In the ancient times the world was a much different place compared to today. Men and women had certain roles and status in society that reflected the beliefs and culture of that time. Big part of the social system was based on beliefs and women had a particular place in it. When comparing women and their status looking at the two great civilizations—Egyptian and Greek the contrast between them is clearly seen through the arts, artifacts and myths of those nations.
The best way to learn about ancient cultures and the make-up of society is by examining the art prevalent for that period of time. The Egyptians and the Greeks have both represented roles that women played in society by mirroring that image in the art works. The Egyptians were a highly developed civilization that had women secondary to men but in no way inferior. They were considered the “keepers” of the home but also had rights to own and manage property. Even though they were not allowed to participate in the administrative and governmental matters, there are many examples from Egyptian history of queens who had great power in their hands (Hassan and Abiddin 45). To take a closer look at Egypt’s queens, let us consider the bust of Nefertiti. She is one of the most remembered queens of Egypt and her eyes have become almost a representation of royalty and beauty throughout time (Ertman 29). Her features are so unique and unexpected, it becomes clear right away that she was a woman of power, who would stand out from the rest of the population, set to rule and command people. This vision has spread over a great time period showing that women of character were really valued in society and because of this had a high status and respect. When analyzing some of the Greek art, a somewhat different picture takes place. A “Red Figure” amphora crafted by Amasis Painter depicts two women who are standing very close to each other (Swerdlow 273). This was done because the artist wanted to show how close women’s relationships were in those times. This is a representation of women trying to stay together, as it was mostly male dominated world. Women’s role in the society was secondary and unimportant and very often women were controlled or even exploited by men, which in turn made them look for comfort in other women who shared the same burden and low status. It is due to these close relationships between women that a kind of intimacy developed between them, causing the society to view them in a sexual way even more (Scott 36). The evidence shows how different these two societies were in their treatment of women and the status they had within those civilizations. In Egypt women had rights and freedoms, not greater than those of men but enough to sometimes even take the post of a queen. Where as in Greek society women were much lower than men, the social status was considered unimportant and unprivileged.
But an interesting perspective develops when one looks at the portrayal of Greek women as goddesses. Even though women’s status was considered to be lower, it did not prevent the society to represent them as Gods. There are numerous images and sculptures representing Pandora as a goddess, with abilities to cross the line between being a gift from Gods to men and a goddess who is immortal. This shows great respect of the Greek society to such a woman, but at the same time she is told of as being evil and someone who could bring great trouble to the people (Blundell 23). Egypt also had goddesses who were just as important in the social makeup of their ancient civilization. For example a figurine of Isis nursing Horus, 663-332 B.C., shows how important women were thought of in Egyptian culture (Schlossman 345). The very fact that she is nursing, represents that women were thought of as caregivers, mothers whose responsibility it was to bare and raise a child—the future ruler of the peoples. There are very many goddesses in Egypt who represent a great part of everyday life of people, showing how important they were to the society and how gender was not really influencing the beliefs of people and the amount of the respect that Gods received.
Another instance that makes it possible to see how and what an ancient society has thought of women is myths of a culture. Greek mythology is thought of as a great part of the social make up of the civilization. The most interesting aspect of Greek myths is the fact that men were the ones who told and wrote these myths. It creates a chance to see women from men’s point of view and understand the role of women at that time much closer. As fantasy was very often present in the telling of a myth, men had more room to create the images and abstractions of women. But even though these women were goddesses they very often came from women of low status. This is an unexplained fact but nonetheless it shows that women played an important role in the social fabric (Blundell 17). Having in mind the male domination of the time, there is a myth that tells how Zeus swallowed his wife, a goddess named Metis, when she was pregnant with Athena. But later Zeus “gave birth to Athena from his own head” (Blundell 21). This part shows that even while Zeus was the most important God, in the end a female God came to power. In Egypt’s society myths were also a common thing. Goddess Isis is told of as the protector of human kind, attributed with sympathetic and humane qualities. This puts her closer to people and makes them feel as if they are needed and cared for. Because of this Isis is revered as a helper of the human race, performing miracles and fixing problems (Gasparini 70). It is interesting to see that in both Greek and Egyptian societies women as goddesses played an important role, even though in the Greek culture women were considered much lower in all aspects of life when compared to men and the Egyptian culture where women are given a high status and are judged by an absolutely opposite criteria.
By comparing these two ancient civilizations—Egypt and Greece, it becomes evident how the role of women has changed throughout the time. The status and the role of women was very unique for every nation and for every time period, changing many times and leaving an original and traceable mark in the form of arts, artifacts and myths—the stories of great Goddesses and rulers.
Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995. Print.
Ertman, Earl. “Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt.” Archaeological Institute of America 61.2(2008): 28-32. Print
Gasparini, Valentino. “Isis and Osiris: Demonology vs. Henotheism?” International Review for the History of religions 58.5 (2011): 697-728. Print.
Hassan, Aminuddin and Abiddin, Norhasni. “Connecting Philosophy of Ancient Egyptians to Modern Thinking.” Journal of Social Sciences 8.1 (2012): 43-49. Print.
Schlossman Betty and Hildreth York. “Women in Ancient Art”. Art Journal 35.4 (1976): 345-351. Print.
Scott, Michael. “The Rise of Women in Ancient Greece.” Faculty of Educational Studies 59.11 (2009): 34-40. Print.
Swerdlow, Amy. “The Greek Citizen Woman in Attic Vase Painting: New Views and New Questions.” Gordon and Breach Science Publishers Ltd 5 (1978): 267-284. Print.