Wombiness

Mary Lefkowitz

  • In and Out of the Mind: Images of the Tragic Self by Ruth Padel
    Princeton, 210 pp, £18.00, July 1992, ISBN 0 691 07379 1
  • The Age of Grace: Charis in Early Greek Poetry by Bonnie MacLachlan
    Princeton, 192 pp, £21.50, August 1993, ISBN 0 691 06974 3

In Euripides’ drama Hippolytus (428 BC), when the women of Troezen learn that Phaedra, their queen, is ill, they wonder if she has been possessed by a god or whether her ‘soul’ has been bound to her bed by grief because her husband has found another woman. ‘An evil helplessness of labour pains and folly likes to dwell in the difficult composition of women,’ they conclude. ‘This breeze once rushed through my womb, and I called on the goddess Artemis, the heavenly one, who eases the pain of childbearing.’ This ‘breeze’ that attacks the womb from outside and causes labour pains is so foreign to modern ways of thinking that translators are forced to rephrase the passage, to suggest an internal condition. For example, David Grene, whose translation is used in most American universities: ‘My body, too, has felt this thrill of pain.’ After reading Ruth Padel, one would understand, even if one did not know a word of Greek, that the women of Troezen were describing Phaedra’s disease in the same language that ancient doctors used. Pain and passion are breathed into the body from outside; madness is a wind; apoplexy is caused by breaths.

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