Bandits and their wild banquets: Lapiths and Centaurs

Bandits or pirates play an important role within many of the ancient Greek novels. In essence, these thugs come to embody just about every improper social and religious activity you can imagine, including human sacrifice and cannibalism (as I discussed in earlier entries on ethnography. They are also depicted as engaging in improper banqueting activity in other respects.

Apuleius’ Golden Ass (aka Metamorphoses) relates the story of a man who is turned into an ass through magic and goes on adventures towards his ultimate salvation from the goddess Isis. In the mean time, his adventures include capture by a guild (collegium) of bandits (6.31), whose meal etiquette is characterized thus:

They ate and drank in utter disorder, swallowing meat by the heap, bread by the stack, and cups by the legion. They played raucously, sang deafeningly, and joked abusively, and in every other respect behaved just like those half-beasts, the Lapiths and Centaurs (Metamorphoses 4.8, trans LCL).

According to Greek mythology, the wedding celebration of Peirithous, a Lapith, ended in utter violence between the two peoples due to the drunken behaviour of a Centaur (cf. Homer, Od. 21.285-304). So these mythical figures became the epitome of terrible and violent banqueting behaviour ever since, as evidenced in the title of Lucian’s satirical Symposium, or The Lapiths, and in many artistic representations (cf. Pausanias, Guide to Greece 1.17.2; 1.28.2; 5.10.8).

A Lapith struggles with a Centaur
(Parthenon metope, now in the British Museum)

The brigands in Apuleius’ novel have “principles,” by the way, which are manifest in their (foiled) plan to punish the girl and the ass in the most humiliating manner: by having the living girl sewn inside the executed animal and leaving them both in the hot sun for dogs and vultures to devour.

You can read more about such characterizations of wild meals or anti-banquets of bandits and other “low-lifes” in a paper I wrote here.