Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Motherhood: The Syncroblog

A lot of the important points about motherhood in ancient Greek myth are already made in the posts On Being a Virgin and Ge, Gaia, Gaie: Earth, but to summarize all that quickly, I will quote from Sue Blundell’s Women in Ancient Greece:

There is a marked tendency in Greek mythological representations to divide powerful women up into the sexually active but hostile, and the virginal but helpful. … A child-bearing woman was supposed to come under male domination, and any female who tried to evade this social truth, and to take control of events, was clearly up to no good.

Greek mythology is full of fascinating mothers, but I’m gonna mix things up and talk about a mortal mother for this post. Let’s begin with Clytemnestra. Although she is generally perceived as “bad,” Clytemnestra is a woman - a mother - who is not difficult to understand. How many women would not want to kill the man who murdered their child? And, in fact, Aeschylus (the guy who wrote the plays that tell her story in detail) shows her judgment is not an easy decision.

The Murder of Agamemnon, by Pierre Narcisse Guerin
Clytemnestra says, “To give birth is a dreadful thing; despite suffering badly one cannot bring oneself to hate those she has born.”1 And then her children, Electra and Orestes plot and kill her to avenge Clytemnestra’s murder of their father, who in turn had sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, in order to get a better sailing wind for heading off to war. The betrayals and deaths ripped the family apart, of course, and Clytemnestra received the lion’s share of the blame for that disruption. But the question of primacy of motherhood vs. fatherhood was painfully drawn out in Aeschylus’ retelling of the story. In the end, the virgin Athena affirms that Clytemnestra’s son (Orestes) was correct in killing his mother to avenge his father, not because of any sort of proper justice, but because Athena has no mother and therefore is on the father’s side.2 In other words, it isn’t that women, or mothers, deserve less but that it just works out best for “everyone” if they are not treated equally.

The problem with sexually active women, and therefore with mothers, is that they have all of these emotions. And it makes them dangerous, as I noted initially, to the men who are supposed to keep them in check. It also makes them human.

A good wife, I think we can fairly imagine, would be distraught over the loss of her daughter but ultimately would bow to her husband’s decision. A good woman stays in the background, like Andromache.3 Passive like Alcestis, who agrees to die in her husband’s place, leaving her children with him despite his obvious inadequacies. A bad woman, a bad mother, a bad wife, overwhelmed with emotions, takes action. Medea said, “People say that we women lead a life of without danger inside our homes, while men fight in war; but they are wrong. I would rather serve three times in battle than give birth once.”4 And when confronted with her husband’s betrayal, she took her revenge on their most precious treasures: she murdered the children she had risked so much to bear.

Hekabe played by Redgrave
Although Clytemnestra is more defensible, it is ultimately not her right to do anything. Clytemnestra acts as a hunter, trapping her husband and murdering him in retribution for killing her daughter (and cheating on her). She acts, in short, like I imagine Artemis might, except that there’s a reason that Artemis is a virgin goddess. Can we anticipate what might have happened if Clytemnestra did not try to take the death-bringer role of Artemis, but instead tried on that of the mourning Demeter? Would people have paid attention or would she have gotten shafted like the Trojan women or the Theban women, who mostly just suffered when men ignored the wisdom of their warnings?

What I think is really fascinating is that as frustrating as the sexism is, it isn’t blind. Alcestis’ decision really sucks for lots of people, even though she’s lauded for making it. Andromache’s ideal behavior looks like it’ll win her a life of slavery. And monstrous though Medea’s infanticide is, you cannot help but empathize with the total helplessness and injustice of her situation. No ancient Greek could have failed to understand, if not wholly agree with, Clytemnestra’s actions. It’s as if the ancient Greeks are admitting that the fate of women is pretty unjust, even though it seems like the best thing to do, all things considered. It keeps civilization moving. It means that vengeance is not unending. But that doesn’t mean it’s fair.

Motherhood was a dangerous proposition for mortals, perhaps a 10-20% incidence of death in childbirth,5 and yet, it was generally considered a woman’s most important function. She took great risks to bring children into the world, but she was no walking womb. The myths of mortal mothers remind us not to reduce mothers to frighteningly unpredictable protectors nor long-suffering martyrs. Motherhood was divine, chthonic, incomprehensible, and only a part of what made up a woman.

1. Line 770 of Sophocles’ Elektra, my translation but click on the link to see Sir Richard Jebb’s on Perseus Project.
2.Moreover, Clytemnestra’s actions are associated with a more primal scary chthonic time and defended by the Furies, while Orestes is defended by the total Greek male Apollo. Whether her violence was justified becomes irrelevant, now it seems to be said that in order to maintain Order and Civilization, someone’s gotta get the fuzzy end of the lollipop and doesn’t it make sense that it would be a woman rather than a man?
3. In Euripides’ Trojan Women, Andromache describes her ideal behavior, including “I offered my husband a silent tongue and a calm appearance.” (line 655 or so) That’s the translation on page 11 of Maureen Fant and Mary Lefkowitz’s Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation.
4. Line 246 of Euripides’ Medea as translated in Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation by Maureen Fant and Mary Lefkowitz, page 10
5.Garland’s the Greek Way of Life cited on page 110 of Women in Ancient Greece

This is part of a synchroblog on Motherhood. Check out the other posts (* by the ones who have already posted):

The Aquila ka Hecate *

Symbolic Meanings *

Between Old and New Moons

Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism

Goddess in a Teapot

Full Circle* Earthwise News and Notes

And even though it couldn’t have been intentionally part of this sychroblog, there’s a great post on Mother and Daughter, Demeter and Persephone over at Mythphile.

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