Article: Aristophanic Invective Against a Rival

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[. . .] Martin does not discuss the Thesmophoriazusai in his analysis, which instead focuses upon the evidence of the actual religious ritual which dealt with the Lemnian myth, and the evidence for it which occurs in both Lysistrata and the fragments of the Lemnian Women. As a result, he is willing to offer that fr. 382 bears some relation to the notion of sexual segregation which was enforced and expressed in the ritual, suggesting that the reference to "fenc[ing] off" the women's "pussy shelleys" must allude to some physical representation of the Lemnian Women at first fighting off male invaders but then ultimately succumbing to their charms: Martin suggests Herodotus 8.51.2 as a glimpse of a possible interpretation of how the scene worked, and even suggests the physical presence of a fence is indicated in these lines. This seems a literalization of the imagery Martin associates with the name of Hypsipyle -- meaning "high gate," Martin associates it with the sexual blocking function served by Lysistrata in Aristophanes' plot, and with Henderson's analysis of the symbolism of gates within the text of the Lysistrata (Martin 86).

But I would like to reconsider fr. 382 specifically in terms of the sexual vocabulary it offers. For a start, we need to note that the word being punned upon, periallos, is already a sort of euphemism or poetic term: it is not directly anatomical. Griffith, in his useful study on corporality in ancient Greek theatre, notes that the standard metaphor for the vagina is that of the furrow, recorded in Aeschylus (Seven Against Thebes 753-5) and Euripides (Medea 1281; Phoenician Women 18) (Griffith 243). He additionally brings in considerable testimony regarding the treatment of the uterus in Greek authors, stressing its seemingly autonomous "independence" (Griffith 234). But what is most salient about Aristophanes' joke here is that the uncommon slang term would seem to indicate a purely sexual (rather than gestational) notion of the word. Indeed the word itself has a sort of ambiguity of meaning: it can be understood literally as meaning simply "foremost" or "before all others." Aristophanes himself uses perialla in precisely this sense at Thesmophoriazusai 1070. Beyond the two grammatical sources which record the same reference from Aristophanes to explain the use of periallos to refer to the female genitals, as a sexual term referring to the "loins" (as Henderson translates it) the use of periallos is itself attested to by Herodian, and in Alciphron (1.39) where it is introduced as a term used by hetairai, perhaps euphemistically. The word is thus used as a substitute for the more anatomical term iscia -- that is to say, loins or haunches. To some extent, then, we might imagine that the term iscia?

which is gender-neutral, also refers to both the front and back of the thighs, essentially -- periallos thus emphasizes the front portion of the upper thigh, or the "foremost" part of the thigh, and by extension becomes a term for the female genitals by considering them viewed from the front. But it would be a serious mistake to think that in any way periallos would have been a common sexual term at this period: Herodotus VI.66.2-3 indeed records Periallos as the proper name of the Pythian priestess at Delphi, bribed by Kleomenes in 491 BCE. It seems unlikely that this name would be given to a girl if the term was in any way in regular or common use in the fifth century as an obscenity rather than a euphemism.

But obviously the notion of using it in this way is, in some sense, an application of the more literal meaning of the word: it has to refer specifically to women, not only because these surviving examples all refer to women, but because the literal sense of the term, if used in some way to substitute for iscia?

would automatically suggest the phallus (as the "foremost" part of that specific anatomical region) and thus would not be applicable to women. The fact that it is not used in this way, or to apply to men at all, suggests that it is precisely this issue which sexualizes it for women -- I do not think it is a stretch, therefore, to see in the original etymology of the word a sense of anatomical difference, and the implication that the "foremost" female part is in some way to be understood as primus inter-pares, suggesting not so much the loins as the mons veneris. In other words, what is avoided here are the complicated set of poetic and medical associations with the womb, intended to characterize the periallos as the site of female sexual pleasure. One key reason why Henderson's solution of "pussy shelleys" as a way of capturing the nature of Aristophanes' pun in English is so felicitous is because of the poet Shelley's interest not only in Hellenic matters, but in issues of women's equality and free love, which frequently led to the accusation of effeminacy on Shelley's part, often at the same time that he was accused of sexual license. A similar nexus of associations must be at work here in conflating the now-forgotten Dorillus with the already-poetic term for the female pudenda. Of course we can only speculate whether Dorillus had in fact used the word periallos poetically himself in a lost tragedy, and perhaps inadvertently provoked a sexual interpretation of the word in an inappropriate context, but certainly as Martin notes the tone that is intended in the fragment is mock-Homeric, and in one way or another we may assume that this represents some sort of comment upon Dorillus' own style: with no extant examples to judge him, we therefore cannot tell is an invocation of Homer is merely using the example of past poetic glory to make Dorillus' pretensions shrink (a sort of generalized use of mock-heroic rhetoric), or if in some way it represents a more specific commentary on Dorillus' own style. But we must note that the one thing that can definitively be gleaned is that -- given that Dorillus is not only not extant but unattested to -- his style must have been sufficiently poor that Aristophanes could do away with his repuation with a mere pun. The attacks on Euripides or Agathon, in other words, seem to require more of an effort at actual literary criticism. But to some extent I am suggesting a larger analogy with the Oxyrhynchus fragment that has been tentatively suggested as belonging to the Lemnian Women, and which includes specific reference to the tragedian Agathon at fr. 592B line 35, quoting what Aristophanes deems a particularly ludicrous example of his rhetoric. The context of quoting Agathon -- targeted by the comic poets generally for his beardlessness and seeming effeminacy -- is within the context of a discussion of dildoes (olisboi). The suggestion overall is that one sign of Agathon's inferiority as a writer is the willingness of these women, in the context of discussing female sexual pleasure, to invoke his rhetoric as part of the discussion. It gives a laugh not only for the seeming disjunction, but because it also demands the audience to make some connection to bridge it: Agathon's effeminacy is extended into a sort of feminine style of poetic taste and sexual pleasure. To a certain degree, this is also true of the complex of associations which adhere to the pun in fr. 382: the joke on Dorillus' name indicates that he is in no way literally "foremost" (periallos) among tragedians, if he can somehow be identified with those foremost parts of a woman intended for sexual pleasure rather than procreation. Given the sort of Homeric echoes in the phrasing of the fragment identified by Martin, which suggests military defense against an intruder, this puts Dorillus squarely in the middle: his own tragedies are now associated with women's pleasure, and to some extent if the earliest myth of Hypsipyle always insisted on her own perfidy in some sense (by breaking with the sexual segregation of the Lemnian women to fall in love with Jason) Dorillus is here given the role either of Jason or Hypsipyle.

But in either case, it associates Dorillus' writing with female sexual license, or the manner in which sexual pleasure is pursued by women free of male attachment. As such, it seems to fit with the generalized picture of rhetorical abuse which attacks tragedians for their effeminacy -- as in the Thesmophoriazusai generally, and the proverbial abuse of Agathon -- but also which attacks them for the notion that they might be aiming at a female audience, or female standards of either behavior or rhetorical taste. This is not to re-open the vexed question of female attendance at the various dramatic presentations in their original religious context, but to note that -- to a certain extent -- it reflects the original concerns of the Lemnian myth, in which the notion of an idea spreading rapidly… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Aristophanic Invective Against a Rival.  (2011, May 18).  Retrieved July 23, 2019, from

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"Aristophanic Invective Against a Rival."  18 May 2011.  Web.  23 July 2019. <>.

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"Aristophanic Invective Against a Rival."  May 18, 2011.  Accessed July 23, 2019.