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Dangerous Gifts: Ideologies of Marriage and Exchange in Ancient Greece

Deborah Lyons
Classical Antiquity
Vol. 22, No. 1 (April 2003), pp. 93-134
DOI: 10.1525/ca.2003.22.1.93
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/ca.2003.22.1.93
Page Count: 44
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Dangerous Gifts: Ideologies of Marriage and Exchange in Ancient Greece
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Abstract

A familiar theme in Greek myth is that of the deadly gift that passes between a man and a woman. Analysis of exchanges between men and women reveals the gendered nature of exchange in ancient Greek mythic thinking. Using the anthropological categories of male and female wealth (with examples drawn from many cultures), it is possible to arrive at an understanding of the protocols of exchange as they relate to men and especially to women. These protocols, which are based in part on the distinction between metals and other durable goods as "male" and textiles as "female," are closely related to the gendered division of labor. Anxiety about women as exchangers derives in part from their status as objects exchanged in marriage (as exemplified by Helen in the Iliad), and partly from a misogynist and pessimistic strand of Greek thought (embodied by Hesiod's Pandora) that discounts any female economic contribution to the oikos. Indeed, the majority of destructive exchanges take place within the context of marital crisis. While some texts, beginning with the Odyssey, show the positive side of women's economic role, tragedy tends to follow the Hesiodic distrust of women as exchange partners. Passages from the Agamemnon and the Trachiniai are analyzed to show how in situations of perverted reciprocity brought about by marital discord, even women's traditional gifts of textiles may become deadly.

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