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In numerous instances of mythology, an initial, primordial female power is supplanted or in some way altered by a male figure. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Gaea’s original supremacy is eventually usurped by Zeus, while in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, the primal power of the Furies is supplanted by the rationality of male law and order. While this subordination of the female reflects the inherently patriarchal nature of ancient Greek and Roman society, it is interesting to note that the primal female nature can never be completely destroyed by the male, but is instead always incorporated into the new world order. In both the Theogony and the Eumenides, an original, ancient female power provides the foundation for male reason and institutions.
According to Hesiod’s account of creation, Gaea was the first being to arise from Chaos. The mother of all things, Gaea initially occupied the center of Greek mythology as she populated the universe with her asexually- and sexually-produced offspring. As Gaea’s male children and grandchildren began to vie for power, however, male-dominated succession myths instead of female creation stories became increasingly central. Cronus overthrows his father Uranus, and in turn Zeus defeats Cronus to become king of the gods. Female goddesses are relegated to the margins as their actions become increasingly defined in terms of which male they support. As a result, goddesses and their generative powers begin to take the back seat to stories of male rivalry and warfare.
Interestingly, while the importance of female goddesses is supplanted by that of male gods, a parallel reduction of the primacy of female reproductive power takes place. As the Theogony progresses from one generation of gods to the next, reproduction shifts from being female-controlled to male-controlled. In the beginning, Gaea reproduces asexually to produce Uranus and Pontus, and reproduction is entirely in her power. Then, she engages in intercourse with her son Uranus, who continually embraces her and does not allow her children to emerge (Powell 80). Gaea is powerless and can only be saved from her overbearing son by Cronus, who castrates his father and frees his mother.
Then, Cronus marries his sister Rhea and follows in his father’s footsteps by stifling his wife’s reproductive power. Swallowing his children the minute they are born, Cronus can only be defeated when his son Zeus, who was saved by his mother, forces his father to vomit up all of his siblings. Zeus is no better than his father or grandfather, however; in fact, instead of merely stifling his consort’s generative power, he completely usurps control of female reproduction. When Zeus leans that the future child of his wife Metis (“Cleverness”) will overthrow him, he swallows her to prevent her from giving birth to a potential threat. Then, he himself gives birth to Athena asexually from his forehead, just as Gaea reproduced asexually in the beginning of the Theogony. Zeus’ “birth” of Athena renders him in control of reproduction and completely eliminates the role of the female.
At the same time, Zeus’ struggle to defend his position as king of the gods brings him into conflict with Mother Earth herself. Although the king of the gods initially enlists the help of his grandmother Gaea, who advises him to ally with the Hecatonchires against the rebellious Titans (Powell 87), Zeus eventually alienates her by killing too many of her offspring. Grandmother and grandson become bitter enemies, and Gaea sends the dragon Typhoeus to defeat Zeus. When he kills Typhoeus instead, Zeus symbolically defeats Gaea as well and eliminates her as a potential threat. By thus asserting his supremacy over the ultimate female power the Earth Zeus demonstrates that the rise of male rule can only be achieved by stifling threatening female authority. From that point on, Mother Earth figures only in the background of mythology.
By relating the story of Zeus’ rise to power over Gaea, Hesiod’s Theogony highlights the progression from an initial time of female dominance to a more patriarchally-acceptable institution of male rule. Though Gaea is initially the creator of all things, the world she creates is eventually split up into three realms that are possessed and ruled over by three male gods: Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. Similarly, although the Theogony begins with an emphasis on Gaea’s generative powers, eventually the focus shifts from this inherently feminine power to the strife between male generations and the corresponding female loss of reproductive control. In general, as the Theogony progresses, the role of the female is gradually relegated to the background. Indeed, before Zeus can firmly establish himself as supreme ruler of the universe, he must first suppress female power, and specifically female generative power: he defeats Gaea’s offspring Typhoeus and swallows Metis to prevent her from giving birth to future competition.
Perhaps this theme of eradicating female reproductive power reveals the ancient Greek male’s ambivalence toward, and possibly even fear of, this inherently and exclusively feminine ability. Though women must give birth in order to populate the world with men, their offspring can also be a source of danger. Thus, as a result of the potentially threatening nature of female reproduction, it must be controlled and harnessed by men. That said, it is interesting to note that although powerful females must be subordinated before the “correct” male order can be established, the female can never be completely eradicated. Although Gaea is defeated by Zeus, she is still Mother Earth, upon which all life depends. Similarly, although Metis is consumed, Zeus incorporates her “cleverness” into his own self and in this way she becomes symbolically integrated with the same male power that smothered her.
This theme of female suppression, and yet her eventual incorporation into the male world, continues in Aeschylus’ Oresteia (and the Eumenides in particular). Fittingly, the play begins with a song by the Pythia, the female prophetess at the oracle of Delphi, which relates the story of Apollo’s ascension to the position of seer. Though this is a position traditionally held by ancient female goddesses, it was taken over by Apollo, a god of the younger generation. The Pythia’s song foreshadows the theme of the Eumenides, which is inherently a story of the triumph of male over female and new over old. The story of the Furies, ancient beings who predate Zeus but were overthrown during his rise to power, is in keeping with this theme. Relegated to a miserable existence under the earth, the Furies represent all that is primal, violent, and fearful.
In stark contrast to the Furies is Apollo, a young god who represents rationality and civilized order. The Furies come into conflict with Apollo over the rightful punishment of the matricidal Orestes. While the ancient goddesses advocate the precedence of blood ties and thus call for severe punishment, Apollo insists on the superiority of the marriage bond and therefore defends Orestes’ right to avenge his father’s murder. Here, primal and natural bonds of kinship stand in direct opposition to the newer, civilized institution of marriage, just as the brutal, female Furies contrast with the rational, male Apollo. The gendered dichotomy that associates women with nature and men with culture is also at work here: while the Furies represent wild, untamed, feminine nature, Apollo stands for the civilized, rational masculine culture which must tame nature with laws and order.
Precisely that taming occurs in the Eumenides. Under the orders of Athena, the Athenian elders convene a court of law to decide Orestes’ fate. During the trial, the ancient female Furies are outnumbered by both the younger generation of gods and by an overwhelming bias towards males: although Athena, the presiding judge, is female, her nature is essentially masculine. Born asexually from her father Zeus’ forehead, she lacks a mother and therefore, in her own words, she is “always for the male with all [her] heart” (Eumenides 737-38). With Athena’s deciding vote that automatically sides with the male, Apollo and Orestes win. The primal Furies are defeated by the supremacy of the male, and civilization triumphs over the primitive.
Though Athena is essentially masculine at heart, she is not completely without appreciation for the Furies’ superior age and wisdom (Eumenides 848-49). Unlike Apollo, who has nothing but disgust for the Furies, Athena listens to them and takes their point of view into account. Not completely female, yet not truly male, Athena represents the integration of male and female. In that respect, she is the ideal arbiter for a quarrel that has gender dichotomy at its root (though her automatic siding with Orestes because of his gender arguably casts a shadow on the justice of her ruling). Athena realizes that Fear (the tool of the Furies) and Justice must go hand in hand before true order and peace can be reached. To this end, she creates a new role for the Furies: that of protectresses of the city of Athens. By giving them control over men’s prosperity or ruin, a new home under Athens, and a new name meaning the “kindly-minded ones,” Athena integrates new with old, violence with reason, and male with female.
Although the Furies are integrated into civilization, they do not occupy a position of equality. Because the Furies’ ancient right to punish bloodshed is conquered by the new male system of law and order, the Eumenides shows that the new gods still triumph over the old and male power is still superior to female power. Though Athena placates the Furies by giving them a place within Athens, the extremely male-dominated nature of Athenian society ensures that the role of the female will never equal that of the male. Indeed, having a man in power is the only way that ancient Greeks could envision a proper society; as a result, time and again we see males assert control after an initial period of female power. In the Oresteia, Clytemnestra is punished for trying to take over her husband’s throne, Orestes is set free when Athena sides with him because he is a man, and the ancient Furies are defeated by Apollo despite their superior age. Similarly, In the Theogony, power gradually shifts from female to male, just as reproductive control is eventually usurped by male gods.
At the same time, however, gender dynamics in ancient Greek mythology are not black-and-white. Though a man’s rise to power is consistently accompanied by the subordination of threatening females, the female can never be completely eradicated. Though the Furies are overpowered, and although Gaea is defeated by Zeus, they are not destroyed. Instead, female goddesses frequently provide the stepping stones for the attainment of male order and civilization. Just as Gaea is literally the foundation upon which rests Mt. Olympus, home of the Zeus and the Olympian gods, the primitive form of Justice embodied by the Furies is not only the predecessor, but also an integral part, of the new civilized form of court justice. This theme of integrating opposites, whether it is male and female, new and old, or violence and rationality, is essential to understanding the paradoxical position that women held in ancient Greek society. Though the female is often marginalized, she is nevertheless integral to the survival of male order; indeed, she often serves as its very foundation. As Aeschylus and Hesiod make clear, there is a place for female power, but it must be secondary to that of the male.
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