In the Greek world of Homer, women are relegated to a specific role that does not involve anything near heroism. The criteria for being a “hero” in the Greek sense is quite set into place and it is a difficult mold for characters to break through. In the majority of Homer’s works and the time as a whole, the role of hero is given to a man. There are some women in Greek literature that embody some of the basic values of Homer’s heroes, though. Antigone and Medea, for example, have some of the aspects of heroism that make them incredibly dynamic and interesting historical figures.
In an Ancient Greek world that was not even remotely open to the idea of female heroism, they were ill-received but still a part of the equation because of the simple fact that they were so willing, as characters, to stray from the common place that women were relegated to at that time. Antigone is an interesting example because of her willingness to be different. In the story that bears her name, she is often the rogue individual that is somewhat scary. This is one of the basic tenets of Homer’s heroes that are seen all throughout literature.
They are somewhat misunderstood by the people around them and even more than that, they are feared by those people who cannot understand their meanings. In Antigone, there is an interesting exchange in dialogue that shows this fact to be true. In the face of constant pressure and incessant mocking, Antigone says, “Ah, I am mocked! In the name of our fathers’ gods, can ye not wait till I am gone,-must ye taunt me to my face, O my city, and ye, her wealthy sons? ” (Braun). In addition to her ability to step out and be different, this is one of the places where the character is much like the heroes of Homer’s works.
She is willing to laugh in the face of those who are putting her down. It is this self-confidence and self-reliance that make the Greek heroes so powerful in their time. In most plays, this type of role cannot be occupied by women. Antigone breaks through this mold, though. Antigone’s differences from such heroes are distinct and easily recognized. As a woman, she does not hold the absolute power that many of Homer’s heroes hold in their stories. Those men are absolute and they command the respect of many of those around them.
Though Antigone has this sort of attitude where she goes after it and does not doubt herself, there are many around her who still doubt her ability to get things done. If one were to compare her to the hero in The Iliad, for example, they would see that she does not possess the same type of ability to impact the masses as her male counterparts. In that work, the hero Achilles speaks strongly of his exploits and his words speak to the absolute respect that his actions garnered. He says, “You know it; why tell you what you know well already? We went to Thebe the strong city of Eetion, sacked it, and brought hither the spoil.
The sons of the Achaeans shared it duly among themselves, and chose lovely Chryseis as the meed of Agamemnon; but Chryses, priest of Apollo, came to the ships of the Achaeans to free his daughter, and brought with him a great ransom” (Lombardo). This is where her primary differences lie and this speaks to the overall challenge that women faced in Ancient Greek literature. There was a natural barrier that held women back from achieving things in that culture. Though Antigone was nothing like the women of her time in attitude or looks, she still was not able to command the same sort of respect.
She had to completely toss aside the entire idea of being a woman to even be taken seriously and with that choice to forsake womanhood, she actually entered into an awkward place between womanhood and manhood. She was not quite a woman, as she did not even like some of the traditions that were expected of women of that time. Still, she was not able to do some of the things that a hero like Achilles was able to do, simply because of the fact that she was not a man, either. It was a middle ground where she did not really know where to tread and people around her did not know how to take her.
Medea is an interesting case in her own right, as her story with Jason is an interesting one in Greek literature. She is much like the male heroes of Homer’s lore in that she has the ability to use her own powers to enact much havoc. It is also important to note that she is vindictive like many of the heroes in the Greek myths. When she has some wrong done against her, she sets out on a life path to avenge it. This is quite similar to something that one of Homer’s heroes might have done. In addition to that, she is actually quite successful at enacting this type of revenge.
She is able to pull off a series of murders that both position her as a real force in the story and cement her status as one of the super women of Greek literature. In the play, Medea says, “My friends, I am resolved upon the deed; at once will I slay my children and then leave this land, without delaying long enough to hand them over to some more savage hand to butcher. Needs must they die in any case; and since they must, I will slay them-I, the mother that bare them. O heart of mine, steel thyself! Why do I hesitate to do the awful deed that must be done? Come, take the sword, thou wretched hand of mine!
” (Collier, Machemer). This shows the pure amount of vindictiveness that she must have had in order to pull off such a terrible deed. This was certainly a quality that could be seen in many of Homer’s heroes. Where Medea fails to meet the mark in terms of being a hero of this sort is in her inability to stand alone. Many of the male heroes had the ability to carry their own story. When one thinks of someone like Achilles, they think of strength and they do not think of dependence. For Medea, the entire story was based upon the premise that she was weak without Jason.
She was made into an emotional wreck that ran the roller coaster of actions that might have been good or bad. This is not one of the characteristics of the classic Greek hero as he is known in literature. In a way, she is made out to be some sort of crazy monster, as is evidenced in her quote above. She is made unstable because a man left her. All in all, women in Greek literature faced an enormous challenge if they wanted to be taken as seriously as men. When they attempted to ascend to power, they were either beaten back down or chastised.
They were often painted as being a little bit off of the reservation because their aspirations did not fit the classic female mold. Even those characters that were fully capable of carrying out deeds that a male hero might undertake were painted as being somehow monstrous because of their ambitions. Both Medea and Antigone show some of the characters of being a hero, but both are limited by their gender in each story.
Braun, Richard. Antigone. Collier, Michael and Machemers, Georgia. Medea. Lombardo, Stanley. The Iliad