This essay analyses the portrayalof women in Greek literature that were written during the patriarchal societyof Ancient Greece. The earliest surviving works of literature are the two epicpoems (the Iliad and the Odyssey) by Homer which were believed tobe created in the 9th Century BC but not written down until the 7thCentury BC1. Toget a fair depiction of how women are portrayed, I will analyse three genres ofGreek literature: epic poetry, tragedy, and comedy. I will then conclude as to whether women arenegatively portrayed and if so, to what extent. Most Greek literature is basedon mythology therefore consists of mortal and immortal women, however I willprimarily focus on mortal women as I can then compare them to the status ofwomen in Greek society.
As Greek literature was predominantly written by men,Berggreen reveals that the women characters in the stories show “the role ofwomen behind the exclusively male presentation of their lives and ways.”2Hughes notes that although the information we have about ancient women islargely fictional and based on societies ideals, “the important moments oftheir life cycle and the constraints under which they lived in many waysremained the characteristic of Greek women in the Classical and later periods aswell.”3 To measure the extent, if any, thatwomen were portrayed as negatively, I will use two sources of explanation, onethat is a dictionary definition and the other, a list of vocabulary.
The Oxforddictionary definition describes the word ‘negatively’ as: “In a way that is notdesirable or optimistic.”4 Assome negative and positive traits are subjective, I will also use a formulatedlist that categorises these aspects into three sections: negative, positive andneutral5. Generally, the ancient world heldpatriarchal values, however Athens patriarchal values seems to have beenstronger than most other poleis (cities). There were many laws in 5th centuryAthens that highlight this patriarchal society. For example, women were notclassified as citizens therefore could not vote.
Furthermore, women wereconfined in separate quarters in the oikos (household) and their roles were toexpand the oikos via the production of children and economically by weaving andmanaging resources. By looking at the gender stereotypes in 5thCentury Athens, I will be able to compare and reflect on the portrayal of womenin literature compared to women in society at the time. Greek tragedies wereperformed in Athens at the dramatic festival of the City Dionysia and they usedfamous mythological stories and characters.
Therefore, the audience would haveknown the core outline of the myth. Greek tragedy is known for its “strong andvibrant female characters.”6Fantham suggests that the presentation of women in tragedies and comedies “maysimply represent what male poets (and on stage, male actors) imagined aboutwomen, or used them to imagine.
“7 Specific literary techniques andterminology are used in Greek literature as a device to add drama,characteristic and narrative. Hubris is generally seen in Greek tragedies as itis often the reason for the character’s downfall. Hubris is usually translatedas excessive pride, however it can be any transgressive act where a humanoversteps the boundaries of mortality. Anything that is excessive ortransgressive results in punishment. Other literary techniques used in Greekliterature, and extensively used in The Odyssey, are epithets.
An epithet is acharacteristic attached to a person’s name, normally used as a poetic device.Homer uses epithets as a formulaic structure due to the use of oralcomposition. The Odyssey is about the homecoming of the hero Odysseus and histravels back from Troy, whilst his son Telemachus and wife Penelope wait for athome for 20 years for his return. In the meantime, multiple suitors want tomarry Penelope and in doing so they are shown to be ill-mannered, ignorant andexcessive (therefore hubristic and deserve to be punished). In the Odyssey, Penelope is often seen as the “epitomeof the Greek wife”8.She is virtuous and loyal, depicted by waiting for Odysseus’ return and notchoosing any of the suitors to marry. As a role model for Athenian women,Penelope does what is required of her in terms of her domestic role in thehouse.
It is very typical that she stays at home throughout the whole poem asWhittaker explains that women were generally confined to the house9.Furthermore, women were expected to obey their kyrios (head of household) whichwould explain the chaos at the beginning of the Odyssey as Telemachus is not yet mature or powerful enough to be incontrol and Penelope can’t because she is a woman. Whittaker also comments thata good wife “keeps an orderly house” and this “will make the householdprosper.” Therefore, Penelope’s commitment to the oikos and Odysseus exemplifyher positive attributes. Whilst her role in everyday life as a wife is shown,the reader does not get to establish her identity outside of her role of a wifeand mother as she is always tied down by her loyalty to men. Some of Penelope’s epithetsinclude: ‘prudent’, ‘thoughtful’, ‘wise’, ‘sagacious’. All are positive andcontinue the theme of her chastity.
Moreover, the goddess Athene has highregards for her, “with Penelope for your mother, I cannot think that your houseis doomed to an inglorious future”. Yet, one of the suitors, Antinous, callsher an ‘incomparable schemer’ and goes on to explain how deceitful Penelope is.It could be seen that Penelope is deceitful by her shrewd trick that she playson the suitors. She says she will make her decision of who to marry when shefinishes making a shroud for her father-in-law, however, every night sheunravels what she had done that day. Weaving was an important task for women in5th Century Athens and therefore Penelope’s skills are an example ofher role in the oikos and links to her faithfulness as a wife. Furthermore, herweaving “exemplifies an ideal of womanhood, but also to cunning andintelligence”10.
These traits can be paralleled to Odysseus’ wit and intelligence, suggestingtheir compatibility. Thus, her weaving trick displays masculine qualities,which contrasts to the feminine aspect and limited nature of weaving. Althoughthe suitors are angry and blame Penelope for leading them on, theirtransgressive behaviour suggests that they are the ones to blame and notPenelope, therefore only highlighting her positive traits. In the Odyssey, the reader can see that Telemachus aspires to have thepower and respect that his father has.
Telemachus asserts his “masculineauthority”11when he gains confidence and speaks down to his mother, “So go to your quartersnow and attend to your own work, the loom and the spindle, and tell theservants to get on with theirs. Making decisions must be men’s concern, andmine in particular; for I am master in this house.”12As Telemachus cannot control the situation with the suitors, he turns tocontrol a woman as men were superior during that time period.
This createstension between Telemachus and Penelope and further highlights the separation betweenthe two genders. She got shunned because she “voiced an opinion”13,and even Penelope was shocked by his harsh words, “Penelope was taken aback,but she retired to her own apartments, for she took her son’s sensible words toheart.” That fact that she was “taken aback” reveals that Telemachus does notnormally speak to her in that way, however, as he is growing up, he begins togain more power over her. The use of the word “quarters” and “her ownapartments” emphasise the sharply defined gender roles and boundaries thatfemales were restricted to. Penelope accepts Telemachus’ rebuke, suggesting shehas respect for these divisions.14In 5th Century Athens, “Greek women were expected to be submissiveto the men who controlled them”15.Penelope’s submissiveness implies that she a victim to the patriarchal societyand her ‘goodness’ is valued by how she is loyal and a good wife, rather thanher being a good person.
16 Helen’s first entrance in the Odyssey is interesting as she is compared to a goddess, “In themidst of his perplexity, Helen came down from her lofty perfumed room, lookinglike Artemis with her golden distaff.” (Homer, p.44). Artemis was the goddessof chastity, virginity, the hunt, the moon, and the wilderness. Being comparedto a god was one of highest compliments in ancient Greece, therefore thisemphasises her beauty and shows that she is chaste and modest. However, thisgreatly contrasts to attitudes towards her in other works of literature, “the’traitorous bitch’; the ‘Aegeyan bitch, her of the three husbands who bare onlyfemale children’; the ‘strumpet'”. Hughes argues how Helen is an ideal forfemale beauty, making her irresistible to men and therefore she is “both lustedafter and despised”.17This mixed view of Helen reflects the contrast between Homer’s works and otherGreek writers.
Fantham explains that Homer’s “more ambivalent portrait of Helen enhances its favouring ofhome, survival, and chaste wives relative to Iliadic military glory.” As the Odyssey gives the perspectiveof Helen after the Trojan War, Fantham hints that Homer presents Helen in apositive view (comparing her to a goddess) to detract opinions that the TrojanWar was fought for a “worthless object”. 18 In Euripides’ Medea,Medea is often seen as a monstrous, “horrifically vindictive”19character as she murders her children in order to get revenge against herunfaithful husband, Jason. She has been categorised in Greek drama in the groupof ‘bad’ women who “resist marriage and confinement to the oikos, behaveirrationally, and uphold private interests.”20As a female who is acting outside of her “prescribed gender role”, Gabrielargues this in turn causes her to be “shamed, punished or labelled as’deviant’.
“21Her indecisiveness towards whether to kill her children is shown as sheconcludes “I won’t do it. I won’t think of it again.” Yet less than 30 lineslater, she convinces herself to commit infanticide, “I understand the horror ofwhat I am going to do; but anger, the spring of all life’s horror, masters myresolve.”22Her wavering and emotional lament is typical of the Greeks perception of womenas irrational and unstable; she appears powerless in the face of her toweringrage. However, it is important to note that she is self-aware of her actionsand understands that she will destroy herself by committing this crime. Barlowsees this as a positive attribute, “She is clever, articulate, and above allself- aware.
“23Whereas Seaford deliberates that the “autonomous sanity of Medea adds pathos.”24Both academics can see that Euripides reflects not just the negative side ofMedea and thus creates a certain amount of sympathy for her. Furthermore,Blundell comments on the torture that Medea puts herself through before committinginfanticide, and realises that this “multi-layered” approach that Euripides hasto women makes critics judge him as being “both a misogynist and a feminist”.Blundell therefore concludes that whist Medea conforms to the “ideologicalstereotype of the dangerous and excessive female” she is “capable at the sametime of appearing justified in her actions.”25 In Euripides’ Medea, Jason asserts: Ifonly children could be got some other way, Without thefemale sex! If women didn’t exist, Human life wouldbe rid of all its miseries. This statement suggests that,according to the perspective offered by Jason, women are only useful forchildbirth and producing offspring.
Thus, he is insulting all females bydismissing their intelligence and purpose and belittling them. Yet Slaughtersuggests that Jason’s misogynistic views are caused by how he fears Medea andsees her as a threat. Therefore, Jason’s wish that ‘children could be got someother way’ is because childbirth gives women power over men.26 It would seem that Jason’s irrational andinsolent language undermine this negative portrayal of females.
Jason’slimitations and therefore weakness is that he underestimates Medea.Furthermore, traditionally in literature, the act of evil or hubris leads to somesort of punishment, however after Medea commits murder, she is not punished bythe gods (her suffering from losing her children is self-inflicted). This couldsuggest that Euripides is subtly critiquing male dominance and the patriarchalsociety of 5th century Athens.
Therefore, by doing this he could be portrayingMedea positively. Medea is described as a ‘bull’, ‘lion’ and ‘tiger’. She is “overcomeby rage and desperation” therefore becomes “comparable to savage animals,powerful forces of nature, or heartless monsters.”27Euripides uses animal imagery of stereotypically masculine attributes of power,strength and sexuality. The subversion of gender roles would have beenunsettling to the original audience as it questions the principles thatAthenian society was built on mainly the inferiority of women.
Women were expected to stay within theconfines of the oikos (household) and provide their husband with children. The5th century Athenian audience would have found Medea’s criticisms ofAthenian cultural norms highly disturbing. Homrighausen believes that the useof animal imagery conveys Medea as being “angry”, “out of control” and having”uncontrollable rage”28.These are negative character traits and they also display the portrayal of hermasculinity. To conclude, there are undeniably certain expectationsthat are placed upon women in ancient society and these are reflectedthroughout Greek literature.
Penelope, a ‘good’ and ‘perfect’ woman showsintelligence and loyalty, yet her good behaviour is defined in terms of herservice and obedience to her kyrios and oikos. Medea, an ‘evil’ and ‘monstrous’character, defies gender norms and is therefore seen as a ‘bad’ woman. However,Euripides creates a certain amount of sympathy and shows her as powerful againsther husband by being able to easily manipulate him. Bibliography Barlow, S.A.
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A. Shapiro8 TheStatus of Women in Ancient Athens, William J. O’Neal9https://www.
gvsd.org/cms/lib02/PA01001045/Centricity/Domain/559/Gender%20roles%20in%20the%20Odyssey.pdf10 https://womeninantiquity.wordpress.com/2017/04/02/spinning-and-weaving-in-ancient-greece/11 APenelopean Poetics: Reweaving the Feminine in Homer’s Odyssey By BarbaraClayton (pg 36, ch 2)12Homer, The Odyssey e-book Available at: https://www.scribd.
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psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.632.8759&rep=rep1&type=pdf17Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore by Bettany Hughes18Women in the Classical World: Image and Text By Elaine Fantham, Helene PeetFoley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B.
Pomeroy, H. A. Shapiro19Women in Ancient Greece By Sue Blundell20Reflections of Women in Antiquity By Helene P. Foley21Performing Femininity: Gender in Ancient Greek Myth By Katherine Anne Gabriel22Medea, Euripides23Stereotype And Reversal In Euripides’ Medea By Shirley A.
Barlow24Richard Seaford, “Tragedy and Dionysus,” in Bushnell, Companion25Women in Ancient Greece By Sue Blundell26Slaughter, M. (2011) The Hippocratic Corpus and Soranus of Ephesus: DiscoveringMen’s Minds Through Women’s Bodies27Performing Femininity: Gender in Ancient Greek Myth Katherine Anne Gabriel28Rendering Revenge: A Comparison of Selected Medea Translations by JonathanHomrighausen