“[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 and 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.
But 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.