Posts on Myth from Women’s History Month

Euripides,  Fr. 464

“Get married already, get married, and then die
Either by poison or a trick from your wife.”

γαμεῖτε νῦν, γαμεῖτε, κᾆτα θνῄσκετε
ἢ φαρμάκοισιν ἐκ γυναικὸς ἢ δόλοις.

Euripides, fr. 320 (Danae)

“There is neither fortress nor fortune
Nor anything else as hard to guard as a woman.”

οὐκ ἔστιν οὔτε τεῖχος οὔτε χρήματα
οὔτ’ ἄλλο δυσφύλακτον οὐδὲν ὡς γυνή.

Anacreontea, 24.8-13

Nature gave bulls horns
Hooves to horses
Swift feet to hares
A mouth of teeth to lions
Swimming to fish
Flight to birds
And wisdom to men.
What did nature give to women?
stronger than all shields and spears.
A woman who is beautiful
conquers both iron and fire.

Φύσις κέρατα ταύροις,
ὁπλὰς δ’ ἔδωκεν ἵπποις,
ποδωκίην λαγωοῖς,
λέουσι χάσμ’ ὀδόντων,
τοῖς ἰχθύσιν τὸ νηκτόν,
τοῖς ὀρνέοις πέτασθαι,
τοῖς ἀνδράσιν φρόνημα·
γυναιξὶν οὐν ἔτ᾿ εἶχεν
τί οὖν; δίδωσι κάλλος
ἀντ᾿ ἀσπίδων ἁπασῶν
ἀντ᾿ ἐγχέων ἁπάντων
νικᾷ δὲ καὶ σίδηρον
καὶ πῦρ καλή τις οὖσα

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 4.1192-1200: Sometimes Women Don’t Fake It

“A woman doesn’t always gasp with counterfeit passion
when she joins her body in embrace with a man
and holds his lips with a drawn, moist kiss.
Often she acts from her spirit and as she seeks shared happiness,
she incites him to race through the course of his love.”

Nec mulier semper ficto suspirat amore,
quae conplexa viri corpus cum corpore iungit
et tenet adsuctis umectans oscula labris;
nam facit ex animo saepe et communia quaerens
gaudia sollicitat spatium decurrere amoris.

This past month I made a special effort to post new material featuring women from Greek myth.  The results have been less than happy but have confirmed (even exacerbated) my general opinion about the tales Greeks and Romans told about women: by and large, they are terrible. This fact has always made me go through contortions to say something nice about Greek and Roman stories on women, but it is increasingly obvious that I should just give up any type of apologetics and tell students the truth: ancient myth is filled with repugnant tales that communicate and reinforce not just negative attitudes about women, but perspectives that justify and even valorize their treatments as objects and general dehumanization.

Here’s a recap of the month’s tales.

Pausanias records that Medusa may have just been a pretty woman  Perseus killed so he could take her head back and show it to his friends.


Apollo, as many know, cursed Kassandra for not having sex with him. When she got to the Peloponnese, Aigisthos slaughtered the twins she bore to her captor Agamemnon and then Klytemnestra killed her too (so the women here either are a victim of rape, torture and murder or else guilty of murder). Shoot, even before that happened, Kassandra was dangled as a bride to help secure allies in the fight against the Greeks.


Things weren’t much better for her mother Hecuba who, according to some accounts, was awarded to Odysseus after the end of the war.  He had her killed by stoning when she complained to much (and after she was turned into a dog).


I know everyone wants to blame the Trojan War on Helen, but according to the Argives she was abducted as a child,raped by Theseus and gave her child to Klytemnestra who raised her as her own.  That child? Iphigenia. Agamemnon had to kill her so that the Greeks could find their way to Troy.

I tried to make things a little better–I found a story where Zeus is actually in love with Hera and turns into a cuckoo bird. There’s also the tale of the warrior-poet Telesilla who saves her city from the Spartans (but only because they won’t fight ladies).

The most depressing tale of all, however, features a nameless woman. In the following tale, the foreignness and gender of a woman lets the sailors just sacrifice her to save their own skins:


Pausanias, 1.23.5

“Because I wished to know more than another about Satyrs—who they are—I traveled to many men for stories of them. The Carian Euphemus told me that once while sailing to Italy he was led off his course by the winds and into the sea beyond in which others do not sail. He was claiming that many islands there are empty but that in others savage men live. His sailors did not want to land on those islands because, those who had landed there before had gained some knowledge of the population; but at this time, again, they were forced. According to Euphemos the islands are called Satyrides by the sailors: the people who live there have red-hair, are not much taller than horses, and have tails on their rear-ends. As soon as they noticed that the sailors were coming, they rushed toward the ship without making a noise and attacked the women on it. Finally, out of fear, the sailors threw a foreign woman overboard. The Satyrs violated her not only in the regular way but using her entire body as well.”

περὶ δὲ Σατύρων, οἵτινές εἰσιν, ἑτέρου πλέον ἐθέλων ἐπίστασθαι πολλοῖς αὐτῶν τούτων ἕνεκα ἐς λόγους ἦλθον. ἔφη δὲ Εὔφημος Κὰρ ἀνὴρ πλέων ἐς᾿Ιταλίαν ἁμαρτεῖν ὑπὸ ἀνέμων τοῦ πλοῦ καὶ ἐς τὴν ἔξω θάλασσαν, ἐς ἣν οὐκέτι πλέουσιν, ἐξενεχθῆναι. νήσους δὲ εἶναι μὲν ἔλεγεν ἐρήμους πολλάς, ἐν δὲ ἄλλαιςοἰκεῖν ἄνδρας ἀγρίους· ταύταις δὲ οὐκ ἐθέλειν νήσοις προσίσχειν τοὺς ναύτας οἷα πρότερόν τε προσσχόντας καὶ τῶν ἐνοικούντων οὐκ ἀπείρως ἔχοντας, βιασθῆναι δ’οὖν καὶ τότε. ταύτας καλεῖσθαι μὲν ὑπὸ τῶν ναυτῶν Σατυρίδας, εἶναι δὲ τοὺς ἐνοικοῦντας [καὶ] καπυροὺς καὶ ἵππων οὐ πολὺ μείους ἔχειν ἐπὶ τοῖς ἰσχίοις οὐράς.τούτους, ὡς ᾔσθοντο, καταδραμόντας ἐπὶ τὴν ναῦν φωνὴν μὲν οὐδεμίαν ἱέναι, ταῖς δὲ γυναιξὶν ἐπιχειρεῖν ταῖς ἐν τῇ νηί· τέλος δὲ δείσαντας τοὺς ναύτας βάρβαρον γυναῖκα ἐκβαλεῖν ἐς τὴν νῆσον· ἐς ταύτην οὖν ὑβρίζειν τοὺς Σατύρους οὐ μόνον ᾗ καθέστηκεν, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ πᾶν ὁμοίως σῶμα.

I can always try to cherry-pick anecdotes like those of Aspasia–who allegedly taught Socrates rhetoric–or emphasize the beauty of Sappho’s poetry. We can expatiate all we want on the power of Greek and Roman love poetry. But the truth is, the Romans and Greeks function much better as examples to avoid.

Tawdry Tuesday: The Argives Say Helen is Iphigenia’s Mother


The tale I usually tell my myth students is that Helen was kidnapped as a baby by Theseus and returned fairly young as well.  According to Pausanias, the Argives (and some poets) told a rather different story about her.


“Near the shrine of the Lords is the temple of Eilêthuia, set up by Helen when Theseus was passing through to the Thesprotians with Peirthoos after Aphidna was captured by the Dioskouri and Helen was being taken to Lakedaimon. Some say that she was pregnant and that she gave birth in Argos and then built the temple of Eilêthuia but that she gave the child she bore to Klytemnestra—for she was already married to Agamemnon—and that she married Menelaos after these events. The poets Euphorion of Khalkis and Alexandros of Pleurôn have written poems on this matter; before them still, Stesikhoros of Himeria also agrees with the Argives that Iphigenia was Theseus’ daughter.”

πλησίον δὲ τῶν ᾿Ανάκτων Εἰληθυίας ἐστὶν ἱερὸν ἀνάθημα ῾Ελένης, ὅτε σὺν Πειρίθῳ Θησέως ἀπελθόντος ἐς Θεσπρωτοὺς ῎Αφιδνά τε ὑπὸ Διοσκούρων ἑάλω καὶ ἤγετο ἐς Λακεδαίμονα ῾Ελένη. ἔχειν μὲν γὰρ αὐτὴν λέγουσιν ἐν γαστρί, τεκοῦσαν δὲ ἐν ῎Αργει καὶ τῆς Εἰληθυίας ἱδρυσαμένην τὸ ἱερὸν τὴν μὲν παῖδα ἣν ἔτεκε Κλυταιμνήστρᾳ δοῦναι—συνοικεῖν γὰρ ἤδη Κλυταιμνήστραν ᾿Αγαμέμνονι—, αὐτὴν δὲ ὕστερον τούτων Μενελάῳ γήμασθαι. καὶ ἐπὶ τῷδε Εὐφορίων Χαλκιδεὺς καὶ Πλευρώνιος ᾿Αλέξανδρος ἔπη ποιήσαντες, πρότερον δὲ ἔτι Στησίχορος ὁ ῾Ιμεραῖος, κατὰ ταὐτά φασιν ᾿Αργείοις Θησέως εἶναι θυγατέρα ᾿Ιφιγένειαν.

In some accounts, Theseus kidnaps an older Helen.


Here’s a fragment from Euphorion (fr. 90)


“Because, in fact, Helen gave birth to her with Theseus who violated her with force”

Οὕνεκα δή μιν
ἶφι βιησαμένῳ ῾Ελένη ὑπεγείνατο Θησεῖ.


There is wordplay here with Iphigenia and iphi-biêsamenô.





“What’s this got to do with Helen?” Four Passages from Euripides Iphigenia at Aulis

“…It isn’t right that
A well-born man change his ways when attempting great deeds:
No, he should at that moment be steadfast, especially to his friends
Since a men is most able to help his friends when he does well.”

…ἄνδρα δ᾽ οὐ χρεὼν
τὸν ἀγαθὸν πράσσοντα μεγάλα τοὺς τρόπους μεθιστάναι,
ἀλλὰ καὶ βέβαιον εἶναι τότε μάλιστα τοῖς φίλοις,
ἡνίκ᾽ ὠφελεῖν μάλιστα δυνατός ἐστιν εὐτυχῶν.

This sounds nice and sententious. But remember that Menelaos is trying to convince Agamemnon to kill his daughter.

494: “What does your daughter have to do with Helen?”

…τί δ’ ῾Ελένης παρθένωι τῆι σῆι μέτα;

Agamemnon: “The offspring of Sisyphus knows everything.”
Menelaos: “There is no way that Odysseus will hurt you and me.”
Agamemnon: “He has always been clever with the mob.”
Menelaos: “He is a slave to public favor, a terrible evil.?

Αγ. τὸ Σισύφειον σπέρμα πάντ’ οἶδεν τάδε.
Με. οὐκ ἔστ’ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ὅτι σὲ κἀμὲ πημανεῖ.
Αγ. ποικίλος ἀεὶ πέφυκε τοῦ τ’ ὄχλου μέτα.
Με. φιλοτιμίαι μὲν ἐνέχεται, δεινῶι κακῶι.


“Men have different natures;
They have different ways. But acting rightly
Always stands out.
The preparation of education
points the way to virtue.
For it is a mark of wisdom to feel shame
and it brings the transformative grace
of seeing through its judgment
what is right; it is reputation that grants
an ageless glory to your life.”

διάφοροι δὲ φύσεις βροτῶν,
διάφοροι δὲ τρόποι· τὸ δ’ ὀρ-
θῶς ἐσθλὸν σαφὲς αἰεί·
τροφαί θ’ αἱ παιδευόμεναι
μέγα φέρουσ’ ἐς τὰν ἀρετάν·
τό τε γὰρ αἰδεῖσθαι σοφία,
†τάν τ’ ἐξαλλάσσουσαν ἔχει
χάριν ὑπὸ γνώμας ἐσορᾶν†
τὸ δέον, ἔνθα δόξα φέρει
κλέος ἀγήρατον βιοτᾶι.

Naming Agamemnon’s Daughters and the Death of Iphigeneia

The sacrifice of Iphigenia is a pivotal moment in the tale of the House of Atreus—it motivates Agamemnon’s murder and in turn the matricide of Orestes—and the Trojan War, functioning as it does as a strange sacrifice of a virgin daughter of Klytemnestra in exchange for passage for a fleet to regain the adulteress Helen, Iphigeneia’s aunt by both her father and mother. The account is famous in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and the plays Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia among the Taurians by Euripides. Its earliest accounts, however, provide some interesting variations:

Hes. Fr. 23.13-30

“Agamemnon, lord of men, because of her beauty,
Married the dark-eyed daughter of Tyndareus, Klytemnestra.
She gave birth to fair-ankled Iphimede in her home
And Elektra who rivaled the goddesses in beauty.
But the well-greaved Achaeans butchered Iphimede
on the altar of thundering, golden-arrowed Artemis
on that day when they sailed with ships to Ilium
in order to exact payment for fair-ankled Argive woman—
they butchered a ghost. But the deer-shooting arrow-mistress
easily rescued her and anointed her head
with lovely ambrosia so that her flesh would be enduring—
She made her immortal and ageless for all days.
Now the races of men upon the earth call her
Artemis of the roads, the servant of the famous arrow-mistress.
Last in her home, dark-eyed Klytemnestra gave birth
after being impregnated by Agamemnon to Orestes,
who, once he reached maturity, paid back the murderer of his father
and killed his mother as well with pitiless bronze.”

γ̣ῆμ̣[ε δ’ ἑὸν διὰ κάλλος ἄναξ ἀνδρ]ῶν ᾿Αγαμέμνων
κού[ρην Τυνδαρέοιο Κλυταιμήσ]τρην κυανῶπ[ιν•
ἣ̣ τ̣[έκεν ᾿Ιφιμέδην καλλίσφυ]ρον ἐν μεγάρο[ισιν
᾿Ηλέκτρην θ’ ἣ εἶδος ἐρήριστ’ ἀ[θανά]τηισιν.
᾿Ιφιμέδην μὲν σφάξαν ἐυκνή[μ]ιδες ᾿Αχαιοὶ
βωμῶ[ι ἔπ’ ᾿Αρτέμιδος χρυσηλακ]ά̣τ[ου] κελαδεινῆς,
ἤματ[ι τῶι ὅτε νηυσὶν ἀνέπλ]εον̣ ῎Ιλιον ε̣[ἴσω
ποινὴ[ν τεισόμενοι καλλισ]φύρου ᾿Αργειώ̣[νη]ς̣,
εἴδω[λον• αὐτὴν δ’ ἐλαφηβό]λο̣ς ἰοχέαιρα
ῥεῖα μάλ’ ἐξεσά[ωσε, καὶ ἀμβροσ]ίην [ἐρ]ατ̣ε̣[ινὴν
στάξε κατὰ κρῆ[θεν, ἵνα οἱ χ]ρ̣ὼς̣ [ἔ]μ̣πε[δ]ο̣[ς] ε̣[ἴη,
θῆκεν δ’ ἀθάνατο[ν καὶ ἀγήρ]αον ἤμα[τα πάντα.
τὴν δὴ νῦν καλέο[υσιν ἐπὶ χ]θ̣ονὶ φῦλ’ ἀν̣[θρώπων
῎Αρτεμιν εἰνοδί[ην, πρόπολον κλυ]τοῦ ἰ[ο]χ[ε]αίρ[ης.
λοῖσθον δ’ ἐν μεγά[ροισι Κλυτ]αιμ̣ή̣στρη κυα[νῶπις
γείναθ’ ὑποδμηθ[εῖσ’ ᾿Αγαμέμν]ον[ι δῖ]ον ᾿Ορέ[στην,
ὅς ῥα καὶ ἡβήσας ἀπε̣[τείσατο π]ατροφο[ν]ῆα,
κτεῖνε δὲ μητέρα [ἣν ὑπερήν]ορα νηλέι [χαλκῶι.

This fragment presents what is possibly the earliest account of the tale of Iphigenia and contains the major elements: the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter is tied to vengeance against Helen; the daughter is rescued by Artemis, made immortal and made her servant. [In some traditions she is either made immortal or made into a priestess of Artemis at Tauris]. Orestes kills the murderer of his father and his mother.
Continue reading “Naming Agamemnon’s Daughters and the Death of Iphigeneia”

To Live is to Feel Joy and Grief Alike: Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, 30-44.

At the beginning of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis we find Agamemnon awake in turmoil, much the same way as he begins book 10 of the Iliad. An old attendant tries to calm him down. Then he asks for a story.

Agamemnon: “This is it, the noble risk,
And its ambition
It is sweet, but it causes pain when it is closer.
Sometimes divine decrees, incomplete, will
Upturn our life, and then the many implacable beliefs
Of human beings will shatter it.”

Old Man: “I do not like these thoughts from a leader
Atreus did not bear you for only life’s good,
But you must feel joy and grief: For you are a mortal.
Even if you do not want it, these things
Are still willed by the gods.
But you kindled the light of the lamp
And wrote on that tablet which you
Worry in your hand and you pour out
The same words again and then
You seal them only to wipe off the seal
And throw the pine frame to the ground
As you shed flowing tears. You seem at a loss-
You seem like someone who has gone mad.
What pains you? What’s new, king?
Come, share your tale with me.”

Αγ. τοῦτο δέ γ’ ἐστὶν τὸ καλὸν σφαλερόν,
καὶ τὸ πρότιμον
γλυκὺ μέν, λυπεῖ δὲ προσιστάμενον.
τοτὲ μὲν τὰ θεῶν οὐκ ὀρθωθέντ’
ἀνέτρεψε βίον, τοτὲ δ’ ἀνθρώπων
γνῶμαι πολλαὶ
καὶ δυσάρεστοι διέκναισαν.
Πρ. οὐκ ἄγαμαι ταῦτ’ ἀνδρὸς ἀριστέως.
οὐκ ἐπὶ πᾶσίν σ’ ἐφύτευσ’ ἀγαθοῖς,
᾿Αγάμεμνον, ᾿Ατρεύς. δεῖ δέ σε χαίρειν
καὶ λυπεῖσθαι· θνητὸς γὰρ ἔφυς.
κἂν μὴ σὺ θέληις, τὰ θεῶν οὕτω
βουλόμεν’ ἔσται. σὺ δὲ λαμπτῆρος
φάος ἀμπετάσας δέλτον τε γράφεις
τήνδ’ ἣν πρὸ χερῶν ἔτι βαστάζεις,
καὶ ταὐτὰ πάλιν γράμματα συγχεῖς
καὶ σφραγίζεις λύεις τ’ ὀπίσω
ῥίπτεις τε πέδωι πεύκην, θαλερὸν
κατὰ δάκρυ χέων, κἀκ τῶν ἀπόρων
οὐδενὸς ἐνδεῖς μὴ οὐ μαίνεσθαι.
τί πονεῖς; τί νέον παρὰ σοί, βασιλεῦ;
φέρε κοίνωσον μῦθον ἐς ἡμᾶς.

Leisure, Work and Child-Sacrifice: Two Fragments from Ennius’ Lost Iphigenia

Ennius’ Iphigenia was certainly modeled on Euripides’ Iphigenia on Aulis. But that in no way keeps the fragments from being their own creations….

232-234 Agamemnon

“Am I tortured because you mess up? You wander and I am on trial?
Let Helen return for her misdeed, but an innocent girl will perish?
That you and your wife be reconciled, my daughter should be served up?”

Ego projector quod tu peccas? Tu delinquis, ego arguor?
Pro malefactis Helena redeat, virgo pereat innocens?
Tua reconcilietur uxor, mea necetur filia?

241-248 Chorus

“Whoever doesn’t know who to use leisure when he has it,
Has more work in leisure than he has in work.
For the man who has a set task, does it without work:
He pays attention to it and in it entertains his mind and spirit.
In true leisure the sick mind does not know what it wants.
It is the same way here: look, we are neither at home nor soldiers;
We go here and there and when we have gone there, we go away again.
Our spirit wanders pointlessly; life is lived, more or less.”

Otio qui nescit uti <quom otium est, in otio>
Plus negoti habet quam quom est negotium in negotio;
Nam cui quod agat institutumst non ullo negotio
Id agit, id studet,ibi mentem atque animum delectat suum.
Otioso in otio animus nescit quid velit.
Hoc idem est; em neque domi nunc nos nec militiae sumus;
Imus huc, hin illuc;quom illuc ventum est, ire illic lubet.
Incerte errat animus, praeterpropter vitam vivitur.

“The light of day is the sweetest thing for men to see

And the world beneath us is nothing. Whoever prays to die is insane.

Better to live badly than to die well.”


τὸ φῶς τόδ᾽ ἀνθρώποισιν ἥδιστον βλέπειν,

τὰ νέρθε δ᾽ οὐδέν: μαίνεται δ᾽ ὃς εὔχεται

θανεῖν. κακῶς ζῆν κρεῖσσον ἢ καλῶς θανεῖν


Iphigeneia, of course, changes her mind to the opposite opinion…here’s the full text.