The Beautiful Evil
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δὴ τεῦξε καλὸν κακὸν ἀντ᾽ ἀγαθοῖο.
ἐξάγαγ᾽, ἔνθα περ ἄλλοι ἔσαν θεοὶ ἠδ᾽ ἄνθρωποι,
κόσμῳ ἀγαλλομένην γλαυκώπιδος ὀβριμοπάτρης.
θαῦμα δ᾽ ἔχ᾽ ἀθανάτους τε θεοὺς θνητούς τ᾽ ἀνθρώπους,
ὡς εἶδον δόλον αἰπύν, ἀμήχανον ἀνθρώποισιν.
ἐκ τῆς γὰρ γένος ἐστὶ γυναικῶν θηλυτεράων,
τῆς γὰρ ὀλώιόν ἐστι γένος καὶ φῦλα γυναικῶν,
πῆμα μέγ᾽ αἳ θνητοῖσι μετ᾽ ἀνδράσι ναιετάουσιν.
But when he had made the beautiful evil to be the price for the blessing, he brought her out, delighting in the finery which the bright-eyed daughter of a mighty father had given her, to the place where the other gods and men were. And wonder took hold of the deathless gods and mortal men when they saw that which was sheer guile, not to be withstood by men. For from her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble.
– Hesiod, Theogony 585-592
There is a school of thought that suggests that feminists should not be interested in classics. In her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy recounts how her university’s English department refused to even offer a basic course in classical literature, one that could inform students about the references being made to the classics by the authors they were studying, lest this somehow validate the study of “Dead White Men.”
There is no denying that women are practically non-existant in the surviving literature of the ancient world, and that only tantalising glimpses of them can be caught in the archaeological record. Worse still, the literature that describes this male view of women is almost unrelentingly ‘misogynist’, as we would see it. The title of this blog comes from the ‘misogynist’ writings of one of these ‘dead white men,’ Hesiod. It’s from the Greek καλός κακός (‘kalos kakos’), a phrase which is surprisingly difficult to effectively translate. The most basic translation of καλός is ‘good’, and of κακός is ‘bad’, although the translations can extend to any of the variety of the moral ramifications of these words. Hugh Evelyn-White translated it as “the beautiful evil”. This paradox is the description of the first woman, Pandora, in Hesiod’s Theogony, a poem describing the births of the gods of the Greek pantheon and some of the earliest foundation and creation myths. A longer version of the story is given in his other major poem, Works and Days. The story is that the giant Prometheus creates humanity from clay, and gets the gods to breathe life into them. However, he is so distressed to see his creations suffering on the dark, cold earth, that he goes up to the home of the gods on Olympus and steals fire for them. As punishment, Promethus himself is chained to a mountainside and every day an eagle comes and eats his liver. But humanity is punished too. Zeus, the king of the gods, has the gods work together to create the first woman. She is given perfect good looks, insatiable curiosity, and a box that she is ordered never to open. She is then given to Prometheus’ brother, Epimethius, as his wife. Eventually, Pandora succumbs to her divinely-ordained insecurities and opens the box. Inside it are all the evils which were previously unknown to mankind. Humanity is only saved from utter ruin by the fact that Zeus had also placed hope in the bottom of the box. From Pandora onwards, humanity is afflicted by evil, but is also dependent upon her female descendants to reproduce the species. As Hesiod describes it, all subsequent women are tainted by Pandora.
This idea of women as something κακός, the root (quite literally) of all evil, the source of all problems, but also as something καλός, necessary for the continuation of the species, pervades ancient thought. And if there is one reason why feminists should be concerned with studying the millenia-old writings of ‘dead white men’, it is this: while the Greeks and Romans may not have a monopoly on misogyny, their ideas formed the foundations of Western culture, and their influences can be felt even further afield. Most of us may no longer study classics, but we live in an intellectual climate built upon centuries where education consisted of little else. Classics has formed a constant intellectual battleground, used to provide exemplars for society for centuries, used to justify, used to underpin. Our literature is full of it, as is our art. Freud named psychological complexes from it. MPs call for its reintroduction to our national curriculum. The earliest Christians lived in a world dominated by these ideas, and their effect can be clearly seen in the pastoral letters and in the writings of the church fathers. That the two main traditions which inform our intellectual culture have foundation myths in which the insatiable curiosity of a woman transgresses (male) boundaries and unleashes evil into the world illustrates just how deep society’s image of the καλός κακός woman runs.
I’m a woman, a feminist and a classicist. And even though I live in the 21st century, I am still painfully aware that there are people who consider me a καλός κακός. Once, at a party in my first year of university, a boy cornered me and drunkenly informed me that it was a travesty that I was allowed to go to university at all. As the possessor of a womb, I was clearly wasting government money, as despite my expensive education, I would obviously just go off and use it (the womb, that is). Women at the moment are suffering the brunt of the cuts of the current (mostly privately and classically educated) government, as if they and their society-dissolving wiles were somehow more responsible for the situation that we find ourselves in than bankers and politicians. Both here and in America, far too many politicians seek to chase women back into the kitchen and the bedroom in the name of Christianity or society’s supposedly Christian-derived ethics – yet ‘Christian femininity’ owes far more to the pagan Romans than to anything Jesus said or did. I could not be the feminist that I am without being the classicist that I am, for as I see it, we have not yet got over Hesiod’s 8th century BC gripes about women as inherently problematic, however much we might wish to see ourselves as divested of such primitivism. That is what I want to explore with this blog.