BMCR 2007.04.38

Donne e Preghiera: Le preghiere dei personaggi femminili nelle tragedie superstiti di Eschilo. Supplementi di Lexis, XXXVIII

, Donne e preghiera : le preghiere dei personaggi femminili nelle tragedie superstiti di Eschilo. Supplementi di Lexis ; 38. Amsterdam: Hakkert, 2006. 133 pages ; 26 cm.. ISBN 9025612067. €36.00 (pb).

Stefano Amendola’s (henceforth A.) monograph is a revision of the doctoral dissertation he completed at l’Università degli Studi di Salerno. It aims to demonstrate that in extant Aeschylean tragedy prayer is the sole public discourse granted to women and constitutes not only their λόγος, but also their πρᾶγμα (p.115). Beginning with the point that Greek women’s public role is largely limited to religious matters, A. argues that prayer is a vehicle not only for Aeschylean women to air their private concerns but also to engage in public business as well. Despite its broad-reaching topic, the book is primarily aimed at scholars of Aeschylus. Following a brief introduction from series editor Vittorio Citti and the author’s introduction, the monograph consists of seven concise chapters and a conclusion.

The first chapter serves as an introduction to prayer in Greek literature generally and to the argument as a whole. Taking Homer as a starting point, A. presents prayer as the mortal attempt—via λόγος —to establish contact and rapport with the gods. A. follows Pulleyn1 in describing the agreement as ‘oral’, yet takes pains to make prayer independent of other means of contact with the gods such as sacrifice (which functions not by logos but by πρᾶγμα). Moreover, prayer is, for A., an activity as important from a socio-political perspective as it is from a religious one, which brings him to the thesis that prayer in Aeschylus provides a venue for women’s public action—relative not only to the gods, but to the surrounding masculine society as well. While Aeschylean female characters conform to established religious and socio-political roles in engaging in prayer on the one hand, in the act of prayer they nonetheless freely speak with a voice otherwise contained and inhibited by masculine society (pp.21-2).

The second chapter links the characters of Electra and Atossa by arguing that in turning to prayer and ritual action, both women attempt to ward off misfortunes (whether actual or expected) threatening themselves and those close to them. For the two plays in question this attempt involves appropriating a rite initiated by others: Electra takes Clytemnestra’s propitiatory libations and turns them into prayers for Orestes’ return and vengeance, and, instead of the prayers suggested by the uncertain chorus (l.216), Atossa undertakes the summoning of Darius’ ghost. In doing so, A. argues, both women effectively take on the public role of priestess, guiding the ritual action of the chorus with the intention of altering a particular state of affairs.

The third chapter argues against the long scholarly tradition of interpreting the Seven Against Thebes which opposes a frantic and irrational chorus of maidens to a calculated and rational Eteocles. Instead, A. finds parallels in the chorus and Eteocles’ responses: both pray, both seek the appropriate reaction in the καίρος (pp.48-9), and both desire liberation from fear and the salvation of the city. The major difference between their respective responses to the Argive threat is that, while Eteocles’ also takes place on the battlefield, the chorus has recourse only to prayer. Here lies the most contentious point of the chapter: A. argues that Eteocles’ prayer is faulty because his inclusion of his father’s Erinys in his initial response (l.70) poses a danger both to himself and to the city. Because the choral parodos, however, detaches the polis from the blemish of Oedipus that marks Eteocles (pp.54-5), it publicly corrects Eteocles’ fault. The chorus’ intervention is ultimately successful: Eteocles dies, but the city is saved (p.59).

The fourth chapter hinges on a number of contrasts between Suppliants and Prometheus Bound, whose authenticity A. does not call into question.2 In the first part, A. argues that the Danaids’ prayer in the second stasimon of Suppliants does not demonstrate the weakness of their suppliant position in Argos but rather supports their request for asylum (and forcibly at that) by exalting their kinship with Zeus. The second part of the chapter contrasts the positive tone with which the Danaids recall Zeus’ affection for Io ( Supp. ll.531-4) to Io’s utter silence on the topic in the Prometheus, where she longs to be consumed or simply to disappear (ll.581-4) but makes no mention of the background to her situation. A. characterizes her relationship to Zeus as one of traditional piety: she makes no promises and speaks of the god only inasmuch as he ” rappresenta ancora la vera e sola soluzione” to her problem (p.68). A.’s purpose in describing Io as pious and modest is to distinguish her from Prometheus; while the scholarly tendency is to view them as similar victims of the tyrannical Zeus, A. finds none of the complaints of injustice or revolutionary rumblings voiced by Prometheus in her appeal.

The fifth chapter concisely reinterprets the prayer for Argos at Supp. 625ff. A. argues that, prior to obtaining their goal of asylum in Argos, the Danaids’ status is ambiguous and dangerous, utilizing aspects of Greek ritual supplication on the one hand but threatening the κότος of a monarchical Zeus and their own suicide on the other. By drawing a parallel with the Erinyes’ concern for κότος in Eumenides (e.g. ll.220, 499-501, 800-900), A. argues that the Danaids, like the Erinyes, are transformed by their incorporation into a new polis and must put aside all talk of κότος in order to harmonize fully with it. For A., the hymn is evidence that the Danaids accept the offer of asylum in Argos and the social roles and responsibilities accompanying it (more on this point later).

The sixth chapter turns to the Agamemnon, taking up the familiar topic of gender confusion and relating it (specifically) to the ritual ὀλολυγμός responding to the news of victory at Troy. A.’s argument is that while the ὀλολυγμός is normally a manifestation of joy underlining favorable situations (p.90), in Aeschylus it is regularly ambiguous and nearly sacrilegious, serving as a perverse threnody over the defeat of one’s enemies. The Agamemnon is a case in point: for A., the ὀλολυγμός reveals a struggle over Clytemnestra’s status in Argos and her claim to κράτος. The beacons signal to the Watchman the impending return of the king and of political order to the polis. In his exhortation to ὀλολυγμός (ll.26-9), therefore, he accordingly assigns the appropriate female ritual position to Clytemnestra. In taking up the ololugmos (ll.587-97), however, Clytemnestra perverts the Watchman’s intention: she incites celebration not so much for the sake of Agamemnon’s victory as for the impending fulfillment of her personal vendetta against him and the maintenance of her position.

The seventh chapter is concerned with the prayers of the Agamemnon as structural elements of the drama. The prayers of male characters all hinge on a polarity between success at Troy and the uncertain state of affairs at Argos—including those in the house of Atreus. The victor’s safe return home and the restoration of order is for them the final element of the expedition to Troy. Opposed to these prayers and their wish for the return of order to Argos and to the house of Atreus stands the figure of Clytemnestra, who similarly seeks Agamemnon’s return but as a requirement for her own victory (ll.972-4). For Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s return marks an end not of the events at Troy but of those set in motion by the sacrifice of Iphigeneia at Aulis. As in the sixth chapter, her actions aim at results opposed to those desired by the men surrounding her.

There is much to praise in this short volume, and scholars of Aeschylus, at whom the book is aimed, will be particularly well served by it. The great virtue of the book is not only that its analyses of female prayer are thought-provoking but that they also reinvigorate specific problems in Aeschylus whose interpretation has stagnated. A. takes a new approach to old problems, and so while some analyses such as those concerning Electra and Atossa (chapter 2), and the Agamemnon (chapters 6-7) are clearly set within established scholarly discourses, others break new ground. A.’s reevaluation of the chorus in Seven not as frenzied maidens but as efficacious petitioners (chapter 3), his discussion of Io’s piety vis-a-vis Prometheus’ dissent in PV (chapter 4) and his discussion of the Danaids’ hymn to Argos (chapter 5) all take issue with longstanding scholarly trends. In each case, the active and public role of female prayer is key: the maidens in Seven correct Eteocles’ error in their prayer for Thebes, and Io modestly prays to disappear from public view in PV. The novel interpretation of the hymn to Argos in the fifth chapter is especially noteworthy: for A. it is not some reward offered in return for the Argive offer of asylum but rather the Danaids’ purposeful acceptance not only of asylum in Argos but also of the responsibilities of social life placed on the polis’ women. The point is a simple one, but it has a ripple-effect on the interpretation of the chorus which has plagued the scholarship of this most difficult play, for, while the Danaids initially invoke Artemis as the protector of chastity in rejecting marriage with their Egyptian cousins (ll.144-53), following the dispensation of asylum they invoke Artemis as the overseer of reproduction (ll.676-7). By reading the hymn not simply as ἀγαθῶν ποινάς (l.626) but as a public statement, A. explains the Danaids’ change of attitude towards reproduction as a conscious and public acknowledgement and acceptance of their new role as future wives and mothers according to the norms of social life in Argos. Such an insight is especially noteworthy because it sets the groundwork for the trilogy’s later plays, which proceed from the Danaids’ consent to marry the sons of Pelasgus.

A.’s methodology is soundly philological, taking individual words and their usage across the plays as the comparative basis for his interpretive points. For the most part, he is well served thereby; for example, his argument that the Danaids must set aside the threats of κότος in order to be received in Argos is well supported by the parallel situation of the Erinyes’ reception in Athens (pp.75-8), and his studies of the implications of φόβος in Sept. (pp.49-51), and of ὀλολυγμός in Ag. (pp.88-92) demonstrate a sensitive attention to the individual terms’ implications.

Of course, the book is not without shortcomings, but with one exception these are relatively minor and few. The arguments of the books’ seven chapters are—with the exception of chapters 6 and 7—self-contained and focused: despite their broad-reaching and unifying topic, the chapters are essentially disparate exegeses of very specific passages in particular Aeschylean plays. Such concentration means that there is little discussion of women and prayer more generally beyond the introductory first chapter. In the end, the broader introductory material serves merely as a springboard to the discussion of Aeschylus, and the thread of the larger argument reappears only in the conclusion. As such, the work will delight scholars of Aeschylus but disappoint those anticipating a more sustained discussion of women and prayer.

In addition, while the philological vigor that structures the work is admirable, as A.’s primary methodology it is at times restrictive. For example, using primarily Choephori 125, in which Electra calls upon τοὺς γῆς ἔνερθε δαίμονας, A. argues that the invocation of underworld forces is the ritually necessary precursor to calling upon a specific deceased person (p.27). As such, when interpreting Atossa’s oft-discussed and eerily parallel reference to τοῖς τ’ ἔνερθε γῆς φίλοις at Pers. 229, A. interprets φίλοις as referring not to Darius, but to underworld forces akin to the daimones referred to by Electra. As a philologist, A.’s eye is immediately drawn to the parallel phrasing in the passages. Yet A. neglects to interpret what φίλοις could mean were it to describe underworld forces and not Darius, who is more immediately philos to Atossa. Furthermore, A. is at this point silent on larger cultural and religious questions underpinning the two scenes. That the dramatis personae of the Persae are entirely non-Greek is not mentioned, nor is any of the relevant scholarship pertaining to the Greek/barbarian dichotomy for which Persae is so formative.3 His discussion of the parallel between the two plays assumes that the ritual described by Atossa, the mother of the Persian king in Sousa, can actually be directly paralleled with that of Electra, a Greek woman in Argos—i.e., that the Persians in Persae conduct Greek rituals.

Still, A.’s work is for the most part well researched and well versed in Aeschylean scholarship. His bibliography is rich and multilingual, and the second chapter alone falls short of the rest of the book in this respect. Furthermore, his philological focus prevents him from over-theorizing his topic; narratological terminology pops up only briefly on p.101, and in his discussion of the Eteocles’ response to the Argive oaths Seven (p.46-7), A. comes close to Zeitlin’s treatment of cledonomancy.4 It is commendable that the text of Aeschylus is always the basis for his points, and whether the lack of theoretical terminology is considered one of the book’s strengths or weaknesses I will leave to individual readers’ own judgment.

In short, A.’s book is a succinct revitalization of old problems in Aeschylus, and its virtues far outweigh its faults. Not only does his argument concerning the public role of female prayer deserve the attention of Aeschylean scholars, but it also lays the path for potentially rewarding interpretations of other poets’ work.


1. Pulleyn, Simon, Prayer in Greek Religion. Oxford: OUP, 1997; 29-31.

2. In n.19 (p.65), A. refers simply to Pattoni, Maria Pia, L’autenticità del Prometeo Incatenato di Eschilo (Pisa: Scuola Normale Superiore, 1987). He justifies his position as follows: “Anche per quanto concerne i temi qui affrontati, il Prometeo appare un drama eschileo, se non scritto dallo stesso Eschilo.”

3. On Persae in particular, see Hall, Edith, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition Through Tragedy (Oxford: OUP, 1989); and Harrison, Thomas, The Emptiness of Asia: Aeschylus’ Persians and the History of the Fifth Century (London: Duckworth, 2000). Neither text appears in A.’s bibliography.

4. Zeitlin, Froma, Under the Sign of the Shield: Semiotics and Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. Roma: Edizioni dell’Ateneo, 1982. Strangely, this text is absent from A.’s bibliography.