The Main Female Characters in The Iliad And Their Relationship With The Male Characters
This article is a study of the only four significant female characters in the Iliad (Helen, Andromache, Hecabe and Briseis) and their relationship with the male characters.’ It will demonstrate that despite the tremendous differences between them, Homer treated them all in the same manner. He emphasized how intense and deep were their emotions and sentiments and how little regard the male characters had for these emotions and sentiments. Thus he impresses on his audience their desperate helplessness and utter inability to determine the course of events, including their own lives. In this way they are all extremely tragic figures.
The Greek camp provided only a limited scope for presenting female characters. But Homer made full use of the scenes in Troy for this purpose. In fact, women play a very important role in every scene that takes place in Troy. The first woman to come into prominence in the Iliad is Helen. She is mentioned in book II as the cause of the war. In book III she becomes the main subject. A duel is arranged between Paris and Menelaus and “whoever is victorious … let him take the woman and all the possessions and bring them home. Here and in the other places in book III where the purpose of the duel is mentioned, Helen’s own feelings are completely ignored. She is treated like an object. In fact, in each case she is lumped together with the possessions that came with her from Sparta to Troy. When the scene shifts to Helen, Homer again emphasizes the passive role she is forced to play.
While Paris and Menelaus are deciding her future she is inside weaving. She is pre-occupied with the war, but the only way: that she can express her interest is by weaving pictures of it. Iris tells her to come to the wall so that she may see whose wife she will be. Then, after impressing on his audience how little Helen’s emotions are taken into consideration, Homer reveals how real those emotions are: “the goddess put sweet longing into her heart for her previous husband and city and parents … and she hastened from her room shedding a round tear”. The first time she speaks we can again see the depths of her feelings, which are so completely ignored by the men who are determining her future: “Would that evil death had been my pleasure when I followed your son here, leaving my chamber, relatives, grown daughter and my lovely companions”. As Tronquart observes “cet adjectif EpatEtvr’!-qui est de Ia meme famille qu’ i:poos-signifiant qu’elle a encore en elle de sa naivete de jeune fille qui depla9ait jadis sur ses compagnes les premiers sentiments d’amour . ..” Not only does Helen feel strong regret and homesickness, but also shame. When she does not see her brothers, she assumes that she has brought such disgrace on them that they are ashamed to show themselves. Then, in order to show how completely cut off Helen is from even the most basic knowledge about her family, Homer remarks that her brothers are dead in Sparta. She also feels intense guilt. She calls herself hateful and then says that it would be blameworthy to go to bed with Paris.
Later, in book VI, line 344, she refers to herself as a “dog, nasty contriver of evil”. She goes on to wish that she had died at birth and then again describes herself as a dog. In her only other speech she again says that she wishes that she had died before she came to Troy. Indeed, in a society that has accurately been described as a shame culture, Helen seems to be the only person with what we would call a guilty conscience. However, despite the intensity and depths of her sensitivity she is treated as an object by the men who control the course of events. As for the scene on the wall itself, Kakridis offers the interesting theory that it is adapted from the standard motif of a woman being present at a duel where she is the prize and so that she must be visible. If this is true, then the change that Homer introduces is very significant. As Kakridis says: “The figure of the young girl who is visible to the contestants is replaced in Homer by the woman who now watches the rivals without being visible to them the motif takes on a new and deeper meaning; the poet is now interested not in the reaction of the two men but in how the woman will react psychologically. “But, as always in the Iliad, a woman’s psychological state, which is so interesting to Homer, is irrelevant to the men who are determining her future. Kakridis himself observes that in some passages Helen is a “beautiful, lifeless doll” and in others a deeply feeling person. He attributes this difference to stages in the development of the myth: “When in the Iliad the heroine is presented as a lifeless object of transaction between men … we know that we have to do with elements borrowed from older versions of the myth.” extreme pathos of Helen’s situation is created by exactly the fact that a deeply feeling person is treated like a lifeless object.
The pathetic and agonizing nature of Helen’s situation is brought out very strongly in the conversations that she has with Aphrodite and Paris at the end of book III. Unfortunately, in trying to understand the Aphrodite scene the problem arises that it is very difficult to form a clear conception of the gods in the Iliad. They function very differently in different passages, and everywhere they are fundamentally different from the Christian conception of divinity. As for Aphrodite, Hermann Frankel observed that the greater gods, such as Athena and Apollo function as independent personalities but the lesser divinities such as Hephaestus and Aphrodite are closely associated with their specific functions. The word Aphrodite is actually used in Odyssey 22, 444 simply to mean physical love. In Iliad XIV 198-199, Hera says to Aphrodite, “give to me the love and desire with which you overpower all immortals and mortal men.” When Aphrodite tries to participate in battle, she is completely ineffectual, and is told categorically to stay in her own sphere of activity. The human whom she loves and protects is unmartial, erotic Paris, to whom she had given fulfilment of lust.
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This article is a study of the only four significant female characters in the Iliad (Helen, Andromache, Hecabe and Briseis) and their relationship with the male characters.’ It will demonstrate […]