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Putting Pressure on the Patriarchy: The Subversive Power of Women's Anger in Ancient Greek Literature and Magic

Suzanne Lye

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This paper explores women’s anger and its perceived efficacy in the ancient Greek imagination. From Demeter’s wrathful defection from Olympus in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter out of anger at the abduction of her daughter (Nickel 2003) to a magical binding spell from as late as the 3rd century C.E. (Pachoumi 2013: 313), women found effective expressions for rage, thus challenging the roles and behaviors impressed upon them by patriarchal power structures in their given societies. In these narratives, angry women respond creatively to difficult situations brought about by male figures who hold power over them, either legally or emotionally. From immortal goddesses to lowly mortals, women had to comply with their own marginalization and become outcast when angry, even when their anger was caused by transgressions against their roles as wives or mothers. In this paper, I argue that women in ancient Greek literature are portrayed as having two viable strategies for expressing their anger and resisting their dismissal by patriarchal structures: withdrawal and magic. Even when leading to violent expression (e.g. Clytemnestra, Procne), women’s anger must operate “under the radar,” often appealing to divine forces and occult practices as a response to legal powerlessness. Despite the limitations placed on them, these women successfully used these outlets to effect change in their situations and subvert the intentions of domineering male figures in their lives.

This paper uses case studies drawn from both literary and documentary sources. In the first section, I discuss Demeter, Calypso, and Circe as Archaic prototypes for women’s anger and examine specific tropes their stories establish for the expression of female anger. These goddesses’ withdrawal to the edges of divine society represents disengagement from activities that reinforce the rule of Zeus. In the second section, I look at an Athenian court speech by Antiphon, featuring a wife accused of accidentally poisoning her husband when giving him a love charm to keep his affections. In the third section, I look at the myths of Medea and the Lemnian women as cautionary tales of female anger that show male anxiety over female agency and over their use of magic and violence to challenge their male relatives’ behaviors. Both Apollonius Rhodius and Euripides, in the Argonautica and Medea, respectively, portray fake compliance and ultimately violent expressions of anger by women using magic and covert operations.

In the final section, I look at evidence of female anger in binding spells and curse tablets, magical tools that offered direct challenges to power structures that regularly subordinated women’s desires to men’s romantic whims and financial control. The first case study illustrating aggressive female magic features Simaetha performing a magical ritual against her wayward lover, which gives him the option of returning to her or dying, should her spell fail (Theocritus’ Idyll 2). While this is a literary scene, it mimics magical rituals found in actual spells commissioned by women in a similar position. In the corpus of erotic spells, there are five extant with definitively female users who engage in binding spells against male victims. The spells, though few, indicate that everyday women had access to such magic – and used it. Real women thus are shown to engage in a type of aggressive erotic magic originally thought by scholars to be the realm of men or literary heroines (Pachoumi 2013; Faraone 2001). In one of the most striking cases of female anger in the magical sources, a woman named Artemisie asks the gods to punish the father of their deceased daughter for depriving their child of proper burial rites (PGM XL). The women who enact these spells are engaging in a pattern of dissent that echoes the actions of Demeter, Calypso, and Circe from centuries earlier. They demonstrate the persistence of both withdrawal and magic as effective strategies for women to express their anger. As a result, these women put pressure on patriarchal structures to make space for female agency and desires.

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Women in Rage Women in Protest...

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