is described by Homer as “lion-fronted and snake behind, with a goat in the middle” (Iliad 6.179). In visual images, these formally different parts are often further distinguished through the use of different colours or textures. A 2nd-century CE polychrome mosaic now in Berlin shows centaurs in their ‘natural’, wild habitat (Kriseleit 1985: 30–31 no. 8). The scene includes a rare image of a female centauress, who is lying on the ground being mauled by a leopard: to the right of the scene, a male centaur (her partner?) prepares to crush the leopard with a large rock. e yellow-brown of his fleshy human parts is clearly distinguished from the rugged, darker brown hide of the horsey part. e centauress is a paler colour, but the artist has left it ambiguous as to whether this is because she is female (the conventions of Greek painting distinguished lighter female from darker male bodies) or because she is dead.

  Figure 3. Patricia Piccinini, The Young Family, 2002. Silicone, polyurethane, leather, plywood, human hair, 80 x 150 x 110cm. Image reproduced courtesy of the artist.

Figure 3. Patricia Piccinini, The Young Family, 2002. Silicone, polyurethane, leather, plywood, human hair, 80 x 150 x 110cm. Image reproduced courtesy of the artist.

This observation that hybrids are made out of parts of other bodies is something of a truism. However, what I want to emphasise here is the degree to which these parts remain distinct and separable. To clarify this point, we can compare other hybrids from other periods which provide starkly different models of anatomical combination. Figure 3 shows one of the highlights of the 2003 Venice Biennale – a sculpture called The Young Family created by the contemporary Australian artist Patricia Piccinini. Made from a mixture of synthetic and organic materials, the sculpture represents a (touching? terrifying?) group of what Donna Haraway has described as “mop-eared, porcine transgenics”, an “unlovely chimeric litter with a shrivel-skinned, big-rumped, heavy-lidded, all-too-humanoid mama” (Haraway 2007). The dynamics of the group – a mother with her young – are familiar, but their bodies defy any easy categorisation. Human, dog and pig characteristics can all be glimpsed in the bodies and gestures, but none of these elements exist unchanged. Rather than any clear separation of human and animal characteristics, the boundaries between human and animal – if they continue to exist at all – are fluid and slippery.

We will come back to Piccinini’s sculpture in a moment, but for now it is enough to recognise the difference between these two models of hybridity: firstly, the ‘segmented’ model of classical antiquity, in which each body part retains its separate shape and character, and secondly, the ‘mixed’ model of contemporary art, whereby each of the component body parts ‘bleeds into’ the other(s). I should admit at this point that, while the segmented model is the norm in classical antiquity, examples of the mixed model are not completely absent: this is particularly true of the art of the Archaic period, where hybrids were less idealised and more ‘monstrous’ than their later descendants. The scene represented in Figure 4 comes from the interior of an Attic red- gure cup dating to the fifth century BCE. It shows one version of a scene that is repeated numerous times on vases of this period, in which the Minotaur meets his death at the hands of the hero Theseus (the protagonists’ names are inscribed above their heads). In the majority of these scenes, the Minotaur’s bull head tops an idealised, fully-human body; however, in this version the body is covered in painted ecks, generally taken to represent hair. In this scene, the human part of the Minotaur’s body has ‘absorbed’ something of the animal. The same might be said for the faces of some (although not all) of the centaurs on the Parthenon metopes; the mask-like, grotesque features of the centaur depicted in Figure 2 contrast sharply with the idealised human beauty of his Lapith opponent. Clearly, the segmented model fails to capture the complexity of these gures, whose constituent pieces are transformed in the process of combination. Nevertheless, the majority of classical hybrids avoid any such mixture of human and animal parts – and even these two ‘mixed’ examples are worlds apart from Piccinini’s futuristic critters.

  Figure 4. Red-figure cup. Theseus and the Minotaur, c. 485-480BCE. British Museum, London.

Figure 4. Red-figure cup. Theseus and the Minotaur, c. 485-480BCE. British Museum, London.

Why do these ancient and modern hybrids look so different? Artistic convention obviously plays some part here. Richard Allen has recently written about the “constraints of decorum” that governed the representation of the human body in Renaissance art (Allen 2002: 341). The same principles apply to images of the classical period, where visual representations of potentially abject processes such as metamorphosis or death eschewed realism in favour of beauty and integrity of form (cf. Fig. 9 below). Classical artists saw hybrids, not as a challenge to experiment with monstrous forms, but rather as an opportunity to represent two perfect (half) bodies. In his Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid praises the beauty of the centaur Cyllarus with the following words: “His neck, chest, shoulders, hands and every manly part seemed like a sculptor’s much-praised masterpiece. Unblemished too his equine shape, nor less fine than his man’s” (Met. 12.397). All the same, artistic trends do not take shape in a vacuum, and divergent models of hybridity are likely to reflect a whole range of historically-contingent beliefs and practices surrounding human and animal bodies. In the case of the contemporary sculpture these beliefs are relatively transparent, since the artist herself has situated her work in response to emerging biotechnologies and accompanying debates in bio-ethics:

The world that I have been lost in for the last several years is not the same as ours but it is not that di erent – it is not inconceivable. Obviously the things that I create don’t actually exist but perhaps they could. In fact, perhaps I create them because they should. e ideas, the context, the technologies required for their existence are certainly already part of our world; genetic engineering, biotechnology, stem cell research, cloning, bio-electronics are all part of everyday life for us. e possibilities for my creations are already amongst us, and before too long the things themselves could turn up unannounced, without our ever having had the opportunity to wonder how much we want them (Piccinini 2006). 

The biotechnologies that Piccinini mentions fuse the human and animal at the corporeal micro-scale of tissues, cells and genes, with unpredictable results. The hyper-real silicon forms of The Young Family already embody technological achievement, but their bodies confront the viewer with the possibilities of further progress. The anatomy of these contemporary hybrids clearly responds to twenty-first-century debates about where the human-animal boundary is located. The rest of this chapter will argue that the anatomy of the classical hybrid is subject to the same contingency.

Fragmenting the Classical Hybrid

The notion that the classical hybrid might be seen as a product of two fragmented bodies is largely disavowed in the modern literature on the subject. The language used to describe these hybrids highlights the act of joining and the creation of new composite bodies, but rarely acknowledges the act of deconstruction that this process logically entails. The hybrids from antiquity (both human-animal and animal-animal) are collectively known by the German word Mischwesen (lit. ‘mixed beings’), while the analogous English term is ‘composite beings’ or ‘composite creatures’. In describing individual hybrids, writers often employ positive words such as ‘created’, ‘constructed’, ‘assembled’, ‘joined’, ‘united’ or ‘coupled’. In the passage cited at the opening of this chapter, the novelist Stephen Sherill gives us an intimate view of the naked Minotaur, and of the hot scar which harks back to a primitive moment of fusion. Similarly, the scholar Jackie Pigeaud uses the concept of grafting to describe the fabrication of monsters in ancient art and thought. Through his role in the Minotaur’s generation, for instance, the craftsman Daedalus fulfilled every artist’s dream of creating a living being: “Il a réussi la gre e de l’humain et de l’animalité” (Pigeaud 1988: 216).

To some extent, these modern interpreters take their lead from ancient sources. In a famous passage of his Ars, the Roman poet Horace represents the artistic depiction of hybrid forms as a process of addition:

If a painter wanted to join ('iungere') a horse’s neck to a human head, and to draw varied feathers over limbs collected from all over the place ('undique collatis membris'), so that he might finish off in a black fish that which was a lovely woman at top, would you, my friends, hold your laughter when sent in to look? (Ars 1–5).

Aelian uses similar language in his zoological treatise, when he compares the ‘real’ monsters of distant lands with the fanciful creations of artists:

They tell of others too which have strange forms whose appearance not even men skilled in painting and in combining (symplekein – lit. ‘entangle’, ‘weave together’) bodies of diverse shapes to make one marvel at the sight, could portray with accuracy or represent for all of their artistic skill; for these creatures have immense and coiling tails, while for feet they have claws or fins’ (On Animals 16.18).

But while Graeco-Roman authors also evoked concepts of composition and assembly in their descriptions of hybrid monsters, there existed a parallel tradition which explored the ‘partibility’ of the composite beast (Horace’s undique collatis membris already hints in this direction). One early example of this alternative discourse comes from Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, a pseudo-biographical portrait of the Persian leader, Cyrus, written by an Athenian in the fifth century BC. Around the middle of the book, we hear Cyrus recommending that his men, who have until that time campaigned on foot, learn to ride on horseback. Cyrus’ general, Chrysantas, considers the idea, and the image which springs into his mind is that of a centaur – or rather, a centaur that can be taken to pieces. “If I learn to ride”, he says

...whenever I’m on horseback I’ll no doubt do the things that centaurs do,
and when I dismount, I’ll dine and dress and sleep just like other people do.
What other result could there be than that I would become a centaur who can
be taken apart and then put back together again? (Cyr. 4.3.19– 20).

Cyrus embraces this image, and suggests that perhaps it would be as well to make riding compulsory, and to forbid his men from walking even short distances – that way, people who encountered the Persians would think they actually were centaurs (Cyr. 4.3.22–23). David Johnson has suggested that this image of the centaur can be read as a symbol of the hybrid empire conceived and embodied by Cyrus, represented in Xenophon’s text as a (doomed) combination of Median luxury with Persian restraint. Johnson explains how “Cyrus attempts to retain Persian values in himself and his entourage despite his adoption of Median ways – he and his companions are to be impressive in both their showy Median garb and for their willingness to work up a traditional Persian sweat” (Johnson 2005: 181). Following this line of thought, we might wonder whether Chrysantas’ vision of the centaur’s coming-apart is not intended to prefigure the collapse of this hybrid Persian government. Such a reading would suggest that the partible hybrid functioned as a metaphor through which Greek thinkers could explore other forms of (non-corporeal) breakdown.

One of the most explicit images of the hybrid body-in-pieces is found in another fifth-century work by the presocratic philosopher Empedocles. In his text On Nature, itself now in fragments, Empedocles set forth an ingenious theory of the evolution of species. e rst stage is described as follows: “Thus many neckless heads sprang up, bare arms wandered bereft of shoulders, and eyes wandered alone, destitute of faces” (frag. B57). In the second stage, these oating limbs spontaneously combined into whole, complex beings. is description is comparable to Empedocles’ theory of the human foetal development, wherein separate, fully-formed body parts come together inside the mother’s womb. Some of these composite beings were humans, others were animals. But a third category was comprised of human-animal hybrids:

Many double-faced (amphiprosopa) and double-chested (amphisterna) creatures were born, ox-progeny man-faced sprang up, others conversely man-natured ox-headed, mixed here from men, here women-natured, wrought with shadowy limbs (frag. B61).

ese hybrids proved to be non-viable, and died out. is picture dovetails neatly with Greek mythology, which situates hybrids in the distant, heroic past. Empedocles’ amphiprosopa and amphisterna also reflect contemporary representations of monstrosity as numerical anomalies of otherwise normal limbs (e.g. the Cyclops with his single eye, Cacus with his hundred eyes). Most importantly for us though, Empedocles’ theory gives us a striking retrospective vision of the hybrid body - for these isolated limbs is reported to have been mounomelê, ‘single-limbed’, an expression which reminds us that they were not parts severed from previously complex beings, but each at this stage functioning in its own right as an independent ‘single-limbed’ creature, a simple organism with just one specialisation” (Sedley 2003: 3). We might argue, though, that from the retrospective viewpoint of the reader these limbs can only be understood in relation to their teleological context, as parts of whole human and animal bodies.

The two examples given here are relatively explicit images of the hybrid body-in-pieces. But we might want to argue that any text which lists the parts of the hybrid’s body can be perceived in terms of fragmentation. A description of the Sirens as ‘figures with a woman’s head, arms and breasts but a bird’s legs, wings and tail’ might invite similar comments as the French anatomical blason, which recent critics have seen as a figurative dismemberment of the versified (female) body (e.g. Sawday 1995: 191; Vickers 1997). Moreover, in Greek and Latin poetry, metre and word order could be used to detach and re-organise the parts of the hybrid’s anatomy. Ovid describes the Minotaur as “semibovemque virum semivirumque bovum” (Ars Amatoria 2.24), a line which, as Rusten notes, echoes the “amphiprosopa... amphisternum” of Empedocles (Rusten 1982). Here the Minotaur’s body, ‘half-bull-and man, half-man-and bull’, splits into two, and then into two again. The equal and mirroring halves of the pentameter line break around the caesura; this split is then replayed in each half of the line, in which the bull (bovem) and man (virum) parts are separated by an intervening -que.

Visual artists also experimented with breaking the hybrid form. In an article on Archaic and Classical centaurs, J. Michael Padgett draws attention to a series of black-figured amphorae by artists of the Leagros group, which depict Peleus bringing his son Achilles to Cheiron (Padgett 2003, 40 n.102). These vases show Cheiron at the far right-hand side of the scene, his ‘equine extension’ cut o by the picture’s frame, while at the far left, moving away from the centre of the scene, we see the rump and hind legs of Peleus’ chariot horses (e.g. Berlin Staatl. Mus F1900; ABV 385, 27). The impression, Padgett notes, is of a centaur that has ‘come full circle’; but the vase also confronts us with the image of a centaur cloven in two. Padgett also makes reference to a twelfth-century BCE terracotta statuette from Phylakopi on the island of Melos, representing a nude male gure, with evidence of a break point on the buttocks (French 1985, 226 cat. no. SF1553). As French and Warren have both noted, it is very likely that the statuette originally represented a centaur of the ‘archaic’ type, which has a fully human body as well as the hindquarters of a horse (French 1983: 223; Warren 1986: 156). Whether the breakage was deliberate or accidental, the statuette in its fragmented state works to inform the viewer of the volatility of the hybrid body, and of the ‘natural’ autonomy of each of its segments.

While the centaur was split at the point of the waist, the Minotaur’s natural break was at the neck. Perhaps unsurprisingly, depictions of his death at the hands of eseus played around with the imagery of decapitation. The struggle between Theseus and the Minotaur is represented on Greek vases of the 6th and 5th centuries BC, where the two opponents are depicted locked in combat in the centre of the vase, sometimes watched by Ariadne and Minos, sometimes alone. In one of these scenes, Theseus cups his fingers around the Minotaur’s bovine chin and pulls upwards, as if to detach the head from the body (Philippaki 1967: 65, pl. 33). In fact, the scene looks as much like an ‘unmasking’ as a beheading: this brings to mind Ken Dowden’s comments about the animal-headed deities of Egypt, whose resemblance to mask- wearing humans intimate their connection with rituals of enactment (Dowden 1998). Other versions of the death scene are less ambiguous: Theseus is shown equipped with a sword, which he drives into the Minotaur’s neck (Figure 5). In an unusually violent touch, the blood pours out in splashes.

 Figure 5. Theseus and the Minotaur. Black-figure Attic amphora, c. 540 BCE. Louvre, Paris.

Figure 5. Theseus and the Minotaur. Black-figure Attic amphora, c. 540 BCE. Louvre, Paris.

The Minotaur’s body continues to be fragmented by artists even when he appears outside scenes of direct combat. Figure 6 shows a sarcophagus from Fidenae, now in Cliveden (Robert 1900). The figures carved into its surface can be identified as the cast of the ‘Cretan saga’. eseus is represented in heroic semi-nudity, and appears twice on the front of the sarcophagus. On the left he converses with an older, bearded man (possibly King Minos or Aegeus, Theseus’ father); meanwhile on the right he is caught in the act of deserting Ariadne, who reclines semi-naked on the ground. To Ariadne’s left extends the body of the Minotaur, entangled between Theseus’ legs. Their physical closeness – Ariadne leans against the Minotaur’s feet – reminds the viewer of their familial bond, for despite her beauty and his monstrosity the two are ‘genetically’ related through their mother Pasiphae. The Minotaur has been wrapped around the corner of the sarcophagus’ surface: anyone looking at this object from the front would simply see the lower portion of a naked male body, would have to move around to the side of the sarcophagus to see the bull’s head and understand the figure’s true identity. The shape of the sarcophagus has been used to decapitate one of its central figures: this image of an essentially fragmented corpse is very unlike the beautiful whole bodies normally depicted on Roman sarcophagi, which disavow the process of bodily decomposition that was going on inside the stone container.

 Figure 6. Sarcophagus, Theseus and the Minotaur, c. 250CE. 

Figure 6. Sarcophagus, Theseus and the Minotaur, c. 250CE. 

Animality and Fragmentation

So how might these partible hybrids reflect the world in which they were made? The classical hybrid poses an additional threat above and beyond its fusion of human and animal bodies by confronting the viewer with the spectre of bodily disintegration. As we have seen, the hybrids created by classical artists and authors were inherently unstable organisms whose bodies were taken apart as easily as they had been put together. The artefacts discussed in this chapter are particularly explicit about the fragmentary quality of the classical hybrid, but any image constructed according to what we have called the ‘segmented’ model could be read in a similar light; and I would argue that as soon as viewers recognised themselves in the (perfectly) human part of the image, they admitted the possibility of their own bodily fragmentation. Such a reading has certain implications for how we perceive the hybrid to ‘work’, since when we look sideways at other elements of the human-animal relationship in classical antiquity, we see bodily integrity being used to de ne the di erence between human and animal bodies.

As John Heath has noted, Greek philosophers were obsessed with explaining what makes man unique amongst animals, “virtually inventing the familiar topos ‘man alone of the animals is/possesses x’” (Heath 2005: 6). Amongst the many answers offered to this conundrum was man’s ability to reason, speak, laugh and feel shame, as well as his possession of hands (Sorabji 1993: 89–93). As the long duration of this discourse and the shifting nature of its conclusions indicate, the boundary between human and animal bodies was far from self-evident, but was rather constructed and policed through a whole series of discourses and practices, amongst which the issue of bodily cutting and dismemberment was central. Animal bodies were routinely opened and/or fragmented in the hunt, on the dinner table and (perhaps most crucially) on the sacrificial altar; these same practices simultaneously produced human bodies that were whole and inviolable. Of course, it is not the case that human bodies were never fragmented, but any such cases generally occurred in deviant or at least unusual circumstances. For instance, Heinrich von Staden has shown how the cutting of the human body was ratified only in situations of crisis, like warfare, or ‘emergency’ surgery (Von Staden 1992; cf. Martin 1983). Von Staden suggests that the unwillingness of Greek anatomists to dissect the human body can be explained by the fact that scientific dissection lacked this ‘legitimating factor’ of crisis; significantly, the animal body could be dissected, and conclusions about the human body inferred from the results.

 Figure 7. Red-figure amphora, sacrificial scene, 500-475BCe. Image courtesy of the Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg.

Figure 7. Red-figure amphora, sacrificial scene, 500-475BCe. Image courtesy of the Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg.

In visual representations, the cut animal body is often shown accompanied by the whole, impermeable bodies of humans. Numerous vase-paintings represent animal sacrifice, not simply as an extermination, but as a painstaking dissection of the animal body into a collection of internal and external pieces. One common scene depicts the act of divination from the sacrificial entrails; here, the animal innards are often shown in the hands of a Greek warrior, whose protective armour-cladding emphasises the impermeability of his body (Fig 7; Durand and Lissarrague 1979). Other texts and images do show the human body being (or about to be) cut or dismembered; however, in these cases the human is compared to or transformed into an animal, thus making a conceptual link between animality and fragmentation. The myth of the sacrifice of Iphigenia is a good example of this process. The playwright Euripides recounts how the body of the maiden Iphigenia was snatched away by the goddess Artemis, just as the knife was about to pierce her flesh, and a deer substituted in her place (Iphigenia at Aulis 1578). One fourth-century BCE Apulian krater depicts Iphigenia standing with her head inclined under the knife held out by her father Agamemnon; while other artists chose to show the deer hovering at the margins of the scene, here Iphigenia’s body is superimposed onto that of the animal (Fig. 8). The girl’s foot trails along the same curve as the hind legs of the deer, while the animal’s muzzle and ears protrude from the profile of her human face. This image both effectively hybridises the girl and beast, as well as visually capturing the moment of transition (cf. Sharrock 1996 for the conceptual overlap between hybridity and metamorphosis). Representations of the myth of Actaeon can also be brought in here. Actaeon was a hunter who was turned into a stag by Artemis/Diana and subsequently torn to pieces by his own hounds, inverting the normal power relations between human (hunter) and animal (hunted). The fourth-century BCE Lucanian krater shown at Figure 9 depicts the moment of Actaeon’s death, again collapsing the narrative sequence of events (metamorphosis followed by killing) into a single synchronic image. Actaeon has sprouted stag’s antlers, and his dogs leap to tear at his body. Like the Iphigenia vase, this image vividly reinforces the connection between animality and fragmentation.

 Figure 8. Volute Crater, sacrifice of Iphigenia, 370-355BCE. British Museum, London.

Figure 8. Volute Crater, sacrifice of Iphigenia, 370-355BCE. British Museum, London.

 Figure 9. Detail of a red-figure nestoris showing the death of Actaeon, 400-380 BCE. British Museum, London.

Figure 9. Detail of a red-figure nestoris showing the death of Actaeon, 400-380 BCE. British Museum, London.

This discussion of how practices centred around cutting and dismemberment worked to produce the animal body in antiquity only begins to explore the rich theme of the relationship between animality and fragmentation. Other ways in which bodies are divided include such things as the ancient portrait bust, which provided a normative representation of the human body in pieces. Enough has been said, however, to indicate that certain strands of discourse about human-animal boundaries – like sacrifice, ‘scientific’ anatomical dissection and hunting – persistently showed corporeal integrity as a de ning quality of humanness. Seen in this light, the classical hybrid bodies discussed in this chapter take on a new significance. Since they presented both human and animal bodies as (equally) fragmented, the hybrids’ anatomies collapsed the distance between human and animal bodies that other sources sought so hard to create and maintain. is complicates our first impression of the classical hybrid body as one which preserves the ‘original’ shape, colour and texture of its human and animal parts, reinforcing rather than transgressing the boundary between these bodies. Paradoxically, it is the classical hybrid’s preservation of the anatomical distinctiveness of animal and human that threatens to close the cultural distance between the two ontological categories.


In his Book of Imaginary Beings, Jorge Luis Borges remarks of the classical centaur: “‘Biform’ it is called in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but its heterogeneous character is easily overlooked, and we tend to think that in the Platonic world of ideas there is an archetype of the Centaur as there is of the horse or the man” (Borges 1974: 37). This chapter has attempted to retrieve something of the strangeness of the classical hybrid by focusing in on its anomalous body, and comparing it with divergent models of hybridity in other, more recent periods. Unlike the contemporary hybrid, whose body resists (re)partition, the classical hybrid has been revealed as an inherently unstable compound, whose potential for easy disaggregation is explored by ancient artists and authors. Moreover, I have suggested here that these different anatomical models respond to different beliefs about where the boundary between human and animal is most permeable. While Piccinini’s deformed creations dramatise contemporary anxieties about human-animal transgenics and the fusion of human and animal at the stage of the zygote, the partible anatomy of the classical hybrid is best understood in relation to the insistent connections made in ancient thought between animality and fragmentation. In Graeco-Roman culture, humanity ended where the knife-blade began; thus, while the constituent parts of the classical hybrid were beautiful rather than monstrous, their evocation of the ‘real’ human body-in- pieces constituted a truly terrifying spectre.




Some of the material in this chapter was presented at the conference ‘Permeable Boundaries’, which took place in the MacDonald Institute in Cambridge in January 2006, and I thank that audience for their helpful comments. I also thank my co-editors, and Robin Osborne, Oliver Harris and Benedetto De Martino, who have all at some point commented on these ideas. I am grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for funding my postdoctoral research on the project ‘Changing Beliefs of the Human Body’, and the rest of my colleagues on that project for so many stimulating discussions.



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