Jennifer Stager

The Violence of Care: women enslaved as wet nurses in ancient Greece

This talk takes up two distinct sources about mother’s milk in Greek antiquity—the role of enslaved women forced to nourish infants as wet nurses in ancient Greek myth and life, and visual depictions of women of uncertain class status breastfeeding infants on gravestones. Eurykleia, a woman enslaved in the home of Odysseos in Homer’s epic poem, served both as his and his son Telemakhos’s wet-nurse and caregiver, a role that forced her to care for and share her body with her enslavers and that also set her apart from the other enslaved women in the home. The centrality of Homeric epic and Eurkleia’s comparative invisibility in its reception until Emily Wilson’s 2017 English translation, which drew explicit attention to women’s class positions in the text, tacitly normalized forcing enslaved women to breastfeed the infants of their enslavers, spilling from the world of myth into lived experience. Building from Eurykleia’s story, this paper will explore evidence for enslaved women as wet-nurses in antiquity. In addition, this paper will analyze representations of mother’s milk marking women’s graves as a distinct means by which ancient Greek artists brought breastfeeding into public view, while also marking private loss. Both textual narratives and visual depictions shaped the social world of ancient Greek women, linking care and violence, life-giving and death-marking.