BMCR 1995.06.12

1995.06.12, Petropoulos, Heat and Lust

, Heat and lust : Hesiod's midsummer festival scene revisited. Greek studies. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994. xvii, 115 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9780847679010 $17.95.

The cicada’s song in lines 582-588 of Hesiod’s Works and Days serves as the centerpiece for this little book. In these lines, Hesiod describes summer time as the season of the dog-star, when the thistle flowers and the cicada sings, when women are “most wanton” ( machlotatai) while men are “feeble in the extreme” ( aphaurotatoi). Following in Gregory Nagy’s footsteps ( Greek Mythology and Poetics, Cornell University Press: 1990), P. postulates that these lines were part of a “local sub-literary or even popular song” that found its way into the “panhellenic” scope of the poem as a whole. By working backward, P. tries to “reconstruct—in reverse chronological order—certain aspects of the social and agrarian context of Works and Days.”

P. does a convincing job of locating these lines amidst a tradition of songs in which birds, animals, and insects are celebrated as seasonal markers who signal the arrival of the different seasons. Quoting modern Greek folk songs in which the swallow marks the coming of spring, as well as folk songs in which the cicada figures, P. shows how Hesiod’s lines share many of the elements of this folk tradition: a natural habitat is described (i.e., a tree, the sky), a characteristic activity brings the animal into focus (its song or its movements), and finally the human activity prompted by the creature’s action is described (plowing, harvesting). The songs, of which P. gives numerous examples, are charming, and his descriptions of modern farming practices are fun to read.

But P. wants to do more than merely suggest that Hesiod echoes an ancient tradition of folk song in itself panhellenic, if his modern Greek examples are accepted as parallels. By responding to the question “Why are women more wanton at this season?” he hopes to find a probable basis for an ancient ritualized “song of the cicada.” After discussing general harvesting and threshing customs in modern Greece, he turns to the village of Avdemi in a chapter of the same name, subtitled “A Case Study in Wanton Women?” A mid-twentieth century study of this village answers his question. In Avdemi, due to poor conditions for wheat farming, the men of the village are forced to leave the village and do their harvesting away from home, usually in the Thracian plains. With their men away for a month or two, P reports, “the wives yearn for their husbands… [D]uring these nondescript, lonely days, the women of Avdemi turn to song”: “during the harvest when/ my flower reaps,/ he doesn’t leave my mind/ or lips“; “May brings good things, but harvest-time brings poisons,/ because it sends abroad boys and young men“; “Receive my little missive along with some marjoram, I’m waiting for you to come back this week“; “If only I could become a tree at harvest/so that I could provide shade and cool for a young man“; “You’ve plunged your youth into the Agha’s desert lands,/ as soon as you finish harvesting, my darling, grab your sickle/and come back“; “the harvest and the long rope and the heavy sickle have taken my love and will make him wither.” P. gives over twenty of these quotations, from the songs that are sung during the men’s absence and points out the sexual allusions that can be drawn from some of them: “In a serious sense [the wife] is temporarily bereft and now entertains thoughts of sex… Thus in their own words, the women wax wanton while their men-folk ‘wither.’” P.’s italics stress his own conclusion. He then turns to the men in order to contrast the extreme difficulty of their labor with the relative ease of the women’s lives at home: “Some serious disequilibrium in the respective states of the sexes must have resulted (almost literally) in the aftermath of the harvest… A male-female imbalance, which was born of an unequal harvest regimen, patently informs WD 585-88.” P. wonders if Hesiod is being “honest” in this passage. After a discussion in which he points out that women were not allowed to help with the harvesting in ancient times and that men nowadays are exhausted after the work and may suffer from back-aches, he concludes that either this is a misrepresentation due to “little more than seasonally-inspired misogyny,” or Hesiod is “quite fair on both scores” since he is relying on allusions of female desire which could be a common feature of these “subliterate traditions.” I thought it was curious that in his discussion of ancient sources he basically ignores WD 405-6: “first get yourself a house, a woman, and a plow-ox; a slave woman, not a wife, who could follow the oxen.” Although West, in his commentary, questions whether this bit is “Hesiod,” it certainly weakens P.’s argument. P. relegates the lines to a foot-note where he merely writes “the cases documented by West, p. 260 on 406 are all eccentric.”

In his next chapters, P. reviews both ancient and modern Greek folk lore about the cicada. The cicada has a long history as a lazy beggar, who lives a life of leisure and then expects a share of the harvest. P. recounts the Aesop’s fable about cicada and the ant, in which the cicada is the paradigm of idleness. He makes an interesting link between Archilochus who compares himself to a cicada and the character of the iambographer. The cicada fits the traditional role of an iambic “character” who both rails at everyone else—unjustly—for not giving him food and who, in turn, collects his own share of opprobrium for his idleness. P. argues that the cicada is a “flash signal” for several related themes such as industry vs. idleness, just reward vs. unjust reward, and praise vs. blame. As such, P. says, we may also see a connection between the infamous lay-about cicada, who does nothing, yet thinks he deserves a reward, and “Hesiod’s leisured ladies” who want to profit from their men’s unrelenting hardship.

The ease with which P. explains away Hesiodic misogyny and embraces the “truth” that women are “most wanton” (I especially love the “most” here) in the summer illustrates the difficulty I had with this monograph. He casually accepts that feminine desire equals wanton behavior. P. compares Hesiod’s lines on summer with Alcaeus, fragment 347a: Soak your lungs in wine, for the Star is on the rise and the season is harsh, everything is athirst because of the heat, and from the leaves the cicada echoes sweetly … the golden thistle is aflower and now women are lustful in the extreme (miarotatai) while men are weak (leptoi), since the Dog Star dries out their head and knees. Although these lines have usually been read as a “quotation” of Hesiod, P. thinks that they may be yet another strand of this single sub-literary tradition. There is surprisingly little discussion of the words machlotatai and miarotatai, which he translates as most lustful or most wanton, and none at all on the term “wanton” itself, although Alcaeus’ choice sheds an interesting light on the connotation of the other two.

P. presents a picture of Greek society in which the women had it easy while the men were slaving away in the fields. When he writes that Greek men frequently compare the wheat harvest with war, I was reminded of Medea’s comment on childbirth: “I would rather stand beside the shield three times than have a baby once.” (250-251). P. never questions the so-called life of “leisure” that these women led. But his amused (my impression) dismissal of Hesiod’s pervasive misogyny as “little more than seasonally-inspired,” really disturbed me. In what season does Hesiod approve of women? Several authors have written on these topics, both Linda S. Sussman in “Workers and Drones; Labor, Idleness and Gender Definition in Hesiod’s Beehive,”Arethusa 11 (1978) and Marilin Arthur in “The Origins of the Western Attitude Toward Women,”Arethusa 6 (1973) specifically talk about women, work, and lust. I would have welcomed some acknowledgment of this side of the story. For, although P. repeatedly points out the pervasive misogyny of the ancient Greeks, he never asks whether their basic assumptions are sound: were women leisured, were women wanton, are questions that should not be outside the scope of this book.

P.’s methodology of “backwards anthropology” hovers on the edge of invention; there are an uncomfortable number of suppositions, leaps of faith we are required to make before we arrive at his belief in a local tradition. Nevertheless, he raises some interesting questions about how far one can use modern anthropology as a tool for the analysis of ancient texts. The folk traditions he recounts, in particular the songs and the rituals which tie the cicada’s summer song to the harvest, make compelling reading. Yet it seems to me that he falls into one of the traps of the methodology. P. claims to use the songs to reveal a new way of looking at the Works and Days, instead he uses his suppositions from the Works and Days to talk about these songs. P.’s initial question “why are women most lustful in the summer?” is “always/already” loaded in the “are you still beating your wife” vein. By looking for a “justification” for Hesiod’s misogyny, he is able to find not only proof of women’s lack of sexual control, but also from that to slide to the conclusion that male anger with women stems from a system in which women, like the cicada, are idle.