Kelly Taylor
Classical Mythology
October 4, 1996

The Iliad as a Source of Gender Relationships in Antiquity

One of the reasons scholars have found The Iliad so interesting for almost three thousand years is because much of the culture, religion and mythology of the ancient Greeks can be interpreted from it. An important part of the mythology embedded in The Iliad is that which suggests the nature of the relationships between the gods as well as the relationships of the humans. These relationships can help uncover what the general perception of the gods may have been, and some of the attitudes towards human gender roles in the 8th century BCE. The interpersonal relationships of men and women in the Iliad reflect many of the perceptions men had of women in ancient Greece. When Zeus finds out he has been seduced in order for Hera to manipulate the Trojan war to turn the tide of battle in favor of the Greeks he says:

"I will remind you of all this, so you will give up
your deceptions, see if your love-making in bed will help you,
that way you lay with me apart from the gods, and deceived me."
(p. 310, l. 31-33)

As portrayed by Hera, women in the ancient Greek world were deceitful, manipulative liars who would do anything to get what they wanted, specifically by using their sexuality as a tool. Zeus portrays men as being at the mercy of their desires, unable to resist the wiles of the women who seduce them. He lists the 30-odd women he has slept with besides Hera as she is seducing him, but she sleeps with him anyway, because getting what she wants is more important. This depicts women as being extremely tolerant of their husbands' infidelity, or callous to it, when in reality, they probably had no choice but to accept, whether they cared or not. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and desire, also plays a part in supporting the view of women as primarily sexual manipulators in almost every scene she appears in. She assists Hera in her seduction of Zeus by giving her a magically aphrodisial "zone," an article of clothing, before Hera approaches him (p.300). Aphrodite uses her arts to initially cause the Trojan war by promising Helen to Paris, even though she was married to Menelaos already. She also rescues Paris from hand-to-hand combat with Menelaos, and deposits him clean and bathed in Helen's bedroom, where she watches them have sex. This can be interpreted as a metaphor for a man being controlled by his desire such that he flees his manly duty on the battlefield in order to be with a woman.

All this can be related to the ancient view of women being the ones who induce the temptation of sex in men, which is shown to be a common theme in the ancient world, especially in the Old and New Testaments. However, a very different relationship between men and women is inferred from the human characters in The Iliad. Here we see a glimpse into how men actually treated women, as opposed to how they perceived them. Rather than as political and social persons to be communicated and interacted with, women are merely the pawns and prizes to be won by men, and yet are important enough as timé to start wars. The timé , generally defined as both war booty and the honor gained from it, that the women bestow depends upon their beauty, wealth and position, or their overall desirability. Still, the woman's role as a status symbol is dependent on her existence as an object owned by the hero; Helen is important because of her timé , as is Briseis. Although, as part of the honor code, the Greek warrior is willing to kill and alienate everyone he loves for his woman, the lengths he goes to in order to get her back depend on the amount of timé she confers on him. Menelaos starts a war to retrieve Helen, who has been stolen by Paris. The "anger of Peleus' son Achilles" who initially stole Briseis in a town raid as timé , is evoked when she is again taken as timé by Agamemnon. With this theft, Achilles' honor as a warrior-- his metaphysical timé -- is also stolen.

Women's roles are clearly perceived by the men in The Iliad to be merely sexual manipulators or timé, which is true of both the immortal goddesses and the human women. With the possible exception of Hera's attempt to turn the tide of battle, an effort that is essentially ineffective, women are not given extremely pivotal roles in their own right. The women in The Iliad are only influential because of the degree to which they help or hinder the men that dominate their personal worlds. It can thereby be inferred that the ancient Greek society contemporary to the writing of The Iliad had similar conceptions about women and women's roles in society.