In the Iliad’s expression of epic characteristics, does the text undermine or reinforce patriarchal ideologies in the oppression of female characters?

In the epic poem, the Iliad, patriarchal Greek society promoted traditional gender roles. Patriarchy is defined by cultures which promote gender roles in order to privilege men (Tyson 2015: 81). In traditional gender roles, men are usually cast as being strong, rational, decisive and protective; whereas women are viewed as being weak, irrational, emotional, submissive, and nurturing (Tyson 2015: 81). In order to understand the extent to which this is true in the Iliad, the epic characteristic, epithet, will be analysed. In particular, this essay will focus on the epithets attached to the female characters, Briseis and Helen, whilst simultaneously shining a feminist light on the text. The analysis will be carried out in order to ascertain whether the Iliad’s expression of epic characteristics undermine or reinforce patriarchal ideologies in the oppression of female characters. In order to analyse epithets, first it is important to understand their function.

Epithets are an epic characteristic of the Iliad. They are sometimes characterised as noun-modifiers. The epithet ‘lovely’ often precedes Helen, and the epithet ‘girl’ often precedes Briseis. Epithet was produced by the Greek word epitheton which means added or attributed (Bokenovna et al 2015: 584). It is used to conjure up imagery which is particular to subject, characteristics and phenomena (Bokenovna et al 2015: 584). This type of epic characteristic comes from the oral tradition which was recited or sung in dactylic hexameter (Gibson 2019: 91). Epithets were chosen and fashioned to fit the old formulaic dactylic hexameter, which suggests that Homeric epithets may come from Mycenaean times (Bowra 1960: 21).

Epithet is particularly important in the oral tradition. Without epithets, it would be difficult to emphasise or define a specific meaning (Bokenovna et al 2015: 584). The use of epithet also prompts focalisation shifts throughout the poem (Greene 2005: 343). Epithets ‘must be ‘understood above all as a functional element of the epics, equipment for archaic song building’ (Gibson 2019: 94). In the oral tradition, bards used pleasant words such as ‘lovely’ or ‘fair’ in order to embellish a person or object they appreciated (Bokenovna et al 2015: 584). Repetition of epithets are a common feature of the poem (Bokenovna et al 2015: 587). However, repetition aids in the reinforcement of patriarchal ideologies which serve to oppress women.

It is clear that women are objects of value in the Iliad, made desirable in exchange as prizes or property (Easterling 2010: 146). They are viewed as being no different from oxen, bronze or cooking utensils (Shapiro 1985: 63). Achilles complains about Agamemnon ‘robbing him of his prize (Briseis) and keeping ‘it’ to himself’ (Homer 2020: 16). Briseis is referred to without the use of her name or a suitable pronoun. However, though women are referred to in this way, the quality of figure, beauty, intelligence, and accomplishment are important to the males (Easterling 2010: 146). 

In the Iliad, Briseis is referred to by using the epithet ‘fair Briseis’ (Homer 2020: 211). The use of this epithet indicates she is pretty. Further to this, using epithet again, she is described as ‘Briseis, fair as Venus’ (Homer 2020: 166). This type of patriarchal stereotyping labels women good girls: angelic, gentle and submissive or bad girls: worldly, aggressive, and monstrous (Tyson 2015: 85). Patriarchy defines which women are in the bad or good category because these roles are a projection of male desires. One example is the desire to own ‘valuable women suited to be wives and mothers’ (Tyson 2015). Therefore, women, such as Briseis, who have a good epithet preceding their names, are valuable and deemed as excellent prizes. In the Iliad, the word ‘prize’ is an epithet. Briseis is referred to as ‘prize Briseis’ (Homer 2020: 7). 

In book one, Briseis is first referred to by using the epithet ‘girl Briseis’ (Homer 2020: 9). This epithet is used a further three times, emphasising that Briseis is young, likely still a child. Though she is the focus of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, she is given no voice until book nineteen, when she laments the dead Patroclus. Briseis refers to him as ‘Patroclus, dearest friend’ (Homer 2020: 166). She goes on to say that he was ‘always kind’ to her and that she will ‘never cease to grieve for’ him (Homer 2020: 166). It’s interesting that she is so upset about a man who was party to her kidnap and the murder of her husband and family. This indicates that Briseis is a patriarchal woman. A patriarchal woman ‘has internalised the norms and values of patriarchy’ (Tyson 2015: 81). Therefore, through the use of the epic characteristic, epithet, patriarchal ideologies have been reinforced in the Iliad.

Initially, the use of the epic characteristic, epitaph, when referring to Helen appears to fit with traditional gender roles. Like other women, Helen is restricted because of her gender (Roisman 2006: 4). Helen is often referred to as ‘lovely Helen’ (Homer 2020: 24). This epithet first appears in book three and repeats thereafter in books seven, eight, eleven, and thirteen. Another epithet, attached to Helen, first appears in book three, when she is referred to as ‘Helen and all her wealth’ (Homer 2020: 25). This epithet is repeated a further four times in book three. The epithet likely refers to her wealth as the sought-after prize, which will end the Trojan war. However, the epithet may also refer to her beauty, charm and wisdom. With the use of the epithet ‘lovely Helen’ (Homer 2020: 60), Helen has been labelled by patriarchal stereotyping as a woman who is good: angelic, gentle and submissive (Tyson 2015: 85). However, in the true eyes of patriarchy, Helen is not good. She is one of the stereotypical bad women. These women are deemed to be worldly, monstrous, violent and aggressive (Tyson 2015: 85). The Iliad undermines patriarchal belief in Helen’s weakness through its portrayal of her strength. She is defiant of patriarchal norms and has avoided punishment for doing so by manipulating the very men, who think they have patriarchal power over her, with manipulation and seductive charms (Tsakitopoulou-Summers 2013: 37). 

Though the Greeks should be angry at Helen, instead her beauty pacifies them and they comment that she is ‘marvellously and divinely lovely’ (Homer 2020: 26). Helen’s charms extend to Priam and though he knows that giving her back will end the war, he tells her ‘it is the Gods to blame, not you’ (Homer 2020: 26). There are similar scenes throughout. These support the idea Helen is manipulating patriarchal men as a self-preservation mechanism (Tsakitopoulou-Summers 2013: 39). Hector is charmed by her too, and though he also knows the war could be ended by giving her back, he doesn’t. When he dies, she laments over his ‘kindness and goodwill’ towards her (Homer 2020: 212). However, she appears to mourn her own loss, an ally, rather than his loss of life. Helen’s manipulation techniques outwit her male counterparts, though they believe her to be ‘lovely’ and adhering to patriarchal rules. Interestingly, patriarchy defines women as being ‘innately inferior to men’ (Tyson 2015: 81). However, Helen displays superiority by ‘playing’ the patriarchal system, while hiding behind the epithet ‘lovely Helen’ (Homer 2020: 24). Helen is an anomaly because she continuously undermines patriarchal ideology. 

In the Iliad, the epic characteristic, epithet, appears to be multifunctional in use. The epithet reveals information about characters, such as the ‘girl Briseis’ (Homer 2020: 9), or ‘fair Briseis’ (Homer 2020: 211), which indicates Briseis is young and pretty. Beautiful women who adhered to patriarchal rule, were labelled with good epithets. It is evident that Brises conformed to this standard when she mourned for Patroclus, who was party to her kidnap. Briseis’ situation would indicate that through the use of the epic characteristic, epitaph, the text reinforces patriarchal ideology.

Like Briseis, Helen is described with good epithets, such as ‘lovely Helen’ (Homer 2020: 24). However, Helen appears to see that patriarchal ideology oppresses women. Therefore, she manipulates patriarchal males for her own gain. Furthermore, through expression of the epic characteristic, epithet, the Iliad undermines patriarchal ideology. Therefore, since the Iliad simultaneously reinforces and undermines patriarchal ideology, the text is ideologically conflicted.


Bokenovna, A. N. Kabdukalimovna, Z. M. Manatovna, A. B. Manatovna, M. A. Manatovna, M. B. Sekenovna, K. Z. Shahmanovna, M. G. Zharilgasinovna, B. K. (2015) ‘Role of Epithet in Heroic Epic.’ Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 6 (1), 584-587

Bowra, C. M. (1960) ‘Homeric Epithets for Troy.’ The Journal of Hellenic Studies 80, 16-23

Easterling, P. E. (2010) ‘Men’s κλέος and Women’s γόος: Female Voices in the Iliad.’ Johns Hopkins University Press 9 (2), 145-151

Gibson, R. H. (2019) ‘Does Hector’s Helmet Flash? The Fate of the Fixed Epithet in the Modern English Homer.’ Oral Tradition 33 (1), 91-94

Greene, E.S. (2005) ‘Revising Illegitimacy: The Use of Epithets in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes’. The Classical Quarterly 55 (2), 343-349

Homer. (2020) The Iliad. trans by. Butler, S. United Kingdom: Amazon

Roisman, H. M. (2006) ‘Helen in the “Iliad” “Causa Belli” and Victim of War: From Silent Weaver to Public Speaker.’ The American Journal of Philology 127 (1), 4-5

Shapiro, S.C. (1985) ‘A Feminist Approach to Classical Literature.’ CEA Critic 48 (2), 63

Tsakitopoulou-Summers, T. (2013) ‘Helen of Troy: At the Crossroads Between Ancient Patriarchy and Modern Feminism.’. Interdisciplinary Humanities 30 (2), 37-56

Tyson, L. (2015) Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide. Oxon: Routledge

Published by Amanda

Writer & Poet

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