The Patriarchy's Rise as Symbolized in the Iliad

    Few scholars have explored this angle of the epic poem, calling the women who are captured and enslaved, “war brides.” One online website, The Role of Women in the Art of Ancient Greece, which seems to mostly function as a study guide for students, admitted that “Briseis, the daughter of Byseus of Lyrnessus, became a prize of Achilles and his sex slave,” going on to describe how Achilles had to kill all of Briseis’ family members in order to take her back to “his camp and lay wither her in his bed.” Ironically, the webpage goes on to describe all the men who lust after Briseis, including Agamemnon, who wants her to replace his own “sex slave, Chryseism” putting these men’s violent lusts down to “greed,” and the story’s moral as possibly that “beautiful women get men into trouble” (Briseis).

And beauty, as the poem reminds us repeatedly, is dangerous, especially in women. The poet has “sages” warn that Helen must be taken away from Troy, “or she will breed sorrow for us and for our children after us.” 

Shortly after we get this warning about Helen, Priam agrees to secure the duel between his son and Menelaus by sacrificing two lambs, with the soldiers making a solemn oath to the gods that the wives of any men who “sin against their oaths” over these sacrifices must “become the slaves of strangers.”

Clearly, by the twelfth century before the common era (BCE), women are considered war booty, specifically as sex slaves, and a number of cities in Anatolia and other parts of the Mediterranean, such as Halicarnassus and even Troy itself, specifically traded in sex slaves, both women and children.

The rape culture, also known as Toxic Masculinity, had arisen and taken control, clearly putting the raping aspect of raping and pillaging into the conquest of city-states.

This fact puts a different perspective on the cliché, “all is fair in love and war,” doesn’t it?

To put it as bluntly as I can, the "western" cultures so admired and uplifted as "golden" examples for how to live, extolled male sexuality as a control mechanism. In effect, the Russians in Berlin at the end of World War II and the Americans in Vietnam who raped women and children were living out the patriarchal values of sex as violence to instill fear and dominance lauded by these ancient cultures.

The patriarchy rose on the back of this toxic masculine culture, and is largely still bolstered by it today. And most westerners still turn a blind eye to the rape and torture of women and children.

Homer, himself, clearly struggles as he praises the new hierarchy, including a speech by a common warrior to King Hector, who dismissed the soldier’s advice in assembly. Polydamas, the soldier, clearly mocks Hector’s elitist view of himself, “Never right, is it, for a common man to speak against you, King, never in open council, god forbid in war. Our part is always to magnify your power. Well, once again I am bound to say what I think best.” This democratic attitude is only allowed to men in the Iliad, and even then Polydamas realizes he is pushing social boundaries.

Some writers clearly value the toxic masculinity shown in the Iliad:
"The Iliad embodies the primal values which enable our Aryan ancestors, thousands of years ago, to conquer the European continent, replacing the native egalitarian hunter-gatherer cultures with ultimately stronger militaristic and aristocratic cultures” (Durocher).

Granted, Durocher is a white supremacist who seeks seemingly to glorify everything masculine and Western, even violence and especially rape.
Yet even Shakespeare struggled with the conflict toxic masculinity causes men to embrace. Catherine Morrison points out that Paris, in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, weighs his speech about Helen’s fate “on the importance of the preservation of male honor” (4), because “a woman, as man’s inferior, finds her rightful place in society by fulfilling his destiny. She has no destiny of her own” (4).

Helen “is treated like an object. In fact, in each case [where she is mentioned in the Iliad] she is lumped together with the possessions that came with her from Sparta to Troy” (Farron 16). Farron observes that “even Hector, who is by far the most gentle, loving and, by the standards of his contemporaries, the uxorious male character in the Iliad, cannot take his wife [Andromache] completely seriously as a human being,” especially when she gives him military advice. Clearly, the Iliad warns women that we “must not try to influence in any way the course of war, despite the fact that that war has greatly changed [Andromache’s life] and will again in the future” (Farron 24).

Hector’s point of view flies in the face of valuing the goddess of war, Athena. Why have a goddess of war if women don’t know much about battle tactics? Athena, as a war goddess, developed from previous goddesses in other cultures in the area—from Ishtar in Ur, Inanna of Sumer, Astarte of Phoenicia, and Astghik in Armenia. Many of these complex goddesses were both nurturing and vengeful, often exuding feminine sexuality and fertility. Most of them were revered in early cultures that were matrilineal, some of which were also matriarchal. Each of these complex female deities mirrored the complexities of real women because ancient women had to fight and to hunt in order to protect their people.

Women undoubtedly led many ancient cultures—including those who erected massive monuments, like those on Malta and at Gobeckli Tepe. We get their stories through myths the same way we get the stories of men turned gods. In many cultures, as the patriarchy rose, women and goddesses both were forced into submissive positions.

The goddess Tiamat (aka The Deep, across whose face El must "move" in Genesis) is killed by her children, with her son, either Enlil or Marduk, dividing her body to form the heavens and earth. In this way, the male gods take dominance, making themselves the creators, which also parallels the rise of the patriarchy, and mirrors the violent toxic masculinity the patriarchy still depends on.

Another parallel occurs between early Egyptians and Ubaidians, who used similar symbols for their revered women and men. Often dubbed “reptilian” because of the shapes of their heads, statues found throughout Mesopotamia depict females, mostly, some of whom carry an infant cradled in the crook of their left arms. Similar male figurines show an erect penis, while the men cradle maces in their left arms, as though the weapons are infants. The phallus, of course, is ready for use.

Besides the symbolic infant and mace, the statues also have beehive hair styles or conical headdresses, much like the conical head gear worn by Hittite priests or the Hedjet, a conical white crown worn by royalty of Upper Egypt. When we notice that Hierakonpolis, the king of Upper Egypt, is wearing the Hedjet on the Narmer Palette  and wielding a mace, the similarities between the Mesopotamian “reptilian” statues becomes striking. Further, the symbolism of the infant, which makes the female figures seem nurturing, is beginning to be displaced by the mace, a weapon of war, so that, eventually, one of the signs of social power or “kingship” becomes the mace. Much later in Egypt, the mace is replaced by the hook and flail, also symbols of oppression, since the hook was used by shepherds to separate sheep easily, and the flail, a whip, was used to keep slaves in line. If the level of sado-masochism in the modern world is any indication of what it was like in ancient times, both could also be symbols of controlled sexuality—submission and rape.

The Iliad, then, captures the historical time period in which women become chattel with few rights of their own—an idea that will spread throughout many of the cultures surrounding the Mediterranean, although this drastic change in social status is overlooked by most scholars, and is never considered by the scholars examining the “collapse” of “civilization” at the end of the Bronze Age.

One question remains: why did men begin to value violence and subjugation more than they valued the women in their lives?

This question is still pertinent as so many people continue to try to control women's sexuality and rights to self-determination.
Works Cited
“Briseis, Slave of Achilles.” The Role of Women in the Art of Ancient Greece.
2017. April 29, 2017.
Cline, Eric H. 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton UP, 2014.
Durocher, Guillaume. “Adaptive Barbarism: Politics and Kinship in the Iliad,
Part 2.” Occidental Observer. April 11, 2017. April 29, 2017.
Farron, S. “The Portrayal of Women in the Iliad.” Acta Classica. Pp. 15-31.
1979.. Accessed April 29, 2017.
Homer. The Iliad. The Classics Archive. MIT. 1994-2009. April 2, 2017.
​Hughes, Bettany. "Helen of Troy." The Ancient World. Channel 4 TV Series.
April 14, 2010. (Linked below)
Lease, Emory B. “The Number Three, Myserious, Mystic, Magic.” Classical
Philology. January 1919. Pp. 56-73. University of Chicago Press.
Morrison, Catherine H. “A Cultural Perspective on Rape.” In The Rape Crisis
Intervention Handbook. Pp. 3-16. New York: Spring US, 1980.
 Wood, Michael. In Search of the Trojan War. Six Episode Documentary
Series by the BBC. 1985.

An Ongoing Investigation Copyright 2017

        As a firm believer that a matriarchy preceded the rise of the patriarchy, I have searched for years to try to determine if there was a catalyst or historical moment in which the balance of cooperation between men and women tipped from one side to the other.

When I discovered a video discussing the views presented in Eric Cline's book, 1177 BC, I thought, perhaps, finally, I had found another scholar who had discovered that there was a time period between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age in EuroAsia wherein society changed drastically, allowing males to become the dominant gender.
 I have to thank YouTube for feeding my desires, since, shortly after watching the 1177 BC book’s video, the programming directed me to Michael Wood’s BBC series, In Search of the Trojan War.

This series understates the importance of Helen’s abduction and rape as merely a historical possibility validated by the idea that women were—during this time period—regularly kidnapped and enslaved. Literally called "booty" (which alters the idea of a "booty call" for you, doesn't it?), the enslaved women often became concubines, usually literally sex slaves with no choice in the where, when, how, or with whom they copulated, but also manual labor, such as working flax to make linen, an arduous, time-consuming task. As Wood states, captured women were to serve their captors "in their fields or in their beds," as though one thing is equal to the other. Wood clearly struggles with the idea that the Trojan War could have been based on the rape and debasement of a royal woman, instead preferring to see her as a seductress, stating that "Helen's story is seductive." In the end, Wood admits that the men of the Bronze Age fought wars against each other, "not just for loot from foreign cities, but also for women."

What Wood misses is how carefully the Iliad stacks up the accusations against women, so that none of the actions by the men in the story can be blamed on them at all. Everything in the epic poem is the fault of women—either mortal women or goddesses.

In this way, the Iliad becomes the perfect symbol for the rise of the patriarchy, mirroring many of the circumstances that must have unfolded in real life that enabled males to dominate females, creating the rise of the patriarchy, and giving birth to Toxic Masculinity.

Of course, there will always be a few men and a few women who insist that the two genders have always been different, with males larger and stronger than women, but these few people ignore the fact that size is not a valid determination of strength, either physical or personal. They also overlook dramatic evidence from around the globe that women, almost everywhere, did the backbreaking work of most cultures—from gathering foodstuffs that sustained more people than hunted meat could have to building their individual homes from leather, canvas, logs, or rock.

Enough evidence exists of many pre-Greek cultures, from the Trypillians, the Etruscans to the Lydians, that women were still treated as equals to men before and during the beginning of the Bronze Age.

Even the Pentateuch or Torah provides evidence that women were, once upon a time, equal to men, at least until after the priests, who wrote the Judean stories down for the first time, were exiled to Babylon. These subdued priests needed literal scapegoats to blame for the downfall of Yahweh’s “chosen people,” and their most convenient sacrifices were women. So, as they modified their traditional stories while writing them down, they did their best to make women responsible for all of men’s ills, reducing women’s rights and social importance at the same time.

But were they the first culture to blame women for the ills of the world?

The author of 1177 BC argues that seismic activity, in addition to warfare and invasions by the Sea People, was responsible for the transition that eliminated many cultures, enabling the rise of the Hellenic Greek culture.
Even Bettany Hughes, in her tv series The Ancient World, prefers to view Helen as a real woman wreaking havoc on men, than as a symbol honed by Greek poets for how men’s attitudes of reverence, worship, and respect for women turned into lust, fear, and oppression.

The Iliad, all by itself (without added views about some of the characters' lives from other writers of the time), becomes a symbolic road map for how the patriarchy cemented its rise to power by viewing male lust and warfare as part and parcel of human relations, tossing aside millennia of cooperation and reacting viscerally to women’s domination in some spheres of society, such as religion, changing social views of the sacredness of women's sexuality into the negative male-view that these sacred women were nothing but “temple prostitutes.” From the three goddesses—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite—who start the conflict, to the women of Troy being enslaved, the Iliad takes us on a journey whereupon the ills of the world are squarely blamed on women.

Triads of gods were quite popular in many polytheistic cultures—from Horus, Ra, and Osiris in Egypt to Anu, Bel, and Ea in Babylon (Lease 57), so having three goddesses be the catalysts for an epic tale is not unusual. However, each of these particular goddesses symbolizes three aspects of womanhood—the wife of a philanderer, the virgin, and the woman in love with love. Aphrodite is especially important because, not only is she the Greek goddess of love, she also cheats at the beginning of this tale, bribing Paris, who has the misfortune of judging who is the most beautiful of these three goddesses, with an additional prize if he picks her. The prize Aphrodite offers Paris is Helen, Menelaus’ wife. In fact, Aphrodite, with her powers to induce lust in the most unwary of men, plays the most havoc through the tale, symbolizing the destructive power of love or lust, two things the ancient Greeks seem to confuse together quite often. Aphrodite also rescues Paris during his duel with Menelaus, allowing Paris and Helen to copulate once more, while the Greeks decree that they have won the contest, since Paris disappeared. Even later, when Menelaus seeks out Helen to kill her for causing this conflict, Aphrodite casts a spell on him to fall in love with Helen all over again.

So the symbolism of the three goddesses, one of whom constantly cheats, playing with human emotions, parallels that of the Fates, three old women who decide how long the thread of each life should be. The three goddesses’ vanity started their beauty competition, so the Greek bards are showing us symbolically how men assume women are easily manipulated by superfici
al praise.

Ironically, both the Greeks and Romans, even after they transitioned from matriarchal to patriarchal cultures, kept goddesses as some of their primary cosmic forces. While the early Greeks might have viewed women as strong, capable humans who control sacred spheres, such as the hearth, childbirth, and spirituality, the Romans have fully relegated women to the “cheap seats” as second class citizens, nearly as lowly as slaves. Of course, we must remember that most of the slaves captured whenever Rome conquered another city state were women and children, since most men were killed outright. And all of those women and children forced into slavery were also expected to freely give of their bodies to satisfy their masters. Roman men, remember, freely practiced pedophilia, and far too many men in modern America feel free to do so, still.

Perhaps Homer is signaling his regrets when Nestor says, “Lost to the clan, lost to the hearth, lost to the old ways, that one who lusts for all the horrors of war with his own people.” Here, we have references to pre-patriarchal values—the clan, which was largely determined through matriarchal lineage, also referred to here as “the hearth,” women’s traditional center of power in the home, so that the “old ways” could be his lament that people now use war to dominate others, including their own people. While Homer actively excites his listening audience with violence, he retreats into emotion--from the loss of family members to the fears of the women, recognizing that something is being lost with the rise of violent, controlling patriarchal values.