Women in Ancient Poetry
The Shijing and the Iliad contain numerous examples of women, which help us understand the roles women played in ancient society as well as ancient poetic devices. In the Iliad, women are portrayed as more of objects for the use of men, such as for war trophies, and are often compared to Goddesses. In the Shijing, women are described in terms of romance, marriage, and in simile to nature. In this paper I will examine, compare, and contrast the ancient women as portrayed in the Shijing compared to the women in the Iliad. C. H. Wang said concerning comparative literature, “What we can find in literature of several traditions are not parallels or influences, but a common sense, a shared aspiration defined before individual backgrounds, an encyclopedia of diversity catalogued, a poetry as a means of humanistic education,” (Wang xiii). Although these portrayals come from two different and very distant cultures, they can still tell us a great deal of information regarding ancient poetry devices, the commonalities between women in ancient society, and the human experience in general.
In contrast, women in Shijing are spoken of during romance, marriage, or child bearing, but not as war trophies. They seem to be most often described in romance or leaving her parents’ home to be married. For instance, in one poem it says, “Let’s go look across the Wei,/It is truly a place for our pleasure./Man and maid together,/Each frolicked with the other,/And gave as gift the peony,” (Owen 48). In the poem above, we can see that in the Shijing, the relationships between men and women are happy and romantic, much more than we would see in the Iliad. The women in the Shijing seem to have power over whether the man can chase her; for instance there is often a river between them that the man must cross before he can win her love, perhaps representing winning her heart. Throughout the Shijing, women are often described in these love or marriage images, contrasting with the warring images of women in the Iliad.
On the other hand, women in the Iliad are not described in great detail, and certainly not with simile or metaphor. Many times the women in the Iliad are just described as fair, or beautiful; take this passage for instance, “Achilles lay in an inner room of the house, with fair Briseis by his side,” (Butler). Here we see a lack of description of the girl besides her being fair; the author does not compare her to anything. One is left up to imagine just how beautiful she was. But the Iliad does put these women in context; an entire war is being fought over Helen, and Briseis is taken as the greatest prize of the war. In this context, we can know that these women must have been very beautiful, even if there is not a metaphor of their beauty in the text.
In the Shijing there is also symbolism that represents the quality of a woman, as in the poem, “When eating fish, who needs/The bream of the river?/When taking a wife, who needs/A Jiang princess of Qi?” (Owen 53). Here we can see that women are compared to fish, and the women the poet mentions are described by the quality of fish, which is represented by the breed of fish mentioned; surely the bream of the river compared to a carp have a difference in value. The point the poet seems to be making in this particular poem is that the kind of woman that you choose doesn’t matter, as long as you have a woman, just as in fishing it doesn’t matter what you catch as long as you have something to eat.
Contrastingly, in the Iliad there is less symbolism. The mortal women in the Iliad are often compared to goddesses; for instance Helen is compared to Venus in beauty. As goddesses, we assume that these women are perfect in their beauty, but that is all we know. We are left to ourselves to imagine what perfect beauty looks like. Perhaps the Greeks already had an idea of what the goddesses looked like, so this comparison may have been sufficient to the people listening to the poets at the time. Overall, it seems that the Iliad pales in comparison to the Shijing in terms of the descriptions of women.
On the other hand, in the Iliad, the women represent more of ideas than personification of others. For instance, Helen, for whom an entire war was fought, could represent the abstract pride of the Greek nation. As C.H. Wang put it, “the allegorical hero is not so much a real person as he is a generator of other secondary personalities, which are partial aspects of himself,” (Wang 168). Perhaps many of the women in the Iliad do not represent real people, but rather ideas or aspects of themselves. For instance, to could be argued that Helen represents the pride of Greece, which can only be taken back by the utter annihilation of the entire city of Troy. However, it seems unlikely that these women represent the author himself, as women in the Iliad seem to fit only minor roles in the characters, and there are many other male characters that the poet could project himself onto; this is very different from the Shijing, in which women are often made as the main character if not the only character in the poem. Because the women in the Iliad only play minor roles throughout the epic, it seems unlikely that women would represent the author or another person, but rather represent secondary characteristics or personalities.
Although many women in the Iliad are only portrayed as being sought after as prizes, there still are some examples of women in the Iliad fulfilling their domestic role and benefiting society. We see this with Hector’s wife especially, “She told her maids to set a large tripod on the fire, so as to have a warm bath ready for Hector when he came out of battle,” (Butler). Here Hector’s wife is shown as caring and dutiful wife, caring for her husband in times of trouble and not just acting as his inanimate war trophy. Ancient women in these societies were surely an integral part of ancient society, and contributed greatly to the well-being and long term stability of their respective nations and people.
In contrast, women in the Shijing are almost always portrayed as being courted and treated with respect by their suitors or husbands. Money and gifts for the bride’s family are also often mentioned, as a way to recompense the bride’s family for the loss of their daughter; for example, “If she would be my bride,/I’d offer for her a horse,/So wide, the Han,/I can’t wade over,” (Owen 31). Here we can see that the ancient Chinese men valued women and offered gifts, such as horses, to win over their hearts and pay respect to their family. This practice stands in great contrast to the men in the Iliad who used force and violence to take the daughters of their enemies as trophies.
In the Iliad however, it seems that women are often repressed in their social roles, and have little power in the affairs of men. For instance, Achilles took Briseis as a war prize, even against her father’s wishes; she was essentially kidnapped from her home after the Greeks conquered her city. Helen is also in the same situation; she was stolen from the Greeks by prince Priam, and was left to await the outcome of the war to see who would be her final spouse. But there are examples of strong women in the Iliad, such as the Goddesses, especially the goddess Athena. Athena is almost man-like, as the god of war, able to change the outcome of the war in the Greeks favor and fight in battles in and help the mortals. She also stands up to Zeus and was a champion for the Greeks. However, the Goddess Helena resorts to sexual persuasion in order to get her way with Zeus, which seems to demean the role of women in Greek society.
The Shijing also shows females personified as Goddesses, which shows their revered role in society. In the Poem, “She bore the folk,” (Owen 12), it shows that man was born from a Goddess named Jiang. David Hawkes explained the importance of female deities in ancient China, he said “female deities of rivers and mountains…according to ancient custom, were sacrificed to with offering dropped in the water,” (Hawkes 80). Here we can see that females in the form of deities were very much revered and were part of sacred rituals and religion of ancient China. Because of this, we know that across cultures important that women are very much respected, and can even be deified and worshipped.
The Iliad is also filled with examples of romance and love between women and men.
One of the most intimate images of romance comes from romance between the Gods. An example of this comes from Zeus and Hera, when Zeus says, “let us devote ourselves to love and to the enjoyment of one another. Never yet have I been so overpowered by passion neither for goddess nor mortal woman as I am at this moment for yourself,” this passionate passage from the Iliad shows that ultimate passion was revered by the Greeks and was also enjoyed by the Gods themselves. We can see from the Iliad that love and passion was an integral part of Greek life, and were expressed beautifully and openly.
However, many of the romantic images in the Iliad seem to somewhat demean women as more objects and trophies of war. For instance, in this passage it says, “let him come when we Achaeans are dividing the spoil, and load his ship with gold and bronze to his liking; furthermore let him take twenty Trojan women, the loveliest after Helen herself,” (Butler). It seems that after the victory over the Trojans, many of the Greeks only took women as trophies, the spoils of war. This is not to say that the same mentality didn’t exist in the Shijing. For instance in the poem, “Dead Roe Deer,” the author clearly portrays the rape of a young woman, the consequences of an overly lustful man who took this woman as an object of desire, the poem reads, “Softly now, and gently, gently,/ do not touch my apron, sir,/ and don’t set the cur to barking,” (Owen 36). Here we can see that in the Shijing there are examples of men taking women as objects for pleasure, instead of following traditional Chinese customs of respect and family values. It seems that in both of these ancient cultures, human nature and lust became the bane of many women, as they were treated as objects and trophies by the men of their time.
The Iliad also has many instances of women being compared to nature, especially forces of nature. This happens most often when the goddesses are described. For example, in this passage, regarding the goddess Athena, it says, “She hid them in a thick cloud, and Simois made ambrosia spring up for them to eat; the two goddesses then went on, flying like turtledoves in their eagerness to help the Argives,” (Butler). In this passage we see multiple examples of nature imagery. The first is that of the heroes being hid in a dark cloud. This act of nature, a mist coming from nowhere to conceal them, is described as an act of the goddesses. The use of a turtledove to describe the goddesses should also be noted; the turtledove represents love and peace, showing that the goddesses bring good tidings and help to the Greeks. It should be noted that the turtledove was also used in Chinese poetry. According to C.H. Wang, “[an ancient] Chinese poet had determined on the turtledove to intensify and embellish [his] nuptial poem,” (Wang 162). We can see that although China and Greece were on almost opposite ends of the globe, they both used the image of a turtledove in their poetry. This shows that the turtledove is a basic human symbol of love and peace across cultures, especially in regards to women.
The Iliad also has many examples of women in their nurturing roles as mothers. However, these mothers are shown most often in aid of their sons in battle. For instance, in this passage it says, “Lastly, when the famed lame god had made all the armour, he took it and set it before the mother of Achilles; whereon she darted like a falcon from the snowy summits of Olympus and bore away the gleaming armour from the house of Vulcan,” (Butler). From this passage we can see that Achilles’ mother Thetis cared for her son, long after he was grown, and continued to aid him in his destiny. In the Iliad it is very clear that the great men in the Iliad revered their mothers and relied on them for strength even after they were grown. They were truly an irreplaceable part of ancient Greek society.
In the Iliad, marriage is also shown as a crucial part of life for women. Although often in the Iliad women are treated as objects and war trophies, they are very much valued as wives, and it seems that their husbands do truly love them. For instance Achilles, who plainly took his wife as a war prize, describes his wife Briseis thus, “Are the sons of Atreus the only men in the world who love their wives? Any man of common right feeling will love and cherish her who is his own, as I this woman, with my whole heart,” (Butler). Even though Briseis was taken from him, Achilles still mourned for her and longed for her, his beloved bride. Although it seems that the marriage ceremony in Greek culture was somewhat underplayed, the marriage relationship between man and wife seems to be the strongest form of love that is described. The institution of marriage seems to be the most important and critical organization in ancient Greek culture.
There are many similarities and differences between the women that appear in Iliad and in the Shijing. The descriptions of women in the Shijing seem to use more metaphor and allegory, while women in the Iliad use very little description and metaphor to describe the women. Also in the Shijing, women seem to be personified by animals or objects in nature, while this is not the case in the Iliad, although women in the Iliad could have represented abstract ideas. Women in the Shijing are shown in their domestic roles and their contributions to society, but there seems to be little examples of these kinds of women in the Iliad, with the best example being Hector’s wife. The women in the Iliad seem to be overall more repressed than the women portrayed in the Shijing, while the Shijing women seem to have more freedom and respect given to them by men. However, the Iliad also shows women respected and portrayed as deities, a phenomenon which also appears in the Shijing. Surely there are many more aspects of this topic that can be studied; future analysis of the women in the Shijing and the Iliad will only further increase our understanding and appreciation of ancient women and their contributions to society.
Butler, Samuel. "The Internet Classics Archive | The Iliad by Homer." The Internet Classics Archive | The Iliad by Homer. Web. 30 Sept. 2014.
Hawkes, David. "The Quest of the Goddess." Studies in Chinese Literary Genres. Berkeley: U of California, 1974. Print.
Owen, Stephen. An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. 10-77. Print.
Wang, C. H. From Ritual to Allegory. Hong Kong: Chinese UP, 1986. Print.
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