Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Andromache Karanika, Voices at Work: Women, Performance, and Labor in Ancient Greece. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. Pp. xiii, 300. ISBN 9781421412559. $59.95.

Reviewed by Peter Miller, Texas Tech University (peter.miller@ttu.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


In this challenging and sophisticated book, Andromache Karanika works against the grain of ancient disdain for songs related to women and work, in order to (re)establish the central place of femininity and labor in ancient poetics. She begins with a straightforward observation: women are portrayed throughout classical literature at work, yet these "moments of work" are not necessarily silent (2). As such, Karanika's bold thesis is that women's work played an important role in ancient poetics (14). Despite the fact that ancient culture was a "song culture" (see, among others, Kowalzig 2007 [BMCR 2008.09.25]), ancient sources neglect the poetics of daily life; they, and much classical scholarship, focus on heroic themes and issues, to the extent that the everyday world of Greek song is obscured (4). In the case of women's voices and the ways in which women labor, our sources are even more elusive, and thus women's voices, especially but not only low-status voices, are emphatically silenced (4). Thus, Karanika's work builds on Lardinois and McClure's Making Silence Speak (BMCR 2001.11.10), but also adds a theoretical framework to a historical and anthropological approach; indeed, she stresses the necessity of theory to open up new avenues of research (220). Karanika is not only interested in recovering actual songs associated with women and labor, but in explicating and prioritizing how women's labor in particular might offer an example of "the very making of literary discourse" (220) and, as she writes in her epilogue, how work songs have "absorbed, enriched, and illuminated human life and labor" (219).

Karanika frames her analysis with an explanation of her comparative approach to oral tradition (the chapter epigraphs, from a range of traditions, nicely foreground this point). She stresses that the process of entextualization can shed much light on oral tradition and its social context, and can bring to life, again, forgotten genres that were, nonetheless, influential on ancient poetry (18–19). To my mind, one of the most revelatory and exciting aspects of this book is Karanika's expert juxtaposition and analysis of comparative material, particular the rich poetic tradition of Modern Greece. By reading comparative material, Karanika contextualizes the often fragmentary references to women's song and work song in the ancient sources, and provides a compelling lens through which to view even the most canonical of ancient texts.

In Chapter One, Karanika begins with the issue of women, labor, and Homer. She situates her discussion within the current scholarly consensus that epic contains a "polyphony" of voices, which must, therefore, include the voices of women and workers (22). Before turning to evidence for women and work songs, Karanika reveals the way in which epic "stages" the female speech act around the theme of work (24). Helen, as so often, is most compelling: in the first instance of a female mortal speaking, in Il. 3, Iris finds Helen inside, "weaving a great purple web of double fold" (Il. 3.125–8; 25). While this scene has been adequately mined for what it can tell us about the self-reflexivity of Homeric epic, Karanika observes that Helen is the first of many women in epic who are prepared for authoritative speech by first being presented working (26; other examples in this chapter include goddesses when in mortal guise: Aphrodite [29], Demeter [30]). Again, when she appears in the Odyssey, Helen's maids bring her items related to spinning, before she speaks an authoritative speech that evokes the powers of the theogonic Muses (Od. 4.140: p. 31). In contrast to this evidence for how work structures female speech, at the close of Chapter One, Karanika reflects on the muted performances of Circe, Calypso, and the Sirens, who are described as singing, yet whose songs are not recorded by the poet (45). She points to Odysseus' appropriation of the theme of the Sirens (the toils of the Trojans and Argives), and uncovers the implicit competition between Odysseus and these divine, singing women; indeed, Odysseus does not report their songs, but when he gives his own private performance to Penelope near the end of the poem, he makes use of their themes (23.306–8): Odysseus "becomes wiser . . . and sails away with the knowledge of song making and the ability to provide joy (terpsis) through his performance" (51).

Chapter Two builds on the resonances of work and women's weaving in the Iliad and Odyssey and turns to washing clothes and the epic absorption of choral lyric. Karanika dissects the appearance of Nausicaa and the famous simile in which she is compared to Artemis (Od. 6.99–109) by comparing it with the Homeric Hymn to Artemis. The simile encourages us to experience Nausicaa as the divine leader of a band of woodland huntresses; intertextual resonances with the hymn encourage an understanding of both Artemis and Nausicaa as leaders of a choral band who dance in a secluded place (60). The simile, concludes Karanika, "displaces the song that Nausicaa performs" (61), and thus the instance of washing clothes permits a generic intrusion and is another context in which women sang and worked, and thus shaped epic poetics.

In Chapter Three, a rich and full analysis, Karanika turns to performance and captivity, and in particular the poetics of lament. Karanika remarks on Plutarch's anecdote about how the Athenians were spared annihilation at the end of the Peloponnesian War. Plutarch writes that when a man from Phocis sang the parodos from the Electra, a lyric exchange between the chorus and Electra, the victors were reminded of her plight and therefore chose to spare the city that had produced such men (90). But why, asks Karanika, was Electra such a powerful example? Was it because her experience so closely emulated real life? Karanika at least partially answers these questions by attending to the particulars of Electra's lament while she fetches water. As she puts it, Electra does not fetch water because she has to, but because it gives her an opportunity to speak up about Aegisthus (92): Electra uses "her work as the medium that enables her to speak up." With the Homeric background of Chapters One and Two in mind, I was struck by this observation; it is as if Electra herself had read Karanika's work and realized how to frame her speech as authoritative. Among many other compelling sections in this chapter — especially that on the memory of ritual objects and the prayers of the Trojan Women in Iliad 6 — I found this resolution of lament as a work-song most illuminating, and a suitable conclusion to the first section of the book.

In Chapters Four through Eight, Karanika turns to the fragmentary evidence for actual work songs, rather than the way in which other genres mark female speech through work. Nonetheless, the Homeric evidence, appropriately enough, stands as the background to later evidence, and Karanika's analysis in the second half of the book is predicated on her detailed understanding of the Homeric antecedents to iambic, lyric, and popular fragments.

She begins, in Chapter Four, with a discussion of one ancient explanation for the word iambos, which might be derived from Iambe, who uttered an iambic verse — and thus a work song — while washing wool (107). Hipponax's witnessing of this scene is taken as an inversion of the standard poetic inspiration from the Muses, and thus iambos, as is suitable to its modality, is from its inception a subversion of epic forms and a domesticated genre. Karanika observes a similar instance in the Mnesiepes inscription, since Archilochus' encounter with the Muses is also predicated on work: the Muses are working women returning from the "meadows" at dawn (112).

In Chapter Five, among other issues, Karanika focuses on the way in which brief work-songs might approach ritual or magical spells through the repetition of words and prescribed actions (144). Words accompany a deed, and through the repetition of the words, the deed becomes easier, and thus more efficacious; as such, ritual and/or magic are appropriate descriptions of some performative work-songs (150). She examines PMG 869, a short grinding-song that either condemns or mocks Pittacus (and thus, like Electra's lament, hints at the possibility of female work-songs as a locus for political expression). This short utterance, however, with its imperative-vocative address to an object, is immediately performative, and thus akin to a spell (145). Moreover, she persuasively connects these quotidian addresses with literary invocations, such as Sappho's address to her lyre (148). In fact, Karanika rightly stresses that work-songs should be added to the list of female speech-acts that provide the context and models for Sappho's poetry (149).

Chapter Six focuses on children's genres in antiquity, particularly lullabies and songs associated with games. Continuing on from the previous chapter's discussion of everyday speech and ritual, Karanika also connects lullabies to the world of performative magic, since they express fear only to dismiss it (161; this reorientation of the individual's position vis-à-vis their fears integrates well with Karanika's discussion on the power of lament and self-blame from Chapter One). Lullabies such as PMG 543 have an apotropaic effect since they put the baby to sleep, but also have the dangerous world as their soporific target. Beyond lullabies, Karanika also observes how songs associated with children's games might act as training for adult actions like lament. Her analysis of the 'tortoise-game,' in which one girl sings a phrase in the midst of a circle of girls, points to apparently innocent play as training for choral dance and lament: such games and songs socialize girls into expressing individual emotions in a collective atmosphere and with a collective voice.

In Chapter Seven, Karanika turns to the suggestively named "poetics of interruption" (182) and begins by examining a short fragment of Sappho in which a weaver must stop her weaving because she is "conquered by desire for a boy" (fr. 102 Lobel–Page: p. 186). Since, as she observes, weaving is not only a metaphor for story-telling but a context in which songs were sung, the interruption of weaving is an interruption of song; the girl conquered by desire leaves the world of narrative and enters "the world of experience" (189). Karanika's interest in the poetics of unfinished textiles leads her to examine "the bride who fell into misfortune," a Modern Greek ballad performed at weddings in Greece to the present day (193). Her cogent analysis compares this song with the Hymn to Demeter and finds much of interest, particularly an explanation for the detailed list of the names of the girls who accompanied Persephone before she was abducted (417–24). Karanika suggests that in both the ballad and the hymn the female protagonists seek to reestablish their status prior to marriage, one by returning to her unfinished textile, the other by equating herself, if only in reported speech, with her maidenly chorus.

Finally, in Chapter 8, Karanika works to discern whether the literary tradition that represents work actually integrates genuine work songs. In particular she concentrates on Theocritus's Idyll 10 and the tradition of rustic competitions and shepherd's songs. She concludes that Theocritus integrates a living genre of harvesting songs into poems such as Idyll 10, and moreover, that such an integration served not only a poetic but also a political purpose. She regards the agricultural poetics of Theocritus as partially representing the actual experience of harvesting through the appropriation of work songs. This would be welcome to the ruling Ptolemies, who might see the inclusivity of such poetics as the acceptance of their universal rule as well as its representation (209).

In Voices at Work Karanika successfully adumbrates a diverse array of genres and gendered voices which are muted or silenced in ancient sources and modern scholarship. Her work demonstrates a mastery of a multitude of evidence, from snippets of scholiasts, to fragments from canonical authors, to modern ballads and folksong tradition. While a complex and challenging text to read, Karanika's monograph deserves a wide audience of those who are interested, as she is, in understanding silence and in knowing "how much has been lost, and how we can read our sources with sensitivity to what lies beyond the words" (10).

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