A trip several miles upcountry to Amphissa, mountainous administrative centre of the low-tourist patch of Greece where I am hiding, allowed me to visit at last the scene of an unusual ancient narrative.
In the fourth century BCE, tyrants had taken over Amphissa and installed an army. A band of Thyiads (a special group of Bacchanalian women from Athens and Delphi) had been worshipping Dionysus on the nearby summits. But they got lost (they did this a lot; on another occasion they were snowed in and had to be rescued by mountain rangers). This time they passed out in Amphissa’s marketplace.
|Square of Amphissa, Sleepy Town in Phokis, today|
The more sedate local wives were concerned that the occupying soldiers would 'take advantage' of their insensible visitors. The women of Amphissa bravely stood all night encircling the Thyiads to guard their sleep. In the morning they fed them and (after demurely securing permission from their husbands) escorted them in safety to the borders.
|Lawrence Alma Tadema, 'Women of Amphissa', Clark Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts|
George Eliot brought this story into popular circulation. The hero of her Daniel Deronda (1876) is reminded of the version in Plutarch’s On the Virtues of Women when he rescues the vulnerable foreigner Mirah Lapidoth. An updated maenad (professional opera singer), she had been threatened with prostitution by the men who should have protected her. Daniel takes her to stay with respectable female friends in Chelsea, the less than obvious Victorian equivalent of Amphissa.
|Black-Figure Bacchant on Plate in Amphissa Museum|
And it was Eliot’s novel which in turn inspired Alma Tadema’s portentous 1887 painting of the same episode. I like his sleepy Thyiads, but am relieved to be able to report that the native matrons of Amphissa look a good deal more cheerful these days as well as remaining (although I didn’t test it) stalwart in the defence of female honour. I know this because I spent the morning in Amphissa police station (my kind hostess needed to renew her Greek passport to secure her own safe conduct over borders) being impressed by the easy professionalism of a female officer, a modern Woman of Amphissa.
|Ladies of Amphissa Looking Very Serious Indeed|