Athenian Women of Ancient Greek Society

In Ancient Greece, particularly in the city of Athens, women were believed to be intellectually weak and therefore inferior. Athenian philosophers, with the exception of Plato, theorized that women had strong emotions and therefore needed guardians. It is because of this particular discourse that free women were regarded as second-rate citizens who had no influence whatsoever on politics, economics, or culture.

This subsequent relegation of free women to the household and the common Greek belief that women were mere child bearers further degraded their status in society. Although they were given privileges such as the right to own jewelry, slaves, clothing, and inexpensive items, women were generally at the mercy of their male relatives and husbands. Marriage was considered nothing more than a social contract perpetuated to protect property and ensure the continuation of a family’s bloodline. Women then were treated as objects to be traded and used according to men’s desire.

In the Iliad, this concept and view of women’s demeaning role is evident in the absence of any major intellectual conversations by mortal female characters. Noticeable is the exclusion of women in the decision-making and policy-making actions of the major characters. Even the theme of the Iliad can be considered as a glaring example of the Greek portrayal of women as powerless.

By choosing Helen to be the main cause of the great war between Greece and Troy, Homer immediately put the blame on her and women in general for the tragic conflict. Whether Helen was abducted or a willing participant to the great drama is not an issue. The main point is that by implying or stating directly that a woman is the cause of a great war, Homer has shown the distorted Greek view of women in general.

The capture of Briseis and Chryseis and their presentation as war prizes further debased women and presented them as mere objects which can be traded or won in contests or conflicts.

In Sophocles‘ Oedipus Rex, women were given a much bigger role but a role by which all the tragic events came to be. Jocasta, the main female character, is given the role of queen. Her high status is unusual in Greek literature because she is a woman. Even so, Sophocles squarely puts the blame for the disastrous events on Jocasta when she sent her son, Oedipus, away. In the play, women, through Jocasta, are branded as the main culprits and instigators.

Tanagra Greek Figure of a Lady. c. 300-250 BC.

Even in other Greek literary pieces, women are presented as temptresses, and seductive. They are most often credited for the failure and demise of the heroes. In the Odyssey, Odysseus fathers three children with Circe while his wife, Penelope, remains loyal to him despite the possibility that he could be dead. This only goes to show the inequality and injustice done to women in ancient Greece as seen in their literature.

The Odyssey, I believe, presented to the audience and readers the ideal condition of Greek society. Wives and women were expected to remain loyal while men can do whatever they wanted because of tradition.

Perhaps the greatest of all degradation of women in Greek literature is the birth of Athena. By giving birth to Athena, Zeus shattered the belief in the divinity of female birth and fertility. Female reproductive capacity, the sole feature attributed by ancient people to female divinity was appropriated by Zeus.

The ancient Greeks took pride in their highly-intellectual elitist society. Their reliance on the great thinkers and their ideologies coupled with tradition paved the way for the exploitation and abuse of women. In turn, the societal expectations of women forced women to be submissive. As a result, Greek culture developed a form of discrimination against women and their potentials. Greek literature then, reflected Greek culture and Society.

  • Earthling4

    The historical tendency of political and economic prejudice against and devaluation of females in all human societies is founded on the biologically based average lesser size and strength of human females to males from individual family levels to populace levels and the susceptibility, or vulnerability, of females to routine pregnancy, with the circumstance that in primitive and pre-modern societies devoid of effective and reliable birth-control aides and contraceptives afforded by hi-tech modern societies, offspring were dependent on females for traditional, natural breast feeding and general parental care (stay-at-home mothering), and females economically hobbled by their pregnancy and child care roles were in turn dependent on males — workers, entrepreneurs and warriors or soldiers, etc., steady income or sustenance producers and providers — for economic support as well as were not physically competitive with males in the aggregate for doing muscle vigor and strength work and hunting or for manual-weapons and hand-to-hand combat. From the earliest point in brawn-over-brains in the evolution of human societies, in the aggregate male children to matured adult humans had the size and muscle strength to dominate females and they did so and generally subordinated females to themselves and made females serve them, and largely reserved skills-training and education, and religious, political, economic and military power for themselves. Contraceptives and female control over female disposal to pregnancy and reproduction, democratic rights and significant strides in true equal educational, employment and economic opportunity in a new brains-over-brawn quite sizably cognitive and infotech economy and society have increasingly made females competitive with males socially-economically and pervasively in creativity and innovation and liberated them from cultural subordination. Females, as is and has been the case for males, based on individual ability and initiative, as well as facilitating social and material resources, are becoming pinnacle achievers in all brains-based endeavors in brains-over-brawn world society, where they are given equal democratic rights and opportunities with males. Incidentally, throughout recorded human history, across the continents, some women locally have nevertheless achieved pinnacle power and renown despite past universal male chauvinism.

    • Jason Carr

      Thankfully in most parts of the world women are seen as equals today. Unfortunately as I’m sure you realize, there are still those that hold the chauvinistic mentality but they are slowly but surely dying off in most places. This of course was the point of this post…to show that the lesser sex have wisened up so to speak and that we as a society have evolved quite a bit since ancient Greek times (in modernized civilizations at least). Progress! 🙂 Great insights and thanks for the amazing comment!

  • Dennis A. Dispenza

    Study reincarnation and your earlier past lives, go back over millions of years.

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