I live in the American Midwest where agriculture is still a significant part of the culture. You occasionally run into cattle owners and when you do the conversation eventually turns to the question of how many “head” of cattle they own. Now we are not talking about cow heads. We are talking about how many complete cattle are owned. The head is the most visible and distinguishing feature for most mammals. We use the head to symbolize and identify the whole being. We use this language all the time about human beings. When a caterer prepares for an event she wants to know what the “head” count will be. The word for “head” in Latin is caput. We often speak of “per capita,” literally meaning “per head,” by which we mean “per person.”
“Head” can symbolically stand for the whole body. Therefore, metaphorically, whatever status is given to the head is symbolically true of the whole body. A body attached to a head with high status means the body also has high status. If the head’s status is diminished, then the body’s status is diminished as well. But it is also true that because the head is attached to the body, that if the body does something to affect status, then that change of status will be applied to the head as well. A person is an inseparable unity of parts but because the head is the most prominent and distinctive part of the body, it best symbolizes the whole person’s distinctiveness. Thus, to speak metaphorically in Greek culture of a person being the “head” of others, can refer to that person’s emblematic quality with regard to the rest of the people.
But there are at least two continuums we can use to measure someone’s prominence, or the degree to which someone “sticks out” above others: power and status. They often parallel each other in our culture but they are not the same. We say that Bill Gates is the “head” of Microsoft Corporation. We mean that A) Gates is the CEO/authority that “rules” Microsoft and that B) Gates is the most visible person at Microsoft and symbolizes the company. Therefore, we might ask, “I wonder what new operating system Bill Gates will develop next?” We know that Bill Gates will not literally develop the new system. The corporation will. Gates is emblematic of the corporation. Bill Gates “rules” Microsoft and he is the “head” of Microsoft because he symbolically represents and distinguishes the entire corporate entity to the world in a way no one else does.
But Bill Gates is emblematic because he “sticks out above” others on the dimensions of power and status. Power and status are so tightly wedded together for us that we find it hard to distinguish between the two. That creates a cross-cultural difficulty for us because in an honor and shame culture like the Greco-Roman world the two concepts are more distinct. (see earlier post on status). The top household slave of a Roman senator’s villa had considerable power. He would “stick out” above others he came into contact with. But the free Roman citizen artisan with little power would have had a higher status than this powerful slave. Deference would have been given to the slave because of his master’s status but the slave himself was of low status. Therefore, the slave might wield considerable power without status. The artisan would have little power but have higher status.
The Greeks appear to have used different language when they talked about prominence in terms of power and status. Prominence in power/authority seems to be indicated by the word arche. The word connoted the starting point, the point of origination, or point of commencement. It signifies the first item in an ordinal, chronological, or ranking sequence. Though anachronistic to say so, it seems to me that it has a mechanistic quality to it.
Prominence in status was indicated by the metaphor kephale (head). Kephale has a more organic, positional, and functional quality. The head is the visible and distinguishing part of the body that stands for the rest of the body but it is also atop the body, and therefore highest in elevation with regard to the rest of the body; it is preeminent. But the head also is the source of life (according to Greek anthropology) that sustains the body and from which the rest of the body emanates. It is an origin in an organic sustaining sense, not so much a mechanistic command and control sense.
The terms arche and kephale do overlap. Catherine Kroeger points out a line from Orphic poetry repeated by seven different Greek authors spanning a period of 1,600 years from 6oo B.C.E. to 1000 C.E. On four occasions it reads:
Zeus was born first, Zeus last, god of the bright bolt;
Zeus is the head [kephale], Zeus the middle, from Zeus all things are made.
On three occasions it reads:
Zeus is the beginning [arche], Zeus the middle, from Zeus all things are made.
Zeus is both first in a sequence and he is the source of life. Therefore, both arche and kephale are descriptive of him. Yet when the Greeks wished to talk narrowly about first in rank with authority and power, they seem predisposed to use words from the root arche. It seems when they wanted to indicate preeminence in status, first/highest in position of status, that which sticks out above the rest, and/or that from which qualities emanate as part of a functional organic whole, they used kephale.
I wrote earlier that there are a at least 180 instances of the Hebrew word rosh (head) being used metaphorically and frequently for “leader” or “chief” in the Hebrew Bible. There are only a handful of references where the Hebrew was used metaphorically and translated as its literal equivalent kephale in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew bible. Let us take a look at those exceptions in light of what we have just said about arche and kephale.