BMCR 1995.02.05

1995.02.05, Rehm, Marriage to Death

, Marriage to death : the conflation of wedding and funeral rituals in Greek tragedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. xviii, 246 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780691033693. $29.95.

This is a modest book with larger aims. Its proportions are informative: 149 pages of text (including two small appendices) supported by 65 pages of notes (in smaller type font) and 16 pages of bibliography. The topic of the crossings between rituals of marriage and death in tragedy is indeed one that many others have recently treated and the author almost everywhere acknowledges his debts, if not in a systematic way. The subtitle speaks of the “conflation” of these two rites, but elsewhere in this study we find other terms such as “juxtaposition,” “confusion,” and “conjunction.” and the general theme is at times only a point of departure for discussion of other issues. A brief introduction is followed by two preliminary discussions that give information on fifth-century marriage and funeral rites (Ch. 2) and their representation in the visual arts (Ch. 3). Chapters 3-9 contain the main body of the work: Ch. 3: The Bride Unveiled: Marriage to Death in Aeschylus’Agamemnon (although the entire Oresteia is addressed); Ch. 4: The Bride and Groom of Death: Sophokles’Antigone. Ch. 5: From Death Bed to Marriage Bed: Sophokles’Trachiniae. Ch. 6: The Bride from the Grave: Euripides’Alkestis. Ch. 7: Torching the Marriage: Euripides’Medea. Ch. 8: Following Persephone: Euripides’Supplices and Helen. Ch. 9: War Brides and War Dead: Euripides’Troades. A brief conclusion rounds out the whole.

We learn from the introduction that “the conflation of weddings and funerals in tragedy sheds particularly strong light on women, recalling the oft-noted, although not fully appreciated, fact that female characters attain a prominence that could not be predicted from what we know of women’s status in the fifth century” (p. 7). We further learn that “tragic women frequently challenge the values and modes of behavior represented by male authority, and tragic men often come to new understandings through a feminizing process, whereby their pain and insight is described in terms of female experience” (p. 8). And a third point claims that “by pushing the concerns of female characters into the public sphere, tragedy brought into conflict the world of the oikos with that of the city or polis, the traditional area for male activity. Time and again tragic heroines prove that the latter depends on the former for its survival and prosperity. Time and again a male hero comes to grief for overlooking problems in the oikos or for underestimating its ultimate value” (p. 9). The result, not surprisingly, is the assertion that these events “shake the polis as well, probing the nature of its social and political underpinnings and challenging those in the audience to consider new, and often radically different directions for their city.”

The reader, familiar with the genre of Greek tragedy and its body of recent criticism, might find these ideas familiar—all too familiar—but the author promises more. As a specialist in theater and theater production, he will take us one step further. “The fact that such considerations—from the pragmatics of staging to the ever-changing commerce between actors and audience in performance—barely surface in the discussion of ritual perversion in tragedy, is not the least of my reasons for exploring these ‘marriages to death'” (p. 10). Does the author fulfill this promise? I will return to this issue in evaluating the general merits of this study, but first some further details on the individual chapters, the techniques of analysis, and the book’s interpretive agenda.

Ch. 1 gives a convenient summary of what is known about fifth-century marriages and funerals. The material is nicely assembled and annotated. The discussion of marriage preparations from betrothal to the post-nuptial ceremonies yields the following summarizing statement, quoted from another source (p. 18): “An Athenian marriage was a relationship between a man and a woman which had the primary goal of producing children and maintaining the identity of the oikos unit within the social and political community.” The treatment of funeral rituals is likewise a concise synthesis of useful information that incorporates the latest debates about burial practices, the import of Solon’s sumptuary legislation, and types of funerary monuments and their development in the fifth century. This chapter concludes with a brief comparison of the overlapping elements between the two rites: the corpse is covered, the bride is veiled; the dead are laid out on a couch, the wedding leads to the nuptial bed. Both receive gifts in their new “homes,” etc.

Ch. 2 turns to the iconographical evidence, particularly on vases. Here again, the information is marshalled with clarity and economy and provides ample citation along with actual illustrations. Two types of vessels are particularly significant: the loutrophoros, used for the nuptial bath, and the lebes gamikos, whose functions are more uncertain but which figures prominently among wedding gifts. The loutrophoros appears in grave monuments, probably only for those who died unmarried (although this assumption has recently been challenged), and R. here naturally introduces the pervasive theme of Persephone and her marriage with Hades in both myth and ritual. The white-ground lekythos, a vessel for oil and a prominent offering at tombs, also offers important visual details. In pursuit, however, of the “confusion” between marriage and death, the author seems to confuse at times the distinctions between depicting a wedding scene on a funereal vase and the crossings between the two rituals. He suggest that the gesture of the “hand on the wrist,” an iconographical convention to indicate possession of the bride, may also be relevant to some funeral contexts, but his examples are mainly limited to scenes that depict Hermes bringing back Persephone, a motif that returns us directly to the wedding theme. Mirrors figure prominently in a bride’s toilette (as of women more generally). R. claims these are also offerings to the dead but does not sufficiently explain their funerary use. The conclusion to this chapter observes that the “conflation of marriage to death found in tragedy was no mere dramatic fiction,” but embedded in contemporary practice. What R. might have noted, however, is that these similarities are not just conflations but derive from the parallel natures of two rites de passage, whose function in each case was to assure separation from a previous status and incorporation into a new one.

The next chapters take up the work of the three dramatists in chronological order. Each follows the same format of tracing references to marriages and funerals as they recur sequentially in a given play. Passages are presented, often in the Greek text with appropriate translation and a running commentary. Interpretations are generally conservative, often familiar, sometimes happily optimistic, and in a few cases the main lines are repeated almost verbatim from his earlier book, Greek Tragic Theatre (Routledge 1992), especially for Aeschylus’Eumenides and Euripides’Suppliants. In both works he takes pains to defend Apollo’s argument in the Eumenides against charges of “misogyny” or of undermining women’s roles, since the Furies reaffirm the importance of marriage and offspring (p. 56). The aim of the trilogy, however, is not to devalue marriage and offspring; quite the contrary; Apollo’s claim devalues the role of maternity, and it is noteworthy that the texts R. cites to support his contention speak of land, seed, children, fertility, etc. but carefully elide any mention of maternity or birth. Nor does his analysis take account of the shift in level between divine forces and mortal women. R. goes further. In arguing that the woman is not the parent but only the trophos, the receptacle for the child, “Apollo unconsciously champions the place of women on the ‘culture side’ of the nature/culture polarity” (p. 55). In any case, because Apollo “slinks off stage,” we are not obliged to take him too seriously. What R. concludes, not unreasonably (it is received opinion), is that Aeschylus’ “trilogy remains of signal importance to our understanding the complex dialectic between men and women, oikos and polis, justice and vengeance, kinship and civic loyalties that emerged in fifth-century Athens” (p. 57).

The chapter on the Antigone which emphasizes Antigone’s role as the bride of Hades, makes more explicit the relation between Antigone and Creon’s wife, Eurydice to nice effect. Eurydice too rejects marriage, as it were with Creon, by killing herself on “the household altar as a means of reasserting ties of blood with her son Haimon. And Creon, in the end finds himself bereft of both blood (Haimon) and marriage ties (Eurydice)” (p.70). Creon’s edict, it turns out, “drives a wedge between public and private, state and family, men and women” (p.70). R. is more optimistic about the end of the Trachiniae, where he speaks approvingly of the marriage to come between the innocent couple of Iole and Hyllus, and even further, “the act of escorting Heracles out of the theater integrates male and female worlds, consolidating a community in the face of disaster” (p. 82). Similarly, the Alkestis loses a good deal of its ironic edge. The “important parallels … between the male bond of xenia and the male-female bond of marriage” (p. 94) insures that “Admetus brings two ‘outsiders’ into the oikos and the results are miraculous” (p. 96). On the other hand, Medea gets a number of black points—for behaving like a male; “the embittered creature at the end replaces the woman we have known,” as he concludes in words quoted from another critic. Her deeds “shatter the validity of the heroic ideal she uses to justify her actions” and by “converting her home into a battlefield … the play challenges the ideological roots of the culture.” Medea should not have been taken in by such pernicious stuff and she thereby “denies the Chorus’ hope that one day women will tell a different, and perhaps better story” (p. 107).

The war plays, Helen and subsequently Trojan Women are given readings that are meant to be especially relevant to late fifth-century Athens, a well-worn topos. The Trojan War is the analogue to the Peloponnesian War. On the Helen, “the rhetorical and self-aggrandizing phantoms that led Athens to undertake the Sicilian expedition surely are reflected in the underlying premise of Euripides’ play” (p. 126). Likewise, as might be expected, we hear echoes of Thucydides’ Melian debate in the Troades. “Like Agamemnon wedded to Cassandra, or Polyxena to Achilles, the Athens that is mirrored in Euripides’ tragedy seems bound to a future of lamentation and death.”

The brief conclusion sums up with articulate clarity the various modes of orchestrating the themes of weddings and funerals in these different plays and for different ends. Likewise, the complexity and importance of ritual actions is well phrased. The main theoretical point, however, is to “defend” the significance of women in the theater over a type of feminist criticism which R. neither names nor documents. “Instead of viewing the concern over feminist issues as a smokescreen hiding the real repression perpetrated against women, we would do better to admit that tragic characters frequently posed radical challenges to traditional ways of thinking and dealing with the world, and women’s perspectives and positions (as understood by male playwrights and interpreted by male actors) were central to those challenges” (p. 137). This is an assertion that requires engagement with the actual work of these unnamed critics as well as with the numerous counterstatements already made to such a reductive and naive approach. The reader might be left with the misleading notion that the author is the first to promote such an approach, which is emphatically not the case, and that he alone, by his ‘sympathetic appreciation’ of women and women’s roles, provides a more subtle and balanced point of view than those radical anachronistic readings he decries.

This claim, unsupported by discussion and documentation, is perhaps symptomatic of the general approach to these texts and indeed to the project as a whole. I miss, for example, a considered evaluation of how ritual action in tragedy has been treated by others, especially the work of J.-P Guépin ( The Tragic Paradox, published in 1968) and the many others who came after him. Once again, the author is hardly a trailblazer here. Narrative exposition often takes the place of interpretation. Matters are too often stated than argued, bolstered by strategic quotes from others’ work. Commonplaces, truisms, and accepted positions, whether of older or more recent vintage, occur in abundance (some examples of which I earlier quoted). One position is advocated over another without sufficient demonstration of the validity of an argument. Under the surface of the respect for ‘anthropological’ categories of Greek values and practices, the readings are most often either recognizably derivative or predictable in the most conventional and old-fashioned strains of interpretation. (It is perhaps ironic that R. does his best analytic work in the notes, where he offers very intelligent correctives and registers his disagreements with others or offers some new observations). It is assumed that contemporary events are mirrored in the plays and the audience is expected to have been suitably disconcerted in facing up to the implications of war-mongering (as good modern liberals might), most often phrased as wistful rhetorical questions. Indeed, this historicizing agenda underlies the author’s “appreciation” of women and their ritual roles. The date of the Medea (431) at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War leads to the idea that “her infanticide takes on unmistakable aspects of the male art of war, reflecting the oncoming conflict between Athens and Sparta” (p. 108). For the Troades : “How many of these performers would sail off in the upcoming expedition to Sicily and not return? How many men in the audience would do the same? How many women would find themselves—like Hecuba grieving for her unburied Priam—mourning a husband or son or father lost at sea?” (p. 135). More generally, for example, “in the pattern of hostile return and depredation, the Athenians watched their crops being ravaged in early summer. As Demeter’s gift of renewable grain went up in smoke, did they recognize the inversion of the myth of Persephone acted on their own soil?” (p. 139). “We may assume [emphasis mine] that the Athenians feared the pattern [of Athenian withdrawal and Spartan invasion] would continue…” (p. 139). In the absence of evidence about audience reaction in the theater and outside it or even information how and why prizes were awarded at the City Dionysia, this one-to-one quasi-allegorizing of the poet’s ‘message’ stands on shaky (and by now mostly discredited) ground. If we are to take Aristophanes’ solution in the Frogs in the critical year of 405 with any seriousness whatsoever, what seems most appealing about Aeschylus over against his rival Euripides is precisely the fact that he writes plays “full of Ares” and stands for the glorious days of Marathon. I know that this kind of projection from our sensibility to that of Athens has been and in some quarters may remain accepted practice. The Troades seems to be forever wedded to the Melian debate, come what may. But the assumptions for this kind of soapbox practice must be examined with greater critical self-awareness if we are to understand better the complex relations between tragic drama and current events, as indeed between the theater and other institutions of the polis in this period. In answer to R.’s question “Is it forcing modern concerns on the ancients to suggest that similar thoughts occurred to the tragedians,” this reviewer would have to reply with a resounding “yes.”

Now, as for the promised theatrical importance in staging these ceremonials of weddings and funerals. On closer inspection, such mentions are very few and far between, especially as framed from this point of view. There is very little emphasis on visualization, modes of staging, uses of theatrical space, etc. I could not find any clear cut discussion concerning the Oresteia except for a few obvious remarks. For the Antigone, we learn “we can only guess how Sophocles staged the closing scene, but Creon twice asks to be led away into the house … and it seems likely that his wish was granted. Sophocles may have left the corpses of Haimon and Eurydice on stage after the exodos, a tableau that proclaims the inversion of upper and lower worlds, reminding the audience that an unburied corpse began the tragedy.” Or perhaps, we would think of Antigone, the third suicide, as well (p. 69). In the Alcestis chapter, there are remarks about the unusual departure of the chorus from the stage to follow the funeral procession, as a way of highlighting esteem for Alcestis and the desolate return to the house (p. 89), but there is a missed opportunity (which others have recently emphasized) of attending to the final tableau of Alcestis’ mute and veiled figure at the end, which leads to far greater complexity than R.’s generally reductive approach would allow. Only for the Medea is there a visually focused discussion of Glauke’s adorning herself with Medea’s wedding gifts as she gazes into the mirror. “The scene snaps into focus, for the mirror captures a fifth-century wedding about to turn into its opposite,” and a correlation is made between this image and “the prominence of funerary stelai that bear the sculpted image of the deceased woman sitting and holding a mirror” (p. 104). The only problem with this reading is that the passage in question is a messenger speech. The scene is narrated; it is not staged for the audience to see, as is, for example, the travestied wedding rituals of Cassandra in Aeschylus’Agamemnon and in Euripides’Troades, which are also far more explicit (and which R. discusses). As for Glauke herself, another question arises. What would we make of Pentheus’ similar concern with his toilette in the Bacchae ? He is certainly marked for death in his female disguise, but surely not as a bride and not in perversion of any wedding ceremony. We might expect more from the scene of Evadne in Euripides’Suppliants, who is dressed as a bride, ready to hurl herself into the funeral pyre. Indeed, as R. claims, “it would be hard to find a more theatrically daring moment in the history of the stage” (p. 112). I agree. It is a shocker. His explanation is that in the context of the unburied Theban dead and rites of mourning against the background of Eleusis and its underlying myth of Persephone, “death is suddenly present as an animate force, the activity of dying and killing, rather than something mourned over or reported over” (p. 118) as a way of delivering a well needed jolt to the audience. Admitting, however, that no one on stage seems to take this anti-war view (quite the contrary), R. goes on to plead “it is hard to believe, as many critics do, that Athena speaks for Euripides when she encourages a fresh outbreak of bloodshed…. Theseus’ battle with Thebes over the corpses may reflect the historical refusal of the Thebans to relinquish the Athenian dead after the battle of Delium in November 424″ etc. etc. And he concludes: “How closely that stage picture will reflect the world outside the theater constitutes Euripides’ implicit challenge to his audience” (p. 121).

To summarize. The merits of this study is the systematic gathering of references to marriage and death rituals (as advertised). As the jacket blurb states “the parallels between Greek wedding and death rituals have never been followed through a series of different tragedies as they have here.” Fair enough. This is a useful and profitable endeavor, as is the convenient presentation of practical and iconographical evidence of the first two chapters. Some of the readings and insights (as of Euripides’Suppliants, omitting the facile efforts to historicize and moralize) are worthy on their own, even for more familiar plays. R. knows his Greek, knows the scholarly literature, and works closely with texts in dissertation-like paraphrase. But the second part of the blurb that claims the contribution of this study as revealing “that these rituals are not used to provide stability but are instead altered in ways that shake up the audience” or that this study offers a “new perspective on Greek tragedy” is far less accurate. The complexity and significance of ritual acts in tragedy are principles discovered long ago and are subjects of continuing interest and sophisticated criticism. To state that “wedding and funeral rituals provided a warp to match the woof of traditional mythology, on which was woven the cultural ‘rug’ of Athenian self-expression” (p. 139) and that “in the hands of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the ritual/mythological rug did not sit still but was shifted and even pulled out from under those in the audience” (p. 140) hardly represents a major advance in our thinking. A truly dramaturgical kind of reading in the context of performance theory by one who works in modern theater and has practical experience of its operation might have done much to overcome the sense of this study’s epigonal qualities and its need to resort to the subjunctive mood and sentimental rhetoric in order to find a civic context for ritual allusions in tragic action.