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Report | The Poetics of Female Hiketeia: Cult and Character in Euripides

Citation with persistent identifier: Ladianou, Katerina. “The Poetics of Female Hiketeia: Cult and Character in Euripides.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:LadianouK.The_Poetics_of_Female_Hiketeia.2019

Abstract

Setting out to study the significance of Euripidean representations of cultic activities, I have used Andromache as a case study, in order to decode the ways female hiketeia is used in Euripides as a vehicle to engage with questions of cult, individual and collective characterization, gender and class disparities, justice and family relationships. If, as Gould suggests, hiketeia is “a social institution which permits the acceptance of an outsider within a group,” then the multiple supplications in Andromache can be read as means to question Athenian ideas of social norms and challenge his audience to reflect on ethnic or gender assumptions. Seen in this light, I plan to expand my study of female hiketeia in more Euripidean plays; Helen, not only opens with a hiketeia but also includes a second female supplication of the protagonist to Theonoe. In Heracleidai, it is Iolaos talking on behalf of the (male) children of Herakles, seated at the altar of Zeus Agoraios in Marathon while a parallel supplicatory action is performed inside the temple by the female children of Herakles and Alkmene. Finally, the Suppliants, open with Aethra, the supplicanda addressing the chorus of suppliant women while the play ends with Athena as a dea ex machina. Mapping down differences and similarities between the plays, I will therefore attempt to investigate how supplication takes a different form each time it appears on stage, creating and re-creating meaning, bringing up the troubled relationship between gods and mortals.

Report

When I applied to the Center for Hellenic Studies with a project in coordination with Lucia Athanassaki, I set out to study the significance of Euripidean representations of cultic activities, cultic etiquette, and attitudes to cult for the characterization of the dramatic characters, individual or collective, such as the chorus. During my time at the CHS, the scope of my study has become more narrow in that my project does not include the whole range of cultic activity but focuses into the matter of supplication. My time at CHS also provided the opportunity to read all Euripidean plays that include supplication, research both primary and material and decide on which plays to focus.

Supplication scenes in different parts of the drama occur very often in Euripides. Suffice to say that of the nineteen complete extant plays, fourteen include supplication scenes. Supplication has been studied in both epic and tragic poetry. To name but a few, John Gould, in his classic 1973 article, has shown how supplication is connected with xenia and the oikos, studying the gestures and focusing on the supplication ritual. Fred Naiden (2006), on the other hand, argues that gestures are less important, focuses on the legal elements of the institutional practices associated with hiketeia, and discusses how suppliant plays relate to democratic institutions. Suzanne Gödde (2000) has discussed Aeschylus’s Suppliants focusing on ritual and rhetoric, while Jonas Grethlein (2003) focuses on how Athenian beliefs and values vis-a-vis democracy can be explored through supplication. In a similar manner, Angeliki Tzanetou (2011) also discusses the ideology of hegemony in supplication plays.

My initial approach aimed to bring out the inconsistencies that underlie the dramatic characters’ views of the gods and attitudes to religion and show that the picture is complex and cannot yield a single straightforward answer. In doing so, I have realized that Andromache is a play that can yield interesting results about both individual and collective characterization focusing on supplication: the plot takes place in two sanctuaries, the sanctuary of Thetis in Thessaly (onstage) and the sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi (offstage: the action there is described by the messenger). In this setting, I tried to explore how individual or collective characters relate to supplication, i.e. are they familiar with etiquette and, if they are, do they respect it? What do their attitudes to supplication tell us about their behavior towards and treatment of others? Does their attitude to supplication acquire collective characteristics, and therefore help to expand the analysis of the dramatic persons’ attitudes to supplication to communities as well?

What is more, Andromache not only opens with a supplication scene, but is also a play which revolves around supplication. In the course of action, three more supplication scenes unravel, turning hiketeia into a theme. By the end of the play, all characters will have been involved in a supplication scene, which take place both at an altar and other protagonists. In a play that has often been often criticized for its lack of thematic unity, hiketeia seems to provide a thematic centre around which plot develops.

What is also unique in the Andromache is that in the beginning of the play both the suppliant and the supplicated person are women. Moreover, the altar at which Andromache stands belong to a female goddess, Thetis, who also appears at the end as a dea ex machina. Hermione, the villain of the play also resorts to both an imaginary and a real hiketeia. In his article on hiketeia, John Gould argued that “the role of women in Greek supplication, is perhaps too peripheral and too weakly attested to be made the basis of a general theory.” Hiketeia in Andromache then, with its prominent role and use of female protagonists can, I propose, be a good starting point from which to explore the role of women in Greek supplication.

I believe that this awareness of gender brings renewed appreciation of hiketeia especially because, at least in the case of the Andromache, it is structured around opposing feminine pairs. It has long been argued, by Zeitlin, McClure and others, that women in tragedy transgress gender boundaries and are therefore used to call into question masculine political ideology. Although Andromache is not read as a political play per se, I believe that it calls into question the notions or gender roles, ethnicity, and matters of social justice. Andromache is a woman, a slave, and a barbarian and the mother of an illegitimate child. She is in other words, an embodiment of the Other whose precarious state is highlighted through supplication. If, as Gould suggests, hiketeia is “a social institution which permits the acceptance of an outsider within a group”, then the multiple supplications in Andromache can be read as means to question Athenian ideas of social norms and challenge his audience to reflect on ethnic or gender assumptions while also exploring anxieties about legitimacy.

The supplication of Andromache to Thetis is set up as a model supplication. A woman in danger supplicates a goddess, showing her respect and trusting her to help her. But as Andromache is depicted as a reverent suppliant, the people responsible to answer her suppliance are the exact opposite. Conniving, disrespectful, self-serving, Menelaus and Hermione bend the rules to achieve their goals. They manipulate the supplication rules, blackmailing Andromache to leave the altar so that they can kill her. If supplication is a cult of integration, acceptance, and protection of the foreigner, this is indeed a failed supplication. Yet again, when Molossus supplicates Menelaus to spare his life, his supplication fails and both protagonists prepare to meet their death.

There are, however, successful supplications. When Andromache falls in Peleus’s knees, he, as a model host, takes her under his protection, untying her hands, and helping both her and her son. Does he act out of reverence to Thetis, belatedly responding to Andromache’s supplication to the goddess? Is his acceptance a sign of respect to gods? Even if it is, can we say the same for Orestes’ acceptance of Hermione’s supplication? Is this more than a self-serving act of a person who does not hesitate to kill Neoptolemus at Apollo’s altar? Is Hermione’s semi naked supplication an act of piety? If suppliancy is to be used as a tool for characterization, can all suppliants be seen as innocent and respectful and supplicants as sacred and pious?

Where does this leave gods? Zeus Hikesios or Thetis did not protect suppliants like Andromache and Molossus. They did not punish Menelaus and Hermione when trying to defile the altar. It can be argued that Thetis, however late, saves Andromache as if responding to the supplication finishing the play with a touch of divine justice. Peleus, is blessed with immortality, but is it connected with the fact that he saved a suppliant? If that is the case, then the supplication to him can be taken as a parallel to the supplication to Thetis’s statue and therefore as a prefiguration of his apotheosis. Andromache and Molossus, the only pious supplicants, are spared and gain the status they deserve. But Orestes, Menelaus and Hermione are not punished for their scorn of supplication.

Using Andromache as a case study, it is now my conviction that female hiketeia is used in Euripides as a vehicle to engage with questions of cult, individual and collective characterization, gender and class disparities, justice and family relationships. Therefore, I plan to expand my study of female hiketeia to more Euripidean plays. As already mentioned, in Andromache the eponymous heroine is supplicating the statue of Thetis, while in Helen, the protagonist tries to escape marriage, becoming a suppliant at the tomb of Proteus. Although she does not supplicate a female goddess, Helen is similar with Andromache in that female hiketeia is practiced later in the play. Helen will fall on her knees supplicating Theonoe, exhibiting full knowledge of suppliancy etiquette. This female supplication is performed in a doubly ritual space since Theonoe enters the stage performing purification rites.

Other Euripidean plays open up with a prologue from a representative of a group of supplicants; in Heracles, Amphitryon sits as a suppliant at the altar of Zeus Soter, surrounded by Megara and his grandchildren. In Heracleidai, it is Iolaos talking on behalf of the (male) children of Herakles, seated at the altar of Zeus Agoraios in Marathon while a parallel supplicatory action is performed inside the temple by the female children of Herakles and Alkmene. Finally, the Suppliants, open with Aethra, the supplicanda addressing the chorus of suppliant women.

There are many similarities that bring the two plays together. Like the Andromache, both the suppliants and the person supplicated are female. Moreover, the supplication is before female deities, as the action is situated at the altar in front of the temple of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis, where the chorus of Argive mothers resort in order to ask Aethra for help. As the case in Andromache, the Suppliants open with a scene of female supplication and close with Athena, as a dea ex machina. The prologue unfolds before a cultic setting and begins with the description of a double cultic action: Aethra is praying to the goddesses, being surrounded by the suppliants. As she first addresses Demeter and then the servants of the temple, she situates herself in the holy grounds of Eleusis. The altar in front of the temple of Demeter and Persephone occupies centre stage. Before the altar, Aethra is praying surrounded by the suppliant women, who left Argos and came to Eleusis with suppliant twigs in their hands, adding one more layer of cultic activity. The suppliants have already fallen at her knees, a well known supplicatory position, emphasizing their extreme emotional state. Having lost their sons in battle, they are not allowed to perform the due burial rites. This is indeed an extreme situation whose urgency is also emphasized by its staging: the supplication invades the cultic space, disrupting Aethra’s offerings. Aethra is constrained by the situation: she cannot finish her sacrifice because of the supplication. Her offering cannot be completed because the wreaths are binding her, inducing both pity and reverence. She is deeply touched by the supplication; it is evident that her mind is set to helping the suppliants, since it is sanctioned by divine law. But the final decision is to be made by Theseus who will either drive away the suppliants, causing distress to the land, or set the land free from the binds of hiketeia by satisfying their needs.

My research has so far revealed that hiketeia is a thread that runs through Euripidean plays, creating meaning. But that is not to say that supplication is uniform or has a single or simple meaning. On the contrary, supplication takes different form each time it appears on stage, creating and re-creating meaning, used to bring up problematic relationships and ideas and pointing out the troubled relationship between gods and mortals. Supplication itself is a treatise on power but as such it also highlights the transiency of power. Suppliants find themselves in extreme situations, but at the same time remember their past happiness. Dei ex machina grant future happiness to unhappy supplicants. Supplicandi, reject supplications only to change their minds later or become suppliants themselves, rejected suppliants can be saved by the power of god. Thus, Euripides stages the drama of supplication problematizing its shortcomings, manipulations, successes, and failures. Moreover, since in many of the suppliant dramas suppliants are indeed women, the figure of the female can be a hermeneutic key; seen as a site of liminality, hiketeia is the appropriate stage for the tension in the relationship between gods-mortals, Greeks-barbarians, male and the female. But rather than answering questions, the plays confirm the complexity of the ritual by posing new questions and problems, re-writing Homeric and traditional supplication rules in the changing and challenging times of the Peloponnesian war.

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About Katerina Ladianou

Katerina Ladianou studied Greek Philology at the University of Crete (BA and MA) and received her Doctorate Degree at the Ohio State University. Her PhD thesis discussed the feminine voice in Archaic Greek Poetry. She has taught both Greek and Latin at the Ohio State University, University of Patras, University of Crete, and University of Athens. Her scholarly interests include Archaic Greek Poetry (both Epic and Lyric), Roman Love Elegy, performance and gender. She is the author of “The poetics of choreia. Imitation and Dance in the Anacreontea,” QUCC 80: 47-58, 2005 and “Female Choruses and Gardens of Nymphs: Visualizing Chorality in Sappho” in V. Cassato- A. Lardinois (ed.) The Look of Lyric: Greek Song and the Visual, 2016.

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