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 …

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