Choose one myth and explore the relationships between its male and female characters. What broader arguments might be drawn from these examples?
“The Adventures of Aeneas” is mainly concerned with its titular male hero, the Trojan founder of Rome. However, the tale also features several women in key supporting roles, such as Juno, Venus, and Dido. As in many of the other classical stories recounted in Hamilton’s book, “The Adventures of Aeneas” seems to emphasize women’s passivity and their inability to directly alter their circumstances, as men may. However, the tale also includes several examples of how females may exercise power and even hints that, by rejecting men, women might wield even greater power than they currently do.
Though both Juno and Venus are divine and powerful goddesses, “The Adventures of Aeneas”—particularly the first part—emphasizes how neither goddess affects Aeneas’s fate directly. Instead, both rely on traditionally feminine methods of manipulation to convince male gods to act on their behalf. In her first attempt to stop Aeneas, Juno bargains with Aeolus, the King of the Winds, to sink the Trojan ships. Although Aeolus is technically a lesser deity than Juno, she still must resort to bribery in order to win his compliance. By contrast, Juno’s brother Neptune simply reprimands Aeolus and calms the sea, making it possible for the Trojans to reach land. Juno is thus presented as a female goddess who relies on persuasion and trickery and is strongly countered by an active male god. Like Juno, Venus cannot exercise her power directly; she too relies on securing the favors of male gods. When Juno plots to have Aeneas fall in love with Dido so that he will abandon his journey, Venus counters her by employing the help of her son, Cupid, and Juno’s own husband, Jupiter. She uses her divine beauty and feminine appeal to extract promises from both males to help Aeneas.
However, despite the roundabout ways in which the dueling goddesses achieve their goals—methods that would be derided in a culture so committed to direct, forceful action—it cannot be denied that their techniques are effective. Or, for that matter, that the most ferocious agent of the goddesses’ desires is herself a female: Alecto, the Fury. Throughout classical mythology, these female avengers are among the most vicious actors, wreaking havoc in their wake. Finally, near the end of the tale, Juno makes a dynamic show of power worthy of Mars himself, as she “[sweeps] down from heaven, [smites] with her own hands the bars and [flings] open the doors” of Janus’s temple. Hamilton explicitly states that Juno uses “her own hands” to commit this violent action, emphasizing that the goddess has the power to act independently and forcefully on certain occasions. This causes the reader to question whether the goddesses must rely on other gods to achieve their goals, or whether they only do so because they find such tactics more expedient.
Dido, the primary human female in this tale, seems to be the ultimate passive female. As she becomes involved with Aeneas, she loses her independence and personal strength, her boundless love for him ultimately proving her downfall. Like so many other women in Mythology. Dido is wronged, abandoned, and humiliated by the man to whom she has pledged her devotion. But Dido is more than a pathetic figure: She is also a cautionary tale. For “The Adventures of Aeneas” suggests that a human woman can only maintain her authority and her sense of self if she remains free of romantic attachments. Camilla, the menacing warrior maiden, seems to owe her power to the fact that she “disdains” marriage, preferring “the chase and the battle and her freedom.” The other formidable human female, the Sibyl of Cumae, lives alone in a cave and is completely free of relationships, male or otherwise. Even Dido, it must be remembered, was a wise and fearsome sovereign before she fell in love—through divine manipulation—with Aeneas, founding a city in a foreign land and leading it to greatness. Her love for Aeneas ruined her, and she seems to signal her rejection of that weakness when she coldly ignores the weeping Aeneas in the Fields of Mourning.
“The Adventures of Aeneas” explores various expressions of female power, from the manipulation of males to the rejection of the same. However, it is also important to note that one of the most important forces in classical mythology—the Fates—are represented as explicitly female figures to whom all individuals, man or woman, human or deity, are ultimately subject. The fact that three females could, with their spinning—the most domestic of household tasks—manipulate destinies as easily as thread suggests that the classical Greek and Roman cultures were more than simple patriarchies, and that women were considered far more than mere passive objects.