Arts & Sciences Research Paper #6: The Perception of Greek Women through Archaic and Classical Literature
Our sixth A&S Research Paper comes to us from Hypatissa Anna Dokeianina Syrakousina, of the Barony of Stonemarche; she is using the lens of literature to further our understanding of the perception of Greek women in history. (Prospective future contributors, please check out our original Call for Papers.)
Good Wife; Bad Wife: The Perception of Greek Women through Archaic and Classical Literature
There is a great deal to be learned about previous cultures through the literary evidence they have left behind. In the case of the early Greeks, classicists and historians have a remarkable amount of material to work from, ranging from epic poetry to political discourses. Within the confines of poetry and theater, a great deal of information can be extrapolated about society, including the contemporary points of view on women and their roles. This paper will argue that the female characters in the works of Homer, the Homeric Hymns, and Aeschylus, are portrayals of the contemporary ideal Greek woman and her insubordinate opposite. Examination of these characters begins with the “good wife,” in which the women of Greek literature take passive roles, “the bad wife”, the characters that take on aggressive roles, and an analysis of the Greek audience, and the messages they could have been receiving when experiencing these bodies of work.
The Good Wife
The Bad Wife
The Good Wife
Readers of Homer are drawn to the character of Penelope from The Odyssey when confronted with the imagery of a feminine ideal. The ever vigilant and faithful wife of cursed Odysseus is skilled at weaving and managed to successfully run the household prior to the invasion of the suitors. She is immediately portrayed as a good mother to Telemachus, and her virtue places her on a pedestal of Homer and his audience within the first pages of his work when she is described as “shining among women”. Her diligence in waiting for her husband, despite the odds being against her favor, speaks very largely as to how the men of Homer’s time would have wanted their wives to be: virtuous, steadfast, motherly, and of course, one of the penultimate goals of Odysseus as he travels home.
Within the same construct, Nausikaä, the young Phaeacian princess who became enamored with Odysseus, demonstrates a naïve, if not rather sweet innocence of a girl that echoes an admiration for such traits in the story. Odysseus rejecting the proposal by her father, Alchinoös, was not a slight against the princess, but a praise of Penelope and the virtues that his waiting wife symbolized. Nausikaä also demonstrates motherly attributes in her caring for Odysseus when she found him lying on the shore, and later, ensured that he had safe passage home. The princess would make a wonderful wife, but not to Odysseus.
Virtue, fidelity, and motherly attributes are strong ideals once sought by Greek men for their wives, but submission was also important. Penelope may not have submitted to the cultural requirements of her station by either marrying one of the suitors or returning to the care of her father, but other characters demonstrate the subservience of women to men beyond the works of Homer. In the Oresteia by Aeschylus, both of the daughters of Agamemnon show an opposite side, if not an almost grim look at what may have been required of a woman in early Classical Greece when the play was penned, and prior.
An audience who witnessed a performance of Oresteia would not have known much about Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon sacrificed to bring him luck at the Trojan War, but modern readers may find a great wealth of information within the act of the sacrifice itself. Aside from the play, Iphigenia has a great deal of interesting mythology surrounding her, including a mention of her by the name of Iphianassa in The Iliad. The theme of her sacrifice was elaborated on by Euripides in his works Iphigenia at Aulus and Iphigenia in Taurus, though both deviate considerably from the story implied in Oresteia. If the playwrights had known of this tale through the tradition of oral history, this horrific act may have been commonplace during what could have been considered the Heroic Age, or Late Bronze Age. Otherwise, it could be no more than a literary device or tale of morality common during the Athenian times, when the audience could have found human sacrifice extremely appalling. However, the very idea that Iphigenia could have been sacrificed, in fiction or reality, means that women held a place in society lower than men. Agamemnon did not sacrifice his son Orestes—he chose his youngest daughter, the one who would probably not give him as much political leverage in a marriage as her older sisters may have. This left Iphigenia in a position of worthlessness, and the ideal candidate for Agamemnon to offer in sacrifice.
Agamemnon’s middle daughter, Elektra, is another example of subservience in women. Within the second play of Oresteia, The Libation Bearers, Elektra is seen pouring libations, or offerings of wine, on her father’s grave. During her lamentations, alongside her brother Orestes, Elektra states:
“And I shall bring you libations at my wedding, out of my complete inheritance from my father’s house; the first thing of all for my special honor shall be this tomb.”
While praying to her father for justice of his own death, Elektra promises the Agamemnon offerings made on her wedding day. Not only is this strong evidence of post-mortem ancestor worship, but it also reinforces the position a women would have in subservience to her father, as Elektra offers to toast her father before all gods and men on what is assumed a very sacred day. Motherly virtues are extolled in Greek society, but the position of the father will always be above that of the mother and daughter.
Spousal virtues within the confines of the divine can be examined in some of the goddesses of the Greek pantheon. Persephone can make for a grim example. She was abducted to the Underworld by Hades, where she ultimately fell into the trap of temptation by eating the seeds of a pomegranate, which forever cursed her to stay by Hades’ side as his wife for the fallow season, as enforced by Persephone’s father Zeus. The acts of the gods may not have held true with crimes of the Greek world, but Persephone had to abide by the wishes of her father, despite the forced nature of her marriage and her mother, Demeter’s, contestation. This again places the role of women subservient to the whims of the patriarchy. Persephone accepts her role of Queen of the Underworld without complaint, and becomes a virtuous wife who is mindful of her duties. Homer wrote of this in The Odyssey when he referred to her as the “revered Persephone” when he is sent to visit Teiresias in the underworld, the philosopher who Persephone granted intelligence even in death, while the rest of the souls remained shadows of their former selves. Therefore, Persephone can be seen also as an ideal bride, in that she obeyed her father’s commands of marriage, and fulfilled her duties alongside her husband without question.
The traits of a “good wife” in the world of the Archaic and Classical Greeks are portrayed in the characterizations of Penelope, Nausikaä, Iphigenia, Elektra, and Persephone. It was revered that women should be virtuous to their husbands, diligent and trustworthy, motherly, and submissive to their fathers and husbands, while understanding their roles and fulfilling their duties as queens, princesses, and goddesses.
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The Bad Wife
Clytemnestra is the ultimate representation of the opposite end of the virtuous spectrum as a character portrayed in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. She represents the literary trope of a “femme fatale”—a woman known for her cunning, scheming ways and seductive nature. According to Aeschylus, Clytemnestra may have been plotting to kill Agamemnon from the day he left for the Trojan War, either in retaliation for the death of her daughter, Iphigenia, or for the influence of her lover and husband’s political enemy, Aigisthus. Regardless of motive, Agamemnon’s return from Troy with the Trojan princess Cassandra as his war prize was undoubtedly the proverbial “icing on the cake” for the actions that would follow. Aeschylus’ story of the Mycenaean king’s murder at the hands of his untrue wife, and the coming-of-age tale of his son Orestes, places Clytemnestra in the position of villain within the plot of the trilogy. This is not a woman that the Greeks would have wanted to love, and surely the women in the audience of the performance would have learned this. Her seductive nature and treachery, which resulted in her own death at the hands of her son, epitomizes the Greek ideal of what a wife should not be in acting in a contrasting manner to that of her queenly peer, Penelope.
Helen could very well be in a class all her own, but her actions are what forced the onset of the Trojan War. Her departure from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta, for that of Paris, the prince of Troy, opened a figurative Pandora’s Box of blame. It was a woman’s fault; therefore, women are inherently evil. This is echoed in the Judeo-Christian creation myth in which Eve eats from the forbidden tree through temptation, and therefore she and Adam were cast from the Garden of Eden. Helen refutes this, when visited by Telemachus in The Odyssey, when she casts the blame on the goddess Aphrodite. By blaming divine intervention rather than owning for her own actions, Helen can be either forgiven by the audience or questioned further on her honesty, which is what makes her example a difficult one to analyze.
By turning to the divine, further examples of “bad wife” behavior can be observed. This will examine Aphrodite, but also Eris, the goddess of discord, who in her own spite, caused the very Judgment of Paris to happen. If divine intervention was the cause of Helen’s treachery, then Aphrodite, who was chosen by Paris to receive the Golden Apple, is more of a catalyst for war than Helen was. She is untrue to her husband Hephaestus, and takes Ares as her lover, as demonstrated by song in The Odyssey which appears to play off of Nausikaä’s growing feelings for Odysseus and provides a contrast in behavior as to what a good wife should be, versus the dangerous example of the adulterous gods caught in their infidelity. For a woman, erotic love, or lust, is a dangerous emotion, and it is better to be virtuous and subservient than act as Aphrodite did with Ares, or her enchantment of Helen that started the Trojan War.
Even earlier than the influence of Aphrodite on Helen’s actions is Eris, the goddess of discord and strife. After being uninvited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, Eris that threw the Golden Apple in front of the goddesses Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena, to be given to the prettiest one of the three. It could be contrived then, by the actions of Eris, that women could easily be the cause of strife. They would be provoked toward revenge, especially when faced with jealousy, as seen in the actions of Clytemnestra when faced with the jealousy of Cassandra.
The “bad wives” of ancient Greece were vengeful, seductive, and jealous creatures. These traits were viewed by the holders of the pens as negative aspects that women were apt to portray. Insubordination by women may lead to war and catastrophe, whether they are mortal or divine alike.
The audience witnessing these poems, hymns, and plays alike must have received interesting clues as to how to expect women to behave. Entertainment has a way of reflecting the perception of stereotypes. Women attending a performance of Oresteia may have been taught that insubordination will end up costing you your life, while submission to fathers and other male figures was the accepted method of behavior. Those that listened to the verbal performances of Homer’s epics would have learned not to be like Helen and get whisked away with the promise of lust, but to be virtuous and domestic as Penelope was as she waited patiently for her husband to return from war. Equally as important to note, are the roles that the goddesses may have played for Greek women as influential sources of proper behavior. A mother could teach her daughter that her place was to listen to her father and support her husband as Persephone did. They would also be reminded that Aphrodite’s infidelity came with a price, and that temptation and jealousy would cause reactionary behavior that would be detrimental to society.
In the popular bodies of work from the periods of Archaic and Classical Greece, it is surmised that women were expected to be virtuous, hardworking, submissive, and even expendable. Lustful, vengeful, and otherwise rebellious women were seen as dangerous, and an origin of conflict and suffering for men. Through the reading and studying of the works of Homer, Aeschylus, and their contemporaries, it can be understood that they portrayed women in their ideal and unideal forms of the period. Performance arts would have acted not just as a reflection of societal customs, but also as an educational tool in teaching morality to women of the period, so that they would continue to fit the ideals set out by characters and goddesses of the Heroic Age.
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 Homer, The Odyssey of Homer, trans. Richmond Lattimore (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 35.
 The Odyssey of Homer, pg.118.
 Homer, The Iliad of Homer, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), 202.
 Aeschylus, Oresteia, trans. Christopher Collard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 64.
 The Homeric Hymns, trans. Michael Crudden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 4-22.
 The Odyssey of Homer, pg.165.
 The Odyssey of Homer, pg. 72.
 Apollodorus: The Library of Greek Mythology, trans. Robin Hard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 146.
 The Odyssey of Homer, pg.129.
 Colluthus. “The Rape of Helen.” Theoi Greek Mythology. Access Date:10/16/2014. http://www.theoi.com/Text/Colluthus.html.
Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951.
Homer. The Odyssey of Homer. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.
Aeschylus. Oresteia. Translated by Christopher Collard. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
The Homeric Hymns. Translated by Michael Crudden. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Apollodorus The Library of Greek Mythology, Translated by Robin Hard. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Colluthus. “The Rape of Helen.” Theoi Greek Mythology. Access Date:10/16/2014. http://www.theoi.com/Text/Colluthus.html.
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