Given the subject matter it is perhaps surprising that there are so many female characters in the Iliad, slightly less surprising in the Odyssey. Homer’s depiction and typification of women is consistent – of the female humans femininity, mothering and caring are emphasized; the goddesses are beautiful – but all the women and goddesses in Homer have strong, positive characters.
Contrast this to Hesiod’s depiction of women in Work and Days. The account of the origin of woman and her character (lines 59-69) is misogynistic in the extreme. And where Homer sees women in partnership with men (Penelope with Odysseus, Hecuba with Priam, even Helen with Hector), Hesiod sees women as a punishment:
[Zeus] commanded renowned Hephaestus to mix earth with water as quickly as possible, and to put the voice and strength of a human into it, and to make a beautiful, lovely form of a maiden similar in her face to the immortal goddesses .He told Athena to teach her crafts, to weave richly worked cloth, and golden Aphrodite to shed grace and painful desire and limb-devouring cares around her head; and he ordered Hermes … to put a dog’s mind and a thievish character into her. Hesiod Work and Days 59 – 68 (trans: Most)
Homer and Hesiod’s poems come into written form within a hundred years of each other, although all commentators are agreed that Homer’s is the much older composition. The differences between Homer and Hesiod are very significant, coming at this crucial juncture in the formation of Western thought. Hesiod presages the Presocratics, and is much closer to their worldview than Homer, and the representation of women and the articulation of this fierce misogyny of Hesiod may be a further indicator of a rupture between two ways of thinking, seeing and experiencing. Consider these things that are occurring in Greek thought round about the time of Hesiod:
- The advent of, indeed invention of, the soul, an object wholly absent in Homer’s work
- A palpable shift from Homer’s aggregate cosmology to the Presocratics mind/body dualism
- The rise of science and rationalism, initiated by Parmenides’ idea that one’s sense cannot be trusted
Later these shifts in thought become embedded in the work of Plato, with his central idea that theories are superior than the things these abstractions describe – a position that still characterizes Western formal thought across disciplines.
These are distinct and major shifts in thought, and they are occurring at roughly the same time as there are major material transformations taking place. Two stand out:
- the invention of money and coinage would have disrupted many long-established social relationships and norms
- the (re)invention of writing would have changed cultural practices, gradually at first, no doubt, but then with increasing speed and penetration across forms.
Given all of these things happening at the same time, it is conceivable that Greek attitudes towards women changed too. But perhaps we could go a step further and suggest that the shift from one worldview – that of the people of Homer’s time – to another – that of Hesiod’s time itself caused the change in depiction of women and is itself a causal factor in the emergence of misogyny?
A final thought: perhaps we can explain this difference between Homer’s view of women and Hesiod’s on the basis of their gendered experiences of the world. Perhaps Homer was a woman?
Hesiod, and Most, G.W. (2006) Hesiod, Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard University Press. [Two volumes – Loeb Classical Library edition]