Gender in Greek Mythology
Greek mythology has been thought of as entirely patriarchal and denigrating to women. It is easy to see why. Many of the most famous male characters (like Zeus with his lightning bolts and his power over all the gods) are dominant, whereas the best known female deities are typically ‘woman-ish’ and associated with women’s roles. But to dismiss the matter there and call for no more thorough examination is a mistake. Greek mythology is much more complex when it comes to gender roles than most people might think at first. In this paper I would like to shatter stereotypical gender-roles in Greek myth by looking at two of the most evolved and favored deities: Prometheus and Athena. My suggestion is that we build a newly partitioned lens through which to see the men and women in these tales, a lens partitioned into bounded power, preservation and creativity on the one hand, and free-lashing chaos and destruction on the other.
When most people think of mythology these days, they are likely to think of Zeus and Hera. The spite and infidelity involved in the popular depiction of this marriage are so overwhelming that it is difficult to look beyond it. But really, it is not particularly surprising that the central and most powerful of immortal marriages would mirror the evils present in Greek society’s marriages at the time. There must be some point of connection between the mythical characters and their audience, and the problems represented in this marriage had wider (and deeper) ranging effects than the populace probably noticed. If you can look through the painfully abusive relationship these two had, there are plenty of examples of deities who do not fit their role in a patriarchal picture quite as neatly as they ‘ought’.
In the creation myths we see in the older generations of gods and goddesses examples of men who, while powerful, have bitty brains and do not understand what the consequences of their actions are or why they are doing what they are doing. Uranus hides his children from the light, keeping them trapped in the earth, their mother, and Gaea is driven to plan injury to him in order to free her children. Cronus devours his children as soon as they are born (an evil which his wife Rhea attempts to trick him out of), and his first surviving son eats his first daughter. These immortal men possess no wisdom, working only by what their momentary passions tell them. Aphrodite is not your typical submissive woman either. As opposed to being a mother-figure or a sweet celibate girl, Aphrodite is wild, wily and dangerous in her beauty, able to deceive everyone on mount Olympus. In fact, almost none of the female deities were sweet and celibate. They wield power over men just as men wield power over them; Aphrodite is just a glaring example who also happens to be absolutely conniving. Each gender has characters that are unthinking, violent, powerful and destructive.
There are other deities who depart from the popular conception of their given role in unexpected ways. A few of each gender are constructive, thoughtful, and peaceful as well; protectors of progress, creativity, and culture. I think possession of this quality is what matters: not power play. Not who can kill—who can create! Rhea’s hiding of Zeus began this trend toward preservation, and it seems as though the trait is learned by succeeding generations. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ qualities seem to merge over time until we see two deities in particular to represent a group who appear to be somewhat balanced: Prometheus and Athena. The deities in this group are all over the map and are rather mysterious when viewed through a gender-role lens; they don’t fit entirely on one side or the other. The men have instincts to nurture and the ability to create and selflessly give. The women have courage and strength and the desire to fight and protect and tame.
Prometheus, or ‘Forethinker’, is credited with the creation of men in some myths. In any case, Prometheus loved humans. He tells of how much he carefully taught them in Prometheus Bound, explaining that they were almost inert beings before he did so, with “eyes that blankly gazed, ears hearing empty sound. Shapes in a dream, they blundered through long years… I taught them mathematics,
“wisdom’s lore, and words in letters, of all things remembrancer, mother and servant of the arts… Until my time, whenever man fell ill there was no diet, potion, ointment, or draft; men simply shriveled up and died for lack of drugs. I showed them gentle compounds, remedies for all disease” (Powell, 111).
It is obvious from this text that Prometheus is a god of creativity and preservation. He is a God who nurtures potential and fills emptiness with good things. When once as a result of a prank Zeus became angered, he struck at the prankster’s favorites, depriving them of the fire they needed to cook their food. Prometheus promptly stole fire from heaven and brought it back down to the humans because he didn’t want them to starve. It’s almost as if they were his children. You could almost see him as maternal in some instances, willing to undergo endless torture by order of Zeus in order to help his little ones manage on earth.
Athena is a goddess with a lot of mystery attached to her as well. She is one of the only virgin goddesses, and the Parthenon was built in honor of that. The Greeks clearly respected her as a moral woman. Her ability to create and sustain life is made obvious in the story about her contest with Poseidon over who Athens was to be dedicated to. She grew an olive tree out of the ground and he burst a spring of useless salt water out of a rock. Because of its usefulness, the olive tree was chosen, and she became the protector of Athens. She is patron of the arts in Athens, presiding over things like weaving as well as carpentry. She tames power, channeling it and using it by creating things like the harness and the ship. She is often seen preparing maidens for their weddings and giving them advice, or perhaps simply giving them warning that the day is on the way, but she is also the goddess of war. She is always seen wearing armor, and she is the protector of heroes on the road, as is seen with Odysseus. Homer depicts her in battle, saying “and with them went Athena,
“she of the steel-gray eyes, wearing the dreaded aegis, shield which is ageless, immortal. From it a hundred tassels, all woven of gold, hang free, each worth a hundred oxen. Sparkling, bright with its gleam, Athena marched down the ranks, arousing their will to attack. In every heart she injected new courage to fight till the end…” (Powell, 211).
Finally, Athena represents law and order, finally found amidst chaos and every-man-for-himself; she is Wisdom and channeled power, which creates the possibility for constructive civilization.
I’ve tried to break the traditional concept of gender roles here and form it into a new idea, bringing in things that are more important than who is passive and who is domineering, who cleans and cooks and who hunts and makes decisions. In this paper I’ve tried to build a new lens through which to see that healthy, balanced individuals of both sexes do exist in Greek mythology and that perhaps the dysfunction between sexes seen in the myths is simply a reflection of fallen culture. If we can focus on the things that matter, like creativity and preservation, healing and culture, then we will see the myths as they were most probably seen in Ancient Greece by people more like you and me than we might know.
Katie Huffman (married, Gough) / Classics 231 Paper 1 / Prof. Winkle 11/20/02
c. Mary Kathryn Gough