'The Handmaid's Tale': the real housewives of Athens?
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
When you think of women in Ancient Greece, four main categories will probably occur to you:
1.Sexy, seductive goddesses
2.Used, abused or unstable women in myth
3.Spartan women, who seemed to have an ok time
In the case of the last, we rarely think about the actual women represented by the vaguely bored looking figures we see on vases, who were individuals, just like us. Since all Athenian literature was written by and for men, no voice reaches down to us from the ancient past to give a first-hand account of how women felt about their repressed and oppressed lives in classical Athens.
Surprisingly, a look into Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ may give us an idea.
This dystopian novel depicts a near future in which the US government is overthrown by the extremist political group ‘The Sons of Jacob.’ Told from the perspective of Offred, she describes her slave-like existence in a patriarchy on steroids, 'Gilead', where she is confined and forced to give up her former life of freedom to become a handmaid. Her sole function is to provide children to the high-ranking men (Commanders) of the new society, in a time when most of the population are infertile.
The most disturbing aspect of this concept is that, in Atwood’s own words, there is nothing in the book that ‘hasn’t happened somewhere’. However, on a second (lockdown induced) reading, it struck me just how similar the lives of the handmaids are to those of classical Athenian women, beyond any other female sector of any society, in the following ways.
What's love got to do with it?
“We keep prostitutes for pleasure, female slaves for our daily care and wives to give us legitimate children and to be the guardians of our households.” (Demosthenes). Though this was said by an Athenian statesman in the 4th century BC, it actually rattles off all bar one, of the limited roles women fulfil in 'The Handmaid’s Tale' (THT):
Jezebels: prostitutes whom the commanders illegally visit to vent their sexual frustration under the new, repressive regime
Marthas: servants who perform all domestic tasks
Handmaids: conceive children
Wives: married to the commanders or men of lower rank, overseers of the household.
The novel makes clear that Offred’s value rests entirely on her fertility. She is assigned by the state to one of the commanders, and then moved around depending on where else there is demand for a child. Sex is forced on her, clinical and ritualistic. If she refuses to comply or fails to get pregnant, she will be sent to work in the 'colonies', and face eventual death from exposure to pollution.
Although in this case the Athenian woman has it a little better than the handmaid, being at least married to the man she had sex with, she still had little to no choice in the matter. At the ripe old age of 12 or 13, she was married off by her father to a much older man (30+) of his choice: normally whoever would cause him the least financial strain. From then on, her role was to produce children, preferably boys, and otherwise to be a good housekeeper. If a woman proved to be infertile, her husband was perfectly justified to divorce her for a new wife, and she faced a redundant life of spinsterhood.
2.‘Under his eye’
The claustrophobic atmosphere of THT is created by the sense that Offred is being monitored from all directions. ‘Under his eye’ is the formal farewell handmaids use with one another. Superficially referring to God’s omniscience, it thinly veils the reminder that everyone, including the secret police (‘the Eyes’), is always watching for the slightest glimmer of rebellion.
Offred also recounts the process that led to the government take-over, and so to women losing their rights and freedom completely. They are forbidden to work, and their bank accounts are transferred to the control of their nearest male relative. This culminates in the creation of a hierarchy of women based on fertility and obedience, and to mark their powerlessness, handmaids are stripped of their names. In fact, we never learn Offred’s real name, simply that she is the property of Commander Fred.
From the moment an Athenian woman was born, her life was in the hands of a man. First, she was the property of her father, then the property of her husband, and then she died. In the meanwhile, she was never financially independent, nor could she work. It was even common for a girl to be married to her uncle, in order to keep property within the family. The legal term for a wife, ‘damar’, comes from a verb literally meaning to overpower or tame.
3. Stay at home!
To prevent adultery, the handmaids must stay inside their rooms; very occasionally let out
to shop for food, oversee a birth, or else to take part in the state enforced execution of traitors.
Meanwhile in real life, the whole world just freaked out about the mandatory three-month lockdown due to an actual global pandemic. Now imagine that, but for the remainder of your life...and for no real reason. Like handmaids, Athenian women were allowed out only for essentials, which to Athenian men constituted roughly the following:
Helping to deliver a baby
Crying at funerals
Taking part in state-sanctioned religious ceremonies
Other than that, a woman’s life was literally, and constantly sheltered. Female quarters were shoved at the back or top of the house, just to make extra sure that no contact with a visiting man was made.
Yeh, it was a fun time to be a woman.
4. Misters before sisters?
One of the most sinister aspects of THT is that it’s not a black and white case of men vs women. ‘The Aunts’ are women too old to get pregnant, who are bribed with significant power to train younger women into their new handmaid role, indoctrinating them aggressively to comply with the regime.
And just like the bible’s death grip influence on our own society up until the mid 20th century, Greek men justified their oppression of women, in part, with a mythological timeline that showed how an enforced patriarchy among even the gods evolved.
There was a time when female goddesses weren't tied down by marriage, and could essentially do whatever and go wherever they wanted. That is until Hades, god of the Underworld, shamelessly lusting after his own niece, Persephone, strikes a deal with Zeus, her father, to marry her. Her mother isn’t consulted- naturally.
The forced marriage that results is the beginning of the end for women and freedom.
However, none of this would have been possible without the help of a woman; Gaia, goddess of the earth, who takes advantage of Persephone's childish curiosity by creating a particularly beautiful flower to lure her over. When she plucks it, the gates of the Underworld open, Hades kidnaps her, and long story short, she must spend half the year down there by her husband's side.
5.‘To the woman [God] said: “I will sharply increase your pain in childbirth; in pain you will bring forth children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ Genesis 3.16.
The patriarchy of THT justifies itself through its rigid obsession with the bible. Unfortunately for women, the bible takes the mistake of one woman and blames it on all the women not yet born.
The story goes: Eve, first woman, tempts Adam, first man, to eat the forbidden fruit- they both indulge. God gets angry and banishes them from Paradise.
God also decides that severe pain in childbirth and female oppression ever-after are fair punishment for Eve’s transgression. Slight over-reaction in my opinion.
But this isn’t exactly an original idea.
The Greeks blame the origin of all evils on, guess who, women!
One of the oldest Greek writers, Hesiod, describes the gods’ creation of the first woman,
Pandora. Literally, her name means ‘the girl with all the gifts’, yet they make her dangerously beautiful and bitchy, and then pack her off to earth with a jar (box) that she is strictly forbidden to open.
Spoiler alert: she does. All the evils we know today are unleashed into the world, thus ending the nice little guy’s only golden age mortals were having up to that point, i.e. typical woman.
All the later male writers in Greece seemed to take this idea and run with it, causing a hilarious, universal paranoia that women, unless subordinated, would show their deceptive and weak true character.
A few gems include:
‘The relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled.’ (Aristotle, Politics)
‘Do not let a flattering woman coax and wheedle you and deceive you; she is after your barn.’ *now I ain’t saying she’s a gold digger* (Hesiod, Works and Days)
‘There are two days when a woman is a pleasure: the day one marries her and the day one carries out her dead body.’ (Hipponax)
‘A man who teaches a woman to write should know that he is feeding more poison to the asp.’ (Menander, fragments)
6.‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’
In THT, Offred is reminded not to let the new regime break her spirit, when she sees this phrase graffitied in her room by a handmaid who came before her. And though she never outwardly rebels, she finds comparative happiness through a secret, forbidden relationship.
My question is: were there any Athenian women who, like Offred, called bullshit on the whole system? There is evidence for this.
In a surviving Athenian law case, Lysias, On the Murder of Eratosthenes, we find a man justifying his murder of this guy Eratosthenes for having an affair with his wife. He reveals the various, creative ways his wife tricked him in order to carry out the affair. The standout is when she accuses him of having sex with their slave girl and locks him in the bedroom in a fit of fake anger, all so she can see her lover in peace.
‘Things went on in this way for a long time, and I never suspected, but was simple-minded enough to suppose that my own was the purest wife in the city’
Not that I'm endorsing adultery, but the fact one woman wasn't afraid of the potential consequences of stepping beyond the designated role of mother and housekeeper, gives hope that other women too didn't just roll over and bear the boredom.
Admittedly though, it is possible that this whole presentation of a clueless and honestly, stupid husband is an act: a tactic of scape-goating his wife to conceal some other reason for killing Eratosthenes.
Nevertheless, women as a whole seemed to find temporary freedom from their confinement, in the form of the two-day festival of Adonis each year. All women took part regardless of their status, no men were allowed, and it wasn’t government approved. It was one of the few times women could socialise together freely.
They would celebrate the mythical union of Aphrodite, the controversial goddess of love, and the youth Adonis. I like to think they were celebrating the fantasy they could never have - with Aphrodite actually fancying him, and Adonis not approaching middle age any time soon.
The ritual also consisted of women venting all their normally repressed emotions by passionately mourning the death of Adonis (as happens in the myth), and then celebrating and feasting at the limit of their usual spatial boundaries; on the roof-tops of their houses.
So, though women were basically told neither to be seen, nor heard for their whole lives, they seemed to forget to care for the festival’s duration, despite clear male annoyance:
'Naturally the rites proved a lot of fun, and being there with them-
oh dear!-I turned spectator, for the noise
they made kept me awake. They carried plants
up to the roof, they danced and had an all
night party-spread all through the house! I’m
scared to say what happened next...' Menander, the Samia 41-7
'...While a woman, throwing herself about in a dance
Lopsided with drink, was shrilling out “Adonis,
Woe for Adonis.” ...
And there the woman, up to the ears in wine,
Was screaming “Weep for Adonis' on the house-top’ Aristophanes, Lysistrata 437-49
Even if this freedom was short, at least it was sweet.