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  • Unveiling Female Feelings for Objects:Deianeira and Her ὌPΓΑΝΑ in Sophocles' Trachiniai
  • Anne-Sophie Noel

"Comme on aime ce que l'on quitte!"

H. Caïn1

In Objects of the Dead, sociologist Margaret Gibson investigates how modern Australians utilize material culture in dealing with the death of loved ones. "Death reconstructs our experience of personal and household objects in particular ways," she notes. It also confronts us with "the strangeness of realizing that things have outlived persons." Hence "the materiality of things is shown to be more permanent than the materiality of the body" (Gibson 2008.1).

Inspired by these insights, I wish to bring into focus some objects featured in the narrative of the death of Deianeira, the wife of Heracles, in Sophocles' Trachiniai, a tragedy produced in Athens in 450–40 bce. These objects are mundane domestic instruments (organa); nevertheless, they provoke the tears of Deianeira when she grabs them just before committing suicide. What are these organa, defined as familiar tools that she frequently used, and how should her emotional last encounter with them be understood? Although these material objects have not drawn a lot of [End Page 89] attention in the recent scholarship on theatrical props (Chaston 2010, Mueller 2016, and Telò and Mueller 2018), they were discussed by commentators as early as the Hellenistic period. The Alexandrian scholiasts proposed several hypotheses to elucidate the identity of these organa, but, remarkably, they also clearly engaged with the question of the affective relationship between a woman and her tools. From the perspective of the history of emotions, this is a rare literary testimony that attests to the gendered experience of material artifacts.

I will first discuss the identification of Deianeira's organa as her weaving tools, a hypothesis made by the scholiasts that is well supported by internal textual clues and external proofs in the historical and cultural contexts of fifth-century Greek drama. I then evaluate the pertinence of the Alexandrian scholiasts' affective interpretations of Deianeira's special relationship with her tools. Combining textual and material testimonies, I challenge their emphasis on the connection between Deianeira's instruments and her relationship with her husband, Heracles. I argue that her last physical contact with her tools is also charged with emotions related to her own experience as a female weaver and her own female agency.


Sophocles' Trachiniai dramatizes the devastation of Heracles and Deianeira's oikos through a complex chain of causality. The posthumous revenge of the centaur Nessus—killed decades ago by Heracles (565–69)—is brought to completion through Deianeira's attempt to regain the love of her husband. Persuaded (sincerely or not) that the blood that had dripped from the deadly wound of Nessus could act as a love charm, she has anointed a fine white peplos with it. She is deceiving Heracles when she sends him a gift supposedly meant to enhance the purity of the sacrifice he is about to fulfill on Mount Œta. While performing the ritual, Heracles is almost instantly consumed by the poisonous robe. A widow-to-be resented by all—including her son Hyllos—Deianeira rushes into her bedroom to commit suicide.

The account of her death is offered by the old nurse who delivers a virtuoso messenger speech (870–946). One could apply the enactive reframing of enargeia ("vividness of style"), recently proposed by Jonas Grethlein and Luuk Huitink, to this gripping narrative.2 Deianeira is first [End Page 90] described secretly observing Hyllos preparing a litter for his dying father (901–03). She then runs into the thalamos ("the bridal chamber"), finding on her way both people and objects that greatly affect her emotionally (904–10). There she arranges the bed and climbs onto it to voice her ultima verba, quoted in a direct speech addressed to the bed itself (912–22). She lastly detaches her gold pin, loosens her peplos, and plunges a sword into her left side (923–26). Through these numerous mentions of simple bodily actions, the nurse's speech encourages the spectators' embodied responses. Her story not only prompts visualization but also triggers all kinds of sensory stimuli that allow the audience to enact "a quasi...


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