Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.46

Minke W. Hazewindus, When Women Interfere. Studies in the Role of Women in Herodotus' Histories. Amsterdam Studies in Classical Philology, 12.   Leiden:  Brill (originally Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben), 2004.  Pp. 256.  ISBN 90-5063-449-4.  €68.00.  

Reviewed by Elizabeth Irwin, Columbia University and Humboldt Universität (
Word count: 2108 words

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

As this book announces in the Preface, it is a thoroughly revised doctoral thesis, submitted to the University of Amsterdam in 2001. Its five main chapters focus on six case studies of logoi in which women occupy center stage or otherwise perform a significant role in the action of the narrative (see 'Table of Contents' below). As outlined in the first chapter, H. attempts to bring to bear on these logoi a series of theoretical approaches, treating them as microstorie, and invoking elements of narratology, speech-act theory, feminist literary criticism and deconstruction. She states three, broad aims:

'Firstly, I want to read beyond the binary opposition "history" versus "poetry". In other words, Herodotus the historian is not necessarily opposed to but can coincide with Herodotus the poet. Secondly, I intentionally included the microstorie of women in the erga megala te kai thômasta (the great and extraordinary or admirable works or deeds). Lastly, I want to read as a resistant reader "against the grain" of standard scholarship - which like any scholar, I seriously consider' (40).

The introduction wades into the History-Fiction question plaguing Herodotean studies. Hazewindus seems both to argue that we shouldn't expect real history from a text of this period and that history à la Hayden White is a 'fiction-making operation', unhappily rendering Herodotus as a pre-modern author, but Herodotus the text as post-modern, without entertaining the possibility that the author who foregrounded (with flashing red lights) the subjectivity of narratives about the past might have got there first. At any rate, Hazewindus's account of the debate furnishes an unsatisfactory introduction: little in her study actually requires the content of these stories to be historically true as events, or to be true as accounts actually in circulation for Herodotus to 'record' them. Hazewindus would have done better to sidestep the issue altogether. That she doesn't seems to indicate a contradiction in her approach to her material: she at once seeks to elevate his narratives involving women and yet implies that without the defense she provides they would be unworthy of discussion as insufficiently historical (cf. Conclusion, p. 242).

The real introduction is Ch. 1, 'On method: Reconfiguring Herodotus' women'. Hazewindus provides an account of the mélange of theoretical approaches to allow her to focus on the material she does in the way that she does. The account is problematic and rather unnecessary. Herodotus' stories involving women do not require the concept of microstorie to allow them to be retrieved from the sidelines: not only do his own explicit comments on the 'digressive' nature of his logos (4.30) render the notion of the marginal problematic, but any audience (ancient or modern) coming with expectations that a narrative about megala erga will be solely about men and war is immediately put straight by the proem and Candaules' story. Given the frequency with which she invokes the concept of what we 'expect' or what is 'unexpected' about Herodotus' treatment of women, Hazewindus needed to provide some account of what 'we' as 'readers' can reasonably expect the expectations of the 'original audiences' to be. Indeed, the homogeneity Hazewindus assumes across fifth-century audiences and modern readers respectively is problematic in itself. Hazewindus fails to contextualize adequately Herodotus' depictions of women against the backdrop of other contemporary texts, not least Thucydides. The relegation of Artemisia to five pages of the methodological chapter is particularly unfortunate since her treatment raises the awareness that there might be different reactions among Herodotus' contemporary audiences to the female characters populating his text: what was a disgrace for the Athenians (8.93) seems to have been axiologon for the Halicarnassian narrator.

Had it not been for the title, it would only be on p. 19 that readers would discover that the book will focus on female characters. The lateness of the revelation raises the question of whether Hazewindus wished to approach Herodotus through the lens of microstorie and exploited Herodotus' female characters to this end, or whether she found an intrinsic interest in the topic of women, whether in and of itself, or in the Histories and Greek culture of the later fifth century itself. The lack of any real engagement with the wider cultural background suggests the first alternative, even though Hazewindus does seem to foreground women in her claim that she will be a 'resisting woman reader', both deconstructing Herodotus' text and defying the interpretations of largely male critics (22, 238). I personally find Hazewindus's use of the concept of a 'woman reader' problematic, as if this should be a univocal position that Hazewindus's readings could represent. It is hard to know how this gendered reader fits in with the 'we' and 'us' as readers of Herodotus' text that Hazewindus's otherwise freely invokes. Moreover, since she claims to be resisting male critics, there is some irony in that her most consistent attacks are actually on other female readers (Dewald and Lang, see below), that is, those whom she hasn't failed to consult (Munson).

The 'interference' of the title seems to have a dual meaning as Hazewindus employs it, alluding both to the actions of females within the logos and also to these stories as revealing instances in which Herodotus' treatment of women seems to 'interfere' with the thought-world presented by his text:

I shall first analyse these stories-on-women for their contents [sic.]. Then I want to explore if and to what extent they are contradicting our expectations and what they tell us about the thought-world of Herodotus and about his intentions to write a 'history' of great and admirable or extraordinary deeds. I shall argue specifically that they interfere with at least some tendencies - some leading ideas - in his work as a whole' (p. 21)

The last sentence reflects an ambiguity characteristic of Hazewindus's discussions - what are the tendencies, the leading ideas? One can only assume it is the male-centric world to which the text belongs, but Hazewindus doesn't say, and her invocation of deconstruction seems to render the narrator the victim of a text wilfully throwing up objections to the relegation of women to the 'supposed' sidelines of itself. For instance, Herodotus' treatment of the Amazons 'seems to surprise not only the reader of today but also probably his contemporaries and even the narrator himself. For Herodotus himself seems to be led on by his own story . . .' (p. 242).

Narratology is highlighted by Hazewindus as her distinctive contribution to discussions of Herodotean women: 'As far as I can see, none of [the scholars listed] tries to combine a narratological reading of Herodotus with a close reading of the Greek text, which makes my reading, if nothing else, a useful supplement'. Given the list she provides, the comment is rather anachronistic, on the one hand, and on the other, she seems to imply that a narratological reading, regardless of how executed, must of necessity provide something that these close readers have not or could not. Herein lies an unintentional arrogance which is unfortunately too often latent even in narratology's more sophisticated practitioners. Although Immerwahr 'did not yet have the more recently developed narratological tools and the insights of speech act theory', he is nevertheless even now one of Herodotus' most subtle readers. By contrast, Hazewindus's application of narratology consists mainly in some mention of focalization, observations on the absence or presence of speech, and an obsession with the Historical Present (e.g. 60, 103, 109, 134, 240) - hardly a narratological study, even if H does credit Bal with making her 'aware of the manipulating effect of focalization, in other words, of the subjectivity of the presentation of fabula' (p. 238); but surely something is wrong if Herodotus could not have made Hazewindus aware of this himself. The capacity to redescribe texts is too often allowed to claim an awareness of the dynamics and devices of narrative somehow denied to their creators. I personally don't believe that there is anything about telling a story that Herodotus (or 'Homer', for that matter) hadn't already understood.

There is little to garner from the work in terms of interpretation: anyone working on any of Hazewindus's chosen stories is welcome to read the individual chapters for themselves (see below for contents), but her coverage is hardly comprehensive and the overall conclusions of her analysis too often verge on the banal: we find that Herodotus 'does not provide a ready-made model of gender roles' (219) and that '[w]hen we read the Histories with an open eye for Herodotus' narrativity, we discover that he has had an open eye for the far-reaching ways women could re-act upon actions of men that they did usually not like' (243). It is ironic that despite Hazewindus's claim to rescue these women from the 'margins', she herself overlooks less conspicuous appearances of female agents in the text: the text of book 3 is densely populated by female agents, each playing salient roles, and several are characterized by significant speech-acts: Nitetis, the daughter of Apries (3.1) and Cassadane (3.3); the unnamed sister of Cambyses (3.32); Phaedymia, the daughter of Otanes, 'who had exposed the Magus' (3.68-9, 88); the wife of Intaphernes (3.119); the daughter of Polycrates (3.124); and Atossa (3.88, 133-4). Individually some may not be flashy enough to be noticed, but their presence is persistent and renders Hazewindus's rhetoric of retrieving women from the sidelines a little hollow.

In terms of argument, Hazewindus's discussions are too often guided by responses to secondary literature, bouncing from author to author in the main text (e.g. p. 146) when her disputes with their positions would have been better relegated to footnotes, which instead are used most conspicuously for digressive discussions of linguistic points. At the same time, although dependent upon criticism of scholarship to advance the various readings, the list of scholars she will focus on is limited and idiosyncratic: 'The more general works are those of Immerwahr, Hartog, Collingwood, Momigliano, Fehling, Fornara, Lateiner, Waters, Long and Marg . . . Dewald . . . Lang . . . Flory' (41), and the bibliography correspondingly thin: shared with standard texts of modern literary theory, the approximately 100 entries (five pages) can only scratch the surface of Herodotean scholarship, and leave little room for discussion of women in other genres contemporary with Herodotus.2 This need not be bad, but important articles are missing: where is Connor in the discussion on the history (p. 4), or Munson on Artemisia?1 In the absence of the latter, Hazewindus can claim that 'None of the commentators remarks on the paradoxes that make this story more than just a story about a remarkable woman' (p. 32).

Hazewindus's representation of previous scholarship is consistently rude, not to mention repetitive, and not appropriate even in sophisticated critiques: Dewald 'tends to over-interpretation (20), 'sometimes tends to look too one-sidedly at the role of women' (124), 'tends to over-interpretation' (147), being '[a]s usual, inclined to over-interpretation' (177), except of course when she 'undervalues' (207), but that fault is at least shared by others (Frisch, 136; Reinhardt and Gray, 146); others 'tend to under-interpretation' (Flory and Gould, 177); or are 'misguided' (Wolff); van der Veen 'tends to force his issue . . . tends to generalize' (145) and 'does not pay attention to' that which Hazewindus thinks important; while of Lang, Hazewindus does not 'exactly see the use of this kind of analysis' (117; 158 n. 25; 171). Even Immerwahr, Hazewindus's 'inspiring professor' (12), gets it in the neck: reading in the days before narratology and speech-act theory, he 'has no eye for women's (speech) acts' (169 n. 37).

I would have preferred to have written a less critical review of this book, but found that the many contradictions in its theoretical approaches, and the patronizing tone taken in relation both to Herodotus and to the contributions of other readers, got the better of me. If the series editors were intent upon publishing this dissertation, they should have offered better advice regarding its revision. The book is not cheap and libraries will have been induced to buy it no less by the allurements of its title than by its claim to employ modern theoretical approaches.

Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Reconfiguring Herodotus' women [here appears a short discussion of Artemisia (7.99, 210; 8.68-102) and Semiramis and Nitetis (1.178-188)]
Ch. 2. The story of Candaules' wife: a story of (not-)seeing (1.6-14)
Ch. 3. About fatal gifts and gruesome mutilations, the story of Amestris' revenge (9.107-14)
Ch. 4 Women who made Cyrus live and die (1.107-114, 1.201-215)
Ch. 5. Amazons, or about presuppositions (4.110-118)
Ch. 6. Pheretime, 'a gender bender'? (4. (145-) 162-168, 200-205)
Ch. 7 Conclusion


1.   'The Histor in History', in Nomodeiktes: Greek Studies in Honor of Martin Ostwald, ed. R. M. Rosen and J. S. Farrell, 3-15. Ann Arbor. 'Artemisia in Herodotus', ClAnt 7:91-106.
2.   Hazewindus also dismisses (pp. 19-20) R. Bichler's excellent 'Herodots Frauenbild und seine Vorstellung über die Sexualsitten der Völker', in Geschlechterrollen und Frauenbild in der Perspektive antiker Autoren, R. Rollinger and C. Ulf (eds.) (Innsbruck/Wien/München, 2000) [now reprinted in Historiographie-Ethnographie-Utopie. Gesammelte Schriften, Teil 1. Studien zu Herodots Kunst der Historie, R. Rollinger (ed.) (Wiesbaden 2007)].

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