Feminism and the Classics: Apollo and Dionyses, 1974

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Feminism and the Classics: Apollo and Dionysos

- Constance M. Carroll . Assistant Professor of Classics . Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts University of Maine Portland/Gorham when I was asked to deliver this paper, I was told that the issue to address was the impact of feminism upon the profession and the discipline of Classics. I thought, then, that there were quite a few nouns more suitable than "impact" to describe the effect-of the women's Movement upon the Classics: dent, bruise, scratch, flesh wound, contusion,

abrasion, laceration, scrape, and the like, but certainly not_impact.

One of the-oldest academic disciplines, Classics was one of the last

_to form a commission on the status of women in the profession (American

Philological Association women's Caucus, fonned'in April, l97é). As is the case in most other disciplines, despite the fact that roughly 40% of APA memters are women, they are dramatically under—represented both in the organizational hierarchy and in top level jobs in Classics across the country. The typical image of the female high school Latin teacher is metamorphosized at the higher education level into the male philologist. However intentionally or unintentionally, the profession of Classics has systematically and effectively discriminated against women in all levels and areas. ‘ i I ‘Impact is also not the word to describe the effect of feminism upon the discipline of Classics, although it has been significantly greater

here than in the profession. Therefore, nouns like hemorrhage, concus-

sion, haemotoma, migraine, angina, etc., are more descriptive. Unlike



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other literature—centered disciplines, Classics is still by an% large cemented in the Dark Ages of pure descriptive criticism. The more modern trends in Archetypal, Conceptual and Thematic criticism have only recently brushed across Classics, which still, like Art History, ascribes to superstar, single author, single century and single dis- cipline studies. Women have been in the vanguard of more contemporary

forms‘of criticism and have been tremendously effective in introducing

new and more holistic perspectives from which ancient literature can

.be_examined.._The works of Jacqueline de Romilly, Helen North, Jacque-

Tine Duchemin, Ann Lebeck, Mae Smethurst, Mary Lefkowitz, the womenls

‘issue of Arethusa, and many others, reflect this trend. I do hot

I : intend to suggest that only women have this perspective, but that the

perspective itself is a feminist one. é Classics has always had its own unique mystique and has been used

by countless civilizations, cultures and generations as the standard

by which contemporary institutions, people and moral codes aregjudged.

That 45C B.C. was the zenith of western (and some feel world)_Culture

has been bought to the extent that it is now, like the fiible, a common-

place. —Therefore, politicians, moral leaders and scholars alike have

. a read_and interpreted the Classics in a manner reflective of contemporary

propaganda, social movements, economic issues, etc. For the Germans the Greeks were Aryans whose gods later migrated west to initiate the Renaissance. For Napoleon the Greeks were French. For Americans the

Greeks and Romans were Anglo Saxon pioneers with decidedly’ British



accents. But most of all the Greeks were male, a society of males

who endorsed the concept of the inferiority of non—Greek peoples and

the inferiority of women. The principle of Subjugation as weld as §9phia_has found its ideal expression and interpretation in the

Classical heritage transmitted to us by generations of male phjlologists.

Most insidious is Nietzsche's division of ancient (and, by extension,

modern) cultures into Apollonian (male, rational, ordered) and Dionysian (female, irrational, orgiastic) categories in his §irth_gf Tragedy

through the Spirit 9f_Music. This view also has become a commonplace.

what is dangerous about it is not only its justification of the subjuga-'

.tion of women but its justification of the necessary subjugation of whole


. nations, cultures and races which are classed as female—Dionysian. Yet,


this is the tacit premise underlying most accounts of the Persian wars,

the Punic wars and the evaluation of ancient literature pertaining to I . them. It is inherrent in the enduring portrayal of such figures as


Cleopatra, Hannibal, Jugurtha, Aspasia, etc., as aberrations, if not‘ monsters, in history. From there it is but a short walk to modern comparisons, judgements and policies. In this light, the greatest service the feminist perspective has rendered to date is the re—openningp of the dialogue on these first principles, premises and concepts as they pertain to the “Golden Age“ and standard of western Civilization.

when we look for women authors in extant ancient literature we

find that they are few and far between and, where they are found, they I

too are in the aberrations category. Sappho is a case in point. The

inventor of the Mixolydian mode and Sapphic stanza and author of nine

books of verse on a variety of subjects in the Library at Alexandria,


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Sappho has been placed in her own special category. Aristotle, while admitting her genius, places her as a "tenth Muse“ rather-than among

the list of poets. Although homosexual episodes were frequently described by ancient authors, Sappho is known solely for her work in this area. Thus, Gregory of Nazianzos committed her verses to the fire in 380 A.D. Pope Gregory the I: burned what remained in l073 A.D. And I would submit that contemporary embarrassment has continued the burnings by relegating Sappho to a dialect curiosity, a forerunner of Catullus» or simply, and more frequently, a divertissement in lyric poetry.

' ;§appho is to ancient literature what Aspasia and Cleopatra are to


.ancient,history.V Aspasia, the consort of Pericles, continuesito be blamed

for the corruption of Pericles and the Peloponnesian war, as eristophanes charges in Acharnians 5l5-539. Very little has been done by flay of attempting to reconstruct her political strategy. Likewise, Cleopatra, the monstra of Egypt according to Vergil and Horace is seen mdre in her aspect.as Elizabeth Taylor than as a political leader in her dwn right. Even such a basic tome as the Oxford Classical Qictionary concentrates

I . on Cleopatra's role as sex object in its entry on her. “She was attractive

rather than_beautiful, with a lively temperament and great charm of,

‘speech : . . ._ She was not sexually lax, associating, to our knowledge,

only with Caesar and Antony. But, despite loyalty to Egypt, this does

not mean she was disloyal or exploited them for political ends. with

I men of their stamp, the contrary is probable." Clearly, something must

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be done to develop a view of Cleopatra more as the statesman and monarch

she was and less as the nubile girl rolled out of a carpet at Caesar's feet;


In the area of literature itself, extensive female imagery has puzzled Classicists from Homer onward. The Odyssey, for example, is an enormous tapestry in which women figure predominantly. Even here, however, the woman remembered, although her role is brief, is Penelope, the paragon of wifely virtue and loyalty. In this.regard her only counterpart in the Odyssey is the old and faithful dog Argos who clings to life just long enough to see his master's return. The rest and the bulk of the Odyssey concerns itself with dynamic, strong, and aggressive women and goddesses. Athena initiates Odysseus‘ return. Circe, Calypso,

Ino, Nausicaa and Arete also play aggressive roles and share in common‘

_an immediate power over Odysseus’ fate. "By contrast, the men of the

' Odyssey are for the most part passive and not in control of their destiny.

Odysseus himself is on the receiving end; Hermes does not initiate action, but carries out Athena's plan; Telemachus is a child; Laertes is too old to be of assistance; the suitors are brittle caricatures; and even Poseidon spends most of the time removed from the action in.the far corners of Aethiopia. If, as some have suggested, the story of Odysseus is the story of the progression from the Heroic Age to a more representa- tive (feminist) society, then the extensive female imagery of the Odyssey may be the vehicle through which this is expressed. ; In Certainly.even the tragedians mirrored contemporary conflicts andl societal changes by conflicts in the cosmos or mythic situations. Thus,‘

Aeschylds in the Oresteia portrays a cosmic split that is basically malel

female,.e.g., Zeus and Apollo vs. the older female deities, Earth, Night

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and the Eumenides themselves. The first movers and agents of change

‘ are agaih strong—willed women, Electra, Athena, Clytemnaestra,'etc.

Aeschylus makes a point of stressing this. At Agamemnon 35l, the Chorus describe her male behavior, "woman, you speak gracefully like a shrewd man (gatf angra_§9phr9n)" and at ll the watchman admires her "man~ planning" heart (androboulon gear), in portraying Clytemnaestra_ Similarly, Sophocles‘ Antigone presents a female change agent, although the actual tragedy is Creon's. Electra receives an equally

neuter portrayal in her domination of Orestes. Jocasta is the one

"most consciously pressing toward the revelation of the truth in the .'

Oedipus; ' A  -

It is in Euripides, however, that all of these concepts merge, for it is Euripides who most clearly presents what I feel to be the basic tension inherent in the Classical world: the conflict 0? East and west, Euripides was frequently mocked by Aristophanes for peopling the tragic stage with women. He is called a misogynist by some and the prototype of feminism by others, both of which extremes overlook his great central themes, For Euripides employs women as change agents and catalysts but also as the embodiment of the Dionysian East. Phaedra, Andromache, Hecuba, Medea, etc., clearly speak to the inability of the Greek world to assimilate or cope with Eastern modes, morality and


institutions. Medea, whose very name, suggests the problem, sums it up


best in her address to the women of Corinth: i

Surely, of all creatures that have life and will, we women Are the most wretched. .when, for an extravagant sum,

We have bought a husband, we must then accept him as Possessor of our body. This is to aggravate 3

Wrong with worse wrong. Then the great question: will the man ~

we get be bad or good? For women, divorce is not Respectable; to repel the man, not possible.

Still more, a foreign woman, coming among new laws, New customs, needs the skill of magic, to find out what her home could not teach her, how to treat the man whose bed she shares. And if in this exacting toil we are successful, and our husband does not struggle Under the marriage yoke, our life is enviable. Otherwise, death is better. If a man grows tired Of the company at home, he can go out, and find A cure for tediousness. we wives are forced to look To one man only. And, they tell us,-we at home‘ Live free from danger, they go out to battle: fools! I'd rather stand three times in the front line than bear One child. =

But the same arguments do not apply . To you and me. You have this city, your father's home, The enjoyment of your life, and your friends‘ company. I am alone; I have no city; now my husband Insults me. I was taken as plunder from a land At the earth's edge. I have no mother, brother, nor any Of my own blood to turn to in this extremity.*

Medea is central to understanding the role the feminist perspective has piayed

and can play in the Classics. It is the total re—evaluation of the body of extant Classical literature through more holistic and interdisciplinary modes of criticism, a re-consideration of the role of women in antiquity, and a careful Took at the archetypal significance of the dense female imagery that is so prevalent in ancient literature. If in fact on

central stage is the quiet but dangerously insistent Apollonian/Dionysian controversy, then only a feminist perspective can lead to a new and


humane view not only of women but of all the peoples and nations included

in the female category.

*Vellacott, P. Euripides: Medea and Other Plays. Baltimore, l964, pp. 24-25.


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