Monsters and the Dangers of Highway Travel in Classical Antiquity
In the sixth century B.C.E., previously insular Greek city states began to communicate with each other via major highways as Greece entered a period of urban and mercantile expansion. These roads, though, were unpatrolled and dangerous: robbers routinely preyed on vulnerable travelers. Moreover, if highwaymen were a concern for the Greeks, they were an epidemic for the Romans, whose extended empire and strained military resources were sorely tested by the many criminals roaming the vast road network through Italy and across the provinces. The cultural anxiety arising from this dangerous reality was reflected in Greek and Roman myths about monsters attacking travelers on the road.
The Theban Sphinx, for example, was a late addition to the Oedipus story, not appearing in literature or art until Thebes was connected to other cities via a major highway. The Sphinx blocked this road to Thebes, disrupting trade, until Oedipus solved her riddle. There thus seems to be a significant connection between the Sphinx’s appearance in the story and the need for Thebes to be less isolated. The connection of monsters with roadways increases drastically during the Imperial period: one young man encounters a lamia on a deserted highway (Philostratus, Apollonius 4.25). Another meets a werewolf (Petronius, Satyricon 62). A group of slaves loses a companion to a monstrous serpent (Apuleius, 8.19-22). This paper examines these and other examples to demonstrate how the Romans used monstrosity as an expression of anxiety about the dangers of highway travel.
144 Million Hermaphrodites: The Fantastic Anthropology of Gabriel de Foigny
In 1676 a Geneva-based defrocked French monk called Gabriel de Foigny published a book titled La Terre Australe Connue (The Southern Land, Known), with a subtitle promising “a description of this land unknown up to now, and of its manners and customs” as provided by “Mr Sadeur” who lived on that continent for thirty-five years before escaping back to Europe, where he recently died. Often over the past three centuries this text has been analysed as a literary classic that epitomises early-Enlightenment utopian fiction. My object is to treat it differently, as a proto-ethnography of an imagined quasi-human society of “144 million hermaphrodites” living in a vast, luxuriant, antarctic Southern Land. Foigny named these beings ‘Australians’ – thus becoming the originator of the modern word for the people who populate the continent that, once mapped, came to be called ‘Australia’. In particular, I will focus on those chapters that deal with the “manners and customs” of this highly talented and organised community. But, also, I will contextualise Foigny’s text within a broader frame of contemporary European narratives of antipodal, giant, and other monstrous-human populations allegedly native to this “inverted” part of the globe.
In the interdisciplinary literature on monsters it has been widely observed that monsters tend to inhabit spaces beyond the frontier. In this presentation I provide an ethnographic contribution to these discussions through some reflections on the intertwinement of spatial frontiers, alterity and monstrosity. I explore the indalau, a type of elf with backward feet that lives beyond the frontiers of ethnic Tidung villages in north-eastern Borneo. Indalau are a variant on the more general Malay elf (orang bunian). Since such elves are ‘just like people,’ Tidung articulate an anthropology of them. Indalau have their own kingdoms in the forest and cannot stand hearing the Islamic call to prayer. In the past few decades the extractive resource frontier has steadily destroyed these forests and new electrical grids have allowed mosques to consistently broadcast the call to prayer at loud volumes. As such, indalau have been forced to move deeper into the forest, and human-indalau contact has declined dramatically. Exploring a Tidung anthropology of indalau, I argue that civilisational-extractive frontiers work to destroy old monstrosities as they produce new ones. Ethnographic attention to monsters, then, yields fresh insights into the frontiers that continue to aggressively sweep the globe.