gender symmetry in disparagement in Sumerian texts

Men have long been subject to more disparagement, including dehumanizing invective, than have women. Men historically have been figured as dogs and treated like pigs. Invective against men has even supported castration culture. Harsh disparagement of men can be found in Sumerian texts from Mesopotamia about four thousand years ago. Sumerian texts, however, include some similar forms disparaging women. To advance gender equality, modern societies must strive to imitate and expand the ancient Sumerian practice of gender symmetry in disparagement.

Consider, for example, a Sumerian text that harshly disparages and dehumanizes an unnamed man. Stringing together a wide variety of insults, the text begins:

He is good seed of a dog, offspring of a wolf!
He is stench of a mongoose, an unruly hyena cub, a fox with a crab’s covering,
a monkey not pleasing to its homeland, its judgment confused.
His face is disfigured, his judgment is muddled, his intelligence is (X).

{ a dug3-ga ur-ra u2-numun ur-bar-ra-kam
ir dnin-kilim amar kir4 cu nu-zu ka5-a bar kucu2ku6
ugu2ugu4-bi kur-bi-ce3 nu-sag9 jalga-bi suh3-a
muc3-me-ni dim2 hul jalga-ni i3-lu3 dim2-ma-ni X }[1]

This man is called a cripple, a brazen thief, and a son of hound. He’s charged with spreading evil talk, being quarrelsome, and never calming quarrels. With any apparent sense of irony, the man being insulted is said to speak with an “evil mouth {ka hul}.”

Other Sumerian texts dehumanize men in ways from specifically contextual to broadly applicable. In a dialogue between contending scribal-school officials, one characterizes the other in their work context: “an idiot stretches out linen for the bugs {lu₂-tumu eḫi-e gada ba-an-la₂}” and “a pig weaves a counting cloth { šaḫa₂ tu₉u₂-tu-gu-um al-tuku₅-tuku₅}.”[2] Taken from that work context, “idiot” and “pig” readily serve to disparage men generally. Another Sumerian text thus calls a man “a fool {lu2 lil2-la2}” and “a pig splattered with mud {cah2 lu-hu-um-ta su3-a},” as well as “a dog {ur}.”[3]

Women are similarly disparaged in Sumerian texts. A diatribe against a woman begins with the same term used for a disparaged man, “the evil mouth {ka ḫulu-a}.”[4] Like the man who is a brazen thief, a woman is characterized as “having no shame {teš₂ nu-tuku}.”[5] Particularly telling is the gender-symmetric treatment of dogs. A diatribe known as “Woman perfecting evil” calls a woman a “horny dog {ur-˹gi7˺}.”[6] In a dispute between two women, one calls the other, “a dog raising its paw, always after men {⸢ur⸣ šu zi-ga egir mu-lu-ne-⸢ka⸣}.”[7] If men are dogs, women are also dogs in Sumerian literature. Moral failings match across gender: “an unfaithful penis matches an unfaithful vagina {jic3 lul-la gal4-la lul-la-ke4 ba-ni-in-sig10}.”[8]

In contrast to ancient Greek and Latin literature in which men’s genitals are figured much worse than women’s, Sumerian literature gender-symmetrically disparages both. A man is disparaged as having “flaccid penis, blocked butt, a single testicle hanging down {ŋeš₃ per gu-du keše₂ šeri AŠ tu-lu}.”[9] A woman is similarly sexually disparaged:

distorted butt, small vulva, extremely long pubic hair!
thick genitals, person with blocked up, sick womb!

{ gu-du zar/zara₅ galla₄la tur siki galla₄la gid₂-gid₂
pe-zi₂-ir ḪAR lu₂ ša₃ la₂ pa₄-ḫal-la }[10]

A “flaccid penis” corresponds to a “small vulva” in suggesting sexual nonfunctionality. A “blocked butt” is similar to a “distorted butt” and a “blocked up, sick womb” in indicating unhealthful blockages. Such terms don’t generally characterize Sumerian references to genitals. Sumerian love poems describe women’s vulvas with earthy physicality and praise them for being sweet. Moreover, women in these poems ardently seek sexual intercourse with men and delight in receiving men’s penises. Genitals could be disparaged in Sumerian literature, but at least such disparagement was gender-symmetric in significant ways.

Streams of insults directed against men and women are summarized similarly. For men, a summary rhetorical question derides the man’s masculinity: “And you, you are a man {u3 ze4-e lu2-lu7-me-en}?”[11] Insulting a woman uses a similar rhetorical question, “And you, you are a woman {u3 ze4-e munus-me-en}?”[12] Sumerian culture valued both women and men. Individual persons in that culture valued these different gender identities.[13] Valuing one’s own gender identity makes such gender-categorical insults effective.

Gender symmetry in some forms of disparagement in Sumerian literature doesn’t imply gender equality in disparagement generally. In a Sumerian text, a father castigates his disobedient son at length:

Numbskull, windbag, fingernail, toenail, liar, windbag, burglar, foul-mouthed man, stinking man, rude, rabid man, drooling idiot … crippled, foul-smelling necromancer, stinking oil, stinking man … stinker, stinking milk, stinking butt that stinks and stinks again, a dog that sniffs the ground, windbag.

{ saĝ-DU-a lu2-tumu šu-si ĝiri3-si lu2-lul lu2-tumu lu2 la-ga e2 buru3-buru3 lu2 sikil du3-a lu2 hab2-ba-am3 na-ĝa2-ah lu2 mu2-da eme za3-ga bar-bar sag šu zi bi2-ib-du11-ga sag ur3-ur3 lu2 hu-hu-nu ir-ha-an du11-ga ir-hul-a i3-hab2 lu2 hab2-ba ir-ha-an-di pil2-pil2-la2 x-hul-a ga-an-šub niĝ2-tur hab2-ba-am3 ki-sim gu-du hab2-ba in-ur5 in-da-ur5 ur-gi7 saĝ us2-sa si-im-si-im al-ak-e lu2-tumu }[14]

No record exists of a father speaking similarly to his disobedient daughter. Later Assyrian literature developed even more pungent disparagement of men. Bel-etir, son of Iba, is called a “shit bucket of a fart factory {išpīk zê ṣarritim}.”[15] Gender equality will not be achieved until women are similarly insulted, or both men and women are always treated with dignity and respect.

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[1] He is a good seed of a dog (Diatribe C) (t.5.4.12) vv. 1-4, cuneiform transliteration (composite text) and English translation of Sjöberg (1972) (modified insubstantially) via the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, second edition (ETCSL). The “(X)” indicates a lost term. The subsequent quote, “evil mouth {ka hul},” is similarly from He is a good seed of a dog, v. 9.

[2] Two scribes (Dialogue 1), vv. 14, 15, cuneiform transliteration (composite text) and English translation of Matuszak (2019b) via DSSt: Datenbank sumerischer Streitliteratur {Database of Sumerian Dispute Literature}. For a monograph on this text, Johnson & Geller (2015).

This text comes from the context of the Old Babylonian “Tablet house / House in which tables are assigned {Edubba / e2-dub-ba-a},” c. 1800-1600 BGC. On disputes in the Edubba-a, Ceccarelli (2020). For a related text, The advice of a supervisor to a younger scribe (E-dub-ba-a C) (t.5.1.3).

[3] A diatribe against Engar-dug (Diatribe B) (t.5.4.11) vv. 1, 8, 17, cuneiform transliteration (composite text) and English translation of Sjöberg (1972) via ETCSL.

This and related diatribes and disputes likely from the Edubba-a probably were sung or performed. Ceccarelli (2020) pp. 49-51, Matuszak (2023) p. 608. In November, 2020, the Zipang collective performed a Sumerian literary debate between two women (apparently an adaptation of Two Women B) at Being Human: A Festival of the Humanities, a UK national humanities festival. The Zipang collective also performed this debate at the Fourth Workshop on Gender, Methodology and the Ancient Near East, June 3-4, 2021, based in the University of Helsinki, Finland. This workshop apparently excluded meninist perspectives.

[4] Matuszak (2016) p. 230. The Evil Mouth {Ka hulu-a} has not yet been edited or published, but Matuszak has a forthcoming edition. For further discussion of this text, Matuszak (219a) and Matuszak (2023).

[5] Two Women B, v. 30, cuneiform transliteration and English translation via DSSt. The insult text of tablet MS 2865 similarly describes a woman: “She has absolutely no shame, she’s acting there as if she were the mistress of the house {teš2 nu-tuku-e nin e2-a-gen7 mi-ni-in-AK}.” Matuszal (2016) p. 231.

[6] Woman Perfecting Evil, v. 4, from Matuszak (2023) pp. 607-8. Woman Perfecting Evil also has not yet been edited. Matuszak has an edition forthcoming. In context, “horny dog” apparently implies a licentious dog.

[7] Two Women B, v. 155, via DSSt. The subsequent verse declares, “The young men, who live in the city quarter, can’t sleep because of her {⸢mu-ru⸣-uš tur dag-ge₄-a til₃-la u₃ ⸢nu⸣-[mu]-⸢un⸣-ši-ku-ku}.”

Ancient Mesopotamian texts could use “prostitute,” appropriately contextualized, as disparagement for a woman. In Two Women B, one woman called the other woman “a prostitute {kar-ke₄}.” That woman brought a lawsuit and sought a verdict against this offense:

She called me a whore.
She caused my husband to divorce me. Grant me a just verdict!

{ kar-ke₄ ma-an-du₁₁
dam mu-un-taka₄ di ge-na dab₅-mu-ub }

Two Women B, vv. 170-1, via DSSt.

Whether women prostitutes existed in ancient Mesopotamia has recently become bitterly disputed among scholars. Matuszak tactfully footnoted:

While this is not the place to review the discussion revolving around the term kar-ke₄/ḫarimtu, it is clear from 2WB 152 et passim that kar-ke₄ is employed as a swearword (‘whore!’) and alleges extra-marital sex, since the woman so called is repudiated by her husband on the grounds of adultery accusations.

Matuszak (2019a) p. 261, ft. 19. More obliquely, Matuszak elsewhere footnoted:

One of the protagonists calls the other a kar-ke₄, which in this context can justifiably be translated as ‘whore.’

Matuszak (2016) p. 230, ft. 4. Discussing a treaty between the Assyrian king Aššur-nerari V (reigned 755–745 BGC) and Mati’-ilu, king of Arpad, another scholar footnoted the translation of ḫarimtu:

There has been some debate regarding the translation of ḫarimtu as prostitute. Julia Assante argued for its reinterpretation as a single woman, who operates free of direct male authority, rather than a prostitute (1998). Jerrold S. Cooper more recently presented the case for its translation once again as prostitute (2016a: 211–212). In this text, prostitute seems the most likely translation, given that the imagery is placed to insult Mati’ilu and imply the loss of both his sexual potency and agency.

Konstantopoulos (2020) p. 365, n. 26. Discussion of prostitution in ancient Mesopotamia seems to me a quite telling intellectual debacle. See notes [3] and [5] in my post on men and female prostitutes from ancient Mesopotamia to medieval Europe. On the continuing influence of this intellectual debacle, see note [25] in my post on Enkidu and Shamhat.

[8] Proverbs: collection 1, Segment D, 6.1.159 (l. 42), cuneiform transliteration and English translation via ETCSL.

[9] Two scribes (Dialogue 1), v. 11, cuneiform transliteration (composite text) and English translation of Matuszak (2019b) via DSSt. “This is one of the classic lines of Sumerian scatalogical invective.” Johnson & Geller (2015) p. 107. Johnson & Geller, however, have a significantly different translation of Two Scribes, v. 11: “(You have) a penis stuck up your ass, with only one testicle hanging down.” Id. Knowledge of Sumerian is still regrettably less than perfect. Further scholarly progress should clarify this classic insult.

[10] Two Women B, vv. 148-9, cuneiform transliteration and English translation via DSSt. Similarly, “no man who sleeps with her takes pleasure in her (too) small vulva {galla4la tur-tur-ra lu2 nu2 da-a-ni la-ba-an-ḫul2-l[e]}.” The Evil Mouth {Ka hulu-a}, text Ax i 17, from Matuszak (2019a) p. 263. In medieval European literature, in contrast, women sought to make their vaginas smaller.

Recognizing the mutuality of heterosexual relations, an Early Dynastic (dating about 2900-2350 BGC) insult associated female sexual unattractiveness with male sexual failure:

she who causes (the penis) to be shriveled

{ ḫáš/ḫaš4 giš-bír / ⸢mu-ḫa⸣-ab-bi-ir-tum }

BT 9,20′ / ED 78, Sumerian / Akkadian transliteration and English translation from Klein (2003) pp. 142-3.

[11] Dialog 2, v. 75, cuneiform transliteration of Manuel Ceccarelli via DSSt, English translation from Matuszak (2023) p. 609.

[12] Two Women B, vv. 102, 120, cuneiform transliteration and English translation from from Matuszak (2023) p. 609. The DSSt translation has, “And you, you belong to womankind?!”

[13] Cf. Konstantopoulos (2020), which doesn’t recognize women’s gender advantages and adopts a totalizing myth of patriarchy. Sumerian literary debate poems depict the ideal role for men as being a scribe, and the ideal role for women as being a homemaker. Many more opportunities thus existed for women to be recognized as “ideal women” than for men to be recognized as “ideal men.” Mutuszak discussed this issue in a podcast entitled, in accordance with dominant gynocentric imperatives, “Misogyny and the ideal Sumerian woman.” See Thin Edge of the Wedge, Episode 2.

[14] The Father and His Disobedient Son / Der Vater und sein missratener Sohn, vv. 147-158, cuneiform transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from De Zorzi (2019) p. 223, based mainly on Sjöberg (1975).

[15] Lackey of a dead god, incipit “O Bel-etir, you kidnapped catamite, doubly so” (SAA 3.30), Assyrian text from Livingstone (1989) p. 66, English translation from Foster (2005) p. 1021. For an excerpt with notes and commentary, De Zorzi (2019) p. 227. This text is from the seventh century BGC. Id. p. 226.

[image] Stef Connor and Phoebe Haines performing their adaptation of disparaging the man Engardu based on the Sumerian text Engardu the Fool / Diatribe Against Engar-dug. Via YouTube.


Ceccarelli, Manuel. 2020. “An Introduction to the Sumerian School Disputes: Subject, Structure, Function and Context.” Chapter 3 (pp. 33-55) in Enrique Jiménez and Catherine Mittermayer, eds. Disputation Literature in the Near East and Beyond. Berlin: De Gruyter.

De Zorzi, Nicla. 2019. ‘“Rude Remarks not Fit to Smell:” Negative Value Judgements Relating to Sensory Perceptions in Ancient Mesopotamia.’ Pp. 217-252 in Annette Schellenberg and Thomas Krüger, eds. Sounding Sensory Profiles in the Ancient Near East. SBL Ancient Near East Monographs Series 25. Atlanta, G: SBL Press.

Foster, Benjamin R. 2005. Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature. Third Edition. Potomac, MD: CDL Press.

Johnson, Justin Cale and Markham J. Geller. 2015. The Class Reunion: An Annotated Translation and Commentary on the Sumerian Dialogue, Two Scribes. Leiden: Brill.

Klein, Jacob. 2003. “An Old Babylonian Edition of an Early Dynastic Collection of Insults (BT 9).” Pp. 135–149 in Walther Sallaberger, Konrad Volk, and Annette Zgoll, eds.Literatur, Politik Und Recht in Mesopotamien: Festschrift Für Claus Wilcke. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Livingstone, Alasdair. 1989. Court Poetry and Literary Miscellanea. State Archives of Assyria, v. 3. Helsinki, Finland: Helsinki University Press.

Konstantopoulos, Gina. 2020. “My Men Have Become Women and My Women Men: Gender Identity and Cursing in Mesopotamia.” Die Welt Des Orients: Journal for the Study of Christian Social Practice. 50(2): 358–75.

Matuszak, Jana. 2016. “‘She Is Not Fit for Womanhood’: The Ideal Housewife According to Sumerian Literary Texts.” Chapter 13 (pp. 228-254) in Brigitte Lion and Cécile Michel, eds. The Role of Women in Work and Society in the Ancient near East. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Matuszak, Jana. 2019a. “Assessing Misogyny in Sumerian Disputations and Diatribes.” Pp. 259-272 in Agnès Garcia-Ventura and Saana Svärd, eds. Proceedings of the Second Workshop on Gender, Methodology, and the Ancient Near East. Barcelona: Edicions de la Universitat de Barcelona.

Matuszak, Jana. 2019b. “Es Streite Wer Kann! Ein Neuer Rekonstruktions- Und Interpretationversuch Für Das Sumerische Schulstreitgespräch ‚Dialog 1‘.” Zeitschrift Für Assyriologie Und Vorderasiatische Archäologie. 109(1): 1–47.

Matuszak, Jana. 2023. “Humour in Sumerian Didactic Literature.” Pp. 597-612 in Robert Rollinger, Irene Madreiter, Martin Lang, and Cinzia Pappi, eds. The Intellectual Heritage of the Ancient near East: Papers Held at the 64th Rencontre Assyriologique International and the 12th Melammu Symposium, University of Innsbruck, July 16-20, 2018. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.

Sjöberg, Åke W. 1972. “‘He Is a Good Seed of a Dog’ and ‘Engardu the Fool.’” Journal of Cuneiform Studies. 24(4): 107–19.

Sjöberg, Åke W. 1973. “Der Vater Und Sein Missratener Sohn.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies. 25(3): 105–69.

“handmaid of the handmaids of God”: women’s Christian preeminence

Writing to Pope Boniface I about 720, the abbess Eangyth referred to herself as “handmaid of the handmaids of God {ancilla ancillarum dei}.” Popes onward from Pope Gregory I in 590 called themselves “servant of the servants of God {servus servorum dei}.” Abbess Eangyth, who governed a double monastery of nuns and monks, adapted the pattern of this papal title. Eangyth also referred to herself as “unworthy {indigna}” and “serving without merit under the name of abbess {nomine abbatissae sine merito functa}.”[1] The greatest in a Christian perspective are those who present themselves as the most humble. For this reason among many others, women have long been preeminent over men in Christianity.

Pope Gregory I, who came to be called Saint Gregory the Great, wasn’t well-positioned to appear humble. He came from one of the most distinguished lineages of his time. Gregory’s great-great-grandfather was Pope Felix III, the pope serving from 483-492. Gregory’s mother Silvia was a noble woman honored as a saint soon after her death. Gregory’s father Gordianus was a patrician who served as a Roman Senator and Prefect of the City of Rome. Gordianus owned a luxurious villa on Rome’s Caelian Hill and large estates in Sicily. Gregory inherited these properties. Moreover, Gregory himself served as Prefect of Rome in 574. He was then only about 33 years old.

Gregory nonetheless declared for himself the title “servant of the servants of God {servus servorum dei}.” In 574, long before he was named pope, Gregory turned to monastic life and founded six monasteries in Sicily. In 587, he gave his family home on Rome’s Caelian Hill to Benedictine monks as a monastery dedicated to Saint Andrew the Apostle. In the deed of gift to the Benedictines, Gregory described himself as “servant of the servants of God {servus servorum dei}.”[2]

Gregory was selected to be Pope in 590. He reportedly attempted to flee from Rome to avoid having the papacy conferred on him. He was miraculously located and persuaded to accept the papacy.[3] In his first papal letter, he referred to himself as “servant of the servants of God {servus servorum dei}.” A life of Pope Gregory written in 875 reported:

If he soon became in fact the supreme pontiff of the most blessed city of Rome and consulted for mortals with Christ, nonetheless with a declaration of severe threats he refused the preeminent title of Universal. John, the Bishop of Constantinople, insolently usurped for himself this title at that time in the way of his pontifical predecessors. Gregory defined himself in his first written letters humbly enough first of all as the servant of the servants of God. He left to all his successors the inherited lesson of his humility, both in this title and in his modest pontifical vestments. One may see those vestments preserved until now in the holy Roman Church.

{ Si quidem mox ut summum pontificium felicissimae Romanae urbis, Christo mortalibus consulente, sortitus est, superstitiosum Universalis vocabulum, quod Joannes Constantinopolitanus episcopus insolenter sibi tunc temporis usurpabat, more antecessorum suorum pontificum, sub districtissimae interminationis sententia refutavit, et primus omnium se in principio epistolarum suarum servum servorum Dei scribi satis humiliter definivit, cunctisque suis successoribus documentum suae humilitatis tam in hoc quam in mediocribus pontificalibus indumentis, quod videlicet hactenus in sancta Romana Ecclesia conservatur, haereditarium reliquit. }[4]

Saint Gregory the Great thus achieved high renown for his humility.

Gregory competed vigorously, and probably unsuccessfully, to appear more humble than the wealthy, politically connected Roman aristocratic woman Rusticiana. Granddaughter of the eminent Boethius and holding considerable estates in Italy and Sicily, Rusticiana resided in Constantinople. There she was prominent in the court of the Emperor Maurice. In the 590s, Rusticiana’s daughter married Apion III, scion of an eminent family holding vast estates in Egypt. Rusticiana sent Gregory money and tapestries. The latter was a particularly prized Byzantine good. Despite her vast wealth and eminent status, Rusticiana presented herself as inferior to Gregory. In a letter to her, Gregory protested:

I received your Excellence’s letters. In their vigor, devotion, and sweetness, they fully comforted me when I was bedridden with a very grave sickness. Yet one matter I received painfully: that in those very letters to me, too often was stated what could have been said just once: “your handmaid” and again “your handmaid.” For what reason does Rusticiana call herself my handmaid? I, who in fact was made servant of all through the burdens of the papal office, was received before the papacy as her own suitable one. And therefore I ask through the power of the Almighty God that I would never again find this word in your letters written to me.

{ Excellentiae vestrae scripta suscepi, quae me in gravissima aegritudine positum de salute, de devotione ac de dulcedine sua omnino relevarent. Unum vero aegre suscepi, quia in eisdem epistolis ad me, quod semel esse poterat, saepius dicebatur: ancilla vestra, et ancilla vestra. Ego enim, qui per episcopatus onera servus sum omnium factus, qua ratione mihi se illa ancillam dicit, cuius susceptus ante episcopatum proprius fui? Et ideo rogo per omnipotentem Deum, ne hoc verbum aliquando ad me in scriptis vestris inveniam. }[5]

Rusticiana’s personal wealth was probably greater than Gregory’s. With her personal connections in the Byzantine court, she probably was more politically influential than he. Pope Gregory rightly insisted that Rusticiana was not his inferior. He surely also didn’t want her to place him rhetorically in the position of God, as he would be with her being the handmaid of him.

Whitby Abbey at sunset

For Christians, the most significant servant of God is Mary, the mother of Jesus. According to Luke, the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her that she would conceive a son. Her son would be great and would be called the Son of the Most High. Moreover, he would sit on the throne of David and reign over the House of Jacob. This was astonishing news for a young, otherwise unknown woman newly married to a carpenter from the dusty provincial town of Nazareth. Mary responded humbly to this divine prophecy:

Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done unto me according to your word.

{ ecce ancilla Domini fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum

ἰδοὺ ἡ δούλη κυρίου γένοιτό μοι κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου }[6]

In Mary’s response, the ancient Greek word δούλη, commonly translated as “handmaid,” means more precisely “female bond-servant.” The masculine form of this ancient Greek word, δοῦλος, is commonly translated as “servant.” It means more precisely “male bond-servant.” Mere difference in gender inflection of the ancient Greek word became in Latin and English translation two different words: “δούλη / ancilla / handmaid” and “δοῦλος / servus / servant,” respectively. Mary thus became more linguistically differentiated from male bond-servants in translation from the ancient Greek.

In the Christian gospels, Mary is distinguished from almost all bond-servants in that she is the “handmaid of the Lord {δούλη κυρίου}.” Most of the servants in the gospels are ordinary household servants. Only one other person in the gospels is described as a servant of the Lord. Upon seeing Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus in the temple, the righteous, devout, and otherwise unknown Simeon declared:

Most High, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples — a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

{ nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine secundum verbum tuum in pace quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum lumen ad revelationem gentium et gloriam plebis tuae Israhel

νῦν ἀπολύεις τὸν δοῦλόν σου δέσποτα κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου ἐν εἰρήνῃ ὅτι εἶδον οἱ ὀφθαλμοί μου τὸ σωτήριόν σου ὃ ἡτοίμασας κατὰ πρόσωπον πάντων τῶν λαῶν φῶς εἰς ἀποκάλυψιν ἐθνῶν καὶ δόξαν λαοῦ σου Ἰσραήλ }[7]

Mary, who described herself as a (female) servant of the Lord, become the most powerful person in medieval Europe. Simeon is a much less well-known servant of God. In fact, the presentation of Jesus in the temple has in Christian history commonly been celebrated as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Simeon is far less eminent than Mary as a servant / handmaid of the Most High Lord.

Simeon holding the baby Jesus {Nunc dimittis); excerpt from painting by Rembrandt

With his keen Christian understanding, the apostle Paul modeled himself on Mary as a servant of the Lord. Paul called himself a “servant of Jesus Christ {δοῦλος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ}” in the opening address of his letters to the churches at Rome, Philippi, and Galatia. Paul regarded Jesus Christ to be the son of God and one with God. Paul thus effectively understood himself as a (male) servant of the Lord. In that sense Paul represented himself as having the same status as Mary, the mother of Jesus.[8] Surviving sources indicate no Christians until the mid-fourth century had the audacity to follow Paul in declaring themselves to have Mary’s status as a servant of the Lord.[9] Devotional competition eventually prompted Christians to describe themselves like Paul in imitating Mary in serving God. The phrase “servant of the servants of God {servus servorum dei}” combines declarations of humility and devotion. In Christian understanding, the preeminent model of humility and devotion is Mary, not Paul.

The phrases “handmaid of the handmaids of God {ancilla ancillarum dei}” and “servant of the servants of God {servus servorum dei}” are essentially Marian. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the first and by far the most important Christian servant of God. She is also the most eminent Christian model of humility. Men of course are capable of identifying with Mary and learning from Mary even though she is a woman. Yet from a gender perspective, women are advantaged in learning the Christian meaning of service from someone of the same gender. The exclusion of women from Christian priesthood and some leading Church offices obfuscates women’s fundamental Christian preeminence. Not even a pope as “servant of the servants of God {servus servorum dei}” can measure up to an abbess similarly declaring herself “handmaid of the handmaids of God {ancilla ancillarum dei}.”

Christian churches urgently need to raise men’s status as a gender. Much more can and should be done to affirm men’s God-created goodness as fully human beings. Nonetheless, men probably won’t ever achieve equality with women in Christianity. Men as Christians simply must humbly accept their inferiority to woman in a Christian sense.[10]

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[1] Letter to Winfred (Pope Boniface I), from Abbess Eangyth and her daughter Heaburg (Bugga), dated 719-722, Latin text from Dümmler (1887), Letter 14, with English translation (modified) by Emerton (2000) p. 14. On the greatest in a Christian perspective, Matthew 23:11-12.

Superlatives of the form “x of x’s” have long existed in Mesopotamia. King Tukulti-Ninurta I, who reigned over the Middle Assyrian Empire from 1233 to 1197 BGC, used the title “king of kings.” Hebrew scripture uses the phrases “god of gods” and “lord of lords.” Psalms 136:2-3. The phrase “flower of flowers” has for at least two millennia described supreme beauty.

[2] Mourret (1946) p. 60. Writing on Gregory the Great for the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, James Bramby late in the nineteenth century noted with regard to Gregory’s use of “servant of the servants of God {servus servorum dei}”:

The designation, however, had been used by others before him, as by Pope Damasus (Ep. IV. ad Stephanum et Africæ Episcopos), and Augustine (Ep. ad Vitalem). Gregory may have been the first to use it habitually.

Note to Gregory the Great, Register of Letters {Registum Epistolarum}, Book I, Epistle 1. Augustine’s letter “To Vitalis {ad Vitalem}” (Letter 217, written about 427) is addressed from “Bishop Augustine, servant of Christ, and through Him the servant of His servants {Augustinus episcopus servus Christi, et per ipsum servus servorum ipsius}.” That’s not quite equivalent to “servus servorum dei.” “To Stephan and the African bishops {Ad Stephanum et Africæ Episcopos}” apparently isn’t now regarded as one of Damasus’s genuine epistles.

[3] According to the earliest life of Pope Gregory I, known as the Whitby Life of Gregory {Vita Gregorii}, Gregory fled from Rome to escape from being confirmed as pope:

So when Gregory was elected by the people of God to the pastoral office and the apostolic dignity already mentioned, he fled from it with great humility and very anxiously sought a place to hide. But he was watched with such care that even the entrance gates of the city were surrounded by guards on every side. He is hence said to have persuaded some merchants to take him out, hidden in a cask. He then immediately sought out a hiding-place in the depths of the woods. Thrusting himself into the leafiest shades of the bushes, there he lay hidden. But after he had been there for three days and three nights, the watchmen at the heavenly gates forthwith declared his whereabouts. For the people of God did not elect someone else, as he had hoped, but gave themselves up to fasting and supplication day and night, praying earnestly that God would show them where he was. Then for three whole nights there appeared to them a very bright column of light, which penetrated the forest so that its top reached up to the sky. It appeared in the form of a ladder to a certain holy man who was an anchorite, or so we have heard, with angels descending and ascending on it, as we read of the blessed Jacob at Luz, the place which, from this incident, came to be called Bethel, that is, the house of God. … When his hiding-place was revealed, Gregory was found and led to the sacred office.

{ Nam cum ad curam pastoralem prefatam apostolice dignitatis a populo Dei electus est, tam eam humiliter aufugit, ut ubi se potuisset abscondere satis anxie querebat. Qui cum fuisset tanta servatus cura ut iam porte urbis qua inerat passim custodibus cingebantur, dictur a negotiatoribus se obtinuisse ut in cratere occultatus educeretur. Sicque statim silve avias querendo latebras, interseruit se frondissimis fruticum opacis occultandum. Ubi cum fuisset tribus diebus et noctibus, eum etiam portarum vigiles celestium, confestim quo erat declamabant. Cum populus Dei non alterum pro eo ut dilexit elegit, sed ut ille monstraretur ab eo, ieiuniis et orationibus illis diebus ac noctibus serviens, diligentur precatus est. Nam visa est omnibus per totas tres noctes columna lucidissima silvam intrasse, porrecto cacumine usque ad celum. Que cuidam sancto viro quem anachoretam fuisse audivimus visa est scala, et descendentes per eam et ascendentes angeli sicut de beato Iacob in Luza legimus, que ex inde Bethel, hoc est domus Dei vocata est. … Cum declaratus ubi latebat inventus, ductus est ad sacerdotium. }

Whitby Vita Gregorii, Chapter 7, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Colgrave (1968) pp. 84-7. This story of Gregory fleeing from being appointed pope draws upon hagiographic motifs. On the Whitby Vita Gregorii and hagiography, Butler (2005).

The Whitby Vita Gregorii, also called the Book of the Blessed Pope Gregory {Liber beatae Gregorii papae}, apparently was written at Whitby Abbey in Northumbria, England, between 704 and 714. Colgrave (1968) p. 48. It survives in one manuscript, Switzerland, St. Gallen, Codex 567, written early in the ninth century. The monastery / abbey at Whitby (Old English Streanaeshalch / Streoneshealh) was founded in 657. Underscoring this institution’s importance, a synod held there in 664, called the Synod of Whitby, set the date for celebrating Easter in Northumbria.

Whitby Abbey was a double monastery: a monastery containing distinct communities of nuns and monks. Women commonly ruled such institutions. Whitby Abbey had as its founder and first leader Lady Hilda, an abbess now regarded as a saint. Five bishops trained under Lady Hilda’s rule at Whitby Abbey. The second and third leaders of Whitby Abbey were the noble women Eanflæd and Ælfflæd. Women thus ruled Whitby Abbey at least until 714. Given these circumstances, a woman might have domineeringly ordered a monk to write the Whitby Vita Gregorii. That would be similar to how Heloise ordered Abelard to do literary work for her Oratory of the Paraclete. Scholars haven’t yet fully recognized and understood the implications of such arrangements.

Gregory’s resistance to being appointed pope also appears in less elaborate representations in subsequent lives of Gregory. The Lombard and Benedictine monk Paul the Deacon wrote the Life of Saint Gregory the Great {Vita Sancti Gregorii Magni}, probably in the 780s at the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino. Heath (2018) pp. 67-72. Vita Sancti Gregorii Magni, section 10, describes Gregory resisting with all his strength being appointed pope and striving to escape. For the currently leading edition of the Latin text, Tuzzo (2002). A earlier, inferior Latin edition is available in Patrologia Latina 75. For a freely accessible English translation, Jones (1951).

An interpolator extended Paul the Deacon’s Vita Sancti Gregorii Magni considerably. The interpolated life was formerly dated to the mid-ninth century. Heath (2018) pp. 68-9. Id. p. 68, n. 88 gives the date for the interpolated life of Gregory. It’s better regarded as dating to the late eighth or early ninth century. Leyser (2016) p. 188. The interpolated version was highly successful and survives in over a hundred manuscripts. Id.

The humility of Gregory is emphasized in the Life of Pope Gregory I {Vita Gregorii I papae} written by John the Deacon / John Hymmonides the Roman Deacon {Iohannes Hymmonides Diaconus Romanus} about 875. This John the Deacon has been confused with other like-named persons. John the Deacon / Iohannes Hymmonides Diaconus Romanus included the story of Gregory fleeing the papacy, but with less biblical allusions than in Whitby Vita Gregorii. Vita Gregorii I papae, Bk 1, section 40. John also told of Gregory writing to the Emperor Maurice to request that Maurice not consent to Gregory being made pope. Gregory’s letter, however, was intercepted.

John the Deacon explicitly dismissed alternate accounts of Gregory’s character:

Indeed, because not a few perfidious Lombards assert that Gregory desired greatly the pontificate rather than fled from it, it is worthwhile to introduce a few things among many by which show more clearly than light that, in so far as he could without committing the vice of stubbornness, he certainly did not desire the pontificate, but rather, he ardently desired to avoid it as an unsupportable burden.

{ Verum, quia sunt nonnulli Langobardorum perfidi, qui Gregorium appetisse magis pontificium autument quam fugisse, operae pretium reor pauca de multis inserere, quibus eum, in quantum sine pertinaciae vitio potuit, noluisse pontificium, imo quasi pondus importabile penitus cavere voluisse, luce clarius manifestem. }

Vita Gregorii I papae, Bk 1, section 45, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 75:81C, English translation (modified) from Bush (1950) p. 64.

Vita Gregorii I papae consists of four books. The currently best Latin edition is Castaldi (2004). The Latin edition from Patrologia Latina 75:72ff is readily available online. For an English translation of the first two books, Bush (1950). For an English translation of the third book, Ware (1951).

In telling of Pope Gregory I Christianizing England, Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People {Historica Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum} (completed c. 731) apparently drew upon the Whitby Vita Gregorii. However, Gregory wasn’t highly honored in Rome until the ninth century. Latham (2015) pp. 6-12. That’s a fitting tribute to his humility. For a modern, effusively laudatory life of Saint Gregory the Great, Sister of Notre Dame (1924). For scholarly appraisals of Gregory’s life, Dudden (1905), Mourret (1946) Ch. 2, and Herrin (2021) Ch. 4.

[4] John the Deacon, Life of Pope Gregory I {Vita Gregorii I papae}, Book 2, Section 1, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 75:87, my English translation, benefiting from that of Bush (1950). The “topic {argumentum}” of this section is “Gregory, inscribing himself as a servant of the servants of God, dresses himself in ordinary clothes {Gregorius servum servorum Dei se scribens, mediocribus vestimentis amicitur}.” Some aspects of the quote’s Latin are ambiguous. Bush has made some different choices in resolving the ambiguity than I have.

John the Faster, the bishop of Constantinople, titled himself the Universal / Ecumenical Patriarch {patriarches oikoumenikos}. That title could imply the preeminence of the bishop of Constantinople over the bishop of Rome. Gregory, who did not take the title Universal Pastor {Pastor Universalis}, strongly objected to John describing himself as universal or ecumenical. Vita Gregorii I papae, Book 2, sections 51-54, 60.

Here’s Gregory’s first letter. For the best current edition of Gregory’s letters, Martyn (2004). Bramby noted:

in the Registrum Epistolarum {of Pope Gregory I} we find it {servum servorum Dei} four times only, viz., in the headings of Epistles I. 1, I. 36, VI. 51, XIII. 1. But it may have been omitted in the copies of his letters preserved at Rome. This is probable from the fact that it occurs in the letters relating to the English Mission as given by Bede, though absent from the same letters in the Registrum.

Gregory describing himself as “servum servorum Dei” in his deed of gift for his Caelian Hill home indicates the importance to him of this title. On papal titles more generally, Żmudziński (2019).

[5] Pope Gregory I to Rusticiana, letter written in February, 601, excerpt, Latin text from Ewald & Hartmann (1887-91), English translation (modified) by Angela Kinney for Epistolae: Medieval Women’s Latin Letters. On the biography of Rusticiana, Cameron (1979) pp. 225-6.

Rusticiana also apparently sent Gregory a poem that she ordered Andrew the Orator to compose for her. Cameron (1979) pp. 226-7. This song has commonly been called “Song of Andrew the Orator to Rusticiana about the Virgin Mary {Andreae oratoris de Maria virgine ad Rusticianam carmen}.” It survives in numerous manuscripts. The phrase “about the Virgin Mary {de Maria virgine}” has no specific manuscript basis. Id. p. 223. Like for many men in history, virtually nothing is known about Andrew {Andreas}. He did write this poem for Rusticiana. That meager fact provides insight into Byzantine gender. In reality, “patriarchy” explains actual personal relationships about as well as storks explain human babies.

[6] Luke 1:38. Here and in subsequent quotations, the source text includes Jerome’s Latin translation (the Vulgate) and the original Greek of Luke’s gospel.

[7] Luke 2:29-32. For ordinary household servants, see, e.g. Luke 7:2, 12:43, 14:17, 17:7. The household master in actual practice typically was the woman married to the man formally regarded as the head of the household.

The Gospel of John distinguishes servants not through who they serve, but with different Greek terms. In John 12:26, Jesus describes his Christian servants using a different Greek word from “δοῦλος”:

If anyone serves me, he must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. If anyone serves me, that one my Father will honor.

{ si quis mihi ministrat me sequatur et ubi sum ego illic et minister meus erit si quis mihi ministraverit honorificabit eum Pater meus

ἐὰν ἐμοί τις διακονῇ ἐμοὶ ἀκολουθείτω καὶ ὅπου εἰμὶ ἐγὼ ἐκεῖ καὶ ὁ διάκονος ὁ ἐμὸς ἔσται ἐάν τις ἐμοὶ διακονῇ τιμήσει αὐτὸν ὁ πατήρ }

Here the Greek for servant is “διάκονος.” That Greek word is the root for the English word “deacon.” The Vulgate picks up the change in the Greek by using for servant not “servus,” but “minister,” the Latin root for the English word “minister.” In John 15:15, Jesus distinguishes his “friends {φίλοι}” from “servants {δοῦλοί}.”

[8] The extensive literatue considering “slave to God” in the New Testament has largely ignored Mary, the mother of Jesus. For overviews of that literature, Goodrich (2013) and Raguse (2015).

[9] Curtius (1953) p. 407. Curtius differentiated the topos of “affected modesty,” which seems to be equivalent to the “modesty topos” in his analysis, from the “devotional formula.” He categorized “servus servorum Dei” as a devotional formula. Id. p. 84. However, “servus servorum Dei” formally expresses both devotion to God and modesty relative to others devoted to God.

[10] Men, whom scholars regard as communicatively inferior to women, might have difficulty understanding Christian humility. A scholar observed:

A truly humble Christian is not wont to vouch for his humility himself. The Rhenish prelate to whom is ascribed the saying, “Humility is the rarest of all virtues; God be praised, I have it!” — this eminent ecclesiastic can hardly serve as a model of humility.

Curtius (1953) p. 408. Cf. Luke 18:11. The great scholar and saint Jerome exemplified a much more sophisticated practice of communication.

[images] (1) Saint Hilda stained glass window in the cloister of Chester Cathedral. Saint Hilda was abbess of Whitby Abbey, a double monastery in Northumbria, from its founding in 657 to her death in 680. This stained glass window (window south 3.4) was designed by Archibald Keightley Nicholson and installed about 1927. For more information, Brooke et al. (2020) pp. 302, 310-1. Source image from id. (2) Whitby Abbey at sunset on April 12, 2009. Source image thanks to Ackers72 and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Simeon holding the baby Jesus (“Nunc dimittis…”); excerpt from painting (“Simeon’s Song of Praise”) by Rembrandt in 1631. Preserved as accession # 145 in the Mauritshuis {Maurice House} (The Hauge, Netherlands). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Mary holding the baby Jesus with Simeon looking on (“Nunc dimittis…”). Manuscript illumination painted about 1415. Detail from folio 63r of Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Musée Condé (Chantilly, France), MS 65.


Brooke, Jane, Nicholas Fry, Barry Ingram, Elizabeth Moncrieff, and James Thomson. 2020. Chester Cathedral: The Windows of the Cloister. Blessed be God in his Angels and in his Saints: A record of the windows of the Cloister of Chester Cathedral. Online.

Bush, Cecilia M. 1950. Life of Saint Gregory the Great Written in Four Books by John the Deacon: A Translation and Commentary of Books I and II. Master of Arts Thesis, Creighton University (Omaha, Nebraska).

Butler, Brian. 2005. The Whitby life of Gregory the Great: exegesis and hagiography. PhD Thesis, University College Cork, Ireland.

Cameron, Averil. 1979. “A Nativity Poem of the Sixth Century A.D.” Classical Philology. 74(3): 222–32.

Castaldi, Lucia. 2004. Giovanni Diacono. Vita Gregorii I Papae (Bibliotheca hagiographica Latina / B.H.L. 3641-3642); Edizione Critica. Vol. 1: La Tradizione Manoscritta. Firenze: SISMEL.

Colgrave, Bertram, ed. and trans. 1968. The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. 1953. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter (1947), translated from the Germany by Willard R. Trask. New York: Pantheon Books.

Dudden, F. Homes. 1905. Gregory the Great: His Place in History and Thought. London: Longmans Green.

Dümmler, Ernst Ludwig, ed. 1887. “S. Bonifacii et Lulli Epistolae.” Section 6 (pp. 215-413) in Monumenta Germaniae historica. Epistolae Merowingici et Karolini Aevi. Tomus I. Edidit Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum Germanicarum Medii Aevi. Berolini: Apud Weidmannos.

Emerton, Ephraim, trans. 2000. The Letters of Saint Boniface. First printed, 1940. Reprint with a new introduction & bibliography by Thomas F. X. Noble. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ewald, Paulus and Ludovicus Hartmann, eds. 1887-91. Gregorius Magnus. Registrum Epistularum. MGH Epp. in Quart 2: Gregorii papae registrum epistolarum. Berlin: Weidmann.

Goodrich, John. 2013. “From Slaves of Sin to Slaves of God: Reconsidering the Origin of Paul’s Slavery Metaphor in Romans 6.” Bulletin for Biblical Research. 23(4): 509-30.

Heath, Christopher. 2018. The Narrative Worlds of Paul the Deacon: Between Empires and Identities in Lombard Italy. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Herrin, Judith. 2021. The Formation of Christendom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jones, Mary Emmanuel. 1951. The Life of Saint Gregory the Great / Vita Sancti Gregorii Magni by Paul the Deacon: A Translation and Commentary. Master of Arts Thesis, Creighton University (Omaha, Nebraska).

Latham, Jacob A. 2015. “Inventing Gregory ‘the Great’: Memory, Authority, and the Afterlives of the ‘Letania Septiformis.’” Church History. 84(1): 1–31.

Leyser, Conrad. 2016. “The Memory of Gregory the Great and the Making of Latin Europe, 600-1000.” Chapter 8 (pp. 181-201) in Kate Cooper and Conrad Leyser, eds. Making Early Medieval Societies: Conflict and Belonging in the Latin West, 300-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Preprint version.

Martyn, John R. C., trans. 2004. The Letters of Gregory the Great. 3 volumes. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Mourret, Fernand, trans. by Newton Thompson. 1946. A History of the Catholic Church. Vol. 3. Period of the Early Middle Ages. St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Company.

Raguse, Chanan. 2015. “Enslaved to Christ: Paul and the Free Corinthian Christian As ‘Slaves of Christ’ : A Metaphor Theoretical Investigation into the Pauline Expression δοῦλος Χριστοῦ.” Dissertation Protestant Theological University. PThU. .

Sister of Notre Dame. 1924. The Life of St. Gregory the Great. Dublin: The Talbot Press.

Tuzzo, Sabina, ed.. 2002. Paul the Deacon. Vita Sancti Gregorii Magni. Pisa: Scuola normale superiore.

Ware, Ann Patrick. 1951. Life of Saint Gregory the Great Written in Four Books by John the Deacon: A Translation and Commentary of Book III. Master of Arts Thesis, Creighton University (Omaha, Nebraska).

Żmudziński, Marek Andrzej. 2019. “Papal titles as a manifestation of the primatial power of the Bishop of Rome.” Horyzonty Polityki. 10(31):45-59.

Mary holding the baby Jesus with Simeon looking on (Nunc dimittis); medieval manuscript illumination

Hector and Helen goaded Paris to fight Menelaus

According to the Iliad, nine years into the Trojan War’s massive violence against men, Greek and Trojan men faced each other on the battlefield outside Troy. Prince Paris, son of the Trojan king Priam, moved forward from the Trojan line and challenged the Greek men to a face-to-face fight. The Greek king and fearsome warrior Menelaus eagerly leaped down from his chariot and sought to kill Paris. Menelaus’s wife had left him to become Paris’s wife, Helen of Troy. Punishment for adultery, like the institutionalized violence of war, has long been gender-biased against men. Both Paris’s brother Hector and his wife Helen goaded him to fight Menelaus. Paris’s self-abasing responses underscore deeply entrenched disregard for men’s lives.

Menelaus pursues Paris; painting on ancient Greek vase

When Paris saw Menelaus coming towards him, he retreated back into the line of Trojan men. The leading Trojan warrior Hector, seeing his brother retreating, castigated him:

Evil Paris, excellent in appearance, mad for woman, deceiver —
if only you were impotent and had died unmarried.
This I would wish, and it would be much better
than being both an outrage and mockery to others.
The long-haired Greek men must be laughing at you,
saying you’re an eminent champion only because you have a beautiful
appearance, for you don’t have force in your guts, nor strength.

{ Δύσπαρι εἶδος ἄριστε γυναιμανὲς ἠπεροπευτὰ
αἴθ᾽ ὄφελες ἄγονός τ᾽ ἔμεναι ἄγαμός τ᾽ ἀπολέσθαι:
καί κε τὸ βουλοίμην, καί κεν πολὺ κέρδιον ἦεν
ἢ οὕτω λώβην τ᾽ ἔμεναι καὶ ὑπόψιον ἄλλων.
ἦ που καγχαλόωσι κάρη κομόωντες Ἀχαιοὶ
φάντες ἀριστῆα πρόμον ἔμμεναι, οὕνεκα καλὸν
εἶδος ἔπ᾽, ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ ἔστι βίη φρεσὶν οὐδέ τις ἀλκή. }[1]

Men’s beauty should be appreciated, not ridiculed. Wishing a man to be impotent is truly wicked. Men too often are devalued as lovers and directed to be instruments of violence. Hector thus taunted his brother Paris:

Can’t you face Menelaus, beloved of Ares?
Then you would know the sort of man whose lively wife you have.
You wouldn’t be helped by your cithara or your gifts of Aphrodite —
your hair and your appearance — when you would be mingling with dust.
But the Trojans — they are very afraid. Otherwise, you would already
be dead with a stone tunic because of all the bad deeds you have done!

{ οὐκ ἂν δὴ μείνειας ἀρηΐφιλον Μενέλαον;
γνοίης χ᾽ οἵου φωτὸς ἔχεις θαλερὴν παράκοιτιν:
οὐκ ἄν τοι χραίσμῃ κίθαρις τά τε δῶρ᾽ Ἀφροδίτης
ἥ τε κόμη τό τε εἶδος ὅτ᾽ ἐν κονίῃσι μιγείης.
ἀλλὰ μάλα Τρῶες δειδήμονες: ἦ τέ κεν ἤδη
λάϊνον ἕσσο χιτῶνα κακῶν ἕνεχ᾽ ὅσσα ἔοργας. }

Paris in response didn’t vigorously claim his own beauty and his personal worth. He instead proposed that he and Menelaus fight for Helen, as if she were a priceless prize for him, rather than he being a priceless prize for her:

Hector, you rebuke me rightly, not beyond what’s right.

But don’t fling into my face lovely gifts of Aphrodite,
which are glorious and may not be refused,
like gifts of the gods themselves, which one wouldn’t willingly choose.
But now, if you want me to battle and fight,
make the other Trojans and all the Greeks sit down,
and set between the armies me and Menelaus, beloved of Ares,
to fight for Helen and all her property.
Whoever of us two proves himself better and wins,
let him rightly take home the woman and all her wealth.

{ Ἕκτορ ἐπεί με κατ᾽ αἶσαν ἐνείκεσας οὐδ᾽ ὑπὲρ αἶσαν

μή μοι δῶρ᾽ ἐρατὰ πρόφερε χρυσέης Ἀφροδίτης:
οὔ τοι ἀπόβλητ᾽ ἐστὶ θεῶν ἐρικυδέα δῶρα
ὅσσά κεν αὐτοὶ δῶσιν, ἑκὼν δ᾽ οὐκ ἄν τις ἕλοιτο:
νῦν αὖτ᾽ εἴ μ᾽ ἐθέλεις πολεμίζειν ἠδὲ μάχεσθαι,
ἄλλους μὲν κάθισον Τρῶας καὶ πάντας Ἀχαιούς,
αὐτὰρ ἔμ᾽ ἐν μέσσῳ καὶ ἀρηΐφιλον Μενέλαον
συμβάλετ᾽ ἀμφ᾽ Ἑλένῃ καὶ κτήμασι πᾶσι μάχεσθαι:
ὁππότερος δέ κε νικήσῃ κρείσσων τε γένηται,
κτήμαθ᾽ ἑλὼν εὖ πάντα γυναῖκά τε οἴκαδ᾽ ἀγέσθω }[2]

Women don’t have greater intrinsic human value than do men. Women should buy beloved men dinners and give them expensive gifts, if only as reparations for the terrible anti-men gender injustices that the Iliad illustrates.

Aphrodite saving Paris from Menelaus as Odysseus watches; carving on marble sarcophagus

The goddess of love Aphrodite loved men. Just as Menelaus was about to drag Paris by his head to sure death, Aphrodite snatched Paris away. She wrapped him in mist and transported him to his sensuous bedroom. Helen was then viewing the horrific violence against men from her protected, privileged position high up on a Trojan fortress wall.[3] Aphrodite summoned Helen to enjoy conjugal relations with her husband Paris, still alive thanks only to that goddess of love:

Helen, come this way. Paris calls you to come home.
He’s there in the marital bedroom, on the bed with inlaid rings.
He’s gleaming with his beauty and robes. You wouldn’t say
he came from fighting a foe, but rather he was going to a dance,
or from a dance having recently returned, he was resting.

{ δεῦρ᾽ ἴθ᾽: Ἀλέξανδρός σε καλεῖ οἶκον δὲ νέεσθαι.
κεῖνος ὅ γ᾽ ἐν θαλάμῳ καὶ δινωτοῖσι λέχεσσι
κάλλεΐ τε στίλβων καὶ εἵμασιν: οὐδέ κε φαίης
ἀνδρὶ μαχεσσάμενον τόν γ᾽ ἐλθεῖν, ἀλλὰ χορὸν δὲ
ἔρχεσθ᾽, ἠὲ χοροῖο νέον λήγοντα καθίζειν. }

Even when tired, men strive to fulfill as best they can their sexual obligation to their wives. Helen, however, viciously taunted Aphrodite about loving Paris.[4] Helen then declared that she wouldn’t go to her husband for fear of what other women would think of her:

There I will not go. It would be shameful
to continue to share that man’s bed, for all the Trojan women
would blame me afterwards. I have measureless griefs at heart.

{ κεῖσε δ᾽ ἐγὼν οὐκ εἶμι: νεμεσσητὸν δέ κεν εἴη:
κείνου πορσανέουσα λέχος: Τρῳαὶ δέ μ᾽ ὀπίσσω
πᾶσαι μωμήσονται: ἔχω δ᾽ ἄχε᾽ ἄκριτα θυμῷ. }[5]

Helen was a brazen adulterer in relation to her first husband Menelaus. In relation to her second husband Paris, she was a cowardly wife.

The prospects of a sexless marriage between Helen and Paris infuriated Aphrodite. She castigated Helen:

Don’t provoke me, wicked woman, or in anger I’ll desert you.
I can hate you, just as I now excessively love you.
and I can devise grievous hatred of you from both sides,
Trojans and Greeks alike. Then you would perish under an evil fate.

{ μή μ᾽ ἔρεθε σχετλίη, μὴ χωσαμένη σε μεθείω,
τὼς δέ σ᾽ ἀπεχθήρω ὡς νῦν ἔκπαγλα φίλησα,
μέσσῳ δ᾽ ἀμφοτέρων μητίσομαι ἔχθεα λυγρὰ
Τρώων καὶ Δαναῶν, σὺ δέ κεν κακὸν οἶτον ὄληαι. }

Helen thus agreed to go with the goddess of love to Paris in their marital bedroom.

Greek Prince Paris standing nude and holding an apple behind his back; sculpture

In their marital bedroom, Helen viciously taunted her current husband Paris as being a loser relative her former husband Menelaus. As if she were a Spartan mother speaking to her warrior son, Helen expressed contempt for Paris’s life:

You have returned from the war. I wish you had died there,
vanquished by the mighty man who was my former husband.
Once you boasted that, compared to Menelaus, beloved of Ares,
you were stronger with your hands and better with your spear.
But go now and challenge Menelaus, beloved of Ares,
to a duel again.

{ ἤλυθες ἐκ πολέμου: ὡς ὤφελες αὐτόθ᾽ ὀλέσθαι
ἀνδρὶ δαμεὶς κρατερῷ, ὃς ἐμὸς πρότερος πόσις ἦεν.
ἦ μὲν δὴ πρίν γ᾽ εὔχε᾽ ἀρηϊφίλου Μενελάου
σῇ τε βίῃ καὶ χερσὶ καὶ ἔγχεϊ φέρτερος εἶναι
ἀλλ᾽ ἴθι νῦν προκάλεσσαι ἀρηΐφιλον Μενέλαον
ἐξαῦτις μαχέσασθαι ἐναντίον }

Rather than dueling with Menelaus, Paris sought to have sex with his wife Helen. She, however, preferred him dead because he had shown himself to be a weaker fighter than her former husband. With cutting mockery, she reversed herself and advised him not to fight Menelaus:

But I myself
ask you to refrain, not to duel with fair-haired Menelaus
face-to-face, not to battle or fight with him without thought,
for soon he might vanquish you with his spear.

{ ἀλλά σ᾽ ἔγωγε
παύεσθαι κέλομαι, μηδὲ ξανθῷ Μενελάῳ
ἀντίβιον πόλεμον πολεμίζειν ἠδὲ μάχεσθαι
ἀφραδέως, μή πως τάχ᾽ ὑπ᾽ αὐτοῦ δουρὶ δαμήῃς. }

In the context of the brutalization of men’s sexuality, Helen’s reference to the superior power of Menelaus’s spear sexually belittles Paris. What husband would want to have sex with his wife after she wished him dead and taunted him as sexually inferior to her former husband?[6]

Like a battered husband, Paris continued to love Helen despite her verbal abuse of him. He protested her abuse only mildly. It apparently spurred his sexual desire for her:

Dear woman, don’t disparage me with harsh, reviling words.
This time Menelaus has vanquished me with Athena’s aid,
but another time I will vanquish him. On our side too, gods will help.
Come, let us have joy, sleeping together in love,
for sexual desire has never so enveloped my mind,
not even when I first swept you up from lovely Lacedaemon,
sailed away with you on my sea-going ships,
and on the island of Cranae mingled with you in love’s embrace.
Now I love you more, so sweet desire enraptures me.

{ μή με γύναι χαλεποῖσιν ὀνείδεσι θυμὸν ἔνιπτε:
νῦν μὲν γὰρ Μενέλαος ἐνίκησεν σὺν Ἀθήνῃ,
κεῖνον δ᾽ αὖτις ἐγώ: πάρα γὰρ θεοί εἰσι καὶ ἡμῖν.
ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε δὴ φιλότητι τραπείομεν εὐνηθέντε:
οὐ γάρ πώ ποτέ μ᾽ ὧδέ γ᾽ ἔρως φρένας ἀμφεκάλυψεν,
οὐδ᾽ ὅτε σε πρῶτον Λακεδαίμονος ἐξ ἐρατεινῆς
ἔπλεον ἁρπάξας ἐν ποντοπόροισι νέεσσι,
νήσῳ δ᾽ ἐν Κραναῇ ἐμίγην φιλότητι καὶ εὐνῇ,
ὥς σεο νῦν ἔραμαι καί με γλυκὺς ἵμερος αἱρεῖ. }

The divinity helping on Paris’s side was the goddess of love Aphrodite. He would have been better off hating like the goddess Hera.

Helen and Paris in their bedroom; painting

Paris’s embrace of Helen, who rightly called herself a “shameless bitch {κυνώπης},” shows the same bad judgment that caused the Trojan War’s massive violence against men. Menelaus should have considered himself fortunate when Helen ran off with Paris. Instead he gathered a huge army of Greek men to fight and die with Trojan men for that one nasty woman. Paris’s embrace of Helen after she wished him dead and disparaged him sexually indicates the folly of Greek and Trojan men — all men — more generally.[7]

The gender trouble is even worse. If Paris had fought with Menelaus before the start of the Trojan War, and the killing of one of those men would have prevented the killing of many more men, at least their duel would improved men’s welfare in aggregate. In reality, Hector goaded Paris into fighting with Menelaus during the ninth year of the horrific Trojan War. Moreover, Hera manipulated her husband Zeus into having the Trojans break their agreement with the Greeks to turn over Helen and her wealth if Menelaus defeated Paris. The Trojan War’s horrific violence against men thus continued even after Menelaus and Paris’s duel.

Having read the Iliad, Virgil understood gender trouble. You should, too.

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[1] Homer, Iliad 3.39-45, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Murray (1924). Subsequent quotes from the Iliad are similarly sourced. Although Hector was a fearsome warrior, his rebuke of Paris is milder than Helen’s rebuke of Paris. Minchin (2010) p. 390. On Hector’s rebukes in the Iliad, Driscoll (2010).

To help the general reader, I use “Greek men” for “Achaean men {Ἀχαιοί}” in the English translations. I similarly replace “Alexander” with “Paris.” Alexander was another name used for the Trojan prince Paris, although the two names were associated with different characterizations and perhaps different sources. Suter (1993) p. 2.

The Chicago Homer, which includes Richmond’s Lattimore’s English translation, provides a useful resource for studying the ancient Greek text of the Iliad. Lattimore’s introduction reviews the literary context and poetic style of the Iliad. Numerous other English translations of the Iliad are freely available online, including those of Butler (1898), Johnston (2002), and Kline (2009).

The Iliad’s editors and translators, who have been predominately men, haven’t adequately recognized the tragedy of men’s impotence. Commenting on Iliad 3.40, Kirk astutely observed:

ἄγονος could be taken either in a passive sense (‘unborn’) or in an active one, not so much ‘childless’ (as the emperor Augustus evidently meant when he used the verse against his daughter) as ‘unable to produce children’ — and then not because sterile but because impotent. There is no particular meaning of ἄγονος which makes Hektor’s wish absolutely logical and self-consistent — it is, after all, a highly rhetorical formulation; but what he wishes is that Paris had not been able to be γυναιμανής (as in 39) and so become involved in disastrous sexual unions (for that, rather than legal marriage, is the implication of ἄγονος here). Nearly all editors understand ‘unborn’, nevertheless.

Kirk (1985) p. 271. For Iliad 3.40, Murray has the (inconsistent) translation: “I wish that you had never been born and had died unwed.”

The subsequent quotes above are Iliad 3.52-7 (Can’t you face Menelaus…), 3.59, 64-72 (Hector, you rebuke me rightly…), 3.390-4 (Come this way…), 3.410-2 (There I will not go…), 3.414-7 (Don’t provoke me, wicked woman…), 3.428-33 (You have returned from the war…), 3.433-36 (But I myself…), 3.438-46 (Dear woman, don’t disparage me…), 3.180 (shameless bitch).

[2] Iliad 3.70 and 3.72 literally refer to the winner of Menelaus and Paris’s duel taking Helen and “the possessions {κτήμᾰτᾰ}.” As Lattimore and Murray’s English translations recognize, the possessions in context are best understood as Helen’s possessions. Reversing the direct sense of the pun on Helen’s name in Iliad 3.72 and drawing upon the deeply entrenched social practice of gender-biased criminalization of men, Blondell asserted that “the possessions” are goods that Paris stole from Menelaus when Helen and Paris eloped. Blondell (2010) pp. 3, 8. Critically thinking persons should recognize the prevalent gender bias in penal punishment.

Ancient scholars better appreciated Helen’s agency in taking possessions. Proclus’s summary of the Cypria, attributed to Stasinus of Cyprus and probably originating in the Hellenistic period, has Helen and Alexander together loading up their ship with valuables and sailing away in the night. Apollodorus has Helen alone putting property on board the ship. Helen also abandons Hermione, her nine-year-old daughter with Menelaus. Apollodorus, Epitome 3.3.

[3] From up on the Trojan city wall, Helen viewed the Greek and Trojan men preparing to attack each other and the duel of Menelaus and Paris. That section of the Iliad is known as the “viewing from the wall {teichoscopia / τειχοσκοπία}.” Summoning Helen to the τειχοσκοπία, the messenger goddess Iris explained that the Trojan and Greek men had ceased their battle:

But Paris and Menelaus, beloved of Ares,
will fight with their long spears for you.
You will be called the beloved wife of the one who wins.

{ αὐτὰρ Ἀλέξανδρος καὶ ἀρηΐφιλος Μενέλαος
μακρῇς ἐγχείῃσι μαχήσονται περὶ σεῖο:
τῷ δέ κε νικήσαντι φίλη κεκλήσῃ ἄκοιτις. }

Iliad, 3.136-8. Women are deeply implicated in epic violence against men. Women must do more to lessen violence against men. Not regarding violence against men as a spectating opportunity would help to devalue such violence.

Michael Delahoyde observes:

This book {Iliad, Book 3} contains the famous “teichoskopia”: the viewing from the wall. (Is this even a thing? Where else in any form of literature or film does one find a “viewing from the wall”?)

From high up on a fortress wall, women viewing men engaged in horrific violence against men is a common scene in medieval European literature. It’s closely associated with the men-devaluing tradition of chivalry. For an example of a leading classicist ignoring the role of women in encouraging stupid, pointless wars, Scodel (2008).

Voluminous scholarly cant about men’s “objectification” of women and men “trafficking” in women has tended to trivialize violence against men and innumerable killings of men. For example, a scholar declared:

In the Iliad, the objectification of Helen as “bride” is most obvious in the duel that Menelaus and Paris fight over her while she looks on from the walls of Troy.

Blondell (2010) p. 3. From her protected, privileged position, Helen is gazing down upon men attempting to kill each other. The concept of Helen’s “objectification” here is, most obviously, obfuscatory. Helen’s female gaze is actively bestializing men and objectifying them as tools of gynocentric values.

[4] Helen describes Aphrodite encouraging her to have sex with her husband Paris as deceptive. Helen then essentially suggests that Aphrodite herself go have sex with Paris. Helen’s words are cold and vicious. Bowie commented:

Helen’s words here are among the strongest criticisms addressed to a divine figure in Greek literature. … Characters in Greek literature regularly complain about the gods, but none uses language as free and downright rude as this…

Bowie (2019) p. 160. Helen expresses “insolence and sarcasm” toward Aphrodite. Minchin (2008) p. 390. In the second century BGC, the influential Homeric scholar Aristarchus of Samothrace athetized these verses. Hunter (2018) p. 69. Readers have often failed to accept the full breadth of women’s humanity.

[5] Based on detailed philological analysis of this passage, Bonifazi (2016) concludes:

Helen is jealous of Aphrodite’s vouchsafing to Alexander {Paris} not only safety but also charm and beauty. Through her pronominal choices and their host clauses she conveys that she would like to keep distance from Alexander, while acknowledging, at the same time, his beautiful appearance.

Philology is vitally important. Nonetheless, this conclusion seems to me misleading without keen understanding of the broader context of Helen’s relations to Menelaus and Alexander / Paris.

The Iliad never explicitly describes a marriage ceremony or marriage agreement between Helen and Paris. Helen is usually called Paris’s “ἄλοχον,” which can mean “mistress” rather than “wife.” Bowie (2019) p. 164, discussing Helen taunting Aphrodite in Iliad 3.409. Helen, however, clearly shares Paris’s bed, apparently exclusively. She has high status among Priam’s ruling family. See, e.g. Iliad 3.361-5 (King Priam addressing Helen). Helen calls King Priam “beloved father-in-law {φίλος ἑκυρός}.” Iliad 3.172. Book 3 of the Iliad suggests symmetry between Menelaus and Paris as Helen’s former and current husbands, respectively. Helen refers to Paris’s brother Hector as her “brother-in-law {δαήρ}.” Iliad 6.344, 24.762. Hector in turn describes Helen as having an affectionate relationship with him. Iliad 6.360. Helen similarly describes her relationship with Hector. Iliad 24.767-72. Helen refers to Alexander / Paris as her “πόσις {husband}.” Overall, the literary evidence overwhelming indicates that throughout the Iliad, Helen and Paris are married as marriage was understood in the archaic Greek world.

[6] Helen’s words here are “bitterly sarcastic and hostile.” Kirk (1985) p. 327. Helen “upbraids her husband.” She has a “hostile, unwelcoming mood.” Minchin (2008) pp. 391, 392. Some scholars nonetheless interpreted Helen’s words as “a genuine outburst of concern for Paris.” Hunter (2018) p. 70.

Helen’s unwillingness to have sex with her husband Paris has often been moralistically misinterpreted. Ancient scholars, as well as modern anti-meninists, have interpreted women’s sexual passion for men as folly. Hunter (2018) pp. 77-8, citing Heraclitus, Homeric Problems 28.4-7, and Euripides, Trojan Women 983-92. A husband and wife having sex in the afternoon was also apparently regarded as shameful. Id. p. 79, citing Plutarch, Moralia 18f, 655a. Within the context of the Iliad, Helen’s sense of shame in having sex with her husband Paris is best interpreted as responding to Paris being socially regarded as the loser of his duel with Menelaus.

[7] In the teichoscopia, Helen calls herself a “shameless bitch {κυνώπης}” in describing her relation to Menelaus. Iliad 3.180. She subsequently calls herself a “horrible, evil-intriguing bitch {κῠ́ων κᾰκομήχᾰνος ὀκρυόεις},” or in short, a “bitch {κύων}.” Iliad 6.344, 356. In the Odyssey, Helen characterizes herself as a “shameless bitch {κυνώπης}” in relation to Menelaus. Odyssey 4.145. Understood less literally, Helen substantively calls herself a “shameless whore.”

A strand of ancient thought regarded the Trojan War as foolish. E.g. Herodotus, Histories 1.4. More generally, Scodel (2008) p. 220. But men too often have passively accepted the social construction of men’s disposability. For example, elderly chief men of Troy saw Helen looking upon the Trojan and Greek men prepared to do battle. The elderly chief men of Troy declared:

Surely the Trojan men and the well-greaved Greek men cannot be blamed
that they have long suffered woes on account of such a woman.
To look upon her is terribly like looking upon immortal goddesses.
Although she is like them, even so let her go home on the ships,
and not be left here to be grief to us and to our children after us.

{ οὐ νέμεσις Τρῶας καὶ ἐϋκνήμιδας Ἀχαιοὺς
τοιῇδ᾽ ἀμφὶ γυναικὶ πολὺν χρόνον ἄλγεα πάσχειν:
αἰνῶς ἀθανάτῃσι θεῇς εἰς ὦπα ἔοικεν:
ἀλλὰ καὶ ὧς τοίη περ ἐοῦσ᾽ ἐν νηυσὶ νεέσθω,
μηδ᾽ ἡμῖν τεκέεσσί τ᾽ ὀπίσσω πῆμα λίποιτο. }

Iliad, 3.156-60. The elderly men associate mythic punishment for the male gaze with gazing upon Helen. Men should be blamed for not vigorously asserting all persons’ freedom to gaze and imagine as they so choose. Men should also be blamed for gyno-idolatry. Within the Iliad, Paris is blamed for the Trojan War. Suter (1993). Elderly chief men of Troy at least recognized the merit of simply sending Helen away.

Classical scholars have striven to excuse and justify Helen’s behavior amid men’s reluctance to criticize her. A peer-reviewed work of gynocentric ideological contortions justified not blaming Helen on the basis of modern academic myth asserting “the male” to have a larger scope of agency than women:

The objectification of Helen therefore dovetails with the well-known fact that blame directed towards her by Iliadic characters other than herself is muted or non-existent. It is Paris who takes the blame, from Achaeans and Trojans alike, in acknowledgment of the larger scope for agency assigned to the male.

Blondell (2010) p. 4. Classical literature amply documents the classical pattern of men taking the blame, and women taking the credit. Another literary scholar more expansively declared:

The dazzling question after the ‘Teichoscopia’ concerns the value inherent in listening to a song tradition that deals with the struggle of two armies for the possession of a woman (Helen) who is the symbol of blame. The Iliadic tradition thus questions the very ontogeny of its subject matter and, by extension, of the genre it belongs to. Skillfully enough, there is a way out of the impasse. As only Helen can blame Helen, so only is the Iliad allowed to question its own validity.

Tsagalis (2008), from Chapter 6 (footnote omitted). The “dazzling question” is actually a tendentious question. Readers can and should blame Helen for massive violence against men. Moreover, the “validity” of the Iliad depends inextricably on the critical intelligence of the hearer or reader.

A recent Ph.D. thesis in classics argues that “central to the thematic program of the Iliad is a feminine-coded critique of masculine warrior values.” Warwick (2018) p. 3. On gender-stereotypical analysis of the Iliad, Dayton (2018). In contrast to superficial stereotypes, women have a directing role in epic violence against men. One might much more interestingly argue that central to the thematic program of the Iliad is a masculine-coded critique of feminine warrior values. Ausonius and Proba in the fourth century and Walafrid Strabo in the ninth century had similar critical views of violence against men.

More generally, young classicists would do well to learn from medieval Latin literature. They might ponder a medieval proverb preserved in Piers Plowman:

Alas for me, what a barren, useless youth I led!

{ Heu michi quia sterilem duxi vitam iuvenilem! }

William Langland (attributed), Piers Plowman / William’s Vision of Piers Plowman {Visio Willelmi de Petro Ploughman} 1.139, Middle English text (B version) from Schmidt (1978) via Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, my English translation. This Latin leonine verse apparently was proverbial. It also survives in the proverb collection of John Rylands Library, Latin MS 394, written early or in the middle of the fifteenth century. Alford (1975) p. 392. For proverbs in Rylands MS 394, Pantin (1930).

[images] (1) Menelaus pursues Paris as the goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis watch. Painting on Attic red-figure kylix from Capua in southern Italy, c. 490–480 BGC. Preserved in the Louvre Museum (Paris) as accession # G 115. Source image thanks to Bibi Saint-Pol and Wikimedia Commons. Here’s another image of this vase painting. (2) Aphrodite saving Paris from Menelaus as Odysseus watches. Carving on marble sarcophagus of Aurelia Botania Demetria from second century GC. Preserved in the Antalya Archaeological Museum (Turkey). Source image thanks to Wolfgang Sauber and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Greek prince Paris standing nude and holding an apple behind his back. Marble sculpture designed by Antonio Canova in 1812 and completed by his workshop in 1822-23. Preserved as accession # 2003.21.2 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York). Credit line: Bequest of Lillian Rojtman Berkman, 2001. Source image generously contributed to the public domain by the Metropolitan Museum. (4) Helen and Paris in their bedroom. Painting (excerpt) by Jacques-Louis David in 1788. Preserved as accession # Inv. 3696 in the Louvre Museum (Paris). Source image thanks to Livioandronico2013 and Wikimedia Commons. Here’s another detail view.


Alford, John A. 1975. “Some Unidentified Quotations in Piers Plowman.” Modern Philology. 72(4): 390–99.

Blondell, Ruby. 2010. “‘Bitch That I Am’: Self-Blame and Self-Assertion in the Iliad.” Transactions of the American Philological Association. 140(1): 1–32.

Bonifazi, Anna. 2016. “Helen’s mixed feelings for Alexander in Iliad 3: the cognitive, pragmatic, and emotional significance of third-person pronouns.” Classical Inquires. Guest post dated May 2, 2016.

Bowie, Angus M. 2019. Homer. Iliad. Book III (Commentary). Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. Reviews by Christina Kraus, by James V. Morrison, and by Anthony Verity.

Dayton, John. 2018. “Eros and Polemos: Eroticized Combat in the Trojan War Myth.” Pp. 65-80 in John T. Grider and Dionne Van Reenen, eds. Exploring Erotic Encounters: The Inescapable Entanglement of Tradition, Transcendence, and Transgression. Leiden: Brill. Alternate source.

Driscoll, David F. 2010. Gentle reproach: Hektor’s hortatory and goading rebukes in the Iliad. Master of Arts Thesis, University of Georgia.

Hunter, Richard. 2018. The Measure of Homer: The Ancient Reception of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kirk, G. S. 1985. Homer. The Iliad: A Commentary. Volume 1, Books 1-4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Minchin, Elizabeth. 2010. “From Gentle Teasing to Heavy Sarcasm: Instances of Rhetorical Irony in Homer’s Iliad.” Hermes. 138 (4): 387–402.

Murray, A. T., trans. Revised by William F. Wyatt. 1924. Homer. Iliad. Loeb Classical Library 170 and 171. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Alternate source for Murray’s translation.

Pantin, W. A. 1930. “A Medieval Collection of Latin and English Proverbs and Riddles from the Rylands Latin MS 394.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library. 14(1): 81–114.

Scodel, Ruth. 2008. “Stupid Pointless Wars.” Transactions of the American Philological Association. 138(2): 219–35.

Suter, Ann. 1993. “Paris and Dionysos: Iambos in the Iliad.” Arethusa. 26(1): 1–18.

Tsagalis, Christos. 2008. The Oral Palimpsest: Exploring Intertextuality in the Homeric Epics. Hellenic Studies Series 29. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Warwick, Celsiana. 2018. For Those Yet to Come: Gender and Kleos in the Iliad. Classics Ph.D. Thesis, University of California, Los Angeles.

ancient Mesopotamian women strove to overcome men’s impotence

Women in ancient Mesopotamia delighted in love with men. In an Akkadian poem from the Old Babylonian period about 3800 years ago, a woman proclaims:

The beating of your heart is joyful music.
Rise and let me make love with you.
In your soft lap
in waking-time,
how sweet is your lovemaking.
Your fruits are profuse!

Stretch your left hand and touch my vagina.
Play with my breasts.
Enter, I have opened my thighs!

{ [tu-ru-uk] ⌈li⌉-bi-ka ni-gu-[tu/ta/ti…]
ti-bé-ma lu-⌈ur⌉-ta-ma-[ka-ma]
i-nu-ut-li-ka ra?-ab-bi?
ši mu-na-ma-ti
mu-úḫ!-ta-an-bu in-bu-ka

bi-la-ma šu-me-le-ek lu-pí-it-ma ḫu-ur-da-at-ni
me-li-il tu-li-i-ni
[er-ba ḫa-al]-la ap-ti }[1]

In another Akkadian poem from about 3300 years ago, a woman declares to her beloved:

Become erect! Feed yourself! Become erect!
Feed yourself with my lovemaking! My lap is like the best of oils!

{ [ti?-i?]-⌈bi⌉ et-pe-er ti-⌈i-bi⌉ et-pe-er ṣi-ḫa-ti-ia sú-ú-ni ki-i-ma ul-⌈ša?⌉-[ni-i]m }[2]

Men throughout history seldom have been paid for their sexual labor for women. Money isn’t, however, the ultimate measure of worth. Many men value seeing joy on a beloved woman’s face more than any money wage.[3]

In ancient Mesopotamia, women didn’t passively allow men to become impotent. Women in ancient Mesopotamia actively participated in progressive efforts to empower men. To overcome a man’s impotence, a woman in ancient Mesopotamia spoke an incantation that included these imploring lines:

May the wind blow! May the mountains quake!
May the cloud be gathered! May the moisture fall!
May the ass mate and mount the jenny!
May the buck arise and repeatedly mount the goat!
At the head of my bed I have tied a buck.
At the foot of my bed I have tied a ram.
The one at the head of my bed, rear up, make love to me!
The one at the foot of my bed, rear up, bleat for me!
My vagina is the vagina of a female dog. His penis is the penis of a male dog.
As the vagina of a female dog takes the penis of a male dog, so may I do!
May your penis become as long as a fighting stick!

{ lillik šāru Sadü linü[sü]
liktassir urpatum-ma tīku littuk
limgug imēru-ma atāna lirkab
litbi daššu lirtakkaba unīgēti
ina rēš eršīya lū urakkis daššu
ina šēpīt eršīya lü urakkis puhalu
ša res ersiya tibá ramanni
ša šēpīt erSiya tibá hubbibanni
ūrūya ūrū kalbati ušaršu usar kalbi
kīma ūrū kalbati isbatū ušar kalbi
ušarka līrika mala mašgaši
ašbāku ina bunzerri ša sīhāte
bu”ura ay ahti tē šipti }[4]

Men have long been disparaged as being sexually like dogs. In addition, men’s penises historically have been brutalized through figuring them as weapons. This incantation redeems those hurtful metaphors through the woman’s vigorous effort to empower her beloved man. She would recite this incantation seven times. Then the woman and man would prepare a mixture of powdered iron and magnetic ore in oil. She would anoint her vagina with it, and he, his penis. Then the man would be empowered to have sex repeatedly with the woman.

ancient Roman phallic pendant

Classic literature recognized the epic disaster of men’s impotence. Lacking sufficient appreciation for classics, many person now promote and revel in men’s impotence. Those who have recognized negative welfare effects have only interpreted men’s impotence in various ways. The point is to change it.[5] In ancient Mesopotamia, women took extraordinary action to empower men. So too should caring, public-spirited women today.

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[1] The Beating of Your Heart – A Pleasant Tune (PRAK 1 B 472) / Your Heartbeat is My Reveille, tablet siglum Ki. 1063, from Arkeoloji Müzerleri, Istanbul, found in Kiš (now called Tell el-Uhaymir), ll. i2-i7, i13-15, Akkadian transliteration and English translation (modified) from Wasserman (2016) pp. 150-2 (No. 13). In texts from Wasserman, I’ve simplified the editorial presentation and made minor changes in the diction of the English translation. Wasserman’s translation is available online in Sources of Early Akkadian Literature. For an alternate translation, Foster (2005) p. 169.

[2] My Heart Is Awake Though I am Sleeping (The Moussaieff Love Song) (LAOS 4), l. 11, Akkadian transliteration and English translation from Wasserman (2016) pp. 133, 135.

In another Akkadian love song, a woman implores:

Where is my loved one? He is so dear!

{ [e?]-⌈eš?⌉ra-a-mi-i° šu°-qú-úr }

Fs. Renger 192–193, tablet siglum MAH 16056, held Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva. l. 1, Akkadian transliteration and English translation from Wasserman (2016) pp. 104, 106. She subsequently finds him and enjoys his “bird”:

I have thrown my coop on the young man,
so that I may catch the dove.

{ qú-pí ad-di eṭ-la-am-ma°
ù sú-ka-an-ni-na
⌈lu°⌉-uṣ-ba-at-ma }

Id. ll. 16-8. For an alternate translation of this poem, Foster (2005) pp. 165-6. At least twenty-four love poems in early Akkadian have survived. For an overview, Nissinen (2016).

[3] As literary scholars repeatedly remind readers, women should not abuse men who love them, or any other men. In one ancient Mesopotamian poem, a woman physically assaults a man in order to make him love her. She herself declares:

I have hit your head. I have changed your mood.
Place your mind with my mind!
Place your decision with my decision!

{ am-ta-ḫa-aṣ mu-úḫ-ḫa-ka uš-ta-an-ni ṭe-e-em-ka
šu-uk-nam ṭe-e-em-ka a-na ṭe-e-mi-ia
šu-uk-nam mi-li-ik-ka a-na mi-il-ki-ia }

Place Your Mind with My Mind! (ZA 75, 198–204a), tablet siglum IB 1554, from Isin, preserved in Iraq Museum, Baghdad, ll. 11-3, Akkadian transliteration and English translation from Wasserman (2016) pp. 257-8. A woman in another Old Babylonian poem exalts:

I have hit your head. You keep crawling on the ground towards me like ….
You, like a boar, lay on the ground,
until I gain my victory like a child!

{ am-ta-ḫa-aṣ mu-úḫ-ḫa-ka ki-ma x (x)]-KI-[x x] ta-ap-ta-na-aš-ši-lam qá-aq-qá-[ra-am]
at-ta ki-ma ša-ḫi-i-im qá-aq-qá-ra-am [x x x]
a-di ki-ma ṣé-eḫ-ri-im e-le-eq-qú-ú er-ni-[it-ti] }

I Have Opened for You My Seven Gates! (ZA 75, 198–204i), tablet siglum IB 1554, from Isin, preserved in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, ll. 109-111, Akkadian transliteration and English translation from Wasserman (2016) pp. 273-4. A woman having power and control over a man is far inferior to her having his true love.

[4] Incantation No. E.1 (KAR 236, KAR 70, KAR 243), ll. 1-11, Akkadian transcription and English translation (modified) from Zisa (2021) pp. 314-5. For an earlier edition, Biggs (1967) pp. 32-3. This incantation is found in tablets dating from the eighth to seventh centuries BGC.

Zisa translated mašgaši as “mašgašu-weapon”: “it is to be understood as a weapon, perhaps a club, and not a pestle.” Zisa (2021) p. 329, n. 557. For ease of reading, above I have used “fighting stick.” While using this conventional violent metaphor, the woman surely regards the man’s penis as delightful, not hurtful.

The term šà (Sumerian) / nīš libbi (Akkadian) literally means “rising of the heart.” It has been understood as meaning “sexual potency.” Biggs (1967) p. 2. It’s better understood as “sexual desire.” Zisa (2021) pp. 37-52. Willed sexual desire isn’t necessary for a man’s sexual potency. Put differently, men sometimes get erections when they don’t want to have an erection. Moreover, men can get raped.

All surviving “sexual desire {nīš libbi}” incantations treat men. Men’s failure in sexual performance is physiologically much more obvious than women’s failure, particularly in instances where the woman and man use common modern contraceptives, e.g. a lubricated condom. Women were actively involved in helping to overcome men’s impotence:

The absence of sexual desire manifests itself in the man, but he is not the only recipient of therapy: the woman is fully involved. The ritual practice has to incorporate all members of the community directly involved, for this reason the woman is an important ritual actor.

Zisa (2021) p. 211. Here’s a collection of Old Babylonian love incantations. For more scholarly work on the important issue of men’s impotence, Hoppe (2016).

Another incantation underscores the woman’s appreciation for the man’s past sexual performance and her current disappointment:

Incantation: Wild ass who is reared-up for mating, who has dampened your desire?
Impetuous horse, whose sexual excitement is a devastating flood, who has bound your limbs?

{ Siptu: akkannu ša ana rakābi tebū [man]nu unihlka]
sisū ezzu ša tībūšu našpan(du m]annu mešrētīka ukassi }

A rev. 12-19 (A.2 / LKA 95 r. 12-19), transliteration and translation (modified) from Zisa (2021) pp. 238-7, with the translation incorporating some more descriptive understanding from Biggs (1967) p. 17.

In another incantation, the woman both implores the man and seeks to allay his anxiety:

Incantation: Copulate! . .. Do not be afraid!
Get an erection! Do not worry!

{ ÉN gu-ru-uš ka-na-a sar e ta-a’-dir
ti-ba-a e ta-šu-uš }

LKA 97 (D ii 18-26 / No. D.4), transliteration and English translation from Biggs (1967) p. 38. Zisa (2001), p. 291, provides a more literal translation. Much more so than in ancient Mesopotamia, men now have reason to worry about having sex with women.

[5] Recognizing objective truth helps to guide progress toward social justice. Zisa claimed:

Any consideration of the “truth” of Mesopotamian medical practices from a biomedical perspective is inappropriate. It is not possible to establish the effectiveness of other medical practices on the basis of (scientific) “truth.”

Zisa (2021) p. 212. Scholars nonetheless commonly claim that “patriarchy” is a true description of gender relations in ancient Mesopotamia. If initiatives purporting to serve public health and social justice don’t recognize the truth of men’s impotence, those initiatives can easily be delusional, unjust, and regressive.

[image] Ancient Roman phallic pendant (fascinus). Cast copper-alloy object made between 43 and 410 GC. Found in Suffolk. Source image via the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme and Wikimedia Commons.


Biggs, Robert D., ed. and trans. 1967. ŠÀ.ZI.GA: Ancient Mesopotamian Potency Incantations. Locust Valley, N.Y: J.J. Augustin.

Foster, Benjamin R. 2005. Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature. Third Edition. Potomac, MD: CDL Press.

Nissinen, Martti. 2016. “Akkadian Love Poetry and the Song of Songs: A Case of Cultural Interaction.” Pp. 145-170 in L. Hiepel and M-T Wacker , eds. Zwischen Zion und Zaphon: Studien im Gedenken an den Theologen Oswald Loretz. Alter Orient und Altes Testament, vol. 438. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.

Hoppe, Marius. 2016. Texte zur Behandlung von Impotenz. Doctoral Disseration. Freien Universität Berlin.

Wasserman, Nathan. 2016. Akkadian Love Literature of the Third and Second Millennium BCE. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Zisa, Gioele. 2021. The Loss of Male Sexual Desire in Ancient Mesopotamia: Nīš Libbi Therapies. Berlin: De Gruyter.

horrific violence against men: context for Hera’s deception of Zeus

The goddesses and gods in the ancient Homeric Iliad are as deceitful and violent as humans. Hera, the powerful and demonically raging queen-goddess, supported Greek men besieging Troy. Her spouse Zeus, in contrast, aided Trojan men attacking Greek men. Zeus could scarcely control with words Hera’s anger, and he was inferior to her in guile. She deceived and seduced him in order to help Greek men kill Trojan men. Passionate entanglements of ancient Greek divinities, both female and male, push forward the Iliad’s horrific violence against men. Even now, under a much different polytheistic, intersectional religion, many still believe that men don’t deserve mercy.

The god Poseidon, Hera’s brother, intervened directly in the fighting to help Greek men attack Trojan men. He rallied Greek men and led them into battle against Trojan men:

So urging, across the plain Poseidon swept, shouting mightily,
as loud as the cry of nine-thousand men, or ten-thousand men,
in battle as they join in the war god’s strife.
So mighty did Lord Poseidon, Shaker of Earth, shout
from his lungs that in the heart of every Greek man he roused
great strength to war and to fight without ceasing.

{ ὣς εἰπὼν μέγ᾽ ἄϋσεν ἐπεσσύμενος πεδίοιο.
ὅσσόν τ᾽ ἐννεάχιλοι ἐπίαχον ἢ δεκάχιλοι
ἀνέρες ἐν πολέμῳ ἔριδα ξυνάγοντες Ἄρηος,
τόσσην ἐκ στήθεσφιν ὄπα κρείων ἐνοσίχθων
ἧκεν: Ἀχαιοῖσιν δὲ μέγα σθένος ἔμβαλ᾽ ἑκάστῳ
καρδίῃ, ἄληκτον πολεμίζειν ἠδὲ μάχεσθαι. }[1]

From the high peak of Olympus, Hera on her golden throne looked down with joy at her brother Poseidon leading Greek men in killing Trojan men. That’s grotesque.[2] Men’s deaths should be cause for sadness and regret, not joy.

Zeus and Hera seated as co-rulers of the cosmos

From her position of divine privilege, Hera thought only of her side winning. She would do whatever she could to continue the killing of Trojan men:

Zeus was then seated at the topmost peak of Ida with its many springs.
Hera saw him, and he was hateful to her in her heart.

{ Ζῆνα δ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀκροτάτης κορυφῆς πολυπίδακος Ἴδης
ἥμενον εἰσεῖδε, στυγερὸς δέ οἱ ἔπλετο θυμῷ. }

Hera felt hate toward her husband Zeus because he would help fleeing Trojan men. Preparing to attack him in his vulnerability, she went to her luxurious bedroom and anointed her lovely body with the soft, rich fragrance of ambrosial oil. Then she armed herself further:

When she had thus anointed her beautiful body,
she combed her hair. With her hands she arranged the shining,
beautiful, ambrosial curls streaming from her immortal head.
Then she clothed herself in an ambrosial robe that Athena
had crafted and smoothed for her, a robe with many embroideries.
At her breast she pinned the robe with brooches of gold.
She circled her waist with a belt of a hundred tassels
and in her pierced ears she put earrings
having triple drops of fine clusters, shining full of grace.
With a covering veil, the beautiful goddess veiled herself,
with a bright, beautiful veil, glistening as white as the sun.
Beneath her shining feet she bound beautiful sandals.

{ τῷ ῥ᾽ ἥ γε χρόα καλὸν ἀλειψαμένη ἰδὲ χαίτας
πεξαμένη χερσὶ πλοκάμους ἔπλεξε φαεινοὺς
καλοὺς ἀμβροσίους ἐκ κράατος ἀθανάτοιο.
ἀμφὶ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἀμβρόσιον ἑανὸν ἕσαθ᾽, ὅν οἱ Ἀθήνη
ἔξυσ᾽ ἀσκήσασα, τίθει δ᾽ ἐνὶ δαίδαλα πολλά:
χρυσείῃς δ᾽ ἐνετῇσι κατὰ στῆθος περονᾶτο.
ζώσατο δὲ ζώνῃ ἑκατὸν θυσάνοις ἀραρυίῃ,
ἐν δ᾽ ἄρα ἕρματα ἧκεν ἐϋτρήτοισι λοβοῖσι
τρίγληνα μορόεντα: χάρις δ᾽ ἀπελάμπετο πολλή.
κρηδέμνῳ δ᾽ ἐφύπερθε καλύψατο δῖα θεάων
καλῷ νηγατέῳ: λευκὸν δ᾽ ἦν ἠέλιος ὥς:
ποσσὶ δ᾽ ὑπὸ λιπαροῖσιν ἐδήσατο καλὰ πέδιλα. }

As beautiful, young immortals, Hera and Zeus had embraced in bed “without their parents knowing {φίλους λήθοντε τοκῆας}.” To recreate that passion, Hera now was dressed to kill. Many men yearn to die with a smile on their face. Men lives should matter more.

Hera knew what she wanted and how to get it. She went to the goddess Aphrodite and said:

Give now to me love and yearning, by which you subdue
all mortal and immortal men.

{ δὸς νῦν μοι φιλότητα καὶ ἵμερον, ᾧ τε σὺ πάντας
δαμνᾷ ἀθανάτους ἠδὲ θνητοὺς ἀνθρώπους. }

Hera mendaciously claimed that she sought to promote peacemaking between her foster father Oceanus and her foster mother Tethys. Mired in endless strife, that couple had sunk into a sexless marriage. Aphrodite readily agreed to help Hera, “for you sleep in the arms of Zeus, the mightiest {Ζηνὸς γὰρ τοῦ ἀρίστου ἐν ἀγκοίνῃσιν ἰαύεις}”:

So Aphrodite spoke and unbound from her breasts an embroidered lappet,
inlaid, fashioned with all manners of allurements.
It held love and desire and seductive talk,
such as steals the senses of even wise men.

{ ἦ, καὶ ἀπὸ στήθεσφιν ἐλύσατο κεστὸν ἱμάντα
ποικίλον, ἔνθα δέ οἱ θελκτήρια πάντα τέτυκτο:
ἔνθ᾽ ἔνι μὲν φιλότης, ἐν δ᾽ ἵμερος, ἐν δ᾽ ὀαριστὺς
πάρφασις, ἥ τ᾽ ἔκλεψε νόον πύκα περ φρονεόντων. }

Hera, truly the mightiest, tucked this lappet between her own breasts. She thus was fully armed to overwhelm Zeus.

Hera and Zeus embracing

Hera went to the god Sleep, the brother of Death. She needed his help to carry out her conspiracy against her husband:

Lull to sleep for me Zeus’s gleaming eyes beneath his brows
as soon as I have laid beside him in love.
I will in turn give you a beautiful throne, forever enduring,
one of gold. Hephaestus, my own son, he with both legs crippled,
will skillfully make it and set beneath a stool for feet.
You may rest your shining feet on that when you drink your wine.

{ κοίμησόν μοι Ζηνὸς ὑπ᾽ ὀφρύσιν ὄσσε φαεινὼ
αὐτίκ᾽ ἐπεί κεν ἐγὼ παραλέξομαι ἐν φιλότητι.
δῶρα δέ τοι δώσω καλὸν θρόνον ἄφθιτον αἰεὶ
χρύσεον: Ἥφαιστος δέ κ᾽ ἐμὸς πάϊς ἀμφιγυήεις
τεύξει᾽ ἀσκήσας, ὑπὸ δὲ θρῆνυν ποσὶν ἥσει,
τῷ κεν ἐπισχοίης λιπαροὺς πόδας εἰλαπινάζων. }[3]

Sleep hesitated. In the past, he put Zeus asleep to help Hera assail her step-son Heracles. But Zeus awoke and furiously attacked both Sleep and Hera. She nonetheless was undaunted. A woman who trafficked in women, Hera sweetened her offer to Sleep:

Come now, do it, and I’ll give you one of the youthful Graces
to marry and be called your wife —
Pasithea, for whom you have been longing all your days.

{ ἀλλ᾽ ἴθ᾽, ἐγὼ δέ κέ τοι Χαρίτων μίαν ὁπλοτεράων
δώσω ὀπυιέμεναι καὶ σὴν κεκλῆσθαι ἄκοιτιν.
Πασιθέην, ἧς αἰὲν ἱμείρεαι ἤματα πάντα. }

Women themselves abuse women. Thrilled with the thought of embracing Pasithea, Sleep immediately agreed. He thus went with Hera to waylay Zeus on Mount Ida.

As soon as Zeus saw Hera, lust for her enveloped his heart. Hera mendaciously claimed that she was going to her foster parents to urge them to put aside their strife and come them together in conjugal embrace. Zeus begged her not to hurry. As if seeking to enact the pattern of Hera’s story about her foster parents, Zeus suggested that they bed down and lose themselves in love. Zeus was so lacking in guile that he described his desire for Hera as now exceeding what he felt in his numerous extra-marital affairs that produced numerous extra-marital children:

Never before has such desire for a goddess or mortal woman
poured around and overpowered the heart within my breast,
not even when I was seized with love for Ixion’s wife,
who gave birth to Peirithous, peer of gods in counsel,
nor when I loved lovely ankled Danaë, Akrisios’s daughter,
who gave birth to Perseus, preeminent above all warriors,
nor when I loved far-famed Phoenix’s daughter,
who gave birth to Minos and godlike Rhadamanthys,
nor when I loved Semele, nor when I loved Alcmene in Thebes,
who gave birth to my son Heracles the stout-hearted,
and Semele gave birth to Dionysus, the joy of mortals,
nor when I loved Demeter, the fair-haired queen,
nor when I loved the glorious Leto, nor yet so much you
as now I love you, for so has sweet desire seized me.

{ οὐ γάρ πώ ποτέ μ᾽ ὧδε θεᾶς ἔρος οὐδὲ γυναικὸς
θυμὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσι περιπροχυθεὶς ἐδάμασσεν,
οὐδ᾽ ὁπότ᾽ ἠρασάμην Ἰξιονίης ἀλόχοιο,
ἣ τέκε Πειρίθοον θεόφιν μήστωρ᾽ ἀτάλαντον:
οὐδ᾽ ὅτε περ Δανάης καλλισφύρου Ἀκρισιώνης,
ἣ τέκε Περσῆα πάντων ἀριδείκετον ἀνδρῶν:
οὐδ᾽ ὅτε Φοίνικος κούρης τηλεκλειτοῖο,
ἣ τέκε μοι Μίνων τε καὶ ἀντίθεον Ῥαδάμανθυν:
οὐδ᾽ ὅτε περ Σεμέλης οὐδ᾽ Ἀλκμήνης ἐνὶ Θήβῃ,
ἥ ῥ᾽ Ἡρακλῆα κρατερόφρονα γείνατο παῖδα:
ἣ δὲ Διώνυσον Σεμέλη τέκε χάρμα βροτοῖσιν:
οὐδ᾽ ὅτε Δήμητρος καλλιπλοκάμοιο ἀνάσσης,
οὐδ᾽ ὁπότε Λητοῦς ἐρικυδέος, οὐδὲ σεῦ αὐτῆς,
ὡς σέο νῦν ἔραμαι καί με γλυκὺς ἵμερος αἱρεῖ. }

That’s an obtuse way for Zeus to flatter his wife Hera. She hated his strong, independent sexuality. She persecuted the illustrious children he had with other women. Although he was nominal head god in charge of the cosmos, Zeus lacked Hera’s relational sophistication.

In order to advance her conspiracy, Hera pretended not to be insulted by Zeus’s extra-marital affairs. She told him that she was too modest to have sex on Ida’s heights, where others might observe their intercourse. Of course, there’s nothing shameful about a wife having sex with her husband. Zeus promised to envelop their conjugal intercourse with a golden cloud. That happened with the now nearly unimaginable erotica of archaic Greece:

With those words Cronos’s son Zeus clasped his wife in his arms.
Beneath them the bright earth made fresh-sprung grass
and dewy lotus and crocus and hyacinth,
thick and soft, that bedded them on the ground.
There they lay, clothed about with a beautiful
golden cloud. Glistening dew drops fell from it.

{ ἦ ῥα καὶ ἀγκὰς ἔμαρπτε Κρόνου παῖς ἣν παράκοιτιν:
τοῖσι δ᾽ ὑπὸ χθὼν δῖα φύεν νεοθηλέα ποίην,
λωτόν θ᾽ ἑρσήεντα ἰδὲ κρόκον ἠδ᾽ ὑάκινθον
πυκνὸν καὶ μαλακόν, ὃς ἀπὸ χθονὸς ὑψόσ᾽ ἔεργε.
τῷ ἔνι λεξάσθην, ἐπὶ δὲ νεφέλην ἕσσαντο
καλὴν χρυσείην: στιλπναὶ δ᾽ ἀπέπιπτον ἔερσαι. }[4]

Zeus slept with Hera in his arms. Men so dream in love.

Zeus and Hera having sex on Mount Ida

Hera’s conspiracy against Zeus prompted horrific violence against men. The god Sleep immediately rushed to the Greek warships. He urged Poseidon:

Now, Poseidon, earnestly help Greek men
and give them glory, though for a little time while still sleeps
Zeus, since over him I have blanketed soft slumber.
Hera has tricked him to sleep with her in love.

{ πρόφρων νῦν Δαναοῖσι Ποσείδαον ἐπάμυνε,
καί σφιν κῦδος ὄπαζε μίνυνθά περ, ὄφρ᾽ ἔτι εὕδει
Ζεύς, ἐπεὶ αὐτῷ ἐγὼ μαλακὸν περὶ κῶμ᾽ ἐκάλυψα:
Ἥρη δ᾽ ἐν φιλότητι παρήπαφεν εὐνηθῆναι. }[5]

Poseidon went to the front line and ordered Greek men to attack Trojan men. They obeyed that bloodthirsty god:

Not so loudly roars the sea’s surf on the shore,
driven up from the deep by the dread blast of the North Wind,
nor so loud is the roar of blazing fire
when it leaps to burn the forest in mountain glades,
nor so loudly does the wind shriek among the high crests
of the oaks, when the wind roars the loudest in its rage —
as was the sound of Trojan men and Greek men
screaming in attacking each other.

{ οὔτε θαλάσσης κῦμα τόσον βοάᾳ ποτὶ χέρσον
ποντόθεν ὀρνύμενον πνοιῇ Βορέω ἀλεγεινῇ:
οὔτε πυρὸς τόσσός γε ποτὶ βρόμος αἰθομένοιο
οὔρεος ἐν βήσσῃς, ὅτε τ᾽ ὤρετο καιέμεν ὕλην:
οὔτ᾽ ἄνεμος τόσσόν γε περὶ δρυσὶν ὑψικόμοισι
ἠπύει, ὅς τε μάλιστα μέγα βρέμεται χαλεπαίνων,
ὅσση ἄρα Τρώων καὶ Ἀχαιῶν ἔπλετο φωνὴ
δεινὸν ἀϋσάντων, ὅτ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀλλήλοισιν ὄρουσαν. }[6]

Greek and Trojan men at battle of Troy fight over dead body of Patroclus

The Greek Telamonian Ajax speared the Trojan Archelochus in the neck. Archelochus fell dead. Archelochus’s brother Acamas then killed the Greek ally Promachus, son of Alegenor. The Greek Peneleos in turn charged Acamas, who ran away. Peneleos then speared the Trojan Ilioneus:

He struck this man beneath the brow at the root of the eye
and drove out the eyeball. The spear went completely through the eye-socket
and the neck’s nape. Ilioneus sank down backward, stretching out both
hands. Peneleos, drawing his sharp sword,
struck mid-neck and cut to the ground the man’s
head with its helmet on. The mighty spear nonetheless remained
in his eye. Lifting the spear high, like the head of a poppy,
Ilioneus’s head he displayed to the Trojans and vaunted over it:
“Trojans, do me a favor and tell Ilioneus’s
dear father and mother to weep for him in their halls,
since the wife of Promachus, son of Alegenor, also will not
rejoice at the arrival of her dear husband when we
Greek sons return in ships from the land of Troy.”

{ τὸν τόθ᾽ ὑπ᾽ ὀφρύος οὖτα κατ᾽ ὀφθαλμοῖο θέμεθλα,
ἐκ δ᾽ ὦσε γλήνην: δόρυ δ᾽ ὀφθαλμοῖο διὰ πρὸ
καὶ διὰ ἰνίου ἦλθεν, ὃ δ᾽ ἕζετο χεῖρε πετάσσας
ἄμφω: Πηνέλεως δὲ ἐρυσσάμενος ξίφος ὀξὺ
αὐχένα μέσσον ἔλασσεν, ἀπήραξεν δὲ χαμᾶζε
αὐτῇ σὺν πήληκι κάρη: ἔτι δ᾽ ὄβριμον ἔγχος
ἦεν ἐν ὀφθαλμῷ: ὃ δὲ φὴ κώδειαν ἀνασχὼν
πέφραδέ τε Τρώεσσι καὶ εὐχόμενος ἔπος ηὔδα:
εἰπέμεναί μοι Τρῶες ἀγαυοῦ Ἰλιονῆος
πατρὶ φίλῳ καὶ μητρὶ γοήμεναι ἐν μεγάροισιν
οὐδὲ γὰρ ἣ Προμάχοιο δάμαρ Ἀλεγηνορίδαο
ἀνδρὶ φίλῳ ἐλθόντι γανύσσεται, ὁππότε κεν δὴ
ἐκ Τροίης σὺν νηυσὶ νεώμεθα κοῦροι Ἀχαιῶν. }[7]

Sex need not be associated with violence. Hera’s sexual deception of Zeus, however, is deeply enmeshed in horrific violence against men. Mothers and fathers, wives and sisters and brothers, all should notice and care about violence against men.[8]

War has long been gender-instituted as violence against men. In the ancient Greek Iliad, both female and male gods show little concern for men’s lives as they push forward horrific violence against men. Even in our time of intense concern about gender equality, men’s deaths in war typically generate no thought about gender injustice. That terrible failure of reason indicates fertile soil for war.

Achilles in battle at Troy tramples Hector's dead body

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Homer, Iliad 14.147-52, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Murray (1924). The Chicago Homer provides a useful resource for studying the ancient Greek text of the Iliad.

Subsequent quotes above are similarly sourced. They are Iliad 14.157-8 (Zeus was then seated at the topmost peak of Ida…), 14.175-86 (When she had thus anointed her beautiful body…), 14.296 (without their parents knowing), 14.198-9 (Give now to me love and yearning…), 14.213 (for you sleep in the arms of Zeus, the mightiest), 14.214-7 (So Aphrodite spoke and unbound from her breasts…), 14.236-41 (Lull to sleep for me Zeus’s gleaming eyes…), 14.267-9 (Come now, do it, and I’ll give you one of the youthful Graces…), 14.315-28 (Never before has such desire for a goddess or mortal woman…), 14.346-51 (With those words Cronos’s son Zeus clasped his wife in his arms…), 14.357-60 (Now, Poseidon, earnestly help Greek men…), 14.357-60 (Not so loudly roars the sea’s surf…), 14.493-505 (He struck this man beneath the brow…).

[2] Hera is highly significant in the Iliad:

her unremitting lust for vengeance provides the divine model for the inhuman excesses of the final battle books {of the Iliad}. … Hera is prominent as a savage goddess who, in Zeus’ words ({Iliad} 4.34ff), lusts to “raw-eat” the flesh of Priam and of all Troy. This Hera is, finally, to triumph over the divine pity which Zeus comes to represent. The lust for raw-eating or omophagia, applied to her in Book 4, is the epic’s primary image of moral degeneration, just as a meal roasted and shared with others is the primary metaphor for the best of human behavior.

O’Brien (1990) p. 106. Zeus berated the war-god Ares as being like his mother Hera:

You have the unbearable, overpowering rage of your mother,
Hera. With my words I can scarcely control her.

{ μητρός τοι μένος ἐστὶν ἀάσχετον οὐκ ἐπιεικτὸν
Ἥρης: τὴν μὲν ἐγὼ σπουδῇ δάμνημ᾽ ἐπέεσσι }

Iliad 5.892-3. Zeus calls Hera “incorrigible {ἀμήχανε}.” Iliad 15.14. Exasperated with her manipulation and abuse of him, Zeus tells her, “surely there’s no more bitch-like one than you {οὐ σέο κύντερον ἄλλο}.” Iliad 8.483.

Hera isn’t subordinate to Zeus. Although they have different personalities, Hera and Zeus are equal partners and equal in honor. Pirenne-Delforge, Pironti & Guess (2022) pp. 1-4, 21-2. Hera and Zeus have a “productive antagonism {antagonisme productif}.” Pironti (2017) p. 83. Hera is “Zeus’ staunch competitor for influence and power.” McCall (2013) p. 35. The modern myth of ancient Greek patriarchy has grossly distorted understanding of Hera:

Hera is the most under-appreciated deity in the pantheon of Homer’s Iliad. Inseminating mortals with thoughts and understanding the secret plans of Zeus, Hera proves to be a goddess of the mind. Hera’s characteristic sphere of action is the phrénes, the realm of physiological, emotional, and intellectual activity. Hera’s own creative vision enlarges the imaginative scope of the epic – for her noetic mode of seeing brings unity to what is otherwise disparate and heterogeneous, including the community of gods themselves. In effect, Homer’s Hera solves the political riddle of Hesiod’s Theogony and thus stabilizes the Olympian regime.

Ali (2015), Abstract.

[3] The god Sleep (Hypnos / Ὕπνος) was then on the island of Lemnos under the rule of King Thoas. Scholars have questioned why Sleep was on Lemnos. Hunter (2021) pp. 66-72. Bringing Hera to Lemnos in her conspiracy against her husband associates her with the husband-killing Lemnian women. Virgil, a perceptive reader of the Iliad, similarly included the husband-killing Danaids on Pallas’s sword-belt.

[4] Hera and Zeus embraced on a meadow filled with flowers: “this is a youthful, secret, and extremely eroticised union.” Pirenne-Delforge, Pironti & Guess (2022) p. 34. The imagery evokes the life-giving potential of men’s sexuality:

With the cloud to cover them, the earth, unasked, throws up a carpet of spring flowers beneath the lovers, as if inspired by their divine potency and fecundated by the gleaming dew that drips down; this is a bold phrase, since we are not told outright that the dew comes from the cloud!

Janko (1994) p. 206. Scholars have seen in the story of Hera’s deception of Zeus influence of ancient eastern literature, including literature of ancient Mesopotamia, including Gilgamesh’s catalog of Ishtar’s lovers. No such influence is necessary to account for any aspect of the story. Kelly (2008).

Ancient adherents of traditional Greco-Roman religion disparaged Hera’s deception of Zeus in the Iliad. Arguing that the Iliad and the Odyssey should be banned from the ideal city, Plato regarded the story of Hera’s deception of Zeus as not “conducive to being under self-control {ἐπιτήδειον εἶναι πρὸς ἐγκράτειαν ἑαυτοῦ}.” Plato, Republic 3.390b. Plato’s teacher Socrates similarly sought to suppress discussion of castration culture.

Underscoring men’s vulnerable position in relation to women, Plutarch objected to Hera overly beautifying herself:

when she picks up those gold brooches and finely wrought earrings, and, lastly, turns to the witchery of Aphroditê’s magic band, it is plainly a case of overdoing things and of wanton conduct unbecoming to a wife.

{ ὅταν δὲ τὰς χρυσᾶς περόνας ἀναλαμβάνῃ καὶ τὰ διηκριβωμένα τέχνῃ ἐλλόβια καὶ τελευτῶσα τῆς περὶ τὸν κεστὸν ἅπτηται γοητείας, περιεργία τὸ χρῆμα καὶ λαμυρία μὴ πρέπουσα γαμετῇ γέγονεν. }

Plutarch, Moralia, Book 8, Table Talk {Quaestiones convivales / Συμποσιακά} 6.693c, ancient Greek text and English translation from Clement & Hoffleit (1969). Men typically don’t object to women beautifying themselves as long as women do so not at men’s expense and beautify themselves solely and sincerely to motivate men’s sexual labor on behalf of women.

[5] Zeus himself complained bitterly of Hera’s deceptions. After recounting his fury at her guileful persecution of his extra-marital son Heracles, Zeus told Hera:

I remind you again of these matters, so that you will cease your deceptions.
Don’t think that you will be protected by love-making in bed with me,
as when you came from among the gods and deceived me.

{ τῶν σ᾽ αὖτις μνήσω ἵν᾽ ἀπολλήξῃς ἀπατάων,
ὄφρα ἴδῃ ἤν τοι χραίσμῃ φιλότης τε καὶ εὐνή,
ἣν ἐμίγης ἐλθοῦσα θεῶν ἄπο καί μ᾽ ἀπάτησας. }

Iliad 15.31-3.

[6] This accumulating simile formally parallels Zeus’s expressed desire to have sex with Hera. It underscores the connection that the Iliad makes between women’s sexual manipulation of men and epic violence against men. On the men-obscuring translation of these verses in Wilson (2023), see note [9] in my post of Thetis’s plea to Zeus for Achilles.

[7] While showing no gendered concern for horrific violence against men, modern scholars have interpreted the Iliad with anachronistic, tendentious language of extreme violence. A peer-reviewed, scholarly article tendentiously and absurdly depicted Hera as a wife abused into compliance to her husband. This article claimed that “a paramount aspect of the relationship between Zeus and Hera” is “terrorism by physical abuse on the part of the husband and the compliant surrender of the wife.” Synodinou (1987) p. 22. Cf. e.g. O’Brien (1990), Pirenne-Delforge, Pironti & Guess (2022) pp. 1-4, 21-2, and Ali (2015).

Hera participated in a conspiracy to overthrow Zeus, the nominal head god in charge of the cosmos. Iliad 1.396-412. Hera’s deception of Zeus sexually is plausibly interpreted as another instance of treason:

Hera poses a challenge to Zeus and his ‘plan’, one that has undertones of the succession motif with all its entailed violence and destruction.

Garcia (2013) p. 205. Treason throughout history has typically entailed harsh punishment. Zeus scarcely punishes Hera for her attempted treason. Zeus’s physical threats against Hera have much less effect than the horrific violence against men in the Iliad.

In her introductory essay to her translation of the Iliad, Wilson describes women captured in war as enslaved and raped. Both Achilles and Agamemnon are thus an “enslaving rapist” in relation to Briseis. Wilson (2023) p. xlviii. The Iliad text itself provides no evidence that Achilles and Agamemnon treated Briseis worse than they did men who were subordinate to them. Achilles in his emotional simplicity seems to have been affectionately attached to Briseis. Moreover, being enslaved and raped is a grotesquely misleading characterization of Helen’s status in relation to Paris. More generally, captive women such as Ausonius’s Bissula had extensive freedom, high status, and high welfare, especially relative to men brutally killed in war. The relation of classical Arabic caliphs to their slave-girls provides more insight into captured women in the Iliad than does modern ideas of women enslaved and raped. Such violent language invokes oppressive, sexist stereotypes of rape, and supports vastly gender-disproportionate incarceration of men.

[8] Scholars haven’t adequately appreciated the significance of Hera’s deception of Zeus in the context of epic violence against men in Iliad 14. Ancient scholars labeled this story “the deception of Zeus {Dios apate / Διὸς ἀπάτη}.” Janko (1994) p. 149. They thus elided Hera, the vitally significant actor who deserves blame for her deception of Zeus. A leading modern scholarly commentary on the Iliad states:

The Deception of Zeus is a bold, brilliant, graceful, sensuous and above all amusing virtuoso performance, wherein Homer parades his mastery of the other types of epic composition in his repertoire. Its merits have made this episode all the more offensive to those, from Xenophanes and Plato (Rep. 3.390c) onward, who do not expect gods to take part in a bedroom farce. Many of the ancients tried to explain it as an allegory… .

Janko (1994) p. 168. In its context of epic violence against men, Hera’s deception of Zeus is much more significant than merely “bedroom farce.” A scholar without any apparent concern for gender observed:

Thus the despair of the heroic generals in the first scene of book 14 and the cruel deaths in battle of brave warriors in the third episode of that book are powerful indications of the pathos of the human condition; and what makes that pathos especially poignant and unbearable is the fact that while men are dying so pitifully, Hera and Zeus, without a thought or care for the deep distress of humanity, enjoy a romantic mountain top tryst amid all the pleasurable trappings of lust and seduction.

Golden (1989) p. 8. The pathos and distress that provides the context for Hera’s deception of Zeus particularly affects men. That pathos and distress poignantly indicates gender injustice that men endure with little social concern.

[images] (1) Zeus and Hera (Jupiter and Juno) seated as co-rulers of the cosmos. Painted by Cornelis de Vos in 1635. Preserved as accession # 5122 in Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (KMSKA) {Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp}. Via Wikimedia Commons. A painting by Frans Wouters in 1635 is similar. (2) Hera and Zeus embracing. Painted by Frans Christoph Janneck in the eighteenth century. Via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Zeus and Hera having sex on Mount Ida. Painted by James Barry in the 1790s. Preserved as accession # VIS.2742 in the Graves Art Gallery (Sheffield, England). Via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Greek and Trojan men at Troy fight over dead body of Patroclus. Painted by Antoine Wiertz in the nineteenth century. Via Wikimedia Commons. (5) In battle at Troy, Achilles tramples Hector’s dead body. Painted by Antonio Raffaele Calliano in 1815 for the throne room of the Royal Palace of Caserta {Reggia di Caserta} in Southern Italy. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Ali, Seemee. 2015. “Seeing Hera in the Iliad.” CHS Research Bulletin. 3(2).

Clement, P. A. and H. B. Hoffleit, ed. and trans. 1969. Plutarch. Moralia, Volume VIII: Table-Talk, Books 1-6. Loeb Classical Library 424. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Garcia, Lorenzo F., Jr. 2013. Homeric Durability: Telling Time in the Iliad. Hellenic Studies Series 58. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Golden, Leon. 1989. “Διἐς Ἀπάτη and the Unity of Iliad 14.” Mnemosyne. 42(1-2): 1–11.

Hunter, Richard. 2021. “Some Problems in the ‘Deception of Zeus.’Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. 64(1): 59–72.

Janko, Richard. 1994. The Iliad: A Commentary. Vol. 4: Books 13-16. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kelly, Adrian. 2008. “The Babylonian Captivity of Homer: The Case of the Διοσ Απατη.” Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, Neue Folge. 151(3/4): 259-304. Alternate online source.

McCall, Joshua B. 2013. Plot and Power in the Iliad. Master of Arts Thesis, University of Georgia.

Murray, A. T., trans. Revised by William F. Wyatt. 1924. Homer. Iliad. Loeb Classical Library 170 and 171. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Alternate source for Murray’s translation.

O’Brien, Joan. 1990. “Homer’s Savage Hera.” The Classical Journal. 86(2): 105–25.

Pirenne-Delforge, Vinciane, Gabriella Pironti, Raymond Geuss. 2022. The Hera of Zeus: Intimate Enemy, Ultimate Spouse. Classical Scholarship in Translation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Originally published in 2016 as Héra de Zeus (Paris: Les Belles Lettres). Review by Patricia Johnston.

Pironti, Gabriella. 2017. “De l’éros au récit: Zeus et son épouse.” Chapter 3 (pp. 63-83) in Gabriella Pironti & Corinne Bonnet, eds. Les dieux d’Homère. Polythéisme et poésie en Grèce ancienne. Presses universitaires de Liège. Alternate online source.

Synodinou, Katerina. 1987. “The Threats of Physical Abuse of Hera by Zeus in the Iliad.” Wiener Studien. 100: 13–22.

Wilson, Emily R., trans. 2023. Homer. The Iliad. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.