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.

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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 

In her anguish, Niobe ran to Mount Sipylus where she pleaded to the gods to end her pain. Zeus took pity on her and transformed her into a rock to turn her feelings into stone. But that never stopped Niobe. Even as a stone she continued to cry. Her endless tears poured forth as a stream from the rock as a reminder of a mother’s eternal mourning for her children. To this day, people believe that her faint image can still be seen carved on a limestone rock cliff on Mount Sipylus, where the water seeping out of the porous rocks bears a strong allusion to her ceaseless tears. A similar story is of the nymph Pirene. By Poseidon, Pirene became the mother of Lecheas and Cenhrias. When Cenchrias was unintentionally killed by Artemis, Pirene’s grief was so profound that she dissolved into nothing but tears and turned into the fountain outside the gates of Corinth. The Corinthians had a small sanctuary dedicated to Pirene by the fountain where honey-cakes were offered to her to during the dry months of early summer.

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Henrietta Rae’s “The Sirens” (1903)

Perhaps the most powerful cries of women came from the Sirens. They were the companions of Kore who later became Persephone, the queen of the underworld. When Kore was abducted, they were given wings by Demeter to search for her. In the Fabulae of Hyginus (64 BC–17 AD), Demeter cursed the sirens for failing to intervene in the abduction of Kore by giving them the appearance of half birds and half maidens with beautiful but cursed voices forever crying for their lost friend.

Although most retelling of the Odyssey depict the Sirens as little more than dangerous women leading men to their deaths through their songs, they were not singing. They were crying. And their crying didn’t have anything to do killing men (or indeed to get men to do anything, really) – they were crying for their friend. In this regard, they are similar to the Banshee who heralds the death of a family member by their cries. The Banshee would sometime assume the form of beautiful women who sings a sorrowful, haunting song of concern and love for their family. A Banshee may also be seen at night as a lamenting shrouded woman, crouched beneath the trees or crying bitterly while flying past in the moonlight. A Banshee’s cry is mournful beyond all other sounds on earth and heralds certain death to some member of the family whenever it is heard. The first stories of the Banshee in the 8th century were based on a tradition where women sang a sorrowful song to lament someone’s death. These women were known as “keeners”. However, since they accepted alcohol as payment, these women were said to be sinners and punished by being doomed to become Banshees.

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Henry Meynell Rheam’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (c. 1901)

Also somewhat reminiscent of the Sirens in Greek mythology are some versions of the La Llorona (“The weeping woman”) legend collected in Northen Mexico and the jungles of Brazil. La Llorona is often presented as an apparition of a woman dressed in white, often found by lakes or rivers, sometimes at crossroads, who cries into the night for her lost children whom she has killed. Her crime is usually committed in a fit of madness after having found out about an unfaithful lover or husband who leaves her to marry a woman of higher status. After realising what she has done, La Llorona kills herself. She is often described as a lost soul, doomed to wander the earth forever often causing misfortune to those who are near her. The mythology of the Chumash of Southern California mentions La Llorona when explaining creatures of the other world called the Maxulaw. The cries of the Maxulaw is also considered an omen of death. 

In the Florentine Codex, an encyclopedic work on the Nahua peoples of Mexico completed during the 16th century by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, there are two Aztec goddesses who could be linked to La Llorona. The first is Ciuacoatl (Snake-woman), who is described as “a savage beast and an evil omen” who “appeared in white” and who would walk at night “weeping and wailing”. Ciuacoatl is also described as an “omen of war”. A later codex by a Dominican friar, Diego Durán, details the origin myths of the Aztec gods and discusses a goddess, Coatlicue, who is also often linked to Ciuacoatl. Coatlicue (she of the snaky skirt) was the mother of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war. Durán describes her as “the ugliest and dirtiest that one could possibly imagine. Her face was so black and covered with filth that she looked like something straight out of Hell”. She waits for her son to return to her from war and weeps and mourns for him while he is gone.

The power of women’s tears did not stop there. In Ancient Rome, women and their tears were certainly important at funerals, as in supplicationes (propitiatory offerings to the gods). In these ceremonies, Roman women would tearfully plead with the gods to obtain their good divine graces or to thank them after military victories. However, in Republican and Imperial Rome, the taxonomy of Roman tears is often gendered. Livy (c. 59 BC – c. 17 AD) criticizes women’s weak spirit that leads them to cry easily. However, in his writings Livy also depicts great men beset by tears. Although in funerary rituals the principal source of lamentations are the women, important officials would also give way to demonstrations of grief. Generals would sometimes wail the fate of the conquered to show his compassion. In the case of the public life, the male tears are frequently those of men hoping to move their audience. Tiberius Gracchus (c. 169 – 133 BC) was a great believer in tears intended to move the people. At the start of the fourth century BC, the Sutrian delegation used them to gain the favor of Camillus and Plutarch tells us that the Romans present were all profoundly touched by the account of the fall of Sutrium. Two centuries later, in 197 BC, after listening to the account of the Greek ambassadors, the Roman senators were moved to tears. 

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Jean-Léon Gérôme, Phryne revealed before the Areopagus (1861)

Tears in judicial settings may be the clearest example of the difference between the genders. In these cases, supplications and the weeping were not a respected especially when those pleading were women. In the majority of these cases, women’s tears were viewed as particularly artificial, lending themselves to parody. In ancient Rome, women were especially suspected of shedding hypocritical tears. Under the reign of Tiberius (42 BC – 37 AD), the mother of Sextus Papinus, whose son had just committed suicide, was accused of incest. The more she cried, the more she failed to move her judges. This is also the lesson of Cleopatra’s last hours. As Dio Cassius tells it, after Antony killed himself, Cleopatra put on her mourning dress and wept bitterly. However, her tears did not soften Octavian’s heart as her tears were viewed as only a part of a well-acted script, too obviously staged to be effective. Her intentions were considered plain, the portraits of Caesar were too carefully arranged and everything too clearly calculated for the queen to succeed in swaying her conqueror. It was Cleopatra’s misfortune to be a foreigner, a political inconvenience and, above all, a woman.

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