Gender Roles in The Iliad

Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

One of the things that keeps folks interested in Homer's ''The Iliad'', an epic poem written thousands of years ago, is the wealth of information it provides about ancient Greek society. In this lesson, we look at how gender roles are constructed for both men and women in the ''The Iliad.''

Background

How were men and women expected to behave back in ancient Greece? Homer's epic poem The Iliad, which showcases the last years of the Trojan War, sheds light on gender roles in this society. Through the conflicts between men and the tales supporting female characters, we catch a glimpse of the roles men and women were expected to fill.

In The Iliad, men are depicted as in charge and higher up on the social ladder than women. Women are viewed as either objects or as manipulative creatures set on ruining a man's purpose.

Gender Roles and Women

Women as Objects

The women of The Iliad are often treated as objects to be traded or stolen from the men in the story. The very first woman to be depicted this way is Helen, who is the cause of the entire Trojan War. Paris, a Trojan prince, steals Helen from Menelaus, a king in Sparta. The Spartans go to war against the Trojans in hopes of winning Helen back.

In the Spartan camp, Briseis and Chryseis also become objects to be gifted as war prizes or traded among the men. Both women are captured as spoils of war, with Briseis going to the warrior Achilles, and Chryseis given to Agamemnon, the leader of the Spartan army.

Unfortunately, Agamemnon is forced to give Chryseis up to appease the god Apollo, and he isn't happy about it at all. Agamemnon declares: ''Find me then some prize that shall be my own, lest I only/ among the Argives go without, since that were unfitting…'' In exchange for giving up Chryseis, Agamemnon is given Briseis, who 'belongs' to Achilles.

Both Briseis and Chryseis, and even Helen to an extent, are discussed as prizes, not people. This type of discussion shows women as lacking the same rights as men in this culture. Women were taught to obey men, who held power over them even to the point of being able to trade them like cattle.

Women Use Sex to Manipulate Men

Oh, the age-old notion that women are sexual manipulators! In The Iliad, women are presented as manipulators and liars who use sex to get what they want. For example, the goddess Hera seduces her husband, the god Zeus, in an attempt to get the Trojan War to go in her favor.

When Zeus finds out about the reason behind the seduction, he calls Hera a ''mischief-making trickster.'' Furthermore, he says, ''I would remind you of this that you may learn to leave off being so deceitful, and discover how much you are likely to gain by the embraces out of which you have come here to trick me.''

Here, Zeus is lashing out at Hera for being able to seduce him to get what she wants. Through the relationship between Zeus and Hera, we see that men and women fit into stereotypical roles, with the woman being seen as deceptive and seductive, and the man being viewed as helpless to a woman's sexual tricks.

Gender Roles and Men

Condoning Male Promiscuity

Zeus is depicted as the stereotypical male: he uses physical force to get what he wants, and he sleeps with many women. In the scene where Hera seduces him, he lists off all the women that he has had an affair with, yet he also makes sure to tell Hera that she is the only one he truly loves. He says:

''Never yet have I been so overpowered by passion…not even when I was in love with the wife of Ixion…nor yet with Danae…then there was the daughter of Phoenix…there was Semele, and Alcmena…There was queen Ceres again, and lovely Leto…but with none of these was I ever so much enamoured as I now am with you.''

His freedom to list off these women to his wife demonstrates that society expected men to have affairs and that women were supposed to be okay with it. In addition, when Zeus says that he has been '' overpowered by passion'', it suggests that men cannot control their sexual instincts.

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