Forgotten Feminists: Explaining the stories of ‘difficult’ women in mythology

Content warning: Mentions of sexual abuse and murder

Throughout history, women have been branded as “difficult” for a multitude of absurd reasons, and a few of the biggest examples of these “difficult” women can be found in ancient Greek myths.

From Medusa the “monster” to Pandora, the girl who released evil into the world, Greek myths have been twisted until women become villains. It’s time to right the wrongs of history and finally explain the real stories of these not-so-difficult women. 

Medusa the Gorgon

Medusa is famously known as the woman with snakes for hair, who maliciously turned people to stone. The Roman poet Ovid described her story as follows: Medusa was a beautiful woman, who was seduced by the god of the sea, Posieden, whom she slept with inside of Athena’s sacred temple. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was highly offended by what Medusa did and cursed her, turning her into a Gorgon. 

From then on, Medusa was no longer the beautiful woman she once was and then plagued with the curse of turning anyone who looked at her into stone, damning her to a life of loneliness and misery. Eventually, a demigod hero named Perseus, son of the sky god Zeus, slayed Medusa by cutting off her head.

What many people don’t know is how she really came to be the so-called villain.

Medusa was a maiden dedicated to Athena, worshiping her and loving her. When Poseidon saw her, he was instantly attracted to her. But rather than “seducing” her, he raped her while she was worshipping Athena in her temple. 

Athena did in fact curse Medusa, even though her “indiscretion” was not by her own fault.

The erasure and revision of Medusa’s true story serves as a reminder that in every time period and every evolution of society, women have been blamed and faulted for their experiences with sexual assaults and rapes.

Now, Medusa serves as a symbol for survivors of rape and sexual abuse, empowering women to not let the actions of their abusers define them. 

Pandora, the First Woman

Pandora was the first human woman, created by Hephaestus, the god of craftsmanship. Hephaestus created Pandora at the instruction of his father, Zeus. Pandora’s purpose was to be wed to the titan Prometheus’ younger brother, Epimetheus.

On their wedding day, Pandora was given a jar from Zeus, which was filled with evils — although she was unaware of the box’s contents.

Pandora was warned not to open the jar, but curiosity eventually got the best of her and she opened the jar, releasing a plethora of evils into the world, the likes of which no one had seen before.

For the rest of time, Pandora has been ridiculed as the woman who disobeyed her orders, resulting in a world full of violence, hatred, disease, madness and death.

This story is sometimes referred to as the origin of Greek misogyny. 

The sole purpose behind Pandora’s creation was to marry Epimetheus to eventually serve as punishment to his brother Prometheus, who stole fire from the heavens and gave it to man.

Zeus “gifted” the box to Pandora, knowing she would open it and release the evils, because as we all know — when you’re told not to do something, it only makes you want to do it more.

By opening the jar and releasing the evils, she punished man for harnessing the fire that Prometheus gave them. While the “kill two birds with one stone” idea worked for Zeus, it left Pandora in the crossfire to be despised by humankind for centuries to follow.

If only the gods had carried out their plan without turning Pandora into a pariah. 

Circe, the Sorceress

Circe, the goddess of magic and the daughter of the titan Helios, is well known for her role in “The Odyssey”. 

In “The Odyssey”, Circe lures Odysseus — the King of Ithaca — and his men onto her island where she turns all of his men into pigs. Odysseus convinced Circe to revert his crew back into humans, and in return stayed on her island for a year and had children with her.

There are several variants to Circe’s story, but the most common is that she was banished to her island, Aeaea, for her ability and practice of witchcraft.

Living a life of solitude, Circe lured men to her island in hopes of seducing them into staying with her, to end her loneliness. 

When the men would come ashore, she would welcome them with food and drink, but only when the men took advantage of her hospitality — and of Circe herself — would she turn the men into swine.

To the men in the stories, she likely seemed malicious and wicked, but her side of the story explained in Madeline Miller’s “Circe” offers an entirely new perspective — what happens when you take advantage of and underestimate a powerful woman.

“Circe” by Madeline Miller is an excellent read for those looking for a deeper look into Circe’s story.

Hera, the Goddess of Marriage

Hera, the goddess of marriage and the wife of Zeus, has a notorious reputation for cruelty towards women, specifically those her husband cheated on her with.

Throughout Greek mythology, Zeus fathers a plethora of gods and demigods with women who are not Hera, including twins Artemis and Apollo, Hercules and Perseus.

Hera punished the women her husband had affairs with in extreme ways. She cursed Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis, by forbidding her to give birth anywhere on the Earth or any place under the sun.

Zeus had to recruit the help of Boreas, the god of the north wind, to take her to Poseidon, god of the sea. From there, Poseidon used the sea to block a small island from the sun, where Leto gave birth to her twins.

Throughout mythology, Hera has been faulted for her unfailing commitment to a husband who was anything but loyal to her. 

Hera has been framed as jealous and cruel for going after the women Zeus slept with and the children that were a result of his infidelity. In one myth, Hera sent poisonous snakes into Hercules’ cradle when he was a baby.

It’s true Hera took extreme measures to punish others for her husband’s actions, but everyone is quick to blame Hera, and not quick enough to blame Zeus.

Hera was burdened with a disloyal husband, and took to the extreme nearly every time out of sorrow, rage and jealousy. But can you really blame her? Being cheated on for all of eternity by the man you love, just to listen to everyone call you crazy yet praise your adulterous husband?

It truly is enough to drive anyone — especially the goddess of marriage, family and women — mad.

Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s Wife

Agamemnon was the King of Mycenae who led the Acheans during the Trojan War. During his time in the war, things started to go south when the wind stopped and they could no longer sail.

A priest tells Agamemnon that if he sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis, the goddess will allow the winds to return so they can set sail once more.

Desperate to continue their voyage to Troy for the war, Agamemnon persuaded his wife, Clytemnestra, to send Iphigenia to him, lying and telling her that he would marry her to Achilles, a demigod hero. 

When Iphigenia arrived, she was sacrificed by her father. As the priest stated, the winds returned and they set sail for Troy.

When Agamemnon returned home to Clytemnestra, she had plotted with his cousin — her new lover — and the pair brutally murdered the King.

Clytemnestra has since been portrayed as a vengeful, adulterous murder who killed her husband in cold blood.

But to truly understand Clytemnestra’s motives, we must go back even further to when the pair were first wed. 

Agamemnon was not Clytemnestra’s first husband. In fact, he murdered Clytemnestra’s first husband, then proceeded to rape her and force her hand in marriage. Not the best way to start a marriage. 

It’s fair to assume that Agamemnon lying and murdering their daughter, Iphigenia, was the final straw for Clytemnestra and she likely saw murder as the only way out of her union with Agamemnon, who was famously unfaithful to his wife during the 10-year war against Troy.

The stories of these “difficult” women in mythology have been twisted and turned to paint them malicious villains, when in reality, they are survivors and victims of circumstance. 

Read more from our Forgotten Feminists column here.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Dry

    Great article!!!!

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