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Hermione, the Perpetual Nymphē of Euripides' Andromache

Florencia Foxley

University of Colorado, Boulder

The Hermione depicted in Euripides’ Andromache is generally defined by her relationships with others, primarily Andromache and Menelaus. Whether as an antagonist to Andromache, or as a second Andromache-like suppliant figure, or as a part of anti-Spartan stereotypes embodied by herself, Menelaus, and Orestes, Hermione’s dramatic role depends on her response to other, perhaps more vocal, characters in the play. In this paper I approach Hermione and her influence as an individual and argue that she is an example of a dramatic type that I call the perpetual nymphē, who threatens and ultimately destroys households. Unlike a normative bride who continues households through childbirth, the perpetual nymphē does not or cannot give birth, which leaves her wedding rite incomplete and her trapped between the categories of parthenos and gynē. I argue that the social instability experienced by the perpetual nymphē makes her a figure that threatens the future of the household from within.

Rabinowitz fruitfully explores Hermione through her relationships to others and as an object of exchange for the men around her. Phillippo, Storey, and Allan, among others, focus on her relationship with Menelaus as an expression of anti-Spartan sentiment and of her dangerously strong ties to her natal household. For Kyriakou, Andromache is a play of two families in conflict and she places Hermione firmly within Menelaus’ family against that of Peleus. My paper builds on these Hermione-centric approaches to Andromache while arguing that Hermione’s own experience of her suspended development endangers her marital household and Phthia.

Although volatile and violent, Hermione attracts the sympathy of the chorus for being a childless wife who shares her house with her husband’s former concubine. Hers is the tragedy of the perpetual nymphē—although she has taken part in a formally initiated wedding, her lack of children leaves her unintegrated into Neoptolemus’ household and prevents her normal social development. The prolonged uncertainty of her state turns Hermione into a deeply destructive figure in Neoptolemus’ house. Hermione’s lack of children endangers the future of the household, as Peleus complains (619-623, 711-714), while her jealousy of Andromache’s fertility results in a near Spartan invasion of Phthia, thus endangering the present safety of both oikos and polis. Finally, she flees the house altogether with Orestes, depriving her marital home of future legitimate heirs (1173-1179). Not only does she abandon her marital home, but she also does so knowing that she is aligning herself with the murderer of her husband. Far from bringing about the security and continuity of her marital household, Hermione, by remaining a nymphē for too long, utterly destroys it.

This paper sketches out a new character type, the perpetual nymphē, and uses it to analyze Euripides’ Andromache. While Euripides is not the only tragedian to make use of such a character type, I argue that Euripides employs them in order to dramatize the importance of a wedding rite—properly concluding in the birth of a child—for the security of the household and for the polis as a whole.

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Greek Tragedy (2)

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