Scholia Reviews ns 5 (1996) 13.

R. Rehm, Marriage to death: the conflation of wedding and funeral rituals in Greek tragedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. Pp. xviii + 246. ISBN 0-691-03369-2. US$29.95.

Margaret R. Mezzabotta
University of Cape Town

The seemingly diverse events of 'marriage' and 'death', with their respective ceremonials, intermingle in the drama of many historical periods, as well as in opera. Rush Rehm's illuminating book proceeds from the recognition that the idea of 'marriage to death' occurs as a theme of varying degrees of emphasis in several Greek tragedies. By 'marriage to death', the author understands the conception by dramatic characters of their deaths either in terms of a marriage to a loved one already dead or as a union with Hades, where the god of the Underworld substitutes for a living bride or groom (p. 4). The author examines the dramatic effects achieved by the juxtaposition of wedding and funeral rituals in eight individual plays: Aeschylus' Agamemnon, Sophokles' Antigone and Trachiniae and Euripides' Alkestis, Medea, Supplices, Helen and Troades.(1) The book sets out to show that the representation of wedding and funeral rites in these tragedies does not offer experiences of stability to the audience but, because the two rituals have been conflated and confused, unsettles the spectators and compels them to question accepted norms. By exploring the notion of 'marriage to death', the author aims at achieving a better 'interpretive purchase' (p. 9) on particular tragedies and at gaining a clearer comprehension of how they worked on their original audiences.

The first two chapters contextualize the argument by detailing both nuptial and funerary rituals as practiced in Athens and their artistic representation, in order to demonstrate their influence on the tragedians. Chapter 1 ('Fifth-century marriage and funeral rites', pp. 11-29) summarizes actual wedding and funeral practices. Illustrations taken from vase-paintings delineate various steps in the process that made up a Greek wedding or funeral. A number of common features in the two rituals are noted, e.g. the offering of a lock of hair, the ritual bathing and adornment of both bride and corpse, a journey to a new 'home' escorted by torchbearers and relatives, gift-giving and a concluding banquet. Chapter 2 ('Weddings and funerals: The visual record', pp. 30-42) expatiates on the depiction of weddings and funerals in the visual arts, exploring the 'iconographic shorthand' (p. 30) utilized by the ancient artist to portray nuptial and funeral scenes. Supported by appropriate illustrations, the author shows that funerary reliefs and vases often depict gestures and objects associated also with wedding motifs.

Chapter 3 ('The bride unveiled: Marriage to death in Aeschylus' Agamemnon', pp. 43-58) shows how the commingling of marriage and death imagery and ritual in the experience of Klytemnestra, Kassandra, Iphigenia and Helen underlines the 'complex weave of ritual perversion' (p. 43) in the Oresteia. Through the betrayal of their respective marriages, both Helen and Klytemnestra are conductors of death: Helen brings death to countless Trojans and Greeks, while Klytemnestra kills her own husband. The sacrificial murders of Iphigenia and Kassandra are presented by Aeschylus amid bridal motifs. A valuable aspect of this chapter is the attention drawn by the author's line of inquiry to the parallels between Iphigenia and Kassandra.

Two chapters examine 'marriage to death' in Sophokles. Chapter 4 ('The bride and groom of death: Sophokles' Antigone', pp. 59-71) focuses on the motif of Antigone as 'bride of Hades'. Antigone's determination to perform burial rites for Polyneikes, in defiance of Kreon's decree, results in her 'marriage to death', with the conflation of nuptial and funeral rituals marking her last appearance. In chapter 5 ('From death bed to marriage bed: Sophokles' Trachiniae', pp. 72-83), the interplay between weddings and funerals is shown to be so close that the one rite appears to beget the other. Deianeira's desire to protect her marriage leads to Herakles' death and her own suicide; the agonized Herakles reveals his afflicted body in a manner reminiscent of a bride's unveiling of herself to her bridegroom; while the play ends with the departure of Herakles staged so as to anticipate his funeral and with forward references to the wedding of Hyllus and Iole.

The remaining chapters probe the resonances of 'marriage to death' in Euripidean drama. The pervasiveness of the interplay of wedding and funeral rituals in the Alkestis is demonstrated in Chapter 6 ('The bride from the grave: Euripides' Alkestis', pp. 84-96). Rehm argues that this interaction prompts the audience to form new attitudes towards marriage, in which the wife, though an 'outsider', is regarded as integral to the oikos and in which the conjugal bond is valued over the ties of kinship. He also discerns important correspondences between 'the male bond of xenia and the male-female bond of marriage' (p. 94), whereby the preservation of the oikos of Admetus is achieved by the admission into it of two 'outsiders', Herakles and Alkestis.

Parts of Chapter 7 ('Torching the marriage: Euripides' Medea', pp. 97-109) repeat material which appeared in the author's earlier article.(2) He argues that Medea's perversion of wedding and funeral practices exposes the limitations of the social structures familiar to the audience. Chapter 8 ('Following Persephone: Euripides' Supplices and Helen', pp. 110-127) likewise contains some published passages, this time from the author's previous book.(3) Rehm contends that the Demeter-Persephone story, with its associations of death with marriage, forms the mythical paradigm for several aspects of the action of the two plays. The concluding chapter ('War brides and war dead: Euripides' Troades', pp. 128-135) attempts to demonstrate how the study of the interweaving of wedding and funeral motifs communicates 'the theatrical power of one of the greatest antiwar plays ever written' (p. 128) to modern audiences.

A brief conclusion draws together the results of the author's studies. He argues that the extensive participation of women in nuptial and funeral ceremonies accounts for the prominence of female characters in tragedy, whereby women are used by the playwrights to challenge the male values of fifth- century Athens and 'emerge as the vehicles of change and renewal' (p. 136).

The provision of three brief appendices (on the precise timing of the ritual unveiling of the bride, on the authenticity of Medea 1056-80 and on the exemplification in the Medea of the heroic ideal of helping friends and harming enemies) avoids cluttering the text or notes with the minute discussion of disputed issues. The book is furnished with notes to each chapter, a glossary of Greek technical terms relating to weddings and funerals, a full bibliography and an index. It is designed to be accessible to as wide a readership as possible, with quotations from the plays invariably given in English translation alone and only occasionally followed by the actual Greek text. The transliteration of individual words alerts the Greekless reader to the importance of key terms and word clusters.

Although the English text is virtually free from misprints (but Pippen [p.203] should read Pippin), some slips have been made in the citation of Greek (as in the quotation of Soph. Trach. 834 on p. 77) or in the transliteration of Greek words (e.g., ekhenguan [p. 12] should read ekhenguon, and agchisteia [p. 161 n. 48 and p. 217] should be anchisteia.) Rehm employs a system of transliteration designed as a guide to pronunciation for the Greekless reader, but the two examples quoted above show that his rendition of the Greek letter chi is inconsistent. A frequent fault is the failure to restore the acute accent of an oxytone word cited from the playtext but quoted singly or placed at the end of a phrase in the body of the discussion. It seems that the individual words or phrases quoted by the author have been lifted straight from the complete text, without his being aware that the position of an oxytone word determines whether its accent is grave or acute. If Greek is to be cited, it should be reproduced correctly, in all respects.

As the author himself acknowledges, many of the observations he has made on the dramatic impact of the tragic representation of marriages and funerals are not new. Nevertheless, his detailed scrutiny of these eight plays has yielded a worthwhile product which merits a place in any bibliography relating to ancient gender or theatre studies. The introductory chapters offer a useful overview of Greek wedding and funeral practices for social historians, while students of Greek tragedy will find their understanding of individual plays enhanced by the author's exploration of the treatment of wedding and death rituals by the tragedians.


(1) Rehm omits analysis of Aesch. Supp. and Eur. IA from his study but directs the reader to several discussions in which other scholars have examined the intermingling of nuptial and death rituals in these plays.

(2) 'Medea and the logos of the heroic', Eranos (1989) 97-115.

(3) Greek Tragic Theatre (London 1992).