Q is for Queens

Published April 20, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Not the “men dressed as women” kind of queens.  Though Greek myths do have their share of those, too.

There are a number of queens in Greek myths, starting with the jealous and oft-betrayed Queen of the Gods, Hera, who is a type unto herself.

Most other Queens fall into certain types.  You have the “perfect” queens, the ones who are so faithful to their husbands that they’ll do anything–even die–for them.  Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and Alcestis, wife of Admetos, are prime examples of this type.  And let us never forget the regal Hecabe, Queen of Troy!

Then you have the scheming, would-be adulteresses.  Anteia/Stheneboa, who tried to seduce Bellerophon, and Phaidra, who tried to seduce her own step-son Hippolytos, are both good examples, though there are many others.  (Peleus, father of Achilles, was also beset by one such woman, who was the wife of Acastos, son of Pelias.)

And, of course, you have a great number of queens who fall into the “wife of so-and-so” or “mother of so-and-so” department, and don’t actually play any kind of role in any story.  They’re faithful, but not remarkably so:  they’re never given any opportunity to show any great loyalty to their husbands and/or children.  Many of these types don’t even have names:  for example, we know that Telamon, King of Salamis, had a wife, because she gave him a son, Aias, and allowed her husband’s bastard, Teukros, to be raised up in the palace like a proper son, but there are numerous names on record for her, and none are considered “the right” name, per se.  (It doesn’t help that the Iliad doesn’t mention the name of Aias’ mother, and any of the plays that might have mentioned her are lost.)


Next day edit:  I realized late last night/early this morning that I left out a couple of important queenly types.  Though both types are more often “barbarians” than Greeks, I feel like I should mention them anyway.  First is the lonely (read:  horny) widow.  Hypsipyle of Lemnos is a rare Greek example, but this type is usually a foreigner, like Omphale of Lydia or Dido of Carthage.  (Okay, technically, Dido is part of the Roman tradition, not the Greek, but…close enough in this case.)  In most myths (again, with Dido being the odd woman out) these queens get to have their way with some Greek hero and gain one or more strong sons in exchange for the pleasure she’s given to the passing hero.  Kind of a male pipe-dream, in a way, but despite their deep-seated need for male (sexual) companionship, these queens have been successfully ruling their kingdoms on their own for years, and in most cases they continue to do so until the hero’s son(s) can take over the task of ruling.  In a way, despite what I say about her below, Jocasta starts out in this category, but because she marries the wandering hero instead of simply sleeping with him, she quickly becomes a different type.

More importantly, I left off the Amazon queens!  Now, admittedly, the Amazons are automatically the Other in the Greek myths:  they’re the opposite of what a proper Greek woman was supposed to be.  And yet art of Amazons graced a number of items produced for domestic use in the Greek household, items that were being used by women.  So despite being the Other, they were obviously also admired, and probably envied.  (If you’re interested in learning more about Amazons and how they were perceived by the ancient Greeks, I recommend the recent book The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor.  I’m still reading it (on account of having so much to read for class work) but so far it’s really fascinating, with a wide range of information, both mythical, historical and archaeological.)  The major Amazon queens are Hippolyta, Antiope and (of course) Penthesileia.  Each is associated with a major hero (Heracles, Theseus, Achilles).  In each case there is strong sexual attraction between the queen and the hero.  (Though Theseus is the only hero who actually scores with his Amazon Queen in every variation of the story.  Heracles only gets lucky in about half the versions, and Achilles only very rarely realizes his attraction to Penthesileia while she’s still breathing.  The dude’s got lousy timing.)  But all three die an early death in combat.  (Usually.  Hippolyta gets a lot more variation in her story, because of how widely spread myths of Heracles were, leading to greater differences.  In fact, sometimes Hippolyta and Antiope are the same woman.)  An Amazon Queen is both a rival on the field of battle, and a sexual conquest who actually requires conquering, rather than merely requiring seduction.


Then you have those who refuse categorization.  Jocasta, Queen of Thebes twice over, for example.  Her role in the myth is actually quite small:  she’s more of a bystander/womb than a participant in the story.  But she marries again after her husband’s death, which makes her less dedicated than, say, Penelope.  (Well, the Odyssey‘s version of Penelope, that is.  There were other versions in which she was not so faithful.)  And when she learns that her new, much-younger husband is actually her long-lost son, she just kills herself, instead of trying to resolve the problem somehow.  (Admittedly, that’s a hard problem to resolve, especially when you’ve had four kids with him, but still!)

Another queen who’s all but impossible to categorize is Hermione, daughter of Helen and Menelaos, who eventually becomes Queen of both Mycenae and Sparta, after her marriage to her double-cousin Orestes.  Because she was also married to Neoptolemos, son of Achilles, at her father’s behest.  Sometimes, she marries Neoptolemos, torments his enslaved concubine Andromache (widow of Hector!) because she’s borne him sons and Hermione hasn’t, and then marries Orestes after Neoptolemos’ death at the hands of the people of Delphi, or Apollo, or Orestes, or some combination thereof.  (His death has a lot of variations.  But it always takes place at Delphi.)  But other times, Hermione has already married Orestes first, and it’s only when he’s off being tormented by the Furies for murdering his mother that she marries Neoptolemos, and sometimes she doesn’t seem to mind the new husband, and other times she actively contrives his death with the aid of her other husband and/or the people of Delphi.  Sometimes Orestes kills Neoptolemos in order to obtain Hermione for himself, and yet on another occasion he tried to kill Hermione as vengeance upon her father for not defending his act of matricide.  (Both those latter two, I might add, were in the plays of Euripides.  Consistency from one play to another was not his bag.)  Sometimes Hermione is a helpless pawn, and sometimes she’s a scheming monster looking out only for herself.  But I suppose most of the time, she’s just in the background.

Clytemnestra, Queen of Mycenae, seems at first to fit into the scheming, adulterous queen mold, but she doesn’t really.  First of all, her adultery is successfully accomplished.  Second, it’s not a brief and hidden fling–he moves in and takes over as King.  Third, they actually kill her husband Agamemnon.  Most importantly, though, depending on which version you’re looking at, she actually has a good reason to betray her husband, giving her considerably more depth than most of the “treacherous women” of Greek myths.  (Phaidra, for example, is a pawn of Aphrodite’s revenge, and no reason is given for Anteia/Stheneboa’s desire for Bellerophon other than simple love/lust.)  Now, these reasons aren’t always there, but in some versions, Clytemnestra had more than enough reason to want to betray and murder her husband.  The best known reason, of course, is their eldest daughter Iphigenia, who was sacrificed to Artemis so that the Greek fleet could set sail for Troy after Agamemnon insulted the goddess in some way.  (There are countless variations on this story, of course, including ones where Iphigenia was secretly the daughter fathered on Helen by Theseus when he kidnapped her, and ones where Artemis placed that command on them not because Agamemnon insulted her, but as a way to test their resolve, in the hopes that Agamemnon would decide that his brother’s honor was not worth sacrificing the life of his own daughter, and that it was thus a defensive measure for Troy, rather than any kind of punishment for the Greeks.)  However, there was also another reason.  In some versions, before she was married to Agamemnon, Clytemnestra was married to a son of Thyestes, and when Agamemnon and Menelaos stormed Mycenae and killed Thyestes to regain their father’s throne, Agamemnon slew Clytemnestra’s first husband, and the infant son Clytemnestra had borne to him.  Either one alone would give Clytemnestra ample reason to want vengeance on him, and if you combine them, then she’s absolutely justified in having her lengthy affair with his first/second cousin (Aegisthus was the product of father/daughter rape committed by Thyestes) and in murdering Agamemnon.  (She was not, however, justified in murdering poor Cassandra.  That was utterly, absolutely wrong, no matter how you look at it.)  I should probably point out that perhaps Clytemnestra became a type of her own, imitated by other queens who had been left alone while their husbands were out fighting at Troy, though most of the husbands found themselves exiled, rather than murdered.  (Diomedes, for example.  And in some cases Idomeneus.)  But I think it safe to call them imitators; in the earlier texts, there’s no mention of their betrayals of their husbands, but Clytemnestra’s betrayal of Agamemnon dates at least as far back as the Odyssey.  (I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t remember if it was mentioned in the Theogony.  Though I’d think it wouldn’t be, on general principles…)

And, of course, hardest to categorize of all, Clytemnestra’s twin sister, Helen, Queen of Sparta.  “The face that launched a thousand ships,” as Mr. Marlowe put it, was a contradiction even in classical times.  The Helen in the Iliad hated herself for the fighting that was being done in her name, but had no way of stopping it, because the one time she tries, Aphrodite herself stops her.  The Helen in the Odyssey looks back on it in a surprisingly unashamed manner, and talks about it right in front of the husband she was cuckolding for twenty years.  And when you get to the Athenian stage, she becomes even more varied.  In Eurpides’ Trojan Women, she’s the epitome of evil, having manipulated everyone for the past twenty years, and clearly about to manipulate her hapless husband into not punishing her, despite that he promises Hecabe he’ll kill Helen upon their return to Sparta.  On the other hand, in the same playwright’s Helen, she’s a helpless prisoner in Egypt, and never set foot in Troy:  that was merely a phantom in her image.  Given that even back then, no one knew what to do with her, it’s no surprise that even today, no one knows quite what to do with her.  Her name may be derived from a pre-Greek goddess, in which case becoming a mere demi-goddess is quite the step downwards…though by the Classical Period she was being worshiped in various places in Laconia–including at the Menelaion, the ruins of a Mycenaean palace, which may well have been the Mycenaean Sparta–so she got some of her own back eventually.

One thing of particular interest about queens in Greek mythology, though, is the fact that so many of them are their husband’s ticket to the throne.  (Much of the discussion to follow was gleaned from reading Greeks and Pre-Greeks: Aegean Prehistory and Greek Heroic Tradition by Margalit Finkelberg…but I read it about a year ago, so some of the details have become a bit fuzzy.)  Menelaos only became King of Sparta by marrying Helen, (nominal) daughter of Tyndareos, King of Sparta.  Orestes only becomes King of Sparta by marrying her daughter Hermione.  Diomedes only became King of Argos by marrying the daughter of the previous king.  Telamon?  Married the daughter of the previous King of Salamis.  Before he married Thetis, Peleus was married to a mortal woman, and her dowry was the kingdom of Phthia, which he got to keep even after she committed suicide (due to the machinations of the Queen of Iolcos, whose seduction he had resisted).  In some versions, Achilles marries Deidameia (instead of just getting her pregnant) and thus gains her father’s kingdom for himself.  If I remembered all the examples, I could keep going.  But there are a number of them.  Odysseus may well be among their number; Laertes is called many things, but former King of Ithaca is not one of them.  (That point is one that would have sailed right over my head if it hadn’t been pointed out in that book, I feel I ought to admit.)

This may mean that royal inheritance in Greece in the Late Bronze Age was matrilineal, or at least partially so.  Extant evidence from the Hittites shows that they may have practiced a particular cross-marriage between two different royal houses, but with the throne always passing from father to son-in-law instead of from father to son, though this would seem to be a subject of some dispute among Hittitologists.  (And the Finkelberg book was a good 15-20 years old, now that I think about it.  I don’t recall seeing anything about the method of inheritance in 1177 BC, so…hmm.  Yeah, definitely don’t take my word on this.  If you’re interested in the subject, look it up for yourself, because my info is decidedly out of date, and I spent two hours in a dentist’s chair this afternoon, so now my teeth and jaws are killing me, and I’m not on the top of my game, even if my info wasn’t out of date.)  Even if the Hittites didn’t have inheritance practices similar to the ones in the Greek myths, the fact that they’re so common in said myths may well indicate that either the Mycenaeans did pass royal titles from father to son-in-law, or perhaps that the pre-Greek inhabitants of Greece (who were mostly, as far as we can tell, peacefully joined and co-opted, rather than conquered, as was previously believed) had that practice.

Some of the ways the myths treat women–royal or not–only tell us basic things about human nature.  Many of the myths are born from basic folkloric tropes, traditions that are commonly held–in widely disparate versions, naturally–in most or even all Indo-European cultures.  Others are more specifically Greek, and may tell us simply about their attitude towards women, or they may be clues left behind by cultural practices long gone by the time writing was in common use.  That, of course, is one of the many reasons that it’s so much fun to probe the depths of a set of myths:  you never know who or what you’ll find staring back at you from within the abyss of time.

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