- Envy, Poison, and Death: Women on Trial in Classical Athens by Esther Eidinow
This book’s virtues are plain to see. It is thoughtful and well-informed; meticulous in identifying the ancient evidence, its contexts and their implications; and chock-full of careful and detailed accounts of modern scholarship on a remarkable range of subjects. Its chapters are divided into manageable sections with helpful headings and excellent summaries. Signposts to relevant passages elsewhere in the book abound (for example, 73 n.8: “Pind. Nem. 8.21, further discussed on p. 112”). There is a bibliography of 43 pages (including items published as recently as 2015), an excellent general index of 22 pages, and a source index of another 19 pages (in two columns each).
It is less easy to say just what this book is about. Eidinow starts from the trials of three women (Theoris, “Ninon,” Phryne) in fourth-century Athens. Why these trials, of these women, at this time? Since almost everything about these events is uncertain—the dates of the trials, the women’s status, the charges against them, even the nominative case of “Ninon’s” name—Eidinow’s search for an answer takes the reader on a long and winding road or (given the link of women with the occult) a magical mystery tour. The journey moves from the little that is known about the women and their trials to a discussion of phthonos (“envy”); to Darwin’s and William James’s approaches to the emotions; gift-giving by mortals and gods; poisons (literal and metaphorical); and on to the kinds, vocabulary, and cultural role of gossip (according to some, it is “what makes human society as we know it possible,” 172); binding spells and their relationship with the punishment of apotympanismos; the demographics and economics of fourth-century Athens; and to witch-hunts in East Java after the overthrow of Suharto. The conclusion: Athens’s political and economic challenges exacerbated social tensions at the same time as the loss of manpower in the Peloponnesian War made women more visible. The difficulty of ascertaining their citizen status, a rich source of suspicion and gossip, threatened the stability of families and the transmission of their assets. Moreover, women who could cross status boundaries might also transgress the proper modes of accessing the gods and might therefore endanger the polis as well as individual families. This is the context of the moral panic that enveloped Theoris, “Ninon,” and Phryne.
Much of this is erudite and impressive, even interesting. Of course, every journey has delays, detours or missteps. Footnotes may make up most of a page (for example, 141, 233, 322). Some reports of secondary sources do not encourage further investigation (331 n.13: “Siegel emphasizes this primal uncertainty as a form of the sublime . . . it is a form of the pure gift”). The use of published [End Page 285] translations sometimes requires the reader to cope with unfamiliar words like “dominie” and “fuglewoman” (17). Epigraphs unaccountably differ from the texts they are said to be quoting (compare 224 with 66–67, 292 with 296). And some readers may find the final destination a little disappointing. After all, as Eidinow notes, Michael Jameson identified these “dangerous women” and their perceived threat to Athenian democracy twenty years ago, and Eidinow’s claim is only to “build on his initial arguments in a slightly different direction” (312). Nor does that different direction necessarily lead where Eidinow thinks. At almost every stage of the journey, Eidinow is careful to discuss alternative routes suggested by the many biological, psychological, and other studies she summarizes (honesty is another of the book’s virtues). Her presentation is possible and plausible—but perhaps not probable enough to build anything further on it. But everyone will benefit from some of the stops along the way, whether long, like the essay on phthonos in Pindar (103–24), or short. For a brief visit (suitable for day-trippers), I recommend the introduction to conceptual metaphor theory and its...