How Are Women Represented in The Iliad?

 

“[Achilles] will kill me, unprotected as I am /

my gear laid, defenseless as a woman.”  Hector to Andromache

 

Different types of women are represented in the epic poem The Iliad: strong-willed andBriseis, portrayed by the actress Rose Byrne shrewd women, damsel-in-distress types, wicked and vengeful women, or even women who cause the downfall of the protagonist male hero.  Moreover, there are also women depicted as possessions (war prizes) or women who have little or no control over her destiny.  The epic poem, generally regarded as “a male-dominated world” focuses centrally on the rage between men but it also happen that most of the time this rage is affected, initiated, and inspired by a woman.

Take for example the case of women characters such as Chryseis and Briseis, considered in the epic poem as “war prizes” – captured maidens and spoils of war, with little control over their destinies.  But in Book 1, the major conflict was fueled due to some concerns about these two women – since Chryseis (Agamemnon’s war prize) needs to be returned to his father to stop the plague sent by Apollo, Agamemnon demands in exchange Achilles’ war prize Briseis which angered the warrior Achilles.  Thus Achilles after the incident withdraws the battle, leaving the Achaean army futile against the Trojans’ assaults.

There are also women who are the stereotyped mothers, like Thetis (Achilles’ mother) and Queen Hecuba, who in the course of the epic poem are seen to be either weeping or troubled with the affairs of their sons.

Some women in the epic poem serve as the “partner” of the male hero, like Helen of Troy to Paris and Andromache to Hector.  Although they don’t have the power to dominate over their lovers, these characters are sometimes used by Homer to portray a more human side to the male characters – Paris is vulnerable with Helen, Hector is both a sympathetic husband to Andromache and a heroic father to their son.  These women does not wholly affect the male characters (even Andromache fails to convince Hector not to fight Achilles) but with their presence, the male character assumes a multidimensional persona (Paris, a coward who indulges on pleasures than fighting in the war).

Another set of women characters in the poem are the women gods – the wicked, shrewd, vengeful, or the women who has too much control over the mortals and over other gods.  Hera in the epic is seen as a strong, dominant character and at some point she even tricked Zeus through her forceful and cunning attitude.  Athena is endowed with wisdom and skill, capable of inspiring Achaean warriors.  Aphrodite rescues Paris and sends Helen to his arms in Book III, sending the conflict to a higher notch.  These women are considered to be the powerful forces of the book – their decisions and their control over mortal affairs sometimes change a course of plot, conflict and action.

Helen of Troy, portrayed by the actress Diane KrugerBut the most celebrated woman figure in the poem is probably Helen of Troy – her illicit love affair with Paris is one of the most distinct events of the poem unforgettable.  People around her sees her as the cause of the war (Antenor suggested that Helen should be returned to Menelaus to end the war) with exception of King Priam who welcomes her like his own daughter.  But even Helen knows that she is the reason for the downfall for the male heroes, and considered herself as a wanton (“that man is Agamemnon…brother to the husband of a wanton.”).

Whether it is a dominant, powerful kind of woman in the form of gods, or submissive, damsel-in-distress types in the mortal world, the concept of a woman is explored very much in the epic.  There is a clear-cut definition between the two sexes but at times there are certain ambiguities that cloud over these distinctions.  Even though the deeds of men dominate in the work and mortal women are protected from the wickedness of the world by these heroic men, women in the Iliad serve a much greater role in humanizing the male characters, advancing the course of plot, and sometimes they play pivotal roles in inciting men into action, without them knowing it.

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Michael Silk’s New Things about the Iliad

Iliad

Reading Michael Silk’s interpretation and critical analysis about Homer’s epic Iliad, I find that some points he actually emphasizes deserve to be given a considerable time to ponder on.  He starts his discussion about the epic by giving us the feel of the milieu of the ancient times, from which he first raises a significant observation that Homer is not made of a singular entity, but Homer is presented as a ‘multiple author’ with ‘different voices’.  One of the characteristics of an epic includes the fact that it came from oral tradition, and so Silk emphasizes in his analysis that because of this the oral transmission must have changed overtime, and when it was finally written down there might have been some changes. The oral-improvisory technique is possible for these alterations.

Another relevant remark that Silk lays out is the fact that Iliad is not a tight, organic structure in Aristotelian terms, or organically whole like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.  The actions do not follow a causal logic, but the epic is organized into a circular structure referred as ‘ringform’ – “it begins with a ransom and argument and ends with a comparable sequence in reverse” (the A-B-A shape).  It’s a full circle, sort of.  Also, there are sections in the narrative where there’s a tendency towards autonomy, that defiled the Aristotelian concept of ‘organic whole.’

The epic poem also embraces the structural technique which the critic calls as ‘illusionist’, where readers are given a kind of illusion of the length of time.  With regards to style, the poem employs extended simile, but the use of metaphor, according to Silk, is largely absent in the Iliad.

In terms of themes and heroic ideology, the character Achilles is presented as the embodiment of the ‘poet’s theme’, the warrior who fights for glory.  In a section that discusses about the character Achilles, Silk highlights that Achilles is the only character that can be considered as a ‘round’ character (with depth) in a modern sense.  Other characters are only defined through stock epithets and were differentiated in their own capabilities, but generally not considered as ‘men with multiplicity of traits and interest’, and therefore considered as static.  These characters show no capacity for development and are not affected by any subsequent experience. They are contrasted with the character of Achilles, which becomes the focus of interest in the poem mainly because even though there have been times when divine interventions affect him, there are also times when he had the chance to reveal himself – his true qualities without the external pressures (like war and divine intervention).

Silk observes that for all the battle scenes, heroic deaths and defeat, the epic poem’s emotional flavors are restrained due to the author’s style.  Homer wrote objectively, and so in terms of emotions, the readers may feel distant.  Homer’s characters does not expressed their feelings explicitly but conveys them either through the observations of other people or through detailed descriptions in things.  The latter can be associated with Eliot’s objective-correlative technique, which is a modern day concept.

Lastly, the critic states that the epic is primarily celebratory, not exploratory.  It presents to us the experience of certain types of people, and lacks the in-depth emotional exploration (with exception to Achilles) of some characters.  Silk likens reading the Iliad as watching sports, him (and the readers) as an spectator.

To further explore more about the Iliad, read Michael Silk, on The Iliad.