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Status of Women in the Ancient World

Updated on July 4, 2014
Greek Courtesan Playing The Flute
Greek Courtesan Playing The Flute | Source

A Greek Poet Describes the Perfect Wife

When the question of women’s rights is raised, the controversy is constant and has been so since the times of ancient Greece. And much of it has been caused by the view of women as cruel and dangerous. Dangerous because of their power over men. The ancient Greek poet Semonides of Amorgas depicts ten kinds of women made from animals, two from earth and sea and one from a bee – the only one portrayed to make a good wife.

“Another is from a bee; the man who gets her is fortunate, for on her alone blame does not settle. She causes her property to grow and increase, and she grows old with a husband whom she loves and who loves her, the mother of a handsome and reputable family. She stands out among women, and a godlike beauty plays about her. She takes no pleasure in sitting among women in places where they tell stories about love. Women like her are the best and most sensible whom Zeus bestows on men.”

If a woman is useful says Semonides, it makes her all the more dangerous and she is the greatest curse the gods have sent to men. It is difficult for a married man to live happily or escape poverty.

The Powerful Mythic 'Medea' - Painting By John William Waterhouse
The Powerful Mythic 'Medea' - Painting By John William Waterhouse | Source

Powerful Women of Ancient Greece

In Greece at this time and for a long time after, women suffered many social and legal disabilities. They lacked political rights even in fifth century Athens, the hub of the literate world at the time.

But then there were women like the poetess Sappho who were well-educated and could converse with the philosophers with skill. So could the courtesans of ancient Greece.

The poet and playwright Euripides too, like Semonides, bowed to the power of women in the end. In his great play ‘Medea’ the chorus, in pity for Medea’s desertion by Jason, sings an ode of defence against men: Honour”, they declare, “is coming to the race of women; no longer shall evil repute be ours.”

Women Were Powerful In Ancient Greece
Women Were Powerful In Ancient Greece | Source

Ancient Greeks – Pioneers of the Women’s Rights Movement

Hesoid’s curious Pandora opens a jar and lets the evils into the world. However, Hesoid and Semonides in his account of the bee-woman hesitate to condemn all women. For the first time a culture thus questioned the justice of woman’s subordination to men. In respect of women’s liberties as in so many other ways, the Greeks must be admitted to be pioneers.

Ahalya, Painting By Raja Ravi Varma
Ahalya, Painting By Raja Ravi Varma | Source

Women Held an Elevated Position on Early Vedic India

When it comes to ancient India it won’t be far fetched to say that the high position, learning, and mental prowess of women cannot find a parallel in the history of the world.

Where did it all go?

Decline of Women in Later Vedic Period

In the India of the later Vedic period, women who had enjoyed a very high position earlier and even took part in the sacred ceremonies began to lose power. All their sacraments excluding marriage were performed without the recitation of the Vedic mantras. Polygamy reared its ugly head at this time, although the wife was still accorded a very high position and according to the ‘Satapathan Brahmana’, she is half her husband and completes him. Consider Maitreyi and her husband Yajnavalkya, the great philosopher.

“Maitreyi”, he said, “verily I am going away from this my house into the forest. Let me make a settlement between thee and that Katyakani, my other wife.”

“My Lord,” said Maitreyi, “if this whole earth, full of wealth, belonged to me, tell me, should I be immortal by it? What should I do with that by which I do not become immortal? What my Lord knoweth of immortality, tell that to me.”

And he replied: “Thou who art truly dear to me, thou speakest dear words. Come, sit down, I will explain it to thee, and mark well what I say.” Then followed one of the most abstruse philosophical dissertations about the Universal Self, and its relation to the individual.

But this too was condemned and the Brahmana was not to teach his wife philosophy!

In the later Vedic period, women could no longer take part in religious ceremonies. They were not allowed to attend the political assemblies. Much of this change was due to an anxiety to maintain the physical purity of women. They lost the right to remarry or divorce. A submissive wife who could keep her mouth shut and dine after her husband was the ideal and if she bore a daughter, the child was seen as a source of misery. She had to further burn herself along with her dead husband.

The Laws of Manu Humiliated Women

The mythical king and ‘lawgiver’ Manu, although theoretically sweet in his praise of women, humiliated them in his laws. “In childhood, a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead, to her son; a woman must never be independent.” A husband must be constantly worshiped as a god by a faithful wife. She who shows disrespect to a husband who is addicted to some evil passion shall be deserted for three months and deprived of her ornaments and furniture. If she left her husband’s home, she would be instantly confined or cast off in the presence of the family. Sometimes she could even be beaten with a rope or a split bamboo. But the husband is not required to follow a similar line of conduct.

Women in Ancient India Held in High Regard for their Intellect

Women were taught to dance, sing and play various instruments, and some of them were still highly learned. Despite the gradual deterioration in their position, even in the later Vedic period, women maintained a high position in the intellectual world., especially the rising class of courtesans. The wealthy and highly regarded Ambapali was so charming and accomplished that the democratic assembly of the Lichhavis decided that she must not be married but remain a public woman for the pleasure of all. The King of Magadha visited her and so did the Buddha who received a park from her as a gift.

Someone wise once remarked that the position of a civilization depends on the position of its women.

Look at us today.

Medea - BBC


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    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 6 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      Interesting. I was just at Vietnam's Women Museum and it is amazing to see how much women contribute to life in society and the power they wield in their family and community.

    • Anita Saran profile image

      Anita Saran 3 years ago from Bangalore, India

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment CyberShelley. Glad you discovered something.

      Grand old lady - thank you very much for reading my stuff and leaving insightful comments. Yeah, the Greeks were not so very different.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 3 years ago from Philippines

      It's very interesting to know that there was a time when women held respect and power, and that this time preceded the time when she became subjugated and held down by laws. It is particularly interesting to know that even in the ancient times, the Greeks had a concept of marriage as a commitment that lasted down to the long haul, and considered it a good thing to grow old with one wife.

    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 3 years ago

      Thank you for this very interesting walk through female history. I learnt quite a few things that I didn't know before this read. Thanks for sharing.