Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.29

Gail Holst-Warhaft, Dangerous Voices: Women's Laments and Greek Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 1992. Pp. 227. $39.95. ISBN 0-415-07249-2.

Reviewed by Sheila M. Colwell, University of Washington.

In Sophocles' Ajax, after Ajax orders Tecmessa to take their child inside the skene, he then bars her from more public expression of her grief commanding MHD' E)PISKH/NOUS GO/OUS DA/KRUE (Do not weep out-of-doors wails) concluding KA/RTA TOI FILOI/KTISTON GUNH/ (Truly woman is fond of lamentation). Greek women in the ancient world were "fond of" lamenting perhaps, as Gail Holst-Warhaft argues in Dangerous Voices, because the lament was one of the few forms of expression under their control. From ancient to modern times, Greek women have composed and sung laments and so have been able to express their thoughts and feelings about death in an art form peculiarly their own. In Dangerous Voices, H.-W. asserts that Greek women articulated not only their grief and loss in the lament, but also they expressed their anger and their blame of those who were held responsible for the death. Thus, while the lament served as a release for passionate feelings, paradoxically, the lament might also kindle in its audience an equally violent reaction such as a desire for revenge. When women's laments are seen in this light, according to H.-W., it is clear that they were powerful and potentially dangerous songs. In addition, she argues, Solon's legislation concerning funeral rituals may be interpreted as evidence that, in the ancient world, women's mourning posed a threat to political structures such as the Athenian polis.

Unfortunately, ancient laments for the dead were not preserved, although various ancient literary sources contain representations of women lamenting. How then is one to discuss or analyze the content and qualities of this important ancient genre? H.-W. follows the lead of Margaret Alexiou who addressed this problem in her admirable The Ritual Lament in the Greek Tradition (Cambridge, 1974). Alexiou argued that the lament is a traditional form that survived in approximately similar oral and written forms from ancient to modern times in part because of its use in approximately similar funerary rituals. Alexiou worked from examples of Greek lament in the modern folk tradition as well as from sources such as Byzantine hymns and ancient epitaphs to extract the various conventions and features of the lament. Similarly, in Dangerous Voices, H.-W. proposes to examine examples of Greek laments from the 18th and 19th centuries and some laments found in ancient sources (mainly in tragedy) in order to understand the function of lament in Greek society and to uncover the reasons why it may have been regarded as dangerous.

The author lays the foundations for this project in Chapter One -- "Death, tears and ideas: women's laments in cross-cultural perspective" -- by surveying recent scholarship on death and death rituals and by summarizing the research upon the lament which has been important in shaping her own approach. Sub-sections of the chapter entitled Lament and Madness, Lament and Emotion, and Musical Features of Lament reveal the range of issues H.-W. touches upon in passing here. Her focus in the following chapters, however, will be on the particular relationship of the lament to memory and revenge and on certain negative reactions to women's laments which may be discerned in ancient Greek law and literature.

In Chapters Two and Three, through a selection of Greek laments and songs about death composed over the last two hundred years, H.-W. demonstrates that women's lamenting voices are indeed powerful and potentially dangerous. Much of the material comes from the Mani -- an area of southern Greece famous for its blood feuds. The songs and stories concerning these feuds reveal a fierce mode of life in which murder resolves all too many disputes. One conflict over inheritance culminates when a woman named Paraski kills her father-in-law, brother-in-law and husband on Easter Sunday by means of a poisoned omelette. Paraski exacts full revenge for their murder of her only brother, and as the men die horribly, she triumphantly informs them that she has simply balanced the accounts: "I just did what you did and carried out my duty with interest and capital besides." H.-W. also analyzes the song of a famous Maniot lamenter, Koundounara, as proof of the danger the lament may pose to political institutions when a woman mourns over a death in war. The grieving mother blames the king of Greece for the wasteful death of her promising medical student son who was engaged to be married when he was recruited for the army. She laments that she cannot even tend to and bury his body so she begs the crows to bring her a small piece of his body from the battlefield as proof of his death. Paraski and Koundounara are only two among the many fiercely articulate women discussed in these chapters. Their stories as well as their harrowing and beautiful laments are certainly worth reading.

H.-W. uses such material from the modern tradition to argue that there are common, potentially subversive features to the Greek lament. Among these are: a focus on pain of the bereaved rather than on praise of the dead, a tendency to blame the agent of death, the theme of vengeance instigated or exacted by women, and the privileging of family loyalties over loyalty to the state. These specific features are recalled in Chapter Four when H.-W. examines the role of the lament in ancient Greece and the Solonian legislation which limited both public display at funerals and the certain aspects of public lamentation. H.-W. is admittedly responding to and expanding on a speculation first made by Alexiou in regards to the Solonian law. Alexiou suggests that the legislation may have been aimed at restraining dangerous public demonstrations: "In the inflammable atmosphere of blood feud between the families of Megacles and Kylon that was still raging in Solon's time, what more effective way could there be to stir up feelings of revenge than the incessant lamentation at the tomb by large numbers of women for those long dead?"1 H.-W. goes further with this idea arguing that women may have posed an even greater threat to the state during funeral rites for the war-dead. In their laments, they might have called for revenge and might have heaped blame on the state rather than on the enemy. Similarly, as the mourning women focused on creating an expression of their pain and loss, their laments could have been seen as challenges to an official policy of praise for those who die in battle.

In the absence of ancient Greek laments over the war-dead, H.-W.'s argument depends somewhat on an assumed continuity between the ancient and modern lament material. Specifically, she assumes continuity in regards to women's negative attitudes towards war and the government. After reading this book, however, I was not convinced that the ancient laments were likely to contain dangerously subversive expressions of blame. Nor do I think it likely that Athenian women would have necessarily turned their anger at the deaths of their kinsmen against the polis rather than against the enemy. Furthermore, it is far from clear that women's laments were suppressed in Athens or that their content was censored.2 The important, private prothesis ritual still included the lament -- although as we learn from Pseudo-Demosthenes Against Makaratos the extent of the prothesis appears to be limited (Demosthenes xliii, 62). Nor is the public lament over the grave done away with, rather Solon's laws dictate that only close kinswomen or women over sixty are permitted to join the funeral procession and to participate in the final mourning rituals. This regulation apparently curbs the tendency to create extravagant displays of family grief by hiring non-kin as mourners. Finally, Solon's laws do ban the use of set dirges (again limiting the contribution of professional mourners) and also the habit of lamenting dead persons other than the one whose funeral is being celebrated (Plutarch, Solon 21).3 It is most plausible, as Humphries argues, that these regulations are aimed almost exclusively at the elite and are intended to limit potentially divisive forms of ostentatious, public display.4 Thus, females and males alike are constrained by these regulations although, effectively, the women are more severely restricted in regards to one ritual practice that has been under their own control. In sum, it seems probable that, after the Solonian legislation, Athenian women still continued to lament in both public and private rituals. Thus H.-W.'s description of the lament as banned (Chapter 4 is subtitled "the Epitaphios Logos and the banning of laments in fifth-century Athens") overstates the situation considerably. Undoubtedly, however, there was a general hostility in the ancient world to uncontrolled public display by women and H.-W. properly highlights those ancient sources such as Plutarch's Moralia in which the author writes approvingly of limitations placed on women's emotional expression and traditional ritual prerogatives.

Chapter Five deals with Greek tragedy as a treasury of dramatic scenes of lamentation. This is an ambitious chapter containing treatments of Aeschylus's Seven Against Thebes and Persians, Sophocles' Antigone and Euripides' Medea and Suppliants. In the most extended discussion of a single work, H.-W. explores the Oresteia as a particularly important source for her argument that the tragedians recognize the political threat posed by female lament and seek to appropriate its language, music and gesture for their own art form even as they denigrate its special, quasi-magical powers. The tragedies are dealt with in a summary fashion -- less than five pages are given to the Antigone and the Medea is dealt with in one page -- and the Greek texts of the plays are infrequently cited. It is also disturbing that there is no clear discussion of which specific forms of speech or song in tragic texts constitute lament or the appropriation of lament. H.-W. considers many forms of female utterance (including the Furies' binding song) in the course of her discussion and thus she seems to focus on the role of women and women's speech in tragedy rather than on the lament per se. Therefore, while I fully agree that misogyny permeates Greek literature, I think this chapter does not adequately support H.-W.'s interpretation of Attic tragedy as a misogynist appropriation and denigration of women's laments.

In the final chapter, H.-W. examines the modern Greek use of lament conventions in both narrative texts and poems written for typical lament situations. This material is rich, beautiful and moving and it is skillfully presented by H.-W. The irony of Kostis Palamas' short story Thánatos Pallikarioú (Death of a Brave Lad) is striking: in it villagers emerge from the Easter service and hear a mother mourning "a sound that was both speech and howl, lament and complaint, cry and laugh, curse and song," over the not-yet dead body of her beloved son. H.-W. also provides insightful analyses of the poems of Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke and Kiki Dimoula, both poets who reject and invert earlier artistic forms such as lament. The poems for Anghelaki-Rooke's mother are especially moving in that they tell of the passionate relationship which can exist between mother and daughter. In most of the material discussed in Dangerous Voices, women mourn for men and particularly for their sons. It is refreshing, then, to find a poet seeking to mourn for and make immortal the memory of a woman.

While I do not agree with many of H.-W.'s conclusions about the function and suppression of the ancient ritual lament, nonetheless I found that this book offers much of interest to the Classicist. Dangerous Voices seeks to trace out the ties between ancient and modern Greece and to strengthen our perceptions of the links which exist between their respective literatures and traditions. Through her work, H.-W. demonstrates that this is an interesting area of study in evident need of further scholarly exploration. Her portraits of the Maniot women are particularly fascinating. A Classicist may well feel a shock of recognition when reading of the widow Vrettis who stood up in a courtroom and, after pulling out and biting her knife, uttered a spontaneous lament. In her poem, she threatened to slaughter one of her enemies' children "like a lamb" in revenge if her only son's murderers were not punished sufficiently. In the widow Vrettis, we see the modern counterpart to a Medea and a mother who could match Clytemnestra in her fierce dedication to avenge the death of her child. The voices of these modern Greek women are dangerous indeed and H.-W. does a fine job of placing the works of these artists within the context of Greek literature thus encouraging a broad audience to hear their voices.


  • [1] M. Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in the Greek Tradition (Cambridge, 1974) pp.21-22.
  • [2] It should be noted that on page 99, H.-W. appears to conflate incorrectly Plutarch's discussion of the Athenian laws of Solon with the laws of Plutarch's own time which were similar, but included punishments meted out to violators by censors of women's behavior. This institution of gunaikonomoi is found also in a 3rd century B.C.E. law from Gambreion (see Alexiou, pp.16-17), but clearly Solon's law was not one which directly "censors female lament."
  • [3] For this analysis, see Alexiou, pp.12-13.
  • [4] S. Humphries, The Family, Women and Death (Routledge, 1983) pp.85-88.