While preparing for this talk, I was re-reading Chapter 2 of Julia Kristeva's Strangers to Ourselves ["The Greeks Among the Barbarians, Suppliants, Metics"], which led me to read, for the first time, Aeschylus's play The Suppliant Maidens [based on the myth of the Daniades], which led me to the version of the myth in Robert Graves's Greek Mythology, which got me thinking, "where have I heard this story before?", which led me to re-reading Chapter 2 of JJC's Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages ["Monstrous Origin: Body, Nation, and Family"], and boy oh boy am I tired now [I mean, then]. But all kidding aside, all of this reading was really productive and interesting, and I just thought I would share with everyone here some of what I presented at the Newberry.
I should first tell everyone that my main focus in the Wonders text, which is a compilation of marvels and monsters mainly based on Greek and early Latin sources, is with one passage in particular that describes women ["wif"] who are thirteen-feet tall, marble-bodied, have boar tusks and camel feet and ox-tails that protrude from their loins ["lendenum"]. The text of the Wonders as a whole is mainly static and lacking in any kind of narrative frame, unlike the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, which follows it in the manuscript. Its narrative voice is devoid of opinion or any real intervention into the text [which we do have with the tenth-century Latin Liber monstrorum], and you can almost think of the text as a series of snapshots of strange creatures and beasts and plants and places, all of which are not connected together in any coherent or symbolic fashion. No attempt to fit these "wonders" into a symbolic or allegorical scheme is attempted, and one of my seminar students likened the text to a "curiosity cabinet," which I think is an excellent description. But the passage with these women is also almost startlingly unique in that, after describing their physical properties, the author tells us that, because they could not be captured alive, and on account of their size, and because of their shameful and unworthy bodies, Alexander killed them. I view this intrusion of Alexander into the text as an interesting anomaly or "interruption," which both links it to the text that follows, but also begs the question: why do these creatures, as they say in some parts, need killin'?
Here, then, is a peek into some of my thoughts [right now, anyway] on the subject of these "women" and Alexander's murder of them [please keep in mind that these are mainly random and chaotic "gatherings" of others' ideas]:
I have been trying to devise ways to understand the place of the Wonders text relative to what might be called an early English political identity, and even an early English moral economy, that rests, to a certain extent, on classical notions of the social status and place of barbarian peoples and foreigners, as well as upon the idea, expressed by William Ian Miller in his book The Anatomy of Disgust, that disgust has “powerful communalizing capacities and is especially useful and necessary as a builder of moral and social community.” How might the disgust, which leads to murder, provoked by the “unworthy” bodies of the women in the Wonders text, mark the place, in Miller’s words, of “a recognition of danger to our purity,” which is simultaneously “an admission that we did not escape contamination,” because “Disgust never allows us to escape clean. It underpins the sense of despair that impurity and evil are contagious, endure, and take everything down with them.” How, further, might the hybrid, excessive, and shameful bodies of the women in the Wonders text, both as figura and littera, serve as a placeholder of what Michel de Certeau termed, in his book The Possession at Loudon, the “nocturnal” that has erupted “into broad daylight,” and which reveals an “underground existence, an inner resistance that has never been broken”? Moreover, as Certeau phrases the question, “Is this the outbreak of something new, or the repetition of a past?” According to Certeau, “The historian never knows which. For mythologies reappear, providing the eruption of strangeness with forms of expression prepared in advance, as it were, for that sudden inundation. . . . Like scars that mark for a new illness the spot of an earlier one, they designate in advance the signs and location of a flight (or return?) of time.”
To begin at one end of the history that, I believe, circulates as “an inner resistance than cannot be broken” underneath the monstrous figures of the Wonders text, let us consider the Danaïdes of archaic Greek legend—the fifty daughters of Danaus and descendants of the Argive Io, a priestess of Hera’s and one of the many lovers of Zeus, who is turned into a cow by the jealous Hera and chased all over the world by a gadfly. Of this story, Julia Kristeva, in her book Strangers to Ourselves, writes,
The heifer maddened by a gadfly is quite a disturbing image: like an incestuous daughter punished by her mother’s wrath, she saw no solution but to flee continuously, banished from her native home, condemned to wander as if, as the mother’s rival, no land could be her own. Her illegitimate passion for Zeus is thus madness. A madness of which the gadfly properly represents animal and . . . sexual stimulation. A madness that leads a woman not on a journey back to the self, as with Ulysses (who, in spite of meanderings, came back to his homeland), but toward a land of exile, accursed from the start.
Io finally settles in Egypt where Zeus returns her to human form and she gives birth to a son, Epaphus. Kristeva writes that, “It is noteworthy that the first foreigners to emerge at the dawn of our civilization are women—the Danaïdes,” the fifty daughters of Danaus, one of the great-grandsons of Io’s son, who, in order to escape a forced marriage with their fifty cousins, the sons of another of Epaphus’s great-grandsons, Aegyptus, flee with their father to Argos, where they are, in Kristeva’s words, “foreigners for two reasons: they came from Egypt and were refractory to marriage.” Further, “Remaining outside the community of the citizens of Argos, they also refused the basic community constituted by the family.”
It’s only a matter of time, of course, before the fifty cousins show up and threaten violence unless the sisters marry them, and depending on which version of the story you read, either on their own initiative, or at their father’s behest, all but one (or two) of them murder their husbands on their wedding night by stabbing them through their hearts with pins concealed in their hair. According to Kristeva, “This was the height of criminal outrageousness. Foreignness is carried to forbidden revolt, a hubris giving rise to abjection. Such outrageousness was punished (according to one variant of the legend) by having the Danaïdes and their father put to death,” with the sisters condemned to the endless task of carrying water in jars perforated like sieves to a bottomless cistern. In another version, the women have to “renounce their claim to exception” by marrying “in their proper order the winners of a race.”
According to Kristeva, in the story of the Danaïdes we can see that
Strangeness (or foreignness)—the political facet of violence—would underlie elementary civilization, be its necessary lining, perhaps even its font, which no household cistern—not even, to start with, that of the Danaïdes—could permanently harness. Even more so, the foreign aspect of the Danaïdes also raises the problem of antagonism between the sexes themselves in their extramarital alliance, in the amatory and sexual “relation.” In short, what is the “relation” between the “population” or “race” of men and the “population” or “race” of women?
We might turn to Jeffrey Cohen’s work in his book Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages, for the beginning of a possible answer to that question, relative to early English history, that also brings us closer, I think, to the women in the Old English text of the Wonders, who are problematic partly because Alexander “could not capture them alive” (“he hi lifiende gefon ne mihte”), and partly because of their “giant-ness” (“micelnesse”). That they are “shameless” (“æwisce”) and “unworthy” (“unweorðe”) in their bodies is subordinated to the facts of their un-tameable nature and their excessive size (although I do think we have to consider the placement of their ox-tails—on their lendenum, or loins—as critical to their power to provoke disgust, horror, and even a type of sexual category panic that necessitates their murder, for, after all, they are women, wif, first of all).
In his chapter “Monstrous Origin: Body, Nation, Family,” Cohen relates various versions, culled from Anglo-Norman texts, of the Albina myth, which purports to explain how Britain received its original name, Albion. In one version, an unnamed king of Greece has twenty-four daughters whom he marries off to various well-known men. Because the eldest daughter, Albina, is upset by the conservative strictures of marriage, which do not allow her to speak out publicly against her overly censorious husband, she convinces her sisters to agree to hide knives under their pillows and stab their husbands while they are sleeping. But since one sister betrays the plan, their father order that his daughters should be cast out to sea on a boat without oars or sails. After much drifting, they arrive at an uninhabited island (England, of course), and, according to Cohen, “Whereas the first Britons immediately transformed a shapeless waste into cultivated fields and homes, the women forage for food in the wilderness and, like parodic Diana figures, set about capturing the ‘venisoun’ that they crave.” Feelings of newly awakened lust soon follow, the devil appears on the scene to impregnate the women, and the sisters “give birth to fierce giants, a . . . supremely monstrous writing of their somaticity.” A tribe of giants then rules the land until the arrival of Brutus, Aeneas’s great-grandson, who eliminates them to make way for “a new world order.” According to Cohen,
Albina and her sisters contrast in their insistent physicality to the fantastic body of Brutus, able to give birth to a nation without any mention of body at all. Albina becomes a misogynistic incorporation of disordered Nature, of the way in which the material world reproduces itself outside of human intention or control. At the time of her disappearance into the monstrous flesh of her children, she is the Real in all its inhuman, biological vitalism. Brutus, on the other hand, is a structurating principle that overcodes these obscenities of the flesh, of the merely material, and prevents through a symbolization into heroic order their generation of monstrousness.
Although, as Mary Campbell, in The Witness and the Other World, has written, the Wonders is a text that “records a mass of unsynthesized data shorn of any relation to an experiencing witness” and also lacks “an intercessor between data and audience,” I would suggest that Alexander’s brief appearance as the executioner of the giant women whose bodies are disgusting connects the text to the one that follows it, the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, and therefore, we might ask if the Wonders participates, if even tangentially, in the genre of the culturally-founding heroic narrative, of classical but also medieval romance, in which, as Cohen writes, “The defeat of the giant is a social fantasy of the triumph of the corporeal order (in all its various meanings) written as a personal drama, a vindication of the tight channeling of multiple somatic drives into a socially beneficial expression of masculinity.” The defeat of giants, especially those gendered female, might also pose a rebuke to those women who do not heed the advice Danaus gives his daughters in Aeschylus’s play based on the Greek myth, The Suppliant Maidens: “Remember to yield: / You are an exile, a needy stranger, / And rashness never suits the weaker. . . . Honor modesty more than your life.”