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Female Heroism in Ancient Greek Literature

By GraecoMuse

In order to evaluate to what extent there is a concept of ‘female heroism’ in ancient Greek literature it is necessary to look at female literary figures in ancient Greece and their qualities. There are several definitions of a heroine that provide us with a basis from which to evaluate the concept of ‘female heroism’. Lyons asserts that a heroine is a “heroized female personage or recipient of heroic honours.” This definition is in some ways similar to definitions of male heroes yet female heroic figures in literature were very rarely seen in the same light. Even in the Oxford English Dictionary does it describe heroines as being, in ancient mythology, a female intermediate between a woman and a goddess; a demi goddess who has cult paid to them and are worshipped, a woman distinguished by courage, fortitude or noble achievements; “the chief female character in a poem, play or story”; the woman in whom the interest of the piece is centred. Definitions of male heroism however include, “a great warrior”, “a man of superhuman qualities”.

The concept of female heroism in Ancient Greek literature displays that heroines would not act as male heroes would, and they had less significantly recognised qualities. This indicates that this concept was stunted due to lack of diversity in characters. Harris and Platzner assess that heroines don’t often “go on quests or engage in combat with monsters or gods”. An evaluation of Ancient Greek sources such as Euripides’ Hecuba and Iphigenia, suggests that the main role of the female hero was that of sacrifice. The female heroic figure is excessively seen with this quality of self sacrifice, such as with Polyxena. Euripides explains that Polyxena is self-sacrificial in nature for the sake of her people. As Euripides asserts that through her sacrifice to Achilles, the Greeks were finally able to set out on their voyage to Troy and the awaiting war. However Polyxena also expresses more masculine qualities of wishing to obtain her honour and spirit by insisting on dying with dignity, not as a slave, so she can be a willing sacrifice.

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