WHAT ATHENIAN MEN SAID ABOUT WOMEN

 

       Since few women in the Ancient World knew how to read or write, most of our information about their life comes to us filtered through the eyes of men. This is particularly problematic in the case of Greece for Athenian men claimed to have a fairly low opinion of women. How much of that was little more than jocks blowing in the wind as they tried to score points with one another in the perpetual battle of the sexes and how much characterized deeply held views representative of all corners of society? In any event, here are some examples of what they said.

 

1)      Aristotle said that man is by nature superior to the female and so the man should rule and the woman should be ruled.[1] 

2)      Demosthenes wrote “We keep hetaerae for the sake of pleasure, females slaves for our daily care and wives to give us legitimate children and to be the guardians of our households.”[2]

3)      “A man who teaches a woman to write should know that he is providing poison to an asp.”[3]

4)      Euripides has women characters make disparaging remarks about their sex:

a)      I am only a woman, a thing which the world hates.[4]

b)      No cure has been found for a woman’s venom, worse than that of reptiles. We are a curse to man.[5]

c)      Men of sense should never let gossiping women visit their wives, for they work mischief.[6]

5)      Hipponax, whose writing is quite abusive anyway, had this to say about women: “There are two days on which a woman is most pleasing---when someone marries her and when he carries out her dead body.”[7] This aphorism probably should be ignored, coming as it does from a Sixth Century BCE Ephesian whose malicious temperament left him with few friends in the land of his birth and very little good to say about anyone, but the remark is quoted too often today to be left out.      

6)      Hyperides said, “A woman who travels outside her house should be old enough that people ask whose mother she is, not whose wife she is.”[8]

7)      In his Funeral Speech Pericles said, “A woman’s reputation is highest when men say little about her, whether it be good or evil.”[9]

 

       Creation stories tell us a great deal about a society’s view of itself and the world around. In the Judao-Christian version Adam (man) was the first human and God fashioned Eve (woman) to be a companion. After the Serpent successfully urged her to eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil she tempted her husband to do the same, and when God caught them both are driven out of the Garden of Eden and into a world of sorrow and hard work. Note that men and women sprang from the same source-material, and while her creation was an afterthought on God’s part it was done as a favor to man, and that while woman was the tempter, man was a willing participant in the crime that led to their expulsion from Eden. The Greek story is quite different. The first woman, Pandora, was created as a form of punishment because men had learned from Prometheus the secret of making fire. How or from what man was created was never mentioned, but Pandora was fashioned out of the earth by Hephaestus on orders from Zeus, the various gods and goddesses supplying the attributes of women. Anything visible was beautiful and designed to make her irresistible to men, but all of the hidden characteristics, the ones that made up her true personality, were deliberately intended to bring sorrow, harm and trouble to man.[10] It was not a pretty picture.

       The epic poem, The Odyssey, features a number of prominent women, only one of whom was mortal. The others were nymphs, immortal beings with much power but a status lower than that of goddess. They varied in personality and attractiveness but they had the potential to do enormous damage to any man they met. The nymph Charybdis had been turned into a whirlpool that sucked in water and blew it back up, destroying any ship that tried to pass by. The nymph Scylla with six heads and eighteen rows of teeth ate six of Odysseus’ sailors. Sirens tempted men with their seductive song and then lured them to their death on the beach. When Circe drugged men and turned them into pigs, Hermes supplied Odysseus with the antidote and he searched the island to find his men. Later the nymph Calypso kept Odysseus a prisoner on her island for seven years while she tried to persuade him to marry her, letting him go only after the gods finally convinced her he would never be a willing companion. Sue Blundell said these women have the power to “engulf and obliterate men if they become too closely involved with them: that this engulfment is of a sexual nature is an impression evoked by the symbols of the yawning chasm and the man-eating monster.”[11]

       The Hippocratic writers believed that men and women were different in that the latter had flesh that is more porous and softer and that it drew moisture faster and in greater quantities from the belly than did men. [12] Menstruation was nature’s way of getting rid of this excess. [13] Only Aristotle saw that they were essentially the same animal: the woman, he said, was simply an inferior sort of man.       

       It seems clear, then, that Athenians saw women as beguiling creatures capable of causing considerable harm to themselves and others, and weaker in mind and body than men. Many believed that young girls were somewhat wild and difficult to control and that virgins were subject to hallucinations that could encourage them to be self-destructive. The solution was an early marriage, for only after a woman had delivered her first baby could she be a fully-operational female.

 

 

[1] Aristotle, Politics

[2] Demosthenes, Apollodorus Against Neaera, III, 122

[3] Fourth Century CE school children made numerous copies of this statement which they attributed to the Athenian 4th Century BCE Menander

[4] Phaedra, speaking in Euripides, Hippolytus

[5] Andromache, speaking in Euripides, Andromache

[6] Ibid

[7] Hipponax

[8] Hyperides, Fr. 204

[9] Thucydides, 2.45.2

[10] Hesiod, Works and Days, 42-105

[11] Blundell, Sue, (1999) Women in Ancient Greece, p. 51, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

[12] Hippocrates, Diseases of Women, I.1

[13] Hippocrates, Regimen, I.34

 

 

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