She-dog Foster Mothers

This will be just a short post on something that I recently noticed that I find interesting, that I am sure has been pointed out somewhere by someone before, but this blog is about my own journey of learning and not someone else’s, thereby sparing me from the charge of  being unoriginal or of stealing other people’s work or ideas.

In both Livy and Herodotus there are stories of sons born who are a threat to the current regime: Remus/Romulus in early Rome (Livy Book 1), and Cyrus in Persia (Herodotus Book 1). In both cases, a male relative with power decided to have the male offspring killed in case they present a threat to their power, spurred on of course my oracles and dreams and the like. And of course the boys are spared because the male relatives cannot commit such acts themselves, so they hired others to do it, who then get cold feet and can’t bring themselves to do it.

Then the boys end up with foster parents of a kind. Herodotus reports that Cyrus had been interred into the care of foster parents in the countryside, Mitrades and his wife “Spako.” Herodotus then carefully explains that “spako” in the Median language means “kyno” or “she-dog” in Greek.

Likewise in the Romulus and Remus story. Livy tells two stories, first about the actual she-wolf who adopted them and fed them, or the more likely story of a woman who took care of them whose name in Latin (or the ancient Etruscan/Oscan or whatever equivalent) was “she-wolf.” In both cases, the connotations are not positive. For certain in the Livy version, the name implies that she is a sexual predator. Herodotus makes no such implications for the foster mother of Cyrus; in his more detailed version, she is a good mother who begs her husband not to expose the child because he was beautiful and deserved to live. She happened to have just given birth to a stillborn child, who replaces the baby  Cyrus, and is taken back to “prove” that the infant was exposed.

Of course in both cases, the boys prove to be naturally kingly, especially Cyrus, and they end up fulfilling the prophecies despite the measures taken to prevent it. It is an interesting trope that appears from time to time in literature. I may have more comments about that later, but that’s all I have for now.

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