Virgins and Heroic Bones: Some Responses to Plagues

Ps. Plutarch, Parallela Minora 35, 314C

“When the Spartans were suffering a plague, the god prophesied that they could stop it if they sacrificed a highborn virgin every year. Helen was then selected by lot. When she was being led forward all adorned for the purpose, an eagle flew down, stole away the sword, carried it to the cattle and dropped it on a heifer. For this reason, they stopped the practice of virgin sacrifice.

That’s the story Aristodemos tells in his third Collection of Myth.”

λοιμοῦ κατασχόντος Λακεδαίμονα, ἔχρησεν ὁ θεὸς παύσασθαι, ἐὰν παρθένον εὐγενῆ κατ᾽ ἔτος θύσωσιν. ῾Ελένης δέ ποτε κληρωθείσης καὶ προαχθείσης κεκοσμημένης, ἀετὸς καταπτὰς ἥρπασε τὸ ξίφος καὶ ἐς τὰ βουκόλια κομίσας ἐπὶ δάμαλιν κατέθηκεν· ὅθεν ἀπέσχοντο τῆς παρθενοκτονίας· ὡς ᾽Αριστόδημος ἐν τρίτηι Μυθικῆι Συναγωγῆι.

 

Schol. To Aristophanes’ Knights 84b

“When the Athenians were enduring a plague, the god prophesied to them that they should bring back the bones of Themistokles. After the Magnesians did not agree to this, the Athenians asked to spend thirty days sacrificing at his grave. Once they set up camp at the spot, they secretly dug up his bones and took them home.”

λοιμωξάντων δὲ ᾽Αθηναίων, ὁ θεὸς εἶπε μετάγειν τὰ ὀστᾶ Θεμιστοκλέους. Μαγνήτων δὲ μὴ συγχωρούντων ᾐτήσαντο ἐπὶ τριάκοντα ἡμέραις ἐναγίσαι τῷ τάφῳ, καὶ περισκηνώσαντες τὸ χωρίον λάθρα κομίζουσιν ἀνορύξαντες τὰ ὀστᾶ.

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Val Max on Indian and Phoenician Women

Valerius Maximus, Memorable Words and Deeds 2.6.14-15

“But why must I praise the bravest men in this category? Take, for example, the women of the Indians, who by national custom are typically married to the same man. When that man has died they submit to a contest and judgment about who of them he loved the most. The winner, as she celebrates with joy and is led by her friends who have happy faces, casts herself upon the flames of her husband and is cremated with him as if the happiest women.

Those who lost persist in a saddened life of grief. Compare Cimbrian daring, add to it the Celtiberian loyalty, insert the Tracian spirit, and even weave in the cleverly developed Lycian method of rejecting grief, you will still find nothing superior to the Indian pyre, which the wifely devotion climbs onto as if it were merely a marriage bed.

To this glory, let’s compare the dishonor of the Punic women, so it may be more clearly foul. At Sicca there is a temple of Venus into which married women used to meet. They used to leave there for business, earning ‘dowries’ by bringing insult to their bodies, trying to arrange a clean marriage with so unclean a chain.”

Verum quid ego fortissimos hoc in genere prudentiae viros laudem? respiciantur Indorum feminae, quae, cum more patrio complures eidem nuptae esse soleant, mortuo marito in certamen iudiciumque veniunt quam ex iis maxime dilexerit. victrix gaudio exsultans, deductaque a necessariis laetum praeferentibus vultum, coniugis se flammis superiacit et cum eo tamquam felicissima crematur; superatae cum tristitia et maerore in vita remanent. protrahe in medium Cimbricam audaciam, adice Celtibericam fidem, iunge animosam Thraciae [potentiam]46 sapientiam, adnecte Lyciorum in luctibus abiciendis callide quaesitam rationem, Indico tamen rogo nihil eorum praeferes, quem uxor<ia>47 pietas in modum genialis tori propinquae mortis secura conscendit.

Cuius gloriae Punicarum feminarum, ut ex comparatione turpius appareat, dedecus subnectam: Siccae enim fanum est Veneris, in quod se matronae conferebant atque inde procedentes ad quaestum dotes corporis iniuria contrahebant, honesta nimirum tam inhonesto vinculo coniugia iuncturae.

willigula:“ A Hindu girl throws herself on the funeral pyre of her betrothed, from the poem Sūz va gudāz (Burning and Melting) by Nawʿī Khabūshānī, illuminated by Muḥammad ʿAlī Mashhadī, Iran, 1657 ”
 Sūz va gudāz (Burning and Melting) by Nawʿī Khabūshānī, illuminated by Muḥammad ʿAlī Mashhadī, Iran, 1657

A Seven Day Plague and Tragic Fever

Lucian, How to Write History 1

‘They say, dear Philo, that in the time of King Lysimakhos a different kind of plague afflicted the people of Abdera. First, the pandemic struck everyone with a fever which was intense and persistent from the beginning. It broke after about seven days and was followed in some by severe nosebleeds and sweats in others.

But the next symptom put them in a ridiculous state: everyone starting turning to tragedy and they were sounding out iambic lines while shouting. They seemed especially to sing songs from Euripides’ Andromeda, working through Perseus’ speech in song. The city was just full of these pale and drawn seventh-day tragedians, singing “Desire, you tyrant of gods and men”

They sang the rest too in a bellowing voice on and on until winter and deep cold weather stopped their nonsense. I think that Arkhelaos the actor was the cause of this—he was popular then and had performed the Andromeda in the middle of a hot summer and then many of them left the theater with a fever, returning home to relapse into tragic song since the Andromeda was lurking in their memory and Perseus was flitting around everyone’s thoughts with Medousa’s head in his hands.”

Museo Nazionale Napoli Perseus And Andromeda

Αβδηρίταις φασὶ Λυσιμάχου ἤδη βασιλεύοντος ἐμπεσεῖν τι νόσημα, ὦ καλὲ Φίλων, τοιοῦτο· πυρέττειν μὲν γὰρ τὰ πρῶτα πανδημεὶ ἅπαντας ἀπὸ τῆς πρώτης εὐθὺς ἐρρωμένως καὶ λιπαρεῖ τῷ πυρετῷ, περὶ δὲ τὴν ἑβδόμην τοῖς μὲν αἷμα πολὺ ἐκ ῥινῶν ῥυέν, τοῖς δ᾿ ἱδρὼς ἐπιγενόμενος, πολὺς καὶ οὗτος, ἔλυσεν τὸν πυρετόν. ἐς γελοῖον δέ τι πάθος περιίστα τὰς γνώμας αὐτῶν· ἅπαντες γὰρ ἐς τραγῳδίαν παρεκίνουν καὶ ἰαμβεῖα ἐφθέγγοντο καὶ μέγα ἐβόων· μάλιστα δὲ τὴν Εὐριπίδου Ἀνδρομέδαν ἐμονῴδουν καὶ τὴν τοῦ Περσέως ῥῆσιν ἐν μέλει διεξῄεσαν, καὶ μεστὴ ἦν ἡ πόλις ὠχρῶν ἁπάντων καὶ λεπτῶν τῶν ἑβδομαίων ἐκείνων τραγῳδῶν,

σὺ δ᾿ ὦ θεῶν τύραννε κἀνθρώπων Ἔρως,

καὶ τὰ ἄλλα μεγάλῃ τῇ φωνῇ ἀναβοώντων καὶ τοῦτο ἐπὶ πολύ, ἄχρι δὴ χειμὼν καὶ κρύος δὲ μέγα γενόμενον ἔπαυσε ληροῦντας αὐτούς. αἰτίαν δέ μοι δοκεῖ τοῦ τοιούτου παρασχεῖν Ἀρχέλαος ὁ τραγῳδός, εὐδοκιμῶν τότε, μεσοῦντος θέρους ἐν πολλῷ τῷ φλογμῷ τραγῳδήσας αὐτοῖς τὴν Ἀνδρομέδαν, ὡς πυρέξαι τε ἀπὸ τοῦ θεάτρου τοὺς πολλοὺς καὶ ἀναστάντας ὕστερον ἐς τὴν τραγῳδίαν παρολισθαίνεινἐπὶ πολὺ ἐμφιλοχωρούσης τῆς ᾿Ανδρομέδας τῇ μνήμῃ αὐτῶν καὶ τοῦ Περσέως ἔτι σὺν τῇ Μεδούσῃ τὴν ἑκάστου γνώμην περιπετομένου ἐπὶ πολὺ ἐμφιλοχωρούσης τῆς ᾿Ανδρομέδας τῇ μνήμῃ αὐτῶν καὶ τοῦ Περσέως ἔτι σὺν τῇ Μεδούσῃ τὴν ἑκάστου γνώμην περιπετομένου.

Love in the time of fevers….

The Original Virgin Suicides

Here’s an anecdote that is chilling and a bit upsetting. CW: it contains misogyny as well as reference to suicide clusters. In general, this reminded me of the suicide clusters in Silicon Valley discussed widely a few years ago. But–and I think this is more important–it also points to groups of suicide as an attempt to wrest agency in response to desperation, a lack of agency, and marginalization.

Aulus Gellius, Varia Historia 15.10

“In his first of the books On the Soul, Plutarch included the following tale when he was commenting on maladies which afflict human minds. He said that there were maiden girls of Milesian families who at a certain time suddenly and without almost any clear reason made a plan to die and that many killed themselves by hanging.

When this became more common in following days and there was no treatment to be found for the spirits of those who were dedicated to dying, The Milesians decreed that all maidens who would die by hanging their bodies would be taken out to burial completely naked except for the rope by which they were hanged. After this was decreed, the maidens did not seek suicide only because they were frightened by the thought of so shameful a funeral.”

Plutarchus in librorum quos περὶ ψυχῆς inscripsit primo cum de morbis dissereret in animos hominum incidentibus, virgines dixit Milesii nominis, fere quot tum in ea civitate erant, repente sine ulla evidenti causa voluntatem cepisse obeundae mortis ac deinde plurimas vitam suspendio amississe. id cum accideret in dies crebrius neque animis earum mori perseverantium medicina adhiberi quiret, decrevisse Milesios ut virgines, quae corporibus suspensis demortuae forent, ut hae omnes nudae cum eodem laqueo quo essent praevinctae efferrentur. post id decretum virgines voluntariam mortem non petisse pudore solo deterritas tam inhonesti funeris.

Suicides of public figures cause disbelief because of our cultural misconceptions about depression and about the importance of material wealth and fame to our well-being. While some clusters of suicide can be understood as a reflex of the “threshold problem”, we fail to see the whole picture if we do not also see that human well-being is connected to a sense of agency and belonging. Galen, in writing about depression, notes that melancholy can make us desire that which we fear.

Galen, De Locis Affectis 8.190-191

“But there are ten thousand other fantasies. The melancholic differ from one another, but even though they all exhibit fear, despair, blaming of life and hatred for people, they do not all want to die. For some, fear of death is the principle source of their depression. Some will seem paradoxical to you because they fear death and desire death at the same time.”

ἄλλα τε μυρία τοιαῦτα φαντασιοῦνται. διαφέρονται δὲ ἀλλήλων οἱ μελαγχολικοὶ, τὸ μὲν φοβεῖσθαι καὶ δυσθυμεῖν καὶ μέμφεσθαι τῇ ζωῇ καὶ μισεῖν τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἅπαντες ἔχοντες, ἀποθανεῖν δ’ ἐπιθυμοῦντες οὐ πάντες, ἀλλ’ ἔστιν ἐνίοις αὐτῶν αὐτὸ δὴ τοῦτο κεφάλαιον τῆς μελαγχολίας, τὸ περὶ τοῦ θανάτου δέος· ἔνιοι δὲ ἀλλόκοτοί σοι δόξουσιν, ἅμα τε καὶ δεδιέναι τὸν θάνατον καὶ θανατᾷν.

In thinking about the impact of agency and belonging on our sense of well-being and relationship to death, I have been significantly influence by this book:

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. London: Allen Lane, 2015.

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If you or someone you know feel alone, uncertain, depressed or for any reason cannot find enough joy and hope to think life is worth it, please reach out to someone. The suicide prevention hotline has a website, a phone number (1-800-273-8255), and a chat line. And if we can help you find some tether to the continuity of human experience through the Classics or a word, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Women Going Where They Shouldn’t? Earthquakes. Droughts. Portents!

Plutarch, Greek Questions 40

“Who was the hero Eunostos in Tanagra and why is entering his grove forbidden to women? Eunostos was the son of Kêphisos and Skias, but they say that his name comes from the nymph Eunosta who raised him. He was good-looking and just and no less wise and austere. They claim that one of the daughters of Kolônos, Okhna, who was Eunostos’ cousin, was in love with him. Eunostos, however, refused her when she approached him and, after insulting her, went to tell her brothers all about it.

The girl got there first and and pleaded with her brothers Ekhemos, Leôn, and Boukolos to kill Eunostos because he had raped her. They caught him by surprised and killed him and then Elieius imprisoned them. Then, Okhna changed her mind and was mourning terribly because she simultaneously wanted to be free of the pain from her love and she pitied her brothers.

So, she told Elieus the whole truth and he told Kolônos. By his judgment, the brothers were exiled and Ekhna threw herself from a cliff, as Myrtis the lyric poet from Anthedon records. This is why it is forbidden for women to enter or to even approach the shrine and grove of Eunostos—and why when there were often earthquakes, droughts, or different signs the people of Tanagra investigated and made a big deal of a woman nearing that place in secret.”

τίς Εὔνοστος ἥρως ἐν Τανάγρᾳ καὶ διὰ τίνα αἰτίαν τὸ ἄλσος αὐτοῦ γυναιξὶν ἀνέμβατόν ἐστιν; Ἐλιέως τοῦ Κηφισοῦ καὶ Σκιάδος Εὔνοστος ἦν υἱός, ᾧ φασιν ὑπὸ νύμφης Εὐνόστας ἐκτραφέντι τοῦτο γενέσθαι τοὔνομα. καλὸς δ᾿ ὢν καὶ δίκαιος οὐχ ἧττον ἦν σώφρων καὶ αὐστηρός. ἐρασθῆναι δ᾿ αὐτοῦ λέγουσιν Ὄχναν, μίαν τῶν Κολωνοῦ θυγατέρων ἀνεψιὰν οὖσαν. ἐπεὶ δὲ πειρῶσαν ὁ Εὔνοστος ἀπετρέψατο καὶ λοιδορήσας ἀπῆλθεν εἰς τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς κατηγορήσων, ἔφθασεν ἡ παρθένος τοῦτο πράξασα κατ᾿ ἐκείνου καὶ παρώξυνε τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς Ἔχεμον καὶ Λέοντα καὶ Βουκόλον ἀποκτεῖναι τὸν Εὔνοστον ὡς πρὸς βίαν αὐτῇ συγγεγενημένον. ἐκεῖνοι μὲν οὖν ἐνεδρεύσαντες ἀπέκτειναν τὸν νεανίσκον, ὁ δ᾿ Ἐλιεὺς ἐκείνους ἔδησεν. ἡ δ᾿ Ὄχνη μεταμελομένη καὶ γέμουσα ταραχῆς, ἅμα μὲν αὑτὴν ἀπαλλάξαι θέλουσα τῆς διὰ τὸν ἔρωτα λύπης, ἅμα δ᾿ οἰκτείρουσα τοὺς ἀδελφούς, ἐξήγγειλε πρὸς τὸν Ἐλιέα πᾶσαν τὴν ἀλήθειαν, ἐκεῖνος δὲ Κολωνῷ. Κολωνοῦ δὲ δικάσαντος οἱ μὲν ἀδελφοὶ τῆς Ὄχνης ἔφυγον, αὐτὴ δὲ κατεκρήμνισεν ἑαυτήν, ὡς Μυρτὶς ἡ Ἀνθηδονία ποιήτρια μελῶν ἱστόρηκε. τοῦ δ᾿ Εὐνόστου τὸ ἡρῷον καὶ τὸ ἄλσος οὕτως ἀνέμβατον ἐτηρεῖτο καὶ ἀπροσπέλαστον γυναιξίν, ὥστε πολλάκις σεισμῶν ἢ αὐχμῶν ἢ διοσημιῶν ἄλλων γενομένων ἀναζητεῖν καὶ πολυπραγμονεῖν ἐπιμελῶς τοὺς Ταναγραίους μὴ λέληθε γυνὴ τῷ τόπῳ πλησιάσασα.

Woman with mirror, Louvre CA587
Woman with mirror, Louvre CA587

Septicia’s Second Marriage and Final Testament

Valerius Maximus, Famous Words and Deeds, 7.7.4

“Septicia as well, the mother of Ariminum’s Trachali, because she was angry with her sons, married Publicius who was already old, even though she could no longer have children, as an insult against them. Then she took both of them out of her will.  When they appealed to him, the divine Augustus criticized both the woman’s marriage and her final allotments. He ordered that the sons have their mother’s inheritance and the dowry since she had not begun the marriage for the purpose of having children.

If Fairness herself were to judge this affair, could she have come up with a more just or more substantial opinion? You spurn the children you bore, make a sterile marriage, make a mess of a final will because of your malicious spirit, and you don’t blush to hand all your wealth over to a man whose body you climb under even when it has already been laid out like a corpse? So, since you acted like this, you are struck by divine lightning even among the damned!”

Septicia quoque, mater Trachalorum Ariminensium, irata filiis, in contumeliam eorum, cum iam parere non posset, Publicio seni admodum nupsit, testamento etiam utrumque praeteriit. a quibus aditus divus Augustus et nuptias mulieris et suprema iudicia improbavit: nam hereditatem maternam filios habere iussit, dotem, quia non creandorum liberorum causa coniugium intercesserat, virum retinere vetuit. si ipsa Aequitas hac de re cognosceret, potuitne iustius aut gravius pronuntiare? spernis quos genuisti, nubis effeta, testamenti ordinem malevolo animo confundis, neque erubescis ei totum patrimonium addicere cuius pollincto iam corpori marcidam senectutem tuam substravisti. ergo dum sic te geris, ad inferos usque caelesti fulmine adflata es.

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Marriage scene on a sarcophagus

 

Plato’s Sister and the Women Among His Students

Diogenes Laertius IV.1

“These facts are as accurate details about Plato as we are able to gather in our laborious research of the things said about him. Speusippus, an an Athenian son of Eurymedon, took over for him. He was from the deme of Myrrhinos and was the son of Plato’s sister, Pôtônê.

Speusippos was the leader of the school for eight years, and he began after the 108th Olympiad. He had statues of the Graces dedicated in the Museion which Plato built in the Academy. Although he remained an adherent to Plato’s theories, he was not like him at all in his character.  For he was quick to anger and easily induced by pleasures. People say that he threw a little dog into a well in a rage and he went to Macedonia to the marriage of Kassander thanks to pleasure.

Two women, Lastheneia of Mantinea and Aksiothea of Phlios, were students of Plato who are said to have heard Speusippus speak. Writing at the time, Dionysus says mockingly: “It is possible to evaluate your wisdom from your Arcadian girl of a student.” And, while Plato made everyone who came to him exempt from tuition, you “send everyone a bill and take money from the willing and unwilling alike!”

Τὰ μὲν περὶ Πλάτωνος τοσαῦτα ἦν ἐς τὸ δυνατὸν ἡμῖν συναγαγεῖν, φιλοπόνως διειλήσασι τὰ λεγόμενα περὶ τἀνδρός. διεδέξατο δ᾿ αὐτὸν Σπεύσιππος Εὐρυμέδοντος Ἀθηναῖος, τῶν μὲν δήμων Μυρρινούσιος, υἱὸς δὲ τῆς ἀδελφῆς αὐτοῦ Πωτώνης. καὶ ἐσχολάρχησεν ἔτη ὀκτώ, ἀρξάμενος ἀπὸ τῆς ὀγδόης καὶ ἑκατοστῆς Ὀλυμπιάδος· Χαρίτων τ᾿ ἀγάλματ᾿ ἀνέθηκεν ἐν τῷ μουσείῳ τῷ ὑπὸ Πλάτωνος ἐν Ἀκαδημείᾳ ἱδρυθέντι. καὶ ἔμεινε μὲν ἐπὶ τῶν αὐτῶν Πλάτωνι δογμάτων· οὐ μὴν τό γ᾿ ἦθος διέμεινε τοιοῦτος. καὶ γὰρ ὀργίλος καὶ ἡδονῶν ἥττων ἦν. φασὶ γοῦν αὐτὸν ὑπὸ θυμοῦ τὸ κυνίδιον εἰς τὸ φρέαρ ῥῖψαι καὶ ὑφ᾿ ἡδονῆς ἐλθεῖν εἰς Μακεδονίαν ἐπὶ τὸν Κασάνδρου γάμον.

Ἐλέγοντο δὲ αὐτοῦ καὶ αἱ Πλάτωνος ἀκούειν μαθήτριαι, Λασθένειά τε ἡ Μαντινικὴ καὶ Ἀξιοθέα ἡ Φλιασία. ὅτε καὶ Διονύσιος πρὸς αὐτὸν γράφων τωθαστικῶς φησι· “καὶ ἐκ τῆς Ἀρκαδικῆς σου μαθητρίας ἔστι καταμαθεῖν τὴν σοφίαν. καὶ Πλάτων μὲν ἀτελεῖς φόρων τοὺς παρ᾿ αὐτὸν φοιτῶντας ἐποίει· σὺ δὲ δασμολογεῖς καὶ παρ᾿ ἑκόντων καὶ ἀκόντων λαμβάνεις.”

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