Free Women's Role In Ancient Greek And Biblical Society Essay Sample
Women have lived in patriarchal societies for a large part of human history. Studying literature and scriptures of the antiquity can shed light on the manner in which those societies were patriarchal and oppressive of women. Common elements of the two were that women were restricted to the domestic sphere of the civilization and were never involved in any kind of decision making. Beyond this similarity there exist many differences in the two narratives that we shall consider in this paper – The Iliad and the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament). The Iliad is a tragedy at large while the Old Testament is the history of the people of Abrahamic religions with an emphasis on the sinful character of mankind that very often digresses from the path that was prescribed to them by the almighty God. These aspects of the two texts bring differences among which differences between portrayal of women is a significant difference. That said, similarities exist too between the two texts. We shall look at The Iliad first. Then we shall look at the Hebrew Bible for portrayal of women and finally we shall compare the two narratives.
Iliad is one of the two earliest epics of the western world. Epics are grand scale narratives that exaggerate human emotions, the importance of honour and the purpose and meaning of human life. The manner of this portrayal goes through significant physical strife in battle, war and politics. Women provide respite from violence as well as every horrifying aspect of life is found in women. In the epic, the character Achilles says to his cousin Patroklos,
“We men are wretched things.” (Homer, 1998, Verse 14:233)
This is tacitly saying that women are not wretched and hence everything that men are not. This creates both an aura of mystery as well as great hidden meaning in women.
In the epic, women appear in a great variety of characters. In the form of Goddess is Athena; in the form of a wife is Andromache; in the form of a damsel in distress is Helen; as a concubine is Briseis and as a slave is Chryseis. Starting from the Greek period women have always been portrayed by men up until the 19th century. Writers were predominantly males and in the epics they portrayed women as the embodiment of an ideal – either the untouchable, beautiful, wise and all-knowing Goddess or the helpless, sensual and seductive damsel in distress. Dutiful wives and influential mothers are also present but their roles are even less than those of other women. In literature, throughout centuries the role of the Goddess decreased and women received the roles of either frail piousness or wicked corruption. This changed only in the twentieth century. We are here looking at the origin of western literature and how women have been represented in antiquity.
Helen of Troy is the single most important female character in the epic. While she is involved in a number of major events throughout the narrative, her most central role was to expose the frail and cowardly character of Prince Paris.
"All this weighs on my mind too, dear woman.But I would die of shame to face the men of TroyAnd the Trojan women trailing their long robesIf I would shrink from battle now, a coward."- (Homer, 1998, Verse 6.522-525)
Prince Paris is saying these lines to Helen and even as he wants to avoid shame and cowardice, shame and cowardice are both all over him. A man in his position would rather stay quiet as Hector later does. But Paris is talking, trying somehow to escape the ordeal that is to follow and Helen facilitates that for him when she says that she does not want a hero for herself. In fact, Paris’ entire existence is around her till the very end of the narrative where Paris avenges his brother’s death. This is one of the primary roles of women in Greek literature – providing a sense of purpose and meaning to men. Not just to men, but also to entire event as the ten year long Trojan war starts when Paris and Helen violate the sacred law of hospitality.
Another important woman character is Briseis who is initially a captive of Achilles and later becomes his concubine. The role of Achilles is central to the Achaean attack on Troy and his presence and absence becomes entirely dependent on the fate of Briseis for a significant part of the battle between the Achaean and the Trojan forces. When Agamemnon captures her for his own pleasures, Achilles abandons the Greek side in the war. Here again the woman character holds tremendous meaning to the undefeated Achilles. This role is however not as strong as that of Helen as Briseis feels lost about her future at the death of Patroklus.
“but said you would make me godlike Achilleus'
wedded lawful wife, that you would take me back in the ships
The position of Briseis was thus less than that of Helen. Dramatic actions take place because of power but also because of women and men’s need for specific women.
However important we find these women to be, they are never the prime actors or decisive characters. Even for Helen it is Paris who makes the choice of leaving Sparta. No other woman makes any decision or has any control over her own destiny or those whom she loves. In this way women are characters only on the side. Even Goddess Athena, who sends plague to the Achaean forces does not really lead the plot of the story to a conclusive end. The male characters are the actors, are the decisive forces and the narrative is largely about them, about Achilles and Hector and about Priam and Agamemnon.
In the Hebrew Bible we are going to focus on the story of Tamar. The narrative of the Old Testament is a series of details of progenies of prophets and what they do. Most of these progenies are males and the larger history at no point depends upon any woman character whatsoever. While in the Greek epic the damsels in distress were saved by heroes in the Old Testament, neither does it happen nor is the woman saved from the rape or molestation by any means. Lack of intervention from God under such events sheds light on what kind of a rule does God wills on the world. It is one where women will be oppressed by men and will not have any direct contact with God and God will not be much too concerned about them.
The role of women here is largely domestic but the possibility of the sensual element in Biblical narratives has been killed by the frequent rapes in the narratives across the Old Testament. One particular example is that of Tamar, the daughter of David. Now her father himself is a lecherous figure and sometimes the rape of Tamar is seen as pain inflicted upon David for his lecherous behavior with other women. Women being punished for masculine excesses seems to be the law in that light. Even if one sees otherwise, the one raping Tamar is her half-brother, Amnon. Even at the instant of rape, according to the biblical law of Old Testament, if the perpetrator of rape agrees to marry the woman raped, he is not deemed guilty of a crime. But after the rape he is filled with hatred for her and says,
“Get up and get out.”
As he throws her out of his residence,
“he bolted the door after he put her out”. (James, 1980, Book 2 - Samuel 13:18)
This shows finality of him throwing her out of the house.
As David gets to know about the incident, he does not reprimand Amnon for the rape of his daughter and tacitly forgives him. The father, who is also the king when he refuses to take theside of his own daughter, this shows just how animal like common women must have been treated like in Biblical times or in Biblical history. It is only much later (after two years), that Tamar’s brother Absalom avenges her by killing Amnon.
We observe that women in both Greek epic tragedy and in Hebrew Bible play only a domestic role. They are confined to the house and never participate in social life or decision making. Their lives, aspirations and desires revolve largely around the male figures around them, father, master or husband.
However, in the Greek epic, feminine sensuality plays a large role in creating mystery and beauty in the narrative. In the Old Testament any possibility of sensuality is killed through the widespread rapes in places where women are mentioned. Any sensual experience mentioned is through rape. Otherwise, the mention is eluded and only the birth of the child is mentioned. This creates a very harsh God image in the Hebrew Bible. The entire mystery lies with the almighty God in that he is free to do anything anywhere. Mystery in the Greek epic also lies in the figure of Goddess Athena who is in direct contrast with the almost tyrannical Biblical God. Athena gets angry on the Achaean forces for they ransack the temples of Apollo whereas the actions of the Biblical God seems arbitrary. The Biblical God seems like a replacement of the harsh destinies of Greek tragic heroes. The prophets here play an important role as in they are the wise ones who can connect the ignorant humans to the almighty (and also somewhat whimsical) God.
These interpretations must be looked at through the point of view that these were markedly very early days of the human civilization and society had not really progressed much. This will help us bring appropriate perspective to the narratives under study. Of course, the role of women have changed over the millennia and women now enjoy greater freedom, liberty and possibilities than biblical or Greek women could ever have thought of.
Homer. The Iliad. Penguin Classics, 1998. Print.
James, King. The Bible. American Bible Society, 1980. Print.
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