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The Power and the Powerless of Women

Greco-Roman mythology is rich in names, characters, and events. Dozens of gods, goddesses, and mortal women and men participate in a variety of activities that reflect or exemplify behaviors and power relations in Greek and Roman societies. A wealth of literature was written about the relationships between mortals and immortals in Greco-Roman mythology. Much was written and said about the place humans occupy in the complex mythical hierarchies. However, the role and place of women remain the topic of the hot literary debate. In Greco-Roman mythology, the image of woman is always accompanied by the image of slave.

Slavery connotations reflect the basic norms of patriarchy that dominated Greek and Roman societies. Like slaves, women were often excluded from the public life and were destined to carry the burden of male discrimination on their shoulders. It would be fair to say, that in Greco-Roman mythology, women (both mortal and immortal) reflect and exemplify the two radical sides of femininity – female subordination and submissiveness to male power, and female rage and monstrousness as a rebel against the existing power and social order in their society.

Greco-Roman mythology is an excellent source of knowledge about power relations between men and women. Greek and Roman myths provide abundant information about the place women occupied in their society and the methods they used to rebel against their social inferiority. In Greco-Roman mythology, the image of woman is always accompanied by the image of slave. A woman (either mortal or immortal) is often depicted in her utmost submissiveness to a man.

Greco-Roman mythology depicts a woman in situations that make it difficult for her to change the existing social order of things and to improve her social position. Even goddesses who possess unlimited powers and can easily interfere with the lives of mortals often fail the tragic victims of the male power. Greco-Roman mythology displays a tendency toward depicting women as either radically weak and submissive or radically monstrous. In this way, Greco-Roman mythology reflects the ambiguous position of women in Greek and Roman societies.

Female weakness reflects the overwhelming power of men, while monstrousness and rage seem the only ways women can rebel against the existing social order. Hera is, probably, the brightest example of how Greco-Roman mythology reflects the power relations between women and men: Greek and Roman myths depict Hera as a woman of the utmost anger, evil, revenge, and jealousy. Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound shows Hera as a woman full of negative emotions and the desire to destroy everything and everyone on her way to personal happiness. Aeschylus mentions the story of Hera, Zeus and Io.

Zeus falls in love with Io but fearing Hera’s revenge, he turns Io into a cow and asks her to come to the meadow to make love with him: “but get thee gone to meadow deep / By Lerna’s marsh, where are thy father’s flocks And cattle-folds, that on the eye of Zeus / May fall the balm that shall assuage desire” (Aeschylus). In his poem, Aeschylus mentions Hera a few times, and every time her name is overfilled with negative connotations, turning Hera into a monster: “And Hera’s curse even as a runner stripped / Pursues thee ever on thine endless round” (Aeschylus).

However, these feelings of jealousy and the desire of revenge are simply the reflections of Hera’s inferior position and her striving to rebel against Zeus’s permissiveness in the choice of women-lovers. Greco-Roman mythology describes Zeus as a god who would do everything possible and impossible to seduce a woman he likes. He exemplifies the superiority of male power and the overall submissiveness of women to male orders. Io cannot but follow Zeus’s demands and turns into another victim of his charm.

Hera’s monstrousness and hatred toward Io are the products of Hera’s ambiguous position in society, which uniquely combines power and slavery and does not give her a single chance to release herself from the chains of the existing social norms. Aphrodite (or Venus) continues and extends the image of a woman-goddess, who holds an ambiguous position in society. A woman of unique power and decision-making abilities, Aphrodite seems to have everything she needs to dominate men and to fulfill her own desires.

She shows herself as a goddess always ready to support mortals in their fight for fairness and justice: “Venus keeps ever by Alexandrus’ side to defend him in any danger; indeed she has just rescued him when he made sure that it was all over him – for the victory really did lie with Menelaus” (Homer, The Iliad). Venus (Aphrodite) is the goddess of beauty, pleasure and procreation who helps mortals to win the race of Hippomenes and brings the statue of Pygmalion back to life.

However, there is also another side of Aphrodite’s character which combines power, evil, revenge, jealousy, and envy. Jealousy and anger are characteristic of Venus’s relations with other goddesses and mortal women: “Bold hussy, do not provoke me; if you do, I shall leave you to your fate and hate you as much as I have loved you. I will stir up fierce hatred between Trojans and Achaeans, and you will come to a bad end” (Homer, The Iliad), – says Venus to Helen.

In the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Venus sends her son to punish the contumacious beauty of Psyche and to give herself revenge by turning the young beauty into a mean, unworthy being (Apuleius). Unfortunately, readers often forget that Aphrodite’s monstrousness is also the product of her having fallen the victim of the patriarchal norms. Aphrodite was taken by Hephaestus against her will and had to become his wife. She suffers her husband’s constant jealousy and is often unfaithful toward him.

Her love affair with Ares, which Homer describes in The Odyssey, is a unique form of rebellion against her inferior family position. She cannot escape Hephaestus’s revenge and anger; nor can she release herself from the chains of her unhappy marriage: “So the pair went and lay down in bed, and all about them dropped the nets fashioned by shrewd Hephaestus; it was not in their power to move or raise a limb. This they saw only then when there was no escape” (Homer, The Odyssey 96). Women in Greco-Roman mythology, how powerful they can be, have no strength or right to rebel against male domination.

They do not have any freedom of choice; meanwhile, their men continue hunting for pleasures and adventures, turning their mortal and immortal wives into the victims of the existing social order. Pandora and Clytemnestra add to the vision of women as both powerful and submissive. Both mortal women are the victims of the male power and domination and cannot reduce the burden of social norms and standards they carry on their shoulders. Pandora is fully the product of male imagination, created by Zeus against Prometheus, who supplied mortals with special gifts.

In his Works and Days, Hesiod describes the process of creating Pandora by Zeus: “And he bade famous Hephaestus make haste and mix earth with water and to put it in the voice and strength of human kind, and fashion a sweet, lovely maiden-shape, like to be immortal goddesses in face; and Athene to teach her needlework and the weaving of the varied web; and golden Aphrodite to shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs […] And he called this woman Pandora, because all they who dwelt on Olympus gave each gift, a plague to men who eat the bread (69-82).

Pandora is an excellent representation of how male power works in Greco-Roman mythology. The product of male power and revenge, Pandora is destined to live her life in accordance with the rules and standards set by her creators. She is the slave of her own creation and the victim of male enviousness and anger. The only thing she has left is hope – a metaphor used by Hesiod to describe the complex ambiguous position of women in contemporary society.

Clytemnestra continues this line of female submissiveness, but in distinction from Pandora, she finds enough will and power to rebel against her husband’s decisions. “Ye, hold me as a woman, weak of will, / And strive to sway me: but my heart is stout, Nor fears to speak its uttermost to you, Albeit yet know its message” (Aeschylus, Agamemnon). The murder of Agamemnon is the sign of the Clytemnestra’s monstrousness and the only way she can rebel against her husband’s unreasonable decisions.

Clytemnestra’s family position is so weak that she cannot say “no” to her husband’s decision to give away their daughter Iphigenia “unto a deadly doom” (Aeschylus, Agamemnon). In her situation, she can either reconcile with her situation or develop a sophisticated plan of revenge. The latter helps her express her disagreement with the system of power relations in her society and gives her a chance to vote against the submissive position of women in her society.

Generally, Hera, Aphrodite (Venus), Pandora and Clytemnestra reflect an ambiguous position of women in Greco-Roman mythology, which uniquely combines strength and submissiveness to the male power and turns women into monsters as they are trying to rebel against the dominant position of men in their society. Conclusion A wealth of literature was written about power relations between mortals and immortals in Greco-Roman mythology, but the role of women in myths remains the topic of the hot literary debate.

Greco-Roman mythology reflects the two radical sides of femininity – female subordination and submissiveness to male power and female rage and monstrousness as a form of rebelling against male domination and the existing social order. In their expression of femininity, Hera, Aphrodite (Venus), Pandora and Clytemnestra are equally weak and monstrous. They are too weak to change the existing social hierarchy and use their monstrous features as the best way to rebel against the dominant power of men in their society. Works Cited Aeschylus. “Agamemnon”, Internet Classics Archive.

Internet Classics Archive, translated by E. D. A. Morshead. Wed. 03 August 2010. Aeschylus. “Prometheus Bound”, Internet Classics Archive. Internet Classics Archive. Web. 03 August 2010. Hesiod. “Works and Days”, Sacred Texts. Sacred Texts, translated by H. G. Evelyn-White. Web. 03 August 2010. Homer. “The Iliad”, Internet Classics Archive. Internet Classics Archive, translated by Samuel Butler. Web. 03 August 2010. Homer. The Odyssey. Spark Educational Publishing, 2003. Lucius Apuleus. “Cupid and Psyche”, University of Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburg, 2001. Web. 03 August 2010.

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