Dangerous Voices: Women's Laments and Greek Literature

Dangerous Voices: Women's Laments and Greek Literature

Dangerous Voices: Women's Laments and Greek Literature

Dangerous Voices: Women's Laments and Greek Literature


In ancient Greece, from the sixth century onwards legilation was introduced in Athens and a number of the more advanced city states which was specifically aimed at the restriction of mourning of the dead, particularly women's laments. THis book investigates the threat which such mourning posed ot the society and the way in which the state attempted to suvdue and subvert laments.The author argues that laments are a complex art form that gives women a means to express not only pain, but frustration and anger. In the larger social unit of the ancient Greek polis, women's prominence in the death rituals and their use of the public forum of the funeral to express grief and anger presented a powerful challenge to established social order. The state's need to raise a standing army meant that death in war had to be glorified, not lamentd; at the same time the existence of official las courts discouraged the cycle of private retribution which was inflamed by laments. In fifth century Athens, the funeral oration and tragedy appropriated the function of and condemend the excesses of women's laments. Attempts ot curb women's laments in antiquity and the Byzantine period were only partly successful. Women's laments remained an essential part of the death rituals of rural Greece. The book ends with a chapter which discusses how the modern Greek men and women writers have dealt with the lament, concluding that the loss of the traditional lament in Greece and other countries not only deprives women of their traditional control over the rituals of death but leaves all mourners impoverished.


Mourning is universal, its rituals manifold. Among them, one of the most interesting and least understood is lament. When we speak of lament, we are speaking of many different genres. A lament is an expression of mourning, but it is not necessarily mourning for the dead. A whole class of laments, including those of the biblical book of Lamentations, are songs for the fall of great cities. In cultures where forced emigration is common, we often find laments either for those who have gone into exile or composed by émigrés for the homeland and family they have left behind. In Finland, China and Greece, laments are sung by the bride’s family, and often by the bride herself, as she leaves to become a member of her husband’s household.

The form laments take is just as varied as their subject. Anything from an elaborate poem to ‘tuneful weeping’ can be classified as a lament. In this investigation I am particularly interested in laments for the dead, and since the two cultures I will be looking at closely are ancient and modern Greece, I will be looking at a variety of forms of lament, from the kommos of classical tragedy to the folk laments of Mani and Epirus.


What is common to laments for the dead in most ‘traditional’ cultures is that they are part of more elaborate rituals for the dead, and that they are usually performed by women. In these cultures, as in our own, women and men are perceived and expected to mourn in different ways. Men and women may both weep for their dead, but it is women who tend to weep longer, louder, and it is they who are thought to communicate directly

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