Symbols of Ostracism

All of the talk in the past few months about the so-called Muslim ban and the attempts to ostracize Muslims in the U.S. got me thinking about that word, ostracize. No matter where you come down on the issue, the word ostracize has a fascinating history.

In the fifth century B.C., Athenians had a chance once a year to banish one person from the city. Every man got to vote, and whoever got the most votes (over a certain minimum) was banished for ten years. But it’s the method of voting that’s interesting. Ostracism derives from the Greek word ostraka, which means a pottery shard. Athenians would vote by finding a handy shard and scratching on it the name of the person they wanted ostracized. Using ostraka was much cheaper than wasting expensive Egyptian papyrus on the vote.

As you can imagine, some campaigning went into this procedure. The Athenians would first indicate whether or not they generally wished to ostracize anyone, and then wait two months before voting, a short but significant election season. Since many Athenians were illiterate, it was not unknown for pre-scribed ostraka to be handed out, to be deposited on the appropriate day in urns at the marketplace. Officials then sorted the ostraka into piles to determine the “winner.”

The list of known ostracisms is brief—only 13, with some having been ostracized twice—and the practice was limited to the fifth century B.C. by historical events and current fashion.

Other cities had similar practices. For example, the ancient city of Syracuse held votes to banish a person by writing names on the leaves torn from olive trees. Instead of ostracism,  this is called petalism. The Greek word for leaves is petala. Evidently, the city of Sparta had the same custom.

Uh oh. <<CAUTION! WILD DIVERSION AHEAD!>>Potsherds and olive leaves are in effect symbols of a person’s desire, at least in ancient Greece. Symbol derives from the Greek verb symballein, to put together, and the noun symbolon, meaning token or sign. The ancient Greeks used to carry around half a coin or half of knucklebone (from a sheep or cow ankle) as a mark of identity or obligation. When they met the person with the other half, they knew they had the right person. The two halves made a whole, or, in literary parlance, a symbol with complete meaning. With their four distinct sides, knucklebones also were the forerunners of dice and are thought to have been used to predict the future.

Despite efforts to make all Muslims symbols of terrorism, attempts to ostracize them have thus far fallen short. I imagine that many of you take umbrage at these attempts, but that’s a blog for another day.



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