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The Problem of the Angry Woman and Herodotus’ Use of Tragedy in Two Athenian Logoi

Erika L. Weiberg

Florida State University

Two passages in Herodotus’ Histories stand out for their unusual representation of women, who act neither rationally nor in a way that preserves family or cultural norms (typical motivations for female agents in Herodotus: see Dewald, Gray, Blok). These are the Athenian women who murder the lone survivor of the Athenian expedition against Aegina (5.87) and the Athenian women who stone to death the wife and children of an Athenian man who advocated cooperating with Persia (9.5). Dewald (1981, 100) has argued that the first passage “springs from a complex of misogynous folk motifs, including the Pentheus motif,” while the two episodes together present “female violence as the complement and mirror of male violence.” This paper focuses on a neglected aspect of these two passages, the women’s anger, and argues that Herodotus appropriates a tragic perspective on the problem of the angry woman that diverges from his approach to representing women elsewhere in the Histories. The first part of the paper focuses on identifying anger terms in each passage, while the second links these Herodotean women with their tragic counterparts, analyzing the misogynistic trope of the angry woman through the lens of recent feminist writing on misogyny and anger (Chemaly, Cooper, Manne, Traister).

In both passages, Herodotus employs a version of the phrase δεινόν τι ποιησαμένας (5.87.2; cf. δεινὸν ποιησάμενοι, 9.5.2) to describe the emotional reaction of the women when they learn that their husbands have died and the Athenian men when they hear Lychidas’s proposal. Because the women’s response in 9.5 is described as a mirror image of the men’s, it is implied that they too experience this emotion. Although δεινόν plus a form of ποιέω in the middle voice has not been analyzed alongside the other ancient anger terms (cholos, menis, nemesis, thymos, orge) in recent scholarship (e.g., Braund and Most, Konstan), I argue that it is an important term for a specific type of anger in Herodotus: indignation sparked by the perception of unfair treatment, often resulting in rebellion or revenge (cf. 1.13, 1.127, 2.133, 2.161, 3.155, 4.33, 4.147, 5.33, 5.41, 5.42, 7.1, 7.35, 7.163, 8.15-16, 8.93, 9.33, 9.53, 9.94, 9.107). We can conclude, therefore, that these women’s actions are motivated by their indignant anger against, in the first case, their perception of an unfair war and, in the second case, the threat posed by enemies in their midst.

Dewald is correct to identify in these passages a connection with mythological motifs; moreover, the fact that both passages depict groups of Athenian women implies a connection with the angry women of Athenian tragedy (Allen). Scholarship on Herodotus has analyzed his appropriation of the formal, thematic, and linguistic elements of tragedy (Fohl, Lesky, Laurot, Saïd, Chiasson, Griffin, Baragwanath). Building on these studies, I argue that Herodotus critically engages with tragic representations of women in these two passages, modifying tragic techniques and motifs in order to embellish a quintessentially tragic theme: the excesses of war, which infect men and women, the polis and oikos alike. Unlike his treatment of the Atys/Adrastus story, however, which is patterned after tragic plots, these isolated scenes employ a pastiche of tragic figures, techniques, and props: the angry, vengeful wife (Clytemnestra, Medea), the herald, the chorus of women speaking and acting in tandem, weaponized dress-pins (Hecuba, Hermione, Jocasta), and the shocking murder of children (Hecuba, Medea). In both episodes, as in tragedy, the violence of war is marked as out-of-place and excessive when transfered to the domestic sphere and perpetrated by women. In these two episodes, Herodotus employs tropes from tragedy in order to represent Athenian fears about the anger of women and the violence of war brought home. Through these stories, finally, he gives a rare glimpse of women’s collective anger in action.

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