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The Dancing Peacock in the Jātakas and Herodotus on Courtship and Political Power
In the Indic fable of “The Dancing Peacock,” mediated through the Buddhist traditions of texts composed in Pāli (as distinct from Sanskrit) and known as the Jātaka-s, the peacock is chosen as husband-to-be by the daughter of the Golden Goose, king of all birds, but he disqualifies himself by dancing so ostentatiously as to expose himself, to the disgust of the king, who then shames the peacock into withdrawing from eligibility. This fable has been compared many times and in many ways to a story famously attested in Classical Greek literature: it is an episode narrated in the Histories of Herodotus (6.126–130), where Cleisthenes, tyrant of the city-state of Sicyon, arranges for a competition among elite men from other cities to decide who will marry into his dynasty by winning as bride the girl Agariste, daughter of the tyrant. The leading contender, an Athenian named Hippocleides, ‘dances away’ his chance at marrying the girl because he exposes himself in the course of exuberant dancing at a celebration. There have been various attempts at comparing the Indic and the Greek narratives, the most successful of which is an analysis by Leslie Kurke, Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose (Princeton 2010). The paper presented here, while acknowledging the merits of the book cited, is different in its approach to explaining the existing Greek-Indic parallelisms, modifying the idea that we are dealing here with “the migration to Greece of an Indian fable” (Kurke p. 14n42). Further, there will be disagreement about questions of “high” and “low” cultural reactions to problems of wealth, power, and prestige. Even further, the paper will explore in more depth the symbolism of the loss of the bride in terms of a loss of a singing voice, which is a punishment inflicted on the peacock. Such a loss is relevant, it will be argued, to various Greek as well as Indic traditions involving modes of differentiating poetry and prose.
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