In the midst of our identity political age, we tend to forget that the ancient world was equally concerned with identity – and more particularly, with identification. From Homer to the Bible, the question of who’s who or what occurs again and again in ancient narrative accounts, feeding a growing preoccupation with being, human nature, selfhood and one’s relationship with others.
In a world without identity cards or clear ways of marking off identities, the latter were in a state of flux. Identification was difficult, and this challenge was reflected in epic poetry and other types of narrative. Odysseus managed to escape the Cyclops because he played the identity card, presenting himself as ‘Nobody’, which allowed him to leverage a linguistic trick arising from an ambiguity. When he arrived home on Ithaca after more than twenty years away, his wife Penelope didn’t recognise him. Another trick, another story of identification.
Mistaken identities, misidentifications and the trouble of persuading others of one’s identity (or several) permeates ancient literature. In the Gospels, Doubting Thomas’ identity as a literary figure is predicated on his own identity conundrum, namely how to identify the risen Jesus and ground that knowledge in evidence. St Thomas, the doubter of sacred identity.
Sacred identity has its own place in literature and historical accounts. For how can one be sure to identify the presence of the divine amid competing voices and noises. The chasm between Judaism and Christianity is one of identification, of one group making a positive ID where the other doesn’t.
The struggle of ancient identification is captured by the concept of anagnorisis, the recognition of a figure by another based on a process emerging from the narrative. This is made possible by fluid identities, sources of conflict and resolution.