Monday, September 16, 2013


Deborah J. Lyons, Dangerous Gifts: Gender and Exchange in Ancient Greece. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012. Pp. xiii, 166. ISBN 9780292729674. $55.00.

Reviewed by Melissa Mueller, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (

Version at BMCR home site


In this concise and lucid book, Deborah Lyons investigates several key examples of the dangerous combination of women and gifts in the Greek literary and visual imaginary. As in the 2003 article that forms the core of the book under review, her discussion moves between the cases where women are represented as objects exchanged and situations where women are instead the agents of exchange.1 Eriphyle's treacherous trade of her husband for a necklace, Deianeira's unintentionally deadly gift to her husband of a poisoned robe, and other acts of wifely perfidy are read with an eye to the deeper mythic structures underpinning such narratives about women as gifts and gift-givers. While marital crisis forms the backdrop to most of the readings here, the final chapter considers sibling (i.e., brother-sister) relationships in tragedy, of interest in so far as the valorization of sisters in contrast to wives speaks to the endogamous fantasy of circumventing the need to marry.

Chapter 1 rapidly reviews the key literature on kinship and exchange that provides the conceptual basis for Lyons's readings. Noting that Greek culture had "highly elaborated systems of exchange" (p. 9), Lyons situates her discussion of women's status in classical Athens in relation to ethnographic studies documenting that the closer a woman's ties are to her natal family, the greater her status and social autonomy. In Athens, the test case is the epiklêros who, by remaining part of her natal clan even in marriage, avoided having to navigate the complexities of exogamous married life with its view of wives as essentially "outsiders to the marital family" (p. 12). In conjunction with the foundational studies of Bronislaw Malinowski, Marcel Mauss, and Claude Lévi-Strauss on kinship and marriage, Lyons cites feminist anthropologists including Karen Sacks, Janet Hoskins, and Gayle Rubin, often where their work yields insight into how the system of exchange itself struggles to accommodate the fact that a woman is both a sign and, as Lévi-Strauss famously said, a "generator of signs" (p. 19).

Lyons acknowledges her overlap with other books that have applied anthropological kinship models to reading Greek tragedy in particular (p. 2). But few past studies have devoted as much attention as Lyons does in her subsequent chapters to matters entirely material. What is the difference between metal and cloth gifts? Which gifts are more dangerous, and why? Her focus on "gendered wealth" sensitizes readers to the way gifts are symbolically and economically coded in Greek myth. Even in Homeric rituals of gift-giving the gendering of the gift is clear, if not always narrative-driven: "male" metal objects are given by male hosts to a departing guest, while women give textiles.

Chapter 2 explores the tension that Greek myth creatively exploits between the fantasy of an entirely self-sufficient household and that household's dependence on a wife — an outsider — to produce legitimate heirs. Here Lyons's focus on "the gendered dichotomy between metal and textile wealth" brings a fresh perspective to some well-trafficked terrain (p. 29). Considering a series of vases that depict Eriphyle being bribed by Polyneikes, Lyons demonstrates that the bribery is visually coded "as a kind of sexual seduction" and that metallic gifts in general are more nefarious (p. 30). But she also reads this seduction as an example of the destructive nature of divinely crafted objects that have entered the mortal sphere of circulation. The necklace that successfully seduces Eriphyle was originally a wedding gift to Kadmos's bride Harmonia from her father Hephaistos. Like other gifts from the gods this necklace causes conflict when it reaches human hands.

It is within this company of objects "joyously received" by mortals who are later destroyed by them that Lyons, not surprisingly, situates Hesiod's Pandora, that baneful gift par excellence and a complicated blend of metal and cloth (p. 39). In Hesiod the phrase erga gunaikôn ("the works of women"), which usually refers to the works of the loom, is coupled with mermera ("baneful"). Despite having been "composed of the very raw materials" (p. 44) crucial to the crafts of Hephaistos and Athena, Pandora nevertheless embodies the poem's occlusion of women's positive contributions to their husbands' households through weaving and child-bearing. And just as Pandora's presence serves to mystify the true economics of marriage, her material composition communicates a deeply rooted suspicion of the wife who, like Eriphyle, may betray her husband for a shiny metal necklace — or who, more banally though no less banefully, may simply consume the household stores "from the inside out" (p. 47).

In Chapter 3, Lyons examines the Iliad's well known problematic exchanges involving women (Helen, Chryseis, Briseis), exchanges that bring attention to the more general problems of valuing human life. Lyons reminds us of the prequel to this story: during the first sack of Troy, Laomedon promised to reward Herakles with immortal horses for having rescued his daughter Hesione from sacrifice, but Laomedon reneged on his promise, giving Herakles mortal horses instead. Herakles in turn sacked his city. Lyons traces the Iliad's current crisis in reciprocity back to the "spirit of negative reciprocity" that "seems to cling to these horses" that Laomedon had received from Zeus as compensation for the kidnapping of Ganymede (p. 64). Once again we see the narrative potency of the motif of the conflict-ridden divine gift.

Chapter 4, exchanging the Iliad's world of war for the peacetime setting of the Odyssey, argues that in this poem women are granted greater scope to engage as active participants in the gift-exchange economy. Women from all social strata — slaves, noblewomen, goddesses — work at the loom. Yet even here are hints of the cultural bias against women's gifts, that is, gifts both given and received by women. Lyons analyzes the two instances where men are said to have perished "for the sake of womanly gifts" (gunaiôn heineka dôrôn, 11.521 and 15.247), a phrase that for her encapsulates the potentially sinister nature of any gifts handled by women. She finds in these brief mentions of Astyoche's betrayal of her son for a golden vine (made by Hephaistos) and Eriphyle's betrayal of her husband for the golden necklace further proof of the deadliness of divine gifts. Lyons concludes that it is in their ability to resist being seduced by gifts that women demonstrate their value and their virtue as wives. The suitors' competitive giving of "precisely the wrong kind" of gifts — i.e., of metal, of jewelry — to Penelope in Book 18 accordingly frames the question of what kind of wife Penelope will turn out to be (p. 74). Will she too become an Eriphyle?

In Chapter 5 Lyons argues that tragedy, Aeschylus's Agamemnon and Sophocles's Trachiniae in particular, enacts a confusion of material codes while similarly wreaking havoc with human gender roles. Both Klytemnestra and Deianeira transform textiles, generally harmless when they appear in epic, into husband-killing weapons. The garment in which the former traps her husband "is unwearable because it has no holes for arms or head and will later be exhibited, stained with his blood, as evidence of her guilt" (p. 81). Deianeira, who kills her husband Herakles with a robe she has woven with her own hands, monstrously turns into a "kind of latter-day Pandora releasing the evils for men," and, like her predecessor, storing poisons in an urn. Klytemnestra and Deianeira, although opposite in many respects, have in common the fact that as wives, they are both essentially strangers — "metic" is the term Lyons uses — in their conjugal homes.

Lyons's examples are well chosen to support her contentions — so well chosen, in fact, that the silences at times threaten to undermine an otherwise compelling argument. What about the wives that are neither willfully murderous nor unwittingly roped into deadly erotic triangles? The characterization of tragic marriage exclusively in relation to its ill-fated exchanges leaves little room for the playful, ironic, and witty treatments that can also be found in this genre (especially in Euripides) and that offer a challenge to Lyons's assertion that sibling relationships are the "one exception to this rule of hostile male-female dyads" (p. 91). Lyons, moreover, seems to overlook tragedy's fascination with the noble concubine: Andromache, Tecmessa, and other non-Greek women, even if not technically wives, are presented as ideal domestic partners.2 Ethnically foreigners, these women are better integrated into their conjugal homes than many Greek wives; with their native cities sacked and plundered and no paternal homes to return to, they are unburdened by the lingering economic ties for which Greek wives might be persuaded to betray their husbands.

The book's main contention is that marriage, as the focal point of a woman's economic power, is where cultural anxieties about women and exchange play out. An important corollary to the wife's being a permanent stranger to her husband's household is that she remains inalienably connected to the family of her birth. Most interesting in this regard is how Lyons, in Chapter 6, contextualizes Antigone's famously provocative claim that what she has done for her dead brother she would never do for a husband or child (Ant. 904–920). Lyons attempts to normalize Antigone's words by reminding us of the other mythical women who chose brothers and fathers over husbands and children: the Danaids, all but one of whom obey their father in killing their husbands; Althaia, who destroys her son Meleager after he has killed her brothers; and Alkmene, who delays her marriage to Amphitryon until after he has avenged her brothers' deaths. In Euripides's Alkestis Pheres warns Admetus that Alcestis's brother will seek to punish Admetus for allowing his sister to die (Alk. 730–33). When Hesione, Laomedon's daughter, is given the chance to rescue one captive, she chooses her brother Podarkes. Lyons concludes that "relationships between siblings seem to have been conceived of as more durable than those between husbands and wives, or even mothers and children" (p. 101), a perspective that certainly finds parallels in Near Eastern practices, as Lyons acknowledges, for example, in the tale of Intaphernes's wife (Herodotus 3.119). But even while she admits the presence of an "incestuous impulse" in sublimated form, Lyons downplays the degree to which Antigone's stated preference for her brother over a (hypothetical) husband or child makes manifestly real her family's incestuous entanglements. The choices made by Antigone and Elektra, both of whom do clearly privilege sibling (i.e., natal) over conjugal imperatives, are by no means normative — not even for tragedy.

Lyons is consistent in treating all her material, whether visual or literary, as "myth." For those who are interested in how performance context, audience, or even genre help determine a text's meaning, her discussions may feel strangely free-floating, disengaged as they are from the coordinates of performance space and time, and from the genre-specific horizons of audience expectations. Her interpretations are, nevertheless, incisive and engagingly presented. An authoritative guide to the anthropological theories that have been so influential in shaping how Greek literature and society are studied today, Lyons makes accessible the pioneering work of, among others, Louis Gernet, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Marshall Sahlins while also extending and enhancing their models to better fit the literary landscapes she expertly navigates. Readers of this book will derive a satisfying sense of the socioeconomic underpinnings of Greek myth and a deeper acquaintance with the mythical patterns that render women's gifts especially dangerous. ​


1.   D. Lyons, "Dangerous Gifts: Ideologies of Marriage and Exchange in Ancient Greece," Classical Antiquity 22 (2003) 93–134.
2.   On tragedy's idealizing representation of foreign concubines, see especially Helene Foley, Female Acts in Greek Tragedy, (Princeton University Press, 2001) 87–105.

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