Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.04.16


Ellen B. Reeder (lect.), Pandora's Box: The Roles of Women in Ancient Greece. Baltimore: Institute for Mediterranean Studies, Video Lecture Series Volume 1, 1995. 47 min. $19.95.


Reviewed by Allaire Brumfield -- Tuscon State College

This video, presenting Ellen Reeder lecturing on the central themes of the excellent show she curated for the Walters Art Gallery in fall of 1995, is illustrated by many views of the vases, reliefs and sculptures in that show. (The catalogue has been reviewed at BMCR 96.04.13.)

The opening film of modern Carpathiote women in traditional dress underlines Reeder's intention of using anthropology, among other modern disciplines, as a tool in understanding ancient Greek women as portrayed in art.

For Reeder, two metaphors most forcefully express the nature of woman, "woman as animal", illustrated by the stories of Atalanta, Artemis and Thetis, and "woman as vessel", which is expressed in the stories of Pandora, Danae, and the birth of Erichthonius.

The lecture is divided into six sections, profusely illustrated by objects from the exhibition. In Section 1, "Aidos and Sophrosyne: modesty and dignity", the qualities expected of a proper woman are discussed and illustrated by vase paintings, showing in particular the lowered eyes and inclination of the head which expressed feminine modesty.

Section 2, "Gesture and Gaze", discusses the vocabulary of gestures which express character traits in vase painting, and examples are given of different types of women. The anakalypsis, or unveiling of the bride, is illustrated as an example of a ritual gesture which in other, non-marital situations develops an emotional significance of its own.

Section 3, "The Wedding", illustrates the parts of the wedding ceremony and the symbolism of the wedding clothes and jewelry. Reeder emphasizes that the bride was a "highly valued commodity", whose role was romanticized and idealized, especially on wedding vases. This is contrasted with the way in which hetairai are depicted, in their clothing (or lack of same) and posture.

Section 4, "Containers as Metaphors for Women", shows the many sorts of containers, from the pithos of Pandora to the cave of Danae, that can symbolize the mystery, the treasure and the concealment characteristic of women. The vases in the exhibition are examples of such containers, especially the lebes gamikos and the loutrophoros, types associated with weddings and often depicting the shadowy indoor life of contemporary women.

Section 5, "Metaphors of Women as Animals," deals with some of the most interesting, and puzzling, mythical explanations of the nature of woman. In an endeavor that derives from the work of Walter Burkert in elucidating another difficult thread of ancient life, that of the ritual sacrifice, Ellen Reeder, too, has gone back to the Paleolithic, to the period of hunting and gathering, to find the roots of the Greek conception of woman's nature. At Çatal Huyuk, she sees the first clear depiction of the mistress of wild beasts, whose Greek descendant was Artemis. Vases and statuettes show Artemis in her role as the guardian of animal young and of little girls; later she becomes the huntress of the animals once grown, and the punisher of any of her following who fall from the virginal state. An adorable photo of a mother bear nuzzling her young in a snowbank leads into Reeder's argument that, in Greek thought, women were identified with bears more than with any other wild animal. Vase fragments from Brauron illustrate the contention that the rite of passage performed there, whether it was a footrace or an ursine Pamplona, was intended to usher the arktoi from their wild and woolly state to a civilized condition, ready for marriage. Further examples from myth illustrate that courtship is to hunting as the young virgin is to the wild animal: Poseidon spears Amymone in the side with his trident, and Peleus struggles with Thetis as she transforms herself into various animal shapes.

Finally, Section 6, "Mythical Women as Images of Apprehension", presents the really frightening women of the Greek imagination, the monsters, the untamable or anomalous women who run wild, kill men or even their own children. First among these are the Amazons, who are necessarily always shown in combat with a Greek warrior who is subduing them. More frightening are the Maenads, whether portrayed in the train of Dionysus or in the tearing apart of animals or of prying Theban princes, since the order of male society is not seen to triumph in these vases. Other representations show women celebrating 'real' rituals in honor of the god of wine, far more sedately. Individual monsters are also shown, such as Medusa, whose gaze turns to stone, Circe, who turns men into beasts, the Sirens, who kill with their lovely voices, and finally, rosy-fingered Dawn, that most sexually aggressive of young goddesses, embodiment of early-morning lust, whose mortal lovers learn how unpleasant it can be to be loved by a goddess.

The video is mostly narrated by Ellen Reeder, whose subversive wit and passionate interest make it watchable, even for snooze-prone undergraduates. The illustrations are numerous but difficult to make out if one is not somewhat familiar with them already. It would be extremely useful to have a copy of the catalog 'Pandora' (Princeton 1995, $39.95), with its excellent color plates, for class discussion after watching the video, since it's not possible to 'freeze' a video to concentrate on one shot. Having seen it once on a smallish TV and once on a large screen projection unit in the classroom, I would definitely recommend the latter. I showed this video to a class in 'Religion and Greek Society' and although they had already seen the exhibit at the Walters, which may have enhanced the result, they gave the video rave reviews, saying that it had clarified what they saw in the museum. there is a small glossary included with the video, but the vocabulary is difficult for an undergraduate with no background in classics or art history. The video would be suitable for a classical mythology course, or an ancient art course.