Nonfiction

Goddess, Murderess, Virgin, Whore

23 October 2020

So, mother, go back to your quarters.
Tend to your own tasks…as for giving orders,
men will see to that, but I, most of all:
hold the reins of power in this house.

– Homer, The Odyssey – 

Reluctantly, waiting to quit her cubicle there…
her taut sex still burning, inflamed with lust,
Then she’d leave, exhausted by man, but not yet sated,
A disgusting creature with filthy face, soiled by the lamp’s
Black, taking her brothel-stench back to the Emperor’s bed.

Juvenal, Satire VI – 

During my last two years of high school, I decided to shake things up a little by including Classical Civilisations among my otherwise sensible STEM-related subject choices. It was a decision made almost on a whim, but I never once regretted it. Classics instead became my best loved subject, and I spent many a school night happily scribbling away at essays on some Homeric verse or the other.

Pretty soon (and in retrospect, pretty unsurprisingly), however, it dawned on me that my new favourite subject had something of a gender problem.

Though we did an entire module named Women in Ancient Greece and Rome, out of the many documents we studied only one was, in fact, written by a woman (my girl and absolute legend Sappho). Most of the time, we simply read what men had written about women. We read eulogies (often performed in public by prominent men attempting to polish their own reputation) in which the deceased was described using the same cookie-cutter set of phrases that defined her solely in relation to the male figures in her life: ideal mother, faithful wife, beloved daughter. We read Juvenal, who ranted about how all women were idle, amoral sluts responsible for Rome’s moral decay with such vitriol that it genuinely shook me. We read court documents in which men were forgiven for murdering their adulterous wives, and epics in which rape occurred every few dozen pages. The sexism was pervasive, perpetual and just so exhausting.

During my first few weeks, I protested loudly at every instance of casual sexism we encountered. As time passed, however, I got quieter and quieter. There were just too many of thema continuous barrage of gut punches, bitch slaps and paper cutsthat I could barely muster the energy to react. Medusa, transformed into a monster for having been raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple? Oh. Circe, who despite being a powerful witch, is immediately outsmarted by Odysseus, kneels before him, and becomes his obedient lover? Oh. Virgil depicting Cleopatra as an Oriental temptress leading Mark Antony astray with her licentiousness and false gods? Oh

The sexism was so consistent that it soon lost its capacity to provoke and solidified into the familiar backdrop against which we studied these texts. Before long, I had learned to simply block the horror from my mind. Let’s just ignore that this verse is a flippant portrayal of sexual assault and focus on the fun alliteration instead! I mean, that’s just how it was back then, right? Right! Such cognitive dissonance was necessary for survival, as I would otherwise have found myself paralysed by constant outrage.

Even so, I couldn’t stop thinking about the vaunted status occupied by Ancient Greece and Rome, how they were venerated as the pinnacles of Western civilisation, and how the men who had written things about women I am still unable to read without feeling sick were considered history’s greatest thinkers. It made me feel tired, and very, very small.

Men tell us we live safe and secure at home,
while they must go to battle with their spears.
How stupid they are! I’d rather stand there
three times in battle holding up my shield than give birth once.

Euripides, Medea –

That is not to say I walked away from the subject thinking that the women who had lived during those times were nothing more than battered, helpless victims. Despite the layers of prejudice obfuscating our readings, they were nonetheless filled with glimpses into the fierce, ingenious and independent characters of women (both mythic and historic) from all walks of lifesex workers, slaves, queens, goddesseswho had hustled their way into real power within the patriarchy. There was, for instance, Sempronia, an educated patrician who flaunted convention by consorting with revolutionaries; Livia Drusilla, first empress of Rome, who schemed from behind her public facade of the conventional wife; Phyrne of Thespiae, a courtesan who amassed such wealth that she could offer to rebuild the demolished walls of Thebes; and Antigone, mythic daughter of Oedipus, who died a conscientious objector, protesting the unjust exercise of state power.

The fact remains however, that despite being protagonists in their own right, most of these women were frequently pushed to the side-lines so that the spotlight would fall on the male heroes alone. Their stories remained unheard, often fading into obscurity. If their power and deeds were simply too explosive to be silenced, they were pushed into one of two groups. The first included those put back in their rightful place by the male hero. Think of Circe, who upon meeting Odysseus, is transformed from powerful witch to slavish bedfellow; Atalanta, who uses her athletic prowess to defeat every man who wished to marry her, until one outsmarts her with pretty trinkets. The second included those made into femme fatales: monstrous caricatures with whom it is impossible to sympathise, cautionary tales to remind men of what all women were capable of. These formidable, larger-than-life figures were always my favourites. I loved how their stories were a complex mess of heroism, tragedy and horror, and how they fell into neither the neat category of victimhood, nor of villainy. These include the terrible Clytemnestra, who murdered the man who had forced her into marriage and sacrificed her daughter as he bathed. Or Medea, who, when cast off and humiliated by the man she loved, murdered both his new wife and her own sons to punish him.

It was then as it is now: women who defied traditional gender roles were either silenced or reduced to crude, two-dimensional villains. Some things, it seemed, were difficult to change. 

You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her.
And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.

Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa –

Though my days of studying Classics are long over, my love for the subject remains. I still flip through the occasional tragedy, and remain poised to devour any work of fiction inspired by the Ancients (including yes, any-and-everything written by Rick Riordan). But I read different authors now. I am reading works by women and women of colour, I am making an effort to include those whose exclusion resulted in such sexism in the first place. I have read Madeline Miller’s Circe, which humanises its eponymous heroine with poetic poignancy. I have read Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, in which the twelve maids Odysseus butchers for having slept with his wife’s suitors during his absence speak out. I am reading Mary Beard’s Women in Power, in which she traces sexist tropes found in myth to the present daywith posters of Trump as a triumphant Perseus, holding aloft Clinton/Medusa’s severed head serving as one particularly memorable example.

Such modern retellings and feminist critiques have taught me that the sexism I had struggled to stomach in my Classics classes couldand shouldbe responded to with more than uncomfortable silence. I learnt that it could be highlighted, challenged, and rectified. I realised then that I could reject the conventional patriarchal narratives I had been presented with, and give those women the Ancients had slandered or ignored the respect and agency that they deserved.

In recent years, both literature and academia have witnessed a proliferation of such rebellious and deconstructive worksa trend that delights me and that I hope will continue. The Ancient world is a veritable cornucopia of fascinating female figures, and to quote Nikita Gill, poet and author of Great Goddesses, it’s high time “women tell women’s stories”.


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