As a reader, it is easy to become caught up in the richness of the characters in myth: Kunti, Draupadi, Briseis and of course, Nausicaa. However, as a researcher, one must remember the status of women in these societies: the Greek sage, Teireseis, is turned into a woman as a punishment, and the Indian daughter, Sikhandin, is transformed into a son from her “desire to do good.” Hesiod describes the origin of women:
[Zeus] bade famous Hephaestus make haste and mix earth with water and to put in it the voice and strength of human kind, and fashion a sweet, lovely maiden-shape, like to the immortal goddesses in face; and Athena to teach her needlework and the weaving of the varied web; and golden Aphrodite to shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs. And he charged Hermes the guide, the Slayer of Argus, to put in her a shameless mind and a deceitful nature. So he ordered. And they obeyed the lord Zeus the son of Cronos.
Given this attitude toward gender, epic poetry cries out to be read with critical thinking skills engaged. The women in the Epics are not historical figures but are what the male poets imagined them to be like or to think like. Often they were merely foils for the other male characters. We must ask, is Briseis in love with Achilles because there is something loveable about him; or is she in love with him because Homer, writing for fighting men, needs to reinforce that their captive women really do love them and are not just biding their time while waiting to stab them in their sleep? Is Draupadi married to five brothers because Kunti really had a compulsive fear of lying, or did that become the reason later when polyandry became less common among the wealthy Kshatriya families? Even though Bhishma makes all the other major family decisions, it became more politic to shift the blame for the polyandry to the woman.
Inga Thornall, Senior Project (c) 2008
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