Other Natures by Clara Bosak-Schroeder: Greek ethnography and ‘otherness’
Environmental Encounters with Ancient Greek Ethnography
by Clara Bosak-Schroeder
University of California Press
*This book was kindly sent by the publishers for a review*
Last year I developed an interest in how ancient Greek philosophical thought could help our understanding of the current climate crisis. How ancient philosophy could help us navigate our Anthropocentric challenges? I stumbled upon Other Natures during my search for some literature concerning this. It is a book primarily aimed at scholars of ecocriticism, ethnography, anthropology, etc. But I found it noteworthy as a common reader to look at ancient cultures in a different light. The author discusses two Greek authors, Herodotus of Halicarnassus and Diodorus Siculus about their thoughts on environmental aspects by observing interactions with non-Greeks. So, the book takes ancient Greek ethnographic elements (since ethnography is a modern term) and presents ideas that modern humans can utilize in understanding their relationship with other species.
The introduction gives an idea about how Greek authors discussed other non-Greeks (Egyptians, Indians, Ethiopians, Babylonians, and Scythians) and their customs. There were no distinctions like anthropology, botany, medicine, and zoology in these descriptions. Rather authors cataloged human culture in conjunction with their interactions with ‘nature’. This is starkly different from the Western discourse of human ‘culture’ versus nonhuman ‘nature’. The fact that Greek and Roman culture lay the foundation for the future Western discourse begs us to rewind the clock and pay attention to the details the ancient thinkers talked about.
The book focuses on Herodotus’s fifth-century BCE Histories and Diodorus’s first-century BCE Library. Greek philosophy does not recognize nature as ‘other’ or apart from human nature. The Greek word ‘physis’ corresponds to the nature of the growing-ness of things rather than the space occupied by the natural world. The word ‘nomos’ is in contrast to physis which means ‘law’ or ‘custom’. Ancient debates are always between the natural inclination of physis versus the nomos prescribed. The value of this distinction is not antagonistic but of a confluence of forces that shape human culture. The author writes,
Greek writers, almost all of them men, do not seek a solitary, untamed wild for spiritual refuge or renewal. Instead, they value the countryside as its own kind of civilized space, attuned to men’s desires for leisure, simple foods, and sex.
Thus, environmental discourse in the works of these two Greek authors reflects how society benefits from nature, the bioi “ways of life” or methods of subsistence of communities both Greek and non-Greek. An example from Histories shall make matters clear. Here, Herodotus is describing the Nassamones, people living in Libya (present-day Libya and Algeria),
In the summer, they leave their herds by the sea and travel up to a place called Augila to gather dates. Plenty of tall, wide-spreading trees grow there, and they all bear fruit. And when they hunt locusts, they dry them in the sun and grind them up, then drink them sprinkled over milk. (Hdt. 4.172)
This is what Greek ethnographic representation reads like. To modern eyes, we have many labels including the word Indigenous for such writings. Or is it Indigenous to the subjects of the observation? Are cultural observers Indigenous to the subjects? The book tackles such curiosities when you step back from the historiographical details and translations.
The chapters are embedded with examples of interactions between various rulers, rivers, and distant lands, health and dietary practices, and wealth. A particularly interesting chapter called ‘Female Feck’ discusses ‘feck’, the ability to make a difference in the world, of women in Greek histories. This chapter hails the Assyrian ruler Semiramis or Semmu-ramat who ruled Assyria after the death of her husband Ninus in the eighth century BCE. She invents a garment that prevents the enemy from recognizing whoever wearing it as a man or a woman. Thus, Semiramis wearing her garment led Assyria to victory over the Bactrian walls. Such gender binary outlook in ancient histories repurpose the Greek readings in a new light.
There is a scholarly review in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review for an in-depth analysis of this book. For me, this book is an example of how ancient cultures embraced nonhuman species in their lives and sustenance. The ‘otherness’ of non-Greek cultures in Greek ethnography can be a learning experience to seek our own interconnectedness with nature.