Essay on Female portraits

  1. Do the female portraits of the ancient epic tradition reflect woman’s nature or merely the perception of woman’s nature as the male mind perceived it? Discuss.

It is known that epic poetry is considered to be one of the oldest forms of poetry in literature. As a rule, epic poetry is focused on the numerous adventures and accomplishments of the heroes. It has remained very popular in its forms and techniques from hundreds of years before Christ to the present day. Epic is known as a heroic poem that means “an imitation of noble action, great and perfect, narrated in the loftiest verse, with the aim of giving profit through delight” (Hainsworth 1).

Moreover, epic poetry has enormous impact on modern poetry today. According to the historical data, epic poetry is divided into three time periods: ancient epic, medieval epic and modern epic. Ancient epic is dated to the period between 20th and 5th centuries BC. The most popular literary works include Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Vergil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Apollonius of Rhodes’ Agonautica, Annales by Quintus Ennius, and some other ancient epic poems. All of them belong to Roman or Greek mythology and share some common characteristics. All of them describe some heroic deeds and significant events that have left their mark in the history. According to Hainsworth (1991), epic “gives a special pleasure because its events and persons enhance our belief in the worth of human achievement and in the dignity and nobility of man”(p.1).

As women play an important role almost in each of the well-known ancient epic poems, it is necessary to conclude that the female portraits of the ancient epic tradition can be easily identified and analyzed by the readers. In most literary works which belong to the ancient epic, the female portraits reflect the perception of woman’s nature as the male mind perceived it. Women in ancient epic are represented as mothers, wives, women at war, mourners, women-narrators, women in love and women-warriors and leaders (Foley 105).  John Miles Foley states that in Roman epic, women are both the passive and the active cause of wars who can act as warriors and victims. It means that female portraits reflect the men’s perception of woman’s nature. In addition, Foley argues that women in ancient epic play a critical role as the so-called “objects of exchange between men for the purpose of procreation, pleasure and alliance” (Foley 106). According to Hainsworth (1991), “the active women of the old heroic poetry had simply assumed the masculine role”(p.74). For example, Atlanta is represented as a hunter, Penthesileia can fight with shield and spear, while Apollonius’ Medea is described as a witch who is ready to kill everybody who injures her feelings. As the authors of the ancient poetry were men, they portrayed women in such a way as they understood their nature. For example, in Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus orders his mother Penelope to busy herself with her own tasks because “speech shall be for men” (Homer 15). In Euripides’ s Medea, the author uses his character to describe the women’s role in human society: “Of all creatures that have breath and sensation, we women are the most unfortunate” (Euripides 30). In Hesiod’s Theogony, the author shows men’s relation to women: “Even so Zeus who thunders in high made women to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil” (Hesiod 22). Different authors give different explanation to the role of women in the society. Penelope is represented as a faithful and clever wife of Odysseus. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Telemachus and Penelope’s suitors argued over the fate of Penelope, but nobody asked her opinion.  Women who lived in ancient Greece had limited rights because they were viewed by men as their property.  Many suitors considered Penelope as a prize for them, because she was beautiful, with high status in the society and gave an opportunity to become a king.  Penelope is represented in the ancient epic as the ideal wife as she is faithful to her husband Odyssey, and remains civil to her numerous suitors. Homer wanted to portray her as the symbol of virtue. (Powell 12). To sum up, the female portraits of the ancient epic tradition reflect merely the perception of woman’s nature as the male mind perceived it, because women in the ancient times had few rights and their fates were influenced by the decisions of men.

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