The Portrayal of Women in Greek Mythology

From movies like Disney’s Hercules to the Percy Jackson series, countless traces of Greek mythology have found their way into the modern world. Within myths, readers follow heroes as they face the extremes of human experience along with a slew of monsters and angry gods. These stories carry moral values and present admirable qualities through our favorite heroes which we may strive to emulate in our own lives.

Though Greek myths seem fantastical to modern readers, to ancient people, they presented a “quasi-historical” reality in which heroes, gods, monsters and humans had once coexisted. Furthermore, the myths reflected patriarchal Greek society and the gender relationships embedded within it. 

In myths, women were often shown as deceitful and manipulative, and the downfall of men. To men, this negative portrayal of women was a representation of what would happen if women were given any independence. The myths justified the need for male dominance and thus perpetuated the oppressive treatment and forced seclusion of women within society. Instructional texts, such as Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, pulled morals from myths to teach the importance of keeping elite women in domestic spheres. The seclusion of women became a sign of status and respectability as only the noble men who could afford it maintained this practice of upholding the patriarchy. Even in Greek plays, which were performed for a mostly male audience, female characters were played by men. Otherwise, women would have to leave their seclusion to go on stage.

Referring to the myths, Pandora is a prime example of what men feared in a woman. Pandora was made as a punishment from the gods after Prometheus stole fire for mankind. She is a deception who appears beautiful, but whose folly unleashes pain and sorrow on the world. Pandora exemplified the Ancient Greek view of women as “weak, fickle, and opportunistic,” and her actions justified why men must isolate and oppress women. In Hesoid’s Theogony, Hesoid attributes all evil to Pandora and urges men to control the women in their lives so that no other chaos may be caused. However, Zeus and Prometheus are also responsible for the evil released on the world, but the blame is only placed on Pandora.   

Another woman who embodied the fears of men is Aphrodite. The goddess of love is independent and promiscuous, and often openly flaunts her sexuality. All of these traits did not correspond to those of the obedient, virginal, elite women the Greeks tolerated. Similar to Pandora, Aphrodite’s beauty was used to hide her deceit and cunning. As payback for making him lust after a mortal woman, Zeus made Aphrodite desire the Trojan prince, Anchises. Aphrodite lies to the prince, saying she is not a goddess so that he will sleep with her. This myth reveals Aphrodite’s trickery and disregard for societal rules. In turn, Greek men learned to not trust their womens’ obedience, for if a goddess could not obey society’s rules, how could a mortal woman? Additionally, to keep women from succumbing to their natural lustful desires, men reasoned that women should be kept busy with household responsibilities and children. 

Apart from goddesses and mortals, mythical monsters also served as an obvious representation of mens’ fears. Many villains in classical Greek and Roman myths were female and most met their end at the hands of male heros. As classicist Debbie Felton explained in an essay in 2013, “[these villains] all spoke to men’s fear of women’s destructive potential. The myths then, to a certain extent, fulfill a male fantasy of conquering and controlling the female.” Along with destruction came deception, as seen with Pandora and Aphrodite. For example, Scylla is a sea monster faced by Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey and retold by Ovid 700 years later. She has a beautiful face, but below her waist lie monstrous legs with the heads of barking dogs. This deception is a metaphor for the disgust men had in regard to women’s bodies when women would behave in unruly ways. Enchanting and dangerous female beauty is also represented by the gorgon Medusa, who perfectly adheres to the villainous seductress trope.

Overall, classical Greece remained a male dominated society and the patriarchy was justified by the negative portrayal of women in myths. In this way, the influence of modern writers interested in Greek mythology is beneficial, as they expand upon these myths to bring to light those women who were not fully represented. Instead of just being the obstacles in a heroes’ tale, these women have become more thoroughly portrayed and better yet, the heroines of their own story. 

Sources:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/meet-female-monsters-greek-mythology-medusa-sphinx-180977364/

https://armstronghistoryjournal.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/containing-the-kalon-kakon-the-portrayal-of-women-in-ancient-greek-mythology/

https://judsjottings.wordpress.com/essays/the-representation-of-women-in-greek-myths/

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