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Homer’s Iliad is a complex story of men at war, of heroic and bloody deeds by Greek from the Sparta and Trojan warriors during their ten year long struggle while the ascendancy swings from one side to the other. The driving force behind the events of the Iliad is the character of Achilles, the son of a human and of Thetis, the sea-nymph, a semi-divine being who has great power and influence among the gods. This short essay, The Functions of Female Characters in Homer’s Iliad by the client , sets out to consider one of the oldest literary masterpieces as though the reader and the author are contemporaneous both with each other and with the action described in the epic. Using this vantage point it is possible to focus on the personal relationships described in the Iliad and in particular upon those involving female characters. The argument put forward in the essay is that one of the purposes of Homer is to use female characters to underline the futility of war and of the male warrior ethos which provokes the anger which leads to conflict.
Many commentaries on Homer invoke the context of what is known about the social status of women in the Athens of Socrates around 400 to 300 BC. However it is likely that Homer wrote three to four hundred years before that date and maybe in another part of the Peloponnesian region. For this reason it is useful when considering women in the Iliad to focus on the relationships Homer describes without passing his descriptions through the filter of our ‘ understanding’ of the social status of men and women at that time.
Another reason why we might not place a formal social context on the actions of women or men is that Homer has four categories of beings involved, all interacting with each other: human, half-human, half-divine, semi-divine and divine. Crucially, all four categories are presented by the poet as having personalities and characters that are human.
The relationships between male and female provide the fuel for the Trojan War. Not only is a man’s desire for a woman (Paris for Helen) the cause of the war, but it was a contest over the beauty of three goddesses that initiated the involvement of Paris. To go further, it is another female, Aphrodite, the chosen winner of that contest, who uses the sexual attraction of Helen to trap Paris, a Trojan, into taking Helen from her Greek husband. Homer makes it clear here that women can be manipulative, and manipulated.
The power that a woman holds over a man can cause any level of pain up to that of war. In Book XIV there is a sensuous description of the way in which Hera prepares herself to seduce her husband to distract him so the Greeks gain ascendancy over his favored Trojans.
“ She cleansed all the dirt from her fair body with ambrosia, then she anointed herself with olive oil, ambrosial, very soft, and scented specially for herself- if it were so much as shaken in the bronze-floored house of Jove, the scent pervaded the universe of heaven and earth. With this she anointed her delicate skin, and then she plaited the fair ambrosial locks that flowed in a stream of golden tresses from her immortal head. She put on the wondrous robe which Minerva had worked for her with consummate art, and had embroidered with manifold devices; she fastened it about her bosom with golden clasps, and she girded herself with a girdle that had a hundred tassels: then she fastened her earrings, three brilliant pendants that glistened most beautifully, through the pierced lobes of her ears, and threw a lovely new veil over her head.” (Samuel Butler Translation of the Iliad, Book XIV)
Significantly, at all levels Homer’s characters display human emotions. In fact it is easy to think of them as humans, but with differing grades of power, human or divine. It can be argued that Homer’s skill in portraying these emotions across the centuries is a crucial element in making the Iliad the masterpiece it is. It is important to emphasize that the range of emotions is most not limited to the male preserves of honor, duty and war, includes those between male and female, husband and wife, son and mother.
Although it is Paris, a son of Trojan King Priam, whose act is the catalyst for the war, it is Aphrodite, a woman and a god who creates the lure of the prize of Helen which motivates Paris’ actions. Helen is the woman whose ‘ theft’ is the justification of the war. Homer presents the mortal women in terms of what they mean to the warriors. He does not concern himself with their authority, but with their relationships. Women take sides. Hera, is seen as the chief divine aid to the Greeks. Thetis, who unbound the imprisoned Zeus, had the power to call on him to help Achilles, her son.
The involvement of women and their effect on the men is not restricted to a political impact. A famously moving passage describes the doomed parting of Hector from his loved and loving wife Andromache and his baby child.
“ He stretched his arms towards his child, but the boy cried and nestled in his nurse’s bosom, scared at the sight of his father’s armor, and at the horse-hair plume that nodded fiercely from his helmet. His father and mother laughed to see him, but Hector took the helmet from his head and laid it all gleaming upon the ground. Then he took his darling child, kissed him, and dandled him in his arms, praying over him the while to Jove and to all the gods. ….. With this he laid the child again in the arms of his wife, who took him to her own soft bosom, smiling through her tears. As her husband watched her his heart yearned towards her and he caressed her fondly, saying, ‘ My own wife, do not take these things too bitterly to heart.’ …. He took his plumed helmet from the ground, and his wife went back again to her house, weeping bitterly and often looking back towards him.” (Butler, Iliad Book VI).
Hector uses the threat of the bondage his wife would face if the Greeks defeat the Trojans and would rather die than see that come to pass. Even while he has his deep love for his family, his honor requires him to fight even if he knows he will die. In contrast, his wife asks him, in vain, not to fight but to stay with his family. It is argued that while Homer uses the love of family and home among his mortal women to show men’s folly with their concept of honor he balances this by showing the active troublemaking of the divine female characters in their use of their power over men. In this sense the functional value of the women characters is not simply to be a foil to add depth to the characterization of the men. They are proactive characters in their own right in their own ‘ worlds’.