Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 18.
Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, Aphrodite's Tortoise: The Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece. Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, 2003. Pp. x + 358. ISBN 0-9543845-3-9. US$69.50.
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal
Llewellyn-Jones' book highlights an aspect of ancient gender relations, which, once elucidated, seems overwhelmingly obvious; it convincingly proposes that the women of the ancient Greek world habitually went veiled in public. The practice of female veiling in the ancient Greek world was last specifically touched upon very briefly by Caroline Galt in 1931.[] This relative neglect may perhaps be attributed to the fact that scholars have been loathe to associate 'the glory that was Greece' with a society in which women wore the veil -- a practice linked to Islam and the East. Today the veil is for many in Western society a symbol of a hostile Other, a complex symbol of orientalized sexuality and the oppression of women. Another explanation might be found in the incomplete and haphazard nature of the ancient evidence, but Llewellyn-Jones rightly argues (p. 2) that the extant textual and artistic references to this practice cannot be ignored. It is partly because this subject has not been studied for such a long time that this book is so fascinating, but a large part of the credit must also fall to Llewellyn-Jones, who has so competently pointed out a track that many others have hitherto not investigated.
Llewellyn-Jones shows in Chapter Two, 'Defining "The Veil"' (pp. 23-39), that the English word is used to denote any covering of the head or face, whereas there are a number of nuanced Greek terms for this, such as KRH/DEMNON, KALU/PTRH, and KA/LUMMA. This difficulty in defining a Greek 'veil' hints at its prevalence in Ancient Greece. However, Llewellyn-Jones opts to steer clear of ancient Greek terminology, preferring to use contemporary Arabic terms for iconographic depictions of veils. There are good reasons for this; it is often impossible to relate a specific literary term with a depiction found in Greek art, and the use of Arabic terms allows the author a degree of precision when discussing these garments and the artistic representations of them.
Chapter 3, 'Veil-Styles in the Ancient Greek World' (pp. 41-84), elaborates on this complexity, exhaustively tracking the evolution of veiling styles and fashions in Greek culture. While Llewellyn-Jones has admirably catalogued these changes, he neither here nor elsewhere satisfactorily explains the social or ideological motivation behind these changes, despite his promise to do so in the conclusion (p. 67). Furthermore, in such a meticulously documented chapter much would have been gained by the presence of a simple table illustrating these chronological and stylistic shifts.
Chapter 4, 'Revealing the Veil' (pp. 85-120), is by far the most convincingly argued section in this work. Llewellyn-Jones is aware of a pitfall too often ignored by Classicists -- the use of iconographic sources -- and immediately shows himself to be conscious of the fact that art cannot convincingly be used as documentary evidence for actual veiling practices. He notes that Greek vase-painting both eroticizes and idealizes the female subject in catering exclusively for the male gaze (p. 86). He goes on to argue that the veil is absent unusually often in art but that certain iconographic clues, such as the A)NAKA/LUYIS-gesture, were developed to hint at its presence. Llewellyn-Jones observes that this gesture, which denotes unveiling, has been linked with textual evidence for wedding ceremonies,[] but points out that these veiled women are not always brides. He therefore suggests that this action does not denote matrimonial unveiling, but is rather a more neutral 'veil gesture' (p. 104), which alludes to the presence of the veil even where none is shown, thus affording the artist and the viewer indirect voyeuristic pleasure. But in making this point Llewellyn-Jones does not differentiate the many audiences of ancient art. If the link between women and veils on vases is intended to be erotic, as the author argues (p. 88), then the proliferation of such scenes on vessels used almost exclusively by women -- Y(DRI/AI and the like -- is left unexplained.
Chapter 5, 'Who Veils? Veiling and Social Identity in the Ancient Greek Sources' (pp. 121-154) deals admirably with the presence of the veil in Homeric Epic yet little attention is paid to other, later sources. Yet within this, albeit limited, area Llewellyn-Jones makes a convincing case for the veil as a tool of social identification. He convincingly argues that the physically restrictive nature of the veil would have originally limited its use to the elite, since it prevents women from being economically-active workers and relegates them to the status of possessions. Llewellyn-Jones further points out that women of the veiled elite became metonymic representations of the cities in which they lived (and on a smaller scale of the men to whom they were related). This point is ably illuminated by the Homeric evidence. The term KRH/DEMNON is used by Homer for the veils worn by the Trojan women, yet it is not limited to this meaning alone but is also used of city walls, battlements, and towers (p. 131). Therefore any act of unveiling becomes doubly important; the fact that Hekabe and Andromakhe both cast aside their veils so emphatically (Il. 22.405-407, 468-72) foreshadows the fall of Troy itself. Yet after making this argument Llewellyn-Jones fails to explore fully how the male response to a breach in veil protocol was equated with a threat to the security of the city-state. This omission is especially lamentable in view of the increased vigilance over women in contemporary 'honour killings'.[]
Chapter 6, 'Veiled and Ashamed' (pp. 155-88), then addresses the question, 'Why did Greek women veil?' Llewellyn-Jones suggests that veiled women become representations of two contradictory systems -- they come to embody both the honour and the shame of the women's male kin, since women felt AI)DW/J (which is according to Llewellyn-Jones a male construct) for the sake of their sex, and veil in response to this to do their men honour. Yet the author makes it clear that women are not entirely passive in relation to these codes of respectability. Rather, the veil allows her to show awareness of her social role and by obvious acts of veiling allows her to comment on it. Unfortunately Llewellyn-Jones never fully engages with the question of whether women willingly perpetuated veiling practices or how the notions of shame and honour might have changed over time along with the variation in veiling styles and practices. The use of a simple headscarf is in definite contrast with that of a full face-veil, and although Llewellyn-Jones does specifically mention the face-veil with relation to AI)DW/J (p. 162), he nevertheless generally tends to conflate divergent veil styles.
In Chapter 7 (pp. 189-214) Llewellyn-Jones argues that the practice of female veiling in ancient Greece reflected the separation of the female from male society. He argues that the veil acts as a secondary, portable OI)=KOJ (like the tortoise of the title), and notes a etymological connection between terms used for parts of the house and for certain veils (p. 194). He notes, for example, that while women were secluded in the ancient Greek OI)=KOJ, they were not entirely limited to specific 'female' areas, but were often separated from the private living-quarters of the men by means of screens and curtains (p. 194). He sees this practice mirrored in some of the words for veils -- the word E)PI/BLHMA can mean a tapestry or a hanging while also denoting a veil (p. 194). Veiling therefore provided women with a degree of mobility and Llewellyn-Jones holds that it liberated ancient Greek women to some extent. He supports this point by associating the advent of the TE/GIDON ('face-veil') in Hellenistic times to women's increased social participation during the same era (p. 200). The author contends that the invisibility of women conferred by the more extreme forms of veiling acted as a further guarantee of male honour and thereby allowed women greater autonomy.
Llewellyn-Jones then proceeds in Chapter 8, 'From Parthenos to Gyne:' (pp. 215-58), to evaluate veiling in respect of the various stages of the female life-cycle. He argues that girls would begin to veil upon reaching puberty, a practice which both accentuated their new sexual status and protected it (p. 217). This veil was then sacrificed to appropriate goddesses, such as Artemis, in the time approaching marriage. Llewellyn-Jones then goes on to make an extremely detailed argument regarding the anakalypteria at wedding ceremonies. Despite the fact that the author is far too hasty to assert that both the Roman and the Greek wedding veils were red in hue (p. 225), his suggestion that the anakalypterion consisted of at least four ceremonies in which the bride unveils in progressively more intimate surroundings, is quite plausible. In these ceremonies Llewellyn-Jones convincingly asserts that the bride is an entirely passive figure who does not actively unveil herself, but rather submits to being revealed and seen. It is a pity that Llewellyn-Jones did not see fit to extend his argument beyond the time of a women's marriage as it would have been both useful and interesting to understand more fully the social mores of veiling with regard to women who have passed their fertile stage and whose sexuality therefore no longer poses so great a risk to the male order.
While the main purpose of the veil appears to have been to restrict the social presence of women, in Chapter 9, 'Veiling the Polluted Woman' (pp. 259-83), the author also argues that it in part serves to contain the women that it conceals. Llewellyn-Jones claims that the veil was used to contain women's miasma ('pollution'), a force which, he argues (p. 274), emanates not primarily from her genitals, but rather from her head (mouth, eyes, and ears). This seems likely, but the author then stretches this argument rather far by arguing that the mouth represents the vagina. The veil therefore serves to cover, what the author argues is effectively a second set of genitalia. Here Llewellyn-Jones over-interprets what appear to be ancient jokes about oral sex and a single statue of Baubo in order to make his point.
In Chapter 10, 'The White and the Black: Conspicuous Veiling' (pp. 283-314), the author makes a clear case for feminine agency allowed by the veil, noting how women in both contemporary and ancient societies use their veils to express sexuality, anger, and mourning. Perhaps the most interesting and provocative of these is his investigation into how the veil both creates and reflects the male fetishes of sexual chastity and modesty (p. 287), thereby sometimes having an opposite result to that intended. The veil, when used to express anger, can also be a powerful tool in that it allows the wearer to remove herself from the normal processes of social reciprocity.
This book successfully argues that women routinely veiled in the ancient Greek world. The author has contributed an invaluable work to the scholarship surrounding ancient gender, both because of the manner in which he has dealt with the material and for calling attention to an aspect of ancient society that has attracted such intense debate in our own multicultural world.
[] C. M. Galt, 'Veiled Ladies', CAJA 35 (1931) 373-93.
[] See E. B. Reeder, Pandora's Box: The Roles of Women in Ancient Greece. Institute for Mediterranean Studies, Video Lecture Series Volume 1 (Baltimore 1995). Reeder argues that the anakalypsis-gesture is meant to invoke the anakalypteria, the ritual unveiling of the bride during the marriage ceremony.
[] C. McGreal, 'Killed in Name of Honour', The Guardian (29 June 2005).