Women of the Iliad

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Women of the Iliad


In the Iliad we saw women as items of exchange and as markers of status for the men who possessed them (Chryseis and
Briseis, whom Agame mnon and Achilles argue over in Book I). We saw them in their normal social roles as mothers and wives
(Hecuba, Andromache in Book VI). We saw stereotypical characterizations of them as fickle (Helen in Book VI), seductive,
and deceitful (Hera in Book XIV). We see them as an obstacle that the male hero has to overcome or resist to fulfill his heroic
destiny (Andromache's entreaties to Hector in Book VI).

In all, the few times women show up in what is basically a story told in the male sphere, the story is nothing that subverts or calls
into question the structure of the society that is being portrayed... or is there?

To the extent that the Iliad has a moral lesson to impart to its readers, part of it would have to be that the behavior of Agam
emnon and Achilles in the first book (and beyond) is excessive. Both men are so fixated on their own images as heroic warriors
that they end up bringing woe upon themselves and the rest of the Greeks. Part of that behavior is the way they treat the wome
n not as human beings but as emblems of their own status and martial prowess. Look carefully at what Agamemnon says to the
prophet who declared that he had to give back Chryseis (Page 62):

Now once more you make divination to the Dana ans, argue

forth your reason why he who strikes from afar afflicts them,

because I for the sake of the girl Chryseis would not take

the shining ransom; and indeed I wish greatly to have her

in my own house; since I like her be tter than Klytaimestra

my own wife, for in truth she is no way inferior

To those who already knew the stories of the Trojan War heroes (which all of the original Greek audience of the epic would),
these words would be ominous ones. They would know that Agamemnon had angered hi s wife Klytaimestra (Clytemnestra),

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by sacrificing their daughter to obtain favorable winds for the expedition. They would also know that when Agamemnon arrived
home victorious after the war with Troy, concubine (Cassandra, not Chryseis) in tow, Clytemnestra would murder him.
Agamemnon is already being characterized here as a person whose arrogant, insensitive and cavalier treatment of the women in
his life brings him grief and destruction.

C ontrast also Agamemnon's callousness, and what results from it, with the more gentle attitude of Hektor toward his mother
and wife in Book VI, and it's easy to see that the poet is capable of imagining a very different sort of attitude toward women.
Noti ce also the care that the poet takes in giving us a sensitive portrayal of Andromache, a portrayal that makes it hard to think
of any of the women in the story as mere objects that men can accumulate like gold cups or fat heifers. Here is a part of Andro
mache's address to Hektor that makes us realize how little separates this princess from the girls that Agamemnon and Achilles
consider to be their prizes (p. 164)

And they who were my seven brothers in the great house all went

up on a single day down into the house of the death god,

for swift-footed Achilleus slaughtered all of them

as they were tending their white sheep and their lumbering oxen;

and when he had led my mother, who was queen under wooded Plako s,

here, along with all his other possessions, Achilleus

released her again, accepting ransom beyond count, but Artemis

of the showering arrows struck her down in the halls of her father.

Hektor, thus you are father to me, and my honoured mother,

you are my brother, and you it is who are my young husband.

Please take pity on me then, stay here on the rampart

And here is another passage (one that is NOT in your packet) where the poet brutally drives home the impact of the war on the
women, in this case on Briseis herself, who had previously appeared as a mute object handed back and forth between Achilles
and Agamemnon. In this passage, Achilles' friend Patroklos has been killed by Hektor. This is what makes Achilles put aside
his anger at Agamemnon and rejoin the battle. As a reward for rejoining, Agamemnon has given Briseis back to Achilles, and
here she mourns Patroklos when his body is being brought back to Achilles' camp. She is in such a helpless and desperate
situation that the death of one of her captors -- the kindest one of her captors -- is an occasion for massive grief, and her best
hope is that her future life is as the wife of the man who killed her family rather than one o f his house slaves or concubines:

And now, in the likeness of golden Aphrodite, Briseis

when she saw Patroklos lying torn with sharp bronze, folding

him in her arms cried shrilly above him and with her hands tore

a t her breasts and her soft throat and her beautiful forehead.

The woman like the immortals mourning for him spoke to him:

'Patroklos, far most pleasing to my heart in its sorrows,

I left you here alive when I went away from the shelte r,

but now I come back, lord of the people, to find you have fallen.

So evil in my life takes over from evil forever.

The husband on whom my father and honoured mother bestowed me

I saw before my city lying torn with the sharp bronze,

and my three brothers, whom a single mother bore with me

and who were close to me, all went on one day to destruction.

And yet you would not let me, when swift Achilles had cut down

my husband, and sacked the city of go dlike Mynes, you would not

let me sorrow, but said you would make me godlike Achilleus'

wedded lawful wife, that you would take me back in the ships

to Phthia, and formalize my marriage among the Myrmidons.

Therefore I weep y our death without ceasing. You were kind always.'

So she spoke, lamenting, and the women sorrowed around her

grieving openly for Patroklos, but for her own sorrows

each.

So, one could make an argument that the poet of the Iliad does portray women as objects which men use to jockey for
position with one another. He portrays them in stereotypical roles and with stereotypical characteristics. He portrays them as
totally impotent outside the protection of their ma le guardians. But he does all this in a way that doesn't seek to support or
justify that system. Instead, he presents it with such honesty and clarity that it makes the injustices of the society clear. This does
not make him a revolutionary,

a reformer or a proto-feminist. There is no reason to think that he wanted to, or thought that he could, change society in any
way. From his point of view he may have simply been telling it like it is. But it does show a capacity in a Greek male writer to
look upon the situation of women with some sensitivity and compassion.

Work Cited

Homer, Iliad, trans. Richard Lattimore New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1965.


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