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On Ancient Greek Lamentation And Women In Democracy

The official impetus to silence women sees one of its earliest iterations in the outlaw of the lament.

December 30, 2019

Cristina Farella
history lesson
greek goddess by Rural Warrior Photography

sensitive Adonis is near to death
what should we do?
strike your breasts girls —
rend your dresses
-Sappho, fragment 59

The Sounds of Women

emingway couldn’t stand Gertrude Stein’s voice. Artemis bellowed in the woods while hunting. Margaret Thatcher had a voice coach. Aphrodite’s voice was an object she kept on her belt.

Sophocles describes Echo as “the girl with no door on her mouth.”

Women in Lysistrata stage a bellicose revolt. Sappho encourages women to vociferously lament the death of Adonis.

These are a handful of instances of sounds made by women in Anne Carson’s luminous essay “The Gender of Sound” where the author theorizes a relationship between the sounds produced by individuals and their place in a patriarchal social order.

One of the pet projects of misogyny is the routine and ritualistic quieting of women. This ageless practice establishes a tension between reason and irrationality, logic and magic, high and low, quiet and loud, male and female, respectively.

At the end of her essay Carson wonders “if there might not be another idea of human order than repression, another notion of human virtue than self-control, another kind of human self than one based on dissociation of inside and outside.

Or indeed, another human essence than self.”

Accompanying this gendering of sound is the Greek idea of sophrosyne, which can be understood as excellence achieved through a soundness of mind.

(Obligatory etymology of the Greek: σωφροσύνη, “sōphrosúnē,” from σώφρωνsṓphrōn,” “sane, moderate, prudent,” from σῶς, “sôs,” “safe, sound, whole” + φρήν, “phrḗn,” “mind.”) Carson writes, “Verbal continence is an essential feature of the masculine virtue of sophrosyne … that organizes most patriarchal thinking on ethical or emotional matters.

Woman as a species is frequently said to lack the ordering principle of sophrosyne.” The Greeks emphasized the importance of this so called verbal continence (calling to mind the troubling incontinence of a Bakhtinian lower bodily stratum, associating it implicitly with women) as a marker of an ideal citizen. Plato dedicates an entire dialogue, the Charmides to the project of defining sophrosyne.

This idea of sophrosyne was foundational for Hellenistic Greeks. It was eventually carried over into the early Christian era, where it existed as virtue, or self-control.

In “The Gender of Sound,” Carson references the ancient Greek funeral lament, a core component of ancient Greek society. The Greek funeral lament was a female-only death ritual carried out from the archaic period until the classical era, when it was outlawed by the statesman Solon in the 6th century BCE, as he sought to establish a pre-democratic city-state.

It was decided that the sounds produced by Greek women in mourning were too cacophonous and terrifying, too disruptive to the logic of the polis.

Plato envisioned his ideal republic as characterized by a citizenry, as well as a standing army, unafraid of death. How could soldiers march bravely into combat when women mourned publicly, bitterly, in the name of the deceased? In his Republic, Plato called for the excision of lamentation from all literature. Aristotle’s Poetics similarly deems iambic poetry unfit for the ears of children.

These proclamations are perhaps some of the most original attempts at condemning poetry as well as revoking the rights of women in western cultural history by maligning one of their social functions, as the lament was indeed an iambic form.

Solon is remembered for inculcating Athenians with democratic ideals, but we can now see that what was established in the name of Socratic reason had misogynistic effects on Greek culture: with the inception of Greek democracy comes the immediate limitation of the rights of Greek women.

This all may seem very far removed from our contemporary moment, which is rife with socio-political disasters in full swing, but the fissures in our culture have a genealogy that we can now trace.

While misogyny bloomed on the sticky vine of capitalism since the inception of the United States, our cultural practice of dismissing and silencing the experiences of women has roots deeper than any soil we tread today.

The official impetus to silence women sees one of its earliest iterations in the outlaw of the lament.

At this time, socially restrictive attitudes towards women were also codified as law, initiating a tradition of limiting women’s rights in the name of Socratic values, rationality, and reason. And so, if from its earliest stirrings democracy was inherently anti-woman, what do we as women have to do with democracy?

Beyond it being the “system within which we need to operate,” there has to be a way forward for us. I advocate a return to an alignment with the pagan, the communal, as a way of relocating our social power. The force of the female lament in ancient Greece was too powerful for men in power to tolerate and seen as a threat to social harmony. These days, it is clear that our feminism is broken. A reexamination of the Greek funeral lament should be undertaken to reaffirm our power and reevaluate our associations with liberal notions of democracy.

Thrénos, Thrénos, Thrénos

Ancient Greek women lamented. This lament had cathartic, symbolic, and apotropaic functions. Until recently, the foremost study on the Greek female lament was Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (1974) by Margaret Alexiou. From her research we learn that the lament (in Greek: θρήνος, “thrénos”) was ritualistically performed at funerals.

We also learn that women exclusively controlled the events of birth and death in ancient Athens.

While the existence of midwives has been well documented through history, it is less discussed that in ancient Athens existed a professional class of female poet-mourners. This was a selective and prestigious job that women competed fiercely for, as it gave them considerable social power.

After a death, a chief mourner led a group of female relatives of the deceased in a long series of pronomial wails and shrieks, punctuated antiphonally by a chorus of professional mourners who were not related to the deceased. This was carried out as the body was bathed and dressed in fresh clothes and blessed with herbs before burial.

Women were known to wail so passionately and loudly that their voices were believed to tear a portal between the living and the dead.

The lament was an opportunity for women to give voice to their suffering, make it explicit to the community. To give it a body of its own and set it free, to unburden themselves in the presence of other women.

Laments would start at the próthesis (wake) and continue through a procession to the graveside, where offerings of animals, flowers, and grains would be made in gratitude to the origin of all, the earth. The process of mourning would be carried out for an entire day, graveside. Depending on the circumstances of death, the lament would be an expression of sorrow, but often turned into an explication of the kinswoman’s pain over loss.

The lament was so integral to social life at this time that funerary laments were responsible for internecine wars and bloody family feuds, especially in Sicily and Mani. Women were accused of fanning the flames of hatred and violence with their unfettered expressions of grief.

There is evidence that the lament functioned as a type of half-spoken poem, half-song, a form of early folk music — folk music being introduced into literature by the first iambic poet, Archilochus. We know that “lamentation involved movement as well as wailing and singing.

Since each movement was determined by a pattern of ritual, frequently accompanied by the shrill music of the aulos (reed pipe), the scene must have resembled a dance, sometimes slow and solemn, sometimes wild and ecstatic.” All of this sounds undoubtedly Dionysian. The lament, a poetic recitation of grief, an assertion of the pain of loss as well as the glory of the deceased, was in fact an art form in its own right, notably often composed in iambic meter.

Placing strict restraints on the lament seems to indicate that the polis was attempting to become more rational, or at least abandon these archaic and superstitious earth-worship routines, but some evidence contradicts this supposition. Plutarch delineates the decree against the lament in his work Solon (written 75 CE):

[Solon] regulated the walks, feasts, and mourning of the women and took away everything that was either unbecoming or immodest; when they walked abroad, no more than three articles of dress were allowed them; an obol’s worth of meat and drink; and no basket above a cubit high; and at night they were not to go about unless in a chariot with a torch before them.

Mourners tearing themselves to raise pity, and set wailings, and at one man’s funeral to lament for another, he forbade. To offer an ox at the grave was not permitted, nor to bury above three pieces of dress with the body, or visit the tombs of any besides their own family, unless at the very funeral; most of which are likewise forbidden by our laws, but this is further added in ours, that those that are convicted of extravagance in their mournings are to be punished as soft and effeminate by the censors of women.

Perhaps women’s laments inciting violence was an impetus for Solon’s sixth century restrictions, but as scholar Gail Holst-Warhaft writes, “that the polis found it necessary, almost from its inception, to legislate against what seems to have been the traditional behavior of women in these situations suggests that there are deeper issues involved then bawdy nights on the tiles of Athens or banshee-like wailing over the dead bodies of men and gods.”

The lament became a punishable offense by the “board of censors for women for weak and unmanly behavior, and for carrying their mourning to extravagant lengths.” Special police, the gynaikonómoi were appointed to deal with those who flouted Solon’s laws.

Alexiou points out that:

“from the earliest times the main responsibility for funeral ritual and lamentation had rested [on women]: they were therefore in control of something which in the archaic period had played a vital part in the religious and social life of the clan, and it may be suspected that they gained access in this way to decisions about property.”

The suggestion of a wish to limit women’s ability to hold property due to their wild grieving is surely a curious one. Carson writes to us: “Putting a door on the female mouth has been an important project of patriarchal culture from antiquity to the present day. Its chief tactic is an ideological association of female sound with monstrosity, disorder and death.”

We all know well that just because something is outlawed does not mean it disappears, and Athenian women did have revolts. The most wonderful being the cult of Adonia, for which women would gather on rooftops in the name of Adonis and his inadequate love-making skills. The myth tells us that Adonis, that prettyboy shared by Aphrodite and Persephone, was unable to satisfy sexually Aphrodite.

In her disappointment, she deposited him in a field of lettuce (the Greeks forever associated the consumption of lettuce with sexual impotence). In gatherings of the Adonia, women would convene and carry young, green, phallic plants to a rooftop, where, without water, the shoots would wither and die quickly in the Greek sun.

While the women became drunk, they started a mock-funeral for the rejected Adonis, building an effigy of him, and wailing in sadness for the death of his potency. The end of the festival saw the women dump the effigy off the roof or into the sea, along with the dead plants.

The scene is carnivalesque and delicious. After learning about this ritual I immediately sought out my closest friend and told her all about it.

We would like to start our own cult of Adonis one day.

Alienation, Suppression, Escape

In his 1961 film La Notte, Michelangelo Antonioni depicts a day in the life of a modern Milanese couple, Lidia and Giovanni. In that cliche of cliches, this couple is married but cannot communicate. If this was all the film depicted, we could dismiss it as a triviality, but I believe Antonioni is doing more here: he shows a world in which the individuating principle — Apolline reason, capitalism, coldness — has become dominant.

The Dionysian is so suppressed that no one in this world can make contact with another. Formally, the film is punctuated by scene after scene of human beings standing around walls of glass, glass windows and doors, seeing each other but making no contact. The middle of the film brings the death of a character Tommaso, as far as I can tell the only kind person in this small universe.

Lidia, attached to Tommaso, learns of his death and spends the rest of the film in secret mourning, suffering in isolation while the rest of her cohort, husband included, cavort at a banal, lavish, bourgeois house party. Her suffering and isolated grieving is indicative of the individualistic culture she finds herself in.

It is as if the long term effects of Solon’s laws are being enacted here, showing that long after Solon has come and gone, we are now living in a cultural landscape that has no place for mourning or collective support.

Lidia eventually tells Giovanni of the death of his friend, and he seems flustered but remains stoic, unmoved.

Women are condemned to grieve alone.

Heraclitus references the Cumaean sibyl, that famous and terrifying prophetess of Sicily, and talks about her mouth, the endless sounds that she produces in prophecy. The Sicilian sibyl sat in her deep cave, and visitors often left more bewildered than they arrived. Stories are told of the power of her voice to cause the cave to quake as she acted as conduit between the realm of the living and the gods.

Our literary history is heavy this kind of ripeness. Women have an innate power for the prophetic. If we are to make any progress at all, it would be wise to reconsider the system we find ourselves caught up in, recognize that it has always restricted our freedoms, isolated us, divorced us from our choral lamentresses, and has sought to diminish our collective power.

Perhaps an unfettered mourning is in order so as to make a transition back to these pagan practices and poetries, to remind us that to remain quiet is a mistake, and that we cannot move forward without one another. And contemporary feminism, like other instantiations of identity politics, while admirable in its ambition, has an effect like that of the glass walls in La Notte — we can see one another but are kept apart, prevented from joining one another en masse.

Feminism will not survive such continual fractures. We should unite in vehement antiphony, fully conscious of the social forces which, even in their liberality, undercut our collective power.

Note: This piece originally appeared in Spolia magazine.

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