Ancient antiheroines for modern women

I have always had a love of classical fiction and mythology, and as a rebellious sort, I often took particular interest in tales that centered around some decidedly ungovernable women.

While the ancient world was replete with tales of goddesses and mortal women it is important to note that many of the myths were meant as a reinforcement of the expected behavior of women at the time. Young women were frequently lusted after by gods. Those who remained chaste often had female deities come to their aid, while those who gave in to seduction were scorned and cursed with terrible fates.

The desired female temperament of obedience and deference to masculine influence was reinforced often. Powerful and influential women were portrayed as vengeful sorceresses or murderers, and played part in the torment of heroes and mankind. The ancient Greeks often characterized women as the personification of a curse sent by the gods, as seen in the myth of Pandora.

When Prometheus stole fire from the heavens Zeus exacted his vengeance by having the first woman created from earth and water, and she was given many gifts by all the gods to tempt and beguile men. Pandora was also given a sealed container that she must not open, and Zeus presented her to Promethus’ brother, Epimetheus. When they married, Pandora was persuaded to open the container. All the evil inside it escaped, and once closed again the only thing that remained was “hope”.

Many have heard the translation of this mysterious container as a box, but in fact it was a jar, and could be allegorical of the female womb. The hope that remained inside is symbolic of a child made by their coupling. The future of humanity was secure, though it would be plagued by a corrupted world.

This corruption often came upon the classical heroes as desirable women who had their own ideas and ambitions. These ancient bad girls were some of my favorite characters. Even the most terrible among them could be empathized with, for their pain, passion, and conviction was on display in the tragic style of the plays and poetry that featured them.

Helen of Troy
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships? Or was it men’s greed for the wealth of Troy?

Helen

Helen abandoned her husband, her crown, and all her family for the love of Paris. They fled across the sea to Troy to escape the jealous wrath of her husband Menelaus and his blood thirsty brother, Agamemnon. The brothers persuaded all of Helen’s former suitors to raise armies and pursue the couple, amassing a great naval fleet. The deaths of all the Greeks and Trojans in the war that followed was laid at Helen’s feet,and served as a warning to women who would run out on their husbands and children.

Helen seems a quiet and obedient character in other respects. Perhaps this is meant to emphasize her desirability beyond physical beauty as an ideal woman of the age. Her regret for her actions and return to Sparta might serve to portray women as inconstant victims of their emotions. In any case it has no bearing on modern women, who can appreciate Helen’s desire to escape an unfullfilling marriage for even a brief taste of passionate love and freedom.

 

Clytemnestra
Irene Papas as Clytemnestra in the film about her daughter’s sacrifice, Iphigenia.

Clytemnestra

Eldest sister of Helen, Clytemnestra, was wed to Agamemnon and became queen of Mycenae. When Agamemnon sought to bring war upon Troy, a great calm settled upon the sea. The great fleet could not sail unless a terrible blood sacrifice was made to honor the goddess Artemis, whom Agamemnon offended. He and Clytemnestra’s eldest daughter, the lovely and obedient Iphigenia, was to be the sacrifice.

Any love Clytemnestra might have had for her husband died the instant Iphigenia was brought to the altar. The sacrifice did its work, however, and the winds became favorable for the Greek fleet. While Agamemnon was making war across the sea, Clytemnestra took up a lover, Aegisthus. Together they murder Agamemnon upon his return from the toppled towers of Troy. Of all the women in the Trojan saga, Clytemnestra’s vengeance is probably the most understandable for modern mothers.

Cassandra
Cassandra is as crazy as they come in Troy: Fall of a City, but she is never wrong.

Cassandra

Cassandra was a princess of Troy and a priestess of Apollo who had the gift of prophecy. She was also cursed with an air of madness, so her true fortunes could not be believed by any who heard them. Cassandra’s predictions were multitudinous, and always came true, but her insanity was such that her family locked her up, and the trauma aggravated her condition. However often Cassandra was right, they did not believe her.

Perhaps all the strife of the Trojan war and what followed could have been avoided if only someone had listened to Cassandra. Her fate was as tragic as her life, for during the pillage of Troy she was found by Ajax and raped. At the end of the war she was given to Agamemnon as his prize, only to be killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, when they arrived in Mycenae. Cassandra is certainly worthy of pity, and every woman from her time to our own can empathize with a character whose words are dismissed.

Antigone
Antigone is thrown at the feet of her uncle, King Creon, for her crime.

Antigone

Antigone was a daughter of Oedipus, whose brothers Eteocles and Polynices fought for the crown and killed each other in battle. Antigone’s uncle, Creon, would serve as king until Eteocles’ son could take the throne. Creon decreed that only Eteocles could receive burial, leaving the rebellious Polynices to rot in the open air, his soul unable to travel to the afterlife. Antigone had such love for her brother and was so committed to the will of the gods that she defied her uncle and buries Polynices.

Antigone is caught and brought before the king, and she is an unflinching heroine of righteousness in the argument that follows. Creon is bound by law to punish her treason with death, but he takes some pity on her and sentences her to imprisonment. Loved ones petition for her release and Creon relents, but too late. Antigone killed herself rather than live in a dark cell, punished only for doing right by her brother and the gods. Antigone is a perfect martyr. It isn’t the least bit difficult to understand her cause of rebellion, or admire her outspoken conviction.

Medea
Jolene Blalock as the young sorceress Medea, in Jason and the Argonauts

Medea

Medea was a sorceress who fell in love with Jason when he and the Argonauts came to Colchis to claim the Golden Fleece. Medea went to great lengths using cunning, witchcraft, and murder to help Jason achieve his prize, With the caveat that he marry her and take her away with him. Jason agreed. On the lengthy voyage Medea proved her devotion and usefulness many more times, healing wounded seafarers, telling fortunes, and slaying monsters with her magic. She and Jason had several children over the ten years that they were married.

But in Corinth, Jason abandoned Medea for the king’s young daughter, Glauce. Medea was not to be trifled with. She sent Glauce a poisoned dress and coronet. Medea is said to have also killed her and Jason’s own children, though other writings say it was the angry Corinthians who lost their king and princess that killed them. Medea fled to Athens, Thebes, and home to Colchis, never finding the love and family that Jason had promised and that she had labored for, many times over.

Even though women were miasmic figures in the patriarchal ancient world, women today can see even the most villainous among them as somewhat heroic or understandable. When one considers the indignities they suffered, being used, ignored, spurned, and abused by the so called heroes of their time, it isn’t hard to imagine ourselves having similarly desperate reactions. Their portrayal by poets and authors throughout the centuries has been touched with empathy and compassion, and the women have enjoyed a lasting legendary heroism equal to that of the men in their stories.

Image Credits: Warner Brothers, Helena Productions, Greek Film Center, British Broadcasting Corporation, Norma Film, Hallmark Entertainment, Panfilm

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