BMCR 2004.12.22

Women and Humor in Classical Greece

, Women and humor in classical Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. x, 262 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 052182253X $60.00.

It was Adrienne Rich who identified a feminist recuperative reading strategy that she called “re-vision.” This “act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction,” writes Rich, “is for women far more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.”1 The project of excavating women’s voices from ancient texts epitomizes this “act of survival,” although its difficulties are obvious. Our sources are exiguous: the scanty remains of female authored poetry, some inscriptions, and the problematic representations of women’s talk in male authored literature. These voices, faint though they may be, most assuredly do not demonstrate that women obeyed the various cautions against speaking out. Indeed they suggest quite the opposite: that uppity women of the ancient world had plenty to say, albeit only in restricted contexts. Apollodorus, for example, plays with his audience’s anxiety about facing the comments of their female family members should they acquit Neaira of flouting Athenian marriage laws. It is our loss that history and circumstances have not preserved what these women did have to say, and this lacuna in our sources was, and perhaps to a certain extent still is, read as evidence that the “respectable” women of classical Athens were little more than docile ciphers. It is only recently that scholarship has attempted to retrieve women’s talk from the Classical world. The methodological problems of such an enterprise are considerable, and require a firm grasp of the literature, both primary and secondary, combined with an innovative intelligence.

In this bold and challenging book, Laurie O’Higgins puts forth her vision of a community of raucous, laughing women. Admittedly her contentions are speculative in the extreme (the most common phrase in the book is “I suggest”), but this is the work of a scholar well grounded in Greek poetry who has imaginatively dared to read what one might call “negative space.” The book plots a course through the interstices of surviving Greek poetry, beginning with epic and iambic and concluding with Old Comedy. For O’Higgins the iambic tradition, as it has been transmitted, is only half the story. She hears a call and response format, in which women joked with each other and with men; women’s mockery was answered by a corresponding male iambic poetry, all that remains of this dialogic tradition which evolved into a male dominated literary genre. Fragment 25 of Hipponax in which curses are exchanged, one invoking Apollo, answered with one by Artemis, represents such a dialogue. The vestiges may be preserved in fifth-century comedy, product of a patriarchal polis that displaced an agrarian egalitarianism where women’s voices could once be heard more clearly.

O’Higgins locates the source of this tradition in women’s cultic obscenity, aischrologia. The first chapter reviews the evidence for women exchanging lewd jests and ritual insults in the context of the festivals of Demeter, especially in Attica. The literary evidence for this is late, most notably the scholiasts of Lucian and Athenaeus, but O’Higgins makes good use of material evidence to bolster her case. She argues that the Thesmophoria provided a forum where women could exchange information, via cultic mockery and sexual jesting, about using certain plants and herbs to control their fertility. Thus women’s speech is not simply a reaction to a male hegemony but the product of a subculture which assisted women in gaining control of their own bodies.

In chapter two O’Higgins turns her ear to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter : despite the hymn’s status within the conservative epic tradition, argues the author, it still reveals a substratum of female cultic practices. The focus here is on the figure of Iambe, whose unspecified jest causes the mourning Demeter to laugh. The episode seems to disrupt the narrative flow, suggesting that it is part of a different, non-epic tradition. Iambe’s jest consolidates the “carnival of women” (p. 42), which includes the Eleusinian royal women and their servants, the goddess and the mortals. Such a community replicates the bond among women achieved at the Thesmophoria. The arguments here build on the idea that the epic tradition is at odds with humor: for example, the laughing maidservants of Odysseus are implicitly contrasted with the lachrymose and noble Penelope; secondly it is the sight of the aged nurse Doso (Demeter) sitting on a birthing stool that binds the women at Eleusis in shared laughter.

The next chapter is a speculation about the lost iambic tradition preserved in the Hymn. The author rallies evidence for early connections between the cult of Demeter and iambic, a genre that she contends is derived from women’s egalitarian joking, embodied in the figure of Iambe, a servant who mocks a goddess. Early iambic may well have treated a range of themes expressed in a variety of meters, but it was blame poetry that eventually prevailed as the definitive character of the genre. How did a supposedly woman-centered art, informed by laughter, become the vituperative misogyny of iambic poets like Semonides of Amorgos? O’ Higgins revisits issues of genre and class in this chapter: iambic was produced for and by an increasingly powerful middle class, whose antipathy towards the aristocracy was most forcefully realized in verbal attacks against women, signifiers of luxury and indulgence. The remainder of this discussion focuses on how later authors’ disparaging treatments of Iambe made her emblematic of the diminution of women’s status in iambic poetry. Although the argument is somewhat unfocused here (I found this the most difficult chapter to digest), the discussion of the historical development of Iambe is fascinating.

From here we move towards reading iambic themes in surviving female authored poetry. This is a striking idea, but if we are willing to accept the argument so far, it seems to be a natural inference. Horace (Ep. 1.19) referred to Sappho as “mascula” in the context of male iambic poets. The fragments of Sappho suggest that she is deriding her women friends, thus exemplifying the spirit of Iambe. At the very least we have to shrug our shoulders and concede, “perhaps.”

The final two chapters take us to Athenian comedy, and its putative origins in ritual iambic exchange. In the penultimate chapter, “Comedy and Women,” O’ Higgins assembles the evidence, including komastic vases representing male figures (comic actors perhaps) and women engaged in what might be cultic activity. Again she weaves in political changes, this time the growing tendency of the polis to silence women. Solonic reforms which curtailed lamentation have their parallel, she suggests, in the appropriation of women’s laughter for comedy. Women did figure in comedy, but despite its potential for developing female roles it maintains the misogyny of iambic. A well informed discussion on the role of women in very early comedy culled from the fragments helps to establish the background for Aristophanes’ treatment of women. Whether we accept her thesis or not we should be grateful for the author’s painstaking efforts in compiling this very useful list.

What is particularly refreshing about O’Higgins’ discussion is that she contemplates an audience of women receiving and even influencing Old Comedy. Scholars have been circling around the question of women’s attendance at the theater of Dionysus for decades, but even those who envision women in the audience are reluctant to press any further. But what if they were, even in the back rows, as O’Higgins suggests? For her, Aristophanes’ “Women Plays” are an extension of that original joking exchange between men and women. The playwright is responding to what women were saying in private, domestic contexts in the final years of the Peloponnesian war, when they were, in the absence of men, a highly visible presence in Athens. In the final chapter she speculates how plays like Thesmophoriazusae and Lysistrata became Aristophanes’ contribution to a dialogue spawned from an original iambic exchange between men and women. These are strikingly original ideas, although O’Higgins is perhaps a little too facile about Old Comedy’s descent from iambic poetry.

Women and Humor in Classical Greece is bound to stimulate controversy. It is an iconoclastic book about which readers will have some very strong opinions, both supportive and derisive. I stress here the modernity of the author’s approach, which reaffirms the agency and creativity of ancient women, but I wonder if this effort might not seem somehow related to an outdated vision for a “matriarchal” society supplanted by patriarchy. Unlike such endeavors, however, this is a profoundly learned work, which has engaged with the most distinguished scholarship. It is inevitable that such a wide sweep through literary history, from epic to Old Comedy, might overlook a few relevant pieces of scholarship. I missed in chapter three Marylin B. Arthur’s seminal discussion (first published in Arethusa 6 (1973) 7-58) which predates O’Higgins’ bibliography on the relationships between genre and gender, and her historical overview of the evolution of women’s status as reflected in literature. The discussion of Aristophanes might have engaged more vigorously with Lauren Taaffe’s Aristophanes and Women (London, 1994) at certain points. And the conclusions about the defeat of tragedy by comedy in the Thesmophoriazusae are vitiated by overlooking the persuasive suggestions of Edith Hall ( Philologus 133 (1989) 38-54) and Elizabeth Bobrick ( Arethusa 24 (1991) 67-76), who have noted an allusion to Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians at the end of the play. These omissions do not detract from the overall thesis of this work. This is a challenging book to be sure, and it does expect a certain indulgence on the part of the reader, a willingness to accept that women, Athenian women in particular, participated in their culture in a much more robust manner than our sources would have us believe. Historically women have been the objects of humor; to “re-vision” them as the producers of humor is to respond to a canonical literary history that has written women out of the story, and so in a sense to engage in a dialogue that is a distant descendent of that which O’ Higgins imagines for the women of the past.


1. Adrienne Rich ” When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision” in Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose ed. C. Gelphi and S. Gelphi (New York 1993).