04 December, 2012
As I posted recently, I read Greek Drama: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes edited by Moses Hadas (Toronto: Bantam, 1982). Besides Agamemnon, there were some other plays that contained a little information about textiles in the ancient world.
Let's start with Sophocle's Oedipus the King, which you may know as Oedipus Rex, the most perfectly constructed play according to critics. Leading up the full revelation of who Oedipus is and where he came from, there's a description of how sheep were pastured out on the range by hired shepherds: "I am sure that he well remembers the time when we abode in the region of Cithaeron–he with two flocks, I, his comrade, with one–three full half-winters, from spring to Arcturus; and then for the winter I used to drive my flocks to my own fold and he took his to the fold of Laius." (p. 140) These specifics are meant to establish the truth of the testimony give by the messenger and former shepherd.
In Euripides' Trojan Women the chorus members, women, are all expecting deportation after the fall of Troy, and they make comments about how much they have lost in their captivity, what their probable futures will be, and how much they are grieved. One says, "No more shall I ply my flying shuttle in Trojan looms." (p. 261) It is a moment of lamentation and one that specifically expresses a woman's points of view since it was women who wove.
In Sophocles' Antigone, in a list of the stories of famous prisoners in Greek mythology and history, the chorus mentions the shuttle of Phineas' wife: "And by the waters of the Dark Rocks, the waters of the twofold sea, are the shores of the Bosporus, and Thracian Salmydessus; where Ares, neighbor to the city, saw the accursed blinding wound dealt to the two sons of Phineas by his fierce wife–the wound that brought darkness to those vengeance-craving orbs, smitten with her bloody hands, smitten with her shuttle for a dagger." (p. 102) The chorus goes on to comment about her motivation and the influences on her from her parentage and upbringing. I didn't look too deeply into commentaries on this play but it sounds as though the chorus attributes the wife's fierceness to her marriage, which didn't go well, and to her parentage and upbringing somewhere far away. One commentary interpreted "a mother hapless in her marriage" (p. 102) to mean that her marriage was set aside making her children illegitimate.
Euripides' Medea centres on a woman in a black rage for that very same reason. She is a foreigner, has few rights, her husband Jason is abandoning her to marry a princess, and she's expected to accept the situation. Jason understands she's angry: "Keep on saying that Jason is a villain of the deepest dye." (p. 199) But he tells her to be reasonable and get over it. She doesn't. Medea describes herself as having a natural gift for poison (p. 198) and she says she has on hand "a dainty robe and a headdress of beaten gold. If she [the princess] takes the finery and puts it on her, she will die in agony. She and anyone who touches her. So deadly are the poisons in which I shall steep my gifts." (p. 207) A few pages later she describes the robe and headdress as "gifts far surpassing the things men make today...raiment which the Sun, my father's father, gave to his children." (p. 210) It sounds as though she's claiming that the items are vintage or antique, and possibly supernatural. The chorus attributes an irresistible heavenly sheen to the items. (p. 211) I think the text indicates the poison belongs solely to Medea, though.
The goods are delivered and a messenger comes back to tell Medea in detail how the princess died from the poisoned robe and headdress. He calls the robe "elaborate" and says that before the poison acted the princess walked around admiring herself, then stood and "gazed with all her eyes at her ankles," (p. 215) possibly at a specially-woven or embroidered edging. The poison sounds as though it was caustic.
The Greek plays in the book are, in a word, intense, even Aristophanes' Frogs, which is intensely silly. For me a most affecting passage in Medea was her lament over her children, "But I must go into exile in a strange land, before I have ever tasted the joy of seeing your happiness, before I have got you brides and bedecked your marriage beds and held aloft the bridal torches...Ah, me, there was a time when I had strong hopes, fool as I was, that you would tend my old age and with your own hands dress my body for the grave..." (p. 212) There were textiles expected at the milestones of weddings and funerals, the bedsheets and the winding sheet or shroud. These customary cloths and the personal touch that Medea expected, these traditions persisted thousands of years up until recently when we started outsourcing to hotels and funeral homes. Medea is a dynamic forceful character and it is at the same time astounding and completely understandable that these simple hopes and joys are all she regrets letting go of.