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Home » 9th Season (2021-2022) » 2021-2022 v.02 (April) » Women in Ancient Greek Literature

Women in Ancient Greek Literature

by Suha Choi, Michael Ferlisi, Riley Jahnle, Liam Mulvihill, Lauren Tran, Arden Williams, and Arjun Yerabothu

Women in Ancient Greek Literature

Instructor’s Note: During the second and third windows in Greek II, students read two ancient texts that offer a window into the lives of ancient Greek women of the Archaic period: the Hymn to Demeter and fragments of verses by the female poet Sappho. For the assignment on Sappho, students were asked to read, scan, and recite a fragment of Sappho’s poetry and then to imagine the complete poem this fragment might have once lived in, and compose a poem in five Sapphic stanzas in English. For the Hymn to Demeter students were asked to translate and analyze a portion of the hymn and, in a close reading of the text, to show how it contrasted with themes of heroism and masculine forms of agency found in Homer’s Iliad.

Part I: Sapphic Stanzas

Fragment 34
ἄστερες μὲν ἀμφὶ κάλαν σελάνναν
ἂψ ἀπυκρύπτοισι φάεννον εἶδος
ὄπποτα πλήθοισα μάλιστα λάμπη
Γᾶν

Suha Choi, Fragment 34:
stars around the beautiful moon
hide back their luminous form
whenever all full she shines
on the earth leaking droplets of
silver. 

clouds around the beautiful sun
cover up its hazy form
whenever all out she shines
on the earth, bringing drops, oh so
golden.

rocks around the beautiful pond
provide a cozy frame 
whenever I pass by she reflects 
my face and holds liquids of
diamond.

soils around the beautiful lily
gently hug her in warmth
whenever she blossoms
into birth, infusing dues of
sweetness.

bad days around one good one
though mundane and ordinary
whenever it comes to me
I rejoice, thanking even the bad for 
one beauty at last.

Arden Williams, Fragment 34:
The stars around the beautiful moon
Hiding their glittering forms
Whenever she shines full on earth…
Silver…

She glistens against black water
Twinkling a reflection of the galaxy
And rustling ripples
Through the dark liquid

She radiates the peaks of mountains
Where the tops are covered in snow
The brightness lights up the white caps
Of jagged rocks

And she illuminates the fields
Where the crops grow
To fuel the animals of the Earth
The cycle of life

Her striking powers that control gravity
An element for humankind
Whether a thing can float or just drops
Her own force

Fragment 47
Ἔρος δ᾽ἐτίναξε μοι
Φρένας, ώς ἄνεμος κὰτ ὄρος δρύσιν ἐμπέτων.

Lauren Tran, Fragment 47:
Love shook my heart, like the wind on the mountain
troubling oak trees, diffusing leaves in the air, 
separated by the gust. She’s gone, and now
I’m lost without her.

Bewilderment stuns my limbs, like ice slicking
the surface of a pond; freezing swaying grass.
Our love, frozen in time, soon forgotten. In
the past, forever.

Dread burdened my mind, as she met someone new, 
promising herself, new memories erase 
ours. Like waves crashing on the beach, expunging 
footprints in the sand.

Anger swelled in my gut, she severed those ties,
a wildfire burning through the brush, threatening
all humanity and wildlife. Her power
flourishes with pain.

Freedom brightens my soul, no tears left to cry
as I dance beneath the oak trees, hopeful for 
the future. Starting anew like crocuses 
in the early spring.

Riley Jahnle, Fragment 47:
Love shook my heart,
Like the wind on the mountain troubling the oak-trees.
Trembling back and forth, the force of nature immense,
Pain on the tree, everlasting hurt on my heart.

Love took my heart,
Like the captain escaping with the chest.
My gold locked inside, forever lost,
Stolen for good, my heart taken forever.

Love snook in my heart,
Like the courtyard pervading with youthful kids.
Curtaining themselves behind artful columns,
Yet columns collapse on top of us all.

Love mistook my heart,
Like a young boy reaching out to his elders, waiting.
Longing for a connection, but met with age,
Begging to change the morality of others.

Yet, love fills my heart,
Like a field so blue and green with joyous views.
Crowded rows of golden hues, full of sunlight,
Love is victorious, by whatever means needed.

Fragment 48
ἦλθες, ἔγω δέ σ᾿ ἐμαιόμαν,
ὂν δ᾿ ἔψυξας ἔμαν φρένα καιομέναν πόθῳ.

Michael Ferlisi, Fragment 48:
You came and I was mad for you
And you cooled my mind that burned with longing
You scattered the tempest that hailed in my mind
Keep the clouds away

I counted my life by the days before I 
Saw you again. Pulled myself through grayscale days
To be rescued, revived, reanimated
By your radiance

But I did not fill your world with color like
You did to mine. Your tempest was much stronger.
Your hail hurled harsh, horrible hypotheses
White-hot mental flames

I could only bring myself to say ‘if only’.
If only I held you a little tighter
If only I saw the color leaving you
If only I loved you

I can bring myself to say nothing now, here. 
This spot should be so beautiful with color
But not even the hyacinths can oppose
The grayness you left

Fragment 105a
οἶον τὸ γλυκύμαλον ἐρεύθεται ἄκρῳ ἐπ’ ὔσδῳ,
ἄκρον ἐπ’ ἀκροτάτῳ, λελάθοντο δὲ μαλοδρόπηες·
οὐ μὰν ἐκλελάθοντ’, ἀλλ’ οὐκ ἐδύναντ’ ἐπίκεσθαι.

Arjun Yerabothu, Fragment 105a:
Like the sweet-apple reddening high on the branch,
High on the highest, the apple-pickers forgot,
Or not forgotten, but one they couldn’t reach
Everytime the picker reaches for the fruit,
The fruit travels further away to a higher level,
From the picker’s saddened and disappointed hands
Is it meant to be?

Along with every desperate attempt,
The Apple’s appearance becomes more ripened
I can envision the vibrant apple in my hands,
luscious to the touch

Finally, I reached for the apple
Fingertips brushing the apple knocking it over
Into long awaiting hands of myself,
At last!

I capture a crunch of the glistening apple,
Even sweeter than one could have imagined, 
Quenching the need and desire for the fruit,
granting fulfillment

Part II: Hymn to Demeter Essays

Hymn to Demeter Essay, Michael Ferlisi:

The Hymn to Demeter is remarkable simply by nature of having a female protagonist, especially one so powerful in the natural world. Rare in the epic genre is a female perspective or action set that differs from helpless lamentation, like that which dominated almost every interaction with a female character in The Iliad. And yet Demeter, the female protagonist, experiences a version of the quintessential epic female conflict; her daughter, Persephone, is taken against her will to satisfy the lust of a more powerful male figure. This conflict acts to set up the story to challenge the typical role of women in epic poetry in a particular passage, known as “Demeter as Shiva,” from lines 296-309. To understand how this passage accomplishes the challenge that it does, however, an analysis of the preceding events in the story is necessary. 

The story begins in a very stereotypical way for female characters. Immediately, the poem introduces the hapless young maiden: Persephone. The poem explicitly describes her as θύγατρα τανύσφυρον “the daughter [of Demeter] with the delicate ankles” (Homer, Hymn to Demeter, ll. 2), to give the reader the first impression of youth and innocence being the primary identity markers of Persephone. This is a necessary action, as it reinforces the significance of her kidnapping at the hands of Hades, in reaction to which Persephone ὀλοφυρομένην: ἰάχησε δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὄρθια φωνῇ, κεκλομένη πατέρα Κρονίδην ὕπατον καὶ ἄριστον “weeps: she cried out with a piercing voice, calling on her father Zeus, son of Kronos, the highest and best.” (Homer, Hymn to Demeter, ll. 20-21). And Persephone isn’t the only helpless one. Demeter, being far from her daughter, is unable to do anything to prevent her from being taken, and so she sets out to find her, asking everyone she can find where her daughter is. Much to her dismay, however τῇ… οὔτις ἐτήτυμα μυθήσασθαι ἤθελεν οὔτε θεῶν οὔτε θνητῶν ἀνθρώπων, οὔτ᾽ οἰωνῶν τις τῇ ἐτήτυμος ἄγγελος ἦλθεν. “Here… no one was willing to speak the truth [about Persephone, not any among the Gods nor any among the mortal humans, nor any among the birds or the messengers of truth was willing.” (Homer, Hymn to Demeter, ll. 44-46). And finally, even when she does find someone willing to tell her, Helios, who tells her that it was Zeus who arranged for Persephone to be the wife of Hades, remarks ἀλλά, θεά, κατάπαυε μέγαν γόον: οὐδέ τί σε χρὴ μὰψ αὔτως ἄπλητον ἔχειν χόλον: οὔ τοι ἀεικὴς γαμβρὸς ἐν ἀθανάτοις Πολυσημάντωρ Ἀιδωνεύς “But Goddess, [you should] stop your great wailing: you should not have this incredible anger which is in vain: it is not unseemly to be connected in marriage to the undying commander of the dead [Hades].” (Homer, Hymn to Demeter, ll. 81-84). Helios, although he does tell her that he is sharing this information because he respects and pities her, clearly does not understand her grief. He fails to consider the reality that Demeter is lamenting her daughter being taken and married against her will, instead aligning himself with the societal norm that mothers should be joyful when their daughters marry well. And so, with few who pity her and none who understand her, Demeter is alone and helpless in this moment of the story. However, this is the last of those moments. 

The next section of the story challenges female norms by nature of the actions taking place traditionally being almost exclusive to male characters in other stories; it describes Demeter undergoing the hero’s withdrawal, like that of Achilles in the Iliad. Demeter abandons her divine position in mourning and takes up the visage of a human, eventually finding herself serving as a nursemaid for the matriarch of Eleusis, caring for a young child born prematurely. In a fit of impulse, καί κέν μιν ποίησεν ἀγήρων τ᾽ ἀθάνατόν τε “she would have made him ageless and immortal.” (Homer, Hymn to Demeter, ll. 242) by feeding him divine ambrosia and using her godly powers. Although the boy’s mother intervenes, angering Demeter, the demonstration of intent is a clear challenge to the established norms of ancient women, as it shows Demeter as an active sculptor of her fate, rather than a passive object that is used to determine the fate of others. 

This event with Demophon, the child Demeter intended to make immortal at Eleusis, is the final foundational element of “Demeter as Shiva”. The passage begins by highlighting the swiftness with which Keleos, the leader of Eleusis, commands his people to begin construction of Demeter’s temple and with which his people obey. Immediately, the reader is given a sense of Demeter’s immense power and of rightful reverence from the people of Eleusis. But even this magnanimous temple is nothing for Demeter, and ανθὴ Δημήτηρ ἔνθα καθεζομένη μακάρων ἀπὸ νόσφιν ἁπάντων μίμνε πόθῳ μινύθουσα βαθυζώνοιο θυγατρός “Golden-haired Demeter sat [in the temple], away, far away from all the gods; she wasted away with a yearning for her daughter with the low-slung waistband.” (Homer, Hymn to Demeter, ll. 302-304). This line emphasizes the sheer magnitude of the grief that Demeter is experiencing for the loss of Persephone, the effects of which manifest at the conclusion of the passage: αἰνότατον δ᾽ ἐνιαυτὸν ἐπὶ χθόνα πουλυβότειραν ποίησ᾽ ἀνθρώποις καὶ κύντατον: οὐδέ τι γαῖα σπέρμ᾽ ἀνίει, κρύπτεν γὰρ ἐυστέφανος Δημήτηρ: πολλὰ δὲ καμπύλ᾽ ἄροτρα μάτην βόες εἷλκον ἀρούραις: πολλὸν δὲ κρῖ λευκὸν ἐτώσιον ἔμπεσε γαίῃ “And that year was most dreadful all through the Earth for humans and animals alike: Gaia did not send up any seeds, for fair-haired Demeter hid them: many curved ploughs were dragged by oxen through the Earth, and many barley seeds were planted, all in vain.” (Homer, Hymn to Demeter, ll. 305-309). The grief is so all-encompassing that Demeter, out of rage and grief, lays down her duties as the goddess of the harvest, potentially dooming the mortal world and thus the domain of the gods. This is the crux of the Hymn to Demeter’s challenge of traditional female roles. Female characters in epics are depicted outpouring emotion, usually lament, but they are never allowed by the story to act on them or contribute anything to the solution. This is clearly not the case with Demeter, who does indeed act upon her emotions, and in a particularly awesome and violent display no less. Not only this, but her actions provide the climax of the story, and they directly contribute to her reunion with Persephone, as Demeter threatens to extinguish life from Earth and thereby kill all mortals, if Zeus does not return Persephone to her. This means that not only is Demeter allowed to act on her grief, but her grief puts her in a place of power above all men, even male gods, even Zeus! As such, this grief, which is a customary response of female characters in epic poetry, is here not only divorced from the notion that Demeter, being a woman, is powerless, but it also works to actively destroy this notion by juxtaposing a typically powerless trait, grief, with ultimate power over everything. 

The Hymn to Demeter is a celebration of maternity and feminine power. Through the potential of unspeakable destruction, the story asserts a necessary idea: in order to not only be valid, but to be powerful as well, a woman does not need to assume the behaviors of a man. Rather, she need only embrace the inherent power contained within her femininity and perhaps maternity. Both in the ancient world and the modern world, where power was and continues to be tightly connected to masculinity, the message of this story reassures the reader that femininity is powerful. 

Women at the Maiden Well in Hymn to Demeter, Suha Choi:

The Hymn to Demeter is a poem composed in the late seventh or early sixth BCE by an unknown author, though scholars often refer to this literature as a Homeric hymn. This myth unfolds the story of Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, in search of her daughter Persephone. Upon seeing an exhausted, elderly woman by the well, the daughters of Keleos stop to help this woman despite not knowing who she is— οὐδ’ ἔγνον: χαλεποὶ δὲ θεοὶ θνητοῖσιν ὁρᾶσθαι (“The daughters, however, did not recognize her, for it was difficult to distinguish the gods from the mortals,” HTD. l. 111). This scene of young maidens caring for the goddess Demeter disguised as an older woman provides a unique perspective on female relationships in ancient Greece. Further, the setting of this episode at a well symbolizes nurturance, life, and rebirth, which creates a sharp contrast with themes of violence and force in other archaic poetry of the time, such as the Iliad or Odyssey. In fact, ancient women would often gather by the well or similar meeting places to engage in this emotional connection with one another (Osborne, 218).

Exhausted from wandering around the land in search of her daughter, Demeter rests at a well in the town of Eleusis in Athens. She is in disguise as an old lady. The ancient Greeks believed that their deities would often disguise themselves in unknown forms and visit them in surprise. Accordingly, it was common for them to show hospitality to strangers if they turned out to be their gods. Greek heroes like Achilles and Odysseus demonstrate hospitality to strangers for similar reasons. While the daughters of the king show hospitality to the stranger, who is Demeter disguised as an old lady, this hospitality stretches beyond a means of formative tradition. It is evident that these women genuinely care about the lost old lady. In this scene, when the daughters of the King encounter Demeter, their interaction begins with a series of questions for her: τίς πόθεν ἐσσί, γρῆυ, παλαιγενέων…πίλνασαι (“Dear old lady, where are you from and from which people were you born? Why have you come so far away from the city, nowhere even close to any houses?” HTD. l. 113-115). This curiosity showcases that their interest lies beyond satisfying the potentially disguised deities but genuinely wanting to hear about the old lady’s story.   

Extending hospitality to strangers is also present in the Iliad and the Odyssey, but this passage in the Hymn to Demeter incorporates more nuance into this particular kind of empathy. After asking Demeter why she is away from home, the daughters further point out that there are ἔνθα γυναῖκες ἀνὰ μέγαρα σκιόεντα τηλίκαι, (“women in the shadowy palace,”) who will welcome Demeter ἠμὲν ἔπει ἠδὲ καὶ ἔργῳ (“both by words and by deeds,” HTD. l. 116-117). Though Demeter is a mere stranger, the daughters nonetheless empathize with her and try to identify women in a similar situation, even stating that there are women “of such an age” as hers. Further, the word that described these women’s welcoming attitude toward Demeter in line 116, φίλωνται, has multiple definitions: “love, cherish, treat affectionately… especially welcome a guest.” It is the kind of welcoming that embraces inclusion and love for one another. Although she is a guest, the women see her as a part of their community. This φίλια is a powerful force within the community of ancient women.  

Furthermore, the poet of the Hymn to Demeter deliberately chooses to set the passage at the well. When describing the water in the well, the phrase ὕδωρ εὐήρυτον, ὄφρα φέροιεν involves soft and round sounds that align with the calm state of water (HTD. l. 106). Word choices like εὐήρυτον (“easy-to-draw”) further contribute to the serene tone of the passage. Later, the alliteration of words with a smooth-breathing of epsilon, ἠμὲν ἔπει ἠδὲ καὶ ἔργῳ, echoes the peaceful state free from violence (HTD. l. 117). This imagery corresponds with a famous commentary on the Iliad that Simone Weil has made, a French philosopher at the time living through World War II and reflecting on the Holocaust. In her essay “The Iliad or the Poem of Force,” Weil mentions that most of the events that happen in Homeric war poems occur at “life far from hot baths,” extended imagery of water reassures comfort and safety. Not only is this well a peaceful setting, but the well is quintessentially an image of nurturance. Conventionally, many feminine mythic entities— ranging from water nymphs, maidens, and virgin Mary— had an association with the “life-giving” waters (Ronnberg and Martin, 610). Whereas most of the Iliad took place outside of this “hot bath” that Weil described, then Hymn to Demeter provides waters as a source of nurturance. In line 106, the maidens ὄφρα φέροιεν (“carry water”) literally in pitchers, but they also do so figuratively as they approach exhausted Demeter with their hospitality and energy of kindness. Through this positive imagery of well, the poet presents a new kind of force in the Hymn to Demeter that war poems have not fully explored. 

Finally, the hymn’s general structure provides insight into this force. While the Hymn to Demeter follows an epic style and thus a hero’s journey, just like the Iliad, the heroine’s motives differ from that of the Iliad’s hero. Both Demeter and Achilles follow the pattern of withdrawal, reconciliation, and return. However, whereas Achilles left his home to fight in a war or bring revenge, Demeter’s journey stems from affection for her daughter. The heroine’s journey involves notions of grief and affection, once again highlighting this empathic force. Simone Weil commented that violence, as the Iliad showed, is a destructive force that does not discriminate and eventually returns to those who have inflicted violence on others. The Hymn to Demeter then introduces an equally powerful force through the narratives of ancient women— the universality of nurturing and caring for one another, just as the maidens and Demeter showed for one another.  

Finally, despite the female-oriented alternative that the poet of the hymn presents, it is still important to remember that even the Hymn to Demeter is not entirely free of the male gaze. In lines 108-109, the poem describes these daughters as ἐρόεσσα (“lovely”) and compares them to the ἄνθος ἔχουσαι (“flower/blossoming of the maidenhood”). After all, they are maidens rather than women because marriage was an essential part of ancient women’s lives. Later in line 136, Demeter even grants these daughters a blessing for husband and children in return for their hospitality. Though the Hymn to Demeter presents a noteworthy alternative to male-oriented narratives, the classical reception of women remains extremely limited because most surviving ancient literature came from the perspectives of male authors. The few ancient women poets like Sappho— and possibly the unknown poet of the Hymn to Demeter– provide perspectives on space where women gathered. The Hymn to Demeter offers an important insight into ancient women’s lives often overlooked in classical reception. However, modern readers should remember that a complete understanding of their lives is virtually impossible. Perhaps in acknowledging this, modern society can pay more attention to women’s voices and female-oriented narratives told by women themselves. 

  • Works Cited:
  • “Hymn to Demeter: Women at the Well.” Early Women Masters,
    http://www.earlywomenmasters.net/demeter/myth_105.html.
  • Osborne, Robin. Greece in the Making, 1200-479 BC. London, Routledge, 1996.
  • Ronnberg, Ami, and Kathleen Martin. The Book of Symbols: Reflections onArchetypal Images. Köln, Taschen, 2010.

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