Women in Greek Mythology
Aphrodite, Artemis, Sappho, Persephone, Medusa, and Helen of Troy. These are only a few examples of the notorious female figures that were once established in ancient Greece. When I was in elementary school, my friends and I were obsessed with Greek mythology. During recess, we would go to the playground and pretend to be Greek goddesses living on Mount Olympus and saving the lives of mortals. We did this every day, barely being able to wait until we could go outside and become immortal for an hour.
When we look back on that time in our childhood, my friends and I usually laugh and make remarks on how the other kids on the playground probably thought we were insane. Despite our shared embarrassment, I know that every one of us continue to be inspired by female figures of ancient Greece today. I believe that Greek mythology made each of us believe that we could be both beautiful and powerful as women. We never pretended to be helpless damsels in distress in need of being saved by the boys, we always strived to be strong and fierce goddesses.
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I am eternally grateful that Greek mythology has inspired me to have this mindset throughout my life. Although there are many male heroes and gods such as Zeus, Poseidon, Perseus, and Achilles throughout ancient Greek literature and mythology, there were always powerful women right beside them. The presence of women has been established in various forms throughout ancient Greek literature, art, and mythology.
Women were highly present within literature during this period, but there were few female writers. The majority of writers portraying female characters in their work were male. “Even though male Greek writers of the fifth century created brilliant descriptions of the problems of women’s lives, they were not equally good at offering solutions” (Lefkowitz, 217). Often, in the literature created by men, women were portrayed as prizes to be won or an object to be saved by men. In the Iliad by Homer, Helen of Troy is attributed for causing the Trojan War. Helen was treated as a prize throughout the Epic, displaying no free will whatsoever.
Penelope, Odysseus’ wife in Homer’s Odyssey, is praised for remaining faithful to him while he was gone for 20 years. She turns down every suitor who asks for her hand in marriage because she is certain that her husband will return, unaware if he is alive or dead. If she had not waited for him for those 20 years, she would have been deemed unfaithful. Both of these epic poems are masterpieces, they continue to be admired and read by many today.
But these works of literature, like many others created by men, objectify women by characterizing them as trophies. Despite the many powerful female heroes, “the great majority of myths about goddesses or women concentrate on their relations with males” (Lefkowitz, 210). Even when powerful women like the goddess Athena are mentioned in literature, their stories are typically centered around men. Women writers, which were hard to come by at the time, characterized women much more accurately in their literature.
By far, the most well-known of the very few female writers from ancient Greece is the poetess, Sappho. She was an extraordinarily talented writer and what has been found of her work continues to be studied by many today. “As the principal female voice to survive from Greek antiquity, Sappho is pressed into service to speak for all women” (Katz 520). Some consider Sappho the world’s first known feminist due to the contemporary views presented in her poetry. Her work is known to praise and glorify women, specifically those she was romantically involved with. Openly expressing her homosexuality was extremely controversial during this period. The majority of Sappho’s poetry was deemed scandalous and inappropriate. What her critics did not know, although, was the fact that Sappho was only ahead of their time.
Sappho’s poetry was typically very romantic, as she portrayed women brilliantly. She displayed a great deal of emotion in her work, despite that fact that many others condemned her for doing so. Sappho’s depiction of women greatly differed from the those by men in poetry and literature because she truly understood them. Sappho continues to be adored today because she portrayed the feelings of love and emotion possessed by women. She did not speak only of the beauty of women, she explored the content of their hearts. It is important to look at women like Sappho throughout history in order to better understand the history of the gender through a female voice.
Females were depicted in numerous styles in ancient Greek art. Some of the most beautiful pieces of art from this time depict women. Some popular women-centered works of art from this period include the Aphrodite of Milo, Peplos Kore, and Lady of Auxerre. “We see women portrayed as goddesses and mothers…There is a major emphasis on women as representative of fertility…The typical portrayal of a woman in ancient Greece was usually as goddess, royal, or monster…They were almost never portrayed as everyday citizens of the Greek society” (Women in Greek Art).
This could be viewed as problematic in today’s society because although women were being praised by these works of art, those depicted were non-representative of the regular woman. But, during the era of ancient Greece, showing women as more than an object of lust was quite modern of them. In this particular circumstance, they were much ahead of their time. Unlike those portrayed in literature, the female figures that were illustrated in this era’s art were not constantly connected to or centered around a male figure. The majority of females depicted in ancient Greek art represented great power.
To the right, the reader can see Winged Victory of Samothrace pictured in figure 1. This is one of the most beloved and well-known pieces of art from Ancient Greece. Not only is it one of the most popular from this period, it is one of the most admired sculptures of all time. It portrays a beautiful goddess, Nike, with wings and no head or arms, standing with pride. Nike is the Greek goddess of victory, which allows the viewer to understand that she is signifying a great triumph in this sculpture (Tribe, Yugen, and Shovova). Winged Victory of Samothrace is a great example of how women were typically represented in ancient Greek art. They were always portrayed as something magnificent and immortal.
The woman shown in this sculpture stands out. Even with no head or arms, the viewer can see her strength and confidence through her wings and stance. While there was a great deal of renowned sculptures of female figures produced in ancient Greece, the amount of male-centered artwork outnumbers that of females. For instance, some of the most popular pieces of ancient Greek art, which happen to focus on men, include Fallen Warrior from Temple of Aphaia, The Riace Bronzes, God from the Sea, and the Mask of Agamemnon. The depiction of men generally involved the strength of heroic warriors and gods. Interestingly, this does not differ greatly from how women were portrayed in art. It was clearly a theme in ancient Greek art to illustrate power and immortality in human forms, regardless of gender.
In the case of ancient Greek mythology, it was also very unlikely that a woman would be portrayed as a regular human being. The most popular and well-known of women in mythology are Aphrodite, the goddess of love and Athena, the goddess of war. Both of these female figures are known for both their femininity and power, but they are immortal. There are many stories of regular men who become great warriors and save the world. Odysseus and Achilles, the main protagonists in the Odyssey and Iliad, were mortal men. Women in mythology were always depicted as goddesses, monsters, or some sort of royal woman of great status. For instance, Medusa is a very well-known figure in Greek Mythology.
She was born as a hideous monster with snakes for hair, she turned anyone who looked her in the eyes to stone. The Trojan War, a legendary war in ancient Greece, was fought for the love Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world. Sirens, another prominent female figure in Greek mythology, would lure men to them with their beauty and songs only to murder them. Women evidently served as figures of beauty and power in Greek Mythology, even if that beauty was deadly. They were either powerful and desired women/goddesses or vicious and vengeful monsters. One thing is certain – women portrayed in Greek mythology held a great deal of power over men.
Modern and feminist aspects are much more present in ancient Greek mythology than many would think. There are many examples from the stories in which contemporary views are explored. For instance, “Omphale, queen of Lydia, married Hercules, each of them wearing the clothes of the opposite sex” (McForan 7). A hero and a queen defying their own gender roles is a very current view. It is something that few would do today due to a common fear of being judged. Greek mythology left a great legacy behind, as it continues to be established in popular culture today.
Details like that of Omphale and Hercules in mythological tales from ancient Greece are the reason these stories continue to be admired and studied by so many. A large amount of literature, art, and film created is inspired by Greek mythology. For instance, many children of today’s generation grew up watching the Disney film, Hercules, and many adolescents enjoyed Rick Riordan’s series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians. The Iliad and Odyssey by Homer continue to be studied by students of all ages. Greek mythology also inspires many contemporary artists in their work, Medusa is a commonly used as a muse. Clearly, the myths from this era have great influence on the modern world.
The literature, artwork, and mythology birthed of this period are of the most unique and interesting in the history of our world. Women like Sappho created literature centuries ahead of their own era, revealing the true feelings, desires, and tribulations that come with being a woman. Female-centered pieces of art like Winged Victory of Samothrace stood the test of time and continue to be some of the most prized in the world. Fierce women, goddesses, and monsters from Greek mythology like Athena and Medusa will always prove to women that they hold more power than they may think. Because of this, it is not only important to continue the study of ancient Greek mythology.
It is important to study the presence of women during this period and how it shaped their time and has influenced our time. “Studies of women and the female in…ancient Greece thus contributes not only to an expansion of our knowledge about this fundamental aspect of polis life, but also to a reevaluation of women’s roles generally in the ancient city-state” (Katz 515). Studying women not only in ancient Greece, but in all history, reveals a great deal about the progress the gender as a whole has made throughout time. The female figures of ancient Greece will always influence literature and art in modern society. Hopefully, the women depicted in Greek mythology will continue to inspire today’s children. I trust these women will have just as much of an impact on them as they had on my friends and I in elementary school, for it changed my mindset forever.”