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Unveiling female feelings for objects: Deianeira and her ὄργανα in Sophocles’ Trachiniai

Anne-Sophie Noel

Harvard's Center for Hellenic Studies

After learning the death of Heracles consumed by the poisoned robe, Deianeira rushes inside the palace to kill herself.  But before entering the thalamos, she bids farewell to one or several object(s) named by a generic noun (ὄργανα, ‘instrument’ or ‘tool‘, 904-906).  This pathetic expression of affection towards what seem to be familiar object(s) has no parallel in narratives of a character’s death in tragic drama.  Why does the messenger mention such a detail?  What are the ὄργανα that provoke Deianeira’s tears?  How can we interpret the stress put on the haptic contact (ψαύσειεν)?  Do the tears express affection or resentment towards objects that might have been used in preparing the poisoned robe (cf. scholion ad loc.)?  What could have been the audience’s response to this emotional reaction to material objects?  I address these questions, combining philological and literary arguments with archaeological ones, and drawing on the theory of ‘object’s biography’. 

Discussing the ancient commentaries on l. 905, I argue that the first scholiast’s suggestion –  e.g. ὄργανα means ‘weaving tools’ – may be supported by lexical arguments as well as recent archaeological finds: as demonstrated by Foxhall (2012), weaving tools, such as loom weights, were personalized by women – as such, they were infused with great affective value.  As gender-determined objects, they would have been particularly meaningful in a play where a woman destroys her household through the unconscious but fatal manipulation of a robe.

Thus, the relative abstruseness of Sophocles’ wording might have been an obvious cue for his audience.  By listing the different meanings of ψαύειν in tragic dramas, I will shed light on the ambivalent haptic contact it may imply (violent as well as loving).  This ambiguity may nevertheless be resolved if we compare this scene with other feminine ‘farewell scenes’ to objects in tragedy (Alcestis; Trojan Women).

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Material Girls

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