Dangerous Gifts

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Dangerous Gifts

Gender and Exchange in Ancient Greece

By Deborah Lyons

Inspired by anthropological writing on reciprocity and kinship, this book applies the idea of gendered wealth to ancient Greek myth for the first time, and also highlights the importance of the sister-brother bond in the Classical world.



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6 x 9 | 182 pp. | 5 b&w photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-72967-4


33% website discount price

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6 x 9 | 182 pp. | 5 b&w photos


Deianeira sends her husband Herakles a poisoned robe. Eriphyle trades the life of her husband Amphiaraos for a golden necklace. Atreus’s wife Aerope gives away the token of his sovereignty, a lamb with a golden fleece, to his brother Thyestes, who has seduced her. Gifts and exchanges always involve a certain risk in any culture, but in the ancient Greek imagination, women and gifts appear to be a particularly deadly combination.

This book explores the role of gender in exchange as represented in ancient Greek culture, including Homeric epic and tragedy, non-literary texts, and iconographic and historical evidence of various kinds. Using extensive insights from anthropological work on marriage, kinship, and exchange, as well as ethnographic parallels from other traditional societies, Deborah Lyons probes the gendered division of labor among both gods and mortals, the role of marriage (and its failure) in transforming women from objects to agents of exchange, the equivocal nature of women as exchange-partners, and the importance of the sister-brother bond in understanding the economic and social place of women in ancient Greece. Her findings not only enlarge our understanding of social attitudes and practices in Greek antiquity but also demonstrate the applicability of ethnographic techniques and anthropological theory to the study of ancient societies.

  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Note to the Reader
  • Introduction
    • Chapter One: Gender and Exchange
    • Chapter Two: Marriage and the Circulation of Women
    • Chapter Three: Women in Homeric Exchange
    • Chapter Four: Women and Exchange in the Odyssey: From Gifts to Givers
    • Chapter Five: Tragic Gifts
    • Chapter Six: A Family Romance
    • Chapter Seven: Conclusion: The Gender of Reciprocity
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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For many evils come to human beings from gifts.

Antimachos of Teos, cited by Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6.12.7

Deianeira sends her husband Herakles a poisoned robe. Eriphyle trades the life of her husband Amphiaraos for a golden necklace. Atreus’ wife Aerope gives the token of his sovereignty, a lamb with a golden fleece, to his brother Thyestes, who has seduced her. In all of these examples, drawn from Greek myth and its tragic elaborations, precious objects of metal or textiles enter into circulation because of women. And in each case, disaster follows. Many cultures view all exchange as potentially dangerous, but in the ancient Greek imagination women and gifts appear to be a particularly deadly combination.

This book explores the role of gender in structuring relations of exchange in ancient Greece, and specifically the representation of women as both objects and agents of exchange. The anthropological concept of reciprocity is central to this investigation of gender and exchange in ancient Greek thought. I approach the Homeric epics, Attic tragedy, and other mythic material in light of ethnographic accounts detailing the social organization of other traditional societies marked, like those of ancient Greece, by both an interest in exchange and a high degree of sexual dimorphism. As will become clear, my debts to anthropology go far beyond theories of reciprocity, extending to kinship and other features of social organization.

The theme of reciprocity in the ancient world has recently received significant attention in the work of Walter Donlan, Richard Seaford, Leslie Kurke, and others. That I owe much to these scholars will be obvious, although my focus is generally rather different. Similarly, I have learned a great deal from those who have explored the theme of "the traffic in women” in tragedy, among them Victoria Wohl, Kirk Ormand, and Nancy Sorken Rabinowitz. As I am in general sympathy with these readings, I have tried only to acknowledge where I build on their ideas, rather than to indicate every point of agreement or disagreement. Although "the traffic in women” is also central to my own conception, it is the point of departure for a consideration of a gendered system of exchange in which women’s economic agency is ultimately as important as their objectification. In this, my approach overlaps most with that of Wohl, despite a very different trajectory. What distinguishes my project from those I have mentioned above is its attempt to construct an “economics of gender” by examining gendered exchange in ancient Greece from a cross-cultural perspective. In so doing, I also offer a new interpretation of ancient Greek conceptions of sibling relationships as seen through the lens of reciprocity.

My interest is in exchange marked by gender difference. Exchanges between two partners of the same gender are not central to my argument, except when a woman is the object of the exchange. I use the word “gender” rather than “women” in my title in order to make explicit the notion that women’s roles in relations of exchange, whether as subject or object, rely for their meaning on their place within a coherent system of exchange that is necessarily inflected by gender.

My purpose in analyzing this material is neither to demonstrate once again the subordination of ancient Greek women, nor to offer an “optimistic” account of occasions for female autonomy. Rather, I am interested in the complex specificities of the place of women in ancient Greek thought. Given the difficulty of determining social realities in ancient Greece, my aim is instead to elucidate some aspects of gender ideology by examining the social and economic role of women (and consequently of men) as represented in some of the central literary and artistic documents of the archaic and classical periods. I do in some instances draw on historical evidence, but I use it to elucidate ancient Greek thinking about gender, rather than to make a historical argument.

A persistent theme of this book is the danger attendant on the participation of women in exchange and the role of exchange in the breakdown of the marital relationship. I argue that since wives as a general rule come from outside of the immediate family, the suspicion with which they are regarded is born of the tension between the ideal of self-sufficiency and the need to engage and exchange with others. The necessity of bringing a wife from outside the oikos (household) also creates a certain ambiguity, since in most other respects, “outside” is coded as male, whereas “inside” is the province of women. As I will show, the persistent association of women’s infidelity with the loss of household wealth is closely related to these concerns.

In analyzing patterns of ancient Greek mythic thought about gender and exchange, I use Homeric epic and Attic tragedy, as well as other repositories of myth from Greek antiquity. For my purposes, fragments of the Cyclic epics may be as illuminating as the canonical Homeric poems, and ancient handbook versions may be as useful as those found in the works of the great tragedians. Of course, no mythic version is an unmediated transmission from the past; each author shapes the tradition to his or her own purposes. At the same time, the authors of these versions had an intuitive feel for the protocols of exchange and the ideology of gender as expressed in their time and place. This is true even when it is clear that the author—and this is especially true of the tragedians—is deliberately working against the grain of tradition. I use the word “author” here in its broadest possible sense: in addition to literary texts, I also rely upon mythic versions transmitted in the images of Attic vase painting.

The arrangement of the texts under consideration, starting with Hesiod and Homer, then moving to Attic tragedy, might suggest a chronological argument about change in attitudes toward women and exchange. This is, however, not the nature of my undertaking, and the arrangement is more thematic than chronological. Although there are clear differences in the treatment of women from one text to another, the paucity of comparable data does not allow a full historical analysis. Texts representing different historical periods, different locations, and different genres can be compared, but it is hard to draw definitive conclusions about historical change from these comparisons. Rather, I analyze a series of texts that emerge from different moments in time and very different generic conventions, in hopes of elucidating some overarching patterns in ancient Greek thinking about women, gender, and exchange. In this I follow the approach recently taken by Jeremy McInerney: “The charge of anachronism is too easily used as an excuse not to look for the threads of culture that bind the practices of one age to another, and to impose sterile boundaries between different times. Certainly Homer’s Achaians are not identical to Pericles’ Athenians, but neither are they unrelated.”

In one respect, of course, it is impossible to escape from chronology, nor would I wish to try: the intertextuality betweeen earlier and later texts inevitably affects our reading of them. It is because of this that Homer and Hesiod can be read profitably in tandem with tragedy. The earlier texts never lost their relevance to the poets and audiences of later periods, among whom we must count ourselves.

A few remarks are in order about the status of the Homeric poems as evidence. The battle over the historicity of the epics rages on, but I do not intend to engage it here. As already noted above, my argument is not a historical one, but rather concerns ideology and representation. Quite apart from the contentious question of whether the Iliad and Odyssey correspond to any particular Greek society in any distinct historical period is the question of whether the institutions described form a coherent system. It is my assumption that, for the most part, they do present a coherent representational and ideological system. Of course, that is not necessarily the same as a coherent social system.

Much has been made of the inconsistencies in Homeric institutions, where seemingly incompatible practices like cremation and inhumation, or bridewealth and dowry, appear to exist side-by-side. We know, however, that such disparate practices may be found within a single society. Archaeological evidence from Athens, for example, shows the coexistence of cremation and inhumation. Furthermore, as anthropologists frequently remind us, people are always breaking the rules. Not only that, but people frequently disagree about what those rules are, as even a casual reader of Miss Manners knows. Institutions depicted in the Homeric poems may be in flux, or even at times in crisis, but they nonetheless belong to a recognizable system built on shared assumptions. In Richard Seaford’s phrase, Homer presents us with the “ideological image of a historical society.” Finally, whether coherent or not, Homeric epic exerted so powerful an influence for centuries throughout the Greek-speaking world that the representations it offers are of continuing ideological significance for ancient Greek culture of later periods. Whatever the value of the Homeric epics as historical evidence in the narrowest sense, they provide insight into the ideological assumptions not only of the age from which they emerged, but also to some extent of later centuries, in which they continued to function as cultural touchstones.

The first chapter of this book lays out the anthropological concepts that have guided my analysis of the Greek material. Among these are the structures of kinship and marriage, sibling intimacy or cooperation, the gendered division of labor, and the concept of wealth as a gendered category. Here, using examples from ethnographies of small-scale traditional societies, I argue for a code or protocol governing exchange that is applicable to the Greek texts to be discussed throughout this book. Thereafter, the ethnographic data play only a supporting role before returning to center stage in the final chapter. In the intervening pages, the reader will glimpse them working behind the scenes.

The second chapter explores Greek thinking about the oikos, specifically how it is shaped and at times distorted by the cherished ideal—one might even say ideology—of autarkeia, self-sufficiency. This is nowhere more evident than in the Hesiodic treatment of the creation of woman, the ultimate dangerous gift of the gods. This figure highlights the tensions between the requirements of exogamy and the desire for self-sufficiency, which result in the devaluing of women’s economic contributions to the household.

Chapter Three deals with the traffic in women, which pervades the myths of the Trojan War, and which in some ways underwrites attitudes toward women throughout much of ancient Greek myth and literature. Here I discuss the operation of this dynamic within the Iliad and other myths associated with Troy, placing it within a larger context of corrupted reciprocity that affects the exchange of men as well as women.

In the fourth chapter, I argue that the Odyssey introduces a degree of agency for women not found in the Iliad, presenting them as actors in exchange more often than as objects of exchange. These exchanges are shown to be positive, and indeed, Odysseus would not be able to return home without them. Nevertheless, a lingering unease about women as treacherous exchange partners surfaces in several glancing references within the poem to women who betray men in exchange for gifts.

The anxiety about exchanging women emerges in full bloom in Attic tragedy, the subject of Chapter Five. In this genre, any exchange with a woman, whether she is virtuous or not, ends up being fatal. The tragedies treated in greatest detail here, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Sophocles’ Trachiniai, are those that most clearly show the operation of dangerous and perverted exchanges between men and women—specifically husbands and wives.

The sixth and final chapter takes up the one exception to the idea that exchanges between men and women are inevitably fraught with negative consequences. Unlike other male-female dyads, the sibling relationship is exempt from the fear of divided loyalties so often projected onto women. Here I show how the economics of gender is represented as benign when used in the service of familial solidarity, while remaining in tension with the need to engage with the outside world, as in marriage. At an opposite pole from Pandora—the divinely created object of desire who comes from outside for the ruination of the oikos—is the sister who evokes the fantasy that exchange can be avoided, that self-sufficiency is an attainable ideal.

In what follows, I bring the tools of anthropology to an examination of the relationship between women, men, and gifts in Greek myth and literature. In so doing, I hope to broaden our understanding of the gender ideology—as well as some of the central texts—of archaic and classical Greece.

"I am the young widow
Of great Count Oré.. . ."

Aye, aye! Sing, dream, children of the poor! Soon, at the awakening of your youth, spring, like a beggar disguised as winter, will frighten you.

"Let us go, Platero."

We unwittingly put our hands in our pockets, and on our brows we felt the fine touch of a cool shadow, as when entering a thick pine forest. The chickens began going up their perch, one by one. All around, the countryside darkened its greenness, as if the purple veil of the main altar were spread over it. The distant sea was visible as a white vision, and a few stars shone palely. How the whiteness of the roofs took on a changed whiteness! Those of us who were on the roofs called to each other more or less wittily, small dark creatures in the confining silence of the eclipse.

We tried looking at the sun through all sorts of things: opera glasses, telescopes, bottles, smoked glass; and from all angles: the dormer window, the ladder in the yard, the granary window; through the scarlet and blue panes of the skylight....

On hiding, the sun, which a moment before made everything twice, thrice, a hundred times greater and better with its complexities of light and gold, now leaves all things, without the long transition of twilight, lonely and poverty-stricken as though one had exchanged gold for silver first and then silver for copper. The town resembles a musty and valueless copper cent. How gloomy and unimportant the streets, the squares, the tower, the mountain roads.

Down in the yard Platero appears less real, different and diminished, a different donkey....

By Deborah Lyons

Deborah Lyons is Associate Professor of Classics at Miami University. She is the author of Gender and Immortality: Heroines in Ancient Greek Myth and Cult and coeditor (with Raymond Westbrook) of Women and Property in Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Societies.

“In this compact and engaging book, Lyons adds to a sophisticated and growing body of work on Greek myth, literature, and culture in terms of the theory and cross-cultural study of exchange and the gift.”
―John Gilbert, University of Colorado at Boulder, New England Classical Journal