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Why can't a woman be more like a bee? Poetic persona and Hesiod's bee simile in Semonides Fr. 7

Anna Conser

Semonides Fr. 7 is often cited as an especially glaring example of misogyny in ancient Greek culture (Lloyd-Jones; Osborn), but this paper will suggest that such a reading is complicated by Semonides' pointed re-gendering of the simile of the bee taken from Hesiod's Theogony (594-602).  I argue that greater emphasis should be placed on the use of poetic persona in this poem, and to its performance context in the symposium (Murray, Steiner [2002]).  Semonides Fr. 7 does encourage laughter at the expense of women, but the men's last laugh is at themselves.

Following a review of the scholarship, I begin my argument with a brief consideration of the bee simile in Theogony 594-602.  Hesiod compares husbands and wives to bees and drones, respectively: the husband bees work hard to build up stores, while the drones stay at home and devour the bees' hard work.  However, the contrasting pronouns αἱ μέν (the bees) and οἱ δ' (the drones) reveal the puzzling gender reversal necessary to Hesiod's metaphor.  While this unnatural gender association does not seem to suggest ambiguity in Hesiod's misogyny, it reveals a weakness in the misogynist argument, which Semonides exploits in his own reworking of the simile.

Following the description of many other wives, Semonides ends his catalogue with a lone positive case: the bee wife (83-93).  The poet's description of the bee wife is modeled specifically on the passage in Hesiod (Campbell [1967] ad loc.), and is praised specifically for qualities attributed to the bee-husbands of Hesiod.  The idea of gender reversal is further emphasized by her association with the typically masculine qualities of excellence and eloquence.

The twist is that this mirror image of the Hesiodic perspective implies a corresponding re-gendering of the simile's drones as male, and it is this implied role reversal that puts a twist on the poem's gratuitous misogyny up to this point.  I argue that the view of men as drones – drones which stay inside, focused on consumption – is a humorous reference to the sympotic context itself.  This is especially clear in lines 90-1, in which Semonides distinguishes the bee wife particularly from women who sit inside talking about love:

οὐδ᾽ ἐν γυναιξὶν ἥδεται καθημένη,

ὅκου λέγουσιν ἀφροδισίους λόγους

Such a descrition could naturally refer to the sympotic context of the poem's performance.  The author, I suggest, is capping his poem with a metapoetic joke at the expense of his poetic persona.

The use of poetic persona as a humorous element in iambic is well-docmented in poems such as Archilochus Fr. 5 and 13 (Campbell [1967] ad loc., Gagné, Steiner [2012]), and we would do well to view the speaker of Semonides Fr. 7 in this light.  By introducing an element of self-consciousness at this late point in the poem, Semonides is able to have his cake and eat it: the earlier jokes appeal to a misogynistic tradition established in Hesiod, but this perspective is itself made an object of criticism.  This conclusion builds upon the findings of Schear [1987], who argues that Semonides mocks men's misconceptions of women.  While much of the poem's humor does come at the expense of women, this paper concludes that the men's last laugh – and perhaps their loudest – is at Semonides' misogynistic poetic persona. 

Following my main argument, I close with a brief consideration of two provocative modern comparanda: first, a quiz taken from a women's magazine, which aims to categorize different romantic 'types'.  I suggest that Semonides 7 expresses an anxiety about marriage that is rarely attributed to male voices in antiquity.  The second is a modern masterpiece of misogyny: Lerner and Loewe's "Hymn to Him" from the 1956 musical My Fair Lady.  While acknowledging important differences in contextualization, we might find in this modern work an interesting counterpoint in the exploitation of misogyny for dual comic effects aimed at both genders.

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Slavery and Status in Ancient Literature and Society

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