The First Performance of Antigone: Phaenarete’s View by Stuart Dean

Fragment of an Ancient Greek Statue (Acropolis Museum, Athens)
Fragment of an Ancient Greek Statue (Acropolis Museum, Athens)

The first performance of the play Antigone was in Athens around 440 BCE.  It is possible that Phaenarete, the mother of Socrates, was in the audience.  By then she was certainly practicing medicine and perhaps had been doing so for a decade or more.  Given the nature of her practice she would have had any number of connections that might have led to an invitation to attend (including from Sophocles himself, who was roughly the same age as she was and who is known to have been married and to have had children).

The much debated issue over whether Athenian women were even allowed to attend theatrical performances should not turn attention away from the fact that even if Phaenarete did not actually view the performance of Antigone she surely would have had a ‘view’ about it.  The basic elements of what today seems merely the myth on which it is based but which, for her, was effectively history (and thus concerned with what a woman actually said and did) would have been known to her quite apart from the play itself.  Phaenarete’s interest particularly in Antigone would have derived from its relationship of burial to the womb–literally and symbolically–and how that could readily be associated with her medical practice.

Antigone herself justifies her defiance of the king’s order not to bury her brother as “worship of those of the same womb.”  This spiritual justification in the context of the characterization by the Chorus early in the play of the Earth Goddess as the “oldest of gods” encourages interpreting the burial/suicide of Antigone (who is identified in the play with more than one goddess or mythic figure) as a symbolic return to the womb that is the earth.  Because of the specifics of her own dysfunctional family, by referring only to her mother’s womb Antigone’s justification implicitly negates–by denying its very existence–the role of her father (also her sibling) in the incestuous conception of her and her other siblings.  The very name ‘Antigone’ hints at her motivation in expressing herself that way: ‘Anti’ can mean ‘contra-’ in Greek (cf. antiseptic) and -gone is from a root meaning ‘to conceive’ (cf. gonad).

It is thus easy to imagine that Phaenarete might have used Antigone as a case study in the importance of the services she offered, including the matchmaking in which she proudly specialized, the use of contraceptives (symbolized by Antigone’s suicide) and the use of abortifacients, especially when conception was without informed consent (resulting, for example, from incest).  While the medical issues are only implicit in Antigone, the legal and moral ones are directly addressed and it is worth wondering whether and how Phaenarete might have related those to her medical practice.  For example, could she have compared Antigone’s determination, grounded in moral and legal principle, characterized as ‘autonomy,’ to the determination of women to control their reproductive healthcare in a manner that is today ultimately justified by an appeal to the principle of freedom?

Simply to raise such a question seems anachronistic.  The standard narrative is that belief in freedom rather than one version or another of determinism (tragic or otherwise) emerged relatively late in human consciousness–only after Medieval Christian modal logic successfully challenged the lock Aristotelian logic had on thought.  Yet, that is a narrative told by men about what men thought.  The unstated and thus undefended assumption is that women would not have thought differently.

A consideration of the possibility that they did think differently might begin with the title given to Artemis by Sappho (44 A (a)): “Wild Virgin Deerhunter.”  ‘Wild’ here relates to the environment Artemis inhabits.  Her being there means she is free from otherwise applicable custom (marriage) and law.  That hardly means Artemis is ‘wild’ (immoral) in thought or action.  Her virginity manifests moral certitude in thought; correlated with that certitude is effectiveness in action (symbolized in the detail below by the deerskin draped over her shoulders).

Artemis, 5th century BCE Attic Vase

To believe in Artemis is thus to believe in freedom in thought and action.  Yet, to the extent that Artemis as Artemisia–an herb known to have psychological effects (trances or lucid dreaming) in addition to its many physical benefits (discussed in my last post)–was used by Greek women, those using it could not be said merely to believe in Artemis but rather to experience her in their own thoughts and actions.  Because of this experiential dimension, freedom would have been sensed as a ‘belonging to’ or ‘sharing in’ the experience of Artemis rather than as dogma that only certain individuals believed in or understood.

For example, if Phaenarete, who was a priestess of Artemis, attended the performance of Antigone what she viewed before her on stage in the moral certitude and effectiveness in action of the character Antigone would have been sensed by her as ultimately belonging to Artemis.  Hence, Antigone would not have been just a historical or mythical figure any more than she was the male actor behind the mask he wore or the then living Greek woman on whom Sophocles no doubt modeled her (much as artistic depictions of Artemis were modeled on real women).  She would have been viewed by Phaenarete as being analogous to what her son’s student came to characterize as an idea–something that because of how it relates to the past, present and future and hence one embodiment or another can be thought of as eternal (as are the laws of the goddess Justice Antigone invokes), even if it cannot be said fully to exist at any one time or in any one body.  

To attribute such thinking to Phaenarete is not anachronistic.  Her practice as a matchmaker would seem to be predicated upon the recognition of how one trait or another (as one type of idea) is passed along from prior to future generations.  There is thus a plausible basis for attributing to her the recognition of the idea of freedom as the sense she and her patients felt of sharing in the traits of Artemis.

Thus, from Phaenarete’s perspective in 440 BCE, the staging of the play Antigone and the positive reviews it then received would have been an opportunity to celebrate all that her medical practice represented–including the principle of freedom.  Yet, from the perspective of what is now already 2016, it is clear that few people, particularly men, shared in that view then or in all the centuries that followed.  That is a tragedy.

Stuart WordPress photoStuart Dean has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City.  He has studied, practiced and taught Tai Chi, Yoga and related disciplines for over forty years.  Stuart has a blog on Sappho and the implications of her poetry for understanding the past, present and future:

Author: Stuart Dean

Independent researcher and writer

13 thoughts on “The First Performance of Antigone: Phaenarete’s View by Stuart Dean”

  1. “Of the same womb” practically screams matrilineal descent and customs.

    Having read your earlier piece on Phanerete, I have wondered if she recognized Socrates’ depiction of himself as a superior midwife of the soul as a denigration of her practice and the honor due to physical mothers and their midwives. Would she have understood Sophocles’ Antigone as upholding the values she honored and practiced–against those not only of the warriors but also of her son?

    Sarah Pomeroy discussed the “wildness” of the virgin Goddesses as pertaining the fact that they were not under the control of men, as all good women in patriarchy are supposed to be. (And no women in matriarchies/matrilinies would ever be.)

    Is this play about the hero’s hubris (who is the hero?) as we were taught? Or is it about something else, something deeper?

    Is this play about a conflict in values between the old matrilineal female-honoring culture vs. the new patriarchal, patrilineal, culture? And if so, did Sophocles and his mouthpiece/character Antigone realize this?

    Did Phanerete recognize that the old order in which she was still (partially?) rooted, was being overthrown with a kind of finality in her time?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those are all good questions–primarily because they deserve to be pondered even if they cannot be answered. So much changed within just a few decades of 440 BCE (plague, war, etc) that it is very hard to assess what precisely went wrong and why. In this post and my prior one on Phaenarete I have been focused on the fact that her medical practice seems to have been based on a vision of a far more promising future for women–but also men–than what actually has turned out to be the case (so far). I intend to write more about how Plato in particular and those who then and now venerate him almost as a saint can be blamed for that.


    1. Compliments sound so much better in French–Thank you. On Diotima: I will keep that in mind. I am currently working on something about Caroline Schelling and her influence on, among others, Friedrich Schlegel who you may know wrote about Diotima–though it is clear he was projecting what he thought of Caroline onto what he thought of Antigone and Diotima. It is a fascinating example of male reception of female spirituality.


    2. I agree it would be interesting to do some work on Diotima. In fact a note at Wikipedia makes a case for her as a real personage, which never occurred to me before, and states the following:

      “Diotima of Mantinea (Greek: Διοτίμα; Latin: Diotīma) is a female philosopher and priestess who plays an important role in Plato’s Symposium. Her ideas are the origin of the concept of Platonic love. Since the only source concerning her is Plato, it is uncertain whether she was a real historical personage or merely a fictional creation; however, nearly all of the characters named in Plato’s dialogues have been found to correspond to real people living in ancient Athens.”


      1. Thank you. One reason I was drawn to Phaenarete is because I was confident Plato would not have improvised much in providing an account of what Socrates said about his own mother. The Symposium (and the various speeches in it, which are all finely crafted) is quite another issue. I will have to take a fresh look at that.


        1. I just re-read the Diotima passage in the Symposium and it seems to me Plato is cynically appropriating a female voice (via a male voice (aka Socrates saying what ‘she’ said)–the gender switching seems deliberately comical) to articulate his own misogyny.


      2. Interesting thought, Stuart. If Diotima existed, we have to ask whether or not Socrates transmitted her thought correctly. If he did, then we have to put her at the beginning of a misogynistic way of thinking (my opinion of Platonism). But then we also have to ask about Plato’s device of not speaking himself but putting his ideas in the mouth of Socrates who puts them in the mouth of a woman. Why this retreat from his own and then Socrates’ “I”?


  2. Thank you, Stuart, for your laborious work–re-reading ancient texts with a fresh eye. I’m more familiar with scholars digging into religious or “sacred” texts, looking for those apertures where women’s history (especially) can be freed (if you will) from patriarchal interpretation. Your work is giving me a broader framework.


    1. Thank you Esther–but it does not feel ‘laborious’ to me. Compared to when I was in college (the last time I read Antigone before a month or so ago) researching ancient texts and modern interpretations of them is like living in a dream world. I am glad you like it.


  3. Stuart! I’m so glad Milenda put me on your mailing list! This is fascinating, and I feel a definite compulsion to read (reread? I don’t remember!) Antigone. Love, Jane


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