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The Suffering Women in Greek Mythology Term Paper

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Introduction

All through the ages, a number of Greek women have stood out for undergoing a great deal of suffering. They have dealt with their lot, not just by enduring their respective hardships in a stoic manner but by doing something about the situation. Even the goddesses were not spared. Demeter, for instance, had an only daughter, Persephone, the maiden of the spring. Her mother lost her and in her terrible grief, withheld her gifts from the earth, turning it into a frozen desert.

In Olympus, Demeter sat alone wasting away with longing for her daughter. Zeus told Hermes to go down to the underworld and bid the lord of it to let his bride to return to Demeter. Hermes found the two sitting side by side, Persephone shrinking away, reluctant because she longed for her mother. Persephone suffered too (Hamilton, 1942).

Then there is Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. Her husband left her and the young Telemachus for more than twenty years. Waiting alone was suffering enough. When it became inevitable that Odysseus was still alive, her many suitors prevailed upon her to choose one among them to be her next husband. Penelope and her son, Telemachus pooled their resources together to hatch a plan to get rid of the pesky suitors once and for all. Mother and son were successful, but not before Penelope spent sleepless nights exhausting ways and means of stalling her suitors from taking matters into their own hands and forcing her to choose from among who would replace her husband (Hamilton, 1942).

Suffering really seems to have been in store for the women in Greece since ancient times, but this paper will concentrate on three particular women whose sufferings are made evident in Greek Mythology, particularly in the stories of Agamemnon and his children. The stories to be discussed in this paper are those of Clytemnestra, Phaedra and Medea.

The suffering of Clytemnestra

The House of Atreus is one of the most famous in Greek mythology. Agamemnon who led the Greeks against troy belonged to it. Even his wife Clytemnestra and his three children, Iphigenia, Orestes and Electra were equally famous as the father. However, a curse seemed to hang over the family, despite themselves, resulting in ruin and suffering coming down on the innocent and the guilty as well. Therefore, it can be construed from this that whatever mistake may be committed by any female (or male) member of the House is absolved of that mistake. It is made clear from the onset, that whatever undesirable act of Clytemnestra there may be is condoned by her people who are familiar with the history of the House of Atreus (Aeschylus, Oresteia).

The tale of Clytemnestra dates back to the Trojan War. When Troy fell, Agamemnon was the most fortunate of the victorious Greek commanders. His ship survived the storms which drove to distant lands or even wrecked the ships of the rest, including those of Odysseus. He returned home triumphant and his subjects awaited him with great anticipation. It seemed for a while that only peace and prosperity were once again to reign. But the elders of the city had dire thoughts of his arrival as they remembered the past before the warriors set out to war. It was as though they themselves heard with Iphigenia, her beloved father, Agamemnon, telling his men to carry her and lay her body on the altar to kill her. He had unwillingly given orders to slay her forced by his army to sacrifice her in exchange for fair weather in sailing to Troy. He acceded to their wishes because the old wickedness in generation after generation of his race would also result in evil for him. Once again, they were only too familiar with the curse that hung over the House of Atreus (Aeschylus, Oresteia). Even so, the sacrifice was grossly unfair. Iphigenia was a mere child. She never expected this to happen to her – she was the daughter of the Greek Commander of the Army. Neither was her mother, Clytemnestra, consulted. Her father acceded without any objection. In those times, women had no voice in deciding serious matters – even concerning their own lives and those of the children they bore. Men had the final say and took precedence over women’s choices. It seemed that the dictates of war had priority over family relationships.

As the story goes, Agamemnon was killed by his wife’s lover aided by Clytemnestra herself (Aeschylus, Oresteia). It was a sordid tale. It is not known how it held the stage but centuries later, it was very different. About 450 B.C., as written by Aeschylus, it is a great story of implacable vengeance, tragic passions and inevitable doom. The motive for Agamemnon’s death is no longer the guilty love of a man and a woman as is depicted in earlier plays, but a mother’s love for a daughter killed by her own father, and a wife’s determination to avenge that death by killing her husband.

The very thought of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, that gentle, lovely, innocent young girl, trusting her father implicitly and then confronted with the altar, the cruel knives and pitiless faces above her were enough to break a mother’s heart. The sufferings of Clytemnestra from the time Iphigenia was killed up to the time the latter’s death was avenged can only be left to the imagination.

Ten years had elapsed since the death of Iphigenia, but the repercussions of that death reached through to the time Agamemnon returned from the wars. A menace from the dead hung over her father in his moment of victory. The old men awaiting return in front of the palace were hoping against hope that nothing untoward would result, but deep in their hearts, vengeance was already there in the palace. It had waited all these years since the Queen came home from the place where she witnessed her daughter’s death and how this mother must have suffered! She has never been the same ever since, and from then on, sought alleviation from her pain by plotting a way to get back at her husband and inflict the same pain, or much more, if possible, to him (Aeschylus, Orestia).

Her opportunity to take her revenge came when Agamemnon arrived with a beautiful stranger, Cassandra. As if to add insult to injury, that woman was a gift to Agamemnon, and he instructed his wife to see to her and treat her kindly. Clymnestra, on the other hand, put on a loving façade in welcoming her husband despite the knowledge of everyone else of her infidelity to him.

Despite Cassandra’s being a guest in the palace, it would be natural for Clytemnestra to feel resentment towards this stranger whom she regarded as a usurper in more ways than one.

After the murders of Agamemnon and Cassandra by the hands of Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, Queen Clytemnestra emerged from the doorway to her people and announced that her husband was dead, struck down partly by her own hand and she was glad. She saw no reason for an excuse or an explanation. She knew her subjects understood – not because she was their queen but because she was a mother and deserved justice. She did not consider herself a murderer but an executioner of the murderer of her child. All those years of suffering came to this culminating point, and Clytemnestra finally got the justice she has sought.

It is interesting to note that in spite of the fact that it was a patriarchal society, Clytemnestra seemed to get away with murder of the king! This goes to show how the people empathized with her, and proved that blood is still very much thicker than water. Aeschylus’ play supported the people’s sentiments of family being the first priority.

Phaedra, the sister to Ariadne and wife to Theseus, was a victim of unrequited love – her love for Hippolytus, son of Hippolyta, an Amazon (Euripedes, Hippolytus).

Phaedra’s marriage to Theseus drew down terrible misfortunes on Phaedra. Theseus’ son, Hippolytus has also become cursed by this marriage. The young Hippolytus was sent to a southern city where Theseus grew up and where he developed into a fine specimen of Greek manhood. He became a strong athlete, an expert hunter and one who looked down upon his fellows who led a life of leisure and never bothered about improving themselves (Euripedes, Hippolytus).

The suffering of Phaedra

Phaedra became intensely in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, who in turn, spurned her. Such mad, irrevocable and wretched love of Phaedra was put there in her heart by the goddess Aphrodite who was determined to teach Hippolytus a lesson for looking down on soft-hearted individuals very much unlike him.

Lovesick Phaedra, agonizing in unrequited love, saw no solution to her problem. She resolved to put an end to her misery by means of suicide and would not let anyone but her nurse know the reason. When the nurse revealed to Hippolytus of Phaedra’s suffering, in an attempt to save Phaedra from committing suicide, Hippolytus reacted with abhorrence. The love of any other woman disgusted him, but the love of his father’s wife for him filled him with loathing. This is a reflection of how emotional women can be, especially when struck by intense love for a man. Hippolytus’ machismo attitude may be shared by the majority of the Athenians of Theseus’ day but probably not to the same extreme degree as Hippolytus’.

Phaedra, could no longer stand her misery that she did kill herself, but not without leaving a letter to her husband, Theseus that Hippolytus laid a hand on her. Irked, Theseus banished his son, Hippolytus. In his wanderings, he got injured, and his father was informed of it by Artemis who coaxed him to make peace with his son. In the end, father and son do reconcile. (Euripedes, Hippolytus).

It strikes the reader as strange that the suffering of Phaedra who loved and lost goes unremembered – is it because she told a lie? At this point, it is easy to believe that the ancient Greeks put significance on an exceptionally loving father-son tie over a man-woman relationship that does not fall within the bounds of decency and the law.

The suffering of Medea

The third and last woman to be analyzed who underwent intense and bitter suffering is Medea, daughter of King Colchis (Euripedes, Medea). Medea is closely connected with the Argonauts’ quest for the Golden Fleece. Cupid took a shot at her heart to make her fall in love with Jason, the Captain of the Argonauts. This passion of the King’s daughter will come in handy for Jason to acquire the Golden Fleece from her father.

Medea’s insane love for Jason pushed her to betray her father’s trust by feeding him and his group information about the King’s movements. She suffers a sweet but excruciating pain from this, and wept guiltily over her treachery to her father in her chamber (Euripedes, Medea).

The play depicts such weakness of women in love to do things that they would not dare do otherwise when not under the spell of lovesickness. Going against her dearly loved father was not in Medea’s nature. However, the intensity of feelings she had for Jason made her blind to see the delineation between what is right and what is wrong. Her heart just opted to see what would make Jason happy.

After giving him everything she deems would make him happy even if went against her own convictions, Jason betrayed her by marrying the daughter of the King of Corinth. Of course, this caused an upheaval in Medea, making the King of Corinth fearful of his daughter’s safety with Medea around. So at her lowest point, Medea and her sons by Jason were exiled from the kingdom of Corinth (Euripedes, Medea). Her situation in exile with two small children and with nothing else was a situation worse than death. She pondered on what she underwent for her great love for one man:

“As she sat brooding over what she should do and think of her wrongs and her wretchedness – wishing for death to end the life she could no longer bear, sometimes remembering with tears the father and her home; sometimes shuddering at the stain nothing could wash out of her brother’s blood; of Pelias too; conscious above all of the wild passionate devotion that had brought her to this evil and this misery – as she sat thus, Jason appeared before her. She looked at him, she did not speak. He was there beside her yet she was far away from him, alone with her outraged love and her ruined life” (Euripedes, Medea).

Whatever else she lacked, Medea had a lot of intelligence. She refused Jason’s offer of gold and whatever she needed for the journey. Instead she was determined to do away with Jason’s bride. Her desperate thinking led her to kill her sons first, knowing they would just be turned to slaves when she leaves them behind and spares them from such fate by killing them instead (Euripedes, Medea).

When she succeeded, Jason was furious with her. He angrily pursued her, but she was able to escape by riding a chariot provided by her grandfather, Helios, the sun god (Euripedes, Medea).

There is no question about Medea being the character who suffered most among the three plays discussed at length in this paper. “Medea” opens on a note of foreboding. Medea’s muse stands outside of their house lamenting that Jason and Medea ever met. She notes fearfully that Medea’s heart is violent and that she has become a strange woman. Convinced that she has been cast aside because Jason has tired of her and prefers a virginal bride, Medea remains inside, weeping inconsolably.

“The Athenian society for whom Euripedes wrote was strongly patriarchal and patrilinear. In fact, despite the fact that the protagonist, Medea, is a powerful woman and that the play seems to explore many issues of the unfairness of prescribed gender roles, it is likely that women were forbidden to attend any of its performances. The male-dominated culture considered women’s primary function to be the production of heirs for their husbands” (Becnel: para 13). Even in a constrained role, women often found that they could not please the men, Medea’s situation proves a bit unusual that she had successfully provided Jason with healthy heirs and should have therefore, been accorded with somewhat more respect.”

In the play, Medea exposes the danger in which marriage placed women. In addition to the insulting dowry system, women were subject to legalized rape. There existed, too, a double standard in divorce and agonizing mortal danger in childbirth (Morwood:30). Of course an unmarried woman like Medea fared no better. Legally, she shared the same rights and privileges as a child and therefore depended entirely on the protection of a male guardian – father, brother, or nearest male relative for her existence.

A married or single woman could not vote, had no voice in government, could not speak in court even in her defense and was not allowed to conduct financial transactions. No wonder Medea became desperate. Once forsaken by her husband, she ceased to function as a member of society. She also could not appeal for security to her male “relatives” whom she betrayed at one time or another. Treacherous as she was, she could never hope to survive in classical Greek society without a man’s protection.

Discussion

Being aware of this backdrop of the position of women in Greek society, how did Aeschylus and Euripedes depict their women characters in their plays? Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra claimed her vengeance by actively doing something about it and bravely proving her point. Her murdering of husband Agamemnon was courageously announced to the public, whom she had faith believed she was not guilty and even tolerated the murder as punishment to a true murderer no matter how they respect him as their leader. Upon achieving her goal of vengeance, Clytemnestra felt released from her agony and suffering.

Euripides’ Phaedra and Medea suffered quietly until the end. For these two women, it seemed that suffering was a way of life, and as women, there is not much they can do. At the point of vengeance, they continued to suffer and did not exhibit the freedom from suffering Clytemnestra experienced.

Aeschylus’ tragic heroine Clytemnestra, suffered from losing her daughter in such an inhumane way. What was unforgivable was that her daughter suffered the worst in her father’s hands. Someone trusted with one’s life turned out to be the one who would ruin it. Although there were romantic angles in the play, the plot did not center on those but of the seeking of justice of a mother over the death of her daughter.

In Euripedes’ play’s the heroines Phaedra and Medea were both involved in romantic relationships and the plot of the story revolved on the lovers and how suffering came to be.

The tragic heroines’ natures closely resemble some women today. Overcome with emotions, there are those who cannot control it and are forced to think or do something about releasing it. In terms of suffering, women need to know how to handle it or else they would end up like the tragic heroines discussed. Aeschylus and Euripides may be known as misogynistic in their treatment and viewpoints. Males are always strong in battle and women stay home to care for it and the children and can be fraught with emotions they find difficult to control and express.

Conclusion

Greek society as depicted in this paper seems to be very restrictive and unfavorable for the tragic heroines that the plays. Aeschylus and Euripides did a great job in expressing women’s sentiments that readers or viewers of the play can easily relate to.

References

  1. Aeschylus, Oresteia, trans. P. Meineck (Hackett 1998).
  2. Becnel, K., Euripedes’ “Medea”, Lierary Contexts in Plays. Great Neck Publishing.
  3. Euripides, Four Plays: Medea, Hippolytus, Heracles, Bacchae, ed. Stephen Esposito (Focus Publishing 2004).
  4. Hamilton, E., Mythology – Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, 1940, 1942
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