Representation of Female Characters in Homer’s Iliad
The Iliad by the Greek poet Homer is a patriarchal epic led by fearless men with a supporting cast of female characters. In Greek society, women are either a man’s prized possession or a man’s impediment and are the symbol of masculine pride. In the Iliad, Homer illustrates that these women have depth and that their emotions are intense and worthy of examination; however, he also emphasizes the fact that the men have an infinitesimal regard for their thoughts and emotions. Women are forced to stand as helpless statues as they wait to be awarded as prizes, sacrificed, or used in the bedroom. In the Iliad, women cause the battles, and the men have them. This story of fate and disaster is woven with a web of complexities that drive the game of war between these patriarchal societies. Understanding the ideas of masculinity and femininity portrayed in the Iliad is the gateway to the comprehending the complexities of Greek culture.
Mortal women are at the core of the Iliad. According to myth, the entire Trojan war begins with a woman. Paris, a Trojan prince, declares Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, the most beautiful woman by gifting her a golden apple crafted by Hephaestus, the god of fire and workmanship. This pleases Aphrodite who in return gifts Paris with Helen, the most beautiful women. The problem with this arrangement is that Helen is already married to Menelaus, the king of Sparta, and is taken away from him. Paris’ actions have wounded Menelaus’ pride which angers him and causes Menelaus to want vengeance. This launches the ancient world into a brutal ten-year war. As both of these two men hold high positions in society, their personal pride symbolizes the honor of a whole nation. As a result, the Achaeans feel like they have been dishonored by the Trojans actions and seek to destroy them.
In book three of the Iliad, Menelaus and Paris fight one on one. They both use Helen as a motive behind their fighting; however, their obsession with Helen is not because of their love for her but an obsession over their pride and their honor. Women at this time are treated as objects meant to be possessed rather than people who are meant to be appreciated and Helen is no exception. Their most important feature is their beauty and it is the sole defining entity of their worth. This is especially prominent as Helen is watching the battle with the elders of Troy. These elders are hypnotized with her beauty and as a result they cannot blame Paris for his actions: “who on earth could blame them? Ah, no wonder the men of Troy and Argives under arms have suffered years of agony all for her, for such a woman. Beauty, terrible beauty”. Helen’s beauty keeps her safe and is her only influence on men. This is the main difference between immortal and mortal women. Immortal women can have an opinion and exercise their agency while the mortal women can only exercise their beauty.
In the Iliad, Homer does not fail to show the depth of the female characters and often shows how they are feeling. In fact, while Helen is sitting with these elders she expresses, “death never came, so now I can only waste away in tears”. Homer eloquently shows how women in these ancient societies are treated by showing the lack of consideration the men have for the female characters. Helen is so upset that she wishes that she was dead, but even that decision is not hers to make. She is at the mercy of the men surrounding her, who instead of listening to her, they decide to ignore her sentiments and focus on the men on the battlefield. During the battle, Menelaus starts to overtake Paris yet “Aphrodite snatched Paris away… and set him down in his bedroom” and goes to find Helen. Aphrodite appears to Helen and tells her to go to Paris in the bedroom. In the Iliad, and Greek culture, masculine pride is proven on the battlefield and in the bedroom. Helen is given no other choice by Aphrodite than to go to Paris. When Helen is gifted to Paris, she doesn’t have the opportunity to express how she feels about the situation. This event shows the overarching burden of the feminine characters in the Iliad, instead of being treated as a deeply feeling person, they are treated like a lifeless object that is to be possessed by men.
Feminine characters are at the center of each masculine conflict in the Iliad and the spiral of Achilles rage against Agamemnon is no exception. Agamemnon, king of the Mycenae, must give back Cryseis, the daughter of Apollo’s Trojan priest Chryseis, who he kidnapped during a Greek raid. As previously mention, women are seen as symbols of masculine pride on the battlefield and in the bedroom and Cryseis is no exception. Her worth is determined by the sole fact that she was Agamemnon’s prize. He won her during a war raid and his pride was deeply wounded when he had to give her back. The whole encounter is similar to a child getting their toy taken away and throwing a conniption about the event. Agamemnon is a perfect example of this masculine phenomenon when he states, “but fetch me another prize… look- my prize is snatched away!”. These men are stout warriors but when it comes to their possessions, especially women, they completely change and are transformed back into children. Just like in the conflict between Menelaus and Paris, Agamemnon is not in love with Cryseis; instead, he sees her as a lifeless object to be used for his personal enjoyment. With her being snatched away, Agamemnon demands Briseis as a remedy to his injured pride and as a method in which he can prove his superiority to Achilles: “I will be there in person at your tents to take Briseis in all her beauty, your own prize- so you can learn just how much greater I am than you”. This is a true insult to Achilles and severely lashes back at Agamemnon. His pride is deeply wounded and his privacy invaded as Briseis is an important part of Achilles life. Unlike most men in the Iliad, he has a slight emotional attachment to Briseis; however, later in the book he believes that it would have been better if Briseis had died on the day she was chosen as his prize which shows that although he has a slight attachment, he still looks at her as an impediment rather than an ally. Masculinity dominates femininity in the Iliad through the actions and reactions of men throughout the epic that display the patriarchal view of women as prizes and possessions.
Like Helen, Briseis is also portrayed as a character with deep feelings and emotions yet they are ignored by men. When Briseis is first taken from Achilles, she is not given any choice in the matter and she “trailed on behind, reluctant, every step”. Another instance where this phenomenon is portrayed is when Briseis is returned to Achilles in book 19. She commences a beautiful and powerful lament as “a woman like a goddess in her grief”. Homer illustrates the agony that Briseis is feeling as a result of the death of Patroclus and illuminates her heart-wrenching past. Yet again, the men fail to pay attention to the deep agony that the women are experiencing as they “wailed in answer”; instead, the fraternal group “clustered round Achilles, begging him to eat”. Homer never fails to show the complex feelings of the female characters, often despite their lack of words; nevertheless, they are always followed by the feelings of masculinity which are deemed more important. The Achaean society is one where masculinity rules and the society is a patriarchal one. The Trojan’s have similar patriarchal ideas as well, however, there seems to be a slight exception between Hector, a Trojan prince, and his wife Andromache. Andromache begs her husband not to go back to the war because she knows that he will die, leaving her a widow and her son an orphan. Homer portrays her with grace and decorum and uses her to show the beauty of femininity and motherhood. As the epic continues, Andromache has everything taken from her as Hector is killed, her city is destroyed, her son is killed, and she is sold into slavery. Andromache proceeds to give advice to her husband about war.
Women in the Trojan society can more freely express their opinions because at the time women giving military advice would have been inappropriate. However, while they can more easily express their opinions; they, like the Archean women, are rarely heard. After her advice, Hector responds with “so please go home and tend to your own tasks, the distaff and the loom, and keep the women working hard as well. As for the fighting, men will see to that”. In the end, the slightly more egalitarian Trojan society is destroyed by the monopolizing masculinity of the Achaean armies which shows the Greeks view towards women in a cruel manner as they believe that societies like Troy should be obliterated.
Through Helen, Briseis, Chryseis, and Andromache Homer depicts the overarching burden of femininity in the Iliad. These supporting female characters do not lack depth and they are essential to the overarching narrative of The Iliad; however, they are often forgotten in the labyrinth of this dominantly male story because their complex feelings are often disregarded by the men. In a story of death, pain, and suffering mortal women are subtly the most tragic figures of the overarching narrative of the Iliad. They unknowingly caused the war due to their femininity, silently suffered through the war in oppression, and finally when all the men had died they were forced to deal with the consequences of that war alone and broken. You might hear them saying: “For us, there were no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and stared our lives over”.
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