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Mothers and Daughters in the Epigrams of Anyte

Ellen Greene

University of Oklahoma

            Despite Anyte’s  prominent place in Meleager’s Garland, modern scholars have not generally given her epigrams the same attention and approbation as her Hellenistic contemporaries,  Erinna and Nossis.  Feminist scholars have re-evaluated Anyte’s worth, considering her to be an influential and innovative poet (Snyder 1989;  Barnard 1991; Gutzwiller 1998). These scholars have shown how Anyte may be the first epigrammatist to “project a distinct literary persona,” defined specifically by feminine sensibilities and values. I argue in my paper that Anyte’s feminine voice may be seen most strikingly in her human epitaphs, specifically in the four (out of five altogether) that focus on mothers’ expressions of grief for the deaths of their young unmarried daughters. I will show how these epigrams suggest a “world of female grief” and loss, a world that contrasts sharply with male conceptions and representations of death. Expressions of grief in Homer’s Iliad, for example, and in literary epigrams written by men, typically celebrate the heroism of men slain in battle and, more importantly, the fame (kleos) they will receive. Anyte’s epigrams show the profound pathos in young women losing their lives without the compensations of fame we see in Homer.    

            By focusing her human epitaphs on grieving mothers in particular, Anyte clearly affirms the value of womens' lives. This is especially significant in the context of patriarchal societies, where women are typically regarded either as objects of male desire or as instruments of exchange in the competitive male arena. The centrality of the mother-daughter relationship in Anyte presents a sharp contrast to the primacy of the relationship between fathers and sons in Homer and in much of Greek literature, a relationship that assures the genealogy of patriarchal power.

            My paper will examine Epigram 5 (G-P= AP 7.486), in which the figure of a mother, named Cleina, laments for the death of her daughter who died before her marriage. In the context of a society that often valued women chiefly for their use as vehicles of procreation, the grief Cleina expresses at the death of her daughter emphasizes the importance of the mother-daughter relationship, and celebrates the worth of the young woman's life for its own sake. I shall argue that the image of Cleina, lamenting in a public space, evokes a tradition of lament in which women's prominent roles in lamenting the dead both reflect and reinforce realms of experience exclusive to women (Alexiou 1974, Caraveli 1986, Holst-Warcraft 1992).

            In addition, the image of Cleina lamenting for her daughter, whose soul is described as ‘crossing the river Acheron,’ evokes the myth of Demeter and Persephone--a myth that is emblematic of mothers lamenting their daughters' premature deaths.  As Foley (1994) has pointed out, the Demeter/Persephone myth stresses the "intergenerational chain of relations from mother to daughter." While Anyte's poem clearly celebrates the importance of the mother-daughter relationship, her evocation of the Persephone myth also seems ironic. Unlike Demeter, Cleina cannot recall her daughter from the depths of Hades. The finality of Cleina's separation from her daughter, Philaenis, heightens the sense of Cleina’s irremediable loss.           

            As my paper will also show, the Homeric allusions in the poem serve to accentuate Cleina's unmitigated loss. Geoghegan (1979) points out that Cleina's lament echoes Achilles' mourning of Patroklos in Iliad 23. Although Achilles' lament for Patroklos clearly celebrates bonds between men, in Iliad 16 (7f.) Homer implicitly compares Achilles to a mother in the simile in which Patroklos is likened to a child crying after his hurrying, anxious mother (Achilles). But laments in the Iliad do not merely express personal loss; they are always cast within a framework in which the memory of the glorious deeds of the deceased offers compensation for loss. Cleina’s irremediable grief for her daughter, on the other hand, offers testimony of what it is like to be a woman in a world focused on male interests and values.                  

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Mothers and Daughters in Antiquity

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