Fitful And Changing: Femininity In Virgil's Aeneid

1011 words - 5 pages

As a child, I was fascinated by Greek mythology and history, and I made it my business in elementary school to read as much as possible about the subject, including the outstanding stories and the pantheon of gods presented. I thought of them as fantastic, supernatural tales with fitful gods and brave heroes, and I never stopped to consider that the mythologies could be representative of the cultural views and habits of the Greeks, specifically regarding gender roles. One such representaton is Virgil's epic Aeneid, which contains depictions of women in positions of power, and also characterizes these women as irrational, emotional to the point of hysteria, and consequently, unfit rulers.
Historically, much information about the role of women came out of Athens, where women were expected to center their life around oikos, or the 'home', where a woman would cook, manage servents, raise childen, and complete other household tasks (Frost 1997). The first woman to irrationally transgress this role in the Aeneid is Helen, who is the object of Aeneas' rage in Book II. Aeneas first characterizes Helen as “terrified of... her abandoned husband” and he feels a burning desire to “...Avenge my fallen town and punish Helen's whorishness”. He assigns blame for the fall of Troy to Helen, and the only reason Aeneas does not harm Helen is at the insistence of his mother, Venus, who reminds him that it is the “the harsh will of the gods.” (Damrosch and Pike, 2009)
Another woman who was also affected negtively by the will of the gods was the lovely Dido, queen and founder of Carthage. Upon the arrival of Aeneas and the beginning of their love affair, she is consumed by a love brought on by Cupid that was “...inward fire eating her away” and she subsequetly halts all the projects of her city, abandoing all the production she had begun. Aeneas' also suffers from this love; he begins to settle into life in Carthage and the two are equally “...unmindful of the realm, prisoners of lust” (Damrosch and Pike, 2009) for an entire winter. However, it is here that the characters and reactions of Aeneas and Dido begin to diverge. Once Aeneas is rather harshly reminded of his duty, he apparently snaps back into his role as a founder of cities rather than a role of a tame husband (in Mercury's words), and he successfully fights down his emotions and makes a clean break from Dido with no long lasting ill effects on his psyche. Dido, on the other hand, is first enraged and incredibly bitter, then desperate, and finally, crazed by passion to the point of suicide. She finds herself unable to function any longer as a successful builder of Carthage, and her honor has been tainted by her affair with Aeneas to the point where she cannot see a future for herself as a ruler. She can no longer command any respect from her people or other neighboring rulers, and in her pain, she sets up a funeral pyre for...

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