Saturday, January 06, 2007


Children Who Resemble Their Fathers

In Homer's Odyssey (1.206-216, tr. A.T. Murray and George E. Dimock), the goddess Athena disguised as Mentes talks with Odysseus' son Telemachus:
"But come, tell me this and declare it truly, whether indeed, tall as you are, you are the son of Odysseus himself. Wondrously like his are your head and beautiful eyes; for many were the times we consorted with one another before he embarked for the land of Troy, whither others, too, the bravest of the Argives, went in their hollow ships. But since that day neither have I seen Odysseus, nor he me."

Then wise Telemachus answered her: "Therefore, stranger, will I frankly tell you all. My mother says that I am his child; but I do not know this, for never yet did any man know his parentage of his own knowledge."
For most of human history, children did not know for certain the identities of their fathers. This ignorance may be one impulse behind those societies that defined their membership through the maternal line alone. It is only recently that blood and DNA tests have allowed children to know for sure who their fathers are (and vice versa).

In the days before blood and DNA tests for paternity, a child who obviously resembled his father was prized:On the other hand, children who didn't look at all like their fathers were suspect:In an earlier post on Aeschylus' Libation Bearers 205-210, I speculated that Electra may have recognized footprints belonging to her brother Orestes because they reminded her of the distinctive way in which their father Agamemnon walked.

Andromache in Seneca's Trojan Women (461-468, tr. John G. Fitch) enumerates the ways in which her son Astyanax resembles his dead father Hector, including his gait:
O son, true descendant of a great father, one hope for the Phrygians and only hope for our ruined house, all too famous as issue of ancient blood, and all too like your father! This countenance my Hector had, such he was in walk and bearing, so he carried his brave hands, so he squared his shoulders, so his stern brow conveyed a threat as he spread his flowing hair with a toss of his neck.

O nate, magni certa progenies patris,
spes una Phrygibus, unica afflictae domus,
veterisque suboles sanguinis nimium inclita
nimiumque patri similis! hos vultus meus
habebat Hector, talis incessu fuit
habituque talis, sic tulit fortes manus,
sic celsus humeris, fronte sic torva minax
cervice fusam dissipans iacta comam.

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