In ancient texts, women have pivotal roles as representatives of power. In texts such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and Iphigeneia at Aulis, women are portrayed as guides and powerful deities that have the ability to sway situations in their favor. Supernatural and precognitive guidance plays a huge role in texts, especially when provided by those who have predestined courses. From familial to sacrificial power, the women from these texts are crucial to the development of the main character by providing him with the means to progress and continue his journey.
In gender normative texts, women and power are synonymous as it is the actions of women that drive the male-centered plot forward.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, as the oldest known western text, has female characters that defy social roles in ancient Sumerian society. These women are proud and strong and provide foils to the weak women that Gilgamesh dominates at the beginning of the text. Women such as Ishtar, Shamhat, and Aruru are representative of ultimate power, with the ability to guide the lost and be the deciding factor in life or death.
The Goddess Aruru is a perfect example of this dynamic as she creates Enkidu as a foil for Gilgamesh, “[Aruru] moistened her hands, she pinched off some clay, she threw it in the wilderness, kneaded it, shaped it to her idea, and fashioned a man, a warrior, a hero: Enkidu the brave,” the hero she created is made solely to change the course of Gilgamesh’s ways and bring balance to Uruk (Mitchell 73).
Aruru creates Enkidu to change the course of the narrative, to become the tipping point. Her creation was wild, unable to see that he was living among animals instead of man, likening himself to a beast. Upon his arrival on this earth, the high priestess Shamhat is called upon to take up the mantle of Enkidu’s wellbeing.
Shamhat, because of her station, becomes a confidant to both Gilgamesh and Enkidu to help them progress towards a better Uruk. She is credited with the taming of Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s best friend, and confidant. As a mortal, she uses her feminine power to provide Enkidu with the guidance to become a civilized man and continues to provide him with the necessary guidance to continue his personal journey. While this is not any supernatural feat or power, Shamhat’s power lies in her wisdom and ability to provide Enkidu, and sometimes Gilgamesh, with insight and guidance during their lives.
Her insight allows her to give Enkidu all of the information that he needs to try to become an equal to Gilgamesh, to become the “true companion” that Gilgamesh saw in his dreams. She never strayed from her duty to her city or to her lover, and until his dying breath stood by his side. The same cannot be said about the Goddess Ishtar who caused destruction wherever she went.
Where there are virtuous, kind women there are also evil and covetous, the most prevalent example in The Epic of Gilgamesh is Ishtar, who offers Gilgamesh, Abundance beyond [his] dreams: [precious stones], gorgeous servants a chariot… with golden wheels … pulled by storm-demons. When you enter my temple… high priests will bow down and kiss your feet, kings and princes will kneel before you… ….. And I will bless everything that you own. (Book VI)
For his hand in marriage, a small price to pay for all of the riches that the earth can offer. She offers him everything that she believes men would want, this is due to her nature of being sought after and being coveted by many men as their own. She believes that these are all the thing men would want, and only exchanges them for love. Her track record precedes her as she is known to be very dangerous and drop men constantly, despite being able to choose whoever she wants. However, upon being rejected, she decides to wreak havoc on the city of Uruk by eliciting the help of her father to give her the Bull of Heaven, which when killed, she curses Gilgamesh and Enkidu, effectively using her power to take back the life that the Gods created to restore balance.
Due to the fact that she is the goddess of love and sex, Ishtar is accustomed to being sought after and being the ideal woman, when Gilgamesh challenges that notion, she responds in a childish manner, unable to cope with the implications. It is because of Ishtar’s insistence that Gilgamesh pays, for his refusal and the slaying of the bull, with the life of Enkidu as collateral damage. The power of these women cements certain plot points and creates situations where the hero, in this case Gilgamesh, must choose between right and wrong. The idea of right or wrong continues throughout The Odyssey, with Odysseus being challenged with what is proper and what is right.
The Odyssey has a different approach to the matter, with Penelope and Athena as foils, both women are powerful, one for her beauty and commitment, the other for her wisdom and the actions. As both women are working toward Odysseus’s return from Troy, Athena as a goddess is an active participant, while Penelope stays committed to her husband for almost twenty years, despite there not being much of a likelihood that Odysseus will ever return.
The symbol of her commitment, the olive tree which stands in the same place as before, which cannot be moved, symbolizing Penelope’s love for Odysseus that calls him home, “So you see I know all about [the olive tree marriage bed], and I desire to learn whether it is still there, or whether any one has been removing it by cutting down the tree at its roots” this is also a symbol of her fidelity to him as it has not moved since he left, 20 years before (Book XXIII). Her fidelity, despite all the temptation of the suitors, is her most redeeming quality, even more so than her beauty or charm. This is in opposition to Athena who regularly takes the guise of a man to conduct business.
Athena (Minerva), on the other hand, has a more active role in Odysseus’ return usually by providing him with guidance in order to pass many of his worst trials, “Minerva shed a thick mist all around him to hide him in case any of the … Phaeacians who met him should be rude to him or ask him who he was…. She came towards him in the likeness of a little girl,” where she provides pivotal information to help skew his path towards Ithaca by sheltering him while he traveled to meet King Alcinous (Book VII). Her guidance provides Odysseus and Telemachos with everything he needed to return home, despite being led astray so many times by others. She helps Telemachus begin his journey, with ample evidence in his favor.
When Telemachos prays to Athena he asks for the guidance that would thus allow him to search for his father. Minerva takes up “the likeness and with the voice of Mentor” and bestows on Telemachos advice, If you are made of the same stuff as your father you will be neither fool nor coward henceforward, for [Odysseus] never broke his word nor left his work half done. If then, you take after him, your voyage will not be fruitless… I look with hope upon your undertaking. But mind you never make common cause with any of these foolish suitors for they have neither sense nor virtue, and give no thought to death and to the doom that will shortly fall on … all of them … they shall perish…. Your voyage shall not be long delayed. I will find you a ship, and will come with you myself. (Homer Book II)
Without Athena’s power and magic, Odysseus and Telemachos would never have been able to return home and defeat the suitors. Athena effectively is Odysseus’ sidekick providing him with backup, like when she helped him prepare for killing the suitors, in order for Odysseus to truly return home to his wife. One downside to the effect of Athena is the fact that she feels the need to change her appearance to that of a man’s when she tries to sway the public or keep herself hidden well. The shift in image is prevalent in Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali where Sogolon Djata deals with how Sundiata’s image is portrayed.
In Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, Sogolon, Sundjata’s mother demonstrates how a woman with no supernatural power can be influential, and use her familial power to provide a means for her son’s rise to fame and kingship. Sogolon’s story, a prophecy where she is the main catalyst for the birth of Sundiata (Sundjata), because of her true nature as a buffalo wraith and later on a wife to the king of Mali. The buffalo woman, whose wraith ended up inhabiting Sogolon, gives her life for the birth of Sundjata manifesting the prophecy.
Sogolon’s love for her son is a form of power, as she suffered for her son to have his rightful duty to serve his people, despite debilitating illness. Her power lay in her ability to fulfill the prophecy and protect her son from harm. After all, it was her wish that Sundjata is able to retrieve the baobab leaves from the tree, which kick started his personal growth so that he would become strong and stand tall, the darling of his people, ‘Oh son of misfortune, will you never walk? Through your fault I have suffered the greatest affront of my life’ ‘Very well then, I am going to walk today,’ said Mari Djata. ‘Go and tell my father’s smiths to make me the heaviest possible iron rod. Mother, do you want just the leaves of the baobab or would you rather I brought you the whole tree?’ ‘Ah my son, to wipe out this insult I want the tree and its roots at my feet outside my hut.’ (Niane 19)
Her belief that he would never walk, that he would never be good enough because of his condition forces him to begin his transformation. Sogolon felt hurt and Sundjata, not wanting to bring shame to his mother, tries to right the wrong that was done unto her because her support is what is most important to him. When Sundjata returns to defeat Soumaoro later on, it is as if he is returning with the spirit of his mother to guide him and help him defeat Soumaoro, she provided him with the emotional strength to continue on, to save Mali and protect her spirit.
Sogolon is a wise woman, she provided her son with all of the necessary background and standing to become a great man, and she took her family away when there was danger and continued to protect them until her dying breath. Sogolon’s sacrifices can be compared to those of Iphigeneia in Iphigeneia at Aulis.
In Iphigeneia at Aulis, the theme is the sacrifice of one will benefit many, the death of a thousand women for one man to be free or vice versa reappears several times in the text. Iphigeneia’s death is meant to provide the men of Agamemnon’s army with the means to continue their campaign to Troy to recover Helen. Despite the fact that Agamemnon had her arrive under false pretenses, Iphigeneia takes up her mantle and agrees to suffer for her country. Iphigeneia recognizing that the power to fix the wrong that has been done unto her kinsmen lies in her sacrifice for her country states:
I have determined to die, and this I would fain do gloriously… by dismissing all ignoble thoughts… Greece the greatest of the cities, is now looking upon me, and there rests in me both the passage of ships and the destruction of troy, and, for the women hereafter, if the barbarians do them aught of harm to allow them no longer to carry them off from prosperous Greece … all these things I dying shall redeem… for that I have freed Greece … for thou hast brought me forth for the common good of Greece. (Euripides 40)
Her understanding of the importance of her death to the continuing success of her father’s army directly plays into the theory that while women are powerful, their power only exists to provide their male counterparts with success in their ventures. Highlighted in the quote, “If it means that one man can see the sunlight/what are the lives of thousands of women/in the balance”, the power of women is to provide men with the means to “see the sunlight” and be free from burden, it is their power that they sacrifice to ensure that men are preserved (Euripides 86). This opposes the actual plot of Iphigeneia at Aulis as instead of the death of a thousand women to save one man, one woman sacrifices herself for man. As a sacrificial lamb, or deer in this instance, she is expected to go blindly to her duty for her country, however, there is another way to see her power.
Virginity is said to be a power in itself, as virgins were commonly sacrificed to the Gods, due to their innate purity. However, only feminine virginity is virtuous. To sacrifice herself for her country she had to have been strong to know that the only option to save Helen’s virtue was to die a virgin, never tainted by the ways of the world.
Women in literature are powerful in their own right, contributing to the male main character’s quests and life, they are the guides and families, lovers and supporters of their male character. Either way, women provide the hero with the means to continue their journey, be it to return home to their wife or become immortal. These men owe their success to the women that help them continue their quests and owe their heartbreak to the women who conspire to hinder it. The sacrifice of many women for the benefit of the man provides our hero with the means to continue his quest or abandon it.