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Womens Role In The Near East English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2369 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Throughout history, the relationship between men and women has played a pivotal, yet overlooked role in the success and failure of great civilizations. Starting as early as ancient Mesopotamia when the first recorded stories were discovered, women are mentioned often in tales of great journeys and battles of kings and warriors and often play undesirable roles as pawns or the cause of great sorrow. This profound distinction between the roles of the male and female sexes in both the fictional and non-fictional world has caused many scholars and historians to study the history behind women’s role in history. Regardless of their dilemma, however, women in ancient history managed not only to survive but also to overcome their differences with men and carve their own path in the rocky, yet monumental, ancient civilizations.

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The ancient Mediterranean world saw to it that women’s work was limited to that of household servants and child-bearers. Egypt proved to be an exception, however, when women were portrayed as playing a vital role in the marriage realm. Love and affection were valuable attributes to a successful Egyptian marriage though most marriages were based on economic unions over lust. Of all the great civilizations along the Mediterranean, Egypt treated its women best as joy and happiness in the family was considered legitimate goals in life. Women in Egypt could also become pharaoh in extreme cases which, as far as taking on the highest leadership role in a culture, was unheard of in Mesopotamia and Babylon. Becoming a female pharaoh only occurred in extreme circumstances, but otherwise Egyptian women were generally considered equal to men (they could own property, initiate divorce, sign contracts, etc). The basis for this improved status of equality for Egyptian women may be due to the fact that love and emotional support in marriages was one of the most important parts of a marriage, and both men and women understood that.

Throughout the various cultures and civilizations in the ancient Near Eastern world, marriage was considered to be an important component of a successful economic and social system. Men had a difficult time surviving without women in the picture; women could cook and clean while men worked, and oftentimes when men returned home from the army, they relied on a female companion to care for themselves. Overall, the man/husband has always been seen as the head of the house. In Greek culture, Athenian men often married around the age of thirty to a girl nearly half his age in order to have better control over the girl’s actions as well as ensure the girl would be young enough to care for the husband when he grew older. In contrast, Egyptian women and men valued each other’s company as marriage focused more on an emotional companionship role. Pharaohs often had several wives although only one bore the title “King’s Great Wife” or “Queen.”

“No woman here is going to be allowed to walk all over us. Otherwise, as men we’ll be disgraced. We won’t deserve the name.” Although this quote is from a work of literature not discussed in the Near East and Early Greek course  (from the Antigone regarding the battle for Thebes), it relates well to the attitude of men towards women in the early starts of Mesopotamian civilization. Throughout history, women have been treated differently than men. Additionally, the standards to which women were held to also varied with different civilizations. This is very apparent in one of the earliest masterpieces of world literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh.

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, women play a small role. Readers are introduced to Ishtar, the goddess of love, fertility, and war; Ninsun, the mother of Gilgamesh; Siduri, the goddess of wine; Aruru, the goddess of creation; the wife of Utnapishtim; and Shamhat, the temple prostitute (harem). One can see that these six women have roles in the story, but it must be noted that none of these women are regular townspeople. When Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s equal, dies, he has many mourners, including a wife, but this is the only mention of her. The same goes for Gilgamesh and his wife. 

Throughout the poem, women are seen as either gods, mortals with a higher status than most, or objects. Shamhat, the temple prostitute, is a prime example. It is said that she can “tame a wild man” by her sexuality. Shamhat is told, “Now use your love-arts. Strip off your robe and lie here naked, with your legs apart. Stir up his lust when he approaches, touch him, excite him, take his breath with your kisses, show him what a woman is. The animals who knew him in the wilderness will be bewildered, and will leave him forever.” (Gilgamesh 78). But after the act is completed, she is simply brushed aside and forgotten.

An example from Gilgamesh that demonstrates the point that common women were seen as objects by some can be found at the beginning of the story when describing Gilgamesh’s right to prima nocte. “[He] takes the girl from her mother and uses her, the warrior’s daughter, the young man’s bride, he uses her.” (Gilgamesh 72). It should be noted that the only character to display such attitudes towards women seems to be King Gilgamesh, but nonetheless; it shows that this was an attitude or a mindset for men at this time.

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, women are seen either as citizens with a lower status or as goddesses. In the godly form, women are powerful and have important duties to carry out, such as the creation of mankind and the production of wine. But in the mortal form, they are seen as pleasure objects and do not play many other roles in society. This early masterpiece of world literature illustrates the social attitudes towards women, as well as shows their roles in society. Women have always had some type of social roadblock in their paths, but this story shows that since the beginning of time, women have fought for social progress.

The role of women has been changing throughout history. There have been matriarchal societies and ones where women have been considered to be subordinate to men in all aspects. One of the themes in Gilgamesh is the role of women. Women are seen as the downfall of men, nurturers, and possessions. The varying role of women in Gilgamesh is representative of the time period it was written in since the role of women was changing drastically from wise women to subordination during the Bronze Age.

The story of Enkidu’s unfortunate and untimely death is ultimately caused by a woman. If Gilgamesh had not sent the prostitute Shamhat into the forest to sleep with Enkidu, he would have never known the hardships of being a “real” human. The first night that Gilgamesh and Enkidu are in the forest waiting for Humbaba, Enkidu thinks of how he was once one with the forest until Shamhat came into his life; he is scared because he keeps seeing visions of his former life.

One of the most pivotal works of literature from the ancient world that first introduced readers to the rules and customs of women’s role in the world was from the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (18th century B.C.E.). Women’s function in Babylonian society as described by this code can be summed up in one statement: women needed society’s help, and could rarely survive on their own. Examples of this include a woman’s sexuality being sacrificed in order to ensure marriage legitimacy and having all of the family wealth distributed by the husband/father. Women were also to blame for numerous incidents that may not always have been their fault, including having to take the blame for unavoidable occurrences in a marriage such as death of a husband or child.

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The Code of Hammurabi also dictates women’s functions in such occurrences as adultery. If the woman committing the act was caught by the husband, she could swear innocence in front of a priest and then the husband/wife could go back to normal. However, if the woman was caught by a stranger, she was to be thrown into a river and was only considered not-guilty if she survived (if the woman drowned, she was obviously guilty). Overall, the main function of a woman in the Babylonian culture was to bear children for her husband. Other laws didn’t just punish women, but instead put them in inferior positions of obedience and second-class status to men. Although monogamy was the constant rule, men often didn’t maintain their faithfulness to their wives. It was common for a free man to have sexual relations with his slaves with no punishment. Also, if a woman could not bear a child, then her maidservant was given to the husband in hopes of bearing a child. If this occurred then then maidservant’s child would be considered the wife’s.

Some of the laws in the code gave women protection from patriarchal rule, such as laws placing restrictions on the use of women’s dowries, the bride prices paid for women, and the manner in which divorce can happen. These all point to the state’s recognition that women needed some legal protections from male authority. In many cases, women were treated as children and not given equal treatment under the law. Even in these laws of protection, women are referred to as lesser beings. The Code of Hammurabi established new elements of restriction on women that hadn’t been in effect before. Hammurabi took it upon himself to establish these laws based on his own principles and values. 

In the world of Greek culture, women were used in literature to portray roles varying in importance from simple pawns to serving as moral centers. In the Iliad specifically, Homer strategically placed different characters into these different roles to allow the Trojan War to be more than just an action thriller, but also a romantic drama. For example, Helen is used as a pawn in this story as she is one of the main reasons the Greeks have come to declare war of the Trojans. Aphrodite also uses Helen as a pawn in Aphrodite’s own quest for power among the Greeks and Trojans. To the gods especially, all humans regardless of gender serve as pawns to allow the gods to perform certain actions within the story that they are unable to do in their natural immortal forms. On the other hand, women also serve as the moral center of the Iliad. Throughout the play, readers follow along as Helen learns her role within the role and accepts her fate. Andromache, one of the most important female characters in the play, constantly reminds Hector of his obligations to his household and to Troy. Women in the play have a voice and “fulfill” their roles through laments and dirges.

The world of Homer, as told through the Iliad, is ruled by men. When women do appear, they are divided into different groups. The most important is the group of female characters that serve some useful purpose for the male heroes. Iphigenia was sacrificed by her father and uncle, Agamemnon and Menelaus, to win the gods over (specifically, Artemis) to help them win the battle for Troy. Chryseis, a Trojan woman taken by Agamemnon as his “war prize” is first used as a concubine and later as a means of appeasing the god Apollo.

Helen, the most famous of Homer’s women, also falls into this category. Though she was not a good wife to Menelaus, in the Iliad, she appears to be a loving wife to Paris and a dutiful daughter-in-law. At the same time she is both a prize and a pawn. The fact that almost all of Greece goes to war over her tells us that she is a great trophy for the one who possesses her and an excuse to wage war. For the most part, Homer’s women have little to no control over their lives and destinies. They could make few decisions on their own. However, many of the women play pivotal roles in the development of the male characters and the overall story.

The Iliad incorporates within in its own heroic tradition the conventions and poetics of a number of other song traditions, especially women’s song traditions. Of all the song and speech traditions that are incorporated into Homeric poetry, lament is perhaps the most pervasive. Achilles and Hector are lamented repeatedly throughout the Iliad. As discussed by Mary Ebbott, “…through laments for husbands, parents, and children women can comment on their own sufferings, life history, and status within the community.” (Ebbott, __)

The laments that women sing in the Iliad are both traditional, in that they incorporate conventions of Greek lament that are still alive today, and personal in that they shows us, as nowhere else in the Iliad, women’s own life experiences. The songs of lament are also the first songs sung in remembrance of the dead hero, and are therefore important in defining the kleos of the hero. Laments can also rouse feelings of vengeance over this death, and thus in some contexts it is considered dangerous to allow women to lament.

This duality is already a fundamental aspect of the ritual lament for the dead in Greek tradition. “…objectively, it [a lament] is designed to honor and appease the dead, while subjectively, it gives expression to a wide range of conflicting emotions.” (The Ritual Lament in the Greek Tradition, p. 55.) Traditional lament language occurs in women’s speeches throughout the Iliad. The song sings not only about the deceased but may also include sentiments of the woman’s vulnerability without the man’s protection, how she is perceived by others, and how she wishes things were different or how things might have been if the dead man had not died. The past, present and possible future are all addressed in a variety of ways. The strong presence of the lament tradition in a song that is ultimately about the hero’s mortality is woven into the speeches of characters like Briseis, Andromache and Helen, even when they are not singing a formal lament at a funeral.


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