“The more strange it was to read in a previously-mentioned article by Huxley the following paraphrase of a well-known sentence of Rousseau: ‘The first man who substituted mutual peace for that of mutual war – whatever the motive which impelled them to take that step – created society’)….Society has not been created by man; it is anterior to man.” Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, 54 n1.
“What we usually call society in common speech is only a particular case of [a] general law. A being, whether social or not, is never absolute, indivisible; but essentially comparative and multiple, resulting from the action of a number of forces converging on one point.” Leon Metchnikoff, “Revolution and Evolution,” 415.
I. The Feral Founder
Dating to between the fourteenth and eighth centuries BCE, the Akkadian story of Sargon is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, written accounts of a child abandoned to the wilderness who grows up to become a great leader. Its narrative elements are famous for what they share with the story of Moses: the woven, waterproofed basket (Exodus 2:3), and the patriarch who orders the baby killed because he fears being supplanted (Exodus 1:9).
Evidence of a story of animals sheltering such an abandoned child appears first in Herodotus’s story of the childhood of Cyrus of Persia: his caregivers, two enslaved cowherds, are named Mitradates and Spako, whose name, Herodotus explains, comes from the Median name for dog, “Spax” (Persian Wars I.110). Later accounts indicate that this woman’s name simply rationalizes a nurturing animal that Herodotus or his sources understood as embarrassingly mythic: see, for example, Peter Comestor’s twelfth-century Historia Scholastica, “When the shepherd returned to [Cyrus], he found a dog offered him her teat, and defended him from wild beasts and birds” Pl 198: 1471a). Whether first nurtured by a dog or a woman “coincidentally” sharing a dog’s name, Cyrus grows up, becomes the natural, even bullying leader of his playmates, and eventually supplants the bad father figure and reclaims, and even expands, his birthright. In this, we have all the common features of the later abandoned child stories: the patriarch who fears being overcome or killed by his child, the child threatened with death, abandoned, and yet preserved, the nurturing animal, the foster parents (typically humble, with Moses as the outlier), and the emergence from enforced obscurity into a demagogic adolescence and heroic adulthood as savior, lawgiver, civic founder, and so on.
Cyrus’s career is most famous as a probable basis for a much better known story. The lost history of Fabius Pictor (second-century BCE), along with a crowd of other histories, passed along a story told by Dionysius of Helicarnassus and Livy (late first-century BCE), Pliny’s Natural History, Lucius Annaeus Florus’s Epitome of Roman Histories, Plutarch, and certainly a heap of coins, sculptures (also), vases, metalwork, epigraphy, and whatever else can’t be found with a straightforward search in the Loeb Classical Library. While the story isn’t quite ubiquitous – Cicero’s Republic refers only to a “silvestris beluae” (a wild forest beast), and Appian nor Diodorus of Sicily’s Roman histories say nothing at all about nurturing animals – the story of Romulus and Remus and the wolf that saved them is sufficiently widespread to be called Rome’s founding myth, and the paradigm of subsequent stories of culture heroes first succored by an animal. Here the wicked paternal figure is an uncle, Amulius; the mother herself, variously named Ilia, Rhea, or Rhea Silva, is a temple priestess like Sargon’s mother, and here tends to vanish quickly from the story; the boys’ father is himself is either Mars, an unnamed suitor, or even Amulius, disguised as a god. Rationalizations rush in here as well: Livy, among others, writes that some hold that the story’s lupa (female wolf) is really just slang for a prostitute or loose woman (“Sunt qui Larentiam vulgato corpore lupam inter pastores vocatam putent”).
It has taken nothing but dogged research to pack this story with others of wild founding fathers who draw their outsized potency from the teats of some convenient canid. These stories in turn join with a swath of rampaging männerbunder from Central Asia to Ireland, from the Dacians, Scythians, and Thracians, to the Anatolians to the Lombards to the Guelphs, groups renowned for young men who don the names of wolves or wolf masks or who are styled in narrative, war propaganda, or narrative, as cynocephali or werewolves.
The Langobards moreover, when they beheld the great forces of their enemies, did not dare engage them on account of the smallness of their army, and while they were deciding what they ought to do, necessity at length hit upon a plan. They pretend that they have in their camps Cynocephali, that is, men with dogs’ heads. They spread the rumor among the enemy that these men wage war obstinately, drink human blood and quaff their own gore if they cannot reach the foe. (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards I.xi)
These stories, and often the scholarship too, imagine the canid as at once the figure of authority and its enemy, incarnations of wildness, power, cruelty, bravery, and even a kind of rough justice, mostly inimicable to women.
Agamben’s discussion of Marie de France’s werewolf lai, “Bisclavret,” is probably the most famous treatment of this theme outside medievalist circles. Medievalists themselves are surely also familiar, to cite a handful of many possible examples, of the eponymous hero of the Wolfdietrich Saga, the illegitimate child of a princess and a passing (and cross-dressed) nobleman: Wolfdietrich acquires his name because once he is cast out as an infant, a wolf scurries this baby away to her den to try to feed him to her pups, who are either too fussy or too friendly to eat him. Old Icelandic law and literature, like the Volsung Saga, famously uses the word vargr, “wolf,” to describe outlaws, resulting in frightening portmanteaux like morðvargr (murder wolf), and in modern Icelandic, the brennuvargur (burning wolf, that is, an arsonist). Ancient and medieval Ireland offers up the lupine characteristics of thieving young men who, until they came into their property, ravaged the countryside, like wolves (as in the anonymous lai of Melion). Here too we also find local versions of a myth dating at least to ancient Greece, of the hero who defeats, and then takes on the characteristics, of his supernatural enemy’s guardian dog: the classic example is the hero whose victory christens him with the name of the very animal he killed, Cú Chulainn, Culain’s Hound (see Kim McCone for more). A final example, William Chester Jordan writes about Count Robert of Artois – justly slain at the Battle of the Golden Spurs – and his pet wolf, which incarnated his “awesome nobility” (407), and which he festooned with bells (while laughing, Jordan imagines) to apprise neighboring peasants of its approach, so they could hurry their livestock off to safety.
The wild founder’s function as a figure of origin isolates him from mundane interconnection with both the people he rules and even from the cultures he establishes. He is not to be just married off, and while he might make laws, he is not himself governed by them. Functionally, he is kin to the giant children that spring parthenogenetically from Albina and her sisters, imperial children exiled because of they had refused to marry beneath themselves: their monstrous progeny are the fruit of a nobility that refuses to abase itself with any genealogical intermingling with its lessers. The wolf child is kin as well to the children of Melusine, the half-serpent and naturally legendary progenitrix of the great crusading dynasty of Lusignan. Her children are monsters, but also great successes – wealthy rulers, implacable conquerors, the rescuers of threatened women and otherwise helpless neighboring kings – while their merely pedestrian father, unwilling to live with such a wild creature, breaks his vow not to look into her background too carefully, thereby dooming her to become fully, irreparably dragon. True, reliable, potent nobility must come from the outside.
For the law at its heart is a wolf; it does what it wants. The wild founder follows none of the petty rules binding petty people. The sovereign is therefore also the outlaw, the figure who neither needs the law’s rules (because he decides what the law is) nor its protections (same). Notably, Romulus – the victorious, city-founding twin – recruits his first citizens from outcasts, bandits, and escaped slaves, as clear a demonstration that the wild founder is an analog to the outlaw, the homo sacer, hounded by the law and the hound of the law. Revolutionaries and the ordinary dispossessed already know this as well as cynics claim to, while academics tend to get the idea at greater length from Derrida’s “Mystical Foundation of Authority” or from the Giorgio Agamben, who alternately despairs and hopes for some Messianic overcoming of the persistently, inevitably cruel relations between the sovereign and his subjects, between law and life.
This story is what we get if we fall in wholly with the myth of the canid’s wild carnivorousness and all that follows. The tangle of fascinations includes the dog being only partly domesticated, the wolf being Europe’s most feared carnivore, bands of young men as packs of dogs, the Oedipal rivalry between father and son over desire (incarnated by the mother), where the field of battle is mastery of a paternal law that will never empty itself of its obscene core. A supposedly “disruptive” retelling of this story, with these actors, no matter how suspiciously it recasts the primal horde of Totem and Taboo/Moses and Monotheism, ends up reinforcing rather than undoing the centrality of sovereignty and the law and its violence. Telling this story is a good way to stir up a keen sense of justice, or to don a hairshirt of cynicism (whose etymology I trust you know). It’s a good way to assume a tone of anguished disapproval and “anxiety,” but not good for getting us something other than yet another “discovery” of the omnipresence of the beast of the law.
As you might imagine by now, this is not the way I want my story to go. Not anymore. We can first stress that Cyrus of Persia, like Romulus and Remus, like Wolfdietrich, like Ailbe, and so on, represent only one set of spurned children nursed by animals. Wolves are good to think with, but they’re not all there is. Other animals, more commonly exploited for their milk, come crowding in: goats suckle the abandoned Attis, Asclepius, and both Daphnis and Chloe; cows suckle Aeolus and Boeotus; a mare suckles Hyginus. We also have Telephus, nursed by a deer, Cybele, by leopards, Paris of Troy and Atalanta by bears; Semiramis, fed by birds; and finally, wonderfully, Hieron, in Justin’s Universal History, gets his help from bees. The list can be further expanded with examples from India, or from medieval Europe, like Tristan de Nanteuil, that bizarre romance so well studied by Peggy McCracken. Wolves might be common, but goats are commoner, and remembering them, and the bees too, transforms the story of the wild founder into a story of the wild foundling. The commonality is not the canid, with all its supposed wildness and danger, but rather the need to be fed, and its satisfaction.
In short, we can dissolve the arrogance and grandeur of the wild founder by doing more to remember them as happy babies. Almost always, they are taken care of. The servant commanded to kill the children never quite does it: sometimes it is rank incompetence –Romulus and Remus are saved from drowning because the swollen Tiber has flooded its banks, providing ample opportunity for the bank to catch their floating basked in its mud – but more often the killers fear repercussions from the children’s mother is she should come into power, or they are reminded of their own children, or they are struck by the child’s beauty, or its need:
And with that the cowherd uncovered [the child] and showed it. But when the woman saw how fine and fair the child was, she fell a-weeping and laid hold of the man’s knees and entreated him by no means to expose him. (Herodotus The Persian Wars I.112)
If we start the story here, not with the competition between father and son, and not with a boy’s alliance with the presumptive unruled beast that intimates the sovereign or männerbund, the story becomes one about care, sympathy, and weakness, but not about helplessness, except insofar as everything is helpless in itself, without some kind support: I have deliberately omitted the “of,” and kind should be heard in its Middle English register as meaning something like “suitable for a particular way of existence”: kind support for a rock is not kind support for a human, yet both need it.
The child is not helpless; it needs help, and it gets it, just as anything that is gets some manner of help, no matter how minimal. We aren’t without help.
If we start the story here, then, we can go somewhere other than thinking the problem of life as “time after time articulated and divided into bios and zoè, politically qualified life and bare life, public life and private life” (Agamben’s useful summary of his analytic, here taken from Adam Kotsko’s just-published translation of The Use of Bodies). I am not saying that we need not worry any more about the “zone of indistinction” where the sovereign outlaw lurks, or the messianic hope of the friar, whose form of life collapses that distinction cruel division of bios from zoe (Kotsko translation here too).
Rather, I think we can surprise ourselves more if we come at the problem from another angle. I am also stressing that I am simply not done with Derrida’s interest in the “nonpower at the heart of power” (The Animal that Therefore). To remind you, in response to Betham’s observation that the question is not whether animals can reason or talk, but whether they can suffer, Derrida writes:
‘‘Can they suffer?’’ amounts to asking “Can they not be able?’’ And what of this inability [impouvoir]? What of the vulnerability felt on the basis of this inability? What is this nonpower at the heart of power? What is its quality or modality? How should one take it into account? What right should be accorded it? To what extent does it concern us? Being able to suffer is no longer a power; it is a possibility without power, a possibility of the impossible. Mortality resides there, as the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life, to the experience of compassion, to the possibility of sharing the possibility of this nonpower, the possibility of this impossibility, the anguish of this vulnerability, and the vulnerability of this anguish. (28)
This formulation has its own problems of course, which I am handling in my oyster chapter. Its other problem is thinking primarily in terms of victimhood and compassion, which has its limited advantages, but which also tends to put violence at the center of our analysis, with all the assumed anguished gravity that follows. I’m putting the baby at the center instead, and with it, one hopes, the communities of care that come to cluster.
Not long ago, I was struck by the nose of a cow. Maybe a bull. Jusepe de Ribera’s Adoration of the Shepherds (1650) is yet another painting about just that, but poking its way past the adoration, barely visible, is a bovine snout. This animal also wants to adore this beautiful child. Our bovine may be drawn by the child’s awesome majesty – after all, this is the Creator Himself – but this is an adoration painting, not one of the transfiguration, Harrowing of Hell, or any of the more spectacular miracles (walking on water, and so on). The painting hints unnervingly enough at sacrifice (note the trussed sheep below the cradle) but gives itself over to a child, helpless, probably hungry, but also lovely. Here’s another child with animals, not to attest to the superhuman power drawn from the “wild,” but to attest to the primary need for care, which can draw even a cow in.
For a cluster of anarchist ecologists and geographers, such mutual aid, such society, is the natural law we should be thinking with, not the Malthusian “struggle of all against all.” It’s possible you already know the names Reclus, Metchnikoff, and Kropotkin (I knew only the last, from a high school flirtation with anarchism, abandoned too quickly). I found them in Kristen Ross’s Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (Verso, 2015), which I bought and started reading on March 18, the Commune’s 145th anniversary, because I’m in Paris, and it’s what one does. Ross’s book follows the intellectual work that led to the commune, and that followed it into exile and dispersal, surviving the tens of thousands of Parisian workers massacred by their fellow citizens, “the extraordinary attempt to eliminate, one by one and en bloc, one’s class enemy” (Ross), still only minimally recognized by Paris’s crowd of historical placards. The experience of the communal government, of cooperation, however short lived, and even if only second hand, produced a massive, and happy, transformation in a host of thinkers, Elisabeth Dmitrieff, Karl Marx, Louise Michel, William Morris, and, of course, Metchnikoff and Kropotkin, whose words I quote above and – barring their misguided material about “savages” – recommend, along with Ross’s recent book.
The law of all against all explains the wild men, founders and lawbreakers, enjoying the unregulated pleasures from which they issue their regulations. And if this is all one wants to explain, it works. But this law hardly accounts for the babies found and rescued, denied the society of the patriarch, yet still finding succor in the supposed wilderness. This is not the Lacanian baby, dangling at the cusp of a law and identity it can never satisfy; it is not even the Butlerian baby, perhaps to-be-mourned-for, hailed as a member of the community by our anticipating its social vulnerability and future death; it is a baby found and helped, the baby whose entanglement in community attests to law of mutual aid that, understood well, has the power to revive the Commune of blessed memory.
Thanks for research help to ProQuest (!!) and these dissertations:
Lewis, Brian (NYU, 1976). The Legend of Sargon: A Study of the Akkadian Text and the Tale of the Hero who was Exposed at Birth.
Kershaw, P. K. (Cornell, 1997). The One-Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-) Germanic Maennerbuende.