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Suicide in Classical Mythology: An Essay

Dr. Elise P. Garrison
Texas A&M University
College Station, TX
October 2000

Part I: Suicidal Females

Classical Mythology is a broad term that encompasses several cultures and an enormous chronological span. 'Classical' typically refers to the Greek and Roman sources which provide the corpus of classical mythology, yet many mythological characters hail from lands far distant from Greece and Rome, like Colchis and Troy to name but two. Chronologically, the sources range from prehistory to the Byzantine age, leaving would-be interpreters a plethora of possible contexts in which to work. Were one to ignore the geographical and chronological dimensions of myth, the interpreter is still faced with the polysemic essence<1> of myth and its multifunctionalism, including cognitive, emotional, psychological and especially didactic facets,<2> understanding of which becomes even more difficult given the chronological and geographical distance of the modern reader from the ancient contexts. In addition, one must realize that myths often set up a polarization of reality, black and white situations that give way to the grayness of reality. Obviously, myths are 'good stories,' and in order to be a good story, problems and their solutions are exaggerated. Yet I place myself among those who contend that the stories, however exaggerated, encode in them something of cultural significance, which can be uncovered through careful analysis and constant vigilance to the multifunctionalism and the polarization of reality represented in the myths.

Equally important is the fact that many of the issues raised in myths elicit reactions so strongly rooted in our own culture that it is sometimes nearly impossible to be flexible in our interpretations. Issues like murder, cannibalism, matricide, patricide, fratricide, infanticide, rape and suicide, to name only some, pervade mythology. When for example Medea murders her children, how can modern interpreters react in any way but with repugnance? However, when one sets aside the modern cultural bias and examines Medea in the context of the ancient world's cultural assumptions, as Easterling and Knox<3> have so persuasively done, then some aspect of the ancient world is revealed to us that is different from the modern world and yet by its difference helps clarify the modern world. Suicide is a prime example of this phenomenon.<4>

This study of suicidal females in Classical Mythology will raise several questions. Under what circumstances is death preferable to life? When is death by one's own hand acceptable or desirable? These questions will lead us to question the legal, economic, political, family and religious contexts for females in the ancient world. I will organize the suicides according to their schematic motivations and will examine the methods they use, asking whether or not the methods chosen are predictable or prescribed according to one's status as virgin, wife, mother. Close attention will be paid to the general character traits given to the suicidal females and the thematic characteristics in the stories. The purpose of this article is to address these questions systematically and, though confined to the language and symbols of mythology, to generalize cautiously about ancient cultural attitudes toward women and self-destruction.<5>


In order to understand better the mythological suicides and their motivations, I have organized them in the broad categories of grief, shame, madness, self-sacrifice, fear and frustration.<6> Interestingly, anger is never a motivation to suicide among mythological females. With all schematizations there is a tendency to over-simplify and clearly the categories are sometimes interchangeable. However, I have attempted to group the suicides by the most powerful motivating factor that can be gleaned from the ancient accounts of the deaths.<7>


Grief is an emotional human response of deep and painful distress to bereavement or loss. Grief may be the response to one's feelings of loss of control over life situations and emotions combined with loss of hope for the future. Such poignant distress often leads to a narrower view of the world to such an extent that reality becomes distorted, and death seems the only answer to life crises.

Loss of Kin

The primary goal in a young female's life is to marry because, in baldest terms, in ancient society a female necessarily was predominantly in the control of a male.<8> Before marriage, that control was held by her father, but at marriage she was physically, economically and psychologically transferred to a new kyrios, her husband. The physical and psychological dependence of females on males was so socially ingrained that the female personality and social function was only complete in its relationship to the male. It logically follows, then, that upon the loss of the male authority, females may no longer perceive a societal role, and it is under such circumstances that suicide may occur.

By far the most common motivation for females to commit suicide in classical mythology is because of the loss of a male kin, most frequently the husband. Alcyone, Cleite, Cleopatra, Deianeira, Evadne, Hylonome, Laeodamea, Marpessa, Oenone, Polydora and Polymede are all wives who killed themselves upon the death of their husbands. As we can deduce from the many representations on Greek vases of women mourning that it is a female duty; committing suicide takes that duty one further, final step. Antigone (wife of Peleus), fearing she had lost her husband to another woman, took her own life. Stricken by grief, these women all found death at their own hands preferable to life without their husbands.

Sally Cline<9> observes how the stigma of being a widow derives from the fact that it is a status typically occupied by females. According to a NORC General Social Surveys report, women are more than three times as likely as men to be widowed.<10> Though such statistics are not available from the ancient Greek world, an examination of the Greek words for widow and widowhood are telling. In Homer, the tragedians and orators a female who has lost her husband is called a chera, but the masculine form, cheros, does not appear until Aristotle who uses it in the context of birds. The Old English widewe originated in the Indo-European root widh meaning to be empty or separated. The Sanskrit vidh means destitute or lacking. These connotations appear in Greek as well where cheroo means to make desolate and occurs concerning women in Homer, and the Greek chereuo means to lack or, in oratory of a woman, to live in widowhood. These notions of being made empty or lacking imply that marriage allows a woman to fulfill herself with, as it were, a dual personality that, at the loss of the male, becomes half. As Joseph T. Shipley in The Dictionary of Word Origins<11> points out 'since marriage has made two of one, a widow is a woman that has been emptied of herself.' Clearly, based on Greek vocabulary and the gender asymmetry inherent in it, these implications are not similarly affixed to widowers.

At least from the female perspective,<12> ancient Greek society was 'couple-oriented.' In couple-oriented, patriarchal societies, the widow is one often viewed as being unavailable, uninteresting, and being either sexually uninviting or conversely a predator.<13> Legal mechanisms existed in the ancient world that provided for the transfer of a widow from one kyrios (male protector) to another. In a culture where a significant age difference between husband and wife was the norm, we might expect the number of widows to exceed the number of widowers (though, of course, childbirth was a dangerous period for women). Nevertheless, mythological stories of 'wicked step-mothers'<14> remind us that the legal mechanisms did not necessarily address the emotional and psychological displacement caused by widowhood and remarriage. The stories from mythology provide another resource for uncovering culturally imbedded fears and concerns. However, both legal mechanisms and mythological tales show that there are normative patterns to widowhood (remarriage) and behavioral expectations that if denied can lead to suicide. In a death-defying and couple-based culture, there is a certain stigma to being widowed, which is amplified by the fact that it is a status typically occupied by females. Few married women escape the status. In the general pattern of older males marrying younger females, not only is greater male power in the relationship asserted, but also it is guaranteed that generally the woman must cope with the dying and death of the spouse. The spectrum of emotions associated with grief and the liminality of being neither in the world of singles nor of married people leads many to suicide.

The second most common source of grief for women is the loss of their offspring. According to Jane Littlewood,<15> 'the loss of a child is a uniquely devastating experience for the child's parents. In contemporary Western societies such deaths are almost always viewed as untimely because they conflict with people's taken-for-granted assumptions and life-cycle expectations.' Thucydides expresses this same sentiment in Pericles' Funeral Speech when he laments that in times of war parents bury their children instead of the opposite, more natural scenario in which children bury their parents. The unnaturalness of the child predeceasing the parent is the most disturbing aspect and, as Cline has suggested, the bereavement and expression of grief of mothers differs from that expressed by fathers because 'the biological experience of childbirth combined with the social role of motherhood, which in this [contemporary] society establishes mothers as the primary parent, is what makes the difference.'<16>

In ancient Greece for at least the early years of boys' lives and throughout girls' lives mothers were indeed the primary parent and the number of mothers who commit suicide upon the death of their sons shows the depth of grief to which they succumb. Many bereaved mothers may learn to restructure their lives around the loss, but many are unable to and so kill themselves. The mythological stories of mothers who commit suicide at the loss of children deal almost exclusively with the loss of famous (or infamous) sons, though Niobe loses sons and daughters and sometimes the gender of the children is unspecified. Aethra, Theseus's mother, Arethusa, Corax's mother, Perdix, mother of Talos, Anticleia, mother of Odysseus and Althaea, mother of Meleager kill themselves. In the case of Arethusa and Perdix, we know nothing about their husbands and the women's only significant role is that of mothers. However, their sons were notable. Corax upon his death received the honor of having a place named after him and Talos, talented like his uncle Daedalus, invented the saw, the potter's wheel, the chisel and the compass, and at Daedalus' attempted murder of him was metamorphosed into a partridge. Aethra's history is complex and important, as is her son's, but the story of her suicide is probably a late spurious one, as perhaps is the case with the story of Anticleia's self-hanging. Althaea's relationship to her son is complicated by her apparent control of his fate, and the story of her sacrificing her son's life because he has taken her brother's hints at an element in Greek culture that values natal family over conjugal family. Here we may add Amata who hanged herself when Turnus, her would-be son-in-law was killed.

Sometimes mothers lose multiple offspring. Niobe is the quintessential mother in Greek mythology, so proud of her 14 offspring that she challenges the worship of Leto. After her 7 sons' and 7 daughters' deaths, she leaps to her own. Eurydice finds the death of her youngest son, Haemon, the final pain she can bear, having previously lost her other sons. Themisto, in a devious plot to kill her rival Ino's children, instead causes her own children to be killed and then kills herself.

Sisters may commit suicide upon the loss of their fathers or brothers. Erigone, sister of Orestes and Erigone, daughter of Icarius, hang themselves after the important males in their lives die, and even a dog, Maera, can feel the loss of a master (Icarius) and commit suicide by leaping into a well. Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, is a special case who having lost her entire family succumbs to grief and in staying true to her convictions hangs herself.


A related phenomenon occurs when women are abandoned by their lovers. Not only are they left pseudo-widowed, but they may also have to face (or believe they have to face) the censure of their societies. Alcinoe, Ariadne, Callirrhoe, Thisbe, Scylla and Dido fall into this category though each story deserves special attention. Alcinoe, though married with children, in a state of madness caused by Athena fell in love with a visitor. When the Samian left, she abandoned her home in pursuit. Coming to her senses on board, she repented and leapt to her drowning. Ariadne, having betrayed her country to help Theseus, was subsequently left behind on Naxos, where, according to one source, she killed herself. Callirrhoe, after having helped Diomedes avoid being sacrificed to Ares, was abandoned by him. Fearing the possibility of reprisal by her father, she hanged herself. Dido, abandoned by Aeneas, grieved not only for her lost love, but also for her lost sense of honor in respect to her first husband and her city. Thisbe, forbidden lover of Pyramus, stabbed herself after finding Pyramus dead by suicide. Scylla, betraying her father because of her love for Minos, was rejected by Minos and threw herself into the sea. In each of these cases, the women's betrayal of home or country and the shame that results combines with the grief felt by abandonment.

Even immortals feel the pain of unrequited love and abandonment and we are told that Calypso killed herself out of love for Odysseus. Another little known lover of Heracles, Xenodoce, felt such longing and desire for him during his absence that she died. Here we may add Polyxena, who according to one source, killed herself on the grave of her lover, Achilles, and Phyllis who hanged herself believing she had been abandoned by her lover Demophon.

Mixed with fear

Grief mixed with fear is another incentive for seeking self-imposed death. Laodoce felt such grief at the possibility of becoming a Trojan slave to the Greeks prayed for the earth to receive her and the gods complied with her request. Perhaps here we can append Iliona, one of the lesser-known daughters of Priam and Hecuba who, Hyginus tells us, killed herself on account of the misfortunes of her parents.


A sense of shame was a powerful motivator in the ancient world, moving people to internalize social expectations.<17> It is also a concept connected with 'who one is' and consequently is frequently associated with people who have strong feelings. A sense of shame can be distinguished from feelings of guilt, i.e., a bad conscience, which are more connected with 'what one does' and which is frequently associated with strong thinking types. Though typically and traditionally women are considered to value 'feelings' over 'thinking,' in the ancient world shame far outweighs guilt in self-killing<18> in both male and females.


The frequency of stories of rape in classical mythology suggests an underlying ambivalence in the ancient mind toward sexuality.<19> In a culture where female protection under a kyrios, a male protector, signifies female qua property, one would expect rape to be a means of attack of one male on another via his property/woman.<20> This same culture attributes greater sexual appetites to females than males, an attribution that calls into question female virtue and necessitates male 'protection' and regulation. Rape then becomes as Walcot argues, 'sex on man's terms and not the terms of woman.'<21> The mythological instances of females committing suicide either to avoid rape or, if unable to avoid rape, to manifest the resultant repugnance and shame, interestingly invites us to consider instead the female response to such violence.

Arsippe and Nicaea were devotees of Artemis who suffered the disgrace of rape. Arsippe initially repulsed Tmolus, the son of Ares, but was finally caught and taken in the temple of Artemis; thereupon she hanged herself from a beam in the temple. Nicaea, the daughter of Sangarius, a river god, and Cybele, was so distressed by the attention of a shepherd Hymnus that she shot him through the heart with an arrow. Eros, furious at this event, caused Dionysus to fall in love with her, and he, after getting her drunk, impregnated her with Telete. Upon Telete's birth, Nicaea hanged herself. These chaste attendants of Artemis who have left the protection of their paternal households to live in the woods consequently fall victim to other deities or semi-divine characters.<22> But the shame of being raped and the dread of betraying Artemis create a negative emotional response that cannot even be mitigated by motherhood.

Rape can be further complicated when the rapist is a relative. In the case of sexually abusive incest, the victim is not merely suffering from the violation against her virtue of chastity, but also feels the effect of an offence against the affection and reverence with which relatives should be regarded. Pelopeia, granddaughter of Pelops, daughter of Thyestes and priestess of Athena, became one more cog in the cursed family of Pelops. Thyestes, having learned from an oracle that he must beget an incestuous child (Aegisthus) with his daughter in order to take revenge on Atreus, secretly raped her while she was performing her duties as priestess. The sword he left behind became the tool of recognition later, at which time Pelopeia used it to stab herself. Though at first able to live with the aftermath of rape, Pelopeia could not endure the additional shame of incest. The apparent ease with which Thyestes carried out the oracle's command reaffirms the insignificant position of females in general and female daughters in particular, but the suicide seems to indicate that from a female perspective there is a sense of self-worth that motivates one to choose honorable death over living in shame.

Not only virgins suffer the humiliation of incestuous rape. Halia, together with Poseidon, produced six sons and a daughter. The sons turned out impious and malicious, and insulted Aphrodite. In retaliation, she caused them to go mad and gang rape their mother. Halia hurled herself into the sea, but was subsequently worshipped by the Rhodians as Leucothea, a divine being. Students of mythology are familiar with Aphrodite's vengeance that destroys innocents along with the guilty–Euripides' Phaedra is a prime example of a victim of Aphrodite's anger. This unique story of incestuous gang rape, however, gives us a glimpse into Aphrodite's very darkest side.

Some females are fortunate enough to be able to escape rape, though the means of escape is final indeed. Aspalis and Side are two virgins who hanged themselves before being raped. Aspalis was one in a long line of lovely maidens who caught the eye of the tyrant Tartaros, but hanged herself before his soldiers could seize her. Side killed herself on her mother's grave to escape the incestuous advances of her father.

In sum, virginity is meant to be a temporary life-stage for females. As a virgin living in her father's house she had a duty to live chastely, and if she were seduced or violated, she was seen to have been destroyed and to have lost her right of fatherly protection.<23> All females must experience their sexuality to become fully mature women, but that experience is confined by certain legal limitations of marriage laws. And though adherents of Artemis may wish to prolong the virginal life-stage, perhaps indefinitely, the fact that some females commit suicide when they are forcibly removed from that stage shows not only the depth of shame that can ensue, but also the real practical considerations of disinheritance.

Unrequited Love

Sometimes instead of unrequited love leading to suicide because of grief, the actions of the females lead to a deep sense of shame that in turn precipitates their self-destruction. Phaedra, Ochne and Sthenoboea each approach a would-be lover, are rejected, tell lies about the event to cover their own illicit lust, and then commit suicide in shame.

Incest (non-sexually abusive)

Jocasta, Canace and Byblis react to the shame of incest and kill themselves. Jocasta unknowingly with her son and Canace knowingly with her brother consummate the incest with offspring, while Byblis's incestuous advances to her brother are soundly rejected.


Though there is a tendency in the modern world to link suicide with mental illness, research suggests that people who were desperately unhappy, though not insane, for the most part commit suicide acts.<24> The same holds for mythological characters; rarely can suicide be attributed to madness in mythology.<25> The females who commit suicide in a state of madness are Agraulos and Herse, daughters of Cecrops, the half-serpent man. The story goes that when Athena gave to these girls for rearing the offspring of Hephaestus' aborted attempt to impregnate her, she instructed them to keep the child hidden in a chest. While sister Pandrosos obeyed, the other two girls failed to heed her warning and upon seeing the snaky child within went mad and hurled themselves from the Acropolis. Apparently and ironically, though the girls' own father was half-snake, the sight of such an infant drove them insane. More likely, disobedience of Athena, not just the sight of the child, played the major role in their madness.


A common motif throughout Greek mythology is the idea of patriotic concerns displacing personal concerns, even to the point of ending one's life for the benefit of the community. The noble suicide of these women shows the basically paradoxical relationship of the individual to her society, for the altruistic tendencies that cause the individual to sacrifice herself for a greater good, perceived or real, often mix disastrously with a tendency to self-reliance and a too-severe adherence to ungrounded social demands. As in Greek tragedy, in Greek mythology the question of self-sacrifice is complicated by lack of source clarity on whether or not the individual physically killed herself or only volunteered to die.<26> Let it suffice to say that in these instances where the greater good takes precedence over individual good, actual self-killing is simply the proactive approach to giving oneself voluntarily to an executioner.

An interesting feature of several of these patriotic self-sacrifices is the collective grouping of the victims, a phenomenon not found in tragedy. The Leontides, the Coronides (daughters of Orion), the Hyacinthides, Alcis and Androcleia and the Erechtheidae collectively agree to die in compliance with an oracle so that their cities may be rescued from plague or war. In the case of the Leontides and Hyacinthides, we do not know if they physically took their own lives, though we do know that the Coronides smashed their brains out with their shuttles and the daughters of Erechtheus (Otionia, Pandora and Protogenia), after Erechtheus slaughtered the youngest, killed themselves because they had taken an oath among themselves to perish together. Agraulos and Macaria individually sacrificed themselves to ward off war, while Iphigenia individually sacrificed herself to precipitate war. Alcestis killed herself to prolong her husband's life. Callirrhoe, a Calydonian maiden, rejected as a lover a priest of Dionysus who sent a plague that could only be lifted by her self-sacrifice. Though she initially refused, when her would-be lover killed himself she followed suit.

There are several interesting points in these stories. For example, the Hyacinthides are daughters of Hyacinthus, a Spartan transplanted to Athens. When Athens was suffering from a famine and plague during its war with Minos, an oracle demanded the death of the Spartan maidens. We might well ask why Hyacinthus, a Spartan, agreed to kill his own daughters for Athens, especially since their deaths did not end the pestilence in Athens. To confuse things further (or perhaps to rationalize the idea of Spartans sacrificing themselves for Athenians), Demosthenes [60.27] says that the Erechtheidae were also called the Hyacinthides.

In the case of the Leontides and the Erechtheidae, an oath united the girls in death, for in both groups an agreement had been made that if one died, all would die. The tendency to conceive of oneself only in terms of others perhaps paves the way for voluntary and altruistic death. In several cases, the maidens were not initially asked to sacrifice themselves, but they substitute themselves when the oracle's demands seem in danger of not being met.


In one case, fear is the overriding motivation to suicide. Hippodamia so feared her husband's reprisal for her instigating her own sons to kill his illegitimate one that she killed herself.


One final category seems to apply to immortals only. Both the Sirens and the Sphinx leap to their deaths after Odysseus and Oedipus render their power benign, respectively. The paradox of immortals dying is apparently lost on the authors who record these stories.


The methods available to mythological women for killing themselves are limited, and include (in order of frequency) hanging, leaping into water or onto land, stabbing, leaping into fire, drinking poison, clubbing and being swallowed by the earth. In the self-sacrifice cases we are usually not told the specific method used, though we may safely speculate that sacrificial knives would be at hand, and there are a several other cases where the actual means used are unclear. Sometimes because of the variety and complexity of the sources, different methods are attributed to individual females. The following discussion begins from van Hooff's excellent categorization and seeks only to supplement and refine it as it relates to mythological females.<27> Clearly, suicide is an aggressive act against oneself, but the methods may vary in their degree of violence.


Though in the Odyssey the idea of hanging is repugnant and considered a suitable means of death for the disloyal female slaves (22.462), and in Euripides' Helen (298-303) Helen describes the noose as unseemly, the frequency with which mythological females use it as a means of suicide suggests these thoughts were not pervasive. On a realistic and practical level, hanging might have been prevalent because it was simply possible to remove one's belt and use it.<28> The means were ready to hand. 22 of the 72<29> female or group of female suicides hang themselves. Of that group, 5 are maidens while the remaining 17 are either married or sexually active. Though it has been argued that the rope is the means most suitable for virgins while the sword is more suitable for spouses, my findings here show that that distinction does not obtain.<30>

Leaping Onto Land Or Into The Sea

Van Hooff considers leaping a 'means for the desperate,'<31> and the examples of the 12 mythological females who leap to their deaths support this notion. 6 of these females hurl themselves from city walls or cliffs to their death on land, while 6 throw themselves into the sea and drown. In each case, the means are ready to hand. In the case of those who hurl themselves from city walls or cliffs to their land deaths, the act is public with gruesome residual effects. For those who drown not only do they lose their physical being, but their identity is completely obliterated.


Swords, spears and knives are usually not in the immediate environment for women so the women who stab themselves are either in more unusual situations than is typical or are more resolute in their decisions to die. 10 women use the edges, 3 wives and 7 sexually active maidens. 1 group, the Coronides, use their weaving tools to stab themselves. Deianeira resolutely stabs herself with the sword of Heracles while Hylonome in grief at the loss of her husband fell on the spear that had killed him. Polyxena and Thisbe use the sword to kill themselves at the sides of their lovers who have perished before them, while Dido uses her dead husband's sword at her abandonment by Aeneas. Amphinome, mother of Jason, stabs herself heroically, in the words of Diodorus of Sicily. Canace and Pelopeia both use the sword in shame at their incestuous liaisons.

Leaping Into Fire

Evadne and Laodamia each hurl themselves spectacularly onto the pyres of their husbands and commit a sort of suttee.<32> A third woman, Oenone, hurls herself onto the funeral pyre of Troy in regret for having failed to help Paris. These acts are public and exhibitionist and underscore their feelings of duty to die with their husbands and their identity dependence on them.


As Van Hooff points out,<33> 'the overall character of self-killing in antiquity requires the use of sure and therefore hard methods.' Poison, however, can be administered incorrectly and ineffectually and therefore is not a very common means of suicide. Only Polymede drank bull's blood and died, and this account comes from a later Roman source, Valerius Flaccus, and perhaps reflects Roman tendencies. And we may deduce from Euripides' description of the death of Alcestis that she also drank poison.<34>

Clubbing And Being Swallowed By The Earth

Equally uncertain as to its efficacy is self-death by clubbing. In Ovid's version of the self-sacrifice of the Coronides, one of them uses her shuttle to mortally wound herself. This is an unusual concept, and one that to my knowledge has no parallels in the ancient world. Equally unusual though perhaps akin to leaping to the ground is being swallowed by the earth, as is Laodice.

Unclear Methods

In 26 cases we do not know how the females killed themselves. 8 wives, 3 mothers, 3 lovers and 1 daughter who was a victim of incest kill themselves by unknown means. 11 self-sacrifice victims voluntarily give up their lives, but we are not told how the deaths actually come about.


The complexity and variety of the stories concerning mythological females who commit suicide caution us to beware of sweeping conclusive statements. We have discovered that a wide variety of motivations can be found as well as an interesting mix of methods, and that neither motivations nor methods can be specifically assigned to one familial or age grouping. We can say that in the majority of cases women define themselves and their roles in relationship to a man or a city, whether that role be seen in a positive light (e.g., a faithful spouse or a patriotic citizen) or a negative one (e.g., a victim of incest or rape). In all of these cases, self-sought death is considered preferable to a life of grief or shame or perceived lack of patriotism.

Unlike in Greek tragedy where we typically have a full context with which to work, in the mythological stories from sources other than tragedy we are not able to specify precisely how survivors reacted to the suicides.<35> The stories of mythology are primarily told in isolation and the sources are so varied that any such attempt would have to begin with a discussion of each source individually, a task beyond the scope of this article. It would also be dangerous to speculate on the relative importance in society or the expendability of women versus men without looking at the mythological males who commit suicide, a task also outside the scope of this article, but which I will address in a forthcoming one.

Modern researchers look for factors that predispose women towards or inhibit them from committing suicide. They have tentatively found that women who have been sexually abused or subject to severe forms of male sexual violence appear to be more predisposed towards suicide than women who have not been. On the other hand, women who have dependent children often feel inhibited from committing suicide, as long as they do not fall into the category of incest survivors.<36> In the ancient mythological context we have also seen both a tendency of sexually abused females to commit suicide and mothers who have lost their dependent children to do so. Most common in the ancient mythological world, though, is to commit suicide upon the loss of the important male in one's life, be it husband, lover, brother or father, reinforcing the notion that ancient women defined themselves in terms of males.<37>

Return to the Index


  1. See C. Sourvinou-Inwood, 'Reading' Greek Culture. Texts and Images, Rituals and Myths. (Oxford 1991) chapter 1.
  2. See R. Buxton, Imaginary Greece. The Contexts of Mythology. (Cambridge 1994) passim.
  3. P. Easterling, "The Infanticide in Euripides' Medea," YCS 25 (1977) 177-91; B. Knox, "The Medea of Euripides," YCS 25 (1977) 193-25.
  4. On suicide in general in the ancient world, see A.J.L. van Hooff, From Autothanasia to Suicide. Self-Killing in Classical Antiquity (Routledge 1990). For suicide in Greek tragedy, see E.P.Garrison, Groaning Tears. Ethical and Dramatic Aspects of Suicide in Greek Tragedy (Brill 1995). For full bibliographical references to other important works on ancient suicide, see Garrison, p. 1, n. 1.
  5. In subsequent articles I will treat suicidal males and male and female attempts and threats of suicide.
  6. Van Hooff (above note 4) chapter 3 offers additional categories but these do not apply to mythological females.
  7. There are 72 or 73 (depending upon how many Sirens there were--2 or 3) female suicides in classical mythology. See my catalogue which alphabetically lists each female or group of females, the details of her suicide and the primary sources (translated) that report it. Several other females who attempt or threaten suicide are rescued or transformed, but I will discuss these cases in a separate article.
  8. The literature on 'women in antiquity' is extensive, but especially germane are R. Sealy, Women and Law in Classical Greece (Chapel Hill and London 1990), D.M.MacDowell, The Law in Classical Athens. Aspects of Greek and Roman Life (Ithaca 1978) and W.K.Lacey, The Family in Classical Greece. Aspects of Greek and Roman Life (Ithaca 1968). Excellent bibliographies specific to the different ancient historical eras can be found in Women in the Classical World. Image and Text, edd. E. Fantham, H.P. Foley, N. Kampen, S.B. Pomeroy and H.A. Shapiro (New York and Oxford 1994).
  9. Lifting the Taboo: Women, Death and Dying (London 1996) 140-1.
  10. Combined 1973-94.
  11. (Westport, CT 1969).
  12. Though myths of sexual repression by males and the dire consequences of that repression--consider Hippolytus and Pentheus--may persuade us that this is true from the male perspective as well.
  13. Cline (above, note 9) 145.
  14. For an interesting discussion of this phenomenon see P.A. Watson, Ancient Stepmothers. Myth, Misogyny and Reality (Brill 1995).
  15. Aspects of Grief: Bereavement in Adult Life (London and New York 1992) p. 122.
  16. (Above, note 9) 164.
  17. Garrison (above, note 4) 7-8; van Hooff (above, note 4) 107-20.
  18. Van Hooff (above, note 4) 84-5.
  19. Much literature on rape in antiquity exists, but see particularly Rape in Antiquity, edd S. Deacy and K.F. Pierce (London 1997) and the bibliography cited there.
  20. P. Walcot, "Herodotus on Rape," Arethusa 11 (1978) 139.
  21. Ibid, 147. See also F. Zeitlin, "Configurations of Rape in Greek Myth," in Rape, edd. S. Tomaselli and R. Porter (Oxford and New York 1986) 122-51.
  22. S. Deacy, "The Vulnerability of Athena. Parthenoi and Rape in Greek Myth," in Rape in Antiquity (above note 18) 43-63. Deacy only discusses maidens who are metamorphosed.
  23. G. Sissa, Greek Virginity, tr. A. Goldhammer (Cambridge and London 1990) 88ff. discusses the laws of Solon regarding parthenoi found to be no longer virgins.
  24. Cline (above, note 9) 268.
  25. Van Hooff (above, note 4) 96-9.
  26. For a sustained discussion of the phenomenon in Greek tragedy and full bibliographical references, see Garrison (above, note 4) 129ff and n. 1.
  27. Van Hooff (above, note 4) chapter 2.
  28. For women's clothing see T. Hope, Costumes of the Greeks and Romans (New York 1962) xxxi.
  29. This number takes into account only 2 sirens. The total number tallied in this methods sections is 77 because some women are credited with different means of killing themselves.
  30. N.Loraux, Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman, tr. A. Forster (Cambridge, MA 1987) 13ff.
  31. Van Hooff (above, note 4) 73.
  32. Garrison (above, note 4) 121ff, and Cline (above, note 9) 157-9.
  33. Van Hooff (above, note 4) 61.
  34. Garrison (above, note 4) 164-5.
  35. For a discussion of the reaction of survivors in Greek tragedy, see Garrison (above note 4) passim. Rarely is the reaction anything but sympathetic. Similarly in history: T. Harrison, "Herodotus and the Ancient Greek Idea of Rape," in Rape in Antiquity (above note 18) 189 points out that in the story of Mycerinus' rape of his daughter and her subsequent suicide (II.131) Herodotus "finds nothing psychologically implausible in the behaviour of Mycerinus' wife or daughter; there is no suggestion that either of them had over-reacted" 189. See also A.J.L. van Hooff, "Female Suicide: Between Fiction and Fact," Laverna III (1992) 142-72.
  36. Cline (above, note 9) 273.
  37. I wish to extend special thanks to Dr. Ross Scaife of the University of Kentucky and to the referees for Diotima, though any omissions or errors belong to me alone. I also want to thank Vanessa Peters and Kimberly Jones, my undergraduate research assistants at Texas A&M University, who were invaluable in helping to create the catalogue, and to the Department of Modern and Classical Languages for funding two Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program grants. Finally, thanks to the Women's Studies Program at Texas A&M University for awarding me a faculty research grant to complete this project.

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