The Subjugation of Women in Greek Culture and Literature Essay
The Subjugation of Women in Greek Culture and Literature
Women would be better off as cattle, than as we are — a subspecies of the human race. First — at great expense — we buy ourselves a husband — what is a dowry unless a down payment on marriage? — but then he owns us, especially our bodies! Thus two wrongs make a worse wrong. And secondly, the big question — will the man we get be all right, or a total write-off? We can’t get rid of him, it’s not respectable; we can’t fight him off, it’s not possible.
Someone like me, not trained up in your culture, a stranger to your customs and traditions, needs magic powers to keep a husband sweet in bed. And if our husband is not violent, and endures the burden of marriage to us patiently — we are the envy of our friends! If anything else — death would be a better fate. If a man is bored by the company at home, he can go out and find a welcome elsewhere. A woman has only one source of comfort. Men say we live a life of ease at home all day, while they go off to war.
They do not understand. Personally I’d rather face the battleline three times than go through childbirth once. Medea in Euripides’ Medea, Lines 230 – 250 The Ancient Greece, most prominently represented by Athens of circa 5th Century BCE, was an outright male-dominated society, often so to an obnoxious degree. The way the women were systematically suppressed in that society, disregarded, and denied seemingly almost all human dignity appears surreal to modern sensibilities.
If the ubiquitous Greek homosexuality seems scandalous to us, the role of women in Greek society is one of the most appalling testaments conceivable to the moral depravity that mankind can sink into. When it comes to Greek drama and literature, which is a most important source of knowledge about women in Ancient Greece, the fairer sex paradoxically assumes a rather prominent, even glorified, position — but such an impression can be deceptive.
The images of women that are revealed in Greek drama are of highly artificial and stereotypical nature, purely created by men and played for a male chauvinist audience. Moreover the female roles in a drama are actually played by men themselves on the stage. The feminist term “male chauvinist pig” has assumed a rather mild and even a facetious connotation these days; but it can be a very apt and meaningful term to describe the particular category of human species that preponderated in a number of cultures throughout the human history.
And the men of ancient Greece stand second to none in this respect. However, the phenomenon of suppression of women in Ancient Greece is almost a bizarre case of human oppression of fellow humans, in that the Greeks were highly given to worship female deities, had women playing prominent roles in their mythology and drama, even if deviously and subtly manipulated ones — and yet women in real life were relegated to subhuman status. The classical Greeks were able writers, poets, artists, and even historians.
The written lore of ancient Greece, from philosophy to drama to statements by eminent personalities, embodies male cultural assumptions about women, the ways in which men viewed women as subservient to them, and the characteristics which they attributed to them. Women are described and defined by means of virtues, values and psychological traits contrasting with those of men. The crux of such differentiation, which is mostly baseless and ridiculous, seems to be that men are superior in every way and women are just inferior creatures lacking everything that men have or should ideally have.
The denunciation of women was carried out to ludicrous proportions. For instance, men in ancient Greece freely and constantly indulged in their uninhibited bisexual impulses, with prostitution being a state-sponsored enterprise and the sex industry running rampant — and yet most ironically, women most of the time secluded in their households were berated because of their childish lack of self-control which was supposed to render them slaves to their sexual desires. As such, women were deemed in need of constant rational male supervision.
Women were considered as economically unproductive and wasteful of their husbands’ resources, when the truth is that all natural expression of women was deliberately and ruthlessly quelled by paranoid deluded men who could have hardly had any notion of the enormity of atrocities they were perpetrating. In the end, the supreme irony of it all is that these same men of the fifth-century Athens have been considered down the ages and well into the modern times as personification of the very best ideals in the ancient society, as creators of democracy and fathers of philosophy.
It is true that the Ancient Greece has contributed immensely to the advent of modern Western society and is rightly considered a progenitor of enlightened thinking that emerged in Europe during the Renaissance, however the people of the ancient Greece had a few major abysmally murky facets. The pervasive and unquestioned practice of brutally killing new-born girl children by leaving them to the elements is possibly the most direct evidence of the evil nescience that was characteristic of the supposedly enlightened society of ancient Greece.
Women were humiliated, degraded, dehumanised in the dominant cultural ethos of ancient Greece, which was however only partially and indirectly reflected in the Greek literature. Women were considered as incapable of independent thinking or of thinking in general, and naive about realities not closely connected with the home. They were overly emotional, irrational, fearful, weak, loquacious, self-indulgent, susceptible to temptations of the flesh, licentious, unreliable, devious, plotting, mischievous… and the list goes on.
These negative stereotypes of women provide the categories on which many jokes in satiric and humoristic Ancient Greek literature are based, whose bottom line seems to be that, as put by Aristophanes in The Thesmophoriazusae, “There’s nothing worse in every way than womon whom nature has made shameless — unless it’s another woman. ” From the point of view of the highly distorted portrayal of women in Greek literature, the Greek comedy is a tragedy, and the Greek tragedy is a comedy.
In both the genres, women were made fun of. In real life, men in general evinced not the slightest sense of regard or respect or consideration for the opposite sex. In the final analysis, this strange perversion in Greek character could have been a major cause in the undoing of the ‘classic’ Hellenistic culture, and the subsequent emergence of the dark ages. __________________ 1. Women in Everyday Life
It remains a strange and almost inexplicable fact that in Athena’s city, where women were kept in almost Oriental suppression as odalisques or drudges, the stage should yet have produced figures like Clytemnestra and Cassandra Atossa and Antigone, Phedre and Medea, and all the other heroines who dominate play after play of the “misogynist” Euripides. But the paradox of this world where in real life a respectable woman could hardly show her face alone in the street, and yet on the stage woman equals or surpasses man, has never been satisfactorily explained.
– F. L. Lucas, Tragedy in Relation to Aristotle’s Poetics, 1929 While women played a significant and even central role in so much of Greek literature, the real women of Ancient Greece led an extremely restricted life style. The feminism of the 1970s revived interest in the historical study of women and revitalised many allied areas of scholarship in relation to the ancient world. However, even after more than thirty years of research, discussion about the life of women in ancient Athens continues to be contentious.
Some scholars see Athens as completely male-centered and misogynistic, while others find it no more oppressive to women than other traditional societies. What makes such differences possible is the lack of firm evidence, difficulties in interpreting that evidence, inconsistencies between various sources, and internal ambiguities within the sources available. Moreover, most of the sources available are elite texts and art works produced by men, in which representations of women’s lives are expressed through, and complicated by, the ideology of gender.
Further on, most of the ancient texts do not aim to convey information about the social life of their time; that must be read between the lines, taking into account the genre and purpose of the text. The Greek tragedy particularly represents many details of women’s lives, but it does so for its own purposes and in ways prescribed and circumscribed by convention. Add to this, most of the plots in Greek drama are set away from Athens and in the legendary past. The scarcity of evidence about Athenian women is directly related to their public invisibility.
Women were not permitted to participate in the civic life of the polis: they could not vote in the Assembly, serve on juries, testify in court, own property, or handle more than small sums of money without the consent of man. Women were generally expected to stay home and do domestic chores, except for those so poor they had to go out to work (mainly as vendors). Although a woman could own her clothing, jewellery, and personal slaves, and purchase inexpensive items, she was otherwise unable to buy anything, own property or enter into any contract.
Despite the lack of firm corroboration, the picture of woman that emerges from the texts and the contexts of the Ancient Greek society is indeed a deplorable one. The character Medea’s comment quoted at the beginning of this paper, including the foregoing part of the passage not quoted, indicates that women were expected to lead a secure life at home, and that in Athenian society women from the aristocratic class would avoid frequent or close contact with men who were not members of their own family or its circle of friends (Warner 1993).
These women entered an arranged marriage at about the age puberty to much older men, possibly in their thirties, and the straightforward purpose of the marriage was to produce legitimate children. A girl’s father or other guardian provided the dowry and arranged the match. In the marriage ritual, the father of the bride says to the groom: “I give you this woman for the ploughing of legitimate children. ” Only children whose both parents were citizens could become citizens. Simply being born in Athens was not enough.
In arranging the marriage, then, citizenship and wealth were important considerations. Since a fair amount of property was involved, a guardian would want to chose the son of a relative or close friend, so marriage usually took place within a small circle (Wilson 2006). With the possible exception of Plato, Athenian philosophers believed that women had strong emotions and weak minds. Aristotle defined a female as a “mutilated male,” and the female body as a departure from the perfection of the male body. Women and slaves, then, are the natural and biological inferiors of the patriarchal male citizen.
Marriage therefore is essentially an unequal relationship, since justice is giving each one his due. Unequals receive unequal treatment. Love and affection may have been an important additional function in many ancient societies, but they seemed to have played little or no part in an Athenian marriage. Wives of the upper class were people who were only meant to produce and care for children and heirs. They seem to have had little other use in the eyes of Athenian men. Women of this socio-economic level were therefore supposed to spend much of their time in their own home or the home of women friends.
Here, in their own territory as it were, women would spin wool for clothing while chatting with women friends who had come to visit, play with their children, and supervise the domestic chores of the family’s slaves. Not only were they confined to their homes, but were also expected to stay out of sight if the husband invited guests to their home (Adler and Pouwels 2006) . Women of impoverished classes, however, had to leave their homes, often only a crowded rental apartment, to find work, just like their husbands, sons, and brothers.
They often set up small stalls to sell bread, vegetables, simple clothing, or trinkets. Their husbands and sons sought jobs as laborers in workshops or foundries or on construction projects (Kluth 2005). Interestingly though, the women of lower classes seem to be better off in a way as compared to the women of aristocratic class which formed a major segment of the Greek society. Upper-class Athenian women were not easily allowed to move out. They were excluded from politics, from the army, navy, and war, from the law court, from the Olympic and other games, from agriculture and trade.
In short, women were excluded from the male agonistic world of challenge and response, from what Athenian males saw as the real world. They were also uneducated and men had a low opinion of women’s intellectual capacity. A girl’s upbringing in such stifling suppressive atmosphere, however luxurious it may have been, could have naturally led her to acquire the acquiescence of a slave. Furthermore, Athenian women had to have a guardian (kyrios) in law, a male with authority over her. Every woman in Athens had a kyrios who was either her closest male birth-relative or her husband.
Her kyrios controlled everything about her life (Foley 2001) It is sometimes suggested that women occupied a position analogous to slaves, in relationship to the free male master of the household (oikos). Medea’s use of the word despotes (“master”) in the passage alluded to earlier suggests that the lot of women resembled that of slaves (Medea 233). Aristotle said that a husband rules his wife as master rules slaves. Nevertheless, there were important social and legal differences in the status of free women and slaves (Kluth 2005).
For example, free women were not bought or sold; a man could only have one legitimate wife, but many slaves. And yet, howsoever an advantageous position women may be enjoying in comparison to slaves, free women were in fact free only in name. In reality they hardly had any freedom to move and be themselves, neither in the domain of work nor in the domain of pleasure and entertainment. It goes without saying that women and men did not socialize together — at least, respectable women and men did not.
But there was a class of talented women known as heitairai (“companions”) who provided entertainment at parties and company at male gatherings (much like Japanese geishas). These were much more liberated women, though regarded to be of very much lower status than the regular housewives. It was very likely for these women to be literate as well as informed on the issues of the day (Wilson 2006). Athenians divided all women into two groups: wives and potential wives in the first, and all others in the second. It was almost impossible to move from the second group to the first.
Heitairai fell into the second group. There are several levels in this group. At the bottom were the women who lived in brothels. Most were slaves; all had a fairly miserable existence. The women on the streets were only slightly better off. Law limited the price they could charge. On top of the ladder were the courtesan class, the heitairai. While it is true that wives were thought to be a particularly stupid group of people with whom a man would want to spend as little time as possible, heitairai on the other hand were considered to be a delight to spend time with.
As Demosthenes says, in late 340s, in his speech Against Neara (Neara was a historical woman who actually climbed the ladder from being a prostitute to a heitaira and finally a wife) “Courtesans we love for the sake of pleasure, and concubines for the daily care of the body, but wives we love to bear us legitimate children and be the trusted guardians of our household. ” Thus, seen from anywhere, the simple fact is that the domain of the Athenian aristocratic housewife was the house (oikos), and their chief duty was to raise their children.
She was expected to remain inside her home except for attendance at funerals and festivals of the specials cults that were open to women. During such religious gatherings it was possible to socialize with other women of the broader society, but beyond that women were expected to remain invisible and at home. A woman seen outside on her own was assumed to be a slave, prostitute, concubine or a woman so destitute that she had to work. Thus, while men worked in public space, in the Ecclesia, the law courts, the agora, the streets, women “worked” in private space at cooking food, spinning clothes, and most importantly supervising slaves.
It must be noted here that slavery was an all-pervasive feature in ancient Greece. The slaves, generally foreigners captured in war or provided by a flourishing slave trade, might be found working in just about any skilled or unskilled task in both town and country, at home or in public places (Adler and Pouwels 2006). Owing to the contribution of such slaves, though the upper class women were spared most of the chores and drudgery involved in maintaining large households, they had nowhere to channel their energies — living, as they were, strictly confined to the domestic realm.
Thus, the lack of proper outlet for physical energy could only have had compounded their plight. They were barred from intellectual pursuits, there was no need for them to do much physical labour – in such circumstances it can be imagined how easy it would have been for the natural vitality and energy of a living person to corrupt and rot, possibly leading to some of the negative characteristics so gleefully attributed to these women by the Greek gentry, the thinkers and writers. 2.
Women in Mythology Such active prejudice against women, avowed and covert, institutionalised and personal, of humongous proportions in all, is really strange for a civilised society so advanced that we associate it with enlightenment. But we must not forget the equally inhuman practice and philosophical defence of slavery carried out in the Greek society. That too is as strange, there were indeed many inexplicable aspects to the Greek culture that was looked upon so highly for centuries.
Also, for a people that has almost single-handedly bequeathed rational thinking to Western Civilisation, it is extremely peculiar to have given such utmost credence to fairy-tale mythologies. Myth, populated by gods, goddesses and countless other quirky characters, was an integral and intimate part of Athenian psyche, to an extent difficult to conceive today. From Homeric times, mythology and historical fact smoothly coalesced one with another.
As a small child may not able to make clear differentiation between reality and dream, the Greeks, like almost all other ancient societies, did not have any clear conceptual difference between myth and reality. A good deal of Greek drama too is either set or takes off from a mythological background. Gods inhabit another realm of existence, but they also intervene in human affairs (Zeitlin 1996). The influence of myth and legend on so many dimensions of Ancient Greek life is undeniable. However, as has been observed by many scholars, Greek myth embodies an implicit antagonism between the male and female.
Such a tendency is quite opposed to the sympathetic polarity of the oriental principles of Yin and Yang, for example. In China and elsewhere in the ancient East, women may have been treated as inhumanly, but in theory at least, they held more or less an equal status with men. Not so in the Ancient Greece. It has been argued that in Greece a patriarchal theology was grafted onto a maternal religion, thereby obscuring it. Archeology suggests there was indeed a time in the obscure past of the Greek civilization when the most powerful deities were thought to be women.
Archaic Greeks were not necessarily patriarchal. In those times, as best evidenced by the original myths of the goddesses such as Athena, women were seen to wield real power over men. These myths perhaps reflect even earlier times when women were more powerful (Dowden 1992). In the heroic societies portrayed by Homer, aristocratic women are subordinate to men and perform separate work, but are often consulted by their husbands on important matters and seem to have far greater freedom than they did in fifth-century Athens.
Although the Homeric epics are not straightforwardly historical, they suggest that in a non-democratic aristocratic society women exerted more influence, since women were central to the family and the family was the basis of the aristocratic clans’ power. The rise of democracy at Athens probably decreased women’s political influence, since the move from aristocracy to democracy weakened family ties while strengthening civic ones. In tragedy, Aeschylus’ Oresteia depicts the development from monarchy to democracy as a movement from female to male power (Csapo 2005).
The growth of Athenian democracy sharpened the distinction between oikos and polis as the proper spheres of action for female and male respectively, requiring corresponding behaviour and character traits. Men were destined for the military and government, women for the oikos. As we move ahead toward the Greece of classical times, the antagonism between the male and female principles becomes more pronounced in every way. It develops into antipathy and even a deep-rooted animosity.
This is epitomised in the vision of woman as the root of all evil, as expressed by Hesiod in the story of Pandora’s jar (Graf 1993). The corollaries of this antifeminist mode of thinking are to be found in the many later-day myths of women as sexually uncontrollable and powerful beings, both human and divine, whether Aphrodite, Stheneboea, Phaedra, Pasiphae, Circe or Calypso: the female figures that trap and destroy men are multifarious in Greek mythology.
Many problems involving the sexes from the point of view of cooperation or hostility were explored by the Greeks in powerful and vivid narratives and symbols centering on characters such as Olympus, Thebes, Troy, Heracles Oedipus, as well as the more peripheral legendary beings of Teiresias, Narcisssus, Hermaphoroditus, and the Amazons. However, on the whole, the undercurrent of hostility prevails over the possibilities of cooperation between the sexes (Dowden 1992).
Also to be noted is the supremacy of sky-gods, such as Zeus and Apollo, over the earth-goddesses such Demeter and Pytho, exemplified for instance, in the usurpation of primary female powers by phallic gods. Zeus, for example, gives birth, by himself, to both Dionysus and Athena. Some might argue that this is coupled with denying to the more powerful goddesses such as Artemis and Athena female attributes of sexuality and childbearing by elevating them to the deceptively honorific pedestal of virginity (Csapo 2005).
One curious attempt to cast women in negative light is evidenced by the fact so many of the monsters of Greek myth are women: Sirens, Sphinx, Gorgons, Scylla, Charybdis, Chimera. The Greek society was not only dominated by such myths, but also by religious festivals and rituals. Myth and ritual are indeed closely related, the power of myth often getting reinforced by the practice of sacred rituals. In Greek myths men often seize sovereignty from women by stealing their sources of power, the sacred objects such as masks and trumpets, and take exclusive possession of them.
In the initiation rituals, one of the important events involves revealing these same sacred objects to the boys and explaining their meaning. A mythological event of the past supports and justifies the ritual and its message (Graf 1993). One can imagine, then, what sort of society would have been fostered by such influential symbols and the social and economic factors that underlay them? The Athenians may have invented democracy, but they gave the vote neither to women nor to slaves, far from it, they were hardly treated as human beings.
An obvious consequence of this sort of social system was the enduring tendency of mythmakers, poets, playwrights, and philosophers to justify the status quo in which women are subdued, subjugated and regarded as both dangerous and inferior, whose sexuality must be rigidly controlled in order to sustain the moral fabric of the society. The restrictions imposed on women are also a form of social control, as it was generally thought that male honor is at risk through women and women must therefore be confined to the house.
Control, domination, and power over women – such themes of an unabashed misogynist agenda that was carried out unhampered in the Greek times were reflected in the Greek tragedy too, though in a more complicated manner. 3. Women in Drama We can only understand the role of women in Greek tragedies within the framework of a concrete gender ideology that existed in Athenian society. The already prevailing sharp division between the sexes was reflected in, and enforced by, an ideology of gender, which attributed different and complementary behaviors and character traits to men and women.
The concepts of masculinity and femininity are polar opposites, but they define each other and cannot be understood apart from each other. In this ideology, chief among the motives for manly behaviour are time (“honour”) and kleos (“fame” or “glory”). Time, a fundamental Greek cultural concept, originally meant “price” or “value. ” Honour is the value that society places upon one, or one’s social status. Greeks generally, and male heroes in particular, have a very acute sense of honour. But in the Greek cultural paradigm, one man can achieve honor only by another’s loss.
A man who feels he has been publicly dishonoured is expected to redress the balance by avenging himself, which he often does in a spectacular fashion. The earliest and most influential example of this is Achilles in the Illiad. A heroine like Medea has much in common with Achilles, but in accordance with the polarised ideology of gender, a woman is not permitted or expected to seek time under the same conditions as men, nor is she accorded the same kind of public recognition (Warner 1993). A woman’s “price” or “value” depends on her sexual desirability and fidelity, her skill at performing household tasks, her modesty and deference to men.
Seen from this perspective, the heroic “male” behaviour of certain prominent female characters in drama is rendered highly problematic. Male heroes also strive for kleos, “fame” or “glory,” which originally meant becoming the subject of bardic song for performing great deeds in battle. Women can gain their own kleos, and be praised in poetry, by fulfilling the ideals established for their gender. In tragedy, heroic women often win such praise by sacrificing themselves for men, like Iphigenia. Conversely, for either sex to violate their respective gender ideal results in public blame (McHardy 2005).
In democratic Athens, the ideology of female invisibility creates a tension in the very concept of female kleos, even for virtuous women. The Athenian leader Pericles, after praising the Athenian warrior who died in battle, says to the women, “For you great reputation comes from not falling short of your assigned nature. A woman achieves kleos who least talked about among men, either with blame or praise. ” This sentiment is in keeping with the fact that in Athens respectable women were not named in public, but spoken of as “daughter of So-and-so” or “wife of So-and-so.
” Yet since kleos by its very definition means being spoken of by others, this Athenian ideology places women in a lose-lose situation. The events of Greek tragedy often brings to the fore the tension between these various ideals of female excellence and the obviously devious concept of kleos for women. Apart from time and kleos, the virtue most vigorously demanded of Athenian women was sophrosune (literally “sound-mindedness”). This cannot be translated easily, but its meaning ranges over self-control, self-knowledge, deference, moderation, resistance to appetite, and chastity.
Sophrosune is considered desirable for men as well as women, but it is specially associated with women because of its important connotation of sexual restraint and deference. Deference was to required of all women in the Athenian social structure, and self-restraint was deemed harder and therefore more necessary for women than men. Many Greek texts depict women as having appetites and passions difficult for them to control, stronger than those of males, which make them irrational and often untrustworthy. Such attitudes and mores are also naturally reflected in Greek drama, especially the tragedies (Wilson 2000).
Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are the only three ancient Athenian tragedians whose works survived to the present. Of all the works of Aeschylus the strongest in dramatic force is the Oresteia, a series consisting of the Agamemnon, the Choephorae (or Libation Bearers) and the Eumenides. The Oresteia stands as a monumental work of art that transcends merely aesthetic values, for it gives voice and form to the social and political ideology of the period. The programme of the Oresteia is to trace the evolution of civilisation by placing the polis at the centre of its vision.
The Oresteia holds an equally important position in an exploration of the Greek image of the female, the definition of her social role and status, her functions and meanings. If Aeschylus is concerned with world building, the cornerstone of his architecture is the control of woman, the social and cultural prerequisite for the construction of civilisation. The Oresteia stands right at the centre of the misogynistic tradition that pervades Greek thought. This tradition engendered a bias which projected a conflict-oriented dialogue in male-female interactions and also related the mastery of the female to higher social goals (Zeitlin 1996).
A perhaps extreme example of such skewed thinking can be found in Eumenides where Apollo justifies Orestes’ slaying of his mother, Clytemnestra, by what could only be called sexist biology: the male-oriented polis is more important than blood ties, but even if blood is important, then the son is really the blood-relative only of the father, the mother being merely the receptacle for the bearing of the child. Sophocles is considered to be the pinnacle of Greek tragedy. In the Sophocles’s famous play Antigone, the title character and Ismene are both daughters of King Oedipus.
Though the behaviour of Antigone may be deemed proper in the eyes of gods and beneficial to the polis, she is played off against her conventionally feminine (and therefore non-assertive) sister. Antigone, in fact, poses a severe threat to the masculinity of Kreon, the king whom she defies. Her sister Ismene contrasts to her as positive to negative. Ismene is the norm — she is what a Greek girl is supposed to be like (which Antigone is not). Ismene believes men are stronger, that authority should be obeyed, and that a girl should keep a low profile.
Ismene does not want to be noticed, or draw any sort of attention to herself. Thus, she perfectly conforms to the ideal expressed by Euripides in Andromache, “A modest silence is a woman’s crown. ” In the Ancient Greece, women were not only subjugated through law and custom, and cowed into utter submission to men, but through active propaganda by means of myth and drama were made to believe in their own worthless and the futility of asserting their innate individuality (Foley 2001). Euripides is the most important of the Greek playwrights in our present context.
Aristophanes, the Greek comedy writer (the author of Lysistrata) rightly depicts Euripides as particularly interested in women. Thirteen of Euripides’ nineteen extant plays have female protagonists; by comparison, among the seven plays of Aeschylus only one, Agamemnon, can be said to have a female protagonist (even that is questionable, as the title suggests), as do two of the seven plays by Sophocles (Elektra and Antigone, though Deianeira may be considered the protagonist of Women of Trachis). Thematically too, Euripides plays se