The Experiences of Tiresias: The Feminine and the Greek Man

The Experiences of Tiresias: The Feminine and the Greek Man

by Nicole Loraux

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In The Experiences of Tiresias, its title referring to the shepherd struck blind after glimpsing Athena's naked body, Nicole Loraux explores the ambivalence in how the Greek male defines himself in relationship to the feminine. In these essays, Loraux disturbs the idea of virile men and feminine women, a distinction found in official discourse and aimed at protecting


In The Experiences of Tiresias, its title referring to the shepherd struck blind after glimpsing Athena's naked body, Nicole Loraux explores the ambivalence in how the Greek male defines himself in relationship to the feminine. In these essays, Loraux disturbs the idea of virile men and feminine women, a distinction found in official discourse and aimed at protecting the ideals of male identity from any taint of the feminine. Turning to epic and to Socrates, however, she insists on a logic of an inclusiveness between the genders, which casts a shadow over their clear, officially defined borders."Nicole Loraux documents, with delicate sensitivity to text and context, the mobility of the contrast between 'man' and 'the feminine.'... [Her] readings of tragedy are particularly compelling."--Mary Margaret McCabe, The Times Literary Supplement"Loraux is a pioneer in the analysis of gender difference and sexuality in classical Greece. Strongly opposed to polarized interpretations of 'masculine' and 'feminine,' she illuminates the complex and often contradictory interrelationship of the sexes in real life and in the Greek/Athenian social 'imaginary.'... An essential work of classical scholarship."--Choice

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Nicole Loraux documents, with delicate sensitivity to text and context, the mobility of the contrast between 'man' and 'the feminine'. . . . [Her] readings of tragedy are particularly compelling."—Mary Margaret McCabe, The Times Literary Supplement

"Nicole Loraux invites us on a journey across the Greek representations of the human body-its sufferings, its wounds, its death, as well as its beauty.... [Whereas the writings of such historians as Herodotus and Thucydides render women opaque,] Loraux washes the palimpsest and makes us rediscover the flesh and blood presence of the female body."—Pierre Chuvin, Le Monde

"Nicole Loraux's book is not only a subtle and rigorous study of the opposition between the masculine and the feminine, which so strongly shapes the Greek 'imaginary.' It is also, through consistently illuminating rereadings of texts ranging from epics to works of historians, [an examination] of the diverse ways in which Greek men have denied femininity, not without having appropriated it to themselves in various forms."—Louise Bruit, Qinzaine littéraire

"Loraux is a pioneer in the analysis of gender difference and sexuality in classical Greece. Strongly opposed to polarized interpretations of 'masculine' and 'feminine,' she illuminates the complex and often contradictory interrelationship of the sexes in real life and in the Greek/Athenian social 'imaginary.'. . . An essential work of classical scholarship."Choice

"In her generous and passionate manner, Nicole Loraux brings into bloom an entire field of Greek studies and discovers, behind the serene images that Athenian democracy has created of itself, a terra incognita full of noise and fury."—Catherine David, Le Nouvel Observateur

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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5.90(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

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The Experiences of Tiresias

The Feminine and the Greek Man

By Nicole Loraux, Paula Wissing


Copyright © 1995 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-02985-6



En polemoi, lekhoi: Ainetos, dead in batde; Aghippia, dead in childbirth. Two inscriptions on a stele, naming two unknown but illustrious figures from Sparta.

The Spartans who engraved their tombs with these and other suitably terse but sufficiently revealing inscriptions were obeying a regulation of their funeral legislation according to which, Plutarch says, "it was not permitted to engrave the names of the dead on tombs, except those of men fallen in battle and women who died in childbirth."

Bed and war, equal value to the hoplite and the woman in labor: the extent of the equivalence can be ascertained by recalling that in the eyes of all Greece Sparta was reputed to have invented the hoplitic ideal of the beautiful death sung by Tyrtaeus: that of the citizen fallen like a soldier in the front line. Of course, unlike the masculine model, the feminine version of the beautiful death barely extended beyond the boundaries of Lacedaemon; at least it left no traces in the accounts of the Greek historians—but history, it is true, has little use for women and their labor pains. In short, the high value placed on death in childbirth, generally considered to be a Spartan attitude, must seemingly be explained in purely Spartan terms. We know that in Sparta motherhood, or rather, the procreation of beautiful children destined to become robust citizens, was a woman's greatest occupation. Well before Plutarch, Critias and Xenophon speak of the curious Spartan custom of requiring athletic training for young girls and even pregnant women. In the case of the parthenos, of course, it is the future wife, the procreatress of citizens, who exercises in order that "the man's seed, strongly rooted in a robust body, fully sprouts and that she herself is strong enough to bear labor and easily and successfully struggle against the pains of childbirth"—to bear labor the way that the hoplite bears the enemy's assault, to struggle against pain: labor is a battle. Critias mentions training pregnant women, and nothing indicates that the Sophist has succumbed to the Spartan mirage when he mentions the exercise that his kinsman Plato will make into an essential component of his educational program for the city in the Laws. According to an edifying tradition, this cultivation of women's courage and bodies bore fruit, and Gorgo, the wife of the hero of Thermopylae, has the honor of proudly proclaiming that if Lacedaemonian women alone command males, the reason is that they alone give birth to males.

But it is the nature of the historian to challenge well-established traditions. Therefore, I will look beyond Sparta and Spartan tradition for evidence of the equivalence between childbirth and war.

When it comes to Athens, the search seems doomed to failure: how could the death of a woman be measured against the paradigmatic scale of the citizen-soldier's death? In fact, in Athens the only institutional opposition to be found is between the "beautiful death" celebrated during official and collective funerals, and all other deaths: private deaths, the deaths of both men and women. So be it. But it is precisely on private tombs that, utterly unexpectedly, one encounters something of a symmetry between war and labor, and even though it is not institutionalized, this phenomenon nonetheless serves as an important reflection of attitudes. On the funerary reliefs in Athenian cemeteries, the dead person, it is known, is represented by his or her life. No allusion is made to his or her death, except in two cases: the death of a soldier and the death of a woman in childbirth. Of course, the Athenian marbles do not violate the censorship that everywhere in the Greek world forbids representations of the moment of birth. On the steles, time is frozen in the moment before or after the child's delivery. Her girdle untied, her hair undone, the suffering woman falls into the arms of her attendants before giving birth and dying as a result; or else, in the intemporality of an already-vanished presence, the dead woman, seated in a chair, casts a vacant eye upon the newborn placed in her arms by a servant. But the essential is there. Just like the soldier, whose face is forever that of a warrior, the woman in childbirth has achieved arete in death. To be sure, this symmetry is not expressed in language but is conveyed in images. Does this mean that is it any less significant?

Lovers of words, however, will take consolation in the epitaph of a woman who died in childbirth in the second half of the fourth century and who was buried in the Kerameikos. She is named Kratista, and her death is celebrated in verse:

Here the dust has welcomed the courageous daughter of Damainetos, Kratista, the beloved wife of Arkhemakhos: she who perished one day in childbirth, in the throes of suffering, leaving for her husband an orphan child in his abode.

As in the case of citizens buried further away in the official cemetery, who are celebrated like Homeric kouroi, the vocabulary is that of the epic, from the groaning "throes of death" (stonoenti potmoi) to the megaron (the palace, here "abode"), and the expression of courage through strength (iphthiman: "courageous") to the designation of the wife as the "companion of the bed" (eunin), by way of the indeterminative pote (one day). Furthermore, the woman's name is prophetic—she is called "the very strong one"—and contrary to all expectations, the language of the epitaph in the Athenian Kerameikos is Doric. Whether or not the young woman's family wished to bestow the title of honorary Spartan on her is something that we will never know. But obviously the text conveys the symmetry between war and childbed. And more than symmetry—the words suggest something of an exchange, or at least the presence of war during the labor of giving birth.

This evidence is sufficient to beckon one to extend the search beyond the institutions of Sparta and Athens to note everything the Greek imagination has to say about the equivalence between the mother and the hoplite, these two civic roles.

Mother, Hoplite

A remark by Jean-Pierre Vernant will serve as my starting point—a remark that is often quoted, if not always considered in its full implications. Stating that "marriage is to the girl what war is to the boy," Vernant forgets neither that marriage is also a necessity for the boy who wishes to attain his full stature as citizen nor that for a woman marriage is realized only through motherhood. The fact that there is a delay between the wedding night and conception, as Plato prescribes in his Laws, or that the poets like to condense the two nights into one is, after all, of no importance. Sooner or later, the married woman will be brought to completion by motherhood, for she only acquires the full status of legitimate wife once she has given birth, leaving behind her the formidable delights of the numphe for the measured continence of the mother of the family, the Thesmophoros who alone merits the name of alokhos.

Alokhos: one who shares the same bed, lekbos, or rather she who is attached to the bed of the husband, this institution. Alokhos, lekhos: in the Greece of the cities, the conjugal bed is not the subject of jokes, for it is the legitimate—not to say civic—place of reproduction. It will be recalled that the word for the woman who gives birth is lekho and that for the most part the vocabulary of childbirth, beginning with the word lokhos (childbirth, delivery) is derived from the root legh—"to lie down": e.g., the verb lokheuo or Lokhia, epiclesis for Artemis. An etymology that is practically universally accepted (at least since the time of the lexicographer Hesychius) confirms the identity between lokhos as a word for childbirth and lokhos denoting, as early as Homer, an ambush and then the armed troop. Thus, Pierre Chantraine can write of lokhos that all its derivatives "refer either to the notion of childbed or to military uses."

Assuredly, this is too pat. The historian's joyous surprise at the encounter between war and childbirth in the same word is followed by doubt, as the price of imprudently trusting etymology becomes evident. Philologists themselves hasten to take on the case. To reduce the disparity between meanings—"an ambush is not a bed," says one of them—and to spare themselves what they consider to be "verbal acrobatics," some conclude that "there is not one but two words, lokhos, which are simply homonyms." A linguist's solution, which even Benveniste has occasionally used: to reduce the "opposite meaning" or even diversity, postulate two roots that are strictly separate from one another. All the same, linguists ought to read anthropologists. Perhaps then they would reflect on the strange and recurrent associations, far from ancient Greece, linking ambush to childbed—for example, in Burgundy, where the husband, during the time of his wife's delivery, carouses with his companions in what is called an "ambush." A coincidence, the philologist undoubtedly would say—but it happens that under the circumstances the similarity is noteworthy. And what is to be said when a Greek, and furthermore, a highly authoritative Greek, plays on the word lokhos? Such is the case in Hesiod's account, in the Theogony, of Kronos's "ambush" to spy on his father Ouranos. His father has secreted him in his mother's lap (Gaies en keuthmoni: in the Earth's "hidden place"), like all the other children to be born of Gaia; Kronos is sent to wait in ambush by Earth herself, who has grown tired of Heaven's embraces. From this post, in a delivery that Ouranos certainly had not foreseen, Kronos emerges ek lokheoio—understood as the maternal orifice—to slit his insatiable sire's scrotum. A strange business, no doubt, but how can one deny that Kronos here is the "child of double meaning"? By insisting once again that the word is a simple homonym? One would still have to note that in spite of all Hesiod, as a well-informed Greek, makes an effort to reunite the two words lokhos under the sign of ambivalence. It is better to take the word—and the Greeks—literally.

Next it is necessary to answer the objections of the historians of antiquity. Let us admit that there is only one word, they say (as they have said to me), but in the classical period—the time of orthodox representations—the ambush is the fate of lightly armed combatants, who are held in infinitely lower esteem than hoplites. Consequently, how can one use this quirk of language to support the notion of the similarity between the woman in labor and the hoplite—for, after all, the valorous citizen-soldiers of Sparta are by definition hoplites? The objection is sensible, but one cannot be too careful about the abuses of good sense in history. This time I will take my answer from Homer. If the Iliadic ambush (lokhos, therefore) is the absolute criterion of bravery because that is where the value of the warriors can be discerned, "where the cowards and the brave are revealed," the reason is that, from the first, the notion of valor has linked childbed to war: in words—which bear the traces of Homer's Greek—showing the contiguity of childbirth and ambush, and in classical ideology, with the allusiveness of the hoplitic model.

And here, with renewed zest, I will resume the survey of images of the warrior in the representations of motherhood.

The association between motherhood and war in the cities is apparently straightforward: mothers produce hoplites. This is what Gorgo used to say; in Sparta it is the aim of paideia for women. No curse is more damning to a community than the wish to annihilate it, down to "the boychild in his mother's belly"—the city-to-come in the bellies of women—and inversely, the blessings that Aeschylus has the Danaids implore for Argos combine the happy delivery of mothers with the domestication of Ares, the murderer of young men. To give birth, then, is to produce boys for the city, and in Euripides' Suppliants, the tragedy of motherhood in mourning, the mothers of the Seven against Thebes weep for what had once been their pride: as kourotokoi, bearers of children, the seven mothers had given birth to seven kouroi. The birth of daughters is rarely discussed, as if the city could get along without these future child-bearers. It is true that by giving sons to mothers the Greek imagination symbolically accomplishes the ever problematic integration of women into the city: a fine tactic, which forever assigns them the place of mediation between men and all the while banishes the ever threatening fantasy that the genos gynaikon (the race of women) reproduces itself in a closed circuit. In short, according to the literature—comedies of course, but tragedies as well—one would believe that Greek women, whether named Andromache or Lysistrata, give birth only to sons, and the parabasis of the Thesmophoriazousae expresses the only appropriate challenge that the women of Athens can make, by demanding a place of honor for the mothers of good citizens—who not surprisingly are found on the side of the hoplites.

Two texts—a fragment from a tragedy, a passage from a comedy—clearly express the civic idea of motherhood. The fragment is a famous excerpt from Euripides' Erechtheus, quoted by Lycurgus in his speech Contra Leocrates. Because he wished to accuse Leocrates of lipotaxia, of leaving the ranks, the Athenian orator multiplies the edifying examples of hoplitic conduct before mentioning a woman who dared sacrifice her daughter for the salvation of the city. A mother, a daughter: this conjunction, which could be a pure anomaly embedded in Lycurgus's patriotic eloquence, in reality contributes to the greater glory of orthodoxy. The mother, it is true, is the wife of the autochthonous Erechtheus. She affirms that he comes back to the city to use women's confinements (lokheumasin) as he pleases, condemns the tears that mothers shed on the hoplite's departure, and makes this confession, worth the most lengthy of speeches:

If, in my house, instead of daughters, a male sapling had grown, at the time when the enemy fires would have threatened the city, wouldn't I, confronting his death in advance, have given this son a spear to send him into combat? Ah! if only I had children capable of fighting and gaining renown among warriors, and who were not born to be useless adornments to the city.

In short, for want of a single son, she would use one of her daughters like a hoplite pledged to die: this is Praxithea's solution. Although less tragic, the declarations of the coryphaeus in Lysistrata are no less instructive. Speaking to the male audience of citizens assembled to laugh at women, she mentions "paying one's share" in the form of a tax made up of men and contrasts her civic spirit to the detestable conduct of the old men of the chorus who have wasted the funds collected by the ancestors in the days of the Medic wars, without paying their war taxes in exchange. Eisphora is the war tax, and the ancestors' fund is known as eranos. But the same word, eranos, is used to denote the women's quota, and the verb eispherein to refer to their contribution in the form of men. It is a way, of course, of juxtaposing two opposing behaviors: women produce sons, old men despoil the ancestral heritage. But also (for in Lysistrata, there is nary a word in which the ordinary sense is not doubled by a second, equivocal but clear meaning) it is a way of saying that if there are men, the reason is women, since the old men are no longer capable of making their manly contributions. But the textual polysemy does not end here, and what gives these lines their full meaning is perhaps what is not said: that the word eranos, in Athens, is also used to refer to the citizen's gracious gift of himself to the city when he offers his life in a beautiful death.


Excerpted from The Experiences of Tiresias by Nicole Loraux, Paula Wissing. Copyright © 1995 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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