Agamemnon claims that he loves Chryseis more than his own wife, but agrees to give her up as long as he gets another prize. When he demands Briseis from Achilles, it is clear that one sexual being can simply be traded for another in Agamemnon's eyes. Indeed, when Achilles refuses to fight because of Agamemnon's demand, it is not because Achilles deeply loves Briseis, but because he is insulted with Agamemnon's demand. The only redeeming treatment of women in the epic is the Chryses' love for his daughter, determination in getting her back again, and excitement when his request is fulfilled.
When compared to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad often seems muted in references to women's sexuality, but it can be argued that the contents of this epic poem show women in a far worse place in society than women in Gilgamesh's epic. While Gilgamesh's epic presents women as over-sexualized, perhaps simply because of men's lusty desire, they are also revered and seen as powerful because of the ability to seduce men and to conquer through their sexual advances. In the Iliad, women have the ability to cause major actions in a war, but not as a result of their own volition. Instead, they are simply traded like one might trade sports cards. The only example contrary to this is the example of the gods in the Iliad. Like the female Ishtar in Gilgamesh's epic, both Thetis and Athena become involved in the events of the Iliad, working on behalf of the Achaeans. Still, like Gilgamesh's epic, this must be understood in context. Much of Greek mythology involves the female and male gods working together and against each other, but female Greek gods are still often seen as the adversaries of their male counterparts, and even use their sexuality to trick them. Aphrodite was the goddess, not only of love, but also of fertility, procreation, sexuality, and seduction. In fact, "Aphrodite's seductions and temptations were a constant source of pleasure and danger for both gods and mortals," as the goddess often used her wiles as a bargaining chip ("Greek Mythology" para. 2). Thus, the roots of modern stereotypes against women can also be gleaned from the sexual nature of the Iliad.
Finally, the least sexual of these three epics is the Ramayana. Once again, this is most likely as a result of the rhetorical situation of this epic. Written about life in India around 1,000 B.C.E., the poem was not only meant to serve as a cultural description, but was also written for religious purposes. In fact, Sita, the wife of the hero Ramayana, was the ideal Indian woman, and generations of Indians have been taught to "Be as Sita" ("Summary" para. 1). The best example of this occurs when Rama is ordered to go to the forest after Kaikeyi has tricked Dasartha into promising to coronate her own son. Sita quotes the words of the brahmanas, saying that she desires to go into the forest with her husband. She pledges that she will be united with her husband forever, arguing that the Brahmans have ordered it this way. Sita says, "Verily such a thing was taught to me by you, that a woman disunited from her husband should not be able to survive" (Ramayana Book II: Chapter 29). But while Sita is the shining example of the Hindu woman, women's sexuality is still used in this epic. In fact, it is because of a woman's sly use of her sexuality that Rama and Sita are sent to the forest. One of Dasartha's wives, Kaikeyi, filled with the desire to see her own son named king, encounters her husband when he is, in the words of the epic, "lustful." Flaunting her body and denying him sexual pleasure, Kaikeyi requires Dasartha to promise her that he will do something before she tells him what it is. He promises, "infatuated by lust," and "fell into her trap as a deer, for his self-destruction" (Ramayana Book II Chapter 11). Thus, this suggests that even in the epic fueled by religion and dedicated to presenting a perfect picture of what women should be like, sexuality is still present. Indeed, in this epic women's sexuality is a tool for sly, ruthless behavior, suggesting that women are either the kinds that follow their husbands indefinitely or the type that use their sexuality for evil.
Thus, despite the fact that all three of these epics were written about different cultures, all three have something in common -- all three use sexual depictions to characterize their women. While this is strongest in Gilgamesh's epic, it is also a prominent feature of the Iliad and the Ramayana. Examining these three epics in conjunction with this trait suggests roots for women's sexual and gender discrimination in the modern era. Although the sexualization of women did give them power in certain cultures, it still promoted the idea of women as sexual beings there for men's pleasure. Thus, because all three of these cultures, although they were different from one another, used sexual descriptions of women, the pervasive nature of sexual and gender discrimination in today's modern world can be realized.
"Greek Mythology: Aphrodite (Venus)." About.com: Atheism. 2009. 20 June 2009.
Ramayana. Valmiki Ramayana. N.d. 20 June 2009.
"Ramayana: Summary." Myth Home: Mythology Site. n.d. 20 June 2009.
The Epic of Gilgamesh. Academy for Ancient Texts. n.d. 20 June 2009.
"The history of the Temple of Ishtar." Temple of Ishtar. n.d. June 20, 2009.