Ancient Greek mythology was a genre characterized by patriarchal dominance. Epics heralded heroes such as Heracles, Achilles and Odysseus. Authors chronicled the genealogies of the great Grecian gods, such as Zeus, Dionysus and Apollo, leaving out no detail when describing the powers and strength they wielded. On the other hand, female figures, though less celebrated, played a significant and weighty role as well in Greek mythology. As a whole, mother figures, both mortal and immortal, shared a number of characteristics that bonded them together under a common theme. For the most part, female women and goddesses were described in a negative light, presented as scheming, selfish and vengeful. Their relations with their children were portrayed negatively as well, usually resulting in abandonment, revenge or exploitation. However, when examined closely, it can be argued that the actions of the mothers so harshly critiqued by authors are actually representative of the love they feel for their children. Furthermore, mother figures in Greek mythology seem to be destined to be characterized by sacrifice, vengeance or both. This idea is especially exemplified in the stories of Aphrodite, Demeter, Rhea and Gaia; however, it is also paralleled throughout the rest of the myths.
A classic example of these characteristic mother-figure myths ending in loss and abandonment is that of Aphrodite. Aphrodite, the powerful goddess of love, is struck down by Zeus, who has grown tired of her manipulations and boasts. Zeus brings about her demise by turning her own skills against her, forcing her to fall in love with the mortal Anchises. This relationship results in a mortal son, Aenaes, who is promptly abandoned by his mother. Aphrodite’s decision to leave her son with the nymphs-the nurse—figures of Greek mythology-stems from her aversion to death, specifically, the death of her own child. She explains to Anchises, “And distraught have I been who carry a child beneath my girdle, the child of a mortal. Now as soon as he sees the light of the sun, the deep-bosomed mountain Nymphs will rear him, the Nymphs who haunt this great and holy mountain, being of the clan neither of mortals nor of immortal gods” (Anthology 202). Aphrodite gives her child up to the nymphs because she does not want to become emotionally attached to a child who will die. Her role as the goddess of love and desire could be linked to this aversion to emotional attachment, because she knows how heartbroken she would be if a loved one died. She says, “For now my mouth will no longer suffice to speak forth this boast among the immortals, for deep and sore has been my folly, wretched and not to be named” (Anthology 202). This muthos is a powerful speech act that ends her power over the rest of the gods and goddesses. Her story is characterized by abandonment and loss; because of Zeus’ actions she loses both her child and her status as a revered and feared goddess. Another mother figure tied to abandonment is Hera, who attempts to throw her son Hephaistos off Mount Olympus upon realizing he is a cripple. Though a much less sympathetic figure, Hera’s rage and violent action results from her anger at Zeus’ ability to have children without her. Her natural role as a woman and child-bearer has been suppressed by Zeus’ patriarchal dominance, and her abandonment of Hephaistos is a consequence of that. In both instances, the mother figures abandoned their children out of necessity and retaliation against Zeus’ patriarchal authority. Their actions, however, still resulted in personal loss-Aphrodite lost her child, and Hera lost respect and the love of her child. Rebellion against patriarchal authority leads to a second characteristic of female figures-that of deception, or Métis. This characteristic is especially evident in the stories of Rhea and Gaia. These two mothers not only deceive their male counterparts, but also do so using their children. Gaia, or...
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