The fortress and the gyneceum

Athenian society venerated Athena, virginal goddess of wisdom and martial virtue: a female deity doted with attributes the Greeks ascribed to masculinity and rationality, as embodied by the soldier-citizen. This archetype is in stark contrast with gods from other cultures; notably, Egyptian fertility god Osiris. Posthumous father of god-king Horus, Osiris was murdered and castrated by Seth, and then revived by his wife and sister Isis; he was strongly associated to agriculture, the moon, and the Nile’s silt – all of them Chthonic and feminine for the Greeks. Thus, the Athenians venerated a virile warrior-maiden, while the Egyptians saw their ruling pharaohs as descended from an emasculated, mummified and androgynous figure, who presided the harvest and judged the dead.

One could expect that adoring a female goddess would make Athenians less misogynistic than their counterparts across the Mediterranean. The demands for more representation of women in positions of power and woke slogans such as God is a woman would certainly point in this direction; the often male-centered narratives of patriarchal narratives both from the classics and pop-culture are a favorite object of feminist polemics. The project of rebooting the James Bond saga with 007 as a female character is a good example of this, as it would signify the defacement of a quintessentially masculine myth.

In spite of this assumptions, according to most historians, Athenian society and Greek culture in general were quite misogynistic. Egypt seems to have been relatively less so, with women being considered legally equal at court and able to hold property rights. The picture is further distorted when we compare both to another Greek polis, Sparta, which has for a long time captivated the imagination of sociologists and political thinkers. Spartan women enjoyed better conditions than their counterparts elsewhere in Hellas, including rights to property and education. Their traditional dress, a slit skirt, earned them a reputation for promiscuity among other Greek cities, especially compared to the Athenian woman’s long robe. Was the Spartan woman politically freer, more empowered, than the Athenian, despite their almost identical cultural roots? And how did they fare in regards to the Egyptian, with her completely different background?

In all of these societies, childrearing was seen as the primary role of adult women, but the sociopolitical consequences of this were manifested in different ways. Specifically, Athenian women were not formally educated, could not make economic transactions, and lived secluded in the house’s gyneceum (from γυναικεῖον – gunaikeîon, the special quarters reserved for women); their reduced public life was mostly concerned with religious rituals, as they were supposed to stay at home with children. Compared to them, Spartan women were better fed and educated, because they were supposed to produce strong offspring and thus contribute to the lacedemonian polis’ military population. Xenophon goes as far as to state that there was some measure of polyandry in Spartan society, so that women could be impregnated by younger and healthier men for eugenic purposes. Even the important status granted to Egyptian women was heavily related to maternity and fertility. Particularly, the basis of female political power emanated from the figure of the Pharaoh’s Queen Mother, of which Isis (sister-wife of Osiris and mother of Horus) was the main archetype. So what do all of these practices tell us in regards to how women were viewed in their respective societies?

If one looks at ancient artifacts, such as pottery, a peculiar feature soon becomes obvious: Egyptian and Greek artists often used different colors to represent the two sexes. In both cultures, the male sex is usually represented in black or tan, while the female sex appears in white or pale hues. Despite the wishful thinking of gender theorists, this is no proof of the misogynistic character of any of them. It is, however, illustrative of different worldviews.

In Egypt, the difference in coloration alludes to the possibility of a synthesis between both sexes. Creation was the work of a male solar god, Atum-Ra, but the lunar fertility god who descended from him, Osiris, was also male. The black or green color with which Osiris is represented is a reference to the dark color of damp, fertile earth; white would be the color of bones, dust, and death. The juxtaposition of the two hues and the two sexes is used to convey the notion of a balanced cosmos, enforcing an idea of complementarity.

In Greece, the use of different colors has an altogether different connotation, pointing to the existence of different races: one indigenous, and one foreign. Thus, in the archaic period, Athenian women were usually painted in the same hue used for Persian invaders. A symbol of the untamed otherness of the Orient, mythically epitomized by the Amazon: militarily fearsome and sexually intriguing at the same time. This identification of the female sex with an external race shares the views presented in Pandora’s myth, already discussed here: mainly, of men being native to Earth and women being extraterrestrial, manufactured entities.

This essay would not be complete without some mention of that most patriarchal ancient civilization, Rome. Why were the supposedly misogynistic Romans willing to guarantee their women some rights their Greek counterparts never enjoyed? Did Roman females conquer their advantageous position thanks to their proto-feminist gender awareness? To answer these questions, we cannot rely on the interested contributions of woke gender theorists. On the contrary; the comparatively good situation of Roman women was a result of the Empire hindering the intrusion of misogynistic Greek philosophy. If in Roman society the situation for women was better than in Greece, it was because old laws and customs were respected, and lacked the Greek “women-as-foreign” element.

As an expansive Empire, Rome’s collision with the outside world, Jewish, Greek and ultimately Germanic, was inevitable. It is undeniable that the Romans were aware of the dangers posed by philosophical encounters with foreigners. After all, barbarians are, by definition, a threat. So, if Rome was initially more benevolent to its women than either Athens or Sparta, it was because its philosophers and legislators did not see females as unpredictable foreigners, but as people of their own kind: a demonstration of internal unity, the hallmark of a confident culture.

In the end, this discussion is an ancient iteration of a recurring meme in imperial politics: that there must be a wall somewhere, separating the in-group from the out-group. The establishment’s survival depends on whether to include women in the former or the latter; on choosing between xenophobia and misogyny. Between the fortress and the gyneceum. And for those unwilling to choose, of course, there is always a third way: letting the barbarians in and becoming an undiferentiated one yourself. Which would be arguably the most entropic, accelerationist, capital-communist option, after all.

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