Jerome Letters 44.13 (To Furia on the duty of remaining a widow, 394 CE)
“Avoid the company of young men. Never let long-haired, expensive, lust-mongers in your home. A Singer should be avoided like the plague. Kick out all women who sing songs and play instruments like they are the chorus of the devil with songs as deadly as the sirens’. Do not go out in public all the time, taking for yourself the freedom of widow, and parade around with an army of eunuchs preceding you.
It is of the worst character when one of the fragile sex at a young age takes advantage of freedom and think it is possible to do whatever you want. “All things are allowed but not all are expedient”. Don’t allow a curly-haired guard or a pretty foster brother or a blond or red haired servant to stick to your side all the time. Sometimes the mind of mistresses is judged by the the dress of their servants. Seek the friendship of sacred virgins and widows. If you have to talk to men, don’t avoid having witnesses there and make sure that you have so much confidence in your conversation that you won’t be afraid or embarrassed to have someone else listen.”
Iuvenum fuge consortia. Comatulos, comptos atque lascivos domus tuae tecta non videant. Cantor pellatur ut noxius; fidicinas et psaltrias et istius modi chorum diaboli quasi mortifera sirenarum carmina proturba ex aedibus tuis. Noli ad publicum subinde procedere et spadonum exercitu praeeunte viduarum circumferri libertate. Pessimae consuetudinis est, cum fragilis sexus et inbecilla aetas suo arbitrio abutitur et putat licere, quod libet. ‘Omnia’ quidem ‘licent, sed non omnia expediunt.’ Nec procurator calamistratus nec formosus conlactaneus nec candidulus et rubicundus adsecula adhaereant lateri tuo: interdum animus dominarum ex ancillarum habitu iudicatur. Sanctarum virginum et viduarum societatem adpete, et si sermocinandi cum viris incumbit necessitas, arbitros ne devites tantaque confabulandi fiducia sit, ut intrante alio nec paveas nec erubescas.
In a recent article, Sarah Scullin collects misandrist myths and topics from Greece and Rome. Reading some ancient scholarship can make us see why someone might find such ideas attractive. The following lines and commentary from the Homeric Scholia come from the scene at the end of book 1 of the Iliad where Hera talks to Zeus about his recent conversation with Thetis.
αὐτίκα κερτομίοισι Δία Κρονίωνα προσηύδα·
“Immediately, she addressed Kronos’ son Zeus with heart-rending words.”
Schol. bT ad Il. 1.539
“heart-rending”: words which hit the heart. For, both of these things are womanly: to be suspicious and to not restrain speech.”
“Let’s talk first concerning the disease which is called sacred and paralyzed people and the many anxieties which frighten people seriously enough that they lose their minds and believe that they see evil spirits by night or even at times by die or sometimes on all hours. Many have hanged themselves before because of this kind of vision, more often women than men.
For a woman’s nature is more depressed and sorrowful. And young women, when they are at the age of marriage and without a husband, suffer terribly at the time of their menstruation, which they did not suffer earlier in life. For blood collects later in their uterus so that it may flow out. When, then, the mouth of the exit does not create an opening, the blood pools up more because of food and the body’s growth. When the blood has nowhere to flow, it rises up toward the heart and the diaphragm. When these organs are filled, the heart is desensitized and from this transformation it becomes numb. Madness overtakes women because of this numbness.”
Earlier I posted a passage from the Odyssey where the narrator tells us that Penelope raised the slave Melanthô and gave her toys. This detail is paired with the slave woman’s sexual behavior—she is now a bad slave because she is having sex with one of the suitors.
“Then fine-cheeked Melanthô reproached him shamefully. Dolios fathered her and Penelope raised her, she treated her like her own child and used to give her delights for her heart. But she did not have grief in her thoughts for Penelope. Instead she was having sex with and feeling affection for Eurymakhos.”
The meaning of this behavior might not be clear to modern audiences. Ancient audiences might have needed clarification too. The epic shows Odysseus witnessing this later.
“Odysseus was lying there, still awake, devising evils in his heart
For the suitors. And the women went from the hall
The ones who were having sex with the suitors before
Greeting one another with a welcome and a laugh.
And Odysseus’ heart rose in his dear chest.
He debated much in his thoughts and through his heart
Whether after leaping up he should deal out death to each woman
Or he should allow them to have sex with the arrogant suitors
a last and final time. The heart inside his chest barked.
And as a mother dog who stands over her young pups
When she sees an unknown man barks and waits to fight,
So his heart growled within him as he was enraged at the evil deeds.
Then he struck his chest and reproached the heart inside him.
Endure this my heart, you endured a more harrowing thing on that day
When the savage Cyclops, insanely daring, ate
My strong companions. You were enduring this and your intelligence
Led you from that cave even though you thought you were going to die.”
Beyond whether or not the liaison was a good wooing strategy for Eurymachus, these closely paired statements show that despite being integrated into the family structure, Melantho has not internalized her position and has instead exercised agency in pursuing sexuality. (Or, perhaps more accurately, exercising control over her own body to choose a different master.) When the epic returns to the issue, it takes pains to depict the women as in control and to ensure that Odysseus witnesses it. When he reveals himself to the suitors in book 22, he accuses them of forcefully sleeping with the women.
“Dogs, you were expecting that out of the way I would not come
home from the land of the Trojans and you ruined my home,
Took the slave women in my house to bed by force
And wooed the wife of a man who was still alive…”
The difference in tone is in part due to the level of narrative—in the first two scenes mentioned above, the sexual acts are observed through the narrator. When Odysseus talks about it, he characterizes the acts differently because he sees the sexual acts as transgressing his control of the household. If the women—who are animate objects, not people—have sex, then they are the sexual objects of aggressors against Odysseus’ control. This transgressive behavior on their part helps to explain why Odysseus decides to slaughter them.
Who should have sex with the slave women is implied by a narrative passage from the beginning of the epic (1.428–33)
“And with him Eurykleia carried the burning torches. She knew proper things, the daughter of Ops, the son of Peisênor whom Laertes bought to be among his possessions when she was just a girl and he paid a price worth 20 oxen. And he used to honor her equal to his dear wife in his home but he never had sex with her and he was avoiding his wife’s anger.”
It is exceptional here that Laertes does not have sex with Eurykleia. This indicates an economy of sexual slavery in which the slave women are the objects to be used by those who own them. If they are used without permission or act on their own, they represent perversions.
Doherty, Lillian. 2001. “The Snares of the Odyssey: A Feminist Narratological Reading.” 117-133.
Thalmann, William G. 1998. “Female Slaves in the Odyssey.” 22–34
“And there is also a notion older than this which seemed right to Lykourgos for Sparta. Because he meant to provide warrior-athletes for Sparta, he said, “Let the girls exercise and permit them to run in public. Certainly this strengthening of their bodies was for the sake of good childbearing and that they would have better offspring.
For one who comes from this training to her husband’s home will not hesitate to carry water or to mill grain because she has prepared from her youth. And if she is joined together with a youth who has joined her in rigorous exercise, she will provide better offspring—for they will be tall, strong and rarely sick. Sparta became so preeminent in war once her marriages were prepared in this way.”
“Hektor married Andromache, Êetiôn’s daughter, and Alexandros [Paris] married Oinônê the daughter of Kebren the river. She learned the power of prophecy from Rhea and warned Alexander not to sail to Helen. Because she did not persuade him, she said that if he was wounded, he should come to her because she alone would be able to heal him.
But he did steal Helen from Sparta and, while Troy was attacked, he was struck by Herakles’ arrows from Philoktêtes. He went to Oinône in Ida. She, because she took delight in his suffering, said she would not heal him. Alexandros returned to Troy and was dying, but Oinônê changed her mind and was bringing medicine to heal him only to find him dead. She hanged herself.”
This story is the one basically told in Parthenius (Love Tales, 4.7). Another version of the tale is preserved in Photios but is attributed to the historian and mythographer Konon (BNJ 26 F1 = Photios, Bibliotheka 186). A few notes of caution: Konon is dated to the 1st century CE; Photios to the 9th Century CE
Konon BNJ 26 F1 = Photios, Bibliotheka 186
[This section] is about how a child Koruthos, who surpassed his father in beauty, was born from Alexander/Paris and Oinône, the woman he married before he kidnapped Helen. His mother sent him to Helen to make Alexandros jealous and devise some evil for Helen. When Koruthos got to ‘know’ Helen, Alexandros arrived in the bedroom, and saw Koruthos sitting near her, and, already enraged out of suspicion, he killed him.
Because of the outrage against herself and the killing of her child, she cursed Alexandros a lot and predicted—for she had the inspiration of prophecy and was skilled in preparing medicines—that he would be wounded by one of the Achaeans some day and because he could not find treatment, he would need her and come home.
Later on, Alexander was wounded in the battle against the Achaeans in front of Troy by Philoktetes and he was suffering terribly. He was brought in a wagon to Idea and sent a herald to ask for Oinône. She arrogantly reproached him, saying that he should go back to Helen. Then Alexander died along the road because of the wound.
A powerful change of mind over took her at the time of his death before she heard of it, and once she gathered some medicine, she rushed to overtake him. Once she learned from the herald that he was dead and that she had killed him, she killed the herald for his arrogance by smashing a stone on his head. She threw herself over Alexander’s corpse and, after repeatedly blaming their shared fate, she hanged herself with her belt.”
A couple of takeaways from this one. First, it seems that Oinône knew about Paris’ lust for Helen before he departed for Sparta and remained behind on Mt. Ida once he returned to Troy. Second, it is entirely unclear when the child returns to Troy to tempt Helen. This story is a variation on the same story told about Phoinix in book 9 (his mother had him seduce his father’s lover; his father exiled him). No one in this story looks great (except for Koruthos, he looks real great). Paris is, well, a jerk. Poor Oinône is depicted as a witch-prophetess who, despite all the abuse, still loves her terrible husband.
Like Apollodorus’ version above, Ovid’s Heroides (5) do not mention the son. The earliest extant reference to Oinône seems to be Hellanicus, but some speculation links her to Bacchylides fr. 20d (where three letters OIN[….] seem to refer to a wife of Paris. See Gantz Early Greek Myth, 1993 n. 67 on page 839
Plutarch, Advice to Bride and Groom (Moralia138a-146a : Conjugalia Praecepta)
“These kinds of studies, foremost, distract women from inappropriate matters. For, a wife will be ashamed to dance when she is learning geometry. And she will not receive spells of medicine if she is charmed by Platonic dialogues and the works of Xenophon. And if anyone claims she can pull down the moon, she will laugh at the ignorance and simplicity of the women who believe these things because she herself is not ignorant of astronomy and she has read about Aglaonikê. She was the daughter of Hêgêtor of Thessaly because she knew all about the periods of the moon and eclipses knew before everyone about the time when the moon would be taken by the shadow of the earth. She tricked the other women and persuaded them that she herself was causing the lunar eclipse.”
Astuanassa: A handmaid of Helen, Menelaos’ wife. She first discovered positions for intercourse and wrote On Sexual Positions. Philainis and Elephantinê rivaled her in this later—they were women who danced out these sorts of wanton acts.
As is largely unsurprising from the perspective of Greek misogyny, excessive interest in sexual behavior is projected a female quality. Expertise beyond interest is made the province of female ‘professionals’ (slaves) who may act as scapegoats and marginal figures for the corruption of both men and women. There is a combination of such interest with an excessive emphasis on eating (and eating really well) in Athenaeus where the pleasures of the body are combined.
Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 8.335c
“Dear men, even though I have great admiration for Chrysippus as the leader of the Stoa, I praise him even more because he ranks Arkhestratos, well-known for his Science of Cooking along with Philainis who is credited with a licentious screed about sexual matters—even though the iambic poet of Samos, Aiskhriôn, claims that Polycrates the sophist started this slander of her when she was really quite chaste. The lines go like this:
“I, Philainis, circulated among men
Lie here thanks to great old age.
Don’t laugh, foolish sailor, as your trace the cape
Nor make me a target of mockery or insult
For, by Zeus and his sons in Hell
I was never a slut with men nor a public whore.
Polykrates, Athenian by birth,
A bit clever with words and with a nasty tongue,
Wrote what he wrote. I don’t know anything about it.”
But the most amazing Chrysippus combines in the fifth book of his On Goodness and Pleasure that both “the books of Philianis and the Gastronomiai of Arkhestratos and forces of erotic and sexual nature, and in the same way slave-girls who are expert at these kinds of movements and positions and who are engaged in their practice.” He adds that they learn this type of material completely and then thoroughly possess what has been written on these topics by Philainis and Arkhestratos and those who have written on similar topics. Similarly, in his seventh book, he says ‘As you cannot wholly learn the works of Philianis and Arkhestratos’ Gastronomia because they do have something to offer for living better.’ “
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.”
“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.
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.”
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.
“It is also necessary for a woman to take to heart that she will find no kind of purifying remedy for this mistake [adultery], something that would allow her to approach the temples and altars of the gods as a chaste and god-loved woman. This is because in this crime especially the divine spirit is most unforgiving. The most beautiful achievement of a free woman and the foremost glory is to provide as testimony to her prudence toward her husband her children, if they do in fact bear the imprint of similarity to the father who sowed them. That seems to me to be enough regarding marriage.
The following seems to be right to me when it comes to the management of the body. A woman should wear white, but be dressed simply and without decoration. This style of dressing is achieved without transparent or decorated robes or robes which are made from silk; instead a woman should wear modest and white clothing. She preferably also avoids luxury and ostentation and will not cause vile jealousy in other women. She should also not put on gold or emeralds at all—this behavior would make her seem wealthy and haughty to common women.
It is necessary that the well-governed city which is ordered completely with a view to its whole should be one of common experiences and likemindedness. And it should keep out the craftspeople who create these sorts of baubles from its territory. A prudent woman should not embellish her appearance with foreign decoration and makeup but should use the native beauty of the body—she should decorate her body by washing it in water rather than bringing it shame. For this brings honor to herself and the man she lives with.
Women need to make processions from their homes to make sacrifices to the leading-god of the city for themselves, their husbands, and their households. They must make their expedition to the theater or to the market for household goods, however, not when the evening star is rising nor when it is dark but whenever it is still light, accompanied by a single servant or, at most, two as is proper.
In addition, a prudent woman must also perform sacrificial rites for the gods as is permitted to her, but must abstain from the occult rites and rituals of the Great Mother at home. For the common law prohibits women from performing these rituals, since, in addition to other things, these practices make them drunk and insane. The woman of the home needs to be temperate and uncontaminated by everything, even when she is governing the home.”