15 June 2006

An Ancient Greek on Obstetrics

Medea, talking about the difficult life of women:

λέγουσι δ᾽ ἡμᾶς ὡς ἀκίνδυνον βίον
ζῶμεν κατ᾽ οἴκους, οἱ δὲ μάρνανται δορί,
κακῶς φρονοῦντες· ὡς τρὶς ἂν παρ᾽ ἀσπίδα     250
στῆναι θέλοιμ᾽ ἂν μᾶλλον ἢ τεκεῖν ἅπαξ.

And they say we live lives without danger
in our houses, while they go out and fight.
Their wits are addled! I'd rather stand in battle with
a shield three times than give birth once.

In the Greek the men "fight with spears" and she would "stand beside a shield", but "fight with spears" seems silly to me in English.

I have an old school edition of a few Greek plays in which some avid annotator has filled the margins with quotes from Shakespeare. It seems a bit excessive. But I can't help but think of Lady MacBeth when I read this, so I understand that mysterious compulsion a bit better.


Glaukôpis said...

Hmm, I've only read Seneca's Medea in English, but I was always reminded much more of Lady Macbeth in Seneca rather than Euripides. But I do see it in this passage, certainly.

Although, maybe I'm just strange, but that passage reminds me a bit of Eowyn in Lord of the Rings, except her analysis of the situation is a bit different: "All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield the blade, and I do not fear either pain or death."

Of course, maybe I'm the only person who would read Medea and get an Eowyn quotation in her head. ::shrug::

Wm Annis said...

Of course, maybe I'm the only person who would read Medea and get an Eowyn quotation in her head.

I doubt it. Besides, it's a good bet that Tolkien read Euripides' Medea at some point. Though I've not yet read it, I get the impression that Seneca's version is even more alarming to delicate sensibilities, so I don't know if that would have been on the reading list for him.

I wonder if there's any parallel in Old Norse literature.

Glaukôpis said...

Oh, I'm 99.9% sure he did. I just don't exactly think he intended for anyone to think about Medea when he wrote Eowyn.

Then again, I've also found random passages in LotR that remind me of Jane Eyre, so I think my brain goes on free-association.

I'll see if I can find something in Norse lit . . . hmm.


I wonder if there's any parallel in Old Norse literature.

You wonder if there are spear- or sword-wielding maidens in Old Norse literature? Quite aside from the Valkyries, I think we can assume so.

Both Celtic and Norse folklore and mythology are considerably more open to the concept of warrior women -- not that the Greeks didn't have such a thing, they certainly did -- but they were treated as most decidedly "other".


Oh and by the way, I thought I'd point out that a reader of this post might mistakenly take away the impression that Euripides is drawing a distinction between "men fighting with spears" vs. Medea "standing beside a shield". In fact, as I'm certain you (and your regular readers) already know, they are just two idioms for the same thing: standing in close formation next to your comrade's shield is precisely what men were expected to do in battle.