Dean Swift Seminar 2009

Dean Swift's Modest Proposal at 280

Conducted on 17-18 October 2009 at the Deanery of St. Patrick's, with Dr Robert Mahony in the Chair

Child-eating, Ancient and Modern

Stephanie Nelson (Boston University)

Stephanie Nelson completed her BA at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland and her MA and PhD at The University of Chicago in the Committee on Social Thought. She is currently an Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University and the author of God and the Land: the metaphysics of farming in Hesiod and Vergil. A work on the comic poet Aristophanes: Aristophanes and his Tragic Muse: comedy, tragedy and the polis in Clasical Athens is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

Although Swift's A Modest Proposal may be the most famous exploration of the theme of child-eating, it is far from the first. In fact, the theme of eating one's children appears with such regularity in Classical texts, that one Classical scholar (David Grene) speculated that it lay, for the ancient Greeks, at the same psychological level as the more standard Oedipal misdeeds of patricide and sleeping with one's mother. But wherever we locate the origin of the motif, what is significant for my purposes here is its extremely high visibility in works of Classical Greek literature, and among those, in some of the most seminal, such as Hesiod's Theogony and Aeschylus' Oresteia.

What I want to suggest in this paper is that the motif of child-eating is sufficiently prominent in these works that the themes they associate with it serve as undertones to the Modest Proposal. In particular, the Greek tradition connects the consumption of children with the suppression and distortion of the future in the interest of the past. In the light of A Modest Proposal, the theme thus recalls Swift's vehement protests at the exploitation of Ireland by England, an exploitation that, in his view, stunted the natural development of the country and its citizens, leaving Ireland in a condition of permanent dependence and slavery. And although Swift's focus was on Classical history and political and moral thought rather than poetry, the themes that I am discussing are basic, and basic in seminal works carried down through Ovid and Seneca. What they bring to the theme of A Modest Proposal is a warning against blind self-destruction, not only in Ireland, but also in England, that echoes the savage prediction in Jeremiah that the Jews will come to consume their own children. But since my expertise lies in Classics rather than in the study of Swift, I will only suggest here and at the conclusion of the paper that these Classical associations might also apply, in Swift's view, to the relation of Ireland and England. I leave it to those of you more expert in Swift to explore the plausibility of the claim.

The first, most famous, and I will argue paradigmatic case of child-eating in Ancient Greek literature appears in one of our oldest sources, Hesiod's Theogony, where Cronos, in order to avoid the fate he had himself inflicted on his father, Ouranos, decides to suppress his children by swallowing them. As Hesiod tells us (in my literal rather than elegant translation):

These [children] then great Cronos swallowed down, as each
came from the womb of their holy mother to her knees
intending this, that no other of the noble sons of Ouranos
should hold the kingly office among the immortals.
For he had learned from Earth and starry Ouranos
that it was destined that he be overcome by his son,
even as strong as was, through the counsels of great Zeus.
(Th. 459-65)

Since Cronos' son is Zeus, and Zeus is destined to be king of the gods, Cronos' plan cannot succeed. Thus the point of the story, as far as Hesiod is concerned, is that Zeus is not swallowed. The opening line here, tous men katepine, "These, then, he swallowed down", already implies that not all the children are affected by Cronos' strategy. The exception is provided in the lines that follow:

But when [Rhea] was about to bear Zeus, father of gods and men
then she beseeched her parents, Earth and starry Ouranos
to contrive together a plan, so that she would not be known
to give birth to her dear son, so that the Fury of his own father
might take vengeance on Cronos, and of his children,
whom great, crooked-thinking Cronos had swallowed down.
(Th. 466-70)

The plan is duly contrived. Instead of swallowing his youngest child, Zeus, Cronos is tricked into swallowing a stone, while his son grows up in secret to overcome him and later to assist Earth in tricking Cronos into regurgitating his children.

There are two notable points here. The first is that the motif of child-eating lies at the heart of Hesiod's succession myth; the second is the importance that Hesiod attaches to the fact that Zeus himself is not swallowed. The first point, the central importance of the motif, is reinforced by Hesiod's use of the verb damazo, to overcome, for both Cronos' sexual "overcoming" of Rhea, and for his son's future "overcoming" of Cronos (Th. 453, 464). The theme of domination, as we will see, will come to be regularly associated with child-eating. Here the association reinforces the way in which Cronos' rather unusual way of avoiding overthrow is an integral element of the story. Cronos' father, Ouranos, attempts to suppress his children by not allowing them to emerge out of Earth, their mother. After this device is foiled by his castration (symbolically opening up a hole from which the children can emerge), Cronos alters the pattern by imprisoning his children not inside the mother but inside himself, a strategy that also proves unsuccessful. It is Zeus who will find the correct solution and thereby complete the pattern. He goes to the source, swallowing not the children but their mother, Metis, or Intelligence, the mother of the child destined to overthrow him. In so doing he incorporates both intelligence and power inside himself, takes over the role of generation, as seen in the subsequent birth of Metis' daughter Athena from his forehead, and prevents the birth of the new king of the gods, who now cannot be born because he cannot be conceived.

In all three cases the motif is essentially the same, the suppression of the children inside the body of the parent. As in the Modest Proposal, the image of the parent "consuming" the child is transparent. There it illustrates England's destruction of Ireland, as well as Ireland consuming her own future. Here, in the Greek myth, it is a deliberate attempt to prevent succession. In each case the aim is to prevent the emergence of the child who will take over from his father. In Zeus' case, however, the motif gains a new significance, as Zeus not only prevents the emergence of a rival, he also, by ingesting the potential rival, makes his challenger's power into his own, as embodied in Athena, who is for Hesiod (and for Aeschylus) Zeus' ally rather than his challenger. This last step also provides some indication of why Hesiod found it so important that Cronos never actually swallows Zeus. As never incorporated, even temporarily, into his father, Zeus never faces the threat of absorption that the other Olympians endure, a threat that will, in the course of Hesiod's subsequent narrative, be carried out as they are absorbed into Zeus' new order.

Hesiod's focus on the association of being swallowed with absorption appears in his emphasis on the story of the rock, a traditional myth that Hesiod was by no means obligated to use (as we see, for example, in Homer's very different account of Zeus' rise to power). As the demands of the Greek pantheon make it necessary that the children will eventually be regurgitated, there is no narrative need for Cronos to swallow the stone rather than Zeus. Hesiod, in fact, himself uses the regurgitation to demonstrate Zeus' supremacy, carefully pointing out that the children are brought back up in reverse order, making the stone that is Zeus' placeholder now the oldest rather than the youngest child (Th. 497). Nor is there any necessary connection between the stone and the trick through which Cronos is made to bring the children back. Nonetheless, Hesiod downplays the trick, and places the emphasis instead on the stone, set up, as evidence of the truth of Hesiod's account, at Delphi as a "sign and wonder to mortal men" (Th. 500). By focusing on the stone, and by twice, somewhat illogically, attributing to Zeus himself the plan by which Cronos was foiled in his attempt to swallow his infant son (Th. 465, 496), Hesiod emphasizes the point that Zeus, "the father of gods and men" (Th. 457) is immune to the absorption implied by the theme of child-eating. Hesiod's Zeus is not the swallowed, but the swallower; the attempt to suppress the transfer of power, unsuccessful in the case of both Ouranos and Cronos, proves successful in Zeus' discovery of a way not only to swallow his offspring, but also to ensure that they stay swallowed.

The linking of child-eating to a struggle over power and the suppression of a challenge to divine authority is repeated in the story of Tantalus and Pelops. The shift, however, from action on a divine level to action on a human level radically alters the story. Gods can suppress the future with impunity because they are gods, and will not die. In the case of humans, however, a similar attempt is bound to prove disastrous. This is the essence of the Tantalus myth which, although it is told in many different ways, contains at its heart the fact that Tantalus is punished, and in a way that demonstrates the dependence and fragility of the human condition.

In the case of Tantalus our earliest source, Pindar in Olympian 1, denies the story (as does Iphigeneia in Euripides' Iphigeneia among the Taurians 386-8), claiming that it is not true that Pelops was killed and served to the gods who consumed him. The denial, however, gives a sufficient indication of the story being denied, which is related later in Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.401-11, and Hyginus, Fables 83. Here Tantalus chops up his son Pelops and serves him to the gods. All the gods refrain from the dish except for Demeter, who, distracted by grief for her daughter Persephone, eats a shoulder. The gods then bring Pelops back to life, replacing the consumed shoulder with the ivory one that will remain his trademark ("Who does not know of Pelops, marked by his ivory shoulder?" Virgil, Georgics 3.7), Tantalus is appropriately punished, and Pelops, ivory shoulder and all, is taken up into Olympus by Poseidon.

That Tantalus' feast was intended as a test of the gods appears in a parallel story told by Ovid (Metam. 21.163 ff., and see Hyginus, 176, Apollodorus 3.8.1, Pausanias 8.2.3) in which Lycaon (or in other versions his sons, who chop up their brother) serves Zeus a soup made from human innards in order to test the god's omniscience. The result, as in the Tantalus story, is punishment: Lycaon is turned into a wolf, and Zeus sends down the flood of Deucalion to wipe out the human race. Alternate versions of the Tantalus story, both of his misdeed and his punishment, also point to a doomed human challenge to divine authority, a theme pervasive in Greek thought from the giants Otus and Ephialtes to Prometheus. For Pindar (Olymp 1. 59-65), Tantalus' misdeed was to steal and serve to other humans the nectar and ambrosia confined to the gods, a limitation made clear in the name "ambrosia", meaning "immortality".

Elsewhere Tantalus is said to have shared the secrets of the gods with human beings. The common denominator is that Tantalus is punished, either by a huge rock suspended above his head (Pindar, Olympian 1, Isthmian 8.10, Plato, Cratylus, 395d) or with the more famous condemnation to endless thirst and hunger (Odyssey 11.582-92, Ovid, Metamorphosis 4.458-9). The punishment, in both cases, mirrors the condition that mortals have proved unable to escape. Doomed to death, all humans live under the threat of Tantalus' boulder. As creatures that require constant replenishment, human beings, unlike the gods, can never be truly filled, despite an abundance of food and drink.

In the stories of both Tantalus and Lycaon child-eating has moved from the attempt to suppress the next generation to a challenge to the authority that precedes. That the challenge is doomed to failure is prefigured by Tantalus' rather perverse choice to feed his own son to the gods. By so doing Tantalus, in effect, dooms his own progeny. In this way, in good mythic fashion, the challenge itself contains its own failure, revealing the ability of the gods to keep human beings permanently under their control. In other words, for both Tantalus and Lycaon, the threat implied by the consumption of one's children is successful, as it was successful for Zeus. For human beings, however, the success is one that works against, rather than for them.

On the divine level, as we have seen, the theme of child-eating remains associated with the maintenance of authority, even when a moralizing impulse has moved the focus from a revelation of divine power to a display of the impiety of men who are justly suppressed. As child-eating moves from the divine to the human plain this focus on impiety comes to include, as well, an unnatural suppression of future generations. As the motif moves from the divine, to the relation of the divine and the human, to purely human relations its focus comes to be more and more on self-destruction, as the lack of consequences among the gods is contrasted to the inevitability of consequences among human beings.

Next to the story of Cronos consuming his children the best-known account of child-eating in Ancient Greece is Atreus' feasting his brother Thyestes on his own children, the occasion of the curse on the House of Atreus as depicted by Aeschylus. The curse is then played out in Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia to raise the winds for the passage to Troy, Clytemnestra's murder of her husband in return, Orestes' murder of Clytemnestra, and the Furies' final pursuit of Orestes. Here, as with most Greek myths, it is impossible to know what variants were available to Aeschylus. We have no other early account of Thyestes' feast, and the Iliad, in fact, mentions a peaceful transference of the royal scepter from Pelops to Atreus to Thyestes to Agamemnon (2.104-8). It is even possible that Aeschylus himself originated the story of the feast, perhaps influenced by the family's link back to Pelops and Tantalus. In any case, as the Oresteia was to be one of the most influential works of Greek drama, what is critical is what Aeschylus made of the theme, and what he made of it was, as in many of his other works, closely modeled on Hesiod.

The Oresteia is woven out of a number of closely linked themes that are developed, with variations, throughout the trilogy. Child-eating is very much one of these, linking Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigeneia, with the undertone of eating implied by Greek sacrifice, to Cassandra's description of Thyestes' slaughtered children, to the Furies hunting Orestes down to drink his blood. The theme is linked throughout to the destruction of the house through the destruction of its children. Thus the long kommos, or mourning dirge, of the middle play, The Libation Bearers, focuses on the potential destruction of the house, describing the children as the buoys that keep the net afloat (LB 505-7) and the theme concludes with Orestes, saved from the Furies, addressing Athena as the savior of his house (Eum. 754).

The Oresteia's emphasis on the child-eating of Thyestes' feast adds to this theme by portraying the destruction of the house as a perverse inversion: rather than nourishing its offspring as the future of the house, each generation consumes the next, using what should be the hope of the future instead as food to carry on the revenge occasioned by the deeds of the past. Thus Iphigeneia is sacrificed (an event that Seneca will follow up by having Atreus sacrifice Thyestes' children as well as feed them to their father) to carry on her father's revenge against Paris; Electra and Orestes see themselves as the price paid by Clytemnestra for her revenge (LB 446-9, 913-7); and the Furies tell Orestes that

... blood to match that blood
you must give me to gulp from your living self,
rich blood-cake from your limbs.
From you I will gain in that horrid draught
fodder for my life.
Living as you are, I will waste you,
and haul you beneath the earth,
that you may pay for your mother's agony
with pains that shall match hers.
(Eum. 263-69, trans. David Grene)

The child-eating throughout thus signifies the consumption of the future for the sake of the past. The psychological reality behind this idea, a notion expressed in King Lear when Gloucester calls Edgar "the food of thy abused father's wrath" (4.1.22) appears most clearly in the figures of Aegisthus, Electra, and Orestes. Aeschylus makes no reference to other versions of the Thyestes myth that explain Aegisthus' survival by seeing him as begotten, in various unholy ways, after the death of his siblings. Instead, Aegisthus here is driven out with his father, consumed not literally, but metaphorically, by his need for a vengeance that will lead to his death. Similarly Electra, who plays no role in Clytemnestra's death, is nonetheless central as rendered both literally and psychologically barren by the weight of the past. Rather than thinking of a husband and children, her thoughts are consumed by the idea of her dead father and sister. The situation comes out most vividly in the case of Orestes. Here the focus on his rearing as the hope of the house, ostensibly outside its atmosphere of corruption, is belied as the trilogy makes it clear that he is, even more than his sister, to be consumed by his involvement with the sins of the past.

The themes of the consuming of children, the suppression of succession, and a focus on the past at the expense of the future, all culminate in Aeschylus' depiction of the Furies, particularly in their opposition to Apollo. While Apollo, representative of Zeus and the new gods, is associated with freedom, purification, and forgetting (having made even the Fates drunk, and so oblivious, Eum. 722-7), the Furies, the children of Night and full sisters to the Fates, are associated with binding, the inescapable claims of the past, and the drinking of human blood. These figures, who in Hesiod were engendered from the blood spilled on the Earth at Ouranos' castration (Th. 182-6), and who, as "the triple formed Fates and the remembering Furies", appear in the Prometheus Bound as the one power that can bring down Zeus (PB 510-20), embody the necessity of the past. In their eyes there can be no future for the House of Atreus, since Orestes, the child who should have carried the house into the future, must instead be consumed and absorbed by the deeds of the past. It is only by being freed from this threat of consumption that Orestes is finally able to return to Argos and restore the health of his house.

The closest application of the theme of child-eating in the Oresteia to A Modest Proposal seems at first to be the figures of Thyestes and Agamemnon. Since we are told in the Proposal that the meat in question will not bear export, it is clear that it is the Irish who will eat their children, blindly destroying their own future by using it to feed their present (and luxurious) appetite. There is a warning, however, to England as well, in the figure of Atreus, who by having others consume their children, involves his own house in the destruction he has brought upon others.

This last theme, which we might call the "bounce-back" effect of child-eating, adds the final link between the themes of child-eating and succession. Its appearance in a rather surprising source, Herodotus' History, illustrates how closely tied the ideas had become. Here, in telling the story of the rise to power of Cyrus, the great king of Persia, Herodotus recounts how the baby Cyrus was sent by his grandfather, Astyages, king of the Medes, to be exposed on a mountain, in response to a prophecy that the child would one day overthrow him. But Harpagus, the minister sent to expose the child, fails to carry out his mission; Cyrus grows up and is eventually recognized; and in his fury Astyages punishes Harpagus by chopping up his eldest son and serving him in a meal to his father. Later, when Cyrus rebels against his grandfather, Herodotus tells us that Astages was so "god-besotted" (theoblabes) that he appointed Harpagus as his general only to have him, in revenge for what he had suffered, join forces with Cyrus in overthrowing Astyages (1.127).

The story ends with Harpagus glorying over Astyages, at which Astyages replies that Harpagus has enslaved not only himself, but all the Medes to the Persians (1.129). As many modern commentators have pointed out, it is less likely that an evil demon made the historical Astyages forget his treatment of his minister, than that he appointed Harpagus general because there was no child-eating to forget. What is important here, however, is the unlikelihood that Herodotus allows to stand in order to include in the explicitly wondrous tale of Cyrus' rearing not only the motif of the saving of the exposed baby, but also its inverse, the theme of child-eating. The connection of the motif to the dooming of succession, both for the consumer of the children and for the one who instigates the consumption, seems to have become so strong that the story of the dooming of the future of the Medes leads Herodotus to include child-eating in a place few would have expected it.

So much for the Classical tradition. The primary works I have touched upon here were, of course, well known both to Swift and to any educated man of his generation. If I have gone into excessive detail in describing them it is because I believe the theme of child-eating itself and the connotations associated with the theme were sufficiently well-known to carry over into a work like the Modest Proposal even without explicit reference, which would in any case be impossible given the form of the work.

The first and most obvious association between child-eating in the Classical world and in the Proposal is that the act is the most horrible extremity imaginable, as also in the independent tradition of Jeremiah. Cannibalism simply has this association in Herodotus, who cites a tribe that traditionally eat their dead as his illustration of the extremes of human nomos or convention (3.38), while in Plato's Republic the soul's bestial and savage element is described as not abstaining from sex with a mother, murder, or the consumption of any kind of food (571d). On the other side of the equation, the extremity of revenge in the Greek mythic tradition consists not in the murder of one's enemy, but in the murder of his children, an understanding that motivates Hecuba in Euripides' Hecuba and that drives Medea to the suffering she knows she will endure after killing her and Jason's sons.

The horror of bringing someone to eat their own children, then, combines the extremities of human suffering. It is notable in this regard that Homer who, unlike Hesiod, tends to avoid the extreme or fantastic, has no mention of the ingestion thematic to Hesiod's succession myth, but prefers instead a more sober distribution of the sovereignty of the gods by primogeniture and lot (Iliad 15.158-210). On the opposite extreme, the horror of the tyranny blindly chosen by the greedy soul in Plato's Myth of Er is exemplified by the destiny of having to eat his own children (619b-c) while Thyestes' feast becomes the ultimate horror in Sophocles' Ajax, 1290-95. Going even further, Seneca, like (apparently) Sophocles in his lost Thyestes has Zeus reverse the course of the sun in horror at Atreus' deed, an event usually associated with Atreus' taking the kingship (as Plato, Statesman, 268e, and see Euripides, Orestes, 994-1010). Similarly, the Tereus myth, Seneca's Thyestes, and after it Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, use the motif of child-eating to explore the theme Euripides looked at in the Hecuba, the reduction of the human to complete bestiality, driven by the desire for revenge. And, in a different mode, Dante will use the implication of eating children, in this case one's grandchildren, to exemplify the distance from humanity experienced by Ugolino in the very lowest circle of the Inferno.

The effect of Swift's satire lies, of course, in exactly the juxtaposition of what is traditionally the most horrible act imaginable, with the pragmatic helpfulness of the Proposer. I think, however, that the Classical tradition also lends a more nuanced depth to Swift's Proposal. As we have seen, the theme of child-eating is linked in its earliest instances with a theme of the suppression of succession and, on the human plain, with the sacrifice of the children to the backward-looking, and thus blind, self-interest of the parents. There is more than a little in these ideas that is relevant to Swift's notions of the relation of England and Ireland. It is not difficult to see England as the parent that, rather than nourishing its child and encouraging its self-sufficiency, serves its own interest by feeding on its offspring. Nor, to take the analogy further, is it difficult to see the Irish, in Swift's view, as the stunted and distorted offspring, unable to move into the future because they are consumed by that which should nourish them. The real horror in the Modest Proposal, and, I suspect, in Swift's view of Irish history, is that it is not necessary for England to eradicate the future of Ireland. Under the circumstances established, the Irish, like the heroes of Greek myth, are perfectly capable of doing it for themselves.

In this sense the Proposer's suggestion is merely the status quo. England has already turned itself into the parent that, in fear of a future transfer of power, feeds on its children. And even more destructively, and significantly postponed until nearly the end of the Proposal, like Thestes' curse in relation to the House of Atreus, Englands self-destructive blindness also coerces Ireland into destroying her offspring herself. In literalizing the metaphors that its people are the wealth of a nation, and that a people must "consume" their wealth, Swift has essentially returned to the mythic mode, and so has enabled us to refract his theme in any number of ways, with an eye to self-satisfaction and blind luxury, with an eye to English policy, and with an eye to Ireland's responsibility for its own suffering. In so doing The Modest Proposal, by giving a metaphorical reality its literal, even mythic, embodiment, forms a worthy successor, not least in its bleakness and despair, to a long Classical tradition.

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(c) Copyright on the electronic versions of papers as published in these Proceedings is with Dr Bob Mahony and Dr Roy Johnston 2009; copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published eleswhere.