Greek and Indian Physiognomies.

Author:Zysk, Kenneth

This paper explores the relationship between Greek and Indian systems of knowledge concerning divination by means of the marks on the body of a human being, commonly called by its Greek-derived name, physiognomies or physiognomy. The investigation builds on my recent study of the Indian system of physiognomies, known in Sanskrit as 'the marks of men and women' (stripurusalaksanani). (1)

In particular, I should like to examine select Greek passages from the Physiognomonika (2) attributed to Aristotle (i.e., ps.-Aristotle after Swain) around 300 BCE. The work is divided into two parts, styled Tractates A and B. In addition, I shall occasionally refer to the Physiognomy of the Sophist Marcus Antonius Polemon, which is based largely on the ps.-Aristotle work and written in the mid-second century CE, but preserved only in Arabic translations that survive in manuscripts from the late thirteenth century (3) and in the Greek abridgement by the Sophist Adamantius sometime between the third and mid-fourth centuries. (4) The information on Indian physiognomies comes from a Sanskrit version found in the earliest extant collection of the Indian astral sciences (Jyotihsastra), known as the Gargiyajyotisa (the astral sciences according to Garga), which reflects the system of physiognomies known and practiced in the northwestern and western parts of the Indian subcontinent at or before the first century BCE.

I shall address four specific points of similarity found in both the Greek and the Sanskrit sources: 1. the use of a common stock of technical anatomical terms; 2. the use of a common toe-to-head orientation for examination of the marks on the body; 3. similarities (and differences) between the three earlier systems of physiognomies that inform ps.-Aristotle and the system of early Indian physiognomies; and 4. the common emphasis on the eyes.

Although the varying styles of the two presentations of the human physiognomies betray their different literary genres, a fundamental lexical similarity between them points to a common source of knowledge. The prose of the Greek fits the philosophical literature, while the Sanskrit verses are appropriate to the versified textbooks or Sastras of the Brahman priests, which served as the storehouses for Hindu religious practices and ethics. The former blurs the distinction between the protasis and the apodosis of the conditional sentence characteristic of ancient omen literature, while the latter maintains it in verse-form. Where they demonstrate shared information is first in the choice of a specific set of technical anatomical terminology, and secondly in the directional orientation for the examination of the human body.


Both treatises mention a cluster of anatomical terms that serve as the basic or principal Greek sources (genos) and Sanskrit marks (laksana). Although the total numbers vary in the two texts, a majority of the technical terms are common to both, so that the ten sources from Physiognomonika and the eight basic marks from the Gargiyajyotisa likely shared a common source. We begin with the Greek list.

The Ten Greek Bodily Sources

In the Tractate A, ps.-Aristotle specifies the following ten bodily sources (genos) that serve as signs (semeion) of a man's character:

  1. movement (kinesis)

  2. forms/gestures (schema)

  3. complexion (chroma)

  4. character (ethos) expressed on the face (prosopon)

  5. growth of hairs (of the body and head) (trichoma) (5)

  6. oiliness/smoothness of the skin (leiotes)

  7. voice (phone)

  8. flesh/muscle (sarx)

  9. limbs (meros)

  10. bodily shape as a whole / shape of the whole body (ho typos holou tou somatos). (6)

    An elaboration and explanation of this list follows in this Tractate, where the sources are discussed in a different order: complexion/skin (chros), hair, flesh, movement, voice, the forms and characteristic expressions that appear on the face (ta de schemata kai ta ethe ta epiphainomena epi ton prosopon (7)), and a comparison between men and women based on size, strength, and bodily limbs (akroteria tou somatos). The author concludes by affirming his preference for the face, movement, and form over the individual body parts. (8) Complexion is discussed under the anatomical term of skin; oiliness or smoothness is a property of flesh; form, combined with character, is an aspect of the face; and limbs are mentioned under the discussion of gender-types. The difference in the two Greek versions of the enumeration arises from the author's method of explanation, where the order is changed and certain sources are grouped together, resulting in a particular Greek understanding of the ten basic sources.

    The topic of the bodily sources serving as signs is addressed again in Tractate B at the end of the toe-to-head enumeration of the body parts, but the total number comes only to nine, ending with an overall praise of a medium-sized (metrios) body. This version of the sources contains material not previously mentioned in the list from Tractate A. Most noticeable is the use of opposites to characterize certain sources.

    Following are the nine sources from Tractate B:

  11. complexion includes a contrast between dark (melas) and light (leukos)

  12. hairiness (dasys)

  13. gait/bodily movement (bama)

  14. hand gestures, i.e., bodily movements like those of the gait applied to the hand, forearm, and arm (peri de cheiros kai pecheos kai brachionos phoras ai autai anatherontai)

  15. eyes (ophthalmoi)

  16. voice (phone)

  17. stature, expressed in terms of small (mikros) and large (megas)

  18. flesh (sarx) as either moist (hygros) or dry (xeros)

  19. complexion (chroma) as either warm (thermos) or cold (psychros). (9)

    In addition to hand gestures, there is specified the bodily movement of gait, which includes walking and deportment in general as a separate category, whereas the tenfold list has only bodily movement. Moreover, the eyes replace the facial expression; stature in terms of small and large becomes both form and the body as a whole; and flesh and complexion are classified according to the opposite pairs of moist and dry and warm and cold respectively. These differences point to at least two versions of the basic bodily sources, one with ten and another with nine anatomical terms in a different configuration and with considerable elaboration. The specific mention of the eyes, rather than the gestures and characters expressed on the face, points to an emphasis on one anatomical part of the face, the eyes, that will become important in the literature on physiognomies beginning with Polemon's version of physiognomies (see below). A very similar set of sources, called marks (laksana), occurs in the Sanskrit version of Garga's text.

    The Eight Basic Sanskrit Marks

    The Sanskrit text of Garga preserves a specific group of eight marks, which are used in omens to determine a man's character (sattva), which also figures as one of the eight:

  20. bodily radiance, including natural glow (prabha) and artificial oily sheen (sneha, snigdha)

  21. scent (gandha)

  22. character (sattva)

  23. eyes (aksi, netra, caksus, drsti, iksana)

  24. body movement or gait (gati)

  25. voice (svara, sarasvati)

  26. size and form (pramana, samsthana)

  27. complexion (varna) (10)

    Greek and Sanskrit Technical Terminology

    When we compare this list to the tenfold version in Tractate A, there are seven direct matches: gati-kinesis, svara-phone, sattva-ethos, varna-chrdma, samsthana-schema, pramana-ho typos holou tou somatos, and sneha/snigdha-leiotes. However, rather than considering character as an aspect of the face, the Sanskrit version understands it to be revealed by various marks or combination of marks, the most predominant being the eyes. The remaining three marks from the Greek list find direct matches from among other marks given as protases in Garga's Sanskrit version: mukha-(ethos) prosopon, kesa-trichoma, mamsd/masa-sarx, and gatra-meros. (See the chart below, where those marked in bold are direct matches between the two lists.) Eyes (aksi, etc.), as part of facial expression, occur in the same semantic field as face in Tractate A, but they only find a direct match in the ninefold list found in Tractate B. Therefore, the match aksi-ophthalmoi may be listed as among the important marks shared by Garga and the ps.-Aristotelian treatise.

    In the ps.-Aristotelian discussion of the ten sources, chros (skin) finds a correspondent in Garga's tvac 'skin', yielding the match: tvac-chros. The Greek definition of stature in terms of mikros (small) and megas (large) is paralleled by Garga's dichotomy sthula-krsa 'large-thin'. (11) Moreover, the Greek preference for medium size (metrios) mentioned at the end of Tractate B fits well Garga's text, where extremes are avoided. Such an idea involving a middle course could well have been influenced by early Buddhist doctrine. (12)

    Two of the principal marks from Garga and Aristotle, svara-phone (voice) and varna-chrdma (complexion) also figure among the first three signs that indicate imminent death in early Indian medicine (Ayurveda), revealing physiognomies's connection with medicine in the Indian tradition. Only two of the basic marks from Garga do not find a Greek match: scent (gandha) and bodily radiance in terms of the body's natural glow (prabha). (13) Both are indicators of character (sattva) in Garga, confirming that the Sanskrit version understands sattva in a wider context than the ps.-Aristotelian treatise does ethos. Moreover, these terms also figure in the list of marks that can reveal impending death in the Indian medical tradition. The divinatory use of Sanskrit gandha and prabha is absent in all the Greek versions. Therefore, it is likely that both scent and natural bodily glow were unique marks in the early Indian versions of both physiognomies and the...

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