Aristophanes Fragments essay

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Aristophanic invective against a rival dramatist: the fragment from the lost Lemnian Women included in Henderson's edition as number 382, attested to in two separate ancient sources (suggesting it was considered a particularly choice joke):

Because it is a pun made on the name of the tragedian Dorillus or Dorilaos -- we are not sure of the spelling, since none of his work survives and the pun in Aristophanes' fragment is the chief testimony to his work -- Henderson finds a novel solution for translating this untranslatable joke: "the women fence off their pussy shelleys" (Henderson 291). As a hint to the plot of the lost Lemnian women, the sense of sexual pleasure being deliberately withheld, as in Lysistrata, seems to adhere to this particular fragment: but indeed Martin (1987), in an important article on the use of the mythology of Lemnos and Lemnian women within Lysistrata, indicates that the surviving comedy is full of references to this specific mythographic tradition. I think, however, the larger context for this particular fragment of the Lemnian Women has been overlooked -- in its specifically literary gibe, it points more toward the handling of Euripides specifically in the Thesmophoriazusai, and thus requires a closer examination. I would like to situate this fragment in the context of what we know about the lost Lemnian Women, and then offer a tentative suggestion as to its interpretation beyond the obvious crude (and effective) joke.

In beginning to situate fr. 382 within a larger interpretive context, we must note that over half of the fragments from Aristophanes' Lemnian Women, as collected in Henderson's edition, deal with matters of sex and gender, broadly speaking. If the Oxyrhynchus papyrus which Henderson's edition collects as fr. 592 is also indeed part of the play, it would certainly suggest that it was a central obsession of the play, seemingly expressed in a manner consistent with the other comedies with female choroi or protagonists (Lysistrata, Ekklesiazusai, Thesmophoriasuzai). This fits with the sense of the title that can be reconstructed from the fragments and other extant texts. The third fragment ascribed in Henderson's edition to the Lemnian Women states:

c? fr. 374)

they did away with the men who had got them children (trans. Henderson)

This seems to correspond to a certain degree with Herodotus' account of the annexation of Lemnos by Athens under Miltiades, in which the mass-murder of men by women that is referenced in fr. 374 is recorded as having taken place not only once, mythically under King Thoas (referenced in fr. 373).

These Pelasgians then, dwelling after that in Lemnos, desired to take vengeance on the Athenians; and having full knowledge also of the festivals of the Athenians, they got fifty-oared galleys and laid wait for the women of the Athenians when they were keeping festival to Artemis in Brauron; and having carried off a number of them from thence, they departed and sailed away home, and taking the women to Lemnos they kept them as concubines. Now when these women had children gradually more and more, they made it their practice to teach their sons both the Attic tongue and the manners of the Athenians. And these were not willing to associate with the sons of the Pelasgian women, and moreover if any of them were struck by any one of those, they all in a body came to the rescue and helped one another. Moreover the boys claimed to have authority over the other boys and got the better of them easily. Perceiving these things the Pelasgians considered the matter; and when they took counsel together, a fear came over them and they thought, if the boys were indeed resolved now to help one another against the sons of the legitimate wives, and were endeavouring already from the first to have authority over them, what would they do when they were grown up to be men? Then they determined to put to death the sons of the Athenian women, and this they actually did; and in addition to them they slew their mothers also. From this deed and from that which was done before this, which the women did when they killed Thoas and the rest, who were their own husbands, it has become a custom in Hellas that all deeds of great cruelty should be called "Lemnian deeds." (Herodotus VI.138)

Indeed Aristophanes' fr. 386 seems to indicate a deliberate allusion to the same facts recorded by Herodotus here, with reference to the women's attendance at the rites of Artemis at Brauron. We must consider seriously, then, that Herodotus records the notion of? As being more or less proverbial for an excess of cruelty, yet it is crucial that the cruelty here is specifically in both instances one which stresses segregation of the sexes. (As Martin notes, it is unclear whether the actual religious rites which recorded the Lemnian story was responsible for the emphasis in the history, or if the actual history influenced the conduct of the women's-only religious rituals associated with the Lemnian myth.) The story of Thoas which is presented by Herodotus as backstory to a more recent similar occurrence had been treated by all three of the extant tragedians: we may to some degree understand what sort of tragedy might be constructed on the model of Aeschylus' Suppliant Women, which also depicts a mass slaughter of men by women, although the archaic function of Aeschylus' chorus in that early tragedy would presumably not have been followed by either Euripides or Sophocles. Martin also notes that we have records of at least four other authors of "Lemnian women" plays and agrees with Burkert's conclusion that "Lemniads were an appropriate subject for comedy" (Martin 101). In some sense, therefore, the Lemnian Women would have offered Aristophanes the perfect opportunity for revisionary creativity: with at least three tragic versions, and two specific historical occurrences of mass slaughter, the lost comedy might therefore assume to have been sprung from an excess. One is almost tempted to spot a Pythagorean allusion in fr. 372, suggesting perhaps that the recurrence of the same tragedy twice in the same spot, and the reversal of the slaughtered gender, might be explained by metempsychosis -- for now it is merely enough to note that the possibility should not be ruled out that the otherwise forgotten Dorillus may have been treating this extremely common myth in his own tragedy to earn him the gibe in fr. 382. There are so few definitely-attributed fragments of the Lemnian Women that it would be impossible to reconstruct anything resembling a plot. But one way of reading Herodotus as a way into speculating about the nature of this lost Aristophanic comedy is to note that anything which becomes a byword for infamy is likely to also become a subject for nervous or outrageous humor. To some extent, we may hypothesize a Lemnian Women in this sense that follows the pattern of the Thesmophoriazusai. After all, Herodotus recorded the historic origins of the actual Thesmophoria in the same Danaids from the Suppliant Women, and Burkert (1970) notes that "obscenity and blood" were characteristic of the actual rituals of the Thesmophoria, with legendary stories of men who accidentally trespassed being castrated or tortured and subdued.

To some extent there is another underlying myth of organized bloodthirsty women also operating in the mythography of Lemnos: Diodorus Siculus III.54 records Myrina as the legendary Amazon queen remarkable for conquest, although there is no definitive identification of this Myrina with the Lemnian queen who gave her name to the island's chief city Indeed, it seems likely that there were two Myrinas, and the Amazon is meant to be identified with the same Myrina recorded in Strabo's Geography (XIII.3.6) as having her tomb located in Asia Minor. Hypsipyle as well is identified as an Amazon in several of the available sources, and indeed it seems that in all of these cases what is stressed mostly is the concept of an all-female society. (One wonders whether the lost text might have made the pun, obvious to us, between "Lemniai" and "Lesbiai" that is lurking here.) In any case, Martin -- who adduces much of the foregoing in his examination of the Lemnian motifs in Lysistrata is willing to make some attempt at reconstructing the lost play:

When Aristophanes turns the mythic material of the Lemnian-women plot to political purposes in the Athens of 411 B.C., he must use one set of husbands to effect both separation and reconciliation -- there are no Argonauts happening by, and staging a "real" massacre would not make for very good comedy. In the myth, then, there are no men on Lemnos while omen rule; in the comedy, there both are and are not men: their "absence" initially is a relic motif, used anew to doubly mark the theme of separation. (Martin 1987, 83-4)

Yet the notion of an all-female society happened upon -- which is central to the myth, and which Martin thinks must have been…[continue]

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