widely celebrated in the Greek world, and satirizes an internationally popular poet. 4 Indeed, it seems that Women at the Thesmophoria itself soon gained an audience abroad, since we find its parodic hostage scene (688–764) depicted on a bell crater from southern Italy c. 370. 5
Women at the Thesmophoria was never intended to be a politically engaged play, but rather a satire of wives and their portrayal in Euripides’ tragedies, using extensive parody and the theme of gender inversion to explore the nature of dramatic mimesis both comic and tragic. The plot takes off from Euripides’ reputation (assumed in Lysistrata 283–84 and 368–69 but not attested earlier) as a portrayer of wicked wives, and is built around scenes from the dramas of adventure and intrigue with happy endings that Euripides had been composing after the failure of his Trojan trilogy in 415.
Euripides (then about seventy years old) goes with his Kinsman 6 to ask the young tragic poet Agathon for help in a crisis: the matrons of Athens, assembled for the Thesmophoria, plan to decree his death because his scandalous heroines have alerted husbands to their hitherto secret misbehavior. Would Agathon, who claims that his effeminacy enables him to create realistic female characters,
- 4For Euripides’ contemporary celebrity see Plutarch, Life of Nicias 29.2–3.
- 5Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg, H5697.
- 6This character is referred to in the play only as kedestes, denoting any close relative by marriage. Ancient commentators identified him with Euripides’ father-in-law Mnesilochus, but Euripides’ high-handed treatment of him makes this unlikely, and we know of no comic hero who represents an actual person.
be willing to disguise himself as a woman, infiltrate the Thesmophoria, and plead Euripides’ case? When Agathon refuses, the Kinsman volunteers to undertake the mission. Shaven and disguised as a woman, the Kinsman attends the festival and contributes a defense speech that outrages rather than mollifies the matrons: Euripides, he argues, has not revealed even the tiniest fraction of the whole truth. The women become suspicious, and with the help of another Athenian effeminate, Cleisthenes, soon expose the Kinsman as a male intruder and sentence him to death. But the Kinsman, in parody of Euripides’ Telephus, seizes a hostage (a wine skin disguised as a baby girl) and takes refuge at an altar, where he is guarded first by Critylla, a tough old woman, and then by a barbarian Archer. Euripides tries to rescue the Kinsman by reenacting rescue scenes from his own recent plays (Palamedes, Helen, and Andromeda), but these fail to deceive Critylla and the Archer. Finally, Euripides disguises himself as an old bawd, distracts the Archer with a dancing girl, and frees the Kinsman, having promised the women that he will never again portray them unfavorably.
The Thesmophoria was an appropriate dramatic venue both for a women’s assembly and a confrontation between the genders. Its principal deities were the archetypal mother Demeter, goddess of cereal crops and human fertility, and her daughter Kore (Attic Pherephatta or Persephone). Their myth told how Hades, god of the underworld, kidnapped Kore and forced her to be his queen, and of Demeter’s angry search for Kore, her blighting of the land in retaliation, and her final compromise with Hades: Demeter would provide crops for half the year but withhold them during the other half, when Kore lived with her