Posts on Myth from Women’s History Month

Euripides,  Fr. 464

“Get married already, get married, and then die
Either by poison or a trick from your wife.”

γαμεῖτε νῦν, γαμεῖτε, κᾆτα θνῄσκετε
ἢ φαρμάκοισιν ἐκ γυναικὸς ἢ δόλοις.

Euripides, fr. 320 (Danae)

“There is neither fortress nor fortune
Nor anything else as hard to guard as a woman.”

οὐκ ἔστιν οὔτε τεῖχος οὔτε χρήματα
οὔτ’ ἄλλο δυσφύλακτον οὐδὲν ὡς γυνή.

Anacreontea, 24.8-13

Nature gave bulls horns
Hooves to horses
Swift feet to hares
A mouth of teeth to lions
Swimming to fish
Flight to birds
And wisdom to men.
What did nature give to women?
stronger than all shields and spears.
A woman who is beautiful
conquers both iron and fire.

Φύσις κέρατα ταύροις,
ὁπλὰς δ’ ἔδωκεν ἵπποις,
ποδωκίην λαγωοῖς,
λέουσι χάσμ’ ὀδόντων,
τοῖς ἰχθύσιν τὸ νηκτόν,
τοῖς ὀρνέοις πέτασθαι,
τοῖς ἀνδράσιν φρόνημα·
γυναιξὶν οὐν ἔτ᾿ εἶχεν
τί οὖν; δίδωσι κάλλος
ἀντ᾿ ἀσπίδων ἁπασῶν
ἀντ᾿ ἐγχέων ἁπάντων
νικᾷ δὲ καὶ σίδηρον
καὶ πῦρ καλή τις οὖσα

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 4.1192-1200: Sometimes Women Don’t Fake It

“A woman doesn’t always gasp with counterfeit passion
when she joins her body in embrace with a man
and holds his lips with a drawn, moist kiss.
Often she acts from her spirit and as she seeks shared happiness,
she incites him to race through the course of his love.”

Nec mulier semper ficto suspirat amore,
quae conplexa viri corpus cum corpore iungit
et tenet adsuctis umectans oscula labris;
nam facit ex animo saepe et communia quaerens
gaudia sollicitat spatium decurrere amoris.

This past month I made a special effort to post new material featuring women from Greek myth.  The results have been less than happy but have confirmed (even exacerbated) my general opinion about the tales Greeks and Romans told about women: by and large, they are terrible. This fact has always made me go through contortions to say something nice about Greek and Roman stories on women, but it is increasingly obvious that I should just give up any type of apologetics and tell students the truth: ancient myth is filled with repugnant tales that communicate and reinforce not just negative attitudes about women, but perspectives that justify and even valorize their treatments as objects and general dehumanization.

Here’s a recap of the month’s tales.

Pausanias records that Medusa may have just been a pretty woman  Perseus killed so he could take her head back and show it to his friends.


Apollo, as many know, cursed Kassandra for not having sex with him. When she got to the Peloponnese, Aigisthos slaughtered the twins she bore to her captor Agamemnon and then Klytemnestra killed her too (so the women here either are a victim of rape, torture and murder or else guilty of murder). Shoot, even before that happened, Kassandra was dangled as a bride to help secure allies in the fight against the Greeks.


Things weren’t much better for her mother Hecuba who, according to some accounts, was awarded to Odysseus after the end of the war.  He had her killed by stoning when she complained to much (and after she was turned into a dog).


I know everyone wants to blame the Trojan War on Helen, but according to the Argives she was abducted as a child,raped by Theseus and gave her child to Klytemnestra who raised her as her own.  That child? Iphigenia. Agamemnon had to kill her so that the Greeks could find their way to Troy.

I tried to make things a little better–I found a story where Zeus is actually in love with Hera and turns into a cuckoo bird. There’s also the tale of the warrior-poet Telesilla who saves her city from the Spartans (but only because they won’t fight ladies).

The most depressing tale of all, however, features a nameless woman. In the following tale, the foreignness and gender of a woman lets the sailors just sacrifice her to save their own skins:


Pausanias, 1.23.5

“Because I wished to know more than another about Satyrs—who they are—I traveled to many men for stories of them. The Carian Euphemus told me that once while sailing to Italy he was led off his course by the winds and into the sea beyond in which others do not sail. He was claiming that many islands there are empty but that in others savage men live. His sailors did not want to land on those islands because, those who had landed there before had gained some knowledge of the population; but at this time, again, they were forced. According to Euphemos the islands are called Satyrides by the sailors: the people who live there have red-hair, are not much taller than horses, and have tails on their rear-ends. As soon as they noticed that the sailors were coming, they rushed toward the ship without making a noise and attacked the women on it. Finally, out of fear, the sailors threw a foreign woman overboard. The Satyrs violated her not only in the regular way but using her entire body as well.”

περὶ δὲ Σατύρων, οἵτινές εἰσιν, ἑτέρου πλέον ἐθέλων ἐπίστασθαι πολλοῖς αὐτῶν τούτων ἕνεκα ἐς λόγους ἦλθον. ἔφη δὲ Εὔφημος Κὰρ ἀνὴρ πλέων ἐς᾿Ιταλίαν ἁμαρτεῖν ὑπὸ ἀνέμων τοῦ πλοῦ καὶ ἐς τὴν ἔξω θάλασσαν, ἐς ἣν οὐκέτι πλέουσιν, ἐξενεχθῆναι. νήσους δὲ εἶναι μὲν ἔλεγεν ἐρήμους πολλάς, ἐν δὲ ἄλλαιςοἰκεῖν ἄνδρας ἀγρίους· ταύταις δὲ οὐκ ἐθέλειν νήσοις προσίσχειν τοὺς ναύτας οἷα πρότερόν τε προσσχόντας καὶ τῶν ἐνοικούντων οὐκ ἀπείρως ἔχοντας, βιασθῆναι δ’οὖν καὶ τότε. ταύτας καλεῖσθαι μὲν ὑπὸ τῶν ναυτῶν Σατυρίδας, εἶναι δὲ τοὺς ἐνοικοῦντας [καὶ] καπυροὺς καὶ ἵππων οὐ πολὺ μείους ἔχειν ἐπὶ τοῖς ἰσχίοις οὐράς.τούτους, ὡς ᾔσθοντο, καταδραμόντας ἐπὶ τὴν ναῦν φωνὴν μὲν οὐδεμίαν ἱέναι, ταῖς δὲ γυναιξὶν ἐπιχειρεῖν ταῖς ἐν τῇ νηί· τέλος δὲ δείσαντας τοὺς ναύτας βάρβαρον γυναῖκα ἐκβαλεῖν ἐς τὴν νῆσον· ἐς ταύτην οὖν ὑβρίζειν τοὺς Σατύρους οὐ μόνον ᾗ καθέστηκεν, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ πᾶν ὁμοίως σῶμα.

I can always try to cherry-pick anecdotes like those of Aspasia–who allegedly taught Socrates rhetoric–or emphasize the beauty of Sappho’s poetry. We can expatiate all we want on the power of Greek and Roman love poetry. But the truth is, the Romans and Greeks function much better as examples to avoid.

A Different, More Disturbing Tale of Medusa


(from Pausanias, 2.21.6)

“A mound of earth is not far from a building in the Argive marketplace.  People claim the head of the Gorgon Medusa lies here.  Leaving aside the myth, here are the other things said about her. She was a daughter of Phorkos and, after her father died, she ruled those who lived near Lake Tritôn, going forth to hunt and leading the Libyans in war.  When she was in camp with the army against Perseus who was followed by selected troops from the Peloponnese, she was deviously murdered at night.  Perseus, who was amazed at her beauty, even in a corpse, cut off her head and took it to display to the Greeks.”


τοῦ δὲ ἐν τῇ ἀγορᾷ τῶν ᾿Αργείων οἰκοδομήματος οὐ μακρὰν χῶμα γῆς ἐστιν· ἐν δὲ αὐτῷ κεῖσθαι τὴν Μεδούσης λέγουσι τῆς Γοργόνος κεφαλήν. ἀπόντος δὲ τοῦ μύθου τάδε ἄλλα ἐς αὐτήν ἐστιν εἰρημένα· Φόρκου μὲν θυγατέρα εἶναι, τελευτήσαντος δέ οἱ τοῦ πατρὸς βασιλεύειν τῶν περὶ τὴν λίμνην τὴν Τριτωνίδα οἰκούντων καὶ ἐπὶ θήραν τε ἐξιέναι καὶ ἐς τὰς μάχας ἡγεῖσθαι τοῖς Λίβυσι καὶ δὴ καὶ τότε ἀντικαθημένην στρατῷ πρὸς τὴν Περσέως δύναμιν—ἕπεσθαι γὰρ καὶ τῷ Περσεῖ λογάδας ἐκ Πελοποννήσου—δολοφονηθῆναι νύκτωρ, καὶ τὸν Περσέα τὸ κάλλος ἔτι καὶ ἐπὶ νεκρῷ θαυμάζοντα οὕτω τὴν κεφαλὴν ἀποτεμόντα αὐτῆς ἄγειν τοῖς ῞Ελλησιν ἐς ἐπίδειξιν.


The Byzantine Suda has its own take on the legend.  It is not less misogynistic:

“Medousa: She is also called Gorgonê. Perseus, the son of Danae and Pêkos, after learning every kind of magical display, because he wanted to establish his own kingdom, made plans against the realm of the Medes. And so, after he travelled over much land, he saw a maiden who was intelligent and ugly and, as he looked away from her, he asked “who are you” and she said, “Medousa”. He cut off her head and prepared it as he had been taught and held it up. He made everyone panic and killed those who witnessed it.  He called this head the Gorgonê because of the sharpness of its power.

From there, he went to the land ruled by Kêpheus and found a virgin girl in a temple who was named Andromeda and whom he married. He founded a city in this country called Amandra and set up a pillar which held the Gorgonê. This was called the Ikonion and, because of the object, the Gorgonê. He then made war against the Isaurians, the Kilikians and he founded a city which he called Tarsos, which before was called Andrasos. He had received a prophecy that after the victory he should found a city and name it Tarsos in thanks for the victory in the place where he put the flat of his foot [tarsos] in when he got off his horse.

After conquering the Medes, he changed the name of their country and called it Persis. He taught some of the Persians whom he named Magi the mystery rite which he had performed with the Gorgonê. At that time, a ball of fire whirled from the heaven. Perseus took some of it and gave it to some of the tribe to guard and honor because it had been hurled from heaven.

Then he waged war on Kêpheus, whom old age left blind and dull in the dead, because he thought the Gorgonê was now useless But when Perseus campaigned against him and saw [Medousa’s head] he died. Later on, Merros, Perseus’ son, burned the head.”

Μέδουσα: ἡ καὶ Γοργόνη κληθεῖσα. Περσεύς, ὁ Δανάης καὶ Πήκου υἱός, διδαχθεὶς πάσας τὰς μυστικὰς φαντασίας, ἰδίαν βουλόμενος ἑαυτῷ καταστῆσαι βασιλείαν κατεφρόνησε τῆς τῶν Μήδων· καὶ διὰ πολλῆς ἐρχόμενος γῆς εἶδε παρθένον κόρην αὐχμηράν τε καὶ δυσειδῆ, καὶ ἀποβλέψας εἰς αὐτὴν ἐρωτᾷ, τίς καλεῖται· ἡ δὲ εἶπε, Μέδουσα, καὶ ἀποτεμὼν αὐτῆς τὴν κεφαλὴν ἐτέλεσεν αὐτὴν ὡς ἐδιδάχθη, καὶ ἐβάσταζε, καταπλήττων πάντας καὶ ἀναιρῶν τοὺς ὁρῶντας· ἥν τινα κεφαλὴν ἐκάλεσε Γοργόνην, διὰ τὴν ὀξύτητα τῆς ἐνεργείας.

ἐκεῖθεν δὲ ἐλθὼν εἰς χώραν βασιλευομένην ὑπὸ Κηφέως εὗρεν ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ παρθένον κόρην, τὴν λεγομένην ᾿Ανδρομέδαν, ἣν ἔγημε· καὶ κτίζει πόλιν εἰς κώμην, λεγομένην ῎Αμανδραν, στήσας καὶ στήλην βαστάζουσαν τὴν Γοργόνην. αὕτη μετεκλήθη ᾿Ικόνιον, διὰ τὸ ἀπεικόνισμα τῆς Γοργόνης. ἐπολέμησε δὲ καὶ ᾿Ισαύροις καὶ Κίλιξι καὶ κτίζει πόλιν, ἣν ἐκάλεσε Ταρσόν, το πρὶν λεγομένην ᾿Ανδρασόν. χρηματισθεὶς δέ, ὅτι μετὰ τὴν νίκην ἐν ᾧ τόπῳ ἀποβὰς ἀπὸ τοῦ ἵππου τὸν ταρσὸν τοῦ ποδὸς ἀπόθηται, ἐκεῖ ὑπὲρ τῶν νικητηρίων κτίσαι πόλιν,ταύτην οὖν ἐκάλεσε Ταρσόν.

νικήσας δὲ καὶ τοὺς Μήδους ἤμειψε τὸ ὄνομα τῆς χώρας καὶ ἐκάλεσεν αὐτὴν Περσίδα. ἐδίδαξε δὲ καὶ τὴν μυσαρὰν τελετὴν τὴν ἐπὶ τῇ Γοργόνῃ τινὰς τῶν Περσῶν, οὓς ἐκάλεσε μάγους. καθ’ οὓς χρόνους καὶ σφαῖρα πυρὸς κατηνέχθη ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, ἐξ ἧς ἔλαβε πῦρ ὁ Περσεὺς καὶ παρέδωκε τοῖς τοῦ ἔθνους φυλάττειν καὶ τιμᾶν, ὡς ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κατενεχθέν. συμβαλὼν δὲ πόλεμον τῷ Κηφεῖ, τοῦ δὲ διὰ τὸ γῆρας μὴ βλέποντος καὶ τῆς κεφαλῆςμὴ ἐνεργούσης, δοκῶν αὐτὴν ἀνωφελῆ εἶναι, ἐπιστρέψας πρὸς ἑαυτὸν ὁ Περσεὺς καὶ ταύτην θεασάμενος ἀποθνήσκει. ταύτην ὕστερον ἔκαυσεν ὁ υἱὸς αὐτοῦ Μέρρος.

Golden Rain or Incest? Early Fragments on Perseus

Perseus, Andromeda, and a Sea Monster
Perseus, Andromeda, and a Sea Monster

Hesiod, Fr. 129.8-18

“And she bore both Proitos and king Akrisios
And the father of gods and men established them in different places
Akrisos ruled in well-built Argos…
[three broken lines describing the marriage of Akrisios to Eurydike, daughter of Lakedaimon]
She gave birth to fine-ankled Danae in her home
Who in turn was the mother of Perseus, the mighty master of fear.
Proitos lived in the well-built city of Tiryns
and married the daughter of the great-hearted son of Arkas
the fine-haired Stheneboia…”
Continue reading “Golden Rain or Incest? Early Fragments on Perseus”