A myth is a legendary traditional story, usually concerning a hero or an event, and typically involving supernatural beings and events. Informally, the term is also used to describe false stories, due to the usual lack of determinable basis or fact in most myths, but the academic use of the word has nothing to do with truth or falsity. Myths are stories woven from the need of having models for behavior. They are sacred stories revolving around sacred events and sacred characters idealized perfectly to be the suitable role-models in the eyes of the society from which they spring, which makes myths a valuable resource for explaining how the human race came to what it is today. Ancient Greek society had very specific gender roles, where men were expected to be controlling and domineering, and women passive and obedient. It was believed that if women were busy in their domestic homes, then they will not turn to their evil nature in which men of that time strongly believed in. “From her is descended a great pain to mortal men” (Leftowitz and Fant, p25).
In Homer’s Odyssey, one of the oldest and most fundamental works of literature to western canon, the importance of women in the poem’s plot lies in their roles as seductresses. When Odysseus’ crew arrives on Circe’s island, they are attracted to Circe’s house because of the alluring voice of the beautiful but monstrous goddess. Homer describes her as “… singing in a sweet voice, as she fared to and fro before the great web imperishable, such as is the handiwork of goddesses, fine of woof and full of grace and splendor.” (Homer, 850 BC)
But evil seductresses was not the only portrait of women offered by Greek Mythology. Penelope, the wife of the main character in the Odyssey, Odysseus, is a prime example of what an ideal wife was in Ancient Greek society. She has only one son by Odysseus, born just before Odysseus was called to fight in the Trojan War. Penelope remained faithful to Odysseus for 20 years as he was away fighting, doing all she can to curb the unwanted attention of many suitors and their requests for her hand. She has devised many plans to delay an answer, one of which was pretending to weave a burial shroud for Odysseus’ old father, and promising to choose which to marry of her suitors when she finishes it. Every night for three years she undid a part of the shroud until her trick was exposed. She is a symbol of fidelity in marriage, even though she begins to get restless and ambivalent, due mainly to Athena’s encouragement, after 20 years of waiting.
As Irene De Jong comments: “As so often, it is Athena who takes the initiative in giving the story a new direction… Usually the motives of mortal and god coincide, here they do not: Athena wants Penelope to fan the Suitor’s desire for her and (thereby) make her more esteemed by her husband and son; Penelope has no real motive . . . she simply feels an unprecedented impulse to meet the men she so loathes… adding that she might take this opportunity to talk to Telemachus (which she will indeed do)” (De Jong, p. 44) But as Odysseus comes back disguised as a beggar, Penelope vows to marry whoever can string Odysseus Bow and shoot an arrow, which leads to Odysseus and Penelope reuniting together. Penelope’s story shows what Greek men expected from women, undying fidelity and a good, sharp and reliable mind. And albeit the fact that Penelope starts longing to show off for her suitors and eventually agrees to marry whoever strings her former husband’s bow, she is still shown in a good light in Greek myth.
On a high contrast to the passive Penelope is Medusa, the gorgon female monster, who is well known for hair of snakes and her horrifying glare that turned onlookers to stone. She was born an exceptional beauty, the jealous aspiration of many suitors, with her hair being her best feature, but after she was ravished in Athena’s temple, the goddess was so enraged she punished her by turning her hair into snakes and whoever looked at her into stone. She was later killed by the hero Perseus, who beheaded her and used her head as a weapon, then gave it up for Athens. Medusa has become a symbol of feminine rage, she was punished for being a victim of rape, while the man escaped with no consequence, and she had spread terror and fright as her revenge for the unfairness of the world, and later is beheaded, and her murderer is labeled a hero, giving her head to the goddess who had started it all with her curse. Interestingly enough, her name means the protector, or the guardian. The most interesting Greek mythical woman in my opinion is Pandora, the beginning of it all. Her name means “The giver of all”. She was Zeus punishment to mankind after Prometheus stole the secret of fire, the symbol of education.
Zeus ordered her to be mould out of the earth, and he and all the other gods joined in offering this “beautiful evil” all manners of seductive gifts. It is said that she had opened a jar, known in modern days as Pandora’s Box, out of curiosity, and unintentionally released all the evils of mankind, disasters and illnesses and malaises, leaving only hope inside after she hastened to close it. The curious part is how women were viewed not just as a punishment, but a punishment for man’s attempts to broaden his mind and satiate his curiosity, and how the evils of mankind all came to be, not as a result of malice or malevolence, but that same innocent curiosity, which is one of the natural attributes of the human race.
It appears as though the Greek did not approve of snooping around, especially of women, which brings to mind the modern stereotype of nosey idle housewives. Her other name is Anesidora, which means “She who sends up gifts”, implying her lower status as a female. In conclusion, while myths might not describe real events, they are nonetheless one of the most valuable tools to understanding human nature and ideals, they are fantasies that man had created and they reflect his thoughts and theories and explanations and hopes and ideals. Women had took up major roles in the Greek mythical world, as villains and victims, but rarely as heroines, which shows that the society at the time and place of the creation of those legends was dominantly ruled by men, with women staying to their homes and looking after their families. These gender stereotypes have continued for many years after the downfall of the Greek Empire, and are still popular throughout the world even today.
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University of Michigan Pr. Homer (fl. 850 B.C.). The Odyssey. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.. Bartleby. Retrieved Dec 6, 2009 from http://www.bartleby.com/22/10.html Homer, Fagles, R., and Knox, B. (1998). The Iliad. Penguin Classics. Katz, M. (1991). Penelope’s renown: Meaning and indeterminacy in the odyssey. Princeton University Press. Lefkowitz, M. R., and Fant, M. B. (2005). Men’s Opinion. Women’s life in Greek and Rome. USA: The John Hopkins University Press.
Pandora, by Jules Joseph Lefebvre(1836–1911), Oil on Canvas.