You are here

'Your Marriage Murders Mine': The Moral Consciousness of the Tragic Virgin

M. Katherine Pyne-Jaeger

Cornell University

The vocality of women—their rage, their grief, their emotion—is, as America has recently been privileged to witness, a uniquely formidable phenomenon. This is no less true of the women of Attic tragedy, for whom displays of emotion are often the only available method of public resistance. However, even as these women—figures ranging from struggling wives, like Medea and Klytaimestra, to sacrificial victims, Polyxena and Iphigeneia—respond to and resist the systemic injustice leveled against them, they rely on equally entrenched social conventions and rituals to inform and structure their behavior. Their imaginative configuration, dependent on conceptions and duties of the feminine, complicates rather than limits their actions and reactions. This paper explores the presence of this feminine moral consciousness in the characters of Sophokles’ Antigone and Euripides’ Iphigeneia, using the Antigone (Fagles, 1984) and the Iphigeneia at Aulis (Merwin and Dimock, 1978).

Previous examinations of the ‘tragic virgin’ archetype—the condemned maiden who dies with dignity—have often concluded that she behaves like an adult man with a socially appropriate (read: state-oriented) sensibility (see Gamel, 1999). Any justification for the masculinization of the tragic virgin must necessarily originate from her response to the suffering she undergoes and its interplay with the gendered coding of classical heroism. I argue that to perceive this behavior as essentially masculine is to misinterpret the characterization of Antigone and Iphigeneia, who extrapolate their ethics not from masculine assimilation, but from rituals and responsibilities that were the province of Greek women. Those rituals, which comprise the basis of the reasoning that permits them to behave ‘heroically,’ are the wedding and the funeral.

Equating death and marriage is common in fifth-century Attic art and literature, and nuptial rites were a popular iconographical motif on lekythoi, a type of oil jar, and tomb reliefs (Rehm, 1994). Both Iphigeneia and Antigone use this cultural paradigm, formulated as a ceremony in which the usual elements of the nuptial rite are replaced by chthonic counterparts (see Rehm; Goff, 2004; Seaford, 1987), to conceptualize and process their brutal situations. Iphigeneia is able to interpret her sacrifice as a replacement or extension of marriage, the primary duty for which a virgin girl is responsible, and her sacrifice in terms of the transformative violation of the anakalypteria, the ritual unveiling of the bride. Antigone describes her punishment in nuptial terms, developing a conceit that identifies her immurement with the bridal procession before committing suicide in a grotesque parallel to the anakalypteria, thereby demonstrating the harrowing juxtaposition of what her fate could be with what it is.

While the association between death and funeral rites is more self-evident, in this case it is the position of women as participants and facilitators, rather than objects, that informs the tragic virgin’s ethical choices. Duties related to preparing the corpse for burial and mourning the dead belonged almost exclusively to women (Rehm, 1994). Antigone’s decision to bury Polyneikes, then, is not an act of inherently masculine resistance, but a similarly heroic reclamation of female responsibility. Iphigeneia also invokes her authority regarding funeral rites to demonstrate her free will, dictating to a despairing Klytaimestra how her mother and siblings should behave in mourning. The paper concludes with discussion of another traditionally female tool that both Antigone and Iphigeneia use to great effect: ritual lamentation. Lamentation allowed women to exert public influence via the threat of reciprocal violence (Holst-Warhaft, 1992), which comes to fruition at the conclusion of the Labdacid and Pelopid narratives. Antigone and Iphigeneia resort to the language of the familiar in order to enact the unfamiliar—to set in motion, with impassioned vocal resistance, the emotional forces that punish men in power. 

Session/Panel Title

The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy