II.3. Virile Women … or Heroines?

If there were an attempt to perform an analysis of women parallel to the one offered above for men, an admission would have to be made that there are no masculine traits that become derogatory when applied to women. Quite the contrary, in fact. Two levels of masculine conduct in women can be identified: first, when women engage, more or less confusedly, in the affairs of men; second, when comparisons of masculinity directly describe the three main feminine characters in the epic—Penelope, Andromache, and Helen.

Traces of Masculinity in Women

Several times, Hector mentions the importance of the Trojan women. Their judgments matter in his eyes; whether they are related to the way he wages war (Iliad 6.441–443):
Wife, I too have thought upon all this, but with what face should I look upon the Trojans, men or women, if I shirked battle like a coward?
or to the consequences of failure (Iliad 22.104–105):
Now that my folly has destroyed the army, I dare not look Trojan men and Trojan women in the face.
Trojan women are always associated with their spouses (see again, Iliad 7.297–298); Hector’s leadership affects them as much as the men. And the council that Priam and the elders of Troy form has its feminine counterpart: the group of women gathered around Hecuba (6.270, 287, 296). This is the group of women in whom Hector entrusts the mission of imploring Athena’s mercy (6.269–270). In their sphere also, women have a form of proper authority, and their requests have an individualized character: the prayers addressed to Athena are related, strictly speaking, to the world of women—wives and young mothers. They pray that Athena “will have pity upon the town, with the wives and little ones of the Trojans” (6.276, 310). There is then a recognized domain reserved for women: relations with the goddess. But it is scant indeed.
In the story of Meleager, who refuses to defend his city and withdraws from combat, there is a certain form of feminine power, or more precisely that of a wife: a persuasion that will make even the most obstinate yield. Whereas the leading authorities of the city (the elders of Aetolia and the most important priests), the representatives of familial authority (first his father, then his mother), and even his dearest battle companions fail (Iliad 9.574–587), his wife alone succeeds in convincing him to go fight: “His heart was stirred when he heard what bad things will happen. He got up and went off” (9.595–596).
In the Odyssey, the political authority of Arete, who reigns with king Alcinous over the Phaeacians, is clearly emphasized. She is the first to address Odysseus—as if he must, first and foremost, be accepted by the queen. It is she who ultimately decides to welcome Odysseus (Odyssey 6.304–305, 312–315), a point that is underlined by Moses I. Finley, who notes “her strange unwomanly claims to power and authority.” [1] We will not dwell on the obvious fact that in the Odyssey the three queens, Penelope, Helen, and Arete, maintain privileged relationships with royal power. Penelope in Ithaca, Helen in Sparta, and Arete in Scheria embody authority just as their husbands do.

Penelope: A Heroic King for Ithaca?

A certain number of descriptions depict the figure of Penelope with masculine, always prestigious, traits. These refer to the world of combat, but with a discrepancy that distinguishes the Odyssey from the Iliad.
Even after the massacre of the suitors, Penelope’s caution and suspicion remain intact: wanting to test Odysseus again, she provokes the indignation of Telemachus, then of Odysseus himself. She is criticized for having a heart “as hard as a stone” (Odyssey 23.103), a heart that nothing can soften (23.167), and a will of iron (23.172). These images recall metaphors of combat in which the warrior has a heart of iron (Iliad 22.357; 24.205). The inversion is even more striking considering that, in the moments when these descriptions are applied to her, her femininity is confirmed, even heightened: “to you beyond all women” (peri soi ge gunaikōn thēluteraōn, Odyssey 23.166). [2]
Another of Penelope’s distinguishing features is that she is, with Athena, the only female character in the epic to be characterized by her “strong hand” (cheiri pacheiēi, Odyssey 21.6; of Athene at Iliad 21.403, 424). The epithet applied here to Penelope, which has intrigued commentators, is that granted to a warrior clutching a spear with his broad hand (Iliad 7.264; 8.221, etc.). It is significant that this feature is accorded to both the most warlike of the goddesses and the heroine of the Odyssey.
To interpret this “strong hand” as a symbol of Penelope’s power inside the home, it must, of course, be placed in context: Odysseus is about to take up the royal bow, and only his hand will be strong enough to string it. This is not the only case where twinning between Odysseus and Penelope occurs.
Beyond this type of scattered evidence, two comparisons warrant particular attention. When Penelope fears for Telemachus’ life, she is compared not to a lioness, as we might expect, but to a male lion who fears for his young. A heroic comparison, doubtless, even though Penelope is likened, not to the formidable lion, but rather to the cornered and threatened one (Odyssey 4.791–792). It is as if she has reached the very limits of a woman’s heroism. [3]
In another passage, Odysseus says of Penelope (Odyssey 19.108–110):
For truly your glory reaches the wide firmament of the sky itself—like the glory of some faultless king who, godlike as he is, and ruling over a population that is multitudinous and vigorous, upholds acts of good dikē.
The references to glory (kleos), justice (eudikias), and royalty (basilēos) establish a network of values closely linked to masculinity. This kind of aristeia for Penelope does not acquire its full meaning unless we stop to examine the circumstances that provoke this praise. Odysseus, who had proclaimed his own glory in similar terms (Odyssey 10.19–20) while with the Phaeacians (here again confirming the twinning of Odysseus and Penelope), is now in a completely reversed situation: “do not seek to know my lineage and family” (19.116), he responds to his wife, who has not yet recognized him. The king, like the male lion, falls into the category of masculine heroism. It is because she is an exceptionally wise and faithful wife that she can—in the absence of a man—convey royalty and assume for a while the role of the kingdom’s regent.
However, Penelope’s response to Odysseus is significant (Odyssey 18.124–128):
Stranger, the immortal gods robbed me of all excellence, whether of face or figure, when the Argives set sail for Troy and my dear husband with them. If he were to return and look after my affairs I would have more fame and would show a better presence to the world. [4]
It is important that Penelope herself refuses the usurped kleos—demonstrating once again that her fidelity is the basis for her true glory. [5] When Odysseus returns, at the moment he recovers his status as mortal and king, she will recover her true place, her true function as a woman.

Andromache: A double of the warrior Hector?

Andromache, the name of the paradigmatic woman of the Iliad, contains roots meaning both ‘man’ and ‘war’. There is very little basis for the idea that she is “an unrecognized example of matriarchy.” [6] A careful examination of the lines dedicated to Andromache will perhaps determine the reality—and the limits—of her contact with the war.
Three times Andromache encroaches into a domain reserved for men, and particularly into that of war. She tends to Hector’s horses and feeds them; she would have received the prestigious armor of Achilles from Hector, had he been victorious; and, finally, she makes a more marked incursion into the world of men when she takes it upon herself to give Hector tactical advice (Iliad 6.433–434):
As for the army of warriors, place them near the fig-tree, where the city can be best scaled, and the wall is weakest.
Of note is, first of all, that the advice is defensive; it is about the best way to protect the city, that is to say, the women and children. The strangeness of this initiative is underscored by Hector, who sends Andromache back to her loom (Iliad 6.490–492).
Weak evidence, certainly, but all three cases are related to the practices of war. Andromache’s proximity to combat is clarified, however, by Charles Segal’s analysis of Iliad 22.437–476. [7] Through a very attentive study of formulas and expressions applied to Andromache’s suffering, Segal brings to light the complex play of similarities and differences that the poet uses to prioritize Andromache’s pain by slightly distorting formulas ordinarily reserved for warriors.
His analysis will allow for an examination of the physical manifestations of Andromache’s pain at the moment of Hector’s death (Iliad 22.447–448 and 451–453):
She heard the cry coming as from the wall, and trembled in every limb; the shuttle fell from her hands.
Iliad 22.447–448
I heard the voice of my husband’s honored mother; my own heart beats as though it would come into my mouth and my limbs refuse to carry me.
Iliad 22.451–453
Over her eyes a dark night spread its cover, and she fell backward, gasping out her life’s breath. She threw far from her head the splendid adornments that bound her hair—her frontlet, her snood, her plaited headband, and, to top it all, the headdress.
Iliad 22.466–470 [8]
But when she recovered her breathing and her life’s breath gathered in her heart, she started to sing a lament in the midst of the Trojan women.
Iliad 22.475–476
With a prescient sense of her coming misfortune, Andromache’s body is struck like that of an injured warrior: her limbs vibrate and the shuttle slips out of her hands like the weapon of a man who is collapsing (Iliad 8.329; 15.465). Her heart shakes violently like the spear brandished in the hand of a combatant (3.19; 16.142); her knees stick in the ground like a spear in a helmet (4.460). A black night spreads over her, a synonym of the warrior’s death in combat (5.659; 13.580); and immediately afterward, she collapses. Catching her breath, as a hero does during an effort to fight (5.697; 11.359, etc.), she comes to (apo de psuchēn ekapusse, 22.467: literally “she breathes out her life’s breath”). Her pain is analogous, in every detail, to that of an injured or slain warrior, and this extraordinary scene confers upon her suffering a particular character.
While Segal’s analysis undoubtedly proves that Andromache is acquainted with war and combat, it does not, however, make it possible to see in her the form of a warrior. Indeed, it seems that her relationship with war is essentially transmitted through Hector. As if she feels the impact of Achilles’ spear, which pierces Hector’s body, she totters and collapses. This is, perhaps, a way of expressing the closeness that exists between her and Hector, their absolutely interwoven fates, which make them, like Odysseus and Penelope, more than a couple. Andromache figures as Hector’s double: “Woe is me, O Hector; woe, indeed, that to share a common lot we were born” (Iliad 22.477–478). Andromache suffers as Hector dies, and it is here perhaps that she reaches her limit. The “heroic” pain of Andromache ceases to be heroic when the man that acted as its referent disappears. She then reinstates her entirely feminine personality and weeps for her dead husband as a wife. [9]

Helen: A Double of Achilles?

Just as Achilles exceeds all other warriors in bravery, Helen is the most beautiful among women. However, their resemblance extends beyond their excellence. Both of divine heritage, their fates have been determined by the gods, and this destiny creates around them a kind of isolation. [10] Like the strength of Achilles, the beauty of Helen is irresistible. It also brings about death, and her character is closely associated with the balefulness of war. [11]
Her “bitchiness,” which is underlined several times, calls to mind the scavenging dogs that roam the battlefield: “Poor brother! I am nothing more than a dog and a malicious frozen heart,” she says to Hector (Iliad 6.344; see also 3.180, 6.356; Odyssey 4.145). In this single verse, three descriptive elements contribute to the concentration of the threats of war and violent death around her character: the carnivorous dog, the battle or grievance that freezes the heart (Iliad 9.464, 24.524; Odyssey 11.212, etc.), and the horror of fighting (Iliad 9.257). She is also stugerē ‘detestable’, like death (8.368). And, finally, she has the power to make men shiver (24.775) from fear or horror (19.325), like the lion (11.383). These many qualities, while they might bring her into the world of men and war, do not erase her eminently feminine nature.
If Helen is associated with death, she is also, in a certain manner, the one who bestows immortality. This works in two ways: by the war she has provoked, where men will distinguish themselves as heroes; and in her capacity as a bard, again like Achilles. Sitting at her loom, she works on “a great web of purple wool, on which she was pattern-weaving the struggles (aethlous) between Trojans, breakers of horses, and bronze-armored Achaeans, that Ares had made them fight for her sake” (Iliad 3.125-128),
She is spinning, a wholly feminine activity, but on this purple cloth, which is the color of death, [12] Helen diverts the poet and tells of great feats: the suffering and death endured for her. Poet at her loom, she is later the one who points out the Achaean leaders to Priam, associating each of them with her own destiny (Iliad 3.178–235).
She also possesses this gift of clairvoyance in the Odyssey, since she can immediately recognize and name Telemachus (4.141–144). Like the bard, she helps people forget their sorrow with nē-penthes, a drug that “made one forget all bad things” (4.220–226). [13]
If in the Iliad Achilles is the champion of masculine values, Helen embodies the essence of femininity. But, again, the symmetry between the two figures is complex. It is not a coincidence that these two characters, who occupy the primary roles in the epic, are also the ones that best succeed at integrating elements typical of the opposite sex without altering their masculinity/femininity in the least. Despite having his mother nearby and always accessible, even on the battlefield, Achilles remains the greatest among the warriors. Helen, who intervenes in the affairs of men to distribute death and immortality, is not rendered any less feminine for doing so. Helen’s beauty is the cause of the Trojan War, and the war reveals the beauty of Achilles.
While it is fair to suggest that the close relationship and consubstantial status of Andromache and Penelope with their husbands allow for a certain circulation of masculine values, Helen is the only heroine who does not owe her renown to her husband. In the Iliad, Helen is situated beyond the conjugal relationship, and this is, perhaps, what makes her a heroic figure.


[ back ] 1. Finley 1978b:132.
[ back ] 2. See Loraux 1981c:76–79.
[ back ] 3. Foley 1978:10 does not take into consideration the fear of the lion, but retains the image of the besieged warrior, an image directly likened to Penelope; for a more nuanced interpretation, see Schnapp-Gourbeillon 1981:61–62.
[ back ] 4. Like Odysseus, Penelope speaks of her kleos in the first person, cf. p. 99 below.
[ back ] 5. Odyssey 24.196–198: “Thus the glory will never perish for him, the glory that comes from his merit, and a song will be created for earth-bound humans by the immortals—a song that brings beautiful and pleasurable recompense for sensible Penelope.”
[ back ] 6. Pomeroy 1975 makes this claim, without providing any proof.
[ back ] 7. Segal 1971a.
[ back ] 8. See also pp. 29–30 above.
[ back ] 9. See pp. 107–108 below.
[ back ] 10. On the “resemblance” of Achilles and Helen, see Reckford 1964:18–20.
[ back ] 11. See the detailed remarks in Clader 1976:16–23.
[ back ] 12. See Moreux 1967:263–268 (on porphureos).
[ back ] 13. See below, pp. 104–105.