The Iliad is famous for its stories of great heroes who clash against each other, sometimes victorious and other times doomed to failure. One thing these heroes all have in common is their gender. Homer’s works are filled with stories of great men doing great things, often at the expense of women and animals. Since the Iliad was written thousands of years ago the modern-day values of gender equality and capability didn’t yet exist. In fact, women were used as no better than slaves unless they had a noble birth or were goddesses. Dogs also received a negative treatment, being referred to as carrion-feeders. In general, female characters and dogs are negatively or stereotypically portrayed in the Iliad.
This stereotyping becomes obvious within the first few pages of the poem. Several female characters never go beyond the traditional role of relatively submissive wife and mother. Our first introduction to Thetis, sea-goddess and mother of Achilles, is when she consoles him after losing Briseis. (1.376-377). Rather than showing the power and intuition of a goddess, she is forlorn and seeks to placate Achilles’ lust for vengeance by asking Zeus to intervene. Throughout the poem we see Thetis seeking to make Achilles happy and be an appeasing mother, even when his desires run counter to his wellbeing. When Achilles refuses to fight, he sends his closest friend Patroclus in his place. Soon after, Patroclus is killed by Hector and Achilles is again distraught. Thetis once again placates him, going to another male figure, Hephaestus the smith of the gods, to act on his behalf. (18.151-154) The one power she displays as a goddess is her connection to male gods and ability to plead with them for assistance.
The women of Troy fare no better in their shallow characterizations. Following his return to Troy, Hector is surrounded by women, identified only as wives and daughters, frantic to hear about their loved ones who are still out fighting. (6.247-250). He gives them stories of the men who are fighting, then speaks with his mother Hecuba who encourages him to rest. He rebuffs her and tells her to go pray to Athena, seemingly the only part a woman can play in war. After this he meets with his wife Andromache who is forlorn over the long war and risk to her husband. Andromache pleads with him to stay in the city, “Show some pity and stay here by the tower. Don’t make your child an orphan, your wife a widow.” (6.453-454). In her pleas she describes herself only as a wife, with no power or authority of her own. Through these interactions we can see that women are defined by the men in their lives.
Although the defining characteristic of these women is their relation to the men in their lives, they still fare better than many women in the poem. Other female characters could easily be thought of as merely rape objects for the pleasure of men. The women captured as honor symbols, or prizes are the clearest examples of this attitude. Chryseis is stolen away from her home and kept by Agamemnon as a woman in his tent. When Apollo begins to punish the Greeks to force her return, Agamemnon complains that he wants “another prize ready for me right away.” (1.125) In this way we can see that he only views her as an object, not a human. Her return is the cause of the strife between Agamemnon and Achilles, yet she never gets a single line of dialogue. When Briseis is taken from Achilles he isn’t upset because of his feelings for her, he is angry that his honor was damaged. (1.406-431) Even after Agamemnon offers to return Briseis in order to get Achilles to help in the war, Achilles refuses and vows to sail away in the morning with everything but the prize of honor that was taken from him. (9.377-385) This shows that it was never about Briseis herself, but the insult given to him by Agamemnon taking her back. Many other women are used by the Greeks as trophies and concubines but are never even named in the poem. The women Ajax and Odysseus keep in their tents are mentioned once by Agamemnon and then never spoken of again. (1.148-149)
Many men in the Iliad have some direct connection to the gods. Whether through parentage in the case of Achilles and Sarpedon, or through affection such as Zeus’ love for Hector. (22.190-200) Men are viewed as powerful, capable of strong thought and action. The feelings, fates, and potential futures of females are often overlooked by males, and in some cases, men seem to take pleasure in the thought of hurting them. When Chryses comes to plea for the return of his daughter, Agamemnon replies, “The girl is mine, and she’ll be an old woman in Argos before I let her go, working the loom in my house and coming to my bed, far from her homeland.” (1.37-40) This shows a clear disdain for any future or personal control Chryseis may have over her own life, and some form of pleasure in denying her a homecoming. In fact, he calls her a girl instead of a woman, a belittling word that is often used for women of lower class within the work. Briseis’ control over her own destiny is also taken away in the same manner, first when she is in Achilles tent, and later when she is taken back by Agamemnon. He claims that he didn’t go to bed with her “or did what is natural between women and men”. (9.137) In this quote he shows that his only consideration for her value is as a bedmate. Since he didn’t sleep with her, it is clear that he only took her from Achilles to be an object of status.
Another example of the disregard men show for the lives of women is in Paris’ wooing of and elopement with Helen. Although Helen isn’t treated as poorly as the tent-girls of the Greeks, she is still considered a prize to be won and is in a way the cause of the Trojan war. (1.168) While married to the king Menelaus she was courted and taken by Paris to Troy. Later Menelaus asked his brother Agamemnon to intercede and all the power of the Greeks fell upon Troy for ten years in an effort to get her back. In all this time there is no consideration to how she feels, or if she would prefer to remain with Paris. She even curses herself for her weakness and wanton ways and yet never attempts to correct them. (6.374-375)
The key exception to the powerlessness of women comes in the form of the goddesses within the poem. These characters derive their power not from gender, but from immortality. Even still, they don’t always command the same respect given to other gods. Some of the female characters are best thought of as conniving schemers or meddlers. Thetis causes the deaths of countless Greeks by coddling Achilles and begging Zeus to help him. (1.533-541) Even after her interference has caused harm, she continues to placate him. (18.462-497) Hera is shown as a henpecking nosy wife to Zeus and is even threatened by him with physical violence. (1.598-600) Although she is Zeus’ sister and wife, she isn’t considered his equal. She schemes behind his back many times, sending Iris down to rally Achilles’ against the Trojans without Zeus’ knowledge. (18.195-197)
Athena meddles in the decisions of men throughout the entire poem. Her schemes begin when she stops Achilles from fighting Agamemnon. (1.217-224) Had Achilles and Agamemnon settled their argument here, perhaps Achilles would not have withdrawn from battle; Patroclus may not have died along with thousands of other Greeks punished by Zeus for dishonoring Achilles. She again meddles after Patroclus is killed, working with her mother Hera to push the Trojan lines back from the Greek encampment. She cloaks Achilles in her own armor and amplifies his voice to send terror into the hearts of the Trojans. (18.215-238) Perhaps her greatest interference comes during the battle of Achilles and Hector. Hector keeps running from Achilles and they are both becoming exhausted from their flight around the walls of Troy. Athena changes her appearance and meets Hector in the disguise of his brother Deiphobus to give him courage to stand and fight. Once he does turn to face Achilles, she disappears, and he knows that the gods are against him. (22.225-333) This leads directly to Hector’s death.
It isn’t only women who are described as shallow cutouts of their true selves. Dogs fare no better than female characters in this story, with multiple examples showing just how poorly the characters in the Iliad thought of “man’s best friend.” Throughout the poem, dogface is used as a grave insult. (1.167) It is also considered dishonorable to allow dogs to feast on the corpses of fallen men. When Achilles and Hector are facing each other, Achilles taunts him by saying, “Dogs and birds are going to drag out your guts.” (22.372) Hector pleads, “I beg you, Achilles, by your own soul and by your parents, do not allow the dogs to mutilate my body.” (22.375-377) Even when fearing for his life, he dreads the dishonor of his body being ravaged by dogs.
It is clear that the focus of the Iliad is on the men who fight, and not the women who are impacted by their feuds. Time and again we see women being used as badges of honor, symbols of status, or objects of pleasure. While men are allowed to grieve over their lost comrades, or even pout over perceived slights, women are expected to accept whatever new misery is inflicted on them. Even the women who rise above these base descriptions tend toward spiteful vindictiveness and tend to cause much of the drama within the story. If it weren’t for Hera, Thetis and Athena interfering, the story would have a much different outcome. Dogs are only referred to as dishonorable throughout the whole work. Although the Iliad is a classic which has survived for centuries, the stereotypes of women and dogs within this great work serve as a clear indication of its age.
- Homer. “The Iliad.” Translated by Stanley Lombardo. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Gen. ed. Martin Puchner. 3rd ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. 230-331. Print.