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Women’s Playthings: Contextualizing the Meaning of “Douleuma”

Roger S. Fisher

The word douleuma, which appears only three times in extant Greek literature, is defined as “slave” or “servitude” (LSJ), but this lexical meaning is not well-supported by the contexts in which the word appears. This paper will argue that douleuma in the three passages in which it appears does not signify a person’s status as a slave or the duty of a slave to perform service for its owner as is commonly understood. Rather, douleuma has an extended or secondary meaning of “doll” or “doll-like object” (in the same way that other polysemous words, such as korê, numphê and glênê, can also mean “doll,” depending on the context in which these words are used). This proposed definition offers a new perspective on the three scenes in which the word appears in Greek tragedy.

Douleuma first appears in the argument between Creon and Haemon in Sophocles’ Antigone, where Creon tells Haemon that he has become “that woman’s douleuma” (line 756). The force of Creon’s rebuke of Haemon is considerably diminished if douleuma is understood to mean “slave.” No slave would try to cajole Creon, and no girl who was under legal guardianship, such as Antigone, could be described as the owner of a male slave. The pejorative use of a word with the extended meaning of “doll” in an “eyeball-to-eyeball” argument between two males is found in Iliad 8.164, where Nestor insults Diomedes by calling him a kakê glênê (“you pretty doll”). In a similar context, the force of Creon’s insult is enhanced by the gendered insinuation that Haemon has become Antigone’s doll. Creon then says to Haemon, “don’t try your charms on me” (mê kôtille me). The verb kôtillô is associated with the sounds of birds and the voices of women working at a loom (and, according to one scholiast, is related to the verb poikillô, a verb having to do with women’s embroidery). The word douleuma, coupled with the verb kôtillô, implies that Haemon has become a doll being manipulated by Antigone.

In Euripides’ Orestes, Electra caresses her brother Orestes while he lies helpless in her arms. She refers to him as to douleuma hêdu (line 221). The phrase to douleuma hêdu is usually translated as “sweet servitude,” but “sweet doll” is more appropriate in this context (especially because Electra specifically refers to herself as being ateknos or “childless”). Orestes complains that he cannot sit up because his limbs are anarthros (“disjointed”) as in a slack puppet or neuroplaston doll. He also complains that he cannot see because his hair has fallen into his eyes, and he asks her to brush it away. Orestes has momentarily become her doll and surrogate child.

In Euripides’ Ion, the phrase douleuma piston (line 748) is usually taken appositively to refer to the female slaves (gunaikes) working with Creusa at her loom, but piston in reference to the female slaves is gratuitous (their duty is not in question). Creusa could be addressing her servants and her kerkis (“shuttle”) separately, alluding to the later metaphorically as her “dear plaything.” Like hedu in Orestes 221, the adjective piston evokes a woman’s emotional attachment to a doll or doll-like object. Creusa, like Electra, explicitly refers to herself as being childless, and this reminds the audience of the tension in her marriage resulting from her husband's desire for a son (coupled perhaps with the common male suspicion that infertility was a result of women controlling fertility through potions and magic).

This paper will conclude that douleuma means “doll” or “doll-like” object in the three passages in which it appears. The word is associated with women and female speech, is used metaphorically, casting Haemon, Orestes and Creusa’s shuttle as doll-like, and connotes the conflicting emotions that a doll can generate, either male fear of the power of a woman or female memory of the human-shaped dolls that were played with in childhood.

Session/Panel Title

Greek Language and Linguistics

Session/Paper Number

1.3

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