The role of women in the society is not clearly defined. There was a time, when women were on the top of the world. Then they were certainly more important, because of their social functions, than men were. However, the long-lasting period of Patriarchy came after the period of Matriarchy, and it completely changed the treatment of women in the world. For centuries, women have tried to find their place not only in a men-oriented world, but also in a men-oriented art. It is well-known that the literature is the reflection of society events. That is why the role of women in the epic world is a quite questioned topic.
Analysis of women’s role in the epic world with the help of examples from literary works
The role of the woman had been changing together with the change of epochs. Different writers had various opinions about the description of the woman and her most important tasks. Women had to play different characters and roles in their works.
Firstly, the paper will focus on the analysis of The Odyssey by the Greek poet Homer. Although, it is an epic tale of men’s heroic deeds, the role of women in it is also unparalleled. Homer describes the women from different sights. He creates different role paradigms, which vary from a woman in the role of seductresses to a woman in a role of mother and wife. The role of seductress is a prime one. For example, when Odysseus arrives on Circe’s island, he and his crew are invited to Circe’s house by the soft and alluring voice of the extremely beautiful goddess. Homer writes about her in such a manner, “… the nymph with lovely braids, Circe – and deep inside they heard her singing, lifting her spell-binding voice as she glided back and forth on her great immortal loom, her enchanting web a shimmering glory only goddesses can weave”(Homer, Book X, Line 235-239). This quotation proves that power of women’s beauty can make wonders and men can be sometimes powerless to stand against it. That is the reason why she has transformed Odysseus’ crowd into pigs. However, Odysseus is not as pathetic as his crowd is. He shows a real male power by rescuing his team from Circe. By this episode, Homer explains that despite how wonderful woman can be; the wise man always has the strength to stand against her spell. Another example of a woman who wants to rule men is Nausicaa. She believes that she can keep Odysseus beside only by a noble origin. “I am a daughter of a generous King Alcinous…”(Homer, Book VI, Line 2014). However, a brave man as Odysseus will never agree to be somebody’s slave. He is a man, and because of his gender, he could not submit to a woman in spite of all her wealth. With the help of Nausicaa’s description, author explains that love cannot be forced, especially by woman. The third bright example of seductress is Kalypso. She is a powerful woman, who keeps Odysseus during seven years on her island. She offers him immortality and all life goods, but Odysseus feels like a prisoner and wants to escape.
[Kalypso] found him there on the headland, sitting still, weeping, his eyes never dry, his sweet life flowing away with the tears he wept for his foiled journey home, since the nymph no longer pleased. In the nights, true, he'd sleep with her in the arching cave - he had no choice - unwilling lover beside a lover all to willing… (Homer, Book V, Line 167-172).
By this example, author shows that it is the male privilege to rule and when power goes to a woman it can be dangerous and it cannot bring any benefits for both. Calypso is an opposite character to an ideal Greek woman. Therefore, by description of this character, author emphasizes that woman has to be submissive and obedient; otherwise, her power will be destructive. It reveals the role of woman in ancient society and proves that women were valuable only to satisfy men’s physical needs, bring up children and perform domestic duties. However, not all female characters are portrayed in a negative light. Woman, in the role of seductresses who wants to control men, author contrasts the image of a faithful wife and mother. That is why the most important female character in this epic is Penelope. She is an example of loyalty and devotion. Penelope is faithful to her husband even when she is not sure that he is alive. She performs different tricks with the suitors in order not to become their wife. “So by day she'd weave at her great and growing web – by night, by the light of torches placed beside her, she would unravel all she's done. Three whole years she deceived us, seduced us with this scheme”(Homer, Book II, Line 114-117). However, it is a little bit strange that Homer describes so faithful woman who waits for her husband and is alone for almost twenty years and at the same time shows, that Odysseus has close relationships with other women. “…she fell to weeping for Odysseus, her beloved husband…” (Homer, Book I, Lines 419-420). “In the nights, true, he'd [Odysseus] sleep with her [Calypso] in the arching cave…” (Homer, Book V, Lines 170 – 171). Nevertheless, it is a reality of ancient time, when an ideal Greece woman has to stay with her husband through thick and thin, but he is not obliged to do so. In addition, analyzing Penelope in a role of a mother, we can clearly see that she allows also her son to boss her round. ”So Mother, go back to your quarters, tend to your own tasks, the distaff and the loom, and keep the women working hard as well. As for the bow now, men will see to that, but most of all, I hold the reign of power in this house” (Homer, Book I, Lines 409-417). However, Penelope is pleased with his behaviour. The dependence of mothers on their son’s makes clear the position of women’s in the society. An ideal ancient woman has to obey her husband and sons (Pomeroy, 1995, 28). In contrast to all the facts, which reveal women’s weakness, Homer shows that Penelope is a wise Queen of Ithaca. By this contraction, Homer states that in family woman has to be obedient and faithful, but she has to be clever to help her husband when the right time comes.
The role of women in The Odyssey is significant. In my opinion, despite Homer’s description of female characters as weak and unwise creatures in comparison to male ones, we cannot omit the fact that by virtue of women that this whole story even took place. The Trojan War began because of beautiful Helen. Odysseus came back to home, as a result of love and endless hope of Penelope. The entire voyage was possible, because of the power of famous goddess Athena. That is why despite off all episodes where women are described in a negative light, their role in The Odyssey is very significant and important.
Secondly, the role of women in The Aeneid by Virgil will be discussed below. The Virgil’s description of female characters in this epic is very similar to the previous Homer’s one. Women play a significant role almost in all events, and their beauty is so powerful that the men, because of it go under their spell. There are several main female characters and among them is Dido, the queen of Carthage, who represents an unconventional example of antique woman. She is a rather powerful woman, who rules in Carthage after her husband’s death. “Thus calmly speak the eldest of the train, Ilioneus: "O queen, whom Jove hath willed to found this new-born city, here to reign…” (Virgil, Book I, LXIX). However, when she falls in love, she loses her power. She is no longer able to rule her city. It shows how fragile woman is in front of a real love. “With various talk the night poor Dido wore, And drank deep love, and nursed her inward flame, of Priam much she asks, of Hector more, now in what arms Aurora's offspring came, of Diomede's horses and Achilles' fame” (Virgil, Book I, XCIX). The author proves that women, who are strong, can easily lose their power, because of love. The second female character is Andromache. She is an example of women’s suffering. She has seen the death of her son and husband, and after all these sad events, she is forced to become a wife to Pyrrhus. “Alas! What lot is thine? What worthy fate hath caught thee, fallen from a spouse so high? Hector's Andromache, art thou the mate Of Pyrrhus?” (Virgil, Book III, XLII). It reveals that ancient women were almost powerless facing with such difficulties, for they were completely dependent on their husbands. In addition, there are others female characters who represent the idea of women’s difficult plight in the society. Hecuba watches how her husband and son die. “Pale Hecuba, saw Priam's life-blood stain…” (Virgil, Book II, LXIX). Creusa dies when Aeneas tries carrying her son and father out of the city. “Grim horror seized me, and aghast I stood. Uprose the image of my father dear, as there I see the monarch, bathed in blood, like him in prowess and in age his peer. Uprose Creusa, desolate and drear, Iulus' peril, and a plundered home” (Virgil). From my point of view, through this episode author proves that the wife was not in the first place for her husband. She stands after his parents and comrades. Through the whole story, it seems also that journey is only men’s occupation not the women’s one. Accordingly, women decide to rebel against it:
Back look the Trojans, and with awe-struck eyes see the dark ash-cloud floating through the skies. And, as his troop Ascanius joyed to lead in mimic fight, so keen, when danger cries, first to the wildered camp he spurs his steed; and breathless guardians fail to stay his headlong speed. "What madness this, poor women?" he exclaims’’ (Virgil, Book V, XCI – XCII).
Many consider that the burning of the ships does not symbolize women’s stupidity, but their willingness to have equal rights with men and stop this awful journey.
Although, it seems that the position of women is awful, and their main occupation is suffering in this epic, similarly to The Odyssey the hidden role of women is significant. Despite of all brave deeds and strength of men, women decide their fate. Such goddesses as Venus and Minerva, because of their quarrels, provoke almost all events. Therefore, that is a false impression that men control everything and women are only mere window dressing for them.
Completely changed representation of women is noticed in The Inferno by Dante Alighieri. His ideal woman is Beatrice, who is the main female character not only in his literary works, but also in personal life. She is the example of divine love. This love gives Dante-narrator strength and courage to undertake his journey to the place of sin and suffering. The purpose of such a journey is quite simple – “Love called me here” (Dante, Canto II, 73). Although, this journey is because of Beatrice, and for Beatrice, narrator does not spend the whole time with her. Firstly, he goes to hell, were such angelic creatures as Beatrice cannot be found. Virgil is Dante’s guide through this horrible place. Since Beatrice is feminine ideal and she lives in Paradise, all women who are in Hell are her contradistinction. The first one is Francesca. Unlike Beatrice, who is an example of pure love, she describes her love as “Love, which in gentlest hearts will soonest bloom seized my lover with passion for that sweet body from which I was torn unshriven to my doom. Love, which permits no loved one not to love, took me so strongly with delight in him that we are as one in Hell, as we were above. Love led us to one death” (Dante, Canto V, 97-102). This love for her is rather physical than mental. Showing this sinner, author proves that only women as pure as Beatrice deserve Paradise. In addition, there are also many female demons, who contrast with the ideal woman Beatrice. For example, the Erinyes, who are furious symbol of femininity and love while Beatrice is calm one. Author believes that they do not even deserve this high rank. Dante writes, “Their limbs and gestures hinted they were women” (Canto XI. 35). Moreover, kin of Erinyes, the Harpies, are not even are specified as women. All that facts reveal that author highly appreciates faithful, pure women, and strongly condemns others who are full of sins. Moreover, he condemns also men who push women to sin. For example, in circle VIII Dante introduces people who suffer, because of crime against women. One of them is Venedico Caccianemico, who in order to gain political benefits prostituted his sister. Dante pays attention also on Jason, who was an unfaithful husband. The last character that is a complete opposite of Beatrice is Thaïs. She, similarly to Francesca, has wrong impression about love, and because of it, she suffered there.
All these women and female creatures from Hell are the description of what women should not be. The truth example to follow is Beatrice, who leads great life full of good deeds. Only such women, according to Danto, deserve respect.
Similarly to Inferno, in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote the theme of love to a wonderful ideal woman is shown. This woman is Aldonza Lorenzo. She is a farm worker, but Don Quixote represents her as a woman from the high class and gives her name Dulcinea. He does not see any drawbacks in her and shows that she is an ideal. “…the peerless Dulcinea del Toboso, the glory of these brooksides, the ornament of these meadows, the mainstay of beauty, the cream of all the graces, and, in a word, the being to whom all praise is appropriate, be it ever so hyperbolical”(Cervantes, Chapter LXXIII, 4105). However, his friend Sanco Panza, who also knows this woman, describes her more realistically. He states that she is as a somewhat masculine strong woman (Kilborn). Describing these facts, author proves that men, who fall in love, see no disadvantages in their darlings. In addition, it reveals the trend of the Renaissance to describe women in an ideal light.
To sum up, women’s role in the literature is significant. Even though epic literature is mainly focused on men and different versions of the patriarchal order, it does not mean that women are absent from the texts. They together with male characters make the plot more vivid and realistic.