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According to my Aunt Evanthia, the heroic age for women in Greece was from the moment they were born to the moment they died.
--Stratis Haviaras, The Heroic Age
[¶2.] Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?
--Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
[¶3.] Male versus female and mortal versus divine: these fundamental opposites hold pride of place among the many binary oppositions that shape ancient Greek thought. By situating heroines in relation to these two categories, I aim to change the way we look not only at heroines, but also at the very categories themselves.
[¶4.] This book proposes, first of all, that the heroine is a distinct religious and mythic category, and one that so far has not received adequate attention; second, that heroines have a different relationship to immortality than do heroes; and third, that the integration of heroines into our view of Greek heroic myth and cult requires a new model of divine/mortal relations based as much on reciprocity as on antagonism.
[¶5.] While the third of these propositions might seem to indicate adherence to the tenets of so-called difference-feminism, to understand it in such a way is to sentimentalize the concept of reciprocity. The reciprocity in question is largely symbolic and has to do with the exchange of qualities between male and female, and between mortal and immortal, in ways that complicate these categories. That this interest in ambiguity is not a purely modern innovation is shown by the lines from Heraclitus with which I begin Chapter 3.
[¶6.] Despite this caveat, it will be obvious how much my choice of topic, and my focus on issues of gender, owe to recent work in feminism. Some readers may find fewer references to feminist theory than they would like. I have, however, attempted, rather than situating my analysis within one or another school of feminist thought, instead to present material that will be of use to others working with this body of theory. It may be helpful, however, to say something about one current debate in gender theory--that over essentialism.1 While I am generally persuaded of the largely constructed nature of gender-identity, the habit of thinking in essentialist terms is prevalent in ancient Greek culture and leaves its stamp on the material at hand. In this context, because I strive as far as possible to explicate native categories, it has been necessary to speak in what may seem to be essentialist terms about male and female, mortal and divine. I hope it will be clear that these essentialisms are the reflection of ancient Greek thinking rather than my own.
[¶7.] This book had its origin in a Ph.D. thesis entitled "Heroic Configurations of the Feminine in Greek Myth and Cult" (Princeton University, 1989), which was reportedly the only classics dissertation of its year whose title indicated treatment of women's or gender issues.2 In the intervening years, interest in these topics has increased steadily, and interest in heroines in particular. New books by Brulé, Sourvinou-Inwood, and Dowden on the myths and rituals of girl's transitions were also published at about the same time.3 Since then, Jennifer Larson has written an invaluable account of the cults of heroines.4 Not until I began my revisions was I able to take advantage of this body of work, and in so doing, I have tried to strike a balance between recognizing adequately the work of my colleagues and overburdening my own book with cross-citations. Since my approach to the material is often quite different, and since I have not fundamentally changed my views since completing the thesis, I have stopped short of indicating every point of similarity or difference among our positions. I have, however, taken pains to acknowledge all debts.
[¶8.] As the two passages with which I began clearly show, in English usage heroine most often means a women of extraordinary qualities, or the female protagonist of a work of fiction or drama. The word heroine carries with it an unfortunate freight of associations, suggesting not a powerful being to be invoked and propitiated from beyond the grave, but a frail creature requiring rescue by none other than a hero. I decided not to circumvent this problem by the use of the phrase "female hero," since such a phrase reinforces the notion of the female as the special case, the other, the marked category, while the male remains unmarked, normative, universal. In English, a language in which gender is relatively unmarked, gender-specific forms like "poetess" can be rightly rejected as patronizing. In translating from Greek, a language with a high degree of gender specificity, it would be a distortion to deny the existence or significance of gender-marked terms. For these reasons, I have elected to use the word heroine as the female equivalent of the male hero, confident that it needs not rescue but a chance to speak for itself.
[¶9.] Throughout this work I will use the word heroine to mean a heroized female personage or recipient of heroic honors, and secondarily, as a female figure in epic, myth, or cult.5 Expanding the notion of the heroic in Greek myth to include the feminine will mean considering and perhaps challenging traditional definitions of the hero, which have been largely constructed without reference to heroines.
[¶10.] The very notion of a "heroine" in Greek religious thought has been called into question, and not without reason. Our sources preserve no word for the concept before Pindar, and no single form of the word prevails in the history of the Greek language. It has been suggested that no real distinction exists between goddesses and heroines. Some of this is mere misogyny. In response to this line of argument, we may note Farnell's chivalrous exasperation: "We can repudiate the dictum of a recent unimaginative German writer, that all Greek heroines must have been originally goddesses because no woman could naturally become a heroine."6 The unnamed German is easily refuted since he fails to account for the fact that women were heroized in the historical period.7 Those who argue for the nonexistence of heroines on linguistic grounds are harder to refute.8 Nonetheless, early texts such as the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, as well as passages in Homeric epic, provide us with a working definition of a heroine avant la lettre, who is called "wife or daughter of a hero," and who is frequently also the mother of a hero. These figures are clearly set apart from other women and at the same time are distinguished from goddesses.
[¶11.] Those who would deny any clear distinction between heroine and goddess generally do so by contrast with the case of heroes. Greek religious ideology seems to demand a sharp division between hero and god, and this demand has been felt even by scholars writing in the twentieth century.9 Hence the often repeated comment that, aside from Herakles, the heros theos, and Dionysos, the theos heros, the lines are hard and fast. Walter Burkert's view may be cited as a recent example:
In Homeric terms heroes and gods form two quite separate groups, even though they share the nature of Stronger Ones in relation to man. The wall which separates them is impermeable: no god is a hero, and no hero becomes a god; only Dionysos and Herakles were able to defy this principle.10
[¶13.] These comments make no mention of any female counterparts and ignore the numerous heroines who make the transition to divinity, both familiar figures like Semele, Ino, Ariadne, and sometimes Iphigeneia, and the more obscure like Molpadia and Phylonoe. Even within the Homeric tradition, to preserve the limits of Burkert's discussion, we find the example of Ino, and perhaps Helen. In the words of Emily Vermeule,
One of the archaic fictions was that the gulf between men and gods could not be crossed, `the bronze heaven cannot be climbed' (Pindar, Pythian 10.27), but archaic myth was busy providing bridges, or, rather, a double ladder up which some creatures ascend toward immortality and others sink down to the darker mortal condition.11
[¶15.] In this book I shall have more to say about upward than downward mobility. Central to my project is the phenomenon of heroines whose myths tell of their transformation to goddesses. These figures may seem at first glance to undermine the integrity of the heroine as a distinct religious category. I believe, however, that the apparent contradiction they pose may be resolved if we take into account the ways in which such transformations are marked. I wish to explore the possibility that, although the distinction between heroine and goddess is clear, there is greater potential for female heroized figures to cross the mortal/immortal divide than for male ones. Although heroines are analogous to heroes in most respects, at the same time they, more regularly than heroes, challenge the well-defended barrier between the divine and the heroic, and by extension, the distinction between mortal and immortal. In structuring my study in this way, I hope not only to elucidate some particulars of Greek mythic thinking and cultic practice, but also to address a central issue of Greek religious ideology, the division between mortal and divine.
1 Classicists will find discussion of the debate on essentialism in David Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (New York, 1990). For a useful critique of the artificiality of the debate, see Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference (New York, 1989). See also John Boswell, "Concepts, Experience, and Sexuality," in differences 2 (1990) 67-87.
2 Amy Richlin in the Women's Classical Caucus newsletter, 1990.
3 Pierre Brulé, La Fille d'Athènes: La Religion des filles à Athènes à l'époque classique (Paris, 1987); Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, Studies in Girls' Transitions (Athens, 1988); Ken Dowden, Death and the Maiden: Girls' Initiation Rites in Greek Mythology (London, 1989). Other relevant works that appeared around this time are P.M.C. Forbes Irving, Metamorphosis in Greek Myths (Oxford, 1990) and Emily Kearns, The Heroes of Attica (BICS, suppl. 57) 1989.
4 Jennifer Larson, Greek Heroine Cults (Madison, 1995). Although it appeared as I was completing final revisions, I have tried, wherever possible, to provide readers with cross-references to this work, whose gendered analysis of Greek heroine cults complements my own gendered analyses of Greek heroine myths.
5 In so doing, I follow the usage of Angelo Brelich, Gli eroi greci (Rome, 1968). See discussion in Chapter 1 of this book.
6 Lewis R. Farnell, Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality (Oxford, 1921) 56.
7 See Farnell (1921) 420-26 for a list of historical heroes and heroines.
8 See the discussion in Chapter 1 of Finley's remarks.
9 A. D. Nock long ago pointed out that the distinction between heroic and divine cult was not as hard and fast as some scholars believed. See "The Cult of Heroes," HThR 37 (1944) 141-73.
10 W. Burkert, Greek Religion, trans. J. Raffan (Cambridge, Mass., 1985) 205. That Herakles and Dionysos were paradigmatic in this regard in antiquity can be seen from a remark of Plutarch contrasting them with Apollo who was always immortal (Pelopidas 16.5).
11 E. Vermeule, Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry (Berkeley, 1979) 127.