The Movement of Liminal Women and its Consequences in Early Greek Myth

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The Movement of Liminal Women and its Consequences in Early Greek Myth

The title of this paper takes as its cue Blondell et al's Women on the Edge: Four Plays by Euripides, [1] which argues in its introduction that "[w]omen in tragedy often disrupt 'normal' life by their words and actions: they speak out boldly, tell lies, cause public unrest, violate custom, defy orders, even kill." (Blondell, Gamel, Rabinowitz, Sorkin and Zweig. 1999, x) The four plays selected by the editors - Alcestis, Medea, Helen and Iphigenia at Aulis offer "examples of women who support the status quo and women who oppose and disrupt it." (Blondell, Gamel, Rabinowitz, Sorkin and Zweig. 1999, x) Sometimes, however, it is enough that a woman merely be present for 'normal life' to be not only 'disrupted', but irrevocably altered. Further, a woman's transposition from one sphere to another, and her corresponding transition from one state to the next, may change the very nature of the cosmos itself. This article will discuss several shared characteristics in the myths of Pandora, Persephone and Helen as presented in some of our earliest ancient Greek literary sources. Specifically, I shall look at those dating from the 8th to 6th centuries BCE: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey; Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days; the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite; and finally, the Greek epic fragments.

Pandora, Persephone and Helen have been chosen because their stories reflect the ongoing mythic preoccupation regarding the role of women within Greek society. It is possible to view the progression of the three as conforming to the rites de passage as described by Van Gennep in 1960 (10-11, 116 ff): We witness rites of separation, operating on two levels. First, despite their shared descent from, or creation by, the Olympian gods, they exist in the realm of mortals. Secondly, their partnerships are instigated either against or despite their will, and are marked by a concurrent development in the type of space they occupy. Rites of transition may be interpreted in the corresponding change of status that these women undergo - from daughters, virgins and legitimate spouses, to brides, wives and consorts. Finally, rites of incorporation occur once Pandora, Persephone and Helen are reintegrated into what the myths depict as a new world. This is achieved through aetiological explanations for the state of the cosmos and/or the institution of a new era of the human condition.
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