Martyring the Maneaters, Matriarchs and Monsters in Patriarchal Greek Mythology

By Honor Rush

Image Credit: Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa. Sebastiano Ricci. 1705–1710.

Legends that speak of ancient worlds, fallen kingdoms, heroes, monsters, and the Gods have existed for millennia. They tell a story about historical epochs, and ancient cultures now lost to the past, but more interestingly, they offer insight into the progression of our social anthropology. “Myths present ideas that guide perception, conditioning us to think and even perceive in a particular way,” says Merlin Stone, a sculptor, an art historian, and a professor, who devoted over ten years to researching her book When God Was a Woman. “Especially when we are young and impressionable. They define good and bad, right, and wrong, what is natural and what is unnatural among the people who hold the myths as meaningful.” Myths were more than simply fables whispered over campfires, as Stone describes, they have a linguistic force that shapes a collective belief system. When reading Greek mythology, there is a prominent patriarchal slant to some stories which endorses a set of gender expectations regarding a woman’s role and place within society. This ideology superimposed a set of gendered expectations onto the female body to prevent her potentially destructive influences from undermining the social order. If she denied a man his power, her body was the target of punishment, either brutally assaulted or transformed into something grotesque. In other words, patriarchal Greek mythology depicted the perfect woman as an enigma of their gender values, and the worst of her kind, a monster. 

The ancient Greeks spoke of an array of monstrous female beings, from multi-headed morphological chimeras to reptilian hybrids. Nearly all mythological Greek monsters had a distinguishable abnormality that defied what was natural for women whilst retaining a biological aspect to designate the monster as female. Her beauty was transformed into something perverse and dangerous, reminding women of their position in patriarchal Greek society and their punishment for refusing to submit to a man’s power. Debbie Felton says this speaks to “men’s fear of women’s destructive potential”, invoking the male fantasy of “conquering and controlling the female.” Perseus was aided in his quest of destroying the gorgon, Medusa, given winged sandals from the messenger god, Hermes, a cap of invisibility from Hades, the god of the underworld, and a shield with a mirror from Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war

The odds of his victory were clearly in his favour, sealing Medusa’s tragic fate at the blade of the demi-god’s sword. In Ovid’s version of the myth of Medusa, it was Poseidon who assaulted the beautiful maiden in the temple of Athena, defiling not only Medusa’s honour but Athena’s sacred space. Yet, the onus of the assault was on Medusa, the victim, whom Athena punished by transforming into the infamous reptilian gorgon that turns her onlookers to stone. Medusa was unduly punished for withholding access to her body, first, by the god who violated her, then by the goddess who sought revenge on the helpless maiden. 

In the legend of Cassandra, most famously told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the god, Apollo, grants the trojan princess prophetic powers, but when she refuses to submit to his sexual desires, Apollo warps her gifts into a curse so that her true prophecies are never to be believed. In Splitting the Feminist Subject Justyna Sempruch writes “Cassandra’s desire does not meet the god’s potent lust for her, and her phallic desire with an eroticism so different from her own, violates rather than excites her senses.” Although she refuses Apollo’s advances, Cassandra is later assaulted by Ajax the Lesser, the King of Locris, who drags the trojan princess out from the temple of Athena during the sack of Troy, and brutally assaults her. Women like Cassandra are restrained in the hegemonic symbolic structure that delivers pain, and never pleasure, says Sempruch. She is punished for rejecting her transgressor and silenced if she dares speak about her experience.

Medusa and Cassandra’s myths demonstrate that a woman’s body is transformed into an instrument of their destruction by the same patriarchal forces that worship her as the object of desire. Their myths testify to the patriarchal order that prescribes the female body as a nexus of social and gender codes to bind her value to her empirical form. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and desire, is the divine embodiment of these codes. While her unparalleled beauty celebrates the female form, her legends are enmeshed with misogynistic ideology that normalise her subjugation. The Greek poetess, Sappho, describes the goddess as a “deceitful child of Zeus” and Homer tells the story of her adultery in Hephaestus’s palace with Ares, God of war. Unsurprisingly, Aphrodite is blamed for the indiscretion on the grounds that she had manipulated Ares with her beauty and promiscuity. Her depictions as a duplicitous yet enthralling goddess affirmed that women needed to be policed by the patriarchal order which normalised their oppression. As the myths purported, women were implicitly licentious creatures who needed to be disciplined and controlled by a man to prevent her from misbehaving, reflecting the gender disparity that has withstood centuries. 

As most myths illustrate, male Gods reward a woman for giving herself access to them but will punish her if she withholds their authority. She is transformed into something abject and monstrous or is violently assaulted and slaughtered. Perhaps the most sadly ironic part about women in Greek mythology, is how the patriarchy weaponises her body. Only she can give birth to the offspring who are raised and conditioned to behave according to the patriarchal value system that venerates and punishes women. Without her, the patriarchy would not exist, and Greek mythology makes this dilemma apparent.

Bibliography

Decay, Susan. “From Flowery Tales” To “Heroic Rapes” : Virginal Subjectivity in the Mythological Meadow.” Arethusa. Vol 46, No. 3. (2013): 395-41. 

Sempruch, Justyna. ” Splitting the Feminist Subject.” In Fantasies of Gender and the Witch in Feminist Theory and Literature. 59-118. Purdue University Press, 2008.

“Why So Many Mythological Monsters Are Female.” 2021. Smithsonian Magazine. March 31, 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/meet-female-monsters-greek-mythology-medusa-sphinx-180977364/

Stone, Merlin. When God Was a Woman. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1978. 

Figures

Fig 1.  Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. Ajax and Cassandra. 1806. Oil on canvas, 232 × 177 cm. Großherzogliches Schloss Eutin.

Fig 2.  The Deification of Aeneas. Charles Le Brun. 1619–1690. Oil on canvas, dimensions unknown. Musée des Beaux-arts de Montréal, Montreal, Canada. 

Fig 3. Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa. Sebastiano Ricci. 1705–1710.

Oil on canvas. 64.1 × 77.2 cm. Getty Centre, Museum South Pavilion.