When I first started lecturing, I was asked to teach a course on ancient women: I refused. The basic facts were known: first-wave feminist scholars had set them out clearly and convincingly. In classical Athens, girls married in their early teens to men more than twice their age. Many died in childbirth. None had the right to property or political representation. According to the statesman Pericles, good women were neither heard nor seen: they belonged inside the household, and spent their time weaving. Those who were poor, or slaves, also worked outside. My problem was that I could not hear their voices. I found it easier to imagine a conversation with Herodotus. It was only when looking at ancient textiles in a museum that I felt a surge of interest, and even hope: such beautiful work must have inspired satisfaction, whatever else was happening in the lives of ancient women.
In this important and brave book, Andromache Karanika listens out for the voices of ancient women at work – and argues for their influence on ancient Greek poetry. She thereby shifts the study of ancient women from cultural history to literary interpretation. The book, she insists, concerns genre as well as gender. She begins by pointing out that Greek literature offers countless depictions of women at work: they weave, spin, wash, harvest, winnow, raise children, grind and cook. In contrast to those seen in other cultures’ literary traditions, they are seldom depicted at leisure or at rest. Karanika further argues that these activities “cannot be assumed to be silent”. Using comparative arguments, as well as snippets of ancient Greek evidence, she makes the case that women often sang while working. This seems right and, in itself, unsurprising.
Where Karanika breaks new ground is in articulating the implications of this insight for Greek literature. “The image of weaving and stitching permeates literature as a metaphor for how poetry is made,” she argues, and Voices at Work uncovers several social and poetic practices that give weight to the metaphor. Even the Muses are workers, she observes: when the poet Archilochus meets them on his way to the countryside to sell a cow (in a celebrated episode of his literary biography) he initially mistakes them for field labourers. He teases them, they vanish with his cow, and he is left with a lyre.
While the first chapters explore female labour as a “metaphor” and “setting for poetic inspiration and performance”, in the book’s second part, Karanika asks how, specifically, oral traditions were passed on from generation to generation, and argues that childhood rituals and performances must have been key. She then analyses lullabies, the tortoise game (an ancient form of tag, through which girls rehearsed aspects of their future lives: wool work, immobility in the home, bereavement), singing and storytelling by the loom, and harvest songs. In each case, she demonstrates the relationship between female labour and canonical Greek poetry – pointing out echoes and allusions in Homer, Simonides, Euripides, Theocritus and Erinna, among others. One chapter explores how death and destruction interrupt the work of women, making it futile.
Drawing from a wealth of ancient and comparative sources, and harnessing a range of theoretical approaches, Karanika offers a landmark study of female labour and Greek poetics. The book is not an easy read (presentation can be circuitous, and the style heavily didactic), but it offers important new insights into Greek poetry.
Voices at Work: Women, Performance, and Labor in Ancient Greece
By Andromache Karanika
Johns Hopkins University Press, 320pp, £38.50
Published 17 June 2014