Mary Lefkowitz

Mary Lefkowitz Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Wellesley College, Massa-chusetts, is the author of The Lives of the Greek Poets and Heroines and Hysterics and, with Maureen Fant, of Women’s Life in Greece and Rome.


Whose Greece?

12 December 1996

How curious! In Black Athena (1987 and 1991) Martin Bernal argues that the ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians ‘massively’ influenced early Greek civilisation in religion, philosophy and science. In our books, Not Out of Africa and Black Athena Revisited, we, along with 18 other ancient historians, archaeologists, Egyptologists and anthropologists, show that Bernal’s historical claims are not supported...


Mary Lefkowitz, 4 November 1993

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.

Mrs Perfect Awful

Mary Lefkowitz, 17 May 1984

For many people in this country the garish Texan settings of television serials, with their incessant boorishness, brutality and violence, appear to represent ‘normal’ life in America. When it is discovered that I grew up in New York City, English people ask, in varying degrees of indirectness, whether it is still possible to live there, if it is safe to walk about in the day, and they don’t always believe me when I tell them that everyone else in my family still lives there, that my cousin, who one would have thought might have been pleased to remain in such a luscious spot as Santa Cruz, California, actually wants to move back. Until recently, there was no ready means of persuading the doubting English that most middle and upper-class. Americans follow routines and conventions that most English people of similar background, were they to be plunged for a single day into the society of midtown Manhattan or Winnetka, Illinois, would easily recognise. But now, for better or for worse, we have Miss Manners’ Guide, which portrays Americans at their most nonviolent, earnestly seeking to cope with all the awkwardnesses imposed on them by rapid changes in morals and the economy. How does one introduce one’s daughter’s roommate (male), one’s son’s live-in friend (male?) at the country club? How does one greet one’s ex-husband’s new (awful, vulgar) wife? How does one keep one’s friends from bringing their nine-month-old baby to the table at a dinner-party? To answer these questions in ways that enable the voyager to avoid being sick while crossing such rough, uncharted waters, requires an imagination that wasn’t evident in the standard books of etiquette, out of which we faithfully copied the wording of formal replies to formal invitations, and ascertained what colours were appropriate for the widowed sister of the bride.

Between the two halves of a dog

Mary Lefkowitz, 17 November 1983

The ancient Greeks, for all the changes that the industrial age has brought, would have been quick to understand what we now mean by pollution. The oil slick on the white sand beach, the exhaust fumes in the atmosphere, even the soot on the window-sill, are not simply forms of dirt that can by some means be cleansed away: in each case the offending substance indicates that there has been a displacement, that something which belongs to one sphere has entered or even invaded another. Practical measures must be taken to counter the immediate problems caused by the invasion, then legal or political action to prevent its recurrence. Moral issues are inevitably raised as well: to what extent should human comfort and convenience be allowed to injure the natural world? Pollution in ancient Greece could be brought to all imaginable environments by supernatural as well as man-made agents: and its consequences were at once tangible and ethical, political and religious.

Aspasia’s Sisters

Mary Lefkowitz, 1 September 1983

A generation ago, standard ancient history courses paid little attention to domestic life. I vaguely remember being told that Aspasia was Pericles’s ‘mistress’ and that hetairai like her were often well-educated, and thus able better to serve as ‘companions’ for men than their less cultivated wives. But it wasn’t until relatively recently that undergraduates were encouraged to know how such women were educated not only to discuss poetry and philosophy but also to carry out the less academic functions of their profession. Such information had in fact survived antiquity, and much of it had already been translated into English, but the required texts concentrated on war, politics and ethics. Now, by contrast, the life story of the notorious courtesan Neaera, with its episodes of gang rape, blackmail and fraud, is parsed, discussed and analysed in the first-year Greek book used by many schools and universities. The consciousness (apparently) even of Classical scholars had been raised by the civil rights movement of the Sixties, so that in the Seventies and Eighties it became possible to study, sometimes for the space of an entire term’s course, Blacks or Slaves or Women or the Family in Antiquity.

Whose Greece?

Martin Bernal, 12 December 1996

The term ‘Afrocentrism’ was invented relatively recently, by Molefi Asante, a professor in Philadelphia, who described it as a way to escape from Eurocentrism by looking at the world...

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Old Flames

Peter Parsons, 10 January 1983

Time and philology turn dirt into dust. Housman had to veil Latin obscenity in Latin obscurity; Paul Brandt chose to publish under the speaking pseudonym of ‘Hans Licht’;...

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