I’ve been rather silent lately, but not without good cause: my classes this semester are incredibly challenging and time consuming. I’m not complaining; in fact, it’s the opposite – I’m loving every minute of it.
Since I haven’t shared any academic writing in a while, I decided to share my position paper on The Iliad and provide just a little sneak peek at what my courses are covering. Enjoy!
The Great Homeric Misconception: Misogyny
One of the fiercest criticisms of The Iliad was the maltreatment of women, and many scholars are dedicated to pointing out misogyny and abuse throughout the poem. While I agree there are citable references within the text to women being bartered as property (IX.154-168), provided as gifts for the conquering of the armies (XIII.417-419), or otherwise ignored, I believe this was not a sexist motive but rather a decision based on beauty and/or aptitude and its equation to “good” in the Homeric world. Within this essay, I will illustrate how men and women were equally debased when they were found lacking in beauty or applicable skill, and will point out textual evidence of women receiving greater esteem than men on multiple occasions, corroborating that The Iliad isn’t misogynistic, but rather bases value on the attractiveness and/or cleverness of the individual.
To elucidate the non-misogynist environment of The Iliad, I’ll address the occasions where men are devalued, debased, or otherwise demeaned through exposition, action, or dialog. A clear example is Thersites (II.246-249), who is referred to as “a babbling soldier,” who “thinking himself amusing to the troops,” was cited as “the most obnoxious rogue” among the men fighting in Troy (II.246-253), Homer labels Thersites as “bowlegged,” handicapped, and odd-looking, with hair that was “mangy fuzz like mold” (II.250-253). His physical appearance greatly diminished his value, and he was attributed no redemptive skill or quality to equate him as “good” by Homeric definition. For this reason, though not a woman, he was notably deemed worthless to the army and the Homeric value system.
Keeping the focus on the male characters, another example disproving misogyny (and in support of a superficially-driven value system) would be the treatment of Alexandros throughout the text. Hektor, his brother, publicly abashed Alexandros in Book III, mocking his good looks as a false representation of his actual skill:
Now they can laugh, Akhaians who thought you were a first-rate man, a champion, going by looks–and no backbone, no staying power is in you (III.51-54).
Alexandros defended his beauty, citing it as a valuable gift from the gods (III.80-90). His handsomeness defined him as capable and vigorous, even when his actions proved otherwise. Alexandros even faced ridicule from Helen, his stolen bride, during his brief reprieve from war, but he seduced her with his “godlike” looks (III.510-542). Not only does his beauty enamor everyone in his favor, but he believed it provided him a divine protection (and, perhaps, a divine strength) from the powerful man from whom he’d taken Helen. This evidences that beauty is the primary prejudice of the Homeric world.
Addressing the notable women of The Iliad, there were no instances of abuse cited among the mortals, and the injury of the goddess Aphrodite, at the hands of a mortal, Diomedes, was only at the direction of Athena (V. 141-153, 381-396). Though Zeus often threatened abuse to his wife, Hera, he never committed an act of physical violence against her. In fact, most references to women in The Iliad, goddess and mortal alike, illustrated laudable qualities. A shining example of this is Helen, the cited cause of the war, who was noted several times for both beauty and intellect. For example, in Book III she was able to spot a goddess in disguise, and had the courage to call her out:
Her sense being quickened so, through all disguise she recognized the goddess’ flawless throat . . . She called her by her name (III.477-480).
Throughout the entire poem, the gods moved in and out of the mortal world, interacting with the men and posing as humans, and yet there were few instances where men recognized the immortals (unless intentionally making their presence known); yet Homer portrays Helen as discerning enough to catch Aphrodite in disguise. This is directly in contrast to a misogynistic approach, and indicates Homer’s laud of acumen and perception regardless of gender.
Looking at female representation in The Iliad, while most go undocumented throughout the poem, the majority of women named were represented in a neutral, if not extoling, light. Men and women were judged equally for the value they brought, either in beauty or in skill, and were represented as nugatory, at best, if lacking in both qualities. From the “imbecile” that was Thersites (II.307), to the “dear wife” Andromakhe, Hektor’s bride (XI.562), and back to Helen, the guerdon at the center of the war, pulchritude and perspicacity were the true values of the Homeric world.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004. Print.
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Thanks for reading,
~ Victoria Elizabeth