Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2004, Volume 24, No. 1
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies


The Staff of Oedipus. Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece

Martha L. Rose. The Staff of Oedipus. Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2003. 6 x 9. 154 pgs. 5 photographs. Cloth 0-472-11339-9.

Reviewed by Petra Kuppers, Bryant College.

Martha L. Rose's The Staff of Oedipus: Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece focuses on traces of the experience and meaning of disability in ancient Greece, citing philosophical and historical texts, skeletal remains, inscriptions, paintings and sculptures as evidence for life in ancient Greece. The book exposes notions such as the killing of disabled infants amongst Spartans and Greeks as a myth—or at least, as one practice amongst many. Rose's book sets out to dismantle these myths, providing an important chapter on ancient history to the on-going project of historicizing disability, its meanings and its experiences.

The book is organized into five chapters, beginning with an overview of the wide range of different embodiments that a society like the Greek one(s) must have known. Rose points to the dissonance between these differences—whether environmentally, genetically or war-caused—and the ideal body sculptures that have dominated the Western image of Greek society. In the second chapter, Rose reads textual evidence that proves that the practice of killing "deformed" babies at birth was not as widespread as historians reading Plato's The Republic and Theaetetus, Aristotle's Politics, Plutarch's history of a Spartan lawgiver, and Soranus's household manual Gynecology seem to have believed. These five texts provide the sparse textual basis for a myth that has influenced Western attitudes towards disability—but disabled characters such as the god Hephaestus provide alternative visions of Greek attitudes to difference. For non-classicists, an actual quotation of the relevant five passages, even in abbreviated form, would have been useful—as it stands, the reader needs to look up the classic texts herself. It is to Rose's credit, though, that the reader, drawn into her argument, wishes to do so.

Demosthenes's stutter is the subject of Rose's third chapter, which focuses on speech disorders. In it, she looks at "overcoming"—a familiar trope of contemporary disability representation—and its precursors in ancient Greece. Her evidence suggests that it was possible to achieve high-ranking status, even as an orator, with non-normate speech—unless one was a woman, the ultimate disability in Greek society. A chapter on deafness shows the importance of communication and intelligibility for Greece's discipline of rhetoric—a non-speaking person would be equated with unreason and might not be granted citizen status. In her final chapter, Rose analyzes blindness in ancient Greece. Homer, Teiresias and Oedipus and their 'special and terrifying' blindness dominate in Western cultural representations. Rose is at pains to show that blindness wasn't always associated with this status of 'the special'. The radical split between disabled and non-disabled people that characterizes much of contemporary culture isn't evident in the surviving texts and images of ancient Greece—disabled people were able to hold many offices and fulfill many roles.

The book's project is clearly an important one—to make visible the breadth of disability experience—and the size of the task clearly is beyond one book's scope. Thus, it is no criticism to point out the manifold directions opened up by this study: the appropriation of Oedipus in the Freudian tradition, the relationship between disability and embodiment in Greek theatre, etc. Rose is predominantly concerned with ancient Greece and contemporary myths of disability—not with the slow migration of these ideas through texts, images and histories between these two periods.

One issue, though, seems problematic to this reader: the relationship between knowledge and experience is not thematized in Rose's account. Surely it must be different to experience a specific form of embodiment as a result of divine intervention, than as something that has to do with lack of oxygen at childbirth? Rose makes clear that contemporary definitions of disability can't be mapped onto the ancient world. It seems also important, though, to posit uncertainty in relation to experience. Rose at times cites contemporary experiential accounts of specific embodiments in order to make up for the lack of data from the ancient world. This strategy, while useful in some ways, seems to cover up the radical ways that knowledge, bodies, experience, and power are intertwined and worked together in all societies.

Ultimately, though, The Staff of Oedipus provides a rich source of material on the origin of many Western myths of disability, and will be a useful addition to disability studies libraries.

Copyright (c) 2004 Petra Kuppers

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact the web manager, Terri Fizer.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)