BMCR 1999.05.19

Eurykleia and Her Successors: Female Figures of Authority in Greek Poetics

, Eurykleia and her successors : female figures of authority in Greek poetics. Greek studies. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998. viii, 198 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780822630661 $21.95.

A study of nurses in Greek literature is long overdue, and this book is a timely and welcome exploration of the development of what is more than simply a literary stereotype. Karydas writes a clear straightforward account of the representation of the Nurse as an agent in the education of women from Homer to Euripides, and successfully demonstrates that the Nurse was almost invariably characterized by her authoritative command of language. One of the great virtues of this study is its meticulous analysis of the rhetorical skills possessed by Nurse figures; its weakness, however, is the author’s tenuous explanation of the Nurse’s paideutic origins.

K. argues that the model for the nurse in both epic and tragedy was the archaic khoregos, or chorus leader. (Incidentally I have used K.’s spelling of Greek names, which are sometimes Romanized, sometimes not, throughout this review.) As we know from Calame’s distinguished study of women’s choruses, the khoregos could serve a variety of functions including training the chorus, physically leading a choral procession, and even providing musical accompaniment. Literary representations of khoregos figures give them equal or higher status than the chorus proper: for example, Hecuba, queen of Troy, acts as a khoregos in the procession to propitiate Athena ( Il. 6,296). K. resolves the problematic status of literary nurses to a certain extent by pointing out that although nurses are technically of subordinate status, their authority derives from their positions as supervisors of children; that this position included teaching children is well documented (e.g. Protagorus 325cd). This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the nurse figure: she exercises authority over children, but when they are fully grown she remains a servant or slave. I found myself wishing that K. had tried to reconstruct the lived reality of such a relationship and to investigate how the figure of a nurse might have resonated with a Greek audience of adults who had been under the care of such female domestics. Bradley’s study of the close bonds between Roman nutrices and their former nurslings suggests that adult Romans maintained strong bonds with their nurses (p. 13-36). Epigraphic evidence supports the argument that similar relationships existed between Greeks and their nurses: a fourth century epitaph (CEG 571 / IG II 2 7873.G) dedicated to a metic nurse in Athens by a woman named Hippostrate, reveals deep affection on the part of the former nursling. Some investigation into such social realities informing the depiction of the nurse in literature would have enriched K.’s discussion significantly.

The first chapter on Eurykleia, the nurse of Odysseus, is perhaps the strongest. K. makes good comparisons between Eurykleia and Demeter in her disguise as an old woman in Homeric Hymn to Demeter. And K. argues very forcefully that Eurykleia’s epithets, which set her apart from other Odyssean domestics (e.g. kedna iduia, Od. 1, 428), are meaningful terms which contribute to her characterization as a wise and trusted counselor. Telemakhos confides in her before his journey and accepts her advice. Her interaction with Odysseus and Penelope, and the descriptive epithets which introduce her at these interesting moments reveal that Eurykleia is a figure of significant authority and wisdom. Does this necessarily mean, however, that she possesses vestigial khoregos attributes? K. suggests that Eurykleia’s ability to marshall and admonish the maidservants and to advise Penelope is derived from the paradigm of choral performance: the maidservants are an aggregate of young women and Eurykleia’s peremptory attitude toward Penelope is an echo of the mysterious rivalry between the women named Agido and Hegesikhora in Alcman’s Partheneion. This is an ingenious theory, but ultimately not very convincing. The Ithakan maidservants (who, according to K., are the analogs of choral maidens) are low status (and in some cases sexually incontinent) domestics, while Alcman probably composed for choruses of well positioned maidens as part of their initiation into their community. More importantly, what can we say for sure about the relationship between the figures of Agido and Hagesikhora? This agonistic relationship is, according to the author, paradigmatic for the relationships between nurses and other figures in literature, in this case Penelope. This is a most insubstantial idea, especially since Alcman’s Partheneion, so fragmentary and allusive, submits to a range of interpretations. The functions of Agido and Hagesikhora, and their relationship, are among the most problematic aspects of this perplexing poem. Certainly Hagesikhora’s name suggests that she holds an important position, probably as khoregos, in the girl’s chorus; but what exactly has taken place between her and Agido, whose role is still a subject of controversy? Is Agido perhaps the leader of a rival chorus? Have the two women indeed “stepped out of the chorus circle and perform for a broader audience” as K. asserts (p.53)? If this is so why does Alcman make the chorus say that they are being watched by Hagesikhora and Agido (frag. 1, line 80)? Moreover K.’s thesis does not account for the strong expressions of erotic admiration which the chorus express for the two women, a homoerotic attachment which we find again in Sappho, who may have composed songs in a similar context. Finally can we be sure that Alcman’s is typical of all partheneia? He composed for young Spartan women who enjoyed a degree of freedom and public visibility unknown to Athenian maidens. And although choruses of young women were involved in the civic religion of Athens, we know very little about their nature. On the other hand, fragments of Pindar’s partheneia do survive, but are ignored by K. who develops her thesis solely on the basis of Alcman.

Applying her hypothesis to tragedy, K. reveals that nurses maintain their authoritative positions as advisors and mentors; again, however, I am skeptical about the putative origins of this authority. While K. does an admirable job of identifying common behavior among tragic nurses, her suggestion that this authority stems from initiatory ritual choruses simply cannot be sustained. The second chapter begins with Kilissa, the only named nurse in extant tragedy, whose brief but significant appearance in Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers not only catalogs the everyday details of a nurse’s responsibilities over her infant charges, but also presents the cold-hearted avenger, Orestes, in a more human light. In an illuminating footnote (n.2, p.65), K. surveys the role of the Nurse in other versions (e.g. Pindar and Pherecydes) of the Orestes saga: she is, apparently, a standard element in the legend. It would have been interesting to read K.’s ideas on why Pindar, Steisichorus and Pherecydes give their named nurses such valiant roles in helping Orestes escape as a child, while Aeschylus does not. Instead K. argues that Kilissa performs a vital role by actually inviting the intervention of the Chorus on behalf of Orestes. No one could deny that Kilissa affects the plot when she changes Klytaimnestra’s message to Aigisthos, but she is instructed to do so by the chorus-leader and it stretches the text to claim, as K. does, that Kilissa “invites” the intervention of the Chorus by expressing disapproval of her masters. In an important essay, which K. overlooks, Marsh McCall (p.21) describes this chorus as “one of the most determined, vehement, ‘take-charge’ choral groups in surviving tragedy.” As he points out (p.24-25), an audience would not expect the Nurse, an old family retainer, to bow to the command of a chorus of palace slaves: “And yet the anonymous chorus through their anonymous leader dominate and direct Cilissa, severely charging her to ensure that Aegisthus comes alone.”

The obvious question, then, is why is Kilissa so docile? K. does account for the dominant nature of the chorus by suggesting that the chorus leader is in fact acting like the archaic khoregos; from this we are to understand why Kilissa does accept her instructions. This analysis, regrettably, adds nothing to K.’s vision of the Nurse as a khoregos figure.

The remainder of this chapter is successful in showing how the Nurses of Sophocles’ Women of Trachis and Euripides’ Andromache possess a similar degree of authority over their mistresses, Deianeira and Hermione respectively, and contrasts the influence of Hermione’s nurse with the less authoritative figure of Andromache’s handmaid. The Nurse of the Medea is entirely different, as she seems to possess no authority over her mistress; yet her deep understanding of Medea’s character enables her to provide more insight into her reactions. It is the children for whom she seems most concerned, as K. rightly observes. This brings up a variable which K. does not seem to consider: does it matter over whom the Nurse is in charge? Medea was surely never under the authority of this Nurse as a child, (for we are hardly expected to believe that she accompanied Medea when she made her dramatic exit from Kolchis). Her behaviour differs from that of other tragic nurses, I think, precisely because she has a different type of relationship with the protagonist.

The final chapter is a detailed and often insightful discussion of the most memorable of all tragic nurses. K. demonstrates how Euripides’ Hippolytus represents the supreme exponent of the authoritative and rhetorically puissant Nurse. Like Eurykleia and the Nurse of Trachiniae she advocates action; like Kilissa she draws attention to her responsibilities for the bodily concerns of her charge when she complains about the child-like needs of her mistress (178-188); and like all of these nurse figures she affects the plot of the drama. Again K.’s detailed analysis of the rhetorical skills of this Nurse is most impressive.

The chapter concludes, as do all previous discussions, with speculations about the Nurse’s similarities to the lyric khoregos. Accordingly we are asked to consider the Nurse and Phaedra as versions of Hagesikhora and Agido engaging in a poetic contest with the chorus of Troizenian women as their judges. I have dealt with the flaws of this interpretation above, but a few final comments are in order. It is quite possible that the conventions of archaic lyric performance influenced the structure of Greek tragedy. One naturally looks to the tragic chorus and perhaps their relationship with characters for evidence of this literary atavism. But what do we look for? Speculations based solely on the disputable interpretation of a single fragmentary text (i.e. Alcman) are, as I have indicated, inadequate. Since the lyric khoregos’ primary function was to direct the chorus we should look for cases when tragic characters direct the performance of a chorus, and such cases abound: Dionysos acts as a khoregos figure in the Bakkhai when he instructs the chorus to enter ( Ba. 55); Pelasgos instructs the chorus of Danaids to pray ( Supp. 520) and they produce the first stasimon of Aeschylus’ Supplices. Yet tragic Nurses seem to make no recommendations or suggestions about what or how a chorus should sing; indeed their engagement with the lyric aspect of the drama is strikingly non-existent. K. adduces the agonistic relationship between Nurses and other figures in epic and tragedy, but there is not enough evidence to trace this behaviour to archaic choral performances; and tragedy, especially Euripides, is nothing if not agonistic. Rhetorical sparring, heated arguments, and the like are an integral part of Greek drama and certainly not confined to debates between Nurses and other figures.

Furthermore K. makes much of the bond between nurses and other women represented in tragedy and suggests that these relationships evolved from the performance conditions of women’s choruses. Yet such “written” relationships are best understood in their historical context. Ancient Greek women occupied a world where male and female spheres of activity were so sharply delineated that women naturally formed close attachments with each other. The Amasis painter shows collectives of women weaving and fetching water; women’s festivals provided opportunities for social bonding; and, granted, initiatory activities such as choruses helped to prepare young women for this life. Certainly Greek drama acknowledges this social reality in interesting ways and in situations which do not necessarily include nurse figures. Aristophanes depicts women’s bonds in his so called “women plays”. The choruses of both Sophocles’ and Euripides’ Electra display strong attachments to the heroines of both plays. To claim that expressions of solidarity among women in tragedy evolved from an archaic ritual is to ignore the evidence of ancient Greek women’s everyday lives.

Despite its tendentious theoretical model this study is a valuable contribution to the study of marginal women in Greek literature. By collating different representations of nurses and drawing attention to their shared characteristics, especially their ability to use language to create action, the author invites us to consider a neglected aspect of Greek poetry. Interpretations of classical literature tend to focus on the major players, mythological figures of aristocratic lineage and prodigious acts, but this author has shown us how certain middle aged women of humble origin and lowly station were dynamic, intelligent agents whose rhetorical skill motivated those noble, larger-than-life characters to perform their famous deeds.

Works Cited

Bradley, Keith, R. (1991) Discovering the Roman Family: Studies in Roman Social History, Oxford.

Calame, Claude (1977) Les Choeurs de Jeunes Filles en Grèce Archaique, Rome.

McCall, Marsh (1990) “The Chorus of the Choephori” in Cabinet of the Muses, edd. M. Griffith and D.J. Mastronarde, Atlanta, pp. 17-30.