Women in the ancient world: the Arethusa papers by John Peradotto, J P Sullivan

By John Peradotto, J P Sullivan

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Not only is Penelope's cleverness revealed by the trick she plays on Odysseus, but in making knowledge that is shared between them alone the basis of their reunion, Homer has celebrated not the institution of marriage, nor the social role of either husband and wife, but the peculiarly personal and intimate aspects of the relation between these two individual persons. It must be emphasized here again that there is no indication that Penelope suffered any less from the disability that came from being a woman in ancient Greece, than any other woman in these poems.

Nevertheless, Homer does not seek to explore the implications of this negative side of the picture of women's status, or to condemn his society on account of it; in fact, the only extended treatment of the "war of the sexes," the marital squabbles of Zeus and Hera, is done with humorous wit. In the figure of the goddess Hera we have a clever and intelligent woman who is impatient with the restraints to which her position as Zeus' wife subject her. She is jealous of his love-affairs, and determined to use feminine and other wiles to get around him.

In such a context, Homer's focus of interest on the relationship between Hector and Andromache emerges as something of an anachronism, more appropriate to an era of small families. Conversely, the heroic code by which the warriors fight in this poem is inconsistent with an emphasis upon the nuclear family, and more appropriate to the age when the warriors formed a class apart. As we shall see, the manner in which Homer has developed the character of Hector, as both a warrior and a family man, has enabled him to deal directly with this clash in social forms and cultural values between the old, heroic society, and the new world of pre-polis society.

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