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).
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 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: http://studysappho.blogspot.com/