Women in Ancient Greek Literature: Lysistrata

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The majority of all ancient societies, cultures, and religions have been primarily male-dominated and ancient Greek life and culture is by far no different to any of these other societies. A great amount of Greek literature helps provide us with this evidence on how women, the “lesser sex”, are viewed by their own communities. In Ancient Greece, from the time of Hesiod, one of earliest sources of Greek literature, to Aristophanes in the classical period, reflecting the patriarchal society of Greece, women in Greek literature were portrayed as practically the same as they were depicted as deceptive, operative, weak, and overall lesser than men. Many of the ways used to depict women in this fashion is by comparing them to animals or stating that women were sent to men by the gods to punish them.

The portrayal of women in this way from nearly the beginning of ancient Greek society helped to sow the seeds of this particular view of women even until the time of Aristophanes nearly three hundred years later. The most prominent literary works of the ancient Greeks that clearly portray women in a negative light are by the writers Hesiod, Semonides, Alcman, Sappho, and Aristophanes. Hesiod was one of the earliest Greek poets and he is often times called the “father of didactic poetry.” Hesiod wrote two separate surviving works, Theogony and Works and Days, that both told a similar story of Prometheus giving fire to man and the punishment that follows; the story of Pandora. In these poems, Pandora is described as deceptive as she is beautiful on the outside, “Athena sashed her and dressed her in silver clothes; she placed with her hands a decorated veil on her head, marvelous to see” (Hes.Theog.573-575) but she is cunning on the inside as she was created by the gods to be a curse to man. Even the name that was chosen by Hesiod for the punishment for man was deceitful as according to the poem Works and Days, “...and he gave this one, the woman, a name, Pandora, “All-gift,” since the gods on Olympus gave her all as a gift...”

The woman is supposed to be a sort of trick gift to men as the “packaging” is beautiful but the inside, like the jar, contains all sorts of evil. (Hes.Op.80-82). According to Hesiod’s poems, Pandora is not the only curse to man; so are all women, “For from her is the race of female women, [from her is the deadly race and tribes of women] a great plague to mortals, dwelling with men, not suited for cursed poverty, but for wealth” (Hes.Theog.590-593). This depiction of women only reflects the status of women during this period in Ancient Greece. As Hesiod was a well-respected poet during his time it is certain that his poetry had a great amount of influence on the society at the time. Of course, even before Hesiod had written these works women were already on the lower end of Greek society but the portrayal of women in this way only affirms the ancient men's belief that they are superior to women as women were the ones who brought all the evil into the world and this helps to justify why men are the ones in charge of society. Semonides of Amorgos was a famous Greek poet known for his iambic poetry.

In Semonides’ poem, Women, women are once again being portrayed as a nuisance to men given to them by the gods. Unlike Hesoid, Semonides uses beast metaphors to explain all the different ways women are a plague to the lives of men. Semonides uses ten different caricatures of women, eight animal and two elemental, only one of which is good. Even animals that we now perceive as being good is turned negative such as dogs, “One type is from a dog-- a no-good bitch...” (Semon. Women.12). The woman created from the sea is illustrated in the most detail and she so happens to be a deceitful woman, “One day she’s calm and smiling...The next day she’s wild and unapproachable, unbearable even to look at...like a bitch with pups, enraged at loved ones and enemies alike” (Semon. Women.29-36). Semonides taking the time to add the most information about this type of women indicates the fact that he believes that two-faced women are the most common sort of women in society. Just like Hesiod, Semonides calls attention to the fact that female beauty is part of the deception as “Such a wife is beautiful to look at for others; for her keeper, shes’ a pain” (Semon.Women.66-67).

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The same is practically the same for women who are viewed as well behaved by their husbands as this, according to Semonides’ poem, is all an illusion and a trick, “for while her slack-jawed husband gapes at her, the neighbors laugh at how he’s deceived” (Semon.Women.112-113). This shows how much men in ancient Greece have been influenced by their own culture and traditions. The way women are negatively portrayed in entertainment during this period only further emphasizes how Greek women were treated in society. Women were not allowed to be seen as equals to men and the depiction of women in literature helped men to reinforce their dominance over women as from their perspective, even the gods saw men as the better gender as women were only created to be a curse to mankind.

Alcman was a male lyric poet from Sparta who wrote in the perspective of women that were performed by a chorus of girls. Alcman followed Semonides’ method of using beast metaphors to help him describe women, “The second girl in form will run as Colaxian horse against an Ibenian. For the Peleades strive for us at dawn, as we carry a pharos. Rising like the star Sirius through the immortal night they engage in contest for us” (Alcm.58-63). In this case, Alcman is comparing women to untamed horse as they are seen as uncontrollable and cause a lot of to men. In the same passage, Alcman also indicates that women fight each other over men because women are simply weak and men are these amazing beings. Sappho was a female lyric poet who even during ancient times would often be known as one of the greatest lyric poets and even sometimes as the “tenth muse”. Sappho wrote in a similar style to Alcman. Unlike Alcman and the majority of all other male writers, Sappho does not incorporate the use of beast metaphors when describing women in her poems although she does still view women as less than men. “After your death, you’ll lie and there’ll be no memory of you, ever, in future, for you have no share in the roses of Pieria...” (Sappho.Fr.55).

Sappho’s view of women seems to be that because they are of little significance in society they will not be remembered after they die as nothing they have done in life would leave any impact on future generations. The fact that a female poet is also following the trend of presenting women as the lesser sex further demonstrates how much influence literary texts have on Greek society that women also believe and accept the fact that men are superior to women and that they do not, in the case of Sappho, seems to object that reality in the slightest.

Aristophanes of Athens was one of the most famous comic playwrights in Ancient Greece. Although a comic writer, Aristophanes still manages to deal with social issues such as the role of women in Greek society. In his play, Lysistrata, the female protagonist Lysistrata convinces women from all over Greece to stop having sex with their husbands and any other men in order to help the Peloponnesian war to finally come to an end. The women in the play manage to essentially take over the city of Athens by taking control of the Akropolis, a sort of treasury, as it was sort of the power source that kept the war going so they wanted to cut the funds for the war. In previous periods in ancient Greece, women were never portrayed as being able to be in any sort of leadership position like what the women in Lysistrata. Although the women in this play are shown to be able to have more power than before, they are still being portrayed as deceitful and manipulative as their main goal is to seduce men into wanting to have sex with them by dressing very provocatively but never actually meaning to follow through with any sexual acts, sort of like a sex strike. “If we sit around at home all made up, and walk past them wearing only our see-through underwear... but we didn’t go near them and kept away, they’d sue for peace, and pretty quick, you can count on that” (Ar.Lys.150-154). The women themselves in the play openly admit that they know that men view them as mischievous and they take pride of this fact, “‘You know, according to the men we’re capable of all sorts of mischief.’ ‘And so we are. By Zeus!’”(Ar.Lys.9-11). Lysistrata’s plan is primarily dependant on the amount of power woman have with their sexuality toward men.

The play’s premise displays how the ancient Greeks sexualized women and that the only weapon they possess that could deter men is their sexuality, not anything else. Aristophanes’ use of female sexuality as a weapon in his play is the only logical feat that Greek men at the time could possibly take seriously as women are still looked down on as a whole. Also, the fact that Aristophanes was a comic playwright further degrades women as technically the premise of the play, Lysistrata, is supposed to be ridiculous, especially the fact that women could ever seize power over men. The ancient Greeks perceived women as lesser than men and that they were a curse to mankind as they were generally all viewed as manipulative, deceptive, and overall a nuisance to man given to them by the gods. The works of Hesiod, Semonides, Alcman, Sappho, and Aristophanes help to provide evidence to this sort of ideological thought process that the majority of ancient Greeks possessed. Although Sappho was a female poet, she too viewed women in the same way men did as that was all she knew through her own treatment as a woman in Greek society and what was written in the literary texts of the time. The majority of the works by these writers include depictions of women being manipulative, being compared to animals, and or stating that they were sent by the gods to punish men. The portrayal of women as such only helps to engrave this type of misogynistic ideology deeper into the Greek society and it even kept women, like Sappho, in a similar mindset making them not question their place and role in society.

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Women in Ancient Greek Literature: Lysistrata. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/women-in-ancient-greek-literature-lysistrata/
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