Female Heroism in Ancient Greek Literature

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In order to evaluate to what extent there is a concept of ‘female heroism’ in ancient Greek literature it is necessary to look at female literary figures in ancient Greece and their qualities. There are several definitions of a heroine that provide us with a basis from which to evaluate the concept of ‘female heroism’.  Lyons asserts that a heroine is a “heroized female personage or recipient of heroic honours.” This definition is in some ways similar to definitions of male heroes yet female heroic figures in literature were very rarely seen in the same light. Even in the Oxford English Dictionary does it describe heroines as being, in ancient mythology, a female intermediate between a woman and a goddess; a demi goddess who has cult paid to them and are worshipped, a woman distinguished by courage, fortitude or noble achievements; “the chief female character in a poem, play or story”; the woman in whom the interest of the piece is centred.  Definitions of male heroism however include, “a great warrior”, “a man of superhuman qualities”.

The Flight of Medea

The concept of female heroism in Ancient Greek literature displays that heroines would not act as male heroes would, and they had less significantly recognised qualities.  This indicates that this concept was stunted due to lack of diversity in characters.  Harris and Platzner assess that heroines don’t often “go on quests or engage in combat with monsters or gods”.  An evaluation of Ancient Greek sources such as Euripides’ Hecuba and Iphigenia, suggests that the main role of the female hero was that of sacrifice.  The female heroic figure is excessively seen with this quality of self sacrifice, such as with Polyxena.  Euripides explains that Polyxena is self-sacrificial in nature for the sake of her people.  As Euripides  asserts that through her sacrifice to Achilles, the Greeks were finally able to set out on their voyage to Troy and the awaiting war.  However Polyxena also expresses more masculine qualities of wishing to obtain her honour and spirit by insisting on dying with dignity, not as a slave, so she can be a willing sacrifice.

Iphigenia also shows this willingness and quality of self sacrifice when she is sacrificed so the Greeks can leave Troyafter the Trojan War in Euripides7.  She sacrifices herself for the good of her people and accepted it as such, even though at the last moment she is spirited away by the gods.  This quality of self sacrifice is very rare in male heroic figures in Ancient Greek literature.  An evaluation of this quality indicates that the majority of female heroic figures were sacrificed and achieve honour quicker than their male counterparts; this illustrates one reason why their roles in literature are smaller; they achieve their purpose quicker.

Helen being taken from Troy

The female heroic character in Greek literature was however more than sacrificing.. Most female heroic figures also expressed qualities of wisdom, cunning and dignity.  Pomeroy explains that “Aristotle judged it inappropriate for a female character to be portrayed as manly or clever” but analysis of characters like Penelope and Nausicaa in the Odyssey, indicates that female heroic figures could, and did, hold these essentially masculine qualities.  Homer explains that Penelope outwitted her suitors for years by weaving and unravelling a huge web, displaying a cunning mind and, in so doing, keeping her dignity.  Nausicaa also shows these qualities. Homer explains that she kept her distance from Odysseus, even when she rescued him, for knowledge of the destructive powers of talk and never lost her honour.  Through this assessment we can see that the concept of female heroism did exist as evident in the actions and qualities of certain figures in relation to their portrayal in texts. But this concept of heroism is more passive in some respects to the male literary heroes, their quests and obviously heroic actions.

The concept of female heroism is also evidently used by the poet to transmit a deeper meaning. Euripides’ works use female figures such as Helen to portray a higher purpose.  Though Helen is a figure of questionability in regards to being a heroic figure or not, she can be assessed as portraying heroic qualities such as beauty and self sacrifice of love and family in Euripides.  Euripides portrays Helen as the catalyst, the trigger that started the Trojan War, which if hadn’t taken place; all those heroes would not have done those deeds and achieved a heroic status. Homer however illustrates Helen differently, showing her more as a seductive character, but uses her in the same manner.  This indicates that the concept of female heroism includes that of contribution to greater events, which is ultimately the reason why Helen can be seen as a literary heroine, as she is fulfilling the role of a ‘helper maiden’.

The female heroic figure is most often free from male assistance in her quest to achieve status.  The majority of female heroic characters are independent.  Harris and Platzner assess that this is particularly highlighted in “victorious heroines”, these are heroines who are able to “Retain their independence and to pursue their goals aggressively and yet remain within the context of gender-coded behaviour”.  Such heroines include Nausicaa and Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey.  An assessment of these figures suggests that both of these women were able to achieve their goals and not lose their honour and dignity, through their own means.  This idea is even portrayed in the so called “brides of death”, like Iphigenia, who are able to keep their dignity and obtain status through their own willingness to be sacrificed for a cause.

This independence is also shown from the point of comparison between male heroic figures and female heroic figures.  Pomeroy assesses that it is female characters who help male heroes.  Pomeroy expresses this idea by outlining the many heroic female figures that helped male heroes, “Ariadne, who helped Theseus slay the Minotaur; Medea, who helped Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece; and Nausicaa, the advisor of Odysseus…”.  An evaluation of this suggests that while male heroes require female assistance at times, female heroes do not require male assistance, making them independent from their counterparts and highlighting the concept of female heroism in Ancient Greek literature.

Odysseus and Nausicaa

The extent of the concept of female heroism is greatly diminished in literature though, due to it not being the dominant force that the concept of male heroism is.  Ancient Greece was a male dominated society and literature was written for males by males in order to inspire males, hence the concept of male heroism was by far much more established. Pomeroy analyses that “the mythology about women is created by men and in a culture dominated by men”, due to this, the role of the female in literature is usually submissive and modest.  Pomeroy assesses that it is only through the influence of Bronze Age literature that the Ancient Greek poet or writer could not ignore strong female characters.  Even so, the majority of female literary characters were seen as submissive to men. For instance, many accepted it when their own male relatives decided to sacrifice them.  Iphigenia in Euripides accepts her father’s decision to sacrifice her, indicating a submissive side with a sense of duty, though she also seen as self-sacrificing and honourable.

The concept of female heroism is important in terms of the purpose the female heroes portrayed.  In ‘Lycurgus against Leocrates’ Euripides expresses that “if women bring themselves to act like this, men should show towards their country a devotion which cannot be surpassed, not forsake it and flee, as Leocrates did, nor disgrace it before the whole of Greece.”  If women were willing to sacrifice themselves for their people and countries, so should men or else they were cowards.  Male heroes of the Polis were there to inspire, influencing the people and infusing them with their qualities as a reflection of heroic attributes.  Female heroes had a similar purpose to those heroes of the Polis, except they were to inspire the male heroes more than the people.  Through heroines in Euripides, Homer and Apollodorus; for instance Iphigenia and Polyxena, the authors are trying to bestow these self sacrificing qualities on their readers, the male heroes and the males in society.  They are also expressing the heroine’s lack of pride and ego which men are often governed by.

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6 thoughts on “Female Heroism in Ancient Greek Literature

    Miscellanea « The House of Vines said:
    February 6, 2012 at 2:37 am

    […] honors female heroes in ancient Greece: The female heroic character in Greek literature was however more than […]

    Female Heroism in Ancient Greek Literature « WiccanWeb said:
    February 29, 2012 at 11:00 am

    […] Read the full article […]

    GraecoMuse Turns One « GraecoMuse said:
    October 13, 2012 at 12:51 am

    […] Female Heroism in Ancient Greek Literature – 04/02/12 […]

    Linda said:
    October 12, 2013 at 10:11 am

    great article! thanks

    […] Female Heroism in Ancient Greek Literature. […]

    Déborah said:
    December 14, 2013 at 5:25 am

    Great, thank you !

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