II.2. The Specificity of Women

Is it possible to bring to light the specifics of feminine nature in the Iliad? Beyond the apparent oppositions that posit femininity as the simple, if not simplistic, negative of masculinity, does Homeric epic paint a feminine world in and of itself? I will attempt to respond to this question by choosing to consider the physical appearance of women (their bodies, their beauty) and their speech.
Is it necessary to outline that such an approach will stumble, from the outset, upon the problem of formulaic epithets, which have their own distinctive character? That this particular character is encoded within a complex set of values that change, at the discretion of the narrative structure, the scope of a particular epithet within the epic tradition? That sometimes an epithet is used in a line for purely metrical reasons, its proper meaning relatively diminished, which allows for another adjective to be just as easily substituted? [1]
In fact, nothing is more full of meaning in a psychological inquiry than those things that, because they belong to a collective consciousness, seem to have no meaning. It is, therefore, in the repertoire of formulas and epithets representing the most prominent portion of this common stock that we have some chance of finding epic femininity.

The Female Body

While Homer’s heroes are not merely outlined but their physical beauty is described at great length, [2] the situation is very different for the female characters. Curiously, the women seem to lack bodies and physical substance, even though they have no other possible way of existing in this masculine world except for their beauty. In her magnificent essay on Homer, Rachel Bespaloff states:
Homer refrains from describing beauty, as if it were a forbidden anticipation of bliss. We know nothing about the shade of Helen’s eyes, the color of Thetis’ locks, the arc of Andromache’s shoulder. No specifics, no unique traits are revealed to us, and yet we see these creatures, we recognize them, it is impossible to mix them up. [3]
The discrepancy between the amount of description of the physical image of men and women is absolutely striking in the Iliad. Here, then, is what we do know of women, more or less precisely.

The face

One of the epithets most frequently used to describe women’s faces is kalliparēios ‘fair-cheeked’. [4] Briseïs has a “beautiful face” (Iliad 19.285), Hera, an “immortal head” (14.177). Chryseïs has “lively, moving eyes” (1.98), and Aphrodite “sparkling eyes” (3.397). Also evoked are Hera’s earlobes (14.182) and the “beautiful neck” of Aphrodite (3.396) and of Briseïs (19.285). References to the female face end there.


Hair, curls, and locks are distinctive features of feminine beauty. Women have “lovely tresses”; “lovely hair.” [5] When Hera is preparing to seduce Zeus in Book 14, the poet emphasizes this point (Iliad 14.175–177):
With this she anointed her delicate skin, and then she plaited the fair ambrosial locks that flowed in a stream of golden tresses from her immortal head.
To characterize female figures, the poet evokes their hair, and Helen, the emblem of femininity, is labeled seven times as “lovely-haired Helen” (3.329, etc.). [6] Still, descriptions of hair are quite imprecise: there is hardly any information about its color or any criteria for judging what makes it “lovely” (shine, length, etc.).

Arms, legs, and body

Other features of women’s bodies are no more precisely described. There is no feminine equivalent of men’s broad shoulders, powerful arms, or rapid feet. Other than the “white arms” of the frequent traditional epithet leukōlenos, [7] we see the arms and wrists of Aphrodite (Iliad 5.339), her fair “skin” (5.354, 357) as well as Hera’s (14.175), the “beautiful ankles” of Danae (14.319) and of Cleopatra, Meleager’s wife (9.557, 560), and Hera’s “radiant feet” (14.186). The chest is often mentioned, but most frequently to describe the postures of women during scenes of mourning; furthermore, the word used, stēthos, is used for both men and women.
Here again, it is rather difficult to formulate a conception of the “femininity” of the body in the epic tradition.

Symbols of maternity: The breasts and womb

When Andromache is waiting for Hector on the ramparts, she is accompanied by the nurse of Astyanax, who carries the “little child in her bosom” (Iliad 6.400, 467). Several lines later, Hector places his son on Andromache’s “own soft bosom” (6.483). These are indeed references to women’s bodies, but there is a question as to whether kolpos refers here to the corset or to the breast or bosom. The primary idea is that of a sunken space, a fold, and in this sense the term sometimes denotes the crease in an article of clothing—for example, the robes “with deep folds” (bathukolpos, Iliad 18.122) of the Trojan women. This term is only applied to women and, like the French corsage or décolleté, can mean both the body part and the corresponding garment. In this case, it obviously indicates, or at least evokes, the idea of maternity (sunken space, cavity): Andromache’s maternity and Hecuba’s. The same goes for the nurse of Astyanax as well as for Thetis, who nurses the child Dionysus on her breast (6.136). [8] We saw that Hecuba bares her breast to move Hector: she presents her mazos to him and points to her bosom while imploring him to return inside the walls of Troy. [9]
And when Priam evokes Hecuba’s womb before Achilles, it is to say that nineteen of his sons were born “from a single womb” (Iliad 24.496). In other passages, the word gastēr refers to women’s abdomens, but always in a strict relationship with childbearing.
Each instance where the female body is mentioned specifically—and they are rare—refers then to the reproductive and maternal function of women.
The female body appears very rarely, and never for itself, never in its distinct morphology. It is mentioned during maternity (Hecuba, Penelope, and by extension Eurycleia and the nurse of Astyanax), in scenes of mourning (women pulling out their hair, pounding their chests, tearing their cheeks), [10] or in relation to divinity: it is Hera and Aphrodite who provide the rare details about feminine beauty.
The eclipsing of the female body, then, is one of the remarkable features of the Iliad, one of its grand paradoxes. The Trojan War takes place because of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Yet this woman is never specifically described; her beauty is only asserted, never detailed. She always appears beneath long veils. Is this not a deeply rooted sign of a masculine ideology that only bestows excellence on men’s abilities and bodies and that only considers men worthy of mention? A body must be used to wage war; yet women have no access to battle. Is it appropriate to advance the idea that, since women do not make war, they are not entitled to a complete body, but are limited to a womb?

Feminine beauty

One of the conventions of the epic is to describe and praise the power of heroes and their beauty in exceedingly laudatory terms: each great hero, during his aristeia (the series of feats he accomplishes), is always the greatest of all. This literary convention also applies to descriptions of feminine beauty.
For this beauty to exist, for it to be worth mentioning, it has to be altogether exceptional. The notion of competition, of rivalry, of eris, seems to be mandatory, as if women—in their sphere—must rival each other in beauty. When the poet presents a women, she is almost always “the fairest” or “of surpassing beauty.” [11]
Is there a symmetry between the exploits of the warrior, sung by the poet, and the exceptional beauty of a woman (a kind of accomplishment), also celebrated by the poet? Any symmetry would be limited, since for women there is no aristeia.

Women’s attire

We have seen how the poet is reticent in detailing the appearance and charm of women; the same is true concerning their attire. [12]
The women that appear outside of their homes all wrap themselves in veils. Helen, to go to the ramparts, “threw a white mantle over her head” (Iliad 3.141); similarly, when admonished by Aphrodite and seized with fear, “she wrapped her mantle about her and went in silence, following the superhuman force and unnoticed by the Trojan women” (3.419–420).
The veil seems to be for women what armor is for men. [13] In both cases, it is “attire” that is worn to go outside the home; it is also a means of protection—from the blows of the adversary, from the gaze of others. The veil can also be, more interestingly, a “woman’s armor,” which a woman puts on when heading out to conquer a man or god. This becomes clearer when considering the episodes in which three goddesses use, in different ways and with varying degrees of success, their finery. The respective relationships of Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera with their attire-armor are significant. [14]
Athena, like a warrior preparing for combat, recalls her “ardent valor” (Iliad 5.718) and arms herself to assist the Greeks (5.733–744):
Meanwhile Athena, daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus, flung her pattern-woven peplos, made with her own hands, on to her father’s threshold, and donned the khiton of Zeus, arming herself for battle. She threw her tasseled aegis about her shoulders, wreathed round with Rout as with a fringe, and on it were Strife, and Strength, and Panic whose blood runs cold; moreover there was the head of the dread monster Gorgon, grim and terrifying to behold, portent of aegis-bearing Zeus. On her head she set her helmet of gold, with four plumes, and coming to a peak both in front and behind decked with the emblems of a hundred cities.
This long citation makes clear that for combat with men it is not the peplos ‘dress’ but the cuirass that is required—khiton, aegis, and helmet, not ribbon and diadem. Here, Athena, brilliant in her armor, is located entirely within the masculine sphere of war.
In contrast stands Hera, who, after lengthy preparation of her clothing and jewels, will be able to confront Zeus and make him succumb to her charms (Iliad 14.178–188):
She put on the wondrous robe which Athena had worked for her with consummate art, and had embroidered with manifold devices; she fastened it about her bosom with golden clasps, and she girded herself with a girdle that had a hundred tassels: then she fastened her earrings, three brilliant pendants with much charm radiating from them, through the pierced lobes of her ears and threw a lovely new veil over her head. She bound her sandals on to her feet, and when she had finished making herself up in perfect order, she left her room.
There are correspondences to be identified between the scene where Athena arms herself and the scene where Hera dresses herself. Hera puts on her peplos and fastens it in the manner of a warrior who latches the buckles on his belt (Iliad 4.132–133): her belt is tightened (araruian) like that of a warrior (4.134; 11.234, etc.); [15] on her head shines her gleaming veil like a hero’s glistening helmet. Hera, though, is situated entirely within Aphrodite’s feminine sphere while preparing herself this way for a sort of lovers’ combat.
The intersection of the two planes—the bronze of war and the maternal peplos of feminine dress—operates with Aphrodite. When faced with the bronze of Diomedes’ spear, she intervenes on the battlefield with the grossly inadequate weapons of a mother (unprotected arms, folds in her robes of fine fabric). [16] Unarmed, Aphrodite has truly ventured into a domain that is not her own. Her two enemies in the Iliad, Hera and Athena, refer derisively to the scratch, rather than the wound, that she suffers during her misadventure with Diomedes. Aphrodite should only be scratched by the clasps of her feminine attire, not by the point of a spear (5.424–425); [17] her place is not on the battlefield and her golden peplos cannot protect her from the weapons of the male warriors.


Just as a helmet shines, bronze gleams, or a shield possesses “a splendor as of the moon” (Iliad 19.373–374, the shield of Achilles), robes and veils also glisten. [18]
This light color, especially bright, situates female adornments on the side of the divinity of the Olympians. Darkness and black—rarely used to describe women [19] —lean, on the contrary, toward the chthonic deities, toward death. In the Iliad, black and darkness often refer to boats, sorrow, blood, war, and death. [20] Shining, glistening, and gleaming are reserved for the weapons of heroes, their hair, and feminine or masculine beauty.
Here, again, it seems the radiance of feminine beauty and attire corresponds to the radiance of the bodies and weapons of warriors.

Cosmetics and perfume

In Homer, there is little to no trace of embellishment of feminine beauty through “make-up” or other artifice. The only substance used seems to be a kind of ointment for the body, or scented oil, used by men and women alike. [21] Hera, after cleaning her body with ambrosia, anoints herself with “olive oil, ambrosial, very soft, and scented specially for herself” (Iliad 14.171–172).
References to scents and odors are inscribed in a context associated with divinity and femininity. Scented oils are used to embalm bodies: Apollo rubs Sarpedon with ambrosia (Iliad 16.680); Aphrodite, when watching over Hector, “anointed him with ambrosial oil of roses” (23.186–187). [22] Perfumes are associated with Zeus, surrounded by a “fragrant cloud” (15.158), and with the ground where he lies with Hera (14.347–349):
With this the son of Cronus caught his wife in his embrace; whereon the earth sprouted them a cushion of young grass, with dew-bespangled lotus, crocus, and hyacinth, so soft and thick that it raised them well above the ground.
Paris and Helen’s bedchamber is “scented and perfumed” (Iliad 3.382); in Lacedaemon, Helen’s thalamos is perfumed, smelling of cedar (Odyssey 4.121). Her clothes are perfumed also, as are those that Calypso offers to Odysseus (Odyssey 5.264).
Colors, scents, and softness are closely associated to suggest erotic union, charm, and beauty, spheres in which the woman occupies a prominent place.

The Voices and Words of Women

The Iliad depicts very few women and, of those mentioned, even fewer speak. Among the women of the epic, who speaks, when, and in what way?

Which women speak? When?

The very first woman to speak in the Iliad is Helen, and the words she pronounces are not insignificant. Responding to Priam’s questions on the ramparts, Helen tells stories of the Achaeans’ feats and bravery. Her “poetic word” informs Priam and the Trojans; it is the truth. At the moment when she mentions Odysseus, Antenor—one of the elders seated on the wall who had offered his hospitality to Odysseus—interrupts her to say: “Madam, you have spoken truly” (3.204).
The proximity of Helen and the bard is already underlined in her first appearance in the poem. She does not yet speak, but Homer depicts her as occupied with the weaving of “the struggles between Trojans, breakers of horses, and bronze-armored Achaeans” (Iliad 3.126–127). Her weaving is like a foreshadowing of the words she will pronounce on the ramparts. In both cases, she is joining in the affairs of men, of heroes.
Helen speaks on four occasions in the Iliad. On each occasion, she speaks in her name, in an autonomous manner. She responds once to the questions of a man, becoming herself the poet of Troy, and three times she takes the initiative to speak.
She shouts at Paris and reprimands him for his cowardice (Iliad 3.428–434):
“So you are come from the fight,” said she; “would that you had fallen rather by the hand of that brave man who was my husband. You used to brag that you were a better man with might and spear than warlike Menelaus. Go, then, and challenge him again—but I should advise you not to do so.”
Later, when Hector is in the city, it is she who first addresses him, expressing regret over both the suffering she is causing for the Trojans and her husband’s cowardice. Once again, the comparison between the valiant warrior and the hesitant coward is explicit in Helen’s words; Hector is the one she would have preferred to have as a husband in Troy (Iliad 6.350–353):
But, since the gods have devised these evils, would, at any rate, that I had been wife to a better man—to one who could smart under dishonor and men’s evil speeches. This man was never yet to be depended upon, nor never will be, and he will surely reap what he has sown.
And finally, she is the third woman to weep over Hector’s body and the last woman whose words are heard in the Iliad (24.760–775).
Helen initiates feminine speech, and she has the privilege of being the last woman to speak. Her words are not plaintive, even if she wishes three times for her own death. [23] Contrary to the wailing women in the poem, she cries only once, in a final address to Hector lying on his deathbed. She converses with Priam, Hector, Paris, and Aphrodite. In the Iliad, Helen is a woman who could be man’s equal, whose words could meaningfully intervene in a masculine world. She has the ability to speak for herself, without systematically referring to her husband. Helen’s “discourse” is independent.
This is not the case for Andromache. She addresses Hector three times, crying each time, always evoking her own loss and affirming her vulnerability, her lack of existence without her husband. [24]
Hecuba is the woman who speaks most often in the poem. [25] Her discourse might be considered a model for women. She does not try to dissuade Hector from going to battle (Iliad 6.254), but only demands that he be prudent; she remains entirely in the maternal sphere (somber speech, the symbolic gesture of baring her breasts; Iliad 22.82 and following). She weeps for her dead child, even envisioning life to be impossible without him. [26] Just as the most fully described maternal body in the Iliad belongs to Hecuba, she is also the only woman clearly characterized by her piety: she is the one who goes to pray to Athena (6.305 and following), and she is also the one who, with her speech, persuades Priam to offer libations to Zeus before leaving for the Achaean camp (24.287–298).
Briseïs, who figures prominently in the first two thirds of the poem, speaks only once, and never to Achilles. Her only words are addressed to the dead Patroclus on the day she is returned by Agamemnon. In her voice, only weeping and regret can be heard. [27]
The feminine voice oscillates between two poles: powerlessness, with its share of cries and moans of painful awareness, but also clairvoyance, truth, and poetry.

How do women speak?

From muddled whispers to repellent barking, a wide register of feminine voices is identifiable in epic.
Young people, boys and virgin girls, converse tenderly, whispering between themselves (Iliad 22.128). [28] Women, on the contrary, sometimes quarrel, squealing at each other in the streets (20.251–255). However, most often in the Iliad, women wail, cry, and scream in pain (e.g. Hecuba at 22.407). [29] The Odyssey, as well, is filled with the sound of Penelope’s sobs as she cries throughout Odysseus’ entire journey and return to power.
But a woman’s voice can also be prophetic, as in the case of Cassandra: while Priam is gone to Achilles’ tent, “she went about the city saying” that Priam was on his way back to Troy with Hector’s body. She is the only one who sees Priam and his attendant from the walls (Iliad 24.697–699):
No one neither man nor woman saw them, till Cassandra, fair as golden Aphrodite standing on Pergamon, caught sight of her dear father.
In the Odyssey, two women make prophecies: first Helen, who predicts (manteusomai, 4.172) the return of Odysseus, then a servant in the palace in Ithaca, who renews this prediction before the contest of the bow: “a miller-woman from hard by in the mill room lifted up her voice” (20.105). Her words are a “sign to her master” (sēma anakti, 20.111).
Close proximity exists between prophetic speech, [30] truth, and femininity. But this all-powerful feminine voice can be as dangerous as it is beneficial. In women’s speech the same feminine duality can be found as has been previously discussed.
In the supernatural world of the Odyssey, the power of women’s voices and of the female beings Odysseus encounters is clearly indicated. These voices alternate between horror (Scylla, a hideous monster who “yelps”) and infinite charm and maleficent seduction. The voice of the enchantress Circe, the alluring songs of the Sirens, and the forgetfulness-inducing words of Calypso are all dangerous temptations for Odysseus. [31] Marcel Detienne points out:
As Peithō or Apaté, speech in mythical thinking has a dual power, positive and negative, and in this sense, it is perfectly analogous with other ambiguous powers. There are, in a certain way, equivalences among them: ambivalent speech is a woman, it is the god Proteus, it is a multicolored cloth. [32]
Helen seems to be the only woman whose speech is acceptable for men: she does not moan or try to hold them back from combat; she does not deceive them or destroy them through seduction; she speaks without shouting or crying. She is situated at the fringe of masculine “discourse” and the feminine “voice.”
Through this examination, we have seen that the radiance of feminine beauty corresponds with the radiance of masculine achievements and that—aside from Helen—confused and subordinate feminine voices correspond to the organized discourse of men. Is there a specific feminine nature here? It may lie in a sort of absence. In the Iliad, the feminine appears fantasized in a way that prevents it from being truly evoked.


[ back ] 1. See Parry 1928a:146–181 (“L’épithète fixe peut-elle avoir un sens particularisé?”).
[ back ] 2. See Part 1, Chapter 2 above.
[ back ] 3. Bespaloff 1943:37–38: “Homère se garde bien de décrire la beauté, comme s’il y avait là une anticipation interdite de la béatitude. Nous ignorons la nuance des yeux d’Hélène, la couleur des tresses de Thétis, la courbe de l’épaule d’Andromaque. Aucune particularité, aucune singularité ne nous est révélée, et pourtant nous voyons ces créatures, nous les reconnaîtrions, nous ne pourrions les confondre.”
[ back ] 4. Fourteen occurrences: Iliad 1.143, 184, 310, 323, 346, 369; 6.298, 302; 9.665; 11.224; 15.87; 19.246; 24.607, 676. Women’s cheeks are described specifically during scenes of mourning: while crying, a woman will “tear her cheeks.”
[ back ] 5. There are a total of thirty uses of epithets referring to hair.
[ back ] 6. See Bussolino 1962:217.
[ back ] 7. For example, Andromache: Iliad 6.371, 377; 24.723; Helen: 3.121.
[ back ] 8. Chantraine 1968–1977:558 s.v. κóλπος, and Nawratil 1959.
[ back ] 9. Iliad 22.80–83; see pp. 45–46 above on this passage.
[ back ] 10. Cf. p. 124 below.
[ back ] 11. For example, “Laodice, the fairest of Priam’s daughters,” Iliad 3.124; 6.252. The same goes for Alcestis (2.715) and the Lesbians offered by Agamemnon to Achilles are “all of surpassing beauty,” 9.130, etc.
[ back ] 12. See Lorimer 1950:377–390. Only a few objects worn by women are mentioned: golden clasps (Iliad 5.425; 14.180), belts (for example, 14.181), earrings and jewels (14.182–183; 18.400–402), a headband for tying up hair (22.469).
[ back ] 13. Identical vocabulary: “fitted” armor or clothing (for example, harmozō: 3.332–333 and Hesiod Works and Days 76); cf. pp. 21–22 above.
[ back ] 14. See the detailed analysis of this passage in Nagler 1974:55–59.
[ back ] 15. On the doubling of the belt, masculine and feminine, see Schmitt 1977.
[ back ] 16. See p. 42–43 above. Aphrodite wounded at Iliad 5.337–340.
[ back ] 17. Nagler 1974:23n31.
[ back ] 18. For example, Helen’s “white” veil (Iliad 3.141 and 419); Aphrodite’s “fair garment” (5.315); the veil Hecuba offered to Athena that “glittered like a star” (6.295), etc. All these descriptions recall the brilliant white robe and veil of Pandora, Hesiod Theogony 574–575.
[ back ] 19. The veil of Thetis at the end of the poem is dark blue—kuanos (Iliad 24.94); on the meaning of this epithet, see Rowe 1972:346–353.
[ back ] 20. See, principally, Moreux 1967 passim.
[ back ] 21. Grillet 1975:90–91.
[ back ] 22. See Bounoure 1983:17–18.
[ back ] 23. Iliad 3.173–175; 6.345–348; 24.764; it is her union with Paris, cause of so many deaths, that she regrets. At 3.173–175, there is suggestive wavering between thanatos/thalamos: “‘Sir [Priam],’ answered Helen, shining among women, ‘father of my husband, dear and reverend in my eyes, would that I had chosen death [thanatos kakos] rather than to have come here with your son, far from my bridal chamber [thalamon].’”
[ back ] 24. At Iliad 22.477, Andromache, seeing her husband dead in front of the gates, calls him “Hector.” When his corpse is inside Troy, she addresses him as anēr (24.725), asserting once again her dependence on a man.
[ back ] 25. Is this because she is the mother of the main Trojan hero or rather because she is the wife of the Trojan king? She speaks with Hector: Iliad 6.254 and following; begs him to return to the city: 22.82 and following; weeps: 22.431 and 24.77; prays to Athena: 6.305–310; and advises Priam: 24.201–208 and following.
[ back ] 26. Cf. Anticlea, who dies of sorrow from waiting for Odysseus’ return: Odyssey 11.202–203.
[ back ] 27. Iliad 19.295–299. These words are analogous to Andromache’s (6.410 and following). In tears, both moan over their destiny; see Beye 1974:87–88; Farron 1979:29–30.
[ back ] 28. This theme is developed in Hesiod Theogony (205–206): the privileges of Aphrodite are “the amorous converse of maidens, their smiles and wiles, their sweet delights, their love, and blandishment”; see Detienne 1973:64n91.
[ back ] 29. See pp. 105–106 below.
[ back ] 30. One might consider another type of ritual, feminine chant—the ololugē of women—by examining Eurycleia who, seeing the suitors’ dead bodies, prepares to let out the you-you of victory. On this point, see Gernet 1983:250–253 and Rudhardt 1958:178 and following.
[ back ] 31. Circe: Odyssey 10.136, 221; 11.8. Calypso: Odyssey 5.56–57, 61; 12.449. Scylla: Odyssey 12.85–86. Sirens: 12.44, 183, 187, 192, etc.; cf. Kahn 1980:123–124.
[ back ] 32. Detienne 1973:66 “En tant qu’elle est Peithō ou Apaté, la parole est dans la pensée mythique une puissance double, positive et négative, qui, sur ce plan, est parfaitement analogue à d’autres puissances ambiguës. Il y a en quelque sorte une équivalence entre elles: la parole ambivalente est une femme, elle est le dieu Protée, elle est un tissu bariolé.”