10 Valuable Lessons We Can Learn From The Women of Ancient Epic - by Emily Shead

In celebration of International Women’s Day 2021, we want to acknowledge that Classical women were epic! And what better way to look at the epic deeds of women than to see those characters in epic itself? Ancient epic would not be the texts we have today without the presence of such incredible female characters. Audiences and readers have been captivated by these strong women for millennia, and for good reason.


So, here 10 ways that epic women inspired us and their values can still be carried forward to make pandemic living that little bit easier.

1. Be honest about your fears and don’t be afraid to confront them – Andromache

Andromache was the original realist. She wasn’t afraid to confront her fears and worries head-on. She was honest with her husband about her concerns in the Trojan War and the lasting impact it might have on their family. She didn’t shy away from a difficult conversation that needed to be had.


Andromache is a paragon of female excellence in the Iliad; however, it is so important to remember that she isn’t always happy and isn’t trying to live up to the expectations of the men in her life. She says what she is truly thinking, regardless. During the Iliad, Andromache makes two beautiful speeches of grief, one in Book 6 and one in Book 24 and they reflect on the genuine love between her and Hector. Their relationship without a doubt it the strongest and most devoted seen in the Iliad, whilst it may not be The Notebook level romance, Homer certainly portrays two individuals who love and care for each other.


So, from Andromache we can see that being realistic and honest about the chaos going around us makes us human. Expressing emotion allows you to become closer to people and also allows you to prepare for what’s ahead.


2. “I don’t need you anymore” – Dido

Okay, well Cher might have coined the exact expression, but Dido finessed the action first. Even though her heartbreak killed her, she was still able to bring it back and tell Aeneas that she didn’t need him anymore. She showed that it is possible to pick yourself up and dust yourself off no matter how low it gets.


Romance in the pandemic has been a rocky road for so many of us, however, what Dido shows is that it’s never too late to walk away and that there is always time to put yourself first. Dido truly shows that it is possible to pick yourself up from rock bottom and change your own narrative. The character arc that we see between books 4 and 6 show how Dido is so much more than just the pining girl burning on the pyre.


So, when your quaranting doesn’t treat you right, just remember Dido in Book 6, turning her back on her ex, going back to Sychaeus and letting that Aeneas just stand there pitifully crying.


3. Getting creative can help you ride out a stressful situation – Penelope

Craft and creativity have become a vital part of pandemic life. With the number of series left to binge-watch on Netflix rapidly dwindling, we are all having to think of ways to entertain ourselves to keep spirits up.


Penelope practically invented this technique with her endless weaving, and just to make sure she was never left craftless she made sure to undo a couple of stitches every now and then. If Penelope can use her weaving to keep herself going for 10 years without Odysseus, we’re optimistic our cross-stitching will keep spirits high until the 21st of June!


4. Don’t allow unwelcome visitors inside your house - Circe


Circe does really take this to the extreme, whilst we don’t remember seeing “Turn all those who try to enter your house into pigs” in the government guidelines, the point stands.


Circe’s essentially like a proto-Jacinda, she knows that the best way to stop the spread of unwanted diseases is to ward off the people. Jacinda used travel bans, Circe used witchcraft. However, both seem to be substantial defence mechanisms against a global pandemic.


5. Check in with the ones you love– Thetis

In both the Iliad and Statius’ Achilleid, Thetis is characterised as a mother who fights tirelessly to protect her son, Achilles. No task is too great for Thetis, she supplicates Zeus for her son in Book 1 of the Iliad, gets him a new shield from Hephaestus in Book 18 and disguises him for his safety in the Achilleid.


The overarching personality trait of Thetis throughout epic literature is her concern. She tirelessly worries for her son and only wants the best for him in his life. She does everything she can to fight the limitations of her situation to protect Achilles. Similarly, right now we are all doing the best to look after those that we care about in the pandemic, even though physical distance, illness and exhaustion prevent us from being able to show our care and concern in the way that we would like.


6. Decisive female leadership is crucial to successful governance – Arete

Why is it that Homer keeps banging on about Phaecia being the elite nation you ask? Obviously, it’s because there have a strong female leader hanging around, Arete. Whilst technically speaking Alcinous is the king, Homer makes it very clear that Arete is the woman calling the shots.


Similarly, this year has shown that a good balance of female leadership can work wonders! Here’s to all those female leaders who are making a change in the world right now.


7. Keep on fighting for your voice to be heard – Cassandra

Even though Apollo cursed Cassandra so that no one would believe her prophecies, she would not be silenced. Cassandra kept shouting and fighting for the truth, from the Walls of Troy in the Iliad all the way through to Agamemnon’s palace at Mycenae. Cassandra wasn’t afraid of the truth or any consequences that may come from her speech, she was prepared to face the wrath of Clytemnestra and the mockery of those around her just to make sure the truth was heard.


Just as Cassandra had to fight for her voice to be heard in ancient Troy, people are still fighting today to have their voices heard. So, like Cassandra, we must keep on fighting injustice and making sure our voices are heard.


8. Fight for the ones you love and do it in style – Camilla

Camilla is not just a warrior queen who loves to fight, she cares deeply for her people and is a plenipotentiary leader of the Volscians. She defends her city and her people fearlessly.


Not only this, but she does it in style. Virgil describes her beautiful gold and purple attire and how captivating she is on the battlefield.


Camilla shows that being a leader is so much more than just a title and that the key to leading well is to be passionate about your people. Even within the epic, she is highlighted as a female icon as Virgil shows that mothers admire Camilla and also aspire for her to be their daughter in law (Book 7/Book 11).


9. Make the most of your situation – Helen

Whilst Helen is typically written off as the face that launched a thousand ships, she actually did so much more than that. She overcame resentment from the Trojans, tried to win favour with her new family, whilst eventually returning to Menelaus and Sparta (and that’s not even mentioning her time in Egypt). Helen is even better at stayin’ alive than the Bee Gees.


She uses her intellect, persuasiveness and charm to try and make the most of every unfortunate circumstance. The moral of Helen’s story is she eventually got through her rocky and uncertain time and life was restored to normality. So, there really is hope for the rest of us!


10. Help those in need – Medea

Medea getting some good press. Surprised? Well, that’s because we are talking about Medea in Apollonius’ Argonautica rather than the child-killing super villain of Euripides’ tragedy.


The Medea that Apollonius introduces us to, is one who is caring and is prepared to risk everything for someone else. Whilst she is undeniably a murderer it must be said that often she kills people with the best of intentions, a combination which is rare to come by!


Medea steals the Golden Fleece for Jason in Book 4 of the Argonautica and kills her father. Whilst these actions could be taken as raging psychopathy, we can also analyse them on a meta-level. Her actions are brave, they are done with the right intentions and they go towards the greater good. So she makes the list on this occasion, as coronavirus has been a time for so many people to act in the interest of others and help those in need.


The women of ancient epic are strong, unique and often overlooked, but they can certainly still resonate with us today!

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