Top 5 Awesome Women From Greek Mythology

Later this year, the BBC will be bringing out a new Saturday teatime show called Atlantis, to replace Merlin, which finished last year.

The Beeb have been releasing little bits of fresh information about Atlantis slowly over the summer, and keep an eye out for lots more Atlantis coverage over the next few weeks over at Den of Geek. This week, we got our most substantial look yet at the show, in the form of the first proper teaser trailer.

There's lots of good stuff here - attractive lead, lots of action, fire, arrow-dodging, Dr Bashir, mysterious oracles and Hercules as played by King Robert Baratheon. Just one thing - so far, the publicity for the show is just a wee bit boy-heavy.

Now, clearly, there are women in Atlantis. We saw brief glimpses of Juliet Stevenson, Sarah Parish and Aiysha Hart in there, among others, playing the Oracle, Pasiphae and Ariadne. But so far the website's 'meet the heroes' just introduces the three boys, Jason, Pythagoras (yes, I know - I'll talk about that when the show starts and we see what they've done with him!) and Hercules, while the poster also shows only the guys. Where are all the girls?

This is particularly intriguing in an adaptation of Greek mythology. One of the quirks of ancient Greece was that, although women in the real world had few rights and not many were able to make much of an impact on Greek history, especially in Athens where rich women seem to have been kept highly secluded, some mythological women kicked ass. They usually did so in a feminine context - a few went to war, mostly Amazons and goddesses, who were exceptional - but they were not afraid to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in to the action. OK, they were often totally psychotic and not a little bit evil as well. But that's not the point.

I have no idea what Atlantis is planning, and hopefully when the show appears on our screens, it will turn out to be chock-full of complex, intriguing female characters, who can be added to my existing list of Kick-Ass Heroines. But in the meantime, I thought I'd put together a few suggestions for anyone looking to spice up their adaptation of Greek mythology with some truly fascinating women.

5. Antigone

With her father also her brother and her mother also her grandmother, it's perhaps unsurprising that Antigone, daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, grew up with a strong sense that proper family relationships should be respected and maintained at all times. In Sophocles' Antigone, after her brothers Eteocles and Polynices have killed each other in a civil war, new king Creon orders that Eteocles should be given a proper burial, but Polynices must be left to rot. Antigone insists on burying her brother properly and, well, things escalate and she ends up killing herself while walled up in a cave, causing her fiancee, Creon's son Haemon, to kill himself as well.

Why does she kick ass? The best known version of Antigone's story is Sophocles' play, and it's no coincidence that most of the women on this list are best known from Greek tragedy. Greek tragedy frequently sets up oppositions between loyalty to family and loyalty to the state, and women are at the heart of the family unit. In this case, Antigone stands up to the king, Creon, placing her loyalty to her family over her loyalty to the state (i.e., she stands up for the men in her life, even when they're dead. Greek writers would have been utterly bemused by the very notion of the Bechdel test).

Here's your homework: Sophocles' Antigone.

Or alternatively... Antigone hasn't featured all that much in popular culture, but adaptations of, or works relating to, Sophocles' play are quite common and have been known to experiment with radical new interpretations, such as Athol Fugard's The Island, which follows prisoners at South Africa's notorious Robben Island jail putting on a production of the play. Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes is a modern translation/update. She also appears in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys episode 'Rebel With a Cause.'

4. Electra

We first hear of Electra in Greek tragedy, as she's one of a few characters who appear in the surviving works of all the three major tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Electra is the daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, sister of Iphigenia and Orestes. After Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia so that the winds will change and he can sail to Troy, Clytemnestra finds a new man, Aegisthus, and together they murder Agamemnon when he finally gets back from ten years sitting outside the Trojan walls. Orestes does not approve and murders Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in turn, with Electra's help.

Why does she kick ass? Like Antigone, Electra is motivated entirely by what is in the best interests of her menfolk, so she's not exactly doing it for the girls. Indeed, her entire story is about valuing one's father over one's mother; matricide is a terrible crime, but because their mother has killed their father, and fathers are, to a Greek, more valuable than mothers, Orestes and Electra don't think they have a choice. But she makes the list for, like Antigone, sticking up for what she believes in and taking action, particularly in Euripides' version, in which she actually physically helps Orestes to carry out the murder.

Here's your homework: Euripides' Electra (and Sophocles' too).

Or alternatively... Again, she only really appears in popular culture in adaptations of Geek tragedy. Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra is an updated version of Aeschylus' Oresteia, his three plays about Orestes and his family.

3. Penelope

Penelope is Odysseus' wife, and a rare character on this list who doesn't owe her fame to Greek tragedy. While Odysseus is away fighting, getting lost and having affairs with minor divinities for twenty years, Penelope stays at home, raising their son and resisting all attempts by other men to marry her, take Odysseus' throne and disinherit Telemachus.

Why does she kick ass? Again, everything she does is in service of her men and their interests, but Penelope is just so cool in the way she does it. She's best known for her weaving trick; to keep the many suitors plaguing her house calm, she tells them that she'll re-marry one of them as soon as she's finished weaving a shroud for Odysseus' father Laertes (who is, by the way, still alive. She's just being prepared). Every day she weaves it, and every night she stays up all night unpicking it again. Apparently she is a superhero, who can both see in the dark (oil lamps are not that bright) and never needs sleep. In Homer, she also snarks Odysseus a little bit when he finally comes home - I like to think she knows who he is all along and just wants to give him a hard time.

Here's your homework: Homer's Odyssey.

Or alternatively... Holly Hunter plays a particularly acerbic Penelope in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad is a modern re-telling of some of the story from her point of view, and she also appears in Xena: Warrior Princess episode 'Ulysses.'

Kate Mulgrew as Clytemnestra in modern adaptation Iphigenia 2.0

2. Clytemnestra

Agamemnon's wife. He tells her he's taking their daughter Iphigenia to Aulis to marry Achilles, but instead he sacrifices Iphigenia to Artemis to get a good wind and sails off to Troy for ten years. Clytemnestra finds a new lover, Aegisthus, and they rule while Agamemnon mucks about for a decade. As soon as Agamemnon comes back, with his new slave, the Trojan prophet Cassandra in tow, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus get rid of the pair of them for good.

Why does she kick ass? Clytemnestra does not get favourable treatment from the writers of Greek literature, largely because unlike the women so far listed, she values a woman's life more highly than a man's political interests, and dares to place her love for her daughter over her duty to her husband. Clytemnestra doesn't care how badly Agamemnon wants to go to Troy or how cross the goddess Artemis is with him; he murdered their daughter and she wants revenge.

Here's your homework: Aeschylus' Agamemnon.

Or alternatively... Like the most of the others, she tends to appear in adaptations of Athenian tragedy, though there is also a ballet about her, which sounds rather cool.

1. Medea

Part-divine witch, and princess of Colchis. Medea falls madly in love with Jason (of the Argonauts) and betrays her father to help Jason to get the Golden Fleece. Forced to run away from home, she marries Jason, but their children come to a sticky end. There were various interpretations of how this happened, but the best known, which became broadly canonical, is Euripides'; when Jason leaves her for another woman, she punishes him by murdering their children. Then she flies away on a chariot pulled by dragons. As you do.

Why does she kick ass? There are two parts to Medea's story, and in both she is awesome.

In the first, Medea helps Jason and the Argonauts after falling madly in love with Jason at first sight. When her father Aeetes made Jason yoke fire-breathing oxen, she gave him some oil to protect him from the flames; when Jason was attacked by men sprung from the dragon's teeth he'd just planted, she told him how to get them to turn on each other instead of him; when Jason was supposed to fight and kill a sleepless dragon that guarded the Fleece, Medea simply gave him a potion to put it to sleep.

Once Jason had hold of the Fleece, Medea distracted her father so that they could escape by murdering her brother and scattering his dismembered body, so Aeetes had to stop and pick up all the pieces for proper burial. Sailing home, they ran into the giant bronze guard Talos, who was killed when Medea either tricked him or drugged him. When they finally got back to Iolcos, Medea got rid of the usurper Pelias by tricking his own daughters into killing him.

Basically Medea is awesome and Jason, possibly the rubbish-est hero in Greek mythology, would be nowhere without her.

Then, of course, there's the second part, her marriage to Jason and the fate of their children. Euripides gives Medea a fantastic speech in his play in which she talks about how much harder life is for women, comparing childbirth (unfavourably) to a battlefield and pointing out certain inequalities in the ease of divorce for men and women. I have to say, I can't help feeling that any sympathy the audience is supposed to feel for her is rather negated by the fact she commits infanticide shortly afterwards. But still, she does get to fly away on the dragon chariot (origin of the phrase deus ex machina) so that's pretty cool.

Most of Medea's story is, once again, about helping out her man, though in this case she chooses her lover over her father and brother. Even her infanticide is aimed at hurting Jason; she loves her children, but she is so consumed with anger at Jason and her life revolves so much around him (having left her homeland for him) that her ties to him and the breaking of them mean more to her than her children's lives. In terms of feminism, Clytemnestra is really the best example here, as she is the only woman on this list who takes action in her own interests and those of her daughter. But Medea is just so fantastically capable, with a witchy solution to everything and skills with magic that, up until the infanticide thing, she uses to help our heroes rather than hinder them, that she has to be No. 1.

Here's your homework: Apollonius' Argonautica, Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica, Euripides' Medea.

Or alternatively... A slightly less kick-ass version of Medea appears in Jason and the Argonauts. She doesn't help Jason and kick ass as much as act like an Orion dancing girl from Star Trek in this version, but it's a start. Pasolini's Medea incorporates both parts of her story into one, though perhaps with more of a focus on the second part.

Honourable mention 1: King Leonidas of Sparta's wife Gorgo is a real person, though the stories told about her are so much second, third, fourth or hundreth-hand that it's hard to say how far any of them reflect the real woman. (This goes for all Spartan women and, indeed, for Sparta in general. Women do seem to have had more rights, more of a voice, and certainly more exercise in Sparta, which is just one of many reasons why Sparta is more interesting than Athens).

At the age of eight or nine, Gorgo informs her father King Cleomenes (Sparta had two kings at once, she didn't marry her brother or anything) that he should not trust the trouble-making stranger who wants him to come and make war against the Persians, and later the famous boast that Spartan women are the only ones who can rule men, because they are the only women who give birth to men, is attributed to her. She's brilliantly played by Lena Headey in 300.

Honourable mentions 2 and 3: Most female warriors are divine or Amazons, but Atalanta was a fairly kick-ass virgin huntress who took part in various adventures alongside male heroes, until she agreed to marry whoever could beat her in a footrace, and Aphrodite helped Hippomenes to do so by tempting Atalanta with apples mid-race. (Why ancient men thought women were such suckers for apples is a mystery...). Caenis/Caeneus was a woman who was raped by Poseidon, and then offered one wish of sorts in recompense. She said she wanted to make sure it never happened to her again, so she was turned into an invulnerable man and became a great warrior called Caeneus.

I don't know whether any of these women will turn up in Atlantis, or whether Pasiphae or Ariadne's rather less awesome stories (bull-sex and being abandoned on an island, respectively) will be beefed up with some details from these more pro-active ladies. We can only hope that things have moved on a little bit from ancient Greece and that, at the very least, they might occasionally take action for their own reasons and their own benefit, and won't just be restricted to helping out the men around them!

More Top 5 lists


  1. I guess we'll soon find out more, but I'm still reeling in disappointment over Merlin getting cancelled and the way they wrapped up the series! :o(

    Although I must say I was delighted to catch a glimpse of Dr Bashir in the trailer!!! :D

    I was happy with the BBC's past two family series (Merlin and Robin Hood), so I hope this one will catch my interest as well. At the very least I know it will help me get one of my young English students in front of the TV (or computer screen) to watch something in English as he's completely nuts about Classical Mythology! ;o)

    1. Merlin's last episode was so depressing!

      I'm so glad to see Alexander Siddig though. I met him at a convention a few years back, very nice guy.

    2. I found Merlin's last episode depressing (though given the source material it could have been WAY worse) but was pretty impressed that the writers didn't 'cheer it up' by SPOILERS saving Arthur. Pretty brave move for what started out as a cutesy kids' show.

    3. True - I would have preferred a time lapse so he could be a bit older though. 3 years is a bit short for a mythically glorious reign!

  2. Atlantis looks like it's going to be pretty much in the same space as Hercules/Xena. Not sure how I feel about that.

    I'd have ranked Penelope higher. For one thing, she manages to kick ass without killing a bunch of people, winding up dead, or both. More importantly, though, she proves that she is very much Odysseus' equal in the brains and cunning department.

    Medea's career doesn't stop the first time she rides off with her dragons. She went on to Athens and hooked up with Aegeus. But when Theseus showed up, she spotted him as a threat to her son Medus and tried to get him killed. She took off with her dragons again and wound up helping her son create the kingdom of the Medes.

    Other possible honorable mentions: Circe. For all her magic, she's still human (Medea's aunt, IIRC) and very much manages to live on her own terms. Also Aspasia. Hella smart, patron of the best thinkers of the day, major help to Pericles, and then may have also helped Lysicles become a leading figure.

    1. Yes, I know there's more to Medea's story. But it was a long post, and I thought Jason and the infanticide the most relevant parts.

      More than 2 honourable mentions (including 3 people) seemed like going overboard! And Odysseus twists Circe round his little finger...(which, to be fair he does to everybody).

  3. I haven't heard of this series.

    The woman- goddess, really- in Greek mythology who I always think of first is Artemis.

    1. It isn't out yet - it'll be on the BBC later this year.

      Artemis is cool - I was trying to avoid goddesses, because they all get to be awesome in their own ways! Except Hera, who is a pain.

  4. Hi ! First comment here, but I have to say I really like your blog.

    Still, my favorite character in the list is probably Athena, mainly because she's a warrior goddess. Talking about mere mortals, well.....did you notice how many times Athena, Nestor, Menelaus and Odysseus himself are always ranting to Telemachus "If you really are the son of Odysseus", hinting at his real father ? That must probably mean something, I think.

    P.S. As you can easily see by my name, I'm not a mothertongue. Therefore, please forgive the rather odd language I come up sometimes with.

    1. I like Athena a lot too, though I was avoiding goddesses this time around. I tend to think the references to Telemachus being the son of Odysseus are about suggesting he should have inherited Odysseus' cleverness, since Penelope is known for her faithfulness, but you never know!

    2. I'm still cynic with that, given that Telemachus doesn't really look like he's taken that from his father; he's more the "Oh, what should I do know ?" guy always getting helped by someone else because alone he can't just figure (almost) anything. Definitely not his father.

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