Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Wicked Stepmother

We are all familiar with the wicked stepmother character in fairy-tales (Cinderella, etc.). While the Brothers Grimm, those famous collectors of tales (and linguists!), surely had some hand in it, this representation of the stepmother seems to have much wider traction.

There exists already very early in the Greek tradition the concept of a proverbially cruel stepmother. By the time of Hesiod, the stepmother (μητρυιὴ) has distilled, essentially, into a single word formula for cruelty. In the conclusion of Works & Days (822-28):
Αἵδε μὲν ἡμέραι εἰσὶν ἐπιχθονίοις μέγ' ὄνειαρ·
ὄρνιθας κρίνων καὶ ὑπερβασίας ἀλεείνων.

Some days are a great benefits to men on earth,
But others are indifferent, harmless, bringing nothing at all.
Someone praises one kind of day, but few understand them.
Sometimes a day is a stepmother, sometimes a mother.
He is fortunate and blessed of men, who
knowing all these things, works on, guiltless in eyes of the gods,
discerning omens of flight and avoiding transgressions.
The juxtaposition of the mother (μήτηρ) establishes a polar relationship, i.e, cruel : caring. But this minor contextualization is unnecessary for Aeschylus in the 5th century (PB 725-27):
ἐχθρόξενος ναύτῃσι, μητρυιὰ νεῶν.

Salmydessa is, the jagged jaw of the sea,
A hateful host for sailors, the stepmther of ships.
A pan-Indo-European theme? Even broader? I need to do some more investigating.

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