Women in the ancient world were a little more than slaves; they were not allowed to be educated or take part in public office at least that’s what many of us had thought. This thinking seems to be at least false or it may have gradually changed. Many of the ancient cultures though male dominated had a few independent and strong women.
In various works and literature of that period we will see strong women.
In the Odyssey though it is a male dominated narrative we can see some strong Greek women emerge during this story such as Athena and Penelope. Penelope as it may be seem at first to be the “perfect” Greek wife loyal, longsuffering and faithful but as the story progresses we see she is more than that “perfect” Greek wife. Penelope is cunning, intelligent and clever woman. Kept in the palace her cunning and intelligence appears in the Odyssey Book 2 she comes up with a plan to keep her suitors at bay by weaving a loom for her father in law Laretes and unknotting the loom she manages to deceive her suitors for three years until she is found out. There her suitors acknowledge her intelligence and cunning at the end of Book 2 “She may relay too long on Athena’s gifts and talents in handicrafts and …..so cunning” Penelope is again able to trick and deceive the suitors by promising to marry one of them who can use Odysseus bow( she had spoken to Odysseus disguise as beggar though we are not sure if she knew it was him but I do believe she partly did) this happens in the Odyssey Book 21.
Penelope though a symbol for the “perfect” Greek wife she is also the symbol of a wife who is allowed certain freedoms.
If Penelope was not the symbol for a strong, independent woman then maybe the goddess Athena is. Though Greece was dominated by males it like many other cultures in the ancient world had a war goddess. Athena is one of the major characters in the story.
She has a significant role in story. It is also good to note that she may be the symbol of the joining of male and female attributes while she is the goddess of war and wisdom she is also the goddess of the crafts such as weaving ( which is suppose to be a woman’s trade). Athena is symbolic of a strong woman in male ruled Greece. In the Odyssey Book 1 though she has to go through her father to help Odysseus it is obvious she is the power that helps him. No other god helps except when asked by Athena or her father Zeus. Athena helps Odysseus through many bad situations example when he was shipwreck in Book 5.
It seems to me that Greece was going through some type of cultural questioning which seems prevalent in Plato’s Republic which was written later. Plato views were rebellious for his time. Though Plato might have stilled viewed women inferior to men it’s obvious in his writings that he believed that a woman should be educated. In chapter 6 of the Republic In Classics of Philosophy page 145 where it is discussed that women should be brought up in a closely similar way as men. From pages 145-146 Plato discusses the right for women to be educated the same way. While Plato may have believed that women were inferior to men he did begin to suggest a gradual change towards how women should to be treated and educated something very radical in the ancient world.
The gradual change in how the ancients viewed women seems more apparent in the Koran where it is said in The Norton Anthology of Western Literature From 4. Women on page1151 “give women their dowry as a free gift”. The Koran which is Islam’s moral guide shows that in contrast to popular belief Muslim women do have some rights this shown on page 1151 “men shall have a share in what their parents and kinsmen leave and women shall have a share in what their parents and kinsmen leave whether it be little or much, they shall be legally entitled to a share”. While women in most ancient cultures were not allowed to inherit the Koran provided inheritance for women on page 1151 it says “ if there are more than two girls they shall have 2/3 thirds of the inheritance but if there is one she shall inherit a half. The Koran still gives men the authority but it has also given women some small and gradual rights.
It is believed that in Judaism and early Christianity women were not allowed certain rights and privileges and did not hold powerful positions but The Torah and the Bible shows differently. In the Torah or should I say the Christian Bible’s Old Testament there were a few women who held significant roles. We first meet a woman of power in the Torah or old testament in the book of Judges Chapters 4 and 5 , there we learn of the first woman of major importance Deborah
Deborah was a prophetess and the fourth judge and only female judge of pre-monarchic Israel, her story is told in chapter 4 and retold in chapter 5. In the narrative General Barak whom Deborah called fourth but prophesied would not achieve the final victory over the Canaanite general Sisera himself the honor went to another woman Jael/Yael the wife of a Hebrew Kenite tentmaker. Jael kills Sisera by driving a tent peg through his head as he slept this is according to Judges 4: 17-21 in the King James Bible.
We now moved to another powerful woman in early Jewish and Christian literature Judith which is only included in the Septuagint and in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian Old Testament of the Bible, but the Jews and the Protestants reject it. According to the Jerusalem Bible and the Wikipedia Encyclopedia
“Judith was a widow who foils the attack of the Assyrian general Holofernes by beheading him. Judith was beautiful, intelligent, daring and a charming widow. Judith was upset with her Jewish countrymen for being unwilling to engage their foreign conquerors. She goes with her loyal if reluctant maid Abra to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes, to whom she slowly ingratiates herself, promising him both sexual favors and information on the Israelites. Gaining his trust (though not having delivered on either promise), she is allowed access to his tent one night as he lies in a drunken stupor. She decapitates him, and then takes his head back to her fearful countrymen. The Assyrians, having lost their leader, disperse, and Israel is saved. Though she is courted by many, she remains unmarried for the rest of her life.”
Another beautiful and powerful woman in Jewish and Christian literature is Esther.
Esther born Hadassah was a Jewish orphan who became queen and saved her people from extinction. According to the King James Bible and the Wikipedia Encyclopedia, “Esther was a woman of deep faith, courage and patriotism, ultimately willing to risk her life for her adoptive father, Mordecai, and the Jewish people.
The story takes place in the palace of Shushan, or Susa, one of the three capitals of the Persian Empire. The story is about Jews in exile in Persia, and of how Esther became the queen of Ahasuerus (Xerxes), subsequently risking her life in order to save her people, the Jews, from total destruction. God’s providential care of His people is magnified throughout, though the word "God" never appears in the book This book can be divided into four parts: 1) (Ch. 1-2) the setting of the scene in the Court of the King; 2) (Ch. 3-7) the development of the plot and its overthrow by Esther and Mordecai, resulting in the hanging of Haman and his sons; 3) (Ch. 8-10) the destruction of the enemies of the Jews and the institution of the Feast of Purim; and 4). It is also worth to note that there are other additions to the story of Esther only found in the Orthodox Bible.
Strong women and powerful women was not only for the old testament times but also there were strong and important women in the new testament such as Anna the Prophetess which According to the King James Bible Luke 2: 31 -38 her story is told. According to the Gospel of Luke in the bible Anna was an aged Jewish woman who prophesized about Jesus at the temple of Jerusalem. Despite contrary belief and despite contradictory scripture in the New Testament women seemed to have an important role in the early Christian church. The apostle Paul seems to have contradictory opinions about women while on one hand he says that a woman should be quiet in church on the other seems to have respected women in power in the church example in the King James Bible Romans 16:1-4 where he acknowledges women like Phoebe who was a deacon, Prisca and Junias. Though Paul seemed to be confused about where he stood with women. The greatest supporter of women was the man himself Jesus Christ. Jesus was radical in his attitude towards women. He taught them and some of them were even his disciples. Martha sat at his feet in the manner of a disciple. It was unheard of a rabbi to teach women at the time. Luke 10:38-42 and John 11:1-44, John 12:1-6.
When he had risen from the dead the person who saw him after the Roman soldiers (who were told by the priests not to say a word about Jesus rising from dead) was Mary Magadengle not Peter, not John , not James but Mary. Mary, Joanna and Susanna accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of their own pockets. Luke 8:1-3. So it seems that though Sects of Christianity do not allow women in the ministry Jesus had no problem with that.
It seems to be in my opinion that though the ancient world was a male ruled society it is fair to assess the possibility of women be freer than we thought. Through the various works of ancient literature that was shown Greek, Jewish, Christian and Islamic, we can see a few, strong , powerful , independent and beautiful women in power who were respected by the males of that time. It seems interesting to find that in the Koran with all its anti – women propaganda gave women certain rights and privileges. In the Odyssey which to some is a male dominated narrative we see the emergence of two strong and powerful women who have a major role in how the story ends. Plato though he may have not thought women equal to men would not have considered equal rights for women if there were not a few Greek women educated. The bible despite all its contradictory scriptures and despite many sects of Christianity and Judaism denying women in the clergy has proven that yes women were active in the early ministry of the church. These literatures suggest that women were respected in power and had privileges that we thought the ancients might not have given them.