Dangerous Voices: Women's Laments and Greek Literature

By Gail Holst-Warhaft | Go to book overview

Introduction

Dangerous voices: women’s laments and Greek literature

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. 1

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.


LAMENT AS AN ART OF WOMEN

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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