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
Mary Kathryn Huffman (married: Gough) / Classical Mythology (231) / Fall ’02 / Professor Winkle
Oedipus the King
Oedipus the King is a masterful work in which Sophocles depicts a man, well-known in Greek myth, who plows through lies and half-truths to find out the truth about a murder – and worst possible truth about himself and his life. The infamous Oedipus (as in the complex) has become King, and, with the best of intentions, has unwittingly committed two of the most heinous crimes known to the Greek world at the time: murder and incest. The victims? His own father and mother. This fate was prophesied him at birth by the Lord Apollo. Oedipus was always fiery, stubborn, and unwise, foolishly assuming that he could save his parents and avoid fate through sheer willpower. All his life he allowed his temper to rage unchecked, almost as if he thought he could lash out at the prophesy he was born to and see it crumble to the ground like ash. As King, Oedipus has as fierce a temper as he had before he was crowned. Though Oedipus loves truly, he is also blinded by self-centeredness and a rather high opinion of himself (probably acquired on his long and difficult flight from destiny). It is worth wondering, looking at this man, whether his irascibility will work to protect or undo him in the end.
The setting of the play is this:
During hard times in his reign, a prophesy from the god Apollo sets Oedipus the task of searching out a murderer living in the land in order to cleanse it and make it fruitful again. The man murdered was Laius, the people’s former king and Oedipus’ wife’s former husband. Oedipus is adamant that the murderer be found and brought to justice. “I am the land’s avenger by all rights,” he says with a fierce determination, “and Apollo’s champion too. But not to assist some distant kinsman, no, for my own sake I’ll rid us of this corruption… by avenging Laius I defend myself” (p167). He sets about finding the people who can give him the answers he means to have. Firstly, the old prophet Tiresias is brought to him. When Tiresias refuses to tell Oedipus what he knows of the murderer, Oedipus rages at him:
you scum of the earth, you’d enrage a heart of stone!
You won’t talk? Nothing moves you?
Out with it, once and for all!
You criticize my temper. . . unaware
of the one you live with, you revile me.
Who could restrain his anger hearing you?
What outrage – you spurn the city!
What will come will come.
Even if I shroud it all in silence.
. . . Do as you like, build your anger
to whatever pitch you please, rage your worst –
Oh I’ll let loose, I have such fury in me –
now I see it all. You helped hatch the plot,
you did the work, yes, short of killing him
with your own hands –“ (p.178)
And yet when Oedipus finally finds out that the man he cursed so hastily before all of Thebes is none other than himself, he still cannot give up his self-centeredness and burning anger.
The well-known catastrophic events play out around him: his wife and mother’s death, the people’s response, his children’s sobs, and his own bitter agony as he gouges out his eyes with broach pins (a blindness fitting, he seems to think, of his previous metaphorical blindness). After performing this act he grieves as the chorus looks on, saying
“The blackest things a man can do, I have done them all!
No more –
it’s wrong to name what’s wrong to do. Quickly,
for the love of god, hide me somewhere,
kill me, hurl me into the sea
where you can never look on me again.
it’s all right. Touch the man of grief.
Do. Don’t be afraid. My troubles are mine
and I am the only man alive who can sustain them” (p 244).
He seems to find it impossible to think of anyone but himself, even in his apparent brokenness. “What grief can crown this grief?” he asks, speaking of his ‘wretched life’, “It’s mine alone, my destiny – I am Oedipus!” (p 242). But he makes it clear that he has not truly broken down or given up; he is still in perfect control of himself, proclaiming that he was the one who blinded himself this time – that it was his own will which willed it, not that of a god.
Now that the awful deeds are done and unveiled, Oedipus’ fiery ragings have burned down to a hugely self-important grief and an intense, yet passive hatred for the gods who destined him for such unbelievable pain. Defiant as ever in the aftermath, he puts on airs and commands as if he had not yet quite given up the power he had lost or the crucial role he had always thought he had. But when Creon brings Oedipus his daughters he begins to mourn over their futures, saying they will almost certainly never find husbands to take care of them – all because of him. His tears are so buried in his own bitterness that he can do no more than wish protection for them in place of the life he should have been able to give them. However, it is my opinion that it is Oedipus’ daughters who begin the humble grieving he really needs to do. Kneeling beside them on the cold stone floor, he is lost in a dark, foggy emptiness filled with their sobs, only able to feel their little heads pressed against his chest, child’s hands clutching his beard – it is in this moment he is suddenly aware of how small and powerless he really is. And also, perhaps, that life isn’t lived by fighting. “Pity them,” he pleads, “Look at them, so young, so vulnerable,
shorn of everything – you’re their only hope.
Promise me, noble Creon, touch my hand! (reaching toward Creon, who draws back.)
You, little ones, if you were old enough
to understand, there is much I’d tell you.
Now, as it is, I’d have you say a prayer.
Pray for life, my children,
live where you are free to grow and season.
Pray god you find a better life than mine,
the father who begot you” (p 249).
But Creon interrupts him before he really has a chance to create his own closure to leaving. Laid bare in the realization of his smallness and his foolishness, Oedipus is suddenly wrenched from the only warm and living bodies left to him as family, from the home he has known so long, and deprived of even the shred of the dignity he ought to be allowed as a human being, it is not surprising that he finally resorts to childish stubbornness, ‘clutching his daughters’ and crying “No – don’t take them away from me, not now! No, no, no!” (p 250).
He is rewarded with the following insult:
“Still the king, the master of all things?
No more: here your power ends.
None of your power follows you through life” (p 250).
Often seen in light of the philosophical questions of destiny and the limits of human will, motive, and power, the human elements of this story can be easily overlooked or misread. It seems to me that it is not Oedipus’ temper that undoes him: it’s his inward-looking eyes. All he can see is himself and the huge importance of this terrible prophesy for his life. Perhaps he does really know Love (his daughters, for example), but it is through a veil which blinds him – especially in his fury – as surely as he is blind upon exiting the stage for the final time. Fundamentally it is his particular idea of his own importance which allows him to ignore everything else important which could have given him the sight to avoid disaster. But in any case, it is true that the anger is the tool, if not the source, of his undoing. However I believe that at the very end of the play, in the last page of script, Oedipus is finally humbled such that he can look outside himself – put himself in others’ shoes – and live a good life. Blind as he has made himself, this time when he truly begins to grieve is the first time in his life when his vision has been unclouded by the rage the prophesy intensified and permanently installed in his way of living. The tears shed quench the bonfire of his heart and all that is left are ashes. But before the Phoenix can rise. . . Personal shaming from a relative. And exile. He is given no chance, now. He has learned, but he is thoroughly defeated by his own brother-in-law. Of heroism and durability one sees little here. But of Grace? Nothing.
c. Mary Kathryn Gough