October 20, 1997

From Gerald R. Lucas

Women in Epics

The Sin, Franz von Stuck (1893)

Enkidu states, before his eminent death, “Because of her. She made me see / Things as a man, and a man sees death in things. That is what it is to be a man. You’ll know / When you have lost the strength to see / The way you once did.” Compare this to Thetis’ question to Achilles, “Is there no comfort in a woman’s arms — for you, who have so short a time to live and stand already in the shadow of Death and inexorable Destiny?” And Achilles’ statement to Priam, “We men are wretched things, and the gods, who have no cares themselves, have woven sorrow into the very pattern of our lives.” Women and death seem linked in both epics. Enkidu directly blames a woman for showing him death, while Achilles can find no succor in a woman’s touch and sees only sorrow in life. Perhaps Achilles cannot find comfort with a woman because he indirectly blames a woman for his sorrow. It was the abduction of Helen that led to the Argives’ attack of Troy, and it was Agamemnon’s taking Brisies that caused Achilles refusal to fight. Perhaps, then, both Helen and Brisies were the cause of Patroclus’ death in Achilles’ mind.

This might not be as far-fetched as it sounds if the way in which women are treated throughout the Iliad is briefly examined. Firstly, women are viewed as chattel. Agamemnon must return Chyseis to her father and decides that he wants Achilles’ woman, Brisies. The debate is not over the fact that Brisies is a woman with a rational mind and passions, but whether or not Agamemnon has the right as the leader of the Greeks to take her as he might take a sword or a three-legged cauldron. Agamemnon has taken Achilles’ love toy away because his was taken away — seem childish? Yet this is no child’s game.

Helen is the next woman who is very similar to Brisies. She was taken from her husband, Menelaus, by Paris, and married by him in Troy. Helen has nothing to say about this? The reader is never presented with the true thoughts of Helen — what does she feel toward Menelaus? She considers herself a “shameless creature” made for the whims of man. What happens to Helen or Brisies (the former will make an appearance in the Odyssey)? More important is the death of Hector — the wrath of Achilles.

Most women are brainless oxen, it seems, in the world of the Greeks, and little more in Gilgamesh’s; yet both bring pain and death to the heroes, presenting an archetype that has haunted western thought since.