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Attic Exits

Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman

by Nicole Loraux, translated by Anthony Forster
Harvard University Press, 100 pp., $17.95

The Greek tragic poet was provided by the mythical traditions with a generous and varied supply of exits from this life for his female characters: Dirce dragged to her death by a bull, for example, or Jason’s royal bride consumed by a poisoned robe that acts like a coating of blazing napalm. Nicole Loraux’s study of violent female death in Greek tragedy ignores these and similar cases, to concentrate on women who commit suicide and virgin girls who are offered as a sacrifice. She justifies this selectivity by her claim that since death by another’s hand is as frequent in tragedy for men as for women, it is in the “suicide of wives and the sacrifice of virgins” that a distinction is made between the sexes in relation to death. Male suicide, as she points out, is rare—Ajax and Haemon the only two in our extant texts—and the sacrifice of a male virgin is a unique event: the self-immolation of Menoeceus in Euripides’ Phoenissae.

It was in such violent death, Loraux suggests, that “a woman mastered her death, a death that was not simply the end of an exemplary life as a spouse” and so presented the audience with a contrast to everyday life, where, as we know from funerary epitaphs of the period, the virtue and fame of a wife or daughter were “often mentioned in a tentative, not to say reticent, manner.” In tragic suicide and sacrifice the victim’s death was one that “belonged to her totally.”

Tragic heroines who decide to kill themselves have, and often discuss, a choice of method: the rope or the sword. Hanging is an exclusively female death; no man, in extant tragedy, hangs himself. Loraux cites “the law of femininity, that in the extreme of misery a knotted rope should provide the way out.” But, though Antigone, Phaedra, and Sophocles’ Jocasta choose the rope, Deianira in Sophocles’ Trachiniae, Eurydice (in Sophocles’ Antigone), and Euripides’ Jocasta (in Phoenissae) use the sword.

Loraux explains the difference between the two Jocasta suicides on the basis of a generalization she proposed in an earlier article, that “hanging was associated with marriage—or rather, with an excessive valuation of the status of bride…while a suicide that shed blood was associated with maternity, through which a wife, in her ‘heroic’ pains of childbirth, found complete fulfillment.” In Sophocles’ tragedy Jocasta is “above all a wife”; in that of Euripides, in which she kills herself after finding the corpses of her two sons who have killed each other, “she is exclusively a mother.” And Eurydice, as Loraux points out in a note, is described by the chorus, as it reports her death, as pammetor—“mother to the end,” in Robert Fagles’s version. Her last words are a curse on her husband Creon for causing the death of her two sons.

This generalization is also made to serve as an explanation for the apparently anomalous suicide by hanging of Antigone, a virgin, not a wife or mother, and furthermore the most virile and heroic of tragedy’s women, for whom one would have expected Sophocles to contrive a “manly” death by the sword. In her death, Loraux explains, “she found something like a marriage.” And it is true that for Antigone, as for most tragic virgins who face death, poetic imagery presents that death as the marriage that would have been the normal fulfillment of her life as a woman—she is to be the bride of Hades.

Wives have a choice, but virgins sacrificed “for the safety of the community” have none. Their throats are cut, as were the throats of the animals routinely sacrificed in rituals the audience was thoroughly familiar with. Polyxena, in Euripides’ Hecuba, gives the sacrificer a choice; in words described by the messenger as “of incomparable gallantry” she asks him to strike her in the breast. What she is asking for is the death stroke of a warrior, not of a woman. The offer is refused; Neoptolemus cuts her throat. “Whatever freedom the tragic discourse of the Greeks offered to women, it did not allow them ultimately to transgress the frontier that divided and opposed the sexes.”

But it is not in sacrifice alone that violent death comes to women through the throat: Orestes, in both Aeschylus and Euripides, strikes his mother in the throat, and Euripides’ Jocasta thrusts the sword “through the neck.” It is, Loraux points out, “women’s weak point,…a strong point of feminine beauty” as well as of “the greatest vulnerability.” Though men are killed by throat wounds in the Iliad, Athenian tragedy, as far as our texts go, confines this death to women. There is one salient exception: the death as sacrificial victim of Creon’s son Menoeceus in Euripides’ Phoenissae. Speaking through the prophet Tiresias, the gods demand as the price of a Theban victory the sacrifice of a virgin of the royal house. Menoeceus is the only eligible candidate. His father sends him away to safety but he takes his stand on the city’s battlements, cuts his throat, and falls to his death. This death reinforces the difference between the sexes. A “female” death by cutting of the throat is demanded by ritual, but Menoeceus, both sacrificer and victim, transforms it into a heroic “manly” end.

Loraux’s short, highly concentrated essay (the main text is only sixty-five pages long) is remarkable not only for the breadth and precision of its scholarship and the refined subtlety of its interpretations but also for the wealth of meaningful connections it suggests in what Loraux herself calls its “endless quest for resonant echoes.” It explores the deaths of tragedy’s women in their context, in their relation to a male democracy’s social realities, collective prejudices, and fantasies.

The argument is challenging and brilliant throughout, and in the second and third chapters—“The Pure Blood of Virgins” and “Regions of the Body”—it is solidly grounded in the Greek texts. But in the first and longest chapter, “The Rope and the Sword,” which deals with female suicides, the explanations offered for the exceptions to “the law of femininity” fail to cover all the cases. The association of the sword with motherhood rather than marriage is relevant and seems convincing for the deaths of Eurydice and Euripides’ Jocasta, but it will not throw any light on the case of Sophocles’ Deianira. She is thinking of her husband, Heracles, not her children; she is a classic case of “an excessive valuation of the status of bride.” To protect her marriage against an intruding woman, and regain her husband’s love, she has unintentionally brought about his agonizing death: what she thought was a potent love charm turns out to be poison. This would seem to be a paradigmatic case for hanging, but although like a proper wife she goes off to the inner chamber and the marriage bed to end her life, she does it by thrusting a two-edged sword into her side.

If the evidence were more abundant, one such discrepancy might be overlooked. Unfortunately, the base on which Loraux’s “law of femininity” is posited is dangerously narrow. Of the seven women who kill themselves in extant tragedy, three use the sword and four the rope; of these four one, Leda, in Euripides’ Helen, is not a character in the play but is mentioned incidentally.* Ingenious though Loraux’s explanations of the bloody deaths of Eurydice and Jocasta and the death by hanging of the unmarried Antigone may be, one can’t help wishing that the figures were not so evenly balanced, that the exceptions did not come so close to disproving the rule.

Even the basic thesis that hanging is an exclusively female method of suicide is not fully secure. It is true that we have no case of a man hanging himself, but Orestes in Eumenides fears that he may have to do so if the verdict of the Athenian court abandons him to the Furies. Oedipus in Phoenissae is described as intent on shedding his own blood with a sword or throwing a rope over the roof beam, and in the Sophoclean Oedipus the King he speaks of what he has done as more than enough to make him hang himself. And the chorus in Alcestis speaks of Admetus’ loss of his wife as “cause enough to cut one’s throat or put one’s neck in a noose.” Clearly this was not an unimaginable event in tragedy, and in real life it could and did happen: Thucydides tells us that the besieged oligarchic conspirators on Corcyra hanged themselves on trees rather than face execution at the hands of their enemies.

Furthermore, female suicide by the noose is not always a private, passive, “womanly” exit from life. Antigone’s suicide is an act of defiance (she was supposed to starve to death) and it brings down a chain of calamities on the head of her enemy Creon; Phaedra’s hanged corpse has a letter attached to it, which causes the exile and death of Hippolytus; and in Aeschylus’ Suppliants the female chorus blackmails the king of Argos into giving them protection by threatening to hang themselves from the statues of the city’s gods, which are, incidentally, on stage and give verisimilitude to the threat.

In any case rope and sword are not the only possible solutions. Aeschylus’ suppliant maidens wish for a “bare, inaccessible cliff” from which to throw themselves to their deaths, as do Io in Prometheus Bound and Hermione in Euripides’ Andromache. In the same dramatist’s Suppliants Evadne actually does leap from a height onto her husband’s funeral pyre—and this happens in full view of the audience. But men, too, can consider this way out, as Heracles does in Euripides after he has killed his wife and children; in Sophocles, Philoctetes, faced with the prospect of forcible removal to Troy by Odysseus, rushes to a cliff edge to throw himself down but is held back at the last moment by Odysseus’ men. Suicide by starvation was another option; Phaedra is set on this course when the Nurse extracts her guilty secret from her. And Orestes, so he tells us in Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians, told Apollo he would starve himself to death in his temple unless the god saved him from the Furies.

There is also death by fire. In The Trojan Women Talthybius, when he sees the blaze of Cassandra’s torch inside the captive women’s tents, jumps to the conclusion that they intend to burn themselves to death rather than endure slavery in Greece. At the end of the play Hecuba, watching the Greeks set fire to Troy, starts to rush into the flames and has to be led off to slavery by Talthybius’ henchmen. But this is no more exclusively a feminine death than the others. Euripides’ Heracles, recovering from the mad fit in which he has killed his wife and sons, debates whether to jump off a cliff, kill himself with a sword, or burn himself to death. And in Sophocles’ Trachiniae, he orders his son to place his dying but still living body on the funeral pyre. Finally, death by water. In Euripides’ Helen, Theoclymenus is afraid that Helen, in her grief over the (false) news that her husband Menelaus is dead, may drown herself. And Ino, mentioned in Euripides’ Medea and the principal character in his lost Ino, leaps to her death in the sea.

This variety of possibilities tends to weaken the authority of the “law” and open the door to different, more mundane explanations of the exceptions to it. When Euripides’ Jocasta, for example, finds the corpses of her two sons, who have killed each other, it is much easier for the dramatist to have her pick up one of their swords than to engineer a search for a tree on which to hang herself. As for Antigone, she is imprisoned and left to starve in an underground cavern, which, the messenger’s description suggests, is like a Mycenaean tomb. This was important for the themes of Sophocles’ play; Antigone was the champion of the rights of the dead and the deities that preside over them. But it meant that short of breaking her skull against the stone walls, she had no way to put an end to her life except by hanging herself in her robes. And when later in the play Eurydice kills herself after cursing her husband Creon, isn’t it just possible that Sophocles gives her a sword rather than a rope because two hanged women in one play would have been too much? “Cabbage twice,” ran an ancient Greek proverb, “is death.”

Yet these somewhat Philistine reflections should not deter the reader from enjoying the intellectual pleasures and the real discoveries offered by Loraux’s intriguing book. Its exploration of the social, psychological, and physical implications of the deaths the poets contrived for their female characters adds a new dimension to our understanding of Attic tragedy.

  1. *

    It seems likely that in Euripides’ lost Aeolus, in which Aeolus’ daughter Canace was impregnated by her brother—surely a case for hanging—she killed herself with a sword sent her by her father. Cf. Plutarch, Parallel, 28, p. 312C. A Lucanian hydria (A.D. Trendall, Red-figure Vases of Lucania, Campania and Sicily, Oxford, 1967, 45, No. 221, plate 18; A.D. Trendall and T.B.L. Webster, Illustrations of Greek Drama, Phaidon, 1971, p. 74) shows a scene that is generally regarded as inspired by the Euripidean play; Canace lies on a couch with a bloodstained sword in her hand.

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