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Role of Women in Ancient Greek Society

Antigone’s “Sophocles” presents a complete character sketch of a male dominant ancient Greek society according to which men are considered superior and uphold all the authority to rule women whereas women were born to obey men which were their rulers. ‘Sophocles’ is all about the societal status of women in which women were given no respect at all. Evident from the character of Creon (king of Thebes) Antigone has presented a true picture of Greek society and has portrayed Creon as a ‘powerful’ ruler who only feels his power when he is sure that her society’s women are powerless and are only born to obey him.

The inferiority of Greek women is evident from the characters of two sisters in Sophocles, ‘Antigone’ and ‘Ismene’ who were opposite in nature.

Antigone: Antigone’s daring and courageous personality depicts her true virtue and morality in terms of historical context of the then Greek women. She is the true reflection of ancient Goddesses and does not wish to allow anyone to break their Greek rules1. This is for the reason why Antigone refuses to accept Creon on treating the corpse of ‘Polyneices’ unburied and without any funeral rites as she is aware of their religious ceremony and perceives it true that according to the ancient Greek’s concept any soul cannot enter the threshold of heaven unless buried. Therefore despite knowing that refusing Thebes is equivalent to welcoming death, Antigone does all her best to bury Polyneices. This also reveals Greek traditions of how a corpse was treated at that time.

Another character sketch which is portrayed bluntly by Antigone is that of Justice and equality. Ancient Greek women follow justice in every aspect. This is evident from the following lines, Antigone utters to Ismene while mentioning Creon’s Injustice. “For what reason Creon has shaped destiny for our brothers, that for one he has honoured burial, while for the other he has chosen to leave unburied?” (R. C. Jebb, Sophocles)2. Antigone negates Thebes decision to bury one brother while leaving behind the other.

Ismene: On the other hand Ismene is not that daring and bold and obeys the king ‘Thebes’. This is for the reason when Antigone asked her to help her in burying Polyneices, first she refused but later after seeing her sister obey their customs and religion, followed her.

Both the character depicts the true picture of ancient women and we can presume that the then women were categorized into two categories. One who were daring, bold and courageous and are not willing to compromise on principles of humanity just like the character of ‘Antigone’ while others who were born to be ruled like ‘Ismene’. Both the sisters share one thing in common. Despite of contradictory nature, both sisters favoured morality and truth. However Antigone presents women in a positive aspect. Whatever be the nature of women, they are next to Greek Goddesses. This fact is presented by Antigone through other characters among which ‘Eurydice’, the blind prophet ‘Teiresias’ and messengers are worth to mention who supports justice and equality. This refers to the fact that Antigone has resembled Goddesses and prophecy with that of women. Creon considers women unimportant, (even his own wife Eurydice is not important to him) and so does he considers Teiresias and messengers.

Antigone has presented a society which lacks all the morals and values in the form of men. In ancient times, men were considered only powerful if they know how to rule women. Therefore Creon is presented as a stupid ruler who not only looses his wife but also his son who is a lover of Antigone and wished her to be free from the punishment Creon set up for disobeying him.

The play in other words tells us about the evil nature of Greek men ruling the prophecy in the form of women. When prophets and messengers personally meet Creon, they remain unable to convince him about his wrong decision of punishing Antigone. However, only when his people made him realize about what the prophets have said must be followed otherwise he would suffer, Creon decided to free Antigone. But by that time it is too late since Antigone commits suicide. This also reveals that ancient women suffered at the hands of men. Whether in the form of friend, kin or lover, it is men responsible for women’s destruction.

The way Creon has lost his wife, his son looses Antigone, thereby making Creon a big looser. Sophocles is the indirect notion of women’s success despite being ignored and ruled. Ancient society is run by women’s wisdom while suffers by men’s foolishness. Antigone has indirectly made us realize that ‘Sophocles’ is not a story of a king who looses everything but a story of the entire Greek nation who in the past have suffered losses and failures just because they underestimated their women and did not respect them.

One historical example is the fall of Roman Empire which took place in the circumstances when even royal women were not given any importance. Ancient Greek history presents many characters before us in which women’s decisions were not considered at all. Even royal families’ women were part of it.

Reference

  1. According to the ancient Greek rule, it is forbidden to left the funeral unburied and can be accomplished by putting the dust over corpse three times.
  2. Antigone, Sophocles: translated by R. C. Jebb.