Throughout history, women have been viewed as chattel, owned by and subservient to men. This view of women is a common one throughout ancient world literature, though the stereotype does not always go unchallenged. Andromache and Medea both somehow struggle against their role of the feminine as defined by the men to whom they are supposed to be subservient. Both of these women manage to prove themselves to be different from the stereotypical women the ancient Greeks would expect them to be.
For ancient women, as presented in Medea and the Iliad, the defining role of femininity was gained by relationships with men. The role of women, as expressed by Hector to Andromache when she pleads for him to stay home with her, is to “Go, then, within the house, and busy yourself with your daily duties.” He tells her that war is men’s work. (Homer, Book VI). For the ancient Greeks, then, a woman’s place was in the home. In the same conversation, Andromache tells Hector that he gives the only meaning to her life. Her role is defined by him as her husband, and without him she is nothing. Medea seems to agree with the premise that a woman’s husband is central to her existence when she says that if that husband turns his affections away from her, she should “Pray for death.” (Euripides). A woman is nothing without a husband behind her.
Andromache and Medea, however, find ways of defining themselves that don’t quite fit the cultural norms presented in the works. Andromache, when hector goes looking for her, is on the walls of Troy, having heard of the coming battle. (Homer, Book VI). This is in direct contrast to Hector’s instructions to her to go and take care of the household duties. Her attempt to push off the stereotypes ultimately fails, however. Medea, in contrast, completely negates her role as wife and mother. Instead, she wishes she were a man that could go to war instead of baring a child. (Euripides). She literally kills those who attempt to force her into the typical role of the feminine. She is also vilified throughout history for her action.
Andromache and Medea both show an unlady-like attitude toward battle. Andromache seems to be honored for her failed attempt, however, while Medea’s successful attempt makes her a figure of tragedy.
Wile ancient civilizations, like today, have definite defined roles for women, the works of literature show that those stereotypes are not always observed. The fact that these women are being discussed, even thousands of years later, raises important questions as to the status of women and their place in society.
- Euripides. “Medea”. Compact Anthology of World Literature Part One. University System of Georgia. EBook. Accessed 9 Apr 2016.
- Homer. The Iliad. Compact Anthology of World Literature Part One. University System of Georgia. EBook. Accessed 9 Apr 2016.