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Women in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 6, 2016

Despite our roots as a patriarchal species, the highly analytical human race has made gradual provisions for women. While the ancient Greek society provided little opportunity for female success, its mythology celebrated strong-willed goddesses such as Athena and Artemis. In Greek mythology, immortal and inhuman females were shown as strong, independent, and sometimes ruthless despite their inferiority, while mortal women were often objectified.

The most glorified men in Greek mythology were often surrounded by multiple ornamental embellishments in the form of women. Zeus, the supreme ruler of all the gods, surrounded himself with many lovers despite his vows to Hera, goddess of marriage and fertility. Scholar Mary Lefkowitz suggests that his many liaisons were merely to prevent being overthrown by one of his children, as he overthrew his father Kronos, who slew Uranus before him. According to the Oracle of Delphi, however, Zeus’s extramarital affairs were more dangerous to his throne. One encounter prompted him to swallow his mistress Metis in fear their child would be a son.

Poseidon, the third member of the immortal triumvirate, was less flaunting of his vibrant love life. He sired thousands of Cyclops such as the infamous Polyphemus, and heroes such as Theseus and Bellerophontes. His wife Amphitrite seemed to maintain a low profile throughout mythology, and made no complaints regarding her husband’s extramarital liaisons.

In Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, faithful Penelope waited twenty, long years for her husband Odysseus to return, ignorant to his many amorous adventures. His apparent respect for his wife was disregarded when he encounters beautiful women such as Calypso and Circe on his arduous journey. While Penelope was praised for remaining chaste in his absence, Odysseus was admired for his bravery and perseverance dedicated to his return, despite the sum of nearly a decade wasted on love-making detours.

Immortal women seize their unique opportunities of individuality and power to unleash wrath and strength that feminists admire. In "Women In Greek Myth," Scholar Mary Lefkowitz believes there are two main courses for females – celibacy, or involvement with males, which implies childbearing. However, a celibate and independent life was a luxury simply unavailable to mortal women in Ancient Greece. Virginity, Lefkotitz writes, offers freedom only to goddesses who have the power to defend themselves. Their unequal opportunities cause a disconnection between the two categories of the gender, a wall generally barring empathy. For instance, Artemis demands Agamemnon’s virgin daughter Iphigenia to be slain in sacrifice. The virgin goddess and protectress of the innocent also commissioned the Calydonian Boar to trample a city because of one inhabitant’s failure to sacrifice to her. Artemis also shot seven girls through the head with silver arrows (while her brother Apollo shot their seven brothers) because their mother Niobe was prideful. Athena overcame her gender’s stereotypes to rise up as a respected goddess of war. Yet she cast her wrath upon poor Arachne, turning her into a spider for one brash comment. These goddesses saw no line of superiority between the genders, and therefore did not have a sense of sisterhood with their victims. The only line existing in their minds was that between mortal and immortal.

A goddess’ and a mortal’s contrasting power to protect themselves or their loved ones is exemplified in the myths of Demeter and Niobe. When Lord Hades captured Demeter’s daughter Persephone and detained her in the underworld, Demeter intensely mourned her daughter’s absence, in the same manner that the prideful Queen Niobe grieved her children’s deaths. When the twin archers Artemis and Apollo came down from Olympus to take the fourteen children’s lives for their mother’s hubris, Niobe attempted to save one of her daughters by hiding her under her own cloak, to no avail. Unlike Niobe, Demeter had leverage, which she could use to be proactive in ensuring Persephone’s return. The immortal mother ultimately, as Lefkowitz points out, withheld grains from the mortals until her daughter was released. Demeter’s divine status set the two grief stricken mothers apart in their abilities to take action.

While Greek mythology consisted of a handful of strong mortal women, all ultimately either fell into their places as women defined by social standards, or succumbed, literally or metaphorically, to Eros’s arrow. Atlanta, left to die in a cave due to her father’s disappointment with her gender, defied the odds by regaining his approval through masculine accomplishments. Upon reinvitation into his home, her accomplishments are humiliated when he tries to find her a husband. Dissatisfied with a sentence to marriage and the fastest runner in the land, Atlanta attempted to avoid such a fate by challenging her suitors to a foot race. She stipulated that anyone who could beat her was worthy of her hand, and those who failed were no longer entitled to a head. As suitor and suitor failed to beat Atalanta’s incredible speed, prospective grooms grew wary. A man called Melanion fell in love with her despite the fact that they had never met, and prayed to Aphrodite for help in winning her hand. The cunning goddess of love aided Melanion with a strategy of trickery. She gave him a golden apple to drop during the race in hopes that Atlanta would be distracted. The plan was successful, and Atlanta and Melanion were wed shortly before Aphrodite turned on them, and transformed them into lions.

Texts that outline the Trojan War contrast the reputations of two women, Penelope and Clytemnestra. Odysseus’s wife Penelope remained chaste during her husband’s two-decade absence. Despite the inhabitance of over one hundred suitors doggedly awaiting news of Odysseus’s death, Penelope used wit and perseverance to withstand them, her only evidence that her husband lived on being her intangible faith of his strength and will. Meanwhile, Odysseus benefited from possessing the same traits in harrowing encounters against monsters and immortals, some more dangerous or more amorous than others. Penelope was praised for her unwavering loyalty to her husband while he was applauded for opposite reasons. The ancient Greeks dismissed Odysseus’s relations with other women, while commending his wife for restraining from relenting to other men.

Clytemnestra is criticized in multiple ways surrounding her part in murdering her husband upon his return. During Agamemnon’s absence, Clytemnestra found herself a new lover in Aegisthus, and the two justified the continuation of their relationship by killing the only man standing in their way. While Clytemnestra is highly regarded as a sinful, adulterous and unfaithful wife, University of Pugent Sound scholar Rachel Wolfe brings the controversial queen’s story under another light: the victim. While Clytemnestra may have conspired with Aegisthus in their plan to legitimize their love, Homer presents her as a puppet of a male master. In a patriarchal society, Aegisthus forcing Clytemnestra into the plot is a realistic possibility. In this case, the queen would have been following social norms by obeying the dominant man of the household. Euripides excuses her actions in Electra as a release of bottled anger for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia. Despite any attempt by playwrights and poets to exonerate her, the ancient Greeks looked down upon Clytemnestra. The Greeks’ reactions to two wives of soldiers fighting in the Trojan War illustrate their endorsement of females’ loyalty to their husbands – one rewarded for following the socially accepted virtue, and another condemned for the opposite reason.

For an ancient, patriarchal civilization, ancient Greece’s mythology created a vision of highly advanced ideals of equality. Despite the few opportunities available for women, the ideas of female success were existent, even if not exercised. Myths highlighting goddesses and queens like the ones mentioned show that feminist ideals loomed within, waiting to burst. While women were inferior to men, both genders respected divine goddesses with the strength, wit, and determination that would not be seen until long after their time.

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