Weaving, interrupted

2015.12.03 | By Andromache Karanika

Women weaving
Image via, in the public domain

Greg Nagy poses an exciting question about the time of female weaving, and, what is more, about song that accompanies the weaving—song that alleviates the monotony of labor but also transforms the sense of time. Is girls’ weaving something that begins with the light of dawn? I concur with Natasha that this is to be expected, and there are anthropological reasons for this expectation. The kind of weaving that aspires to creating a tangible product needs to begin as early as possible to make the most of daylight. But, as Greg puts it, this is ‘sober’ weaving. Repertoires of songs and performance contexts can permeate each other, transforming the serious into the playful and vice versa.

Here is another thread I am thinking of with reference to Posidippus 55 and Sappho 102. Posidippus in his Sapphic echo is referring here to a classic example of what I call a poetics of interruption. In Sappho 102, weaving done by girls seems to be a setting—maybe a-temporal here—for oaroi as ‘love songs’, and the interruption of such weaving is linked with falling in love and getting married. In Epigram 55 of Posidippus, this kind of setting is re-woven to portray the interruption of female work as signifying not only love and marriage but also death, so that marriage and death seem to be conceptually connected.

Perhaps we have here an oblique Odyssean (or, if I may say, Penelopean) reference as well: Penelope weaves at day, un-weaves at night, but her work is never interrupted per se; had there been an interruption, that would mean marriage or death, neither of which occur.

Attic red-figure skyphos: Side A, Penelope seated before her loom, and Telemachus standing (both named). Attributed to the Penelope Painter, ca. 450–400 BCE. Chiusi, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, 63.564. Drawing by Valerie Woelfel.

That is not the case for the figures we see portrayed in Sappho and Posidippus. This kind of poetry dwells specifically on the moment of leaving work behind. Posidippus in his reference to the Sapphic oaroi (which could potentially go on and on, pannychis style indeed) interrupts these love songs, once and for all in this epigram, to reflect on Nikomakhe’s death. In my view, this is a moment of Sapphic reception in later times with an important thread twist: what could have been girlish oaroi, an imaginative temporal setting for which could be nighttime, are rethought to convey the idea of a permanent darkness in death—not temporary or repeatable, but there to stay.

Penelope’s daily weaving and its nightly erasure is a cyclical activity—one can call it a ritual activity that happens each and every sequence of day and night, one that does not get interrupted.

Epigram 49 of Posidippus, like his Epigram 55 about Nikomakhe, presents the interrupted weaving of another girl, called Hegedike. Unlike Epigram 55, Epigram 49 does not dwell on day or night, but gives the age of Hegedike, an eighteen year old girl (line 3), and it refers to the end of both her weaving, her λίγειαι κε<ρ>κ[ίδες] ‘clear-sounding shuttles’ (lines 3–4). Simultaneously, the epigram refers to the girl’s singing: τὸ . . . χρύσεον στόμα κούρης . . . ζοφερῶι τῶιδε μένει θαλάμωι, ‘the maiden’s golden mouth remains in this gloomy chamber’ (lines 5–6).

Back to Nikomakhe in Posidippus 55: time brought a rupture to her oaroi, and to her athyrmata, another important word also associated with a girl’s premature death (or perhaps, as I indicated earlier, also marriage). After all, Persephone disappears just as she was reaching out to grasp a lovely athyrma (Homeric Hymn to Demeter 16). In this chorus of different texts and intertexts, Penelopean weaving (and its unweaving) escapes death, but this does not seem to be the case for the playful and joyous aspect of a girl’s life that gets interrupted once and for all, revealing perhaps the deeper underlying ideologies of gendered time.

Andromache Karanika is the author of Voices at Work: Women, Performance, and Labor in Ancient Greece. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.