22 Jan 2024 17:15 - 19:00 Room SG2, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge


An event by the Cultures of Camouflage and Mimicry among Human and non-Human Animals research network.


  • Caroline van Eck (University of Cambridge)
  • Niki Hadikoesoemo (University of Amsterdam)


Caroline van Eck
Introduction & ‘Camouflage and Mimicry as travelling concepts from the life sciences to the humanities’

Niki Hadikoesoemo
‘Ancient performativities: mimesis, mime and mimicry in the fifth and fourth century BCE’

The oldest member of the mimesis word group, the noun mimos, was first attested in the fourth century BCE and designated a type of performance as well as performer. The ancient mime had nothing to do with mute play, as in the modern conception of the “dumb” mimes, but rather referred to dramatic low-life sketches, and was often accompanied by musical instruments. The earliest source we have is a fragment from Aeschylus’ tragedy Edonians (57), where we hear “from somewhere unseen… frightening mimes (mimoi)vocalising the sound of a “bull-voiced” instrument. From mimos, then, derived the verb mimeisthai, which was used widely both in the context of performance and everyday life. It had roughly three meanings: to imitate someone, to mime a person or animal by means of voice and/or gesture, and images. What these varying usages of mimeisthai have in common is a sense of the performative or theatrical. Mimicking and miming behaviour, like in impersonation (mimesin), was generally understood as the presentation of reality as phantomic, protean, plastic. In the deployment of our mimetic capacities, we, human animals, present life as a theatre or tragedy, as we read in Plato’s Laws (817b): ultimately “we ourselves are the authors of a tragedy,” to which Aristotle later added a technical definition, mimesis praxeos, in Poetics (6, 1449b24). To conclude from this however that the theatrical origins of the mimesis word group are exclusive to human animals would be a misconception. Numerous sources, such as Aristotle’s History of Animals, show that the performative nature of mimeisthai is omnipresent in the behaviour of and creating natural theatres among fish (not the least the octopus), birds, dogs, anteaters, and other species. Significantly, the human art of hunting and fishing started as a mimicking of the play of attraction observed in the hunting practices of fish, itself rooted in mimicry (crypsis). In this talk, taking the verb mimeisthai as my starting point, I will navigate the traveling concepts of mimesis, mime and mimicry in human and nonhuman animals and discuss their (dis)continuities in ancient times.

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