Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Women in Ancient Greece (A Research Paper)

It's so funny to go through these. I wrote this research paper when I was a freshman in college - second semester, after I transferred from Hampshire, at Niagara University. Again, note any changes in formatting as a result of the copy-and-paste process from Word to the blog. How things change.

Women in Antiquity:
A Comparative Study of Women in Ancient Greece

Jessica M. Mason
THR 411 History of Theatre & Dramatic Literature - NU
Dr. Sharon Watkinson
December 4, 2003
April 6, 2004

For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.
Virginia Woolf

This clearly defined point made by Virginia Woolf has such depth and unity to it; it reaches out to each part of the recorded history of women, touching all that is too abstract for words, even today. It sums up the enslavement and captures the explanation for the challenges that the unrecorded thoughts of women have created. In writing about her own life, Virginia Woolf expressed a great concern for societal expectations for women and revealed her own internal war, being a woman. In writing, she took a risk to express the female voice that was forced into silence for thousands of years. The anonymity that Woolf described is the untouchable voice of the women of ancient civilizations. There are recorded myths, stories, epics, poems, and biographical works created by men, but the history of women is beyond what the male-dominated history contains. Specifically, the accounts of women in Antiquity aren’t accessible to scholars today, assuming they did at one time exist. Only a few works of female poets appeared among the vast artistic creations of men. The information that is accessible, whether or not it is a truthful depiction of life in Ancient Greece, is found in mythological resources and characters, symbolized manifestations of the goddess created by men, festivals and rituals that were popular in antiquity, laws and societal descriptions, literature written by men, and poetry written by both of the sexes. Much of the available information allows for a wide range of interpretation and merely brushes the surface of the role of women in Ancient Greek society.

In order to fully understand how society functions and the components that play important roles in the daily flow of life, knowledge of our ancestral roots is imperative. Although the topic has remained controversial among scholars since the 17th Century, the status of women in Ancient Greece offers a great deal to historians studying it today. The studies also influence feminist studies today because in order to understand where we are we must have knowledge of where we came from. Life for women during the period of Antiquity was distinctly different from how life was portrayed in mythology and literature. Because of the lack of information produced by women, myth and literature are essential components of research in this topic area. In some cases it seems that females in Antiquity had many parallels to the portrayal of the Goddess in mythology. Mythological stories reveal certain structures to Greek life, because the culture was primarily focused on the worship of deities. Along with this, novels such as Homer’s Odyssey contain vivid depictions of characters and relationships that are supposedly modeled after Greek society. So, despite the fact that written research in this area is vast, it is full of personal biases. The most recent studies of this topic include information regarding the biases and perceptions involved in prior research. It is nearly impossible to separate the facts from the literary discourse that began in the 17th Century and continues today. Of course the benefit of such a wide range of discourse over one topic is the room it allows for analysis and new ideas. However, all of the writings that include Greek goddesses and mortals have a great connection to Ancient Antiquity.

The worship of mythological figures affected the societal structure, belief system and daily life of the Greeks, especially the nature of polytheism, which heavily impacted the role of men and women. Of course, mythological depictions of women bring about many questions regarding different types of women and how femininity affected the value of individuals. As Ancient Greece is studied today, the goddesses are thought of as archetypical personalities. Although at first there were an equal number of gods and goddesses in the Twelve Olympians, Hestia (Goddess of the Hearth) was replaced by Dionysus (God of Wine), and the balance was changed to 7:1 (Bolen, 15). The other five well known female Olympians were Demeter (Goddess of Grain), Hera (Goddess of marriage and partnership), Artemis (Goddess of the hunt), Athena (Goddess of wisdom) and Aphrodite (Goddess of love and beauty). Of all of these, the goddess Athena was arguably the most popular of all Greek goddesses, receiving the greatest number of dedications from other women in Greece (Fantham 35).

Jean Bolen created three categories to place seven of the popular goddesses in: Virgin Goddesses, Vulnerable Goddesses, and Transformative Goddesses (15). The categories that each goddess appears in reveals the values women were encouraged and often pressured to have, along with the independent qualities that affected women in a positive manner. There were three virgin goddesses representing the independent qualities of women. Bolen described Artemis, Athena and Hestia as being UN “susceptible” to falling in love, which prevented them from being victimized. She also described them as being feminine in appearance (16). Many women were particularly devoted to Artemis because her free spirit was found attractive, along with her refusal to “owe men any obedience” (Seltman 92). Although the three goddesses possessed admirable qualities of self sufficiency, the fact that the ideal goddesses (and most worshipped goddesses) were feminine created the idea that women should behave in a feminine manner. Because women were expected to be models of goddesses, they had to give up desires and feelings that were natural to them.

As for the vulnerable goddesses, she listed Hera, Demeter and Persephone. Demeter’s role as mother is emphasized, and Persephone (Demeter’s daughter) is the goddess of maidens. According to Bolen, each of the vulnerable goddesses represents a womanly need for bonding and they were often raped, dominated and humiliated by gods because of the womanly need (16). The suffering of the vulnerable goddesses reflects the ways that women in Greece were controlled and abused by men. It also creates the image of women as being weak and powerless to male domination if they lacked the physical feminine beauty of the virgin goddesses. And separated from the six goddesses of independence and vulnerability is the singular “alchemical” goddess, Aphrodite. The goddess has a category of her own creating an atmosphere of love and intense passion. The beauty of Aphrodite allowed her to experience a multitude of emotions and passion without having to commit to or experience the permanence in relationships (Seltman 17). Her beauty made her irresistible to all men and women, except for the virgin goddesses, which puts a lot of emphasis on beauty. She was the chief deity of Corinth, and many women practiced feminine dedications and self denial in order to be like the goddess (Selton 143). Beauty was power and without beauty the best quality a woman could have had to be attractive to a man was faithfulness, which the vulnerable goddesses possessed.

As a mythological figure, Hera embodied the many aspects of the female personality. Every year she supposedly recovered her virginity by taking a bath in a spring in Naupia, which could imply that she upheld qualities of a married woman and the youthful virginity of a maiden at the same time. Also, in three different sanctuaries the honored statue of Hera was in the shape of a young woman (Pais), an “accomplished woman” (Telleia) and as a widow (Khera) (Pantel 18). She was also considered the protectress of marriage and given the title of Telera, which means perfect (22). In order to be perfect, women had to possess divine qualities. Because of this there was a wide separation between the goddess and mortal women. Unwavering faithfulness (as in Hera’s case) was another quality that women in Homeric Greece were expected to have. The trinity of youth, woman and widow was part of a multitude of plurality in the goddesses, resembling the early choruses of females that consisted of triads (26). Hera’s trinity can be interpreted as the phases and cycles that a typical Greek woman was stereotypically expected to experience in some manner. A festival, Theogamies, was held in Attica during the month of marriage, in honor of the bond between Hera and Zeus (Pantel 22). Marriage was predominantly monogamous, but myth often expresses otherwise (Seltman 59). It was ironic that Hera protected marriage, considering the multitude of problems she had keeping her husband out of the mortal women’s beds. Sure, Hera ultimately represented all of the phases of womanhood, but it is obvious that the beauty of the virgin and other goddesses took precedence over piety to many male mortals and gods. The question still remains though, of whether femininity or divinity empowered the goddesses (19). There is no question regarding the power of beauty as a source of female manipulation over males. However, Zeus represented the ultimate dominance, and he was able to have goddesses and mortals at his leisure! It is not surprising that the reproductive ability was even more critical than the partnership she could “provide” in marriage. A woman’s worth was determined by her production of heirs and the supreme value of her life was determined by her work as a “reproductive machine” (Garland 40). Success and failure were determined by how many babies a woman was able to produce and the sex of the child. One myth that developed around the principles stated that “If a woman is going to have a male child, she has a healthy complexion, if a female, she has a poor complexion” (41). For centuries, women have been used to boost the male sense of power. Reproduction defined masculine supremacy in Antiquity.

In terms of the fall of Troy, Helen is considered an embodiment of Aphrodite. The myth says that Aphrodite won a beauty contest that the sovereign, Hera, was supposed to have won. Paris was the supposed judge of the goddesses and having won, Aphrodite pleased both humans and gods, but also started the Trojan War doing so (Pantel 20). This specific myth alone proves that physical appearance was extremely important in Ancient Greece. With beauty comes chance, and for a mortal the beauty of the goddess could be a dangerous thing. For a mortal man to have intercourse with a goddess (particularly Aphrodite) was risky, but it would be far more hazardous for a mortal woman to sleep with a god because of the wrath of a jealous goddess (Pantel 21). Not only were mortal women at greater risk than mortal men, they had to submit to gods who wanted to sleep with them and suffer the revenge of a jealous wife. Jealousy is a part of the nature of both men and women, so it was an unfair mythological representation to emphasize female jealousy. A prime example of this cruel treatment of female mortals appears in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, when Io visits Prometheus as she is followed by a gadfly. Because Zeus forced her to sleep with him, she had been cursed by both Hera and Zeus. The punishment in Io’s story was unjust and depicted women as being domineering and irrationally jealous. Unfortunately, not all of the power and admirable qualities of the goddess were highlighted in the myths, but at least jealousy is a human emotion far deeper than the pleasing artistry of the skin.

Women played many roles in Greek society, but the mythological portrayal of women provided in depth details of the female identity in separation from the role. There are only a few female poets whose works have survived over the years. Many of their poems reveal female sensitivities as well as deep connections, admiration, and contempt for mythological figures. In particular, Nossis often wrote directly about the deities and goddesses, where Anyte laments and describes her (often domestic) role in the lives of men. The female poets of Antiquity convey passionate emotions that literature written by men often lacked in depth, and often reveal the hardships and desires of women. Of the female poets of Antiquity, the best known is Sappho who lived in the 6th Century B.C. (Lefkowitz 4). Sappho’s ideas, school for girls, and choice to write influenced and commanded the attention of women living in the 17th and 18th Centuries, as well.

During these periods, women played a part in the domestic sphere, but were not accepted as writers or encouraged to try other professions deemed to be “man’s work.” The topics in her poems were controversial, as she often wrote about female lovers and longing for other women. Besides writing of desire, she wrote many poems about the close relationships between women. Aphrodite was another central topic in Sappho’s poems. The poems not only reveal characteristics of the goddess, but also what strong connections both women and men felt for the mythological figure. Even though Sappho was sent away from Lesbos because of her aristocratic connections, she was eventually allowed to return (Peterson). It is surprising that she wasn’t severely persecuted for her writing and lifestyle, which was contrary to the marriage-oriented society.

One poem that contains elements of passion, desire, ideology, and mythology appears in Walter Petersen’s translation of Sappho’s poem, titled “To Aphrodite.” The poem idolizes Aphrodite and implores her help for guidance. In the last section of the poem, the writer states:

“And now again come to me, cares dispelling,
My soul's tempestuous fiery passion quelling.
My heart's desire for me fulfill,
And be my friend and ally still” (Peterson),

Sappho seems to be imploring the help of Aphrodite as a friend, but there are also hints that she, like most men of the time period, recognized the significance of Aphrodite’s famous irresistibility. Men were not the only ones who desired the accompaniment of the lustrious goddess. In writing about “The deep love women could feel for one another in a society that kept the sexes apart” (Lefkowitz 4), Sappho took extreme risks as a woman writing in a male-dominated world. Like other archaic female poets, Sappho’s work survives in fragmentation (Katz 519). Sappho produced one of only a few recordings of female work in Greece that still exists today. Along with her poetic contributions, she had enormous significance in the advancement of Greek women, as a teacher. Sappho was a mistress of her own school in Lesbos for women, and her love poems were compositions specifically written for presentations to a female audience (Katz 521). Gender not only played a role in Sappho’s poems, but also held a function in all archaic writings). In restored pieces of art from Greece, there are portraits and sculptures of women in powerful positions. We can only imagine that Greek society allowed women to write as is depicted in pictures in Tomas Hag’s The Novel and Antiquity. There are also drawings of women weaving, spinning, and hunting for boars (Selton 84). It is difficult putting all of the elements together. Literature depicts women one way, poetry another, and art— nothing short of the high life.

At this time major male writers expressed different views regarding women that make it difficult to examine how they were generally treated. The writings are, of course, open to interpretation, but in reading between the lines most place women below men. The works of Plato and Aristotle have contributed a vast amount of information and subject matter to discussions among political theorists and classicists. The fact that Plato was bold enough to express the opinion, “If women are expected to do the same work as men, we must teach them the same things,” proves that despite the split between male and female expectations, there were individuals with an alternative vision. In Symposium, Plato supported the idea that Athenian men were neglectful to their women (Selton 125). Like Plato, other male writers were bold to write about women. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides did not abandon the female half of humanity. There are novels, essays, poems, and quotations that reveal the rebellion from traditional roles, but detailed information regarding how these rebellions were met are scarce. Plato’s writing often contained elements of “protofeminism,” while Aristotle’s writings are criticized for being plainly misogynistic (Katz 513).

In fact, Aristotle and Sappho have one thing in common: they directed their work to a gender specific audience. They also wrote and spent the majority of their time with members of the same sex. Most male poets living in the period were parts of traditional circles that Holt Parker described as being “tied by family, class, politics, and erotic love” (Katz 523). Sappho paved the way for other female writers, but the circles of women were never fully embraced by Archaic society. It was Hesiod’s belief that “A wife…performs few if any functions in the household beyond producing children” (Fantham 11), whereas Homer’s opinion was that “A woman…was meant not only to produce and raise heirs but also to preside over her household by viewing and watching over the domestic slaves and goods” (33). These opinions are not so different. They both try to define the worth of the female in connection to the home. Homer’s opinion gives new light to the characters in the Odyssey. Although it seemed as though he had a deep respect for mortal women, the quotation diminishes that idea. Scholars and students are undoubtedly familiar with the epic poem and its distinct portrayals of female characters. Homer’s characters are singular, but Odysseus’ encounters with women are complicated. When he is tempted to sleep with other women he remains faithful. Homer’s description of Athena is unusual for the time period. He wrote, “Then she caught up a powerful spear, edged with sharp bronze, heavy, huge, thick, wherewith she beats down the battalions of fighting men…” (Latimore 29). Athena is described as a warrior fighting equally the battles of men, even though women could not be soldiers in reality. In this case, myth is far from reality. Also, many widely interpreted issues emerge regarding Penelope’s role in the story. Although she remains a faithful wife, she shows true strength when she cleverly tricks the suitors, telling them she cannot remarry until she weaves a shroud for her father-in-law (Murnaghan xli). Her plan strengthens the character and indicates that female intellect wins over male desires. It seems strange that Homer would include so many heroines and still believe that a woman was supposed to be confined to the home. Perhaps he was torn between what was accepted and his own feelings.

Charles Seltman’s Women in Antiquity was first written in the 1950’s and later reproduced, but it was an interesting time for the novel to emerge, having many similarities in societal structures to that of Archaic Greece. Although it sounds farfetched, the domestic role of women was essential to both societies. Seltman described it as being a favorable period for women (84), but that perspective could have been completely different coming from a writer in the 1960’s. There have been a wide range of analytical perspectives through the years, depending on the expectations and style of the time period. The book is unique because it specifically describes and compares life in multiple societies. The daily life and customs of women in the Heroic Age deeply affected city-states such as Sparta, Ionia and Athens. Of the three, Athens and Sparta are most commonly known and referred to in historical literature.

Sparta was far different from Athens. Unfortunately, no recorded history of Sparta has survived, but poetry carried on the detailed information that is available (Seltman 66). So many studies of Sparta have been focused on the militant structure of the society that the subject of women is often forgotten. Surprisingly, life in Sparta allowed many sexual freedoms for men and women. Sexual freedom created an environment that did not lack in sexual companionship, and therefore, prostitution was not an issue (70). Although there were freedoms, there were also abuses of the rights to privacy for women in particular. Females were checked by the “Committee of Hygiene” at infancy. How ironic it was that the committee consisted of a bunch of old men and the purpose was to determine the infant’s state of health (72). Supposedly these randomly assigned men were supposed to be able to label an infant with or without worth in Spartan society. It is hard to imagine that a society could justify such practices, let alone be governed by such an outlandish procedure. It may have been even worse for the male infants to be deformed or weak in physical structure, but all children in Sparta suffered a harsh reality upon infancy and later in life. At seven years old, the boys in the household were sent away and fathers hardly had anything to do with their children (Seltman 73). This may have brought females closer together, but it separated families and left the women alone to “hold up the fort.” This type of childhood most likely resulted in feelings of independence and hostility for women, but life wasn’t always so harsh.

Young females were encouraged to participate in youthful sports (73), unlike in some societies today, where women are confined to domestic roles. Although it isn’t common in America to live this way, in Asia and other countries women are strictly confined to a submissive role. Besides having athletic freedoms, both sexes wore a similar garment. The militant aura that surrounded Sparta is revealed in the fact that each person from either sex was allowed only one garment (75). This could be understood in a positive manner, because often people are so focused on appearances that they disregard personalities. But nakedness didn’t mean a lack of physicality. In fact, it probably brought on more struggles for bodies that were not of the ideal shape. And it also played into the Spartan focus on fitness (85). It was not uncommon for women to be a part of two households, with a separate husband for each (82). Also, marriage wasn’t extremely rigid. Actually, it was possible for a set of partners to be exchanged after marriage (80). The roots of polytheism aren’t all that far away, they are merely Archaic!

Much like in Spartan society, females in Athens were involved in athletics. Activities that were common among girls in both societies were racing at Olympia, wrestling with the boys, schooling at the House of Sappho, dancing around Orthia’s altar at Sparta, carrying baskets in great festivals, weaving in the garden, and worshipping the goddesses (149). For female slaves life was different, but in some cases marriage meant enslavement because married women often lived in utter seclusion (Seltman 111). The experiences of characters such as Sophocles’ Electra and Antigone represent this type of treatment. Other playwrights took different approaches in portraying females, such as Aristophanes who created the character of Lysistrata, the clever heroine who empowered the women of Athens to demand peace.

The historical and cultural elements of the Spartan and Athenian societies provide a realistic representation of Ancient Greece separate from that which has been provided by literature and myth. The beauty and sexual qualities of female mythological figures made it hard for women, along with the depictions of faithful and subservient wives and maidens. Fortunately, there seems to be a balance among the submissive and dominating female figures. All of the sources that provide scholars with information are unique in form and content, making it a difficult process to analyze the role of women in Ancient Greece. It isn’t possible to form a conclusive statement, because the topic will continue to be discussed and rediscovered. Greece will always be a subject of fascination and the role of women, as it flourishes and changes over time, will also demand historical information from the period. During Antiquity, women faced many problems that are distinct from the problems women face today, but they also faced many of the same challenges. Today women are still forced to conform to the stereotypes that society creates, but at least they have the opportunity to write about their experiences.

Works Cited

Bolen, Jean Shinoda. Goddesses in Everywoman.: A New Psychology of Women. New York; NY, 1984. 15-17.

Lefkowitz, Mary R., and Maureen B. Fant. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome. Maryland: Baltimore, 1982.

Fantham, Elaine, Helen Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and Alan H. Shapiro. Women in the Classical World. New York, 1994.

Garland, Robert. “Mother and Child in the Greek World.” History Today 36.3 (1986):40.
Latimore, Richmond. The Odyssey of Homer: A Modern Translation. New York: Evanston, 1967.29.

Katz, Marilyn A. “Sappho and Her Sisters: Women in Ancient Greece.” Journal of Women in Culture & Society 25.2 (2000): 505-532.

Murnaghan, Sheila. Introduction. Odyssey. By Homer.Trans. Stanley Lombardo. Cambridge, 2000. xl-lxiii.

Pantel, Pauline Schmitt, ed. A History of Women in the West: I. From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints. Massachusetts: Cambridge, 1992. 18-33.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York. 1975.

Seltman, Charles. Women in Antiquity. 1956. Connecticut: Westport, 1979.

Sappho. The Lyric Songs of the Greeks; the extant fragments of Sappho, Alcaeus, Anacreon, and the minor Greek monodists. Trans. William Peterson. Boston: Badger, 1918. 13-50. < http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/sappho/sappeter.htm>

Acknowledgements: Andrew J. Liegel for his dedication to the collection of source material and to portions of the research done on Athenian Society.

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