Christmas is the time in the church calendar when Woman-as-Mother comes into supreme prominence. But in classical literature, Women-as-Anything never seem to enjoy much of a press, being either ignored or depicted as sex-mad, treacherous drunkards — and this despite a world teeming with goddesses, as well as stories about mortal women producing offspring from divine encounters. The reason most often given is simple: misogyny. But it is not as simple as that.
The West’s first and most influential author is Homer (c. 700 BC). Composer of the Iliad and Odyssey, he paints a quite different picture of women in many roles — as wives, mothers or slaves.
The Iliad opens with Apollo sending a plague against the Greek army. The reason is that the Greek leader at Troy, Agamemnon, has taken as concubine Chryseis, the daughter of a priest of Apollo, and refused to hand her back. When Agamemnon explains why he wants her, it is not because she is a brainless slapper who is fantastic in bed. It is because she is ‘in no way inferior [to my wife Clytaemestra] in build or stature or intelligence or accomplishment’. That she is physically attractive is not in doubt (‘build and stature’), but her cleverness and skills are just as important.
Likewise, when Achilles’ concubine Briseis sees the dead Patroclus (Achilles’ dearest companion) carried into the hut, slave though she is she laments gentle Patroclus’ kindness to her. For Homer, that position does not mean she forfeits her voice or our sympathy. The poet thinks she is worth hearing.
Odysseus’ wife Penelope, waiting 20 years for him to return to Ithaca from the Trojan war, is beset for the last four years by suitors, and they well understand what a prize she will make.