Women's History and Ancient History

By Sarah B. Pomeroy | Go to book overview

MARILYN B. SKINNER


Nossis Thēlyglōssos: The Private Text and the Public Book

Eleven quatrains accidentally preserved in the Greek Anthology comprise the literary remains of the woman epigrammatist Nossis, a native of the Greek colony of Locri Epizephyrii in southern Italy active around the beginning of the third century B.C.1 Together with her predecessors Sappho and Erinna, both of whom situated their poetry within the sphere of women's religious and domestic lives and proclaimed their own deep emotional attachments to other women, Nossis may be one of the earliest Western European exemplars of the recognizably female literary voice. 2 Certainly her slight body of texts gives the impression of a forthright personality with an idiosyncratic point of view that upon close reading emerges as strongly woman-identified. 3

For anyone planning to demonstrate the peculiarly female timbre of Nossis' poetic voice, however, the fact that she chose to work within the epigrammatic tradition presents an initial interpretative difficulty. The majority of her surviving quatrains are dedicatory, honoring gifts made by women to goddesses. There is nothing particularly unusual in her subject matter, for male poets also wrote about women's offerings to female divinities. Moreover, the dedicatory epigram is by its very nature a public and impersonal mode of poetic discourse. 4 Destined to commemorate a votive offering, usually by being affixed to a temple wall alongside the donor's present, such testimonial verses necessarily addressed the world at large, and their preoccupation with the votive object itself left scant room for authorial subjectivity. Then too, most dedicatory epigrams were probably commissioned from professional writers. Although dedicants might have hoped for some share of literary immortality in having their individual offerings memorialized by a Callimachus or a Leonidas of Tarentum, what they surely expected from any poet, no matter how

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