“Cherchez La Femme: Blaming the Woman in Cultural Myths and Legends”

Helen_of_Troy painting

Helen of Troy

The myths, legends and creation stories of various cultures, including Greek, Hebrew and British cultures frequently feature the theme cherchez la femme. The stories of these cultures ‘blame the woman’ for the misfortunes of humanity and men. In Greek culture Pandora and Helen of Troy are blamed for the downfalls of mankind. In Hebrew Culture Eve is blamed for bringing evil into the world. In British Legend, Queen Guinevere is blamed for King Arthur’s downfall, causing the first king who unified all of Britain, according to legend, to lose his kingdom. In all of these myths, legends and creation stories women are particularly singled out and blamed for misfortune, rather than men. Ancient cultures blamed the woman in mythology and legends in order to justify the treatment of women within their cultures.

All three cultures: Greek, Hebrew and British focus on blaming the female legendary and mythological figures within their culture for mankind and specific men’s downfalls. Hebrew culture tends to be more negative in its depiction of Eve, and Greek culture tends to be more negative in its depiction of Helen of Troy. Whereas, in Greek culture there are positive aspects of Pandora and also in British culture there are positive aspects of Queen Guinevere. So there are culture differences and similarities between these three cultures. It is also important to note that when these figures are taken out of their original culture and placed within new cultures the perception of these figures and their portrayal also changes.

In Greek mythology, two figures who are blamed for the downfall of mankind are Pandora and Helen of Troy. Pandora’s story was first recorded in Hesiod’s The Theogony of Hesiod and Works and Days. The Theogony of Hesiod is one of the original recorded myths of Pandora’s creation. It is said that Zeus created Pandora as mankind’s price for Prometheus’s theft of fire. It is said that the ‘limping God’ created Pandora of Earth in the likeness of a shy maiden. It is then said that Athena placed a crown of gold upon her head and laced flowers through her hair. The myth explicitly states that Pandora is a ‘beautiful evil.’ It also states that all of womankind is a deadly race and that women are not help-mates in poverty but only in wealth (Hesiod The 8).

In Works and Days, the opening of Pandora’s box or in this case a jar is also described. This piece of literature states, “But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered all these and through her caused sorrow and mischief to men. Only hope remained there in the unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar and did not fly out at the door, for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her,” (Hesiod Works 2). Pandora, a woman, is therefore blamed for bringing evil upon mankind. Her one redemptive quality is that she also brought hope to mankind. However, it is explicitly stated in Hesiod’s The Theogony of Hesiod that Pandora is a ‘beautiful evil.’ Also it is stated that women are a deadly race. These mythological views of women justify the treatment of women in early Greek culture. In early Greek culture women had virtually no political rights and were completely controlled by men. The mythological views of Pandora within this culture justified the treatment of women at the time when these myths originated.

When Pandora is taken out of Greek culture and placed within different cultures the perception of her changes. According to Fulgentius, a Roman complier of myths, Pandora was created by Prometheus as a gift to mankind. This portrayal of Pandora varies greatly from the Greek portrayal of Pandora. Also, “when Henry II entered Paris in 1549, the statue personifying the city on his triumphal arch was described as “The New Pandora clad in Nymph’s clothing” and in contrast with the Old Pandora, released nothing but good from her classically-shaped jar,” (Graves 1).

The portrayal of Helen of Troy as causing the Trojan War, the greatest war of the ancient world, according to mythology, is an example of how a woman who fails to obey the patriarchal structure is portrayed. According to the article “Helen of Troy: At the Crossroads Between Ancient Patriarchy and Modern Feminism,” by Tatiana Tsakitopoulou-Summers, “for patriarchy, women are considered too dangerous to be included within the civilized world until they subject themselves to discipline and accept its rules unconditionally,” (Tsakitopoulou-Summers 41).  Helen of Troy, is used as an example to demonstrate what happens when a woman fails to abide by social structure. While at the same time, many people suffer due to Helen’s great beauty and the events that follow, she uses her great beauty and manipulative actions to remain unscathed and is taken back by Menelaus again.

In the Homeric epics “Helen of Troy is treated as a femme fatale that men should seek to avoid,” (Tsakitopoulou-Summers 37). Helen uses seductive powers and manipulation to influence men’s perceptions of her (Tsakitopoulou-Summers 38). In the Homeric epics, Helen takes great care to prepare herself to look beautiful before the battle between Paris and Menelaus. This act is done so that the men will not attack her if Paris is killed. The Trojans on seeing her great beauty at the watchtower are pacified. The Homeric epics state, “No one can be blamed…for enduring so many woes over a woman like her, for she looks amazingly like the immortal goddesses,” (Tsakitopoulou-Summers 38). This example, indicates that Helen of Troy manipulates men with her great beauty. This kind of power over men is precisely why Helen of Troy was a threat to patriarchal society. In The Illiad when Helen laments over Hector’s dead body she says, “I mourn for you and I mourn for myself and my bad luck, grieving in my heart, for no longer is there anyone in all the wide Troad who is kind or friendly to me; everyone else shrinks at my sight,” (Tsakitopoulou-Summers 39). This statement by Helen of Troy indicates that Helen is aware that she is to blame for the Trojan war and Hector’s death. It is interesting to note that Paris who in some cases forcefully abducted Helen is not to blame for the Trojan War but instead Helen is to blame, most likely because she is a woman.

According to Tsakitopoulou-Summers in “Helen of Troy: At the Crossroads Between Ancient Patriarchy and Modern Feminism,” “The deep desire for punishing Helen is also emblematic of the general yearning not only for returning to a world with a clear divide between good and bad, virtue and vice, but also for punishing those responsible for the dismantling of national mores,” (Tsakitopoulou-Summers 52). Therefore, the desire to punish and blame Helen is due to her deviation from the patriarchal values of Greece. When Helen is removed from Greece a different story is sometimes told. “As Oscar Wilde asserts in his ode to “The New Helen” (1881), “[she has] come down our darkness to illume,” establishing freedom of movement and equality for women,” (Tsakitopoulou-Summers 52).

In ancient Hebrew culture Eve alone is blamed for the fall of mankind and eating the forbidden fruit. According to the article “Blaming Eve Alone: Translation, Omission and Implications of with Her in Genesis 3:6b,” by Julie Faith Parker the bible in ancient Hebrew text states that Adam was with Eve at the time in which she ate the forbidden fruit. However, when this is translated “with her” is frequently omitted which allows the man to be excused and the woman to be blamed (Parker 1). In ancient Hebrew culture and today Eve frequently bears the entire blame for eating the forbidden fruit. Although Adam also ate the forbidden fruit he is often exempt from blame, with the belief that Eve tempted him and therefore it is not his fault. In ancient Israel, woman had no rights, except within the home, which was still very limited. Woman passed from being under their father’s control to being under their husband’s control (Women 1). The lack of women’s rights in ancient Israel was justified by the portrayal of Eve in Genesis.

In British culture “Morte Darthur” was one of the legends that first defined Britain as a nation. According to this legend, King Arthur, was the first king to unite all of Britain. In this legend and many other Arthurian legends, the affair of Queen Guinevere with Lancelot, is what led to King Arthur’s downfall. Thus, a woman is blamed for a man’s downfall and the downfall of his kingdom. “Although Sir Thomas Malory, says that Queen Guinevere “was a trew lover, and therefor she had a good ende,” many critics have found her “jealous, unreasonable, possessive and headstrong,” (Hodges 54). As a queen Arthur grants her authority, and she is seen as having more rights than a typical queen or a woman of her time (Hodges 55). It may be seen that her affair with Lancelot is the result of what happens when women have too many rights and do not obey men, who are seen as their authority, during the time period in which “Morte Darthur,” was written. “Guinevere’s adultery creates a potential split between her and Arthur,” (Hodges 59). It is this split that is seen as ultimately causing Arthur’s downfall. It is after Lancelot is discovered in Guinevere’s bedchambers that she is seen as guilty (Hodges 71).

Guinevere is presented as a flawed heroine, and although her adultery causes Arthur’s downfall, Hodges argues that while “her sexual sin is real, but it is not her only characteristic, nor, perhaps, even her overwhelming characteristic,” (Hodges 79).  Hodges further argues that “Guinevere can be recognized as a worthy queen,” (Hodges 79). Although she may have been a worthy queen she is blamed for Arthur’s downfall, most likely because she is a woman who has betrayed her husband. Therefore, her actions require blame to be placed upon her to uphold social expectations of women and wives. Guinevere and Lancelot’s betrayal of Arthur preceded his defeat by Mordred and is seen as the cause of this event.  In some versions of Arthurian literature Guinevere is sentenced to be burned at the stake by King Arthur, which demonstrates the actions that would be expected of a king who was betrayed by his wife. Although in these tales, Lancelot rescues Guinevere before she is sentenced to death. Women in ancient Britain were subordinate to men both socially and legally (The 1). By depicting Guinevere in Arthurian literature as causing Arthur’s downfall and being punished it indicates the views ancient Britain’s had on women during their time period.

All of these myths and legends, from Greek, British and Hebrew culture, blame women for either mankind’s downfall or men’s downfalls. Therefore, women in these traditions are blamed for the plight of men. While Eve and Helen of Troy have very few redemptive qualities, a difference between the myths and legends of Pandora and Queen Guinevere is that these two figures do have redemptive qualities. Pandora is redeemed by the fact that she has also released hope into the world, although she is still seen as a ‘beautiful evil,’ according to Hesiod. “Sarah Hill and Lindsay Holichek argue that, the adultery excepted, Guinevere functions as an admirable woman who inspires others to right moral conduct,” (Hodges 55). The phrase cherchez la femme or ‘blame the woman,” has long endured in myths and legends of various cultures, and has even been seen throughout history. When these myths and legends are taken out of the context in which they were originally presented, a very different story is told. It can be seen that as the stories in which these women reappear are told within different cultures they are often portrayed in a new light. As the values within cultures change so do the presentations of myths and legends.

The values of ancient Greek, British and Hebrew culture have one thing in common, they blame women in mythology and legends for the downfalls of mankind and men. In this ancient cultures women were not always valued. They were looked down upon and treated unfairly. Their treatment was justified by these myths and legends. Women’s primary function at these times was to marry and bear offspring. Women could not choose who they wanted to marry. They could not fight in wars or hold a job. They could not inherit property or earn money. They held no political power even as queens. Women in ancient Greece could not vote. Women were viewed as second class citizens. Women were also very rarely given an education in these cultures in ancient times. All of this treatment of women in these ancient cultures was justified by the mythology and legends surrounding women in these ancient cultures. As the role of women has changed so have the stories surrounding women. Women have become heroines in literature. The myths and legends surrounding the women in these cultures have been retold glorifying these women in a new light. As cultural values change so do the stories, myths and legends of those cultures. As women have gained rights the stories surrounding them have been retold and this time the blame lies elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited:

Graves, Robert. “Pandora’s Box and Eve’s Apple.” New Republic 135.7 (1956): 16-18. Web.

Hesiod. The Theogony of Hesiod. Web.

Hesiod. Works and Days. Web.

Hodges, Kenneth. “Guinevere’s Politics in Malory’s “Morte Darthur”” The Journal of English

            and Germanic Philology 104.1 (2005): 54-79. Web.

Parker, Julie Faith. “Blaming Eve Alone: Translation, Omission, and Implications of עמה in

Genesis 3:6b.” Journal of Biblical Literature 132.4 (2013): 729-47. Web.

“The Ancient Greek World Women’s Daily Life.” Column. Web. 15 May 2016.

<http://www.penn.museum/sites/greek_world/women.html&gt;.

“The History of Female Oppression.” British Women’s Emancipation since the Renaissance.

Web.  15 May 2016. <http://www.historyofwomen.org/oppression.html&gt;.

Tsamiropoulou-Summers, Tatiana. “Helen of Troy: At the Crossroads Between Ancient

Patriarchy and Modern Feminism.” Interdisciplinary Humanities. 30.2 (2013): 37-56. Web.

“Women in Ancient Israel.” The Court of the Women in the Temple (Bible History Online). Web. 15 May 2016. <http://www.bible-history.com/court-of-women/women.html&gt;.

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