The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and the Greek Family

The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and the Greek Family

by Philip Elliot Slater

View All Available Formats & Editions

The ancient Athenians were "quarrelsome as friends, treacherous as neighbors, brutal as masters, faithless as servants, shallow as lovers--all of which was in part redeemed by their intelligence and creativity." Thus writes Philip Slater in this classic work on narcissism and family relationships in fifth-century Athenian society. Exploring a rich corpus of Greek


The ancient Athenians were "quarrelsome as friends, treacherous as neighbors, brutal as masters, faithless as servants, shallow as lovers--all of which was in part redeemed by their intelligence and creativity." Thus writes Philip Slater in this classic work on narcissism and family relationships in fifth-century Athenian society. Exploring a rich corpus of Greek mythology and drama, he argues that the personalities and social behavior of the gods were neurotic, and that their neurotic conditions must have mirrored the family life of the people who perpetuated their myths. The author traces the issue of narcissism to mother-son relationships, focusing primarily on the literary representation of Hera and the male gods and showing how it related to devalued women raising boys in an ambitious society dominated by men. "The role of homosexuality in society, fatherless families, working mothers, women's status, and violence, male pride, and male bonding--all these find their place in Slater's analysis, so honestly and carefully addressed that we see our own societal dilemmas reflected in archaic mythic narratives all the more clearly."--Richard P. Martin, Princeton University

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This deeply probing and elegantly written book interprets the charged sexual structure of the ancient Greek family and compares ancient Greek narcissism with that of contemporary middle-class America. (June)
From the Publisher
"This deeply probing and elegantly written book interprets the charged sexual structure of the ancient Greek family and compares ancient narcissism with that of contemporary middle-class America."Publishers Weekly

Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Mythos: The Princeton/Bollingen Series in World Mythology Series
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Glory of Hera

Greek Mythology and The Greek Family

By Philip Elliot Slater


Copyright © 1968 Philip E. Slater
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-00222-4


The Greek Mother-Son Relationship: Origins and Consequences

... they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment.... Thus they toil on in trouble and danger all the days of their life, with little opportunity for enjoying, being ever engaged in getting.... To describe their character in a word, one might truly say that they were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others [Thucydides: i. 70].

We have few objective portraits of the Athenian character, so thorough was their monopoly of the literature which has come down to us. Even the descriptions put into the mouths of aliens and enemies by Thucydides and the dramatists quiver with self-satisfaction and pleased wonderment. The literature they have left us, however, is far too rich for this lack to be very acutely felt. We have too much rather than too little data about this curious society and its inhabitants—enough to characterize them in virtually any way one wishes. At this distance most people find the Athenians (and indeed the Greeks generally, for with a few exceptions the local variations are merely quantitative) rather appealing; but if I try to envision them at close range, I find myself backing off a bit. If I imagine an individual I know with these characteristics, the word that comes to mind is "difficult." At times I might even share the ambivalent opinion of Thucydides' Corinthian envoy, and change the word to "impossible." They were quarrelsome as friends, treacherous as neighbors, brutal as masters, faithless as servants, shallow as lovers—all of which was in part redeemed by their intelligence and creativity. But the core of both what is most admirable and what is most "impossible" about them is a kind of grandiosity—an ability not merely to conceive, but also to entertain, in every sense of that term, an outrageous idea, an outlandish scheme.

The Greek phenomenon was an accidental product of the confluence of many forces, most of which I am not competent to discuss. There are a few strands, however, on which a social scientist can throw considerable light. We know something about the extent to which personality characteristics, values, behavior patterns, ideas, and fantasies are shaped and molded by early familial experiences, and an inquiry into the nature of the Greek family might well add to our understanding of the brilliant episode to which we owe so much.

The Role of Women in Athens

When I first turned my attention to this problem I was struck, as so many have been before, by a paradox. On the one hand, one is usually told that the status of women in fifth- and fourth-century Athens achieved some kind of nadir. They were legal nonentities, excluded from political and intellectual life, uneducated, virtually imprisoned in the home, and appeared to be regarded with disdain by the principal male spokesmen whose comments have survived [Kitto, 1960, pp. 219–22; Blümner, n.d., passim]. On the other hand, as Gomme points out: "There is, in fact, no literature, no art of any country, in which women are more prominent, more important, more carefully studied and with more interest, than in the tragedy, sculpture, and painting of fifth-century Athens" [Gomme, 1937, p. 92]. Gomme rejects the traditional view on these grounds and shows how one might arrive at a similar assessment of our own era by the appropriate selection of sources.

Gomme's essay is a healthy antidote to the intoxications that historical inference can induce in the unwary, but the dilemma cannot be laughed away. One may grant the absurdity of using polemical statements (e.g., "a woman's place is in the home") as indices of reality [1937, pp. 97–102]. One may grant that the legal position of women need not reflect their social position [Ibid,., p. 90]. One might accept the inference that at least some women—perhaps only hetairai [Licht, 1963, p. 153]—attended the theater [Ehrenberg, 1951, p. 27; Gomme, 1937, p. 233; but cf. Aristophanes: Thesmophoriazusae 395–97], and were generally an courant [Gomme, 1937, p. 102; Kitto, i960, pp. 226–27]. It is also likely, as Ehrenberg argues, that the lower classes never participated very fully in this social pattern: that it was aristocratic males who first wore long hair and became enthusiastic pederasts and misogynists, forcing their wives into adultery [1951, pp. 97, 100–2, 112, 180, 193; cf. also Thomson, 1950, p. 366]. The cultivation of bizarre and inconvenient social patterns is at all times and in all places a luxury which the lower classes often cannot afford, and the poor Athenian woman could not remain secluded in the home if peddling vegetables in the marketplace was her only source of livelihood [Ehrenberg, 1951, pp. 114–15].

But when all of these qualifications have been made, a core of derogation and sex antagonism still remains. Women were legally powerless—a man could sell his daughter or even his sister into concubinage [Ibid p. 198]. Women of the upper classes could not maintain this status and go out unattended, and their social life outside the home was largely restricted to religious festivals and funerals [Lysias: On the Murder of Eratosthenes; Licht, 1963, pp. 31–32; Thomson, 1950, p. 366; Kitto, i960, pp. 219–20; Blümner, p. 133; Flacelière, i960, p. 114; Ehrenberg, 1951, pp. 200–2]. Among the well-to-do, men and women usually ate, and in some cases, slept apart [Lysias: loc. cit.; Flacelière, i960, pp. 114–15; Ehrenberg, Ioc. cit.; Licht, op. cit., p. 57], and a wife who dined with her husband's guests was assumed to be a prostitute [Kitto, 1960, p. 219]. This separation obtained even in Macedonia [Herodotus: v. 17ff.].

Since this is the generally accepted view of the status of women, it is perhaps unnecessary to accumulate further examples. Instead, let us examine more carefully the dissenting voices of Gomme and Kitto, to see if we can find in their arguments a way of resolving the dispute. Kitto, after reviewing the evidence in favor of the majority opinion and admitting its force, rejects it on the grounds of "the picture it gives of the Athenian man. The Athenian had his faults, but pre-eminent among his better qualities were lively intelligence, sociability, humanity, and curiosity. To say that he habitually treated one-half of his own race with indifference, even contempt, does not, to my mind, make sense" [Ibid., p. 222]. This statement typifies the sentimentality which classical scholars on occasion permit themselves, and we need spend little time over it. Leaving aside the peculiar limbo into which it casts many brilliant and creative homosexuals and misogynists of all eras, and the absurd insistence that intelligence precludes eccentricity, Kitto's way of stating the argument—"one-half of his own race"—is peculiarly ironic. On the contrary, the Greek was quite capable of treating any segment of his race, male or female, with consummate brutality and callousness—abandoning or killing his allies, betraying his city to the enemy and joining gleefully in the ensuing slaughter of his neighbors, and so on. The only thing unique about his rejection of "one-half of his own race" was its consistency.

When we examine the remainder of Kitto's argument, however, we notice a more interesting regularity. In addition to echoing Gomme's stress on the powerful role played by women in tragedy, he cites a number of facts which argue the importance of the woman's role in the home [Ibid., pp. 227 ff.].

At once it becomes clear that the entire controversy rests on a false assumption shared by all the combatants. This assumption might be called the "patriarchal delusion": the notion that power follows deference patterns—or that a sizable power differential between the sexes is possible. Once one has shed this illusion, the combination of derogation of and preoccupation with women ceases to be a paradox and becomes an inevitability.

The issue is too complex to discuss in detail here, and it will perhaps suffice to point out the most important flaw in the fantasy of male dominance. Rejection and derogation of women mean rejection and derogation of domesticity—of home and family life, and hence of the process of rearing young children. The Athenian adult male fled the home, but this meant that the Athenian male child grew up in a female-dominated environment. As an adult he may have learned that women were of no account, but in the most important years of his psychological development he knew that the reverse was true. Men were at that time trivial to him—all of the most important things in his life were decided, as far as he could see, by women.

Nor was his view simply a function of his ignorance of the outside world. We know from studies of the modern American family that participation and power go hand in hand. A working mother, for example, has more power in economic decision-making than a non-working mother, but less power in decisions regarding household activities—the husband not only participates more in domestic activities but exerts more control over them [Hoffman, 1963; Heer, 1963; Blood, 1963. Cf. also Mace and Mace, 1964, pp. 92–116; Briffault, 1931, pp. 188–89, 248–49; Nemecek, 1958, pp. 5–6]. Conversely, the more the male imprisons the female in the home and takes himself elsewhere, the more overwhelmingly powerful is the female within the home.

The social position of women and the psychological influence of women are thus quite separate matters. The Greek male's contempt for women was not only compatible with, but also indissolubly bound to, an intense fear of them, and to an underlying suspicion of male inferiority. Why else would such extreme measures be necessary? Customs such as the rule that a woman should not be older than her husband, or of higher social status, or more educated, or paid the same as a male for the same work, or be in a position of authority—betray an assumption that males are incapable of competing with females on an equal basis; the cards must first be stacked, the male given a handicap. Otherwise, it is felt, the male would simply be swallowed up, evaporate, lose his identity altogether [cf. Plutarch: "Dialogue on Love" 752e–f, 753c–d].

I shall try to show how the low status of women and the male terror of women were mutually reinforcing in Hellenic society, but before describing this cycle we must establish that women were in fact powerful in the house. The strongest datum comes from Aristophanes. In Lysistrata, the fact that wives control the management of household finances is advanced as an argument for their assuming political control [493–94]. Xenophon confirms this, saying that while the husband earns the money, the wife dispenses it [Oeconomicus iii. 15]. Kitto points out that the home was also a factory, and that the woman's position was thus one of great responsibility [1960, p. 230]. The house being divided into men's and women's quarters, her control over her own domain, which included the children, most of the slaves, and the economic heart of the household, was largely unchallenged, and made the male vulnerable indeed [cf. Xenophon: op. cit., ix. 5; Lysias: op. cit.]. As Flacelière observes: "Son mart est d'ailleurs trop occupé au-dehors pour désirer lui contester la direction de son intérieur, dont elle est comme Ie ministre ..." [1960, p. 104]. And Ischomachus, in attributing the outdoor life of the male and the indoor life of the female to a god-given division of labor, likens the wife's role to that of the queen bee, who supervises not only interior but also outside workers [Xenophon: Oeconomicus vii. 22–42]. This is not to say that this division of labor completely eliminated marital power struggles—Ehrenberg points out the frequency of allusions to sexual competition in comedy [1951, p. 207]. But one cannot be a family patriarch at a distance. The role is an active one, involving the acceptance of interpersonal responsibility. The alcoholic who returns home only at midnight to beat his wife and children is not the important figure in the daily life of the home.

Arnold Green [1946] was one of the first of a series of social scientists to discuss the overwhelming involvement of mother and child in our own middle class. The involvement is due in part to the absence of the commuting father; and Greek fathers appear to have been even less in evidence [cf. Blümner, loc. cit., p. 147]. While the presence of slaves may have mitigated this maternal involvement somewhat, the child's world before the age of six or seven was an almost entirely feminine one.

This seems to me to explain adequately the presence of active, aggressive women in Greek tragedy. Gomme points to the great freedom of action that women have in drama, and argues that women like Jocasta and Antigone must have been modeled on contemporary women [1937, pp. 93, 96, 107]. Kitto makes the same point, observing that the women are usually more enterprising than the men—that the tragic heroines are striking in their vigor, intelligence, vindictiveness, and uncontrollability [1960, pp. 228–29]. But while one may agree that these women had contemporary models, one need not assume that such modeling extended beyond the narrow range of the household. All that a playwright requires for drama is a vivid memory for his own childhood and family—especially Greek drama, which is most intensely concerned with intrafamilial conflict. If this were not true, one would be hard put to explain how so many of the great heterosexual dramas of Greek, Elizabethan, and modern theater could have been written by homosexual playwrights.

Attempts to homogenize Greek attitudes toward women are thus thoroughly misguided. The combination of fear, awe, and contempt is too pervasive. One of the best expressions of this totality is in Herodotus' description of the Battle of Salamis. We find the Athenians so resenting the fact that a woman, Artemisia, commanded a ship against them, that they offered a large reward for her capture alive [viii. 93]. Yet of the same battle there was a popular legend that the phantom of a woman appeared in the midst of the fighting and asked contemptuously, "in a voice which could be heard by every man in the fleet ... if they proposed to go astern all day ..." [Ibid., viii. 84]. The belief that an Athenian woman's place is in the home does not in the least prevent them from imagining her in virago form.

This same contradiction appears on Olympus. Despite the patriarchal superstructure we find there, the goddesses are more intimately involved in the lives of men than are the gods. In particular, the enduring wrath of Hera is far more often the mainspring of mythological action than are the brief tantrums of Zeus, and has more far-reaching consequences. Like the Greek husband, Zeus wanders and philanders, but, as the Greek wife was almost forced to be, Hera is faithful. This is in marked contrast to Teutonic mythology, in which gods and goddesses are equally promiscuous. Hera works out her jealous feelings primarily through the vindictive pursuit of her stepchildren, and there are several instances (e.g., Medea, Procne) in Greek mythology in which a mother kills her own children to spite her husband for his infidelity. Is it not possible that this phenomenon, too, reflects (in style if not in intensity) a situation obtaining in the Greek home? Is it not usual to expect the frustrated mother to work out some of her feelings upon her children? It seems likely that some such tendency is responsible for the menacing aspect of women in so much of Greek myth.

Much has been written about homosexuality among the Greeks. We may perhaps pass over the anticipated efforts to idealize this feature of Greek life as "platonic," since as usual the argument appears to be based not on evidence but on some imagined incongruence between homosexuality and various Greek virtues. Actually, there is no source, from comedy to philosophy to litigation to history, which does not indicate with compelling clarity that physical homosexuality was widespread and generally accepted; and that among the upper classes it competed successfully with heterosexuality [cf. Licht, 1963, pp. 133fF., 411–98]. Furthermore, far from being incongruent, we shall see that the tendency toward homosexuality is an essential part of a total pattern of response—that, indeed, one would even predict its existence knowing the rest of the pattern.


Excerpted from The Glory of Hera by Philip Elliot Slater. Copyright © 1968 Philip E. Slater. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >