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Greek Attitudes Towards Women: The Mythological Evidence1

  • P. Walcot

Students today demand that what they are taught or what they discuss is ‘socially relevant’. A topic appears to exhibit social relevance when it is related to some issue currently reckoned important and the subject of controversy. No topic at present is thought more socially relevant than the role of women in society. Extra-mural students can vote with their feet as undergraduates cannot, and it is significant how regularly the brochures of university extra-mural departments in Britain have come to feature courses with titles such as ‘Women's Studies’, ‘New Horizons for Women’, ‘Images of Women’, and ‘Women Speak’. Teachers of Classics have not been reluctant to devise their own courses on women in antiquity, and it is my impression that no university in North America is without a course of this type, while postgraduate seminars covering the same field of interest seem to have become firmly established throughout Western Europe. Books, articles, and notes on women and ancient society abound, and the resultant bibliography grows more and more daunting each year.

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2. An updated version of the bibliography published in Arethusa 6 (1973) is to appear early in 1984 in Women in the Ancient World: the Arethusa Papers (S.U.N.Y. Press Classical Series). The two studies since 1973 which students are likely to find most helpful are Just, Roger, ‘Conceptions of Women in Classical Athens’, Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 6 (1975), 153–70 and Gould, John, ‘Law, Custom and Myth: Aspects of the Social Position of Women in Classical Athens’, JHS 100 (1980), 3859. Femme et Mythe (Paris, 1982) by Georges Devereux consists of a number of papers written from very much the point of view of a Freudian (see G & R 31 (1984), 103–4).

3. The evidence is conveniently collected by M. L. West in his note on verse 698 of his edition, Hesiod, Works and Days (Oxford, 1978).

4. An example of the wealthy flouting convention is provided by the Athenian Callias who, according to Herodotus (6.122), allowed his daughters to choose their own husbands. As for the poor, note Aristotle's question, ‘Who could prevent the wives of the poor from going out when they want to?’ (Politics, 1300a).

5. Il. 14. 159ff. and Od. 8.339–42.

6. See Eur, . Medea, 244–7 and Electro, 1036–40.

7. See Il. 14.294–6, lines which emphasize the desirability of marrying a daughter off as soon as possible.

8. See Feldman, Thalia, Arion, Autumn 1965, 493–4 n. 10. Cf. also Glenn, Justin, G &R 25 (1978), 141–55. On women in Greek myth and psychoanalysis, see Farber, Ada, Psychoanalytic Review 62 (1975), 2947.

9. Frag. 275 (Merkelbach-West). This myth is discussed in detail by Brisson, Luc, Le Mythe de Tiresias (Leiden, 1976); see also Gual, Carlos Garcia, Emerita 43 (1975), 107–32.

10. See Tourraix, A., Dialogues d'Histoire Ancienne 2 (1976), 369ff.

11. Thus Bisset, K. A., G&R 18 (1971), 150. The latest consideration of the Amazons by a feminist writer is duBois, Page, Centaurs and Amazons (Ann Arbor, 1982).

12. For the female breast as an erotic object, see Gerber, Douglas E., Arethusa 11 (1978), 203–12.

13. Myth and Thought among the Greeks (London, Boston, Melbourne, and Henley, 1983), pp. 127ff. My quotation is taken from pp. 133–4.

14. Cf. Bodkin, Maud, Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (Oxford, paperback edition 1963), pp. 153ff.

15. See Gow's, A. S. F. note on verse 106f. in his edition, Theocritus (Cambridge, 1950).

16. See Lloyd-Jones, Hugh, Femalesofthe Species, Semonides on Women (London, 1975) online 53 (pp. 77–8).

17. Cf. North, Helen F., Illinois Classical Studies 2 (1977), 36–7.

18. Still of interest as a survey of ‘ancient apicultural lore’ is Whitfield, B. G., G&R 3 (1956), 99117; rather more exciting is Detienne, Marcel in Myth, Religion and Society (Cambridge and Paris, 1981), pp. 95109, who remarks that ‘the Greek conception of the bee (melissa) was based on a model which, in essential features, remained unchanged for over fifteen centuries. The melissa was distinguished by a way of life which was pure and chaste and also by a strictly vegetarian diet (compare the Amazons?) … the bee showed a most scrupulous purity; not only did it avoid rotting substances and keep well away from impure things, but it also had the reputation of extreme abstinence in sexual matters’ (p. 98).

1 This paper is based upon a lecture given to school and undergraduate audiences at Eton College and at various universities in this country and the States.

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Greece & Rome
  • ISSN: 0017-3835
  • EISSN: 1477-4550
  • URL: /core/journals/greece-and-rome
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