A proverb from the Suda
“By a Lemnian Hand: [meaning] cruelly and lawlessly. This is from a story: for they say that the women in Lemnos allegedly killed their husbands because they weren’t having sex with them”
Λημνίᾳ χειρί: ὠμῇ καὶ παρανόμῳ. ἀπὸ τῆς ἱστορίας· φασὶ γὰρ τὰς ἐν Λήμνῳ γυναῖκας τοὺς ἄνδρας αὐτῶν ἀνελεῖν αἰτιωμένας, ὅτι αὐταῖς οὐκ ἐμίγνυντο.
A few years ago I was looking up some odd word or another in the work of the lexicographer Hesychius (ok, to be honest, I was looking up words for feces and was looking at κοκκιλόνδις· παιδὸς ἀφόδευμα; kokkilondis: “a child’s excrement”). I found the following words which are pretty much absent from all modern lexica.
Kikkasos: the sweat flowing from between the thighs
κίκκασος· ὁ ἐκ τῶν παραμηρίων ἱδρὼς ῥέων.
Kikkê: Sex. Or the bad smell [that comes] from genitals
κίκκη· συνουσία. ἡ ἀπὸ τῶν αἰδοίων δυσοσμία
Obviously, the specificity of these two lexical items is amusing. But their very existence perplexed me a bit. Where did they come from? How were they used? (They don’t actually appear anywhere but in Hesychius.) After some contemplation and a little restraint, I can only conclude that the words emerge from a generally misogynistic context which also considered sex in some way unclean.
The story that I kept thinking of was that of the Lemnian women—it is one of the few connections I could make between sex and bad smells. It is also one of my least favorite myths because it echoes modern misogynistic taboos which marginalize and alienate female bodies. So, I almost didn’t write this post. But I do think that it is worth making these connections, however uncomfortable they are.
Here are two versions of the Lemnian women tale.
“Jason was the captain of the ship as they disembarked and neared Lemnos. The island then happened to be bereft of men and was ruled by Hypsipyle, Thoas’ daughter, for the following reason. The Lemnian women used not to honor Aphrodite. She cast a terrible smell upon them and, for this reason, their husbands acquired spear-won women from Thrace and slept with them.
Because they were dishonored, the Lemnian women slaughtered their fathers and husbands. Hypsipyle alone spared her father Thoas by hiding him. After they landed on the women-controlled island, they slept with the women. Hypsipyle gave birth to sons after sleeping with Jason: Eunêos and Nebrophonos.”
οὗτοι ναυαρχοῦντος ᾿Ιάσονος ἀναχθέντες προσίσχουσι Λήμνῳ. ἔτυχε δὲ ἡ Λῆμνος ἀνδρῶν τότε οὖσα ἔρημος, βασιλευομένη δὲ ὑπὸ ῾Υψιπύλης τῆς Θόαντος δι’ αἰτίαν τήνδε. αἱ Λήμνιαι τὴν ᾿Αφροδίτην οὐκ ἐτίμων· ἡ δὲ αὐταῖς ἐμβάλλει δυσοσμίαν, καὶ διὰ τοῦτο οἱ γήμαντες αὐτὰς ἐκ τῆς πλησίον Θρᾴκης λαβόντες αἰχμαλωτίδας συνευνάζοντο αὐταῖς. ἀτιμαζόμεναι δὲ αἱ Λήμνιαι τούς τε πατέρας καὶ τοὺς ἄνδρας φονεύουσι· μόνη δὲ ἔσωσεν ῾Υψιπύλη τὸν ἑαυτῆς πατέρα κρύψασα
Θόαντα. προσσχόντες οὖν τότε γυναικοκρατουμένῃ τῇ Λήμνῳ μίσγονται ταῖς γυναιξίν. ῾Υψιπύλη δὲ ᾿Ιάσονι συνευνάζεται, καὶ γεννᾷ παῖδας Εὔνηον καὶ Νεβρο-φόνον.
Schol ad. Pind. P4 88b
“The story goes like this: Because the Lemnian women had carried out the honors for Aphrodite improperly, the goddess inflicted a bad smell upon them: for this reason, men turned them away. They all worked together and killed their husbands in a plot. Then the Argonauts, as they were travelling to Skythia, arrived in in Lemnos; when they found that the island was bereft of men, they slept with the women and then left. The sons who were born from them went to Sparta in search of their fathers and, once they were accepted among the Lakonians, they became citizens there and settled in Sparta.
ἱστορία τοιαύτη· ταῖς Λημνίαις γυναιξὶν ἀσεβῶς διακειμέναις περὶ τὰς τῆς ᾿Αφροδίτης τιμὰς ἡ θεὸς δυσοσμίαν προσέπεμψε, καὶ οὕτως αὐτὰς οἱ ἄνδρες ἀπεστράφησαν· αἱ δὲ συνθέμεναι πρὸς ἑαυτὰς ἐξ ἐπιβουλῆς τοὺς ἄνδρας ἀνεῖλον. τηνικαῦτα δὲ οἱ ᾿Αργοναῦται τὸν εἰς Σκυθίαν στελλόμενοι πλοῦν προσωρμίσθησαν τῇ Λήμνῳ, καὶ εὑρόντες ἔρημον ἀρσένων τὴν νῆσον συνελθόντες ταῖς γυναιξὶν ἀπηλλάγησαν. οἱ δὲ φύντες ἐξ αὐτῶν ἦλθον εἰς Λακεδαίμονα κατὰ ζήτησιν τῶν πατέρων, καὶ προσδεχθέντες παρὰ Λάκωσι καὶ πολιτευσάμενοι συνέθεντο ἐπιθέσθαι τῇ Σπάρτῃ…
This tale seems to combine with a larger treatment of Lemnos as clear from the proverb above and this one:
A proverb from Zenobius (4.91)
“A Lemnian evil”: A proverb which they say comes from the lawless acts committed against husbands by the women of Lemnos. Or it derives from the story of the women who were abducted from Attica by the Pelasgians and settled in Lemnos. Once they gave birth, they taught their sons the ways and the language of the Athenians. They honored each other and ruled over those who descended from Thracians. Then the Pelasgians, because they were angry over this, killed them and their mothers. Or the proverb derives from the bad smell of the Lemnian women.”
Λήμνιον κακόν: παροιμία, ἣν διαδοθῆναι φασὶν ἀπὸ τῶν παρανομηθέντων εἰς τοὺς ἄνδρας ἐν Λήμνῳ ὑπὸ τῶν γυναικῶν. ῍Η διὰ τὸ τὰς ἁρπαγείσας ὑπὸ Πελασγῶν ἐκ τῆς ᾿Αττικῆς γυναῖκας εἰς Λῆμνον ἀπαχθῆναι· ἃς ἀποτεκούσας τρόπους τε τῶν ᾿Αθηναίων διδάξαι τοὺς παῖδας καὶ γλῶτταν· τούτους δὲ τιμωρεῖν ἀλλήλοις καὶ τῶν ἐκ τῶν Θρᾳσσῶν γεγενημένων ἐπικρατεῖν· τοὺς δὲ Πελασγοὺς ἐπὶ τούτῳ ἀχθομένους κτεῖναι αὐτοὺς καὶ τὰς μητέρας αὐτῶν. ῍Η διὰ τὴν δυσωδίαν τῶν Λημνιάδων γυναικῶν τὴν παροιμίαν διαδοθῆναι.
The story of the Lemnian crimes (Lêmnia Erga) is told by Herodotus (6.137-138): the Pelasgians were driven out of Attic and took Lemnos; then they got their revenge by abducting Athenian women during a festival. When the sons of these women grew up, they frightened the native Pelasgians and they were all killed.
In the major tales, it is clear that the women are not completely at fault, but they are the ones who seem to suffer the most. Within the broader narrative of the Argonaut tale, especially, we can see how women are defined by their bodies as loci of sexual interest or disinterest, the ability to produce children, and anxiety that they might not remain subordinate to male desire. The casual detail of the Pelasgian tale is especially harrowing.