A Comparison of Women in Classical Greece and Greek Mythology

Women in Classical Greece were uniquely responsible for childbearing, raising the children, weaving, and managing the household. Childbirth was extremely dangerous as mortality rates at birth were high for both the mother and child. Caring for a newborn child posed a similar concern , since infant death rates in antiquity have been determined at 300 per 1000, often due to disease or malnutrition. Mothers received little help in understanding how to care for their babies, especially if they could not afford a nursemaid; nevertheless, they always put the health or their family before their own.  In the households, mothers ate less than any other member of the family and often offered their share to whoever they believed required it more.    Weaving and spinning provided the household with practical and necessary products such as blankets, baskets and clothing. Women were also in charge of all the cleaning, meal preparations, and, in wealthy households, managing the slaves.

Despite performing these many critical duties, it is believed that the people of the Classical period perceived women’s roles as insignificant in relation to those of men. Comparing mothers depicted in Greek mythology to the evidence we have of what mothers were like in Classical Greece may help us in exploring this marginalization. The oldest known literary sources of Greek myth come from Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, likely written down in eighth century BCE. Other early sources include the Homeric hymns. Women and, by extension, mothers, in this period were inferior to men, being excluded from politics, restricted in social life, often bounded to the confines of the household and treated as commodities. These social norms forced women into a submissive role and would have impacted how they raised their children.

Women in mythology were depicted very differently; they were often significant and complex characters that adopted roles of heroines, villains and victims. They were seen as powerful and significant individuals by the same people that viewed actual women at the time as inferior beings.  Examples of famous mothers in Greek mythology include: Demeter, who epitomizes the mother-daughter bond; Hera, who rejects the ideal motherly traits of the time and Clytemnestra, who holds her daughter’s life above all others. These female characters, both goddesses and mortal women, each demonstrate a different style of motherhood displaying similarities and differences to the ideal mother in Classical Greece.

Women in Classical Greece were restricted or excluded from many elements of daily life including law-making, choice of marriage, decisions concerning their children, and even areas of their own household and social life.

Laws

Women who were citizens of Athens had less rights than men as they could not participate in political affairs such as voting. They also required a male guardian known as kurios, who could speak for them in court (since they did have the right to charge others with crimes) or make financial transactions for them. Similar to men, women were entitled to the protection of the law regardless of their wealth, and could control property. Also, the Periclean Citizenship Law established in 451 BCE proposed that only children whose parents were both citizens of Athens were citizens themselves. Previous to this, a child only needed an Athenian father to be considered a citizen; the new law therefore enhanced the status of Athenian mothers.

Marriage/Childbirth

birth wia
Marble plaque depicting a birthing scene. Source: http://brewminate.com

Women were treated as property: their fathers alone would choose who they married and the husband would accept based on her dowry, fertility and skills such as weaving. In Euripides Medea, the title character describes that “women are the most miserable creatures. First we have to buy a husband at a steep price, then take a master for our bodies” (Euripides, Medea 214-51 [431 B.C.E.]; trans Ian Johnston). Women were married off around the age of puberty (often 14 to 16 years old) to men around the age of 30, and were expected to bear children as soon as possible. This would greatly have affected how mothers raised their children, since girls only just reaching sexual maturity were being faced with the extraordinary task of carrying and raising a child. The only prior experience they would have received in caring for a child is through helping their mothers raise their siblings. At this time pregnancy and child development was not well understood, therefore, medical books and even doctors themselves would provide little help in knowing how to deliver and maintain a healthy baby. This lack of knowledge is demonstrated in the different nursing habits between female and male babies. It was believed that female babies required less food and as a result the mother would feed her daughter less and wean them earlier than she would her son. This malnutrition could have been a contributing factor to complications at childbirth later on in the daughter’s life, increasing chance of mortality of the mother and child. Unfortunately, the inexperience and immaturity of young mothers might also have been related to the high child mortality rate in Ancient Greece.

Infanticide

Infanticide was a common practice in Classical Greece. After a child was born and the gender was revealed, the guardian of the woman, often her husband, had the right to accept or reject the child. The mother, who carried the child and endured childbirth had no control in the fate of her newborn as they were not believed to have a role in creating the baby. Males were thought to produce the baby with their sperm alone and women only served as a container to hold the “man’s seed” (Lee, 2015, p.37). If the child was rejected, often due to gender, physical deformity, size of family or legitimacy, it would be exposed, which involved abandoning the child outside and left to the elements, allowing the Gods to determine the child’s fate. Female babies were exposed more frequently than males; this is because males were the more desired sex as they could continue the family line. Mothers also had no right in determining who or when her daughters marry. This is seen in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which will be discussed later in this essay.

Gendered Spaces in the Household

women's space
Red-figure painting of a familial scene occurring in the gynaikonitis on a lebes gamikos around 430 BC. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The ideal wife and mother in Classical Greece would have spent most of her life indoors, tending to the children and managing the household. Their lives were relatively secluded in order to reduce the chance of producing illegitimate children. The women are believed to have mainly resided in “women’s quarters” of the house, called the gynaikonitis, which were characterized by remoteness and protection. An example of these quarters has been discovered during excavation of a house in Areopagus, Athens and also displayed different entrances into the men and women quarters suggesting that the women and men of the household spent little time together. This is also supported by the lack of depictions on vase paintings of men and women together, even when depicting weddings. Women are mostly displayed in their quarters weaving and making clothes for the family. This provides insight into motherhood as well; since we know that children were always with their mothers and husband and wives rarely interacted, we can infer that children were almost exclusively raised by the mother and had very little male-influence, with the exception of boys being taught their father’s trade. Even though the mother was such a significant part of childhood, women in Classical Greece rarely acknowledged as a mother. Since women were always under the possession of a guardian, they were consistently known by their relation to the males in their lives. In some cases, daughters were defined by both parents on their gravestones, such as that of Aristylla who died in 430 BCE, which was probably the result of the Periclean Citizenship Law.

Social Life and Religion

Even though the mothers’ activities in Classical Greece focused on fertility and her family, they did entertain a social life of their own. Women were not completely secluded from the outside world as they’ve often been depicted visiting with neighbours, participating in religious events, in the company of other women and even at large civil festivals. Women also had the right to participate in cults either limited to women or that permitted both men and women and to worship either a god or goddess. The Thesmophoria was one of the most famous festivals restricted to women, and, more specifically, married women. These events were completely organized by women and were a celebration of their fertility and womanhood. These types of activities showed that mother’s were not constantly bound to their children. Mothers were able to engage in activities that encouraged them to be proud of who they were and what they accomplished in their lives.

Mothers were depicted much differently in mythology than they were actually perceived and treated in Classical Greece. Both goddesses and mortal women in Greek mythology were significant characters that possessed powerful and admired traits. A common theme in myths was the duality of women’s nature as they often expressed both negative and positive ideals. The negative traits included jealousy, revenge, meddling and trickery while the positive traits consisted of beauty, nurturing and kindness. This corresponded to the ideal of women in Classical Greece, as respectable women encompassed mainly submissive and motherly traits.

These opposing traits may be connected to the nature of motherhood as mothers in myth exhibited both nurturing and punitive characteristics in regards to their children or others impacting the childrens’ lives. Oddly enough, the negative qualities were frequently more emphasized than the positive. This phenomenon encompassed all mythological women (not only mothers) and likely stemmed from the story of Pandora, who was the first woman in Greek mythology; her curiosity led her to open a box and release all the ills that plague the world. This resulted in all women being labelled as bringers of evil and the downfall of men. Also, male authors from antiquity, including Homer, aimed to create less threatening goddesses as a way to supress women in the male dominated society. Strong, loving, protective and caring mothers were rarely represented in Greek mythology, as it would have been intimidating to men. Instead, mature goddesses are often presented as androgynous youth since innocence and virginity were non-threatening female qualities in the eyes of Athenian men. This is very paradoxical as women who would have possessed strong motherly traits would have been most capable at raising children, which was their primary and expected role in Classical Greece. Demeter, Hera and Clytemnestra are a few examples of women in myth that demonstrate this phenomenon.

Demeter

Demeter, the goddess of harvest and agriculture displayed a remarkable bond to her daughter, Persephone. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Hades abducted Persephone into the underworld. Her father, Zeus, gave Hades permission to marry his daughter without consulting Demeter.

Demeter
Representation of the Greek Goddess, Demeter.  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Women had no claim to or control over the fate of their children despite having raised them. After searching tirelessly for her daughter, she finds out about the agreement between Zeus and Hades. Demeter then renounces her divine duties out of grief and lets the land become infertile. She disguises herself as an old woman and is hired to nurse the infant son of the ruler of Eleusis. Her depression subsides as she lovingly cares for the child as if he was her own and even attempts to make him immortal. Zeus, becoming aware of the state of the land sends Hermes to order Hades to release Persephone. Hades complies; however, Persephone must return each year for four months since she had ingested pomegranate seeds during her time with Hades, thus binding her to the Underworld. When reunited with her mother in spring, they rejoice and Demeter resumes her duties of the land, restoring fertility and abundance. The period, which we know as winter, is the time that Persephone must reside in the Underworld and Demeter again ceases her contributions to the earth.

Demeter fits perfectly with both the ideal mother goddess and the mother in Classical Greece. Even though she possesses a tremendous capacity and desire to love, protect, and nurture not only her own children but also those of others while being strong-willed and adamant, these traits are subdued as she is depicted moreso as a victim than a heroine. The readers would mostly feel sympathy for this mother instead of seeing her as an intimidating figure. The fact that she put her daughter’s safety and wellbeing above all others is reflective of Athenian mothers who would first and foremost care for her family before tending to themselves and others.

Hera

The supreme Greek goddess of marriage and childbirth, Hera, has a very different style of mothering. Hera was initially courted by Zeus, who she refused repeatedly, and Zeus resorted to trickery, disguising himself has cuckoo which Hera ended up embracing. He transformed back to his normal form and raped her; afterwards, out of shame, she agrees to marry him. Zeus was notorious for his infidelities, he married and had children with plenty of mortal women with the intention of producing many children that would inherit his greatness and become rulers and heroes of Greece. Because of these unfaithful escapades, Hera was overcome with jealousy and would torment the lives of Zeus’ lovers and illegitimate children. The relationship between Hera and Herakles illustrates her vengeful nature. When Alcmene was pregnant with Zeus’ child, Herakles, Hera demanded the goddess of childbirth, Eileithyia to tie Alcmene’s legs in knots to prevent her from giving birth. After this unsuccessful attempt and the subsequent birth of Herakles, she then sends two serpents to kill him, an attempt which also failed. Later in his life, Hera drives him to madness and makes him kill his wife and children. Hera also has little concern for her own children. Out of spite, Hera conceived and delivered a child entirely on her own in order to prove to her unfaithful husband that she didn’t need him. The child, the god Hephaestus, was born with a deformity, which caused him to be lame. This did not impress Zeus and Hera rejected her son, sending him to live among mortals.

Hera
Infant Herakles (middle) strangling snakes sent by Hera (left) and woman protecting half maternal twin brother of Herakles, Iphikles (right). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hera demonstrates the opposite of how Athenian mothers were meant to act. Her primary concern in these stories involved preventing her husband from having affairs or getting back at him. Her children were by no means her main priority and she never demonstrated subordination to men. Her vengeful feelings and actions towards her husband leads us to assume that she was a character that commanded fear. However, the emphasis on her jealousy and the fact that she also embodied eternal virginity (despite having multiple children) was meant to suppress her strength and power.

Clytemnestra

Clytemnestra
Painting of Clytemnestra holding the axe she used to murder Agamemnon. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Clytemnestra was the queen of Mycenae, and her role as a mother in mythology falls somewhere in between that of Demeter and Hera. Her husband, Agamemnon left to help his brother Menelaus after his wife, Helen was taken from Sparta to Troy. However, his fleet could not sail due to the weak winds; he ends up sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia to gain more favourable winds. The “Oresteia” written by Aeschylus, Clytemnestra, enraged by her daughter’s death, plotted with her lover to kill Agamemnon. He arrived at his palace along with his concubine, Cassandra, and they both murdered by Clytemnestra.

This mother demonstrates both the protectiveness of Demeter, and the vengefulness of Hera. The negative traits of her dual nature are accentuated more than the positive ones. Due to the way this story was depicted, Clytemnestra is seen as a villain for brutally killing her husband but never perceived as a heroine for avenging her daughter’s death and having the skill and cleverness to kill a great warrior on her own.

 

Similarities and differences can be found between mothers of Classical Greece and mothers represented in Greek mythology.  Athena society restricted women in regards to their political rights, marriage, children, households and social lives, whereas goddesses and mortal women in myth did not face these same constraints and inequalities. These discrepancies between freedoms lead to different mothering styles. However, the motherly ideals that existed at the time the myths were written were also reflected upon mythological women. Mothers in Classical Greece devoted their lives to raising their children and carrying out the duties of the household. Surprisingly, strong motherly traits, that would have increased the children’s rate of survival, were mostly absent or insignificant in Greek myth. This is because authors such as Homer meant to create versions of the original Greek goddesses that weren’t threatening to men. This suggests that women’s roles in motherhood perhaps both intimidated and were respected by men in Classical Greece. As men were dominant in society, they would have wanted to read about women that possessed more subdued or negative traits in order to maintain and boost their superiority complexes. Mothers in Classical Greece held vital roles in the growth and success of the civilization. Though their lives appear to have been much more restricted than those of men, their importance may not have been as overlooked as we have come to believe.

Bibliography

Aeschylus. (1999). The Orestia (R. Fagles, Trans.). Norwalk, CT: Easton Press.

Demand, N. H. (1994). Birth, Death, and Motherhood in Classical Greece. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Euripides, E. (2008). Medea (I. C. Johnston, Trans.). Arlington, VA: Richer Resources Pub.

Fantham, E., Foley, H. P., Kampen, N. B., Pomeroy, S. B., & Shapiro, H. A. (1994). Women in the Classical World. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Harlow, M., & Laurence, R. (2002). Growing Up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome: A Life Course Approach. New York, NY: Routledge.

Homer. (2010). The Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Translation, Commentary, and Interpretive Essays (H. P. Foley, Trans.). Princeton: Princeton University Press

James, S. L., & Dillon, S. (2012). A Companion to Women in the Ancient World. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell & Sons.

Lee, M. M. (2015). Body, Dress, and Identity in Ancient Greece. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Patterson, C. (1985). “Not Worth the Rearing”: The Causes of Infant Exposure in Ancient Greece. Transactions of the American Philological Association, 115, 103-123. doi:10.2307/284192

Pausanias. (1918) Description of Greece. (W. H. Jones Trans.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Pseudo-Apollodorus. (1935). The Text History of the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus. (A. Diller, Trans.). The Johns Hopkins University Press. doi:10.2307/283301

Relke, J. (2007). The Archetypal Female in Mythology and Religion: The Anima and the Mother of the Earth and Sky. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 3(2). doi:10.5964/ejop.v3i2.401

Slater, P. E. (2014). The glory of Hera: Greek mythology and the Greek family. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wilson, N. G. (2010). Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece. New York, NY: Routledge.

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