II.1. Women in the Epic

Be that as it may, there is no mistaking the fact that Homer fully reveals what remained true for the whole of antiquity, that women were held to be naturally inferior and therefore limited in their function to the production of offspring and the performance of household duties, and that the meaningful social relationships and the strong personal attachments were sought and found among men. [1]
This assertion by Moses I. Finley needs to be qualified, as the natural inferiority of women is not so clearly confirmed by Homer, nor is it “fully revealed.” A close reading of the text uncovers a certain number of problematic, or at least ambiguous, features linking the heroism of warriors and feminine virtues. The preconceived notion that masculinity is exclusively “positive” and femininity exclusively “negative” does not fully account for the complexity of epic values, which are certainly not so clear-cut.
Of course, a rapid glance at the activities reserved for women quickly shows the extent and limitations of their social position and power. Examining the text closely and considering the symbolic meanings that function in metaphors and comparisons will show that the role of women is not strictly confined to a specific domain nor entirely excluded from men’s sphere of influence. Let us then outline the sometimes blurry contours of the female figure in the epic.

Women and Epic Values

Ideological background

If there is an exclusively masculine sphere, one that is portrayed only as masculine, it is surely that of heroism. There, women have no place. The Homeric warrior effectively has the ability within himself to rise above his ordinary nature; and when he does transform himself from anthrōpos into hērōs, the combatant in the Iliad is situated exclusively and definitively in the masculine sphere. For women, there is no equivalent. They do not possess the duality that would allow them to access a superior state. They remain women, as M. I. Finley writes: “‘hero’ has no feminine gender in the age of heroes.” [2]
Women belong definitively to the category of mortals, the community of anthrōpoi. There is not a recognized, celebrated means by which to overcome, through some form of excellence, so as to access an intermediary status between human weakness and the all-powerful gods. For the male, this possibility exists through the path of heroism. [3]
In this way, the delineation of the spaces reserved for men and women, mentioned above, [4] corresponds to the demands of epic morals: war is exclusively the business of men (andres); peace is everyone’s business, both men and women.
Heroes are the sons of heroes, recapitulations of their fathers; they maintain the masculinity of their ancestors. While a woman might sometimes be the daughter of a hero, she cannot, under any circumstances, maintain the level of glory of her male ancestors. Her only hope, and sole duty, is to be mother to heroes. Moreover, her sons will act as heroes in order to defend her, as well as the other women of the community. [5]

The socio-political system

Even though Helen, Clytemnestra, and Penelope are queens, they do not have any independent power. Their importance comes solely from being the wives of kings. Their status is determined by that of their husbands, just as before their marriages it had been determined by that of their fathers.
Whether legitimate wife or simple concubine of servile origins, a woman exists only in relation to the man to whom she is attached. Agamemnon plans to bring Chryseïs with him to Mycenae; Priam has numerous concubines in his palace; both have an official partner who is more queen than wife.
Whether mistress, mother of children, queen, or “preferred wife,” the woman remains always defined by the man with whom she lives: “A woman’s status like that of a son, legitimate or bastard, depends in large measure on the timē, the honor that the head of the family recognizes in her.” [6] Contrary to the man, whose status is simultaneously that of king, warrior, hero, and father, the woman can only be a spouse—legitimate or not—and live in the oikos ‘domain, house’ of the man.


We have already seen the ways the Iliad presents women as ill-equipped for war. Women are both at stake to be defended and prey to be attained. Outside Troy, Hector tries to defend Andromache and the women of Troy, while Achilles tries to take possession of them (e.g. Iliad 9.327). [7]
For women and children, slavery is the trade-off for war. Briseïs and Chryseïs, for example, are “taken with the spear.” [8] Women figure often as prizes: for example, Agamemnon promises Achilles seven tripods, twelve horses, and seven excellent women workers (Iliad 9.264–272). Elsewhere, a woman is “valued … at four oxen” (23.705). In the Odyssey, Eurymedousa, who had been taken from Apeira, is given as a gift to Alcinous (7.8–11). Men are either killed or made the object of ransom, as in the case of Lycaon, whom Achilles sells and sends away to Lemnos (21.40; and see 6.46–50 for Adrastus, and 10.378–381 for Dolon).
For women, the distinguishing characteristic is the potential to be an object of prey; for men, it is the ability to defend themselves or attack. As James Redfield correctly observes, a woman, who might belong to one man and then later to another (the wives of the Trojan commanders will again become companions of choice for the Achaean heroes), is a type of “permanent child.” [9] Andromache, for that matter, tells Hector explicitly that he is a father, a mother, a brother, and a husband for her all at the same time (Iliad 6.429–430). Insofar as they lack the power and the cultural means to defend themselves, women regress back into childhood in times of war. Women, children, and old men, then, are “marginalized” and excluded from this type of agonistic society. [10]
For the victors, war allows men to earn great kleos ‘glory’ and allows women to preserve their freedom. For the vanquished, defeat leads to death for men, or, in any case, dishonor, and slavery for women. This change in scale, this difference in worldview between male and female, is clearly expressed by Hector and Andromache in Book 6. When evoking Hector’s death, Andromache thinks immediately of her own loss and that of her son (6.407–413), while Hector envisions the fall of Troy (6.441–449).

Requirements of a Virtuous Woman in the Epic

Three feminine statuses are frequently mentioned by the warriors at Troy: the mother, the legitimate spouse/concubine, and the mistress. Of course, of the three, the mother seems to occupy the most influential place. One need only recall the importance of Thetis, mother of Achilles, or Aphrodite, mother of Aeneas. Even in the thick of the fray, when the virgin Athena protects Menelaus or Odysseus, she is compared to a mother who watches over her children (Iliad 4.130–131; 23.782–783). As Ajax says just after losing the foot race to Odysseus, Athena is the goddess who “watches over Odysseus and stands by him as though she were his own mother” (23.782–782).

The place of women

The primary function of women was to have children and to raise them so that they might later become warriors. As a good mother and wife, the woman had to stay in her place—that is, inside the home, or, when there was no home (in the case of Briseïs, for example), inside the tent. The Iliad offers no example of a mortal woman truly leaving her domain, in the strict sense of the term, as a brief look at the movements of the three major women in the poem will verify. [11]
After quarrelling with Achilles, Agamemnon orders his attendants to go to Achilles’ tent to apprehend Briseïs (Iliad 1.322–323); they do so, and Achilles requests that Patroclus bring the girl out to them (1.337); Patroclus enters the tent and brings back Briseïs (1.346). Briseïs then passes from one interior to another. When Agamemnon later returns her, he swears “she has remained in my tents inviolate” (19.263).
Helen is in the great hall of the palace when Iris comes to arouse in her the desire to see Menelaus (Iliad 3.125); she is in her bedchamber when Hector enters looking for Paris (6.321 and 323–324). Her last appearance in the poem shows her crying over Hector in his bedchamber, along with Hecuba and Andromache (24.719–775).
When looking for Andromache, Hector names the places where he is likely to find her: among her sisters, with her sisters-in-law, or in the temple (Iliad 6.376–380)—that is, in the company of women. At the moment of Hector’s death, Andromache is “in an inner part of the house” (22.440), occupied with her weaving. The domestic space of the household is, without doubt then, the site to which women are confined. [12]
The Trojan woman, and specifically Hecuba and Andromache, are seen only once outside the city gates: when they surround Priam’s chariot, which carries Hector’s corpse (24.714). But the funerary rituals take place inside the city walls. [13]
Indeed, the ultimate boundary for the movement of women in Troy is the ramparts. [14] This is where Hecuba begs Hector not to confront Achilles. Moreover, two of the most important scenes of the Iliad take place on the ramparts: in Book 3, when Helen names the Achaean commanders for Priam, and in Book 6, when Hector and Andromache part. The ramparts are a privileged site of intersection between the masculine and feminine worlds.
The case of Helen, who meets with the “Trojan leaders gathered on the rampart” (Iliad 3.153), is remarkable in this regard. There in the presence of men (hēgētores ‘leaders’), Helen will relieve the poet. [15] We see in this scene a two-fold disruption of the orthodox distribution of male and female spaces: while the rampart is the seat of the leaders who are too old to fight (3.150), their only possible link to the battlefield, it is also here that a woman portrays the Greek heroes making their way to battle, singing of their courage.
So, too, the only meeting of Hector and Andromache takes place in this intermediary space. The rampart provides the necessary conditions for Hector—the incarnation of the authentic warrior—to have a private conversation expressing his personal feelings (romantic, paternal) while the battle continues on the plains. And here Andromache can intervene in matters of war by giving her husband military advice (Iliad 3.433–434). [16]
Are the walls of Troy the only possible meeting place for the world of battle and the “interior” world, a blurred space that, while temporarily suspending the action, merges the masculine and the feminine?

Activities of women

Women were responsible for domestic affairs inside the home, the oikos. [17] Their principal activity was spinning or weaving. Throughout the two epics, we see women sitting at their looms. Helen (Iliad 3.125–128, and 6.323-324), Andromache (22.440, 510–511), and Penelope (Odyssey 19.148–150, among others), as well as Calypso (5.61–62), Circe (10.221-223), and Arete (6.306, 7.234–235) are described with distaff in hand. Weaving is truly the essential activity for women; in a way, it defines them as such. Thus Polites, a companion of Odysseus, can exclaim at the threshold of the house of Circe, about which he knows nothing (Odyssey 10.226–228):
There is some one inside working at a loom and singing most beautifully; the whole place resounds with it, let us call her and see whether she is woman or goddess.
Other activities incumbent on women include dyeing fabrics (Iliad 4.141–142), washing clothing (Iliad 22.153–155; Odyssey 6.90–95), preparing baths (Iliad 22.444; Odyssey 3.464–466, 4.252, 5.265, 19.386–392), and preparing food (Iliad 11.625–640, 14.5–8, 18.559–560).

Modesty and feminine love

While the primary Achaean commanders are surrounded by numerous female captives who are usually their mistresses (Agamemnon and Chryseïs, Iliad 1.112–115; Achilles and Briseïs, 1.184–185, etc.), the two adulterous women of the epic (Clytemnestra and Helen) are condemned because their infidelity is a source of danger, and even war, for the kingdom.
Polygamy is unsuitable for women. They are praised, on the other hand, for their chastity and modesty. Consequently, Penelope has her two attendants at her side when she goes down to the hall where the suitors are feasting, and before appearing in front of them, she always pulls her veil over her cheeks (Odyssey 1.330–334; 18.182–184: “[The servants] must be with me when I am in the hall; I am not going among the men alone; it would not be proper for me to do so”). Similarly, the model young woman in the Odyssey, Nausicaa, is constantly accompanied by her attendants; two of them even sleep in front of the door to her room (Odyssey 6.18–19). Her decency extends to the point of prohibiting her from speaking of her marriage in front of her father (6.66–67).
Modesty is also required of goddesses: while Poseidon, Hermes, and Apollo delight in laughter at the spectacle of Ares and Aphrodite chained to their adulterous bed, “the goddesses stayed at home all of them for shame” (Odyssey 8.324). [18]
Making proper use of sexuality, for women, means above all to obey—the rules of chastity, fidelity, and modesty, in regard to the exterior world and strangers, and, in the end, the desires of their husbands. Helen, who seems hostile to Paris’ desire when she chastises him for his cowardice during his duel with Menelaus, ends up submitting and sharing her bed (Iliad 3.447). Similarly, Andromache obeys Hector without protest in the famous farewell scene (6.490–492):
Go, then, within the house, and busy yourself with your daily duties, your loom, your distaff, and the ordering of your servants; for war is man’s matter …
The parentheses on the ramparts closes: Andromache returns to her proper place.
The daughter submits to the father, the wife to the husband, and, when the master is absent, the mother submits to the son. Thus Telemachus orders Penelope on two occasions to return to her legitimate sphere and to leave him, the man of the house, to direct the affairs of the palace. In Book 1 of the Odyssey, when Phemius, the bard of Ithaca, sings of the “return from Troy,” Penelope asks him to stop; but Telemachus says to her (Odyssey 1.356–359):
Go, then, within the house and busy yourself with your daily duties, your loom, your distaff, and the ordering of your servants; for speech is man’s matter, and mine above all others—for it is I who am master here.
The same thing happens when she intervenes during the contest of the bow. Later in the epic, Telemachus again orders Penelope, in identical terms, to return to the house (21.350–353). [19] In both cases, she obeys, submitting to the authority of her son.
In the epic, the virtuous woman remains at home taking care of her weaving, the education of her children, and the management of her husband’s oikos. In masculine spaces such as war, the assembly, banquets, or during the trials of the suitors, she has no place—except when she herself is put up for auction, a prize for marriage or reward for accomplishments.
If women are so strictly confined to these domains of well-codified activities, it is because they can be the source of trouble, danger, and malevolence. It is because certain vices are inherent in their nature.

The toxicity of women

The different examples of reprehensible feminine conduct all apply, more or less directly, to women who use their powers of seduction and attraction in improper ways, women whose power of erotic attraction is excessively displayed and evil-minded.
In the Iliad, one woman (Helen) and two goddesses (Aphrodite, of course, and Hera) are sources of danger and sometimes disaster. The ambivalence provoked by women is fully expressed in Priam’s remarks as he looks upon Helen (3.156–160):
There is no way to wish for retribution that Trojans and strong-greaved Achaeans should endure so much and so long, for the sake of a woman so marvelously and divinely lovely. Still, fair though she be, let them take her and go, or she will breed sorrow for us and for our children after us.
Helen’s seductiveness is irresistible, since all men (both Trojans and Greeks) are subject to its law. The only Achaean who seems clearly to condemn the importance granted to Helen is Achilles. But Achilles is a superior hero, a man concerned only with his glory. While his anger does erupt over Briseïs, he feels it less over the loss of a woman than over the dispossession of his honor. Compared to the death of Patroclus, having Briseïs by his side seems not to have any importance (Iliad 19.58–60). [20] For Achilles, war and friendship come ahead of love, even sincere love, for a woman. Is it not Helen, a woman whom Achilles calls “dreadful” (19.325), who ultimately causes the death of Patroclus? This radical rejection of Helen, whom all other men venerate, is unique in the Iliad. It is as if Achilles, the irresistible warrior, cannot bear for another figure to exercise power over men, though in her case it be by means of seduction, another irresistible attraction and subject worthy of song.
For here we find the true danger of women: they seduce and they deceive. When Hera wants to temporarily stop the aid that Zeus has been providing for the Trojans, her irresistible weapon is erotic seduction. With the help of Aphrodite, she provokes in Zeus an irrepressible desire for her. The whole account of this divine union is framed by the theme of trickery and seduction. [21] Agamemnon encapsulates Hera’s feminine ruse: “Hera, a woman, beguiled him” (Iliad 19.97). There is no better way to summarize the duplicity and the power of women. [22]
Of course, Aphrodite is not forgotten: she is the one responsible for Helen’s kidnapping; she deceives with her flattering words; [23] she is crafty (Iliad 3.405) and dispenses “costly sensual pleasures” (24.30).
Women can be a danger through the erotic attraction they arouse and through the deaths they cause: in war (Helen); through murder directly (Clytemnestra); or through deceptive seduction (the Sirens).
The disappointed woman, having failed to seduce, can exact treacherous revenge: thus the case of Anteia, who fell in love with Bellerophon (Iliad 6.160–166). Finally, women who no longer respect domestic order, who “[leave] the house” (Odyssey 20.6–8) to sleep with the enemies of their former masters, are treacherous, as in the case of Penelope’s maids. [24]


[ back ] 1. Finley 1978b:132.
[ back ] 2. Finley 1978b:25.
[ back ] 3. See Benardete 1963:1–5, who shows clearly that there can be no heroes except among the andres. In the same sense, he points out that the divine epithet can only be used for the andres, and never for the anthrōpoi; Achilles, for example, is theios anēr (Iliad 16.798). On the battlefield, instances of “be men” (aneres este) are frequent: 8.174; 15.487, 561, 661, 734; 16.270; 17.185.
[ back ] 4. See Part 1, Chapter 1 above.
[ back ] 5. See Redfield 1975:119–120.
[ back ] 6. Vernant 1974:68: “Le statut des femmes comme celui des fils, légitimes ou bâtards, dépend donc dans une large mesure de la timē, de l’honneur qui leur est reconnu par le chef de famille.”
[ back ] 7. See also Mazon 1967:296; Beye 1974:87–88.
[ back ] 8. There are numerous references in the Iliad to slavery of women and children—for example, Andromache and Astyanax: 6.429–430 and 460–465; 22.484 and following; 24.725–774.
[ back ] 9. Redfield 1975:120; see also Avezzù 1983:87.
[ back ] 10. See, too, Priam’s evocation of the horrifying scene of his fate and that of the women and children of Troy, should Hector disappear: Iliad 22.59–76; and see the women, children, and old men on the shield of Achilles: 18.514–515.
[ back ] 11. There are a number of other examples I could cite: Iliad 18.495–496: on the shield of Achilles, woman are represented standing in doorways and men in the agora (18.497), or 19.260: the female captives Agamemnon offers as gifts to Achilles are then kept inside Achilles’ tent (19.280).
[ back ] 12. Vernant 1974:160–163.
[ back ] 13. It is, however, important to point out that women are permitted a relative level of freedom in the epic. Indeed, we see them circulating in the streets: Andromache and Helen go freely to the ramparts, even if accompanied by two attendants.
[ back ] 14. Cassandra is the exception. She climbs to the top of the citadel, where she sees her father bringing back Hector’s body, Iliad 24.700.
[ back ] 15. See Vidal-Naquet 1975:32; see pp. 80–81 below.
[ back ] 16. See also p. 78 below.
[ back ] 17. For a comprehensive treatment of this question, see Mossé 1983, Chap. 1: “La femme au sein de l’oikos.”
[ back ] 18. On the meanings of words ending in -teros in Homer, see Chantraine 1958–1963 1:254–259; at its origins, the suffix -teros was used especially as a way of marking opposition: “Une forme comme θηλύτεραι, θηλυτεράων, etc., dans des formules (θ 234, Θ 520 ; λ 386, Ψ 166 ; λ 434, ο 422, ω 202) précise plus nettement que θῆλυς l’opposition entre les deux sexes (“Forms like θηλύτεραι, θηλυτεράων, etc. in formulas (θ 234, Θ 520 ; λ 386, Ψ 166 ; λ 434, ο 422, ω 202) specify more clearly than θῆλυς the opposition between the two sexes”) (257). On feminine modesty and “shame,” see Pomeroy 1976:27 and Redfield 1975:118.
[ back ] 19. If we compare this passage, the preceding passage (Odyssey 1.356–359), and the nearly identical passage from the Iliad (cf. p. 59 above), we see that the only modifications to the formula used are the substitutions of muthos ‘speech’ (Odyssey 1.358), toxos ‘bow’ (Odyssey 21.352), and polemos ‘war’ (Iliad 6.492), three terms belonging to the masculine sphere.
[ back ] 20. On Briseïs, see Farron 1979:27–30.
[ back ] 21. Hera wonders “how she might trick [Zeus’] thinking” (Iliad 14.160). Later Sleep lets Poseidon know that Zeus is no longer watching, because “Hera has beguiled him into going to bed with her” (14.360). Zeus will end up reproaching her afterwards for her trickery (15.14); see Detienne 1973:64–65.
[ back ] 22. The use of thēlus, rare in the Iliad, is particularly interesting here: it suggests the idea of a kind of ‘blemish’ and feminine inferiority, even among goddesses; cf. p. 41, n. 23 above.
[ back ] 23. Of the five uses of ēperopeuō in the Iliad, four are reserved for the domain of sensuality and eroticism (Aphrodite: 3.399, 5.349; Paris: 3.39, 13.769). The only other one describes Antilochus’ ruse during the chariot race (23.605).
[ back ] 24. It must be pointed out that the insult reserved for all these adulterous and immodest women is “bitch.” Helen: Iliad 3.180, 344, 356 and Odyssey 4.145. Hera: Iliad 8.483 and 18.396. Clytemnestra: Odyssey 11.424, 427. Aphrodite: Odyssey 8.319. Melantho: Odyssey 19.91. Disloyal servants: Odyssey 19.354 and 372. See Loraux 1981c:102n136–105.