Women as drivers of violence in If Not, Winter by Sappho, The Bacchae by Euripides V, and Symposium by Plato
The Iliad by Homer, the text which is often referred to as the beginning the Greek literary tradition, begins with an argument between Achilles and Agamemnon over a woman. This fight takes place within a war which started because of Helen, who was stolen from the Achaeans by the Trojans on account of her overwhelming beauty. This is a theme which persists throughout the Greek literary tradition at large. While it is usually the men in these kinds of books who carry out acts of violence as warriors and combatants, it is often the action of or reaction to a woman that triggers an unfortunate series of events. Women very often are construed as drivers of violence in Greek literature, as exemplified by three key works: “If Not, Winter” by Sappho, The Bacchae by Euripides, and The Symposium by Plato.
As a lesbian, Sappho provides a unique perspective on the role of women in Greek society. She is somebody who is unable to procreate with the people to whom she is sexually attracted. From these factors, it can be inferred that Sappho does not love for the purpose of investing in her lineage or family line. Rather, her love with women is purely romantic in nature. In the first fragment of “If Not, Winter,” she describes the goddess of love as “[d]eathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind, / child of Zeus, who twists lures” (Sappho 3). The language used in this interaction displays her view that love is something which she has been tricked into. A “lure,” as Sappho says, is a tool used in hunting to entice the victim into a trap so that it may be killed. This language implies an unpleasant ending as it leads the leader to believe that her relationship with the people who she loves — women — is likely to end badly, if not violently. Further, this dialogue with Aphrodite displays her view that her feelings towards women are inevitable and uncontrollable.
In her 31st fragment, Sappho describes violence as a product of a woman’s presence. In this poem, her love interest has a flirtatious conversation with a man. Sappho becomes overwhelmed with jealousy, describing her emotion watching the scene as “fire racing under skin / and in eyes no sight and drumming fills ears” (Sappho 63). The metaphor of fire is significant as fire is inherently violent and often uncontrollable. By nature, fire destroys and consumes. To equate her feelings provoked by her intense feeling towards this woman to fire is to indicate the unrestrained, uncontrolled, and destructive nature of sexual desire towards a woman. If her feelings uncontrollable like fire, a lure that Aphrodite twists, then there is no way she could conceive to prevent such emotion. Any attempts to do so are likely to be unsuccessful, as Sappho describes in her 1st fragment: “[i]f she does not love, soon she will love / even unwilling” (Sappho 5). Consequently, there is no way to prevent the negative consequences that occur as a result of this intense emotion unless the woman is removed from the scenario entirely.
Sappho recognizes the specificity of her situation in the 31st fragment and expands her scope to prove the universal nature of this circumstance. “But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty” (Sappho 63), Sappho begins before the fragment ends abruptly. Even though the sentence is partial, its implications are still clear. It is not her fame, money, or individual situation that are responsible for her intense and destructive state of mind. This feeling would have happened to anybody, no matter the circumstance. Women are the cause of feelings as irrational as these which can only lead to negative consequences, as confirmed by the ominous last complete phrase of the fragment “I am dead–or almost / I seem to me” (Sappho 63).
Sappho characterizes the presence of a woman as something that is likely to produce an unhappy ending. Logically, a set of rules and standards should be established to prevent negative outcomes. The noticeable disregard of these rules, exemplified by the Bacchae in Euripides composition, leads to a violent and gruesome end. The sexually liberated women in the Bacchae are free from conforming to a restrictive society. Additionally, they are represented as violent, animalistic, and uncontrollable. This correlation suggests that women, especially those who don’t follow the expectations of the patriarchal society, are conducive to violent ends.
The collective and liberated nature of the Bacchae, or the group of women who worship Dionysus, is threatening to the ancient Roman society in which this play was written. The Bacchants have no explicit leader, no king or queen to tell the lowly peasants how to live their lives. Instead, they live communally. When the messenger relays his experience with the women to Pentheus, he describes them as a flock, “they flew like birds” (Euripides 50). Rather than a singular leader supported by an army, the The Bacchants are birds, an animal without hierarchy in their society. This can be described as power “with.”
This type of cooperative power works in contrast to Pentheus, who opposes the Bacchae for their behavior, stating in reference to the Bacchants that “[t]hose who run at large shall be hunted down” (Euripides 28). Pentheus is willing to take action and repress those who do not think similarly to him. From this, it is clear to see his dependence on superiority and domination in the society which he runs. He, as the king, exerts power “over”.
Arguably, this school of thought is very detrimental to the established patriarchy. This fear is reflected in Teiresias’ attempt to comfort Pentheus, who is disturbed that these two men want to join the movement of the Bacchae, “[d]on’t be so sure that domination is what matters in the life of a man” (Euripides 31). Power over, which Pentheus exemplifies, is predicated in part by sexual control. Contrastingly, in the view of Dionysus, hedonism — specifically sexual activity — is not discouraged. The aspiring Bacchant Teiresias clarifies this when he points out that “Dionysus does not, I admit, compel a woman to be chaste” (Euripides 31). When women are allowed to have sex independently and uninhibitedly, a power shift occurs. For, if one cannot regulate the female body, one cannot regulate reproduction. This conception, in turn, means that you cannot regulate inheritance, which ultimately jeopardizes the patriarchy.
The potential replacement of Pentheus’ patriarchy with the Bacchus’ matriarchy is proven to be dangerous due to the role women play as drivers of violence. The return to a natural state is deeply emphasized within the Bacchae clan. The reason for this is, as the wise Teiresias explains, that “[m]ankind, young man, possesses two supreme blessings. First of these is the goddess Demeter, or Earth” and the second, as he goes on to describe, is Dionysus. This connection to earth and the natural order of things is important because it suggests that at their core, at the very most natural state of being, women are wild, unrelenting, and murderous. For example, the Bacchae, with “hair [crowned] with leaves, ivy and oak” (Euripides 49), are able to connect with the earth in unparalleled ways. One woman is described as she “scratched at the soil with bare fingers and white milk came welling up. Pure honey spurted,” while another “drove her fennel into the ground […] spring of wine poured out” (Euripides 49). The very next moment, these same women are seen “with bare hands tear a fat calf, still bellowing with fright in two, while others clawed the heifers to pieces” (Euripides 50). The scene of the clan of women, unregulated and empowered, attacking after the men who watched them bathe is described with gruesome and bloody detail. The graphic imagery of “ribs and cloven hooves scattered everywhere, and scraps smeared with blood hung from the fir trees” (Euripides 50) suggests that at their very core, in their most natural state, women are violent.
The Bacchae suggests that a circumstance in which women who are liberated and not overpowered by a patriarchal force will inevitably lead to violent ends, as that is simply the way women are. This is emphasized by the massive role that the Bacchants play within the work. Conversely, The Symposium by Plato has a noticeable lack of women in the play, with only one female character, Diotima, who was made up by Sophocles. The play, in contrast to many works in the Greek tradition, ends without any bloodshed or gore. It is the absence of a woman in the scene that allows the men to live their lives in peace, proving that women are the drivers of violence. Despite the omission of a genuine female in Symposium, the play does not lack sexuality. This is important to note, as it is not the presence of sexual interest that leads to disorder. Sexuality in itself is not bad; rather, it is the sexuality of women that produces violent outcomes.
In The Symposium, as the men at the table discuss what they believe is the nature of love, they never condemn love as a whole. The characters do not believe the act of love or sexual desire to be sinful or immoral. For example, Phaedrus, a philosopher and the first to speak at the event, begins his speech by stating that “[l]ove is a great god,” (Plato 9). His primary proof of love as a the “highest honor” (Plato 11) is the story of a Alcestis, a woman who kills herself in place of her husband which the gods accept as “nobly done” (Plato 11). In this story, it is the elimination of the female which allows the unspecified violence to end, although she is eventually brought back to life as a repayment for her selflessness. But even despite her noble and lovely sacrifice, Achilles is given a higher honor than she is because his story is the one of a “lover […] more godlike than his boy” (Plato 12). As woman, she cannot play a role in that equation.
The second story he tells is that of Orpheus who, motivated by his heterosexual desire, goes to Hades to reconnect with his love. He becomes unsatisfied when he is shown only an image and not her body, so the gods “punished him for that, and made him die at the hands of women” (Plato 11). That he is angered when he is not given her body is important as this displays his sexual motivation, rather than emotional, when it came to seeking out his loved one. Therefore, it is this frustration triggered by his heterosexual desire leads to his own demise. By placing “at the hands of women” at the end of the sentence, the manner in which he is punished is given a great gravity of importance. It is those final words that stick in the mind of the reader that as that is what the reader is left with when they transition to Phaedrus’ next point. The way that Plato emphasizes this specific manner of execution asserts that death “at the hands of women” to be the most violent of punishments.
Pausanias, the next speaker, provides the clearest insight to the Greek mindset of common, heterosexual, love as vulgar as compared to the admirable love between men. Common Aphrodite’s love is felt by those “who are attached to women no less than to boys, to the body more than to the soul, and to the least intelligent partners, since all they care about is completing the sexual act” (Plato 14). Pausanias suggests that it is morally careless to feel a sexual attraction to women. This negative association asserts that the woman, who is described a purely sexual object of a lesser intelligence in the passage above, is the corrupting force for men. Heavenly Aphrodite, on the other hand, is for those who “are attracted to the male: they find pleasure in what is by nature stronger and more intelligent” (Plato 14). This type of love does not allow women to participate, and is only intended for two men. Describing this type of love as Heavenly emphasizes the utopian way of life that might exist without a woman in the picture. When a female is subtracted from the equation, love is no longer vulgar. Additionally, Pausanias is sure to point out that this is an ideology can be applied to the city of Athens, as “they are remarkably complex” (Plato 15) when it comes to love, and “also far superior” (Plato 16).
The men within The Symposium have a similar goal to impress and seduce their handsome host, Agathon. In his own speech, Agathon recognizes his own irresistibility, as he describes love from his perspective as something that comes to who is “the most beautiful and the best” (Plato 32). The men in The Symposium flirt openly with him; for instance, Socrates flatters Agathon by saying that he is “brave and dignified” (Plato 30). The competition between the men for Agathon’s affection can be seen when Phaedrus interrupts the intensifying discussion between Socrates and Agathon, his reason being that if it were up to Socrates, he would never stop debating with a partner, “[e]specially if he’s handsome” (Plato 31). Despite this sexual tension that exists within the text, a fight does not break out among them. This peaceful duration is likely due to the lack of women in the play, who are proven to be morally dangerous in Athenian society.
In “If Not, Winter,” Sappho emphasizes the uncontrollable nature of sexual desire towards women. This uncontrollability is emphasized further in The Bacchae, as Euripides V describes the gruesome consequences of an empowered group of women, the Bacchus, upon the patriarchy. Finally, Plato offers a contrasting circumstance to both works, where the absence of women in The Symposium results in peaceful discussion about the virtues of a love which excludes women. It is important to understand that women presented as drivers of violence in literature in order to gain context for the way that women are portrayed in popular culture today. The notion that a sexual desire, or even intensity of emotion, towards a woman simply cannot be contained plays a great role in the modern tendency to blame victims of rape or gender based violence after they are attacked. It is important to analyze the theme of women as drivers of violence in works of literary merit, such as “If Not, Winter,” The Bacchae, and The Symposium, in order to draw attention to this problematic point of view so that future generations can rectify institutionalized misogyny.
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