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Women in Classic Literature

Updated: Nov 6, 2021

By Kirsty Freeman

5th century b.C. Red-figure Attic skyphos by the Telemachus Painter depicting Penelope and her son Telemachus. Image via Pintrest

One of the first times a woman is recorded in literature as being told to be quiet, was when in Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus turns to Penelope – his mother and a woman heralded for her intelligence – and tells her to take herself upstairs and return to her loom. It seems imperative for Telemachus’ development from a child into a man, that he takes power from women, and specifically his mother.

Natalie Haynes’ Pandora’s Jar, explores this relationship between women and silence in classical literature. She remarks that Medusa was just a “woman who was raped and then punished for it with snakish hair.” Medusa’s life when you really study the myths is shocking, but not that dissimilar to the experience of women today. To summarize; Medusa was raped by Posidon, Athena was angry (as she often is) and ruined Medusa’s lovely hair with snakes. Medusa then takes herself off to an island, almost like she wishes not to hurt anyone. Then Persus turns up, and cuts her head off while she’s asleep – unable to defend herself.

Medusa’s life is shocking, but it is not that dissimilar to the experience of women today. In 2018 Luciano Garbati’s sculpture ‘Medusa with the Head of Perseus’ was captioned “be thankful we only want equality, not payback” in response to the Me Too movement – where women who were silenced were reminded that they were not alone.

When asked who the most intelligent woman in classical literature is and you might think of Penelope – the humble and honest wife of Odysseus, the acclaimed smartest man in literature – but in actual fact there are so many other brilliant women we are forced to ignore, as their male counterparts are allowed to shine by their subordination. Jocasta, for example, is a genius. She solves the mystery of Oedipus’ identity much earlier than him, she even has time to go into the palace, come to the conclusion that suicide is her only option, find a rope, and hang herself, still all while Oedipus needs more information to come to the conclusion she came to much earlier.

Women in classical literature may have been silenced – women today may be silenced – but we must, as women, as people of the future not let ourselves be tucked away in the inner chambers of our houses, and must speak our opinions while we still can.

Written by writer Kirsty Freeman

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