Traces of Feminism in Greek Literature

Shelby Winthrop


Greek literature has presented some of the most powerful male heroes in literature.  Achilles, Odysseus, and Hercules are some of the most memorable characters in history.  While male characters are often the subject of a lot of study and criticism in literature, the way women are portrayed in the ancient Greek stories also deserves a certain amount of study.  “The Trojan Women” by Euripides and “The Odyssey” by Homer both describe very similar perceptions of women in ancient Greece.  While the ancient Greek culture was all about demeaning women, these famous writers were idealists and believed women were equal to men and deserved all the rights a man had.  They used their writing to show how women are virtually slaves to the opposite sex. 

The 1971 movie, “The Trojan Women, “ is  based on the play of the same playwright, Euripides.  The film was directed by Michael Cacoyannis and starred Katherine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Genevieve Bujold, and Irena Papas.  This film adaptation of the famous play begins in the ruins of fallen Troy.  The women of Troy are divided amongst the Greek leaders as trophies, and the royal women are considered to be a most prestigious prize.  Katherine Hepburn plays Hecuba, the former Queen of Troy and mother to Hector, Troy’s greatest warrior.  Hecuba must watch as her country is destroyed and her children are shipped off to the various Greek leaders.  She herself will become a slave to general Odysseus, whom she hates, but her suffering is not over yet.  One of her daughters, Polyxena, has been killed by the Greeks as a sacrifice to the tome of Achilles, while her other daughter, Cassandra (Genevieve Bujold), is  to have a worse fate.  Cassandra, who had once taken a vow of celibacy in honor of the gods, will become King Agamemnon’s concubine.  While Hecuba is deeply troubled by this, Cassandra is surprisingly calm. Cassandra has been driven mad by a curse put on her by the god Apollo.  Her curse allows her to predict the future and she foresees King Agamemnon’s bitter wife killing her and the King upon their arrival in Argos, so she is at peace because she knows she will not suffer long.  However, no one understands her parting prophecy because she is mad and she is carried away to Argos and her imminent death.

Andromache (Vanessa Redgrave), wife to fallen Hector, is in a similar situation to Hecuba.  While all of the other Trojan children were captured and taken away or killed, she tried to escape with her son, Astyanax.  She was captured and taken back to the women’s camp where she learns she will become a concubine to the son of Achilles, Neoptolemus.  After a while, it is announced that the Greek leaders have decided to kill Astyanax to prevent him from growing up to avenge his father.  He is killed, but Andromache is taken away before she can properly bury him, so Hecuba performs the burial rituals of Troy for Andromache.  The final royal woman to suffer is Helen (Irene Papas), the cause of the Trojan War.  She is returned to her husband, King Menelaus and is to be taken back to Greece where she will be executed.  However, she seduces King Menelaus and, though it is not shown in the movie, she audience knows that he will spare her.  The film ends with the Greek army burning what is left of Troy, and the remaining women solemnly walking to the Greek ships to face their fate.

This film’s cast was comprised of some very distinguished actresses.  They all acted their parts with such intensity and passion that the audience was able to really experience the pain and suffering along with the Trojan women.  While they all performed beautifully, Katherine Hepburn was on a completely different level than the others, at least in my opinion.  She acted with such raw emotion that she was able to really impress upon the audience the unimaginable suffering Hecuba was experiencing.  She actually won an award for Best Actress from the Kansas City Film Critics Circle for the part in “The Trojan Women.”  Irene Papas also won a Best Actress award from the National Review Board for her part as Helen.  The film was beautifully produced overall.  The scenery, costumes, makeup, and use of clever lightning made all the Trojan women look absolutely ravishing even in the midst of their gritty surroundings and heartbreaking circumstances.  Because of its impressive production and remarkable cast, “The Trojan Women” is a timeless film that can be appreciated by all generations.

While there are some inconsistencies between the original play and the film version, what was adapted by Edith Hamilton, the portrayal of the Trojan women remains constant.  Some have considered Euripides a misogynist, while others saw that he was really a “champion for women’s rights and a spokesperson for the plight they suffered” (Wright, 86).  Over half of his most popular extant literature concerns women and the oppressed lives they lived in ancient Greece.  “Trojan Women” is an excellent representation of his passion for women’s suffering.  Hecuba, the former Queen of Troy, demonstrates how royal women of defeated countries are treated. She had several children, which was her duty as a woman, only to watch them be killed during the war or shipped to far off countries.  As a Greek woman, she was expected to suffer in silence and accept that she was powerless against the Greek men. Her posture in the beginning of the play – “Lying on her back in acute discomfort, unable to move” (Craik, 5) is the posture of a completely helpless and hopeless individual.  Euripides uses this image to show that women were completely helpless against the power of men, as Hecuba was helpless against the mighty Greeks.  Hecuba’s fall from grace further illustrates how, in Greece, once a woman lost her husband and sons, she became nothing.  It was thought that women were incapable of functioning without a man controlling their everyday lives, so after their husbands and sons were killed, they were expected to find another male figure to obey and live under. 

The second woman Euripides uses to show women’s oppression would be poor Cassandra.  After the opening scenes, Euripides has Cassandra running within the temple, setting random fires and reciting the marriage hymn.  While Cassandra sets these fires during a manic episode, the fires depict how men are capable of creating life, but they are equally capable of destroying life.  In ancient Greece, the ruling class consisted of men who controlled all aspects of life, including life and death.  Later Cassandra, who previously “dedicated herself to lifelong virginity…[was] chosen by Agamemnon for the violent and illicit consummation of his passions” (Craik,6).  The way Cassandra was forced to become King Agamemnon’s concubine also shows how women were merely there for men’s sexual pleasure in Greece.  They do not deserve to choose whom they will be with romantically because to the Greeks there is no way a relationship between a man and woman could involve love or be intellectually stimulating.  Only a relationship between two men was capable of eliciting emotions like love.  Euripides uses the treatment of Cassandra to show how women were used to please men, but had none of the rights a male partner would have.  Women were for raising babies and making clothes.  That was all.  Before Cassandra was taken away, she gave a prophecy about her and Agamemnon’s looming murders, but no one listened to her. This scene illustrates how no one listened in Greece because they were the lesser sex.  In ancient Greece, women were not as educated as men and thus could not form an intelligent thought.  Therefore, there was no reason to pay any attention to why they said.

Euripides also uses Andromache as a symbol of women’s suffering.  When Andromache is first presented to the audience,  she is remembering her life as Hector’s wife.  She looks on her “marriage with pride and affection, describing her virtuous conduct as a wife” (Craik, 7).  She then begins to ponder her future as a concubine to Neoptolemus.  She “must either be unfaithful to Hector’s memory or be unpleasing to her new partner…Hecuba recommends that Andromache put aside thoughts of dead Hector, respect Neoptolemus and please him” (Craik, 7)  Later, it is said that Andromache requested that Astyanax should be buried on top of Hector’s shield.  This symbolizes not only her putting Astyanax to rest, but also her putting Hector’s memory to rest as she goes to Neoptolemus.  Through her marital situation, Euripides shows again how a married woman was nothing without her husband.  Since women were not believed to be capable of love and other emotions, they were expected to move on from one man to another if their husbands died in war.  Even if they did love their deceased husbands, they were expected to please their new masters because it was their duty as a woman to do as men wished. 

Helen is Euripides’ final attack at the Greek perception of women.  Helen is blamed for the Trojan War by both sides.  Both the Trojan women and the Greeks want her to be killed.  However, when she speaks to King Menelaus (her husband) she “rebuts the charge she left Menelaus of her own free will, implying that some force was used” (Craik, 8) making him question whether or not her impending execution is just or not.  Hecuba knows this to be false and says so, but it is clear that Menelaus is still unsure of what to do.  When Menelaus looks upon Helen, he is completely in awe of her.  Helen continues to seduce Menelaus until he finally takes her away to his kingdom.  Menelaus continues to claim that Helen will be executed as planned, but “it is evident that when Menelaus ‘gets his hands on her’ as he threatened, it will not be with violent intent” (Craik, 9).  Helen’s seduction of Menelaus shows that women couldn’t be trusted in ancient Greece.  Greeks saw women as manipulative liars who would do anything to get what they want.  They are selfish beings, which also makes them incapable of love.  Euripides uses all of these women to illustrate the Greek perception of the female sex.  He dramatizes this image of women to emphasize how ridiculous the Greeks’ sexist ideas are.  Though he was unable to outright to against the Greek ideals, he successfully acknowledged how unfair the social conditions were. 

Like Euripides, Homer also supported the idea that women deserved to be treated the same as men.  In his epic, “The Odyssey,” the protagonist is Odysseus and the poem is centered on his journey home after the Trojan War.  Through his journey, he must overcome several obstacles and by the time he returns home, he has been gone a total of twenty years.  While Odysseus is portrayed as the brave hero in the end, there are several female characters that should be acknowledged when reviewing the poem.  Homer begins the poem by establishing “a precedent for the exclusion of female characters.  In Book I, Penelope tries to influence the bard’s choice of theme and is rebuked for this by Telemachus, partly on the grounds that she is a woman” (Doherty, 21).  Another instance of this is shown when “Queen Arete suggests Odysseus be rewarded for his performance, she is reminded, even as her suggestion is approved, that such initiatives are normally men’s business” (Doherty, 22).  Through these occurrences, Homer illustrates how even when a woman had a good idea, she was chastised for interfering in business outside of child rearing because it was a Greek man’s world and thus they make all the decisions.  There are several different narrators throughout “The Odyssey,” some of whom are women.  Penelope, Circe, Helen, and the Sirens all have sections that they narrate.  During these narrations, there is a “distinct difference between the epic’s presentation of female narrators and its presentation of their male counterparts…[All] of the female narratives tend to be followed – and thus answered, completed, or even undercut – by male narratives” (Doherty, 22). While the male narrators may validate the female narrators “the [sequencing] of accounts contribute to the larger pattern of gender differentiation in the epic” (Doherty, 23). This literary differentiation complements the real life, differentiation between men and women in ancient Greece.  Men constantly spoke over women in ancient Greece because men were believed to be wiser and have more important things to say. 

Homer then uses the relationships in the story (Odysseus and Calypso, Penelope and her suitors) to illustrate the double standard that existed between men and women.  Odysseus carries on a relationship with Calypso for several years.  He claims it is involuntary, but either way his acts of infidelity go unacknowledged.  He only leaves Calypso after she stops pleasing him (after seven years).  However, Penelope is criticized for leading her suitors on and not doing her duties as a woman by pleasing her masters.  It is complained to Telemachus, “it’s not the suitors here, who deserve the blame, [and] it’s your own dear mother, the matchless queen of cunning.  For years now, going on four, she’s played it fast and loose with our hearts…but all the while with something else in mind.” Penelope is called manipulative by all while she is only trying to bide her time until her husband returns.  She is trying to remain faithful to him and all the while being called a loose woman, whereas Odysseus dallied with Calypso for years with no repercussions at all.  The double standard in “The Odyssey” portrays the double standard in ancient Greece perfectly.  While it was perfectly acceptable for a man to have multiple partners other than his wife, it is inexcusable for a woman to be with anyone other than her husband.  Homer was able to recreate several gender issues through “The Odyssey.”  He successfully represented the female population through his portrayal of Penelope, Calypso, and the other female characters in the poem.  Through his characters, Homer was able to present the oppressive nature of Greek society.

These two Greek writers have provided some of the most memorable plays and poems in history.  During their time, women were seen as the lesser sex and thus had no right to claim the rights of men. Many authors of that time wrote about heroic men; while Euripides and Homer did that as well, they also managed to create these powerful female characters as well.  In this way, we can see that they were able to go against the social norms and denounce the mistreatment of women without risking their social status within the Greek society.

Recommended Readings:

Elizabeth Craik. "Images and Innuendo in Troades."  In Euripides, Women and Sexuality by Anton Powell.

Lillian E. Doherty. Siren Songs: Gender Audiences, and Narrators.

Homer, The Odyssey

Frederick Wright. Feminism in Greek Literature.