The Life of Aphrodite and Athenian Women


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         Every culture expresses its history through literary myths.  In America we have the story of Pocahontas and John Smith.  Italians have the goddess Venus, a symbol of Italy’s romantic culture.  Greek culture has many representatives for its history, one of which is Aphrodite.  Aphrodite, to some extent, can be seen as representing the Greek woman and her roles as woman, wife, and mother in classical Athens.  The following essay will describe some of the roles of a Greek woman and will then compare the roles to those of Aphrodite.

        According to Sarah Pomeroy in Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, a woman’s primary goals in Athens were to marry and then to have children.  Aphrodite’s role as fertility goddess was a great influence and a model for the Greek woman to follow.  Aphrodite, known as the goddess of love, brought individuals together to marry and have children.  If a young woman died before she had the opportunity to marry and have children, her death would be lamented.  Her death was a sadness not because of her loss of life but because of the inability for that woman to complete and reach her goals in life, to be a wife and a mother.

    Before marriage a woman was under the guardianship of her father.  A father would not raise a daughter unless he would be able to furnish a proper dowry for that daughter.  A father would hardly ever raise more daughters than he could provide dowries for.  If he had daughters that he could not provide dowries for, they would most likely be exposed.  Although the dowry was for the woman’s maintenance, she never had control over it.  Her father would have initial control of the dowry.  Once the young woman married, the dowry was then controlled by the husband.  If her husband died, the dowry would be guarded by her eldest son, if she had one.  In the cases where the woman had no son, the dowry and young woman would go back to her father, or if he was deceased, to his heir.  A woman had no control over whom she married nor did she control her dowry, which traveled from one man to another throughout her life.

    In classical Greece, a woman had no say about whom she would marry.  The father of the bride set up the “engue,” or the promising of the bride.  He decided whom she would marry and when, much like Zeus did to Aphrodite when he had her marry Hephaestus the god and the forge of fire.  Part of the wedding ceremony consisted of the “unveiling” which, according to Cynthia Patterson, symbolically meant the indication of mutual consent to marriage.  It, however, was just a procedure, because most women had no say in the actual decision-making as to who their husband would be nor about the details of the wedding ceremony.

    Once the young woman married, her next goal to accomplish was to become a mother.  She was to have (most preferably) male children, not only to carry her husbands’ bloodline but also to inherit the family fortunes.  Married women were also seen as the source of future warriors.  Women were to give birth to male children and raise them to become future warriors, as when Aphrodite gave birth to Aeneus , who after being raised by nymphs and later by his father, became a warrior.

    During times of war when many men died and the population began decreasing, married woman were told to bear more children.  The government went so far as to change the law of citizenship.  For a child to be born a citizen, only his father needed to be a citizen.  At a time when population was high, both parents needed to be citizens, not his mother.  The importance of citizenship was seen with Aeneus as well.  He was not a god because only his mother was a god, but he was a citizen because his father was a citizen.  So the mother’s citizenship was disregarded because the citizenship of the father was all that mattered for the child to also be a citizen.

    A woman’s work role was determined by her husband’s and family economic role.  A woman’s duty centered on the home.  Poor women would have to do their own housework as well as work in wealthier women’s homes as washerwomen, or woolworkers, or possibly in clothing industries.  A wealthier woman’s role was much more managerial.  Instead of doing all the domestic work themselves, they would hire the poorer women to do the jobs.  Most of the time a woman would go to the market.  Their transactions were limited because it was believed especially of poorer women that financial transactions were to complex for them.  However, as seen in “The Meaning of Aphrodite” if a wealthier woman mastered economics, Socrates would have believed her to have displayed a “masculine mind.”

    Athenian men had the ability to participate in government, in public office and as voters, jurors and soldiers.  Boys studied, as stated by Pomeroy, the “art of rhetoric” which trained them to give persuasive speeches at public meetings.  They were educated mentally as well as physically.  The characteristics, however, desired in a girl were quite different.  As seen in Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity , girls were expected to be silent, submissive and basically renounce all of men’s pleasures.  Since girls weren’t going to have government positions or public careers, they were taught the domestic arts by their mothers.  Because of the more intense and longer education for boys and the lack thereof for girls, there is a great difference in age between husbands and wives.  While boys were being trained mentally and physically for their public careers, girls were being prepared for marriage.

    In classical Greece, most young women married at approximately fourteen years of age while the men marrying these girls were approximately thirty years of age. The average length of a Greek man’s life was approximately 45 years where a woman’s life lasted an average of 36.3 years as cited by Sarah Pomeroy.  The average married couple had a child approximately every four years, so by the time the woman died, she would have had an average of five to six children.  According to Athenian law, a husband had to have sex with his wife at least three times a month for the main purpose of producing a heir and to keep the population high and stable.  By law, however, there were sexual things that were not permitted.

    In adultery, men were seen as being the active party, while women were seen as the passive party.  When Aphrodite had the affair with Anchises, he was extremely afraid for his life when he found out she was a goddess, even though she was the seducer.  Men were always seen as the initiator in sex.  Adultery could come about one of two ways, either through rape or seduction.  The woman found guilty of adultery even in cases of rape was to be divorced by her husband.  The penalty for rape was less than for seduction.  Seduction was considered a far worse crime because it entailed relations that had lasted for a longer period of time and the seducer throughout that time had access to the husband’s assets.  For this reason the husband was allowed to kill the seducer if he so wished.  On the other hand a rapist was not seen as a threat to the husband and was just charged with a monetary fine.

    Men were allowed, however, to have sex with prostitutes or female slaves because they were not married and could not marry.  However, any children born to these women were not considered legitimate and were not heirs to their father’s assets.  Prostitutes, however, unlike married woman, had control over their own money.  As mentioned by Paul Friedrich Aphrodite was impersonated by members of the world’s oldest profession because of her lustfulness.

    Although Aphrodite was not an exact representation of Greek women, there were certain similarities.  The goddess of love wanted individuals to get together and have children.  She was made by her father to marry a man that she didn’t love.  She had a child that became a warrior, and her child was a citizen like his father.  The main difference between Aphrodite and the Greek women were that she was not silent, she was not submissive and she did not abstain from all pleasures.