Greek Ideas on Gender Roles
Throughout history, the roles of women and men have always differed to some degree. In ancient Greece, the traditional roles were clear-cut and defined. Women stayed home to care for children and do housework while men left to work. This system of society was not too far off the hunter gatherer concept where women cared for the house and the men hunted. Intriguingly enough, despite the customary submissive role, women had a more multifaceted role and image in society as juxtaposed with the rather simple role men played. Morals for the two were also different. Men obviously had the upper hand with women being the traditional passive.
For an example, it was quite acceptable for a man to commit adultery- however a woman was to remain chaste. The only exception to this was if the lover in question was a god. For some odd reason, it seemed that men were allowed to be philanderers while their wives stayed at home. This is evidenced in the Odyssey quite well- Odysseus the ‘hero’ is free to sample all the pretty ladies he cares to, whereareas Penelope his wife is expected to fend off all the suitors at home. Predictably, Penelope melts into his arms when she realizes it is her long lost husband without pausing to consider what he has done in his absence. This reaction portrays the unequal morals of Greek society regarding gender. Euripides’s Medea portrays women who are not quite as lucky as Penelope:
“Oh, unfortunate one, Oh cruel!
Where will you turn?
Who will help you?
What house or what land to preserve you from ill can you find?
Medea, a god has thrown suffering upon you in waves of despair.”
In this play, Medea’s husband Jason has left her and their children to fend for themselves while he cavorts with his new princess bride. Generally speaking, there is nothing Medea can do and the attitude conveyed by the Corinthian women thoroughly explains this.
As shown, women were considered naturally submissive as in most other old cultures. This is somewhat understandable as women were the ones who bore children and men provided for the family unit. As time progressed, this stereotype was over emphasized into what is portrayed in these plays and poems. Despite this submissive image, Greek women were not considered na?ve, but a pleasurable if a bit foolish kind of a creature. In Aristophane’s play, Lysistrata, this concept is amply portrayed. Most of the women are portrayed, as impulsive individuals while men are carnal gluttons. Notwithstanding this facet of their image women could also be wily as Medea and Lysistrata:
“What is more, you were born a woman,
And women, though most helpless in doing good deeds,
Are of every evil the cleverest of contrives”
The deceitful female is epitomized by the character of Aphrodite in Euripidies’s Hippolytus. Due to having her altar neglected (as in the case of Psyche) she plotted to bring ruin to Hippolytus and all those who loved him. At the end of the play, Artemis plots revenge against Aphrodite (also called Cypris) saying:
“Hush, that is enough! You shall not be unavenged,
Cypris shall find the angry shafts she hurls
Against you for you’re your piety and innocence
Shall cost her dear.
I’ll wait until she loves a mortal next time,
And with this hand—with these unerring arrows
I’ll punish him.”
Thus it is not only the mortal women who are vindictive, but it is the very nature of womankind
To be passively wicked.
One of the few exceptions to the image of the submissive Greek woman were the Amazons. The Amazons were a race of mythical warrior women who were completely dedicated to their work. When they reached maturity, they burned off one of their breasts to make archery easier, and dominated what men they kept. Their male children were killed and only the girls were kept. Artemis the huntress and her followers also defied traditional imagery. Yet no non-virgin was a part of Artemis’s coterie which excludes the majority of women.
However independent, even the legendary Amazons were defeated by a man. In the labors of Hercules, one of his tasks was to fetch the girdle of the Amazon Queen. Hercules was received unusually well by the Amazons. However, he finished by killing their Queen by misjudgment after he obtained her girdle. Thus a man crushed even the Amazons.
Most of the Greek myths reinforce this idea of male superiority. In the myth of Cupid and Psyche, it is Psyche’s feminine curiosity, which drives Cupid away. Only by enduring hardships is Psyche allowed to be reunited with Cupid although it was Cupid who drove Psyche to investigate as to who her husband was. This myth implies that women must not question the will of men even though what they do is nonsensical. Sophocles further examines this point in the play Antigone. Antigone, daughter of the incestuous Oedipus is the protagonist is punished for merely trying to give her brother a burial. Commonly speaking, a burial is the only decent thing a sister can do for her brother, yet she is forbidden for doing so. She then commits suicide whereupon her fianc?e the king’s son also commits suicide. The play Antigone explores two different attitudes taken by Greek women. Antigone is the fiery woman who insists on doing what she believes is right which she gets punished for. Ismene is submissive and frightened, yet she ultimately suffers also. In other words, no matter what a woman does, she will suffer- yet the more rebellious one will be directly squelched.
In addition to the idea of masculine superiority is the principle of the male protector. In the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, a snake bites Eurydice and she dies. Orpheus then attempts to rescue her from Hades and almost succeeds but ultimately fails in the end by looking back. Despite the failure the point remains that the Greeks decided that it was Orpheus who tries to save Eurydice instead of Eurydice saving Orpheus.
Sappho implies in her poem(s) that women are very susceptible to emotions by using herself as an example. In her poems she is wholly taken up by each emotion. In Byron’s Don Juan, Sappho is referred to as ‘…burning Sappho loved and sung… ’ Indicating how emotional her writing was. This attitude is echoed in the Victorian age, which unsurprisingly was influenced by the culture of the ancient Greeks. Many psychologists developed their theories on human development by using the Greek myths; therefore our culture is still permeated by classic mythology. For an example, Freud developed his famous theory regarding child development from the story of Oedipus.
Ancient Greece was definitely a patriarchal society. Brides went to their husband’s home. Her property also presumably became his. In Medea, Jason explains this aspect of marriage in his explanation of his political reasons of marrying the princess for the benefit of Medea and her children.
It was not only the domestic sphere that was affected by gender. Vengeance was considered vulgar and inappropriate in ladies, and acceptable in men. Clytymnestra was berated as a whore for taking a lover and killing her husband Agamemnon, even though he killed his own child to guarantee killing other people. Medea was berated for avenging herself on Jason. Conversely, vengeance is perfectly fine for men as shown by Achilles killing Hector for Patrocleus.
Asides from vengeance, infanticide is viewed differently also. Medea killing her children is considered base where Agamemnon killing his daughter is excusable.
Men and women lived in completely dissimilar spheres, until the time of marriage. Even after marriage, they still retained strong ties to their own spheres by Achilles and Patrocleus. This is aspect of young life is depicted by Sappho in her poems. Apparently alternative lifestyles were commonly accepted in youth and continued throughout adulthood. This passive encouragement of homosexuality further strengthened ties between the separate genders and emphasizing the differences.
Human society does not really change. The roles each gender plays in society has not changed drastically since the time of the ancient Greeks, and this goes to suggest that these roles are deeply rooted and possibly genetic. However chauvinistic Greek myths are telling the truth, which explains why they have influenced modern culture to the extent it has.