This sources of explanation, one that is a

This essay analyses the portrayal
of women in Greek literature that were written during the patriarchal society
of Ancient Greece. The earliest surviving works of literature are the two epic
poems (the Iliad and the Odyssey) by Homer which were believed to
be created in the 9th Century BC but not written down until the 7th
Century BC1. To
get a fair depiction of how women are portrayed, I will analyse three genres of
Greek literature: epic poetry, tragedy, and comedy.  I will then conclude as to whether women are
negatively portrayed and if so, to what extent. Most Greek literature is based
on mythology therefore consists of mortal and immortal women, however I will
primarily focus on mortal women as I can then compare them to the status of
women in Greek society. As Greek literature was predominantly written by men,
Berggreen reveals that the women characters in the stories show “the role of
women behind the exclusively male presentation of their lives and ways.”2
Hughes notes that although the information we have about ancient women is
largely fictional and based on societies ideals, “the important moments of
their life cycle and the constraints under which they lived in many ways
remained the characteristic of Greek women in the Classical and later periods as


To measure the extent, if any, that
women were portrayed as negatively, I will use two sources of explanation, one
that is a dictionary definition and the other, a list of vocabulary. The Oxford
dictionary definition describes the word ‘negatively’ as: “In a way that is not
desirable or optimistic.”4 As
some negative and positive traits are subjective, I will also use a formulated
list that categorises these aspects into three sections: negative, positive and

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Generally, the ancient world held
patriarchal values, however Athens patriarchal values seems to have been
stronger than most other poleis (cities). There were many laws in 5th century
Athens that highlight this patriarchal society. For example, women were not
classified as citizens therefore could not vote. Furthermore, women were
confined in separate quarters in the oikos (household) and their roles were to
expand the oikos via the production of children and economically by weaving and
managing resources. By looking at the gender stereotypes in 5th
Century Athens, I will be able to compare and reflect on the portrayal of women
in literature compared to women in society at the time. Greek tragedies were
performed in Athens at the dramatic festival of the City Dionysia and they used
famous mythological stories and characters. Therefore, the audience would have
known the core outline of the myth. Greek tragedy is known for its “strong and
vibrant female characters.”6
Fantham suggests that the presentation of women in tragedies and comedies “may
simply represent what male poets (and on stage, male actors) imagined about
women, or used them to imagine.”7


Specific literary techniques and
terminology are used in Greek literature as a device to add drama,
characteristic and narrative. Hubris is generally seen in Greek tragedies as it
is often the reason for the character’s downfall. Hubris is usually translated
as excessive pride, however it can be any transgressive act where a human
oversteps the boundaries of mortality. Anything that is excessive or
transgressive results in punishment. Other literary techniques used in Greek
literature, and extensively used in The Odyssey, are epithets. An epithet is a
characteristic attached to a person’s name, normally used as a poetic device.
Homer uses epithets as a formulaic structure due to the use of oral


The Odyssey is about the homecoming of the hero Odysseus and his
travels back from Troy, whilst his son Telemachus and wife Penelope wait for at
home for 20 years for his return. In the meantime, multiple suitors want to
marry Penelope and in doing so they are shown to be ill-mannered, ignorant and
excessive (therefore hubristic and deserve to be punished). In the Odyssey, Penelope is often seen as the “epitome
of the Greek wife”8.
She is virtuous and loyal, depicted by waiting for Odysseus’ return and not
choosing any of the suitors to marry. As a role model for Athenian women,
Penelope does what is required of her in terms of her domestic role in the
house. It is very typical that she stays at home throughout the whole poem as
Whittaker explains that women were generally confined to the house9.
Furthermore, women were expected to obey their kyrios (head of household) which
would explain the chaos at the beginning of the Odyssey as Telemachus is not yet mature or powerful enough to be in
control and Penelope can’t because she is a woman. Whittaker also comments that
a good wife “keeps an orderly house” and this “will make the household
prosper.” Therefore, Penelope’s commitment to the oikos and Odysseus exemplify
her positive attributes. Whilst her role in everyday life as a wife is shown,
the reader does not get to establish her identity outside of her role of a wife
and mother as she is always tied down by her loyalty to men.


Some of Penelope’s epithets
include: ‘prudent’, ‘thoughtful’, ‘wise’, ‘sagacious’. All are positive and
continue the theme of her chastity. Moreover, the goddess Athene has high
regards for her, “with Penelope for your mother, I cannot think that your house
is doomed to an inglorious future”. Yet, one of the suitors, Antinous, calls
her an ‘incomparable schemer’ and goes on to explain how deceitful Penelope is.
It could be seen that Penelope is deceitful by her shrewd trick that she plays
on the suitors. She says she will make her decision of who to marry when she
finishes making a shroud for her father-in-law, however, every night she
unravels what she had done that day. Weaving was an important task for women in
5th Century Athens and therefore Penelope’s skills are an example of
her role in the oikos and links to her faithfulness as a wife. Furthermore, her
weaving “exemplifies an ideal of womanhood, but also to cunning and
These traits can be paralleled to Odysseus’ wit and intelligence, suggesting
their compatibility. Thus, her weaving trick displays masculine qualities,
which contrasts to the feminine aspect and limited nature of weaving. Although
the suitors are angry and blame Penelope for leading them on, their
transgressive behaviour suggests that they are the ones to blame and not
Penelope, therefore only highlighting her positive traits.


In the Odyssey, the reader can see that Telemachus aspires to have the
power and respect that his father has. Telemachus asserts his “masculine
when he gains confidence and speaks down to his mother, “So go to your quarters
now and attend to your own work, the loom and the spindle, and tell the
servants to get on with theirs. Making decisions must be men’s concern, and
mine in particular; for I am master in this house.”12
As Telemachus cannot control the situation with the suitors, he turns to
control a woman as men were superior during that time period. This creates
tension between Telemachus and Penelope and further highlights the separation between
the two genders. She got shunned because she “voiced an opinion”13,
and even Penelope was shocked by his harsh words, “Penelope was taken aback,
but she retired to her own apartments, for she took her son’s sensible words to
heart.” That fact that she was “taken aback” reveals that Telemachus does not
normally speak to her in that way, however, as he is growing up, he begins to
gain more power over her. The use of the word “quarters” and “her own
apartments” emphasise the sharply defined gender roles and boundaries that
females were restricted to. Penelope accepts Telemachus’ rebuke, suggesting she
has respect for these divisions.14
In 5th Century Athens, “Greek women were expected to be submissive
to the men who controlled them”15.
Penelope’s submissiveness implies that she a victim to the patriarchal society
and her ‘goodness’ is valued by how she is loyal and a good wife, rather than
her being a good person.16


Helen’s first entrance in the Odyssey is interesting as she is compared to a goddess, “In the
midst of his perplexity, Helen came down from her lofty perfumed room, looking
like Artemis with her golden distaff.” (Homer, p.44). Artemis was the goddess
of chastity, virginity, the hunt, the moon, and the wilderness. Being compared
to a god was one of highest compliments in ancient Greece, therefore this
emphasises her beauty and shows that she is chaste and modest. However, this
greatly contrasts to attitudes towards her in other works of literature, “the
‘traitorous bitch’; the ‘Aegeyan bitch, her of the three husbands who bare only
female children’; the ‘strumpet'”. Hughes argues how Helen is an ideal for
female beauty, making her irresistible to men and therefore she is “both lusted
after and despised”.17
This mixed view of Helen reflects the contrast between Homer’s works and other
Greek writers. Fantham explains that Homer’s “more ambivalent portrait of Helen enhances its favouring of
home, survival, and chaste wives relative to Iliadic military glory.” As the Odyssey gives the perspective
of Helen after the Trojan War, Fantham hints that Homer presents Helen in a
positive view (comparing her to a goddess) to detract opinions that the Trojan
War was fought for a “worthless object”. 18


In Euripides’ Medea,
Medea is often seen as a monstrous, “horrifically vindictive”19
character as she murders her children in order to get revenge against her
unfaithful husband, Jason. She has been categorised in Greek drama in the group
of ‘bad’ women who “resist marriage and confinement to the oikos, behave
irrationally, and uphold private interests.”20
As a female who is acting outside of her “prescribed gender role”, Gabriel
argues this in turn causes her to be “shamed, punished or labelled as
Her indecisiveness towards whether to kill her children is shown as she
concludes “I won’t do it. I won’t think of it again.” Yet less than 30 lines
later, she convinces herself to commit infanticide, “I understand the horror of
what I am going to do; but anger, the spring of all life’s horror, masters my
Her wavering and emotional lament is typical of the Greeks perception of women
as irrational and unstable; she appears powerless in the face of her towering
rage. However, it is important to note that she is self-aware of her actions
and understands that she will destroy herself by committing this crime. Barlow
sees this as a positive attribute, “She is clever, articulate, and above all
self- aware.”23
Whereas Seaford deliberates that the “autonomous sanity of Medea adds pathos.”24
Both academics can see that Euripides reflects not just the negative side of
Medea and thus creates a certain amount of sympathy for her. Furthermore,
Blundell comments on the torture that Medea puts herself through before committing
infanticide, and realises that this “multi-layered” approach that Euripides has
to women makes critics judge him as being “both a misogynist and a feminist”.
Blundell therefore concludes that whist Medea conforms to the “ideological
stereotype of the dangerous and excessive female” she is “capable at the same
time of appearing justified in her actions.”25


In Euripides’ Medea, Jason asserts:

only children could be got some other way,

Without the
female sex! If women didn’t exist,

Human life would
be rid of all its miseries.

This statement suggests that,
according to the perspective offered by Jason, women are only useful for
childbirth and producing offspring. Thus, he is insulting all females by
dismissing their intelligence and purpose and belittling them. Yet Slaughter
suggests that Jason’s misogynistic views are caused by how he fears Medea and
sees her as a threat. Therefore, Jason’s wish that ‘children could be got some
other way’ is because childbirth gives women power over men.26  It would seem that Jason’s irrational and
insolent language undermine this negative portrayal of females. Jason’s
limitations and therefore weakness is that he underestimates Medea.
Furthermore, traditionally in literature, the act of evil or hubris leads to some
sort of punishment, however after Medea commits murder, she is not punished by
the gods (her suffering from losing her children is self-inflicted). This could
suggest that Euripides is subtly critiquing male dominance and the patriarchal
society of 5th century Athens. Therefore, by doing this he could be portraying
Medea positively.


Medea is described as a ‘bull’, ‘lion’ and ‘tiger’. She is “overcome
by rage and desperation” therefore becomes “comparable to savage animals,
powerful forces of nature, or heartless monsters.”27
Euripides uses animal imagery of stereotypically masculine attributes of power,
strength and sexuality. The subversion of gender roles would have been
unsettling to the original audience as it questions the principles that
Athenian society was built on mainly the inferiority of women.  Women were expected to stay within the
confines of the oikos (household) and provide their husband with children. The
5th century Athenian audience would have found Medea’s criticisms of
Athenian cultural norms highly disturbing. Homrighausen believes that the use
of animal imagery conveys Medea as being “angry”, “out of control” and having
“uncontrollable rage”28.
These are negative character traits and they also display the portrayal of her


To conclude, there are undeniably certain expectations
that are placed upon women in ancient society and these are reflected
throughout Greek literature. Penelope, a ‘good’ and ‘perfect’ woman shows
intelligence and loyalty, yet her good behaviour is defined in terms of her
service and obedience to her kyrios and oikos. Medea, an ‘evil’ and ‘monstrous’
character, defies gender norms and is therefore seen as a ‘bad’ woman. However,
Euripides creates a certain amount of sympathy and shows her as powerful against
her husband by being able to easily manipulate him.




Barlow, S.A. (1989). Stereotype and Reversal in Euripides’
Medea. Online. Available at:
accessed 19 Jan. 18

Berggreen, B. Gendering Greece: Introduction

Blundell, S. (1995). Women in Ancient Greece. Harvard
University Press.

Choi, M. (2013). Revision of Euripides’ Tragedies by
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accessed 19 Jan. 18.

Clayton, B. (2004). A Penelopean Poetics: Reweaving the
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Gabriel, K.A. (2016). Performing Femininity: Gender in
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accessed 19 Jan. 18

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accessed 19 Jan. 18

Homer. (2003). The Odyssey. Penguin Classics.

Homrighausen, J. (2014) Rendering Revenge: A Comparison of
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accessed 19 Jan. 18

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O’Neal, W. (2001) The Status of Women in Ancient Athens
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Oct. 18.

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accessed 10 Dec. 17

Spinning and Weaving in Ancient Greece. (2017). Online.
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accessed 19 Jan. 18

Tekin, I.B. (2010). 
Myths of Oppression Revisited in Cherrie Moraga and Liz Lochhead’s Play.
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Encyclopedia of the Ancient World edited by Shona Grimbly

Gendering Greece: Introduction Brit Berggreen

Women in the Classical World: Image and Text



Revision of Euripides’ Tragedies by Contemporary Women Playwrights

Women in the Classical World: Image and Text By Elaine Fantham, Helene Peet
Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, H. A. Shapiro

8 The
Status of Women in Ancient Athens, William J. O’Neal



11 A
Penelopean Poetics: Reweaving the Feminine in Homer’s Odyssey By Barbara
Clayton (pg 36, ch 2)

Homer, The Odyssey e-book Available at:
accessed 10 Dec. 17 All further references to this edition will be in

The Perfect Wife By Alice Holfgren

Gender Roles, Whittaker

The Perfect Wife By Alice Holfgren


Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore by Bettany Hughes

Women in the Classical World: Image and Text By Elaine Fantham, Helene Peet
Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, H. A. Shapiro

Women in Ancient Greece By Sue Blundell

Reflections of Women in Antiquity By Helene P. Foley

Performing Femininity: Gender in Ancient Greek Myth By Katherine Anne Gabriel

Medea, Euripides

Stereotype And Reversal In Euripides’ Medea By Shirley A. Barlow

Richard Seaford, “Tragedy and Dionysus,” in Bushnell, Companion

Women in Ancient Greece By Sue Blundell

Slaughter, M. (2011) The Hippocratic Corpus and Soranus of Ephesus: Discovering
Men’s Minds Through Women’s Bodies

Performing Femininity: Gender in Ancient Greek Myth Katherine Anne Gabriel

Rendering Revenge: A Comparison of Selected Medea Translations by Jonathan


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