Understanding the Ancient Power of Women’s Tears

In the works of the classical Sanskrit writer Kalidasa (c. 4th – 5th century CE) we see descriptions of women being invited to the king’s garden specifically to sing, dance, play and laugh. As women’s laughter was an expression of their sense of security and happiness, hearing women’s laughter may have been considered as a sign that the empire was doing well. On the other hand, to this day women’s tears made people uncomfortable and often willing to do just about anything to stop the tears flowing. Another rather interesting reaction is when a woman’s tears invoke anger to those who hears it, or even outright denial (“you’re too sensitive”, “you misunderstand me”, “that’s not what happened”). No one wants to hear about a woman’s unhappiness, especially if they feel that they can do very little to help.

But, and this is perhaps what makes it so powerful, ancient myths rarely depict women as crying only for their own sake. This seems to complicate things even in our modern age as the reason a woman cries is never just one thing (it is usually an accumulation of fear, sadness, anxiety and so on – especially in a society where they are expected to clamp down many of their feelings to keep the peace), and it is usually not only about herself – it can be about her friends, lovers, family or her feelings about her community in general. It is little wonder then, that it can be difficult for them at times to communicate the reason for their tears. It is also little wonder that men’s attitude towards a woman’s ranges from mockery to frustration to anger to fear (or even, mocking to cover their own fear) for the simple reason that they simply do not understand what is happening and how they can help, and the woman could do little to help him understand this as she tried to process this herself.

In the Iliad, the Trojan women cry for their fathers, brothers, or sons fallen in combat or lost. The Odyssey is punctuated by the tears of Penelope who is crying for her husband Odysseus. Just as laughing women signal that everything is well in a society, crying women signal that something is wrong or even dangerous in society. It signals that something has to end for the society to survive.

Antikensammlung Berlin 502.JPG
Paestan Lekythos depicting Niobe becoming stone; ca. 330 BC.

In Greek mythology, Niobe’s father was Tantalus, king of a town above Mount Sipylus in Anatolia.  Niobe was the wife of Amphion, king of Thebes, and gave him seven sons and seven daughters. One day, at a ceremony held in honor of Leto, the mother of the divine twins Apollo and Artemis,  Niobe said in a fit of arrogance that she was superior to Leto, as she had fourteen children and not only two. This insult enraged Apollo and Artemis. They came at once to earth to kill the children of Niobe. Apollo killed all seven of Niobe’s sons with his powerful arrows in front of the pleading Niobe herself while Artemis killed Niobe’s seven daughters. Devastated by the slaughter of his children, Amphion committed suicide. Thus in a matter of moments, Niobe’s entire family had been wiped out.

File:The Weeping Rock in Mount Sipylus, Manisa, Turkey, known as Niobe's Rock, a rock in the shape of a weeping woman, which the ancient Greeks believed to be Niobe (18982976930).jpg
The Weeping Rock in Mount Sipylus, Manisa, Turkey, known as Niobe’s Rock, a rock in the shape of a weeping woman, which the ancient Greeks believed to be Niobe 

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