THE FEMALE’S PLACE IN THE ORIGIN MYTHS OF ANTIQUITY

sadness_gaiaDepiction of sorrowful Mother Earth

The contemporary world often looks upon the classical world with a kind of nostalgia. There is a general consensus that the present is a devolved version of the past. To the masses, classical times appear better: they boast a slew of famous intellectuals, grandiose architecture and sculpture, and extraordinary mythology. And who wouldn’t want to roam around in chitons? But what did those who lived in classical times think of their contemporary world? Longing for the past seems to be a trend among humanity. Both Hesiod and Livy were nostalgic for a better time, when Greeks and Romans had honor and reverence for the gods. In Hesiod’s Works and Days, he talks about the final race of men, a race which he wishes he had not been born into: the race of iron. When describing the follies of these men he says, “Sons and daughters will be quick to offend their aging parents and rebuke them and speak to them with rudeness and cruelty, not knowing of divine retribution; they will not even repay their parents for their keep — these law-breakers — and they will sack one another’s cities” (71). Sound familiar? If Hesiod thinks 6th century Greece is bad, it’s probably best that he lived when he did. What would he say about us today?

While we already have an idea of the women’s place in the oikos of Greece, where were the women in the times when men were created from gold? According to Hesiod, Zeus had Hephaistos create Pandora (Πανδώρα, derived from πᾶς “all” and δῶρον “gift”, thus “all-gifted” or “all-giving”) in retaliation to Prometheus stealing fire for men. How interesting that female conception stemmed from retribution! Pandora was made from earth and water and given a jar holding all the evils of the world. In Hesiod’s Theogony, it appears as though the evils were already molded into her. Whether in the jar or not, there is a parallel drawn between the body, earth, and the jar; all of which are similar vessels. Woman as a vessel for evil? It seems that Hesiod is suggesting that evils are inherent in women. Where did this belief stem from? Were the female ties to nature something foreign to men and thus (as with all things foreign) they deemed it evil?

What about female presence at the conception of the cosmos? While I personally believe Chaos (χάος) is not gendered (the Greek word is not gendered — how can void be anything but neuter?), after Chaos came Gaia (Mother Earth) who is female. Out of nothingness comes a female and, more importantly, a mother — the progenitor of the physical universe. What does this mean? For the Greeks, it demonstrates the primacy of the maternal body. If a female is at the head of the genealogical tree, why do we not see a society that reveres women as the creator of all things? Why worship Zeus when you have Gaia? The introduction to the Theogony, written by Apostolos N. Athanassakis talks about the exceptional nature of Hesiod’s work: “For most of the poem it is the mother who matters. The male partner is much less prominent or altogether obscure. Given the fiercely patriarchal character of Hesiod’s own society this is a remarkable departure from his familiar world…” (7). Is this so remarkable? Hesiod was most likely a part of a community of peasants and thus agriculture and reproduction were seen as similar activities. The female is a vessel, a vase; she holds all things and thus all things come from her. But despite her sacredness, she holds no real power over those she “births” into the world. I mean, look how we are destroying the Earth today.

There is a significant transition that takes place in the Theogony from a female dominated world of the elemental gods to a male dominated world of the anthropomorphized gods; from supreme matriarch to supreme patriarch; from Chaos to Law. Does this evolution parallel a shift in ideology from the institution to the individual? Or is it much simpler than that? Hesiod may be implying that while women are the creators of the world, they cannot rule the world they create (there is chaos, they are irrational) and thus men must come in and with them bring order. But why have female characters in the origin myth at all? The Theogony manages to separate sex and gender by taking away birth from the female. There are elements that are “born” out of nothing, those who are “born” from a mother who has not mated with a male, and those (like Athena and Aphrodite) who are “born” from men. If Hesiod is turning the traditional notion of conception on its head, then why not have a purely male world where males beget males? In a way, he has created a world with such potential: “By carrying out a function that properly belongs to the female partner [birthing Athena], Zeus breaks the chain of female supremacy” (11).

The introduction talks about why the female primordial deities lose their power. “The inability of the female spouse to find a solution by herself” led to conspiring wives, according to Athanassakis (10). Is this true that  the females were always conspiring? In line 154, Hesiod talks about Ouranos’ trickery: “All these awesome children born of Ouranos and Gaia hated their own father from the day they were born, for as soon as each one came from the womb, Ouranos, with joy in his wicked work, hid it in Gaia’s womb and did not let it return to the light” (17). In this case, it is the male character who conspires first (the men were always afraid of being overthrown by their children). Gaia “conspires” in retaliation by having Kronos hack off Ouranos’ genitals, and thus came Aphrodite. Sounds like he deserved it to me! Plus, the only reason Zeus comes to acquire his power is because he swallows Metis (his wife) and assimilates her power! Conspirators aside, the question remains: was Hesiod perpetuating a general Greek opinion of women as inherently evil and “chaotic”, or is his writing indicative of the opinions of his time?

In Livy’s History of Rome we see the presence of women in the origin stories in a different way more appropriate to Rome’s intensely imperialistic and militaristic culture. Women are used as a vehicle for story, a catalyst for major events, and a justification for male action. They appear in the narrative briefly, are defiled in various ways, and disappear. Livy writes about Rea Silvia who is raped by “Mars” and gives birth to Romulus and Remus, thus igniting the origins of the monarchy. He also writes about the she wolf who nurses Romulus and Remus (she is wild, but she can be domesticated). He writes about the Sabine women who are “raped” by the Romans who are in desperate need of women for their city (how interesting that the first women of Rome are foreign). When the Sabine soldiers come to battle the Romans, a Roman girl Tarpeia betrays her kin and lets the Sabines in only to be crushed by them. Lucretia is  raped by the king’s son, thus serving as a catalyst for the overthrow of the monarchy. Verginia is threatened with rape by a tyrannical magistrate and is killed by her own father to perserve her chastity, thus ousting the decemvirate.  In Sandra R Joshel’s The Body Female and Body Politic: Lucy’s Lucretia and Verginia, she sums up the presence of women in Livy’s construction of early Rome: “Livy’s narrative of Rome’s political transformation revolves around chaste, innocent women raped and killed for the sake of preserving the virtue of the body female and the body politic; Roman men stirred to action by men who take control; and lustful villains whose desires result in their own destruction” (117).

What was the purpose of the women in these stories serving as catalysts for major Roman political events? Are they simply there to drive the narrative forward? In Vergil’s The Aeneid we see women coming in and out of the play in different ways, though most either die or do not have a voice. Dido kills herself, Amata kills herself, Creusa is left behind and dies, Lavinia does not speak, and Juno comes off as a psychopath. Livy and Vergil were writing around the same time, during Augustus’ regime. Augustus tried to reform Rome, bringing it back to its “old ways.” His reforms included harsh laws against adultery. As Joshel writes, “Uncontrolled female sexuality was associated with moral decay, and both were seen as the roots of social chaos, civil war, and military failure” (119). It is as though Livy is using the beauty of women to explain the rapists’ actions, suggesting that men’s desires are outside their control. Yet, a women’s are within her control? Women’s bodies were connected to the male body and their death deadened the male body, thus allowing it resume control, which was necessary in a new empire that was focused on discipline. In Livy’s stories, women were “a blank space — a void, for Livy effectively eliminates her voice, facilitating the perpetuation of male stories about men” (121). Joshel’s comparison to women as a void draws my attention back to Chaos, and the assumption that the first element was female. If females are Void/Chaos and thus they birth everything into existence, could there ever be a world without women? Or, more importantly, could there ever be a world without men?

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