- Voices at Work: Women, Performance, and Labor in Ancient Greece by Andromache Karanika
In the cluster of scholarship around women’s speech in ancient genres, considerations of labor have been marginal. Voices at Work, then, is a welcome addition to the scholarship on women’s voices in the ancient world. Karanika convincingly argues for the existence of the female work song and its intertextual relationship with a wide range of sources in the archaic and Hellenistic periods—from allusions to these songs within Homer’s epics to their afterlife as contemporary Greek folk ballads. Listening for the “lost sounds, rhythms, songs and stories that accompanied daily labor” (221) may be a difficult project, but it is a brave one.
Karanika begins with the representation of women’s labor in epic, arguing that Homer “entextualizes” lost or forgotten forms of song accompanying weaving or washing. In chapter 1 Karanika argues that representations of work bestow Helen’s and Penelope’s speech with authority, playing on the established metaphorical interweaving between textile and textual production. Karanika then reads the comparison between Nausicaa and Artemis as an allusion to the [End Page 584] original hymnic, and therefore choral, context of the washing song mentioned in Odyssey 6. Chapter 3 handles women in captivity, as Karanika explores, through a reading of Euripides’ Elektra, the relationship between lamentation as the typical site of female poetics and the work song as a companion-genre.
In the chapters that follow Karanika traces extant ancient work songs to define the possible parameters of the female work song tradition. In chapters 4, 5, and 6 she collects fragments of, and allusions to, wine-making and grinding songs, connecting them to ritual utterances and pantomimic dance. The sixth chapter, and the strongest, connects lullabies to the tortoise game, in which young girls both express and transcend quotidian fears, rehearsing their roles as women by repeating a chant employing the verbal genres of both lament and work song.
The final two chapters showcase Karanika’s fieldwork collecting contemporary Greek work songs. Chapter 7 situates the “poetics of interruption” in Sappho and the Homeric Hymns against a contemporary Greek wedding song that figures the break from weaving as a lament. Karanika concludes with the concept of the historiola, arguing that the Lityerses fragment in Theocritus 10 (and Callimachus) connects the labor of reaping to ritual force through myth.
I have tried, in this summary, to preserve my visceral sensation of off-road driving while reading this book. Karanika wheels jaggedly through the Greek literary tradition and beyond, moving quickly from Homer to secondary literature on African oral traditions, from lament to wedding song to work chant. Conducting an “oral history” of long-buried women requires Karanika to employ methods that may feel, at times, inductive, such as sociological readings of literary texts and diachronic analysis. As such, the book’s conceptual parameters of women, performance, and labor might be more clearly defined and elaborated.
By referring to all utterances as “speech acts” and citing the bibliography on performative speech only cursorily, Karanika misses an opportunity to reinvigorate the concept of the speech act itself (saying “I do,” for example, is itself the act of getting married). Karanika somewhat misleadingly asserts, for example, that grape-harvesting songs are “perfect examples of performative utterances” (116), when it remained unclear to me throughout the volume what exactly these utterances perform. Karanika convincingly argues that work songs accompany and set a rhythm for labor, but surely the words “I pick grapes” don’t take the fruit off the vines.
Thus, the theory of labor that emerges—that it is coexistent with, or even produced by, song—removes the body from the site of its own action. For Karanika, work becomes legible and citable, perhaps even meaningful, only through poetry. And so little distinction is paid to the difference between arduous agricultural labor and elite domestic tasks, between slave and citizen. This book, a first attempt to listen to ancient women’s voices at...