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World Poetry Project Semonides and the He-Man Woman Haters Club

Updated on December 22, 2011

Ancient Greece needed feminism. At least, the women of ancient Athens could have done with a dose, and since almost all we know about ancient Greece is filtered through Athenians, we'll just include the whole culture in the assessment.

In the World Poetry project today, I tackle "A Genealogy of Women" by Semonides of Amorgos. It is a distasteful piece. Part of its negative charm comes from its genre: the iambos , a creation made up of abuse and invective to be sung or recited at dinner parties. Rather, I suppose, like the Nazi-themed parties one finds in Britain nowadays. Semonides provides a catalogue of women, all the women with whom the gods have 'blessed' men, their evil gift. The model of woman as an evil gift would be Pandora, the creature made by Hephaestos at Zeus's order to punish man for receiving the gift of fire from Prometheus. In Greece, if you made the profit, you suffered for the crime. Man was to suffer, not from being staked out on rocks and devoured by wild birds like Prometheus, but with the gift of Pandora, beautiful to look at but with a personality that brought sorrow, pain, and evil. Semonides does not mention Pandora, but his catalogue is vicious enough without her.

There are ten types of woman in Semonides' catalogue, and only one of them is free from censure--the Bee, a good household manager, suitably sexual without greed, and a breeder of children. In short, the ideal wife. The others are merely vehicles of damage. There is the Sow, who wallows in filth, neglecting her household and luxuriating in garbage. There is the Vixen, unable, or unwilling, to distinguish good and evil, restless and without diligence. There is the Bitch, a gossip who seeks others secrets and will not keep silent, even when playing hostess to her husband's guests or when she is the guest of another. She violates with her tongue and her prying the rules of guest-friendship, creating trouble for her spouse. There is the woman of Earth, lame and useless, living only to comfort herself without thought for any other. There is the woman of the Sea, alternately peaceful and raging, having two faces, with neither predictable in their occurrence. There is the Ass, stubborn even against force, who when roused is indiscriminate in her offers of food and sex. There is the malodorous, thieving Weasel, the beautiful (read expensive), frigid Horse, and the shameless, ugly, actively malicious Ape. Finally, there is the Bee, the only type of woman that makes a good wife. The poem ends with a reference to Helen's role in beginning the Trojan war which sent so many Achaean men to guest in Hades.

It's quite a list, and, as women of the Bee-type are rare, paints a dismal, depressing, and horrific picture of married life in Athens. Who would want to be husband to any of the nine other types of woman? What woman, knowing that this is how she is seen, would want to be wed to any Athenian man? But it is an iambos, and the point of such a poem was to deploy invective for the audiences entertainment. Women would not have been in the audience, except for, perhaps, a heterae (hired female companion) or two. Certainly, no wives were present to hear the abuse firsthand.

Helen of Troy, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1863
Helen of Troy, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1863

What then was the position of women in Athens? Aristotle thought them inferior men, therefore rightly under the rule of their superiors. According to Demosthenes, men had heterae for their pleasure, slaves to take care of them, and wives to provide them with legitimate children. Hyperides said, "A woman who travels outside her house should be old enough that people ask whose mother she is, not whose wife she is." Athenian women were to be within the walls of their homes as much as possible, secluded from danger but also from temptation. Their function was to reproduce the oikos , a complex composed of the family, its servants and slaves, and its property. One had women so that one could have children, and these children would in turn marry and have children, perpetuating the house through time.

Under Athenian law, a woman was assumed to have, and must have in order to make contact in a legal sense with the world outside her home, a kyrios , or guardian. As a child, a girl's father was her kyrios , and she passed from his care to that of her husband upon marriage. Where there was no father, a male relative would take on the role of guardian, and in this role would gain full control of the resources assigned to the girl, having the responsibility to clothe, feed, and shelter her, and find her a husband. A woman was allowed to make small financial transactions on her own, but large transactions between a woman and one outside the home could not be legally enforced: she could not demand the services or goods she paid for if it occurred to the other party to deny her, and she could not demand payment for any goods or services she provided, unless the kyrios acted as her agent.

In one special case, a woman was held to be the possessor of property, that of the epikleros , usually translated as heiress. But the epikleros was not an heiress, but a vessel for the transference of property, as a pregnant woman was the vessel for the father's child. A woman became an epikleros when her father, head of an oikos , died without a son to inherit. If the oikos died, then the status of all within the oikos disappeared, so it was in the interest of Athenian society that this not happen. Too many standards of service, military and civil and religious, were tied to the existence of the oikos . Therefore, the Athenian remedy to the possible demise of the house was the creation of the category of the epikleros , a woman who held in trust the oikos until a suitable male, her son, could take over. The epikleros was required to marry her father's closest male relative willing to marry her, a son of that marriage would then inherit the oikos held in trust, and the entire house saved for the good of the state. If all suitable males refused, she could marry whom she willed, with her child by her chosen husband becoming the head of the oikos . If married when her father died, the woman could be forced to divorce her current husband to achieve the salvation of the house. Strange, indeed.

Hetaerae on pottery
Hetaerae on pottery
Men at a symposium, the drinking and dining all-male bash of ancient Greece
Men at a symposium, the drinking and dining all-male bash of ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, it was a certain class of prostitute, the heterae, who held the most freedom among women. A heterae was a "female companion" for hire, expected to entertain her clients with her wit, her grace, and her cunning, as well as providing sex when that was called for. Some were able to achieve great wealth, but all were free, unlike the common whores who were largely slaves. Their position in the Greek city was better than that of wives, for they more closely approached the position of a citizen than any Greek woman did. They were not dependent. They were not in permanent relationships, but performed a task and were paid for the performance, then free to move on to another employer, another task. To work in such a fashion, freely contracting one's time and services, was the Greek man's view of honorable labor; long-term employment was not so honorable, for it implied dependence, a lessening of one's dignity, and through this decrease in personal dignity a decrease in the dignity of the oikos. The independent prostitute was more free than the wife, or daughter, caught in the expectations, demands, and requirements of the oikos and her kyrios.

Medea, by Eugene Delacroix, 1838
Medea, by Eugene Delacroix, 1838

Our understanding of the roles of women in ancient Greece is extremely limited for our knowledge of ancient Greece is extremely limited, and owed almost completely to the writings of an educated male elite. This lack of knowledge is not comforting to scholars, especially to those scholars who, interested in lives as they were lived by more than educated male citizens, attempt now to pierce the darkness that surrounds women, slaves, and metics (foreigners residing in Athens). Discomfort leads to some strange experiments, such as the attempt to draw from Greek tragedy a greater understanding of the lives of women off the stage. Unfortunately, I do not think these efforts will bring many benefits to the scholars who employ them. The women in classical tragedy tend to display more power and certainly reject the passivity associated with the secluded women of Athens, but their power and active relations with the world are Pandoran. Clytemenstra kills her husband, returned from the wars, and is herself killed by her son. Medea in her pride decimates Jason's future through the murders of his chosen successor to her and his children by her. Antigone's breach of law may honor her brother, but does disservice to the polis and to its king. These women of Greek tragedy are more likely to be given a sympathetic ear by us, today, than by the audiences of ancient Athens, who viewed them through cultural lenses and with cultural assumptions about women, oikos, and polis that we do not share. It is unlikely that we will find in the tragedies, with their Pandora-women, vessels of harm and sorrow, concrete clues to the unwritten lives of women on the streets and in the homes of Athens.

The grandeur of Greece. I am thankful to be alive now, far from it, with a woman who is no model of the Grecian Bee spouse.


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      Lasu Sabastian TEIP 5 years ago