CHS-1990/1/20 Johanna Glazewski

Interdisciplinary Center for Hellenic Studies

Johanna Glazewski - January 20th, 1990

 Stereotypes of Women in Ancient Literature



A different gender perspective is given by Medea in Euripides' play of 431 BC when, in her first soliloquy, she complains about women's dependence on men and the hard lot of women - clearly rejecting for herself the stereotyped role. But women in antiquity were victimized by stereotyping not only in ancient Greece but also in Israel and Rome. Many modern problems of stereotyping derive from those cultures.

Women (goddesses excluded) were supposed to fall into one of 4 categories: 1. housewife, 2. non-feminine type, 3. femme fatale or 4. thing.

1. The domestic woman is seen in Homer, Iliad 6, when Hector chides Andromache and tells her to go home and tend to her distaff and spindle. This same formula is used by Telemachus to his mother Penelope in Odyssey 1 and 21.

In the Hebrew book of Proverbs (31), a woman is praised for seeking wool and flax, for rising while it is yet night and providing     food for her family - and again the distaff and spindle are brought in. This woman does not eat the bread of idleness.

In Vergil's Georgics also, the farmer's wife weaves and cooks.

2. Neutered (or at least unfeminine) females are portrayed by Aeschylus in his character Clytemnestra - not domestic, warm, tender, or even faithful, hence she is killed off in the Eumenides. Sophocles' Antigone opposes the king (symbol of law and order) on behalf of personal conscience, just as a man might (much to the horror of her more feminine sister Ismene). Aristophanes' Lysistrata leads a sex-strike. In Medea the chorus of Corinthian women suggest that some women are capable of reflection, the sort of woman Hippolytus (in Euripides' play) condemns when he says that he loathes a clever woman, because it takes imagination to be immoral.

Juvenal satirizes that same sort of woman in Satire 6, when he rails against female professors and philosophers.  And in Vergil's Aeneid, the Amazon Camilla prefers virginity, warfare and t   ?he hunt and was never trained in womanly pursuits, so she pays with her life for trying to be man's equal (or superior).

3. The femme fatale, the woman who strayed from domesticity but not to unfeminine roles, is seen in the Genesis 3 account of Eve, or in Homer's Helen of Troy, or Hesiod's Pandora. Vergil's Aeneid gives us Dido, whose uncontrollable passion almost prevents Aeneas' accomplishment of his mission. Other women who are a source of evil to men include Circe, Phaedra, Jezebel and Delilah.

4. Woman as things are rewards given to men (e.g., the Trojan women) or sacrificed for men's goals (e.g., Iphigenia). Semonides of Amorgos (665 BC) catalogs women under the beast-fable tradition as inter alia the sow-woman, the fox-woman, dog, donkey, weasel, mare, monkey (the worst), all as women coming from those animals and having their worst traits (slovenliness, cunning, etc.). The only positive animal-woman is the bee-woman, but then, Semonides points out, Zeus designed women as the greatest of all evil    s.

The questions that such stereotyping raises (and the picture is fairly consistent) is whether we can stop stereotyping, whether the authors (especially Euripides) were really misogynistic or whether they may have been trying to make a point in favor of women. Also, how do we explain the paradox that the same literary artists who portray women in this way also make postive virtues (such as Dike/Justice) feminine?

The points presented were intended to initiate a discussion, which they did. The question was a   ”sked whether "categories" would be a better, and more neutral, term than "stereotypes", and would be seen as more descriptive than prescriptive.  Are these classifications for the purpose of definition? Are they perhaps merely literary conventions? Of course, the authors were male, so their views would have been both personal and prejudiced. Were there many other views that did not get expressed (or are not extant). Was Semonides merely trying to be amusing (to men).

In comparing ancient and modern literature and views, one speaker suggested that ancient literature was written by men for oral presentation (mainly to men), whereas modern literature is written by men and women for a (mixed) reading audience.  In response to the question whether there were any examples of successful non-feminine women in ancient literature, no one could think of an example; all seem to have suffered and/or died. But then pretty nearly the same happened to men in tragedy and epic.