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GODDESSES, WHORES, WIVES, & SLAVES: The Archetypal Roles Assigned to Women in Theatre PART 1

Plays by women and the roles for women in theatre represent a developing, dynamic field–historically, a much neglected field. If women wrote throughout recorded ancient history, most of it never saw the light of day, or was lost, if not systematically destroyed.

Based on the available evidence, the origins of Western theatre began in ancient Greece. Susan Pomeroy asks in her book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, “What were women doing…” during this period (xiv)? Were the classical male playwrights accurate in their depiction of women (93)? There is no evidence showing that women were even allowed to attend the ancient dramatic festivals (80). Men portrayed women onstage until the seventeenth-century C.E.. What, if anything, did women actually write for theatre throughout recorded history?

Pomeroy also asks, “If respectable Athenian women were secluded and silent, how are we to account for the forceful heroines of tragedy and comedy”(93)? The simplest answer may be the best; men wrote these stories, promoting and perpetuating the most dramatic and entertaining archetypes from their cultural religion. Greek women may have been sequestered, but Greek Goddesses, like Athena, the Goddess of War and Wisdom were not.

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), the renowned mythologist, defined archetype as follows:
They (archetypes) are elementary ideas, what could be called ground ideas.

These ideas Jung spoke of as archetypes of the unconscious. The Freudian unconscious is a personal unconscious, it is biographical. The Jungian archetypes of the unconscious are biological. The biographical is secondary to that.

All over the world and at different times of human history, these archetypes, or elementary ideas, have appeared in different costumes. The differences in the costumes are the results of environment and historical conditions (Campbell 61).

For this discussion the term “Virgin” signifies an Archetype with a valuable commodity traded in society, as well as a sexual state. Most of the Goddesses of myth enjoyed lusty sex, so in this context the title of Goddess signifies a woman who can decide her own fate. The only power earthbound women held until recent history resided in their “Virgin” state, and the brokering ability this virginity gave them through the men who manipulated them. The prostitute was the exception. Prostitutes were historically the only women who exercised control over their own money (Pomeroy 91), but this was a power only fit for a life in the shadows.

Throughout recorded history prostitution was one of the very few positions open to women. Playwrights, male and female, have used the role of “Whore” with dramatic effect. Art mixes with life, and dramatists have painted the Whore/Mistress as a hapless character in soap-opera stories played out in every village and town from ancient history up to now, as recent events surrounding New York Governor Spitzer will attest, but the Whore can also have power and influence history making events. The famous courtesan, Aspasia, was vilified by later writers for influencing the Greek General Pericles of Peloponnesian War fame in the 5th century B.C.E.. Madame Pompadour exchanged sex, then companionship with married King Louis XV (1710-1774) for titles and funding, but she was the one blamed for the disastrous Seven Year War, not the King or Queen. The Whore is always the convenient scapegoat.

Although being a prostitute meant a woman without other means could survive, it also generally meant being subjected to societal scorn and ridicule, after all, prostitutes had no real authority to object otherwise. Playwrights generally left the whore in the dust. Even the rebel Aphra Behn leaves her character, Angelica, the prostitute in The Rover, unmarried and unsupported. Angelica sums up her ending with, “He’s gone, and in this Ague of My Soul/ The shivering Fit returns” (Behn 74). Until recent history, men have not traditionally been excoriated in text or in life for having extra-marital sex (Garton).

The Wife Archetype portrayed social respectability, a role that centered around the affairs of domesticity and childrearing. In the lower classes (even today) the role of wife was (and is) synonymous with that of a slave worker. Ask any working wife trying to raise a family with a lower income about her life.

Historically, playwrights often used the role of slave or servant to ridicule the upper classes and speak to the heart of the matter i.e. in Aphra Behn’s, The Rover (1677), it is the servant Moretta that quips to the roguish Cavalier, “Your Linen stinks of the gun room” (35).

Reducing the sum of assigned roles/archetypes to women as “Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves” catalogues broad categories that reflect the female stock characters on stage and in life. By scrutinizing how playwrights in the West and elsewhere have used these archetypes throughout recorded history, the next extrapolation would suggest Goddess/Virgin, Whore/Sex-No-Marriage, Wife/Married, and Slave/Worker.

With ancient texts labeling women as the “root of all evil” (Kramer & Moore), it would seem that a discussion about women and their role in theatre should begin with an examination of language, segueing to a look at Euripides’ Medea, as an early example of Greek theatre to kick-off the discussion.

According to the earliest (male) writers of Greek antiquity, the Muses were goddesses of song and prophecy. They lived on Mount Helicon in Boeotia. The exact number of Muses and their parentage varies from source to source. Early on, there were three of them. Some claim that they were the children of Mnemosyne (memory), one of the few Titan relatives Zeus favored and found useful. The popular Greek poet Hesiod (7th century B.C.E.) was the first to name nine muses—all female. Later writers assigned them to nine branches of literature, art, and science (James).

The Musae

Erato – Erotic poetry
Urania – Astronomy
Polymnia – Sublime hymn
Melpomene – Tragedy
Euterpe – Lyric poetry
Thalia – Comedy and idyllic poetry
Calliope – Epic poetry
Clio – History
Terpsichore – Choral song and dance

It would seem from this that women were prominent in the original scheme of things, based on key positions of deity and power, but certain early male writers took umbrage as to why women even existed. Theories abound. One currently circulates that the act of writing and reading somehow rewired our brains, splitting the sexes into a power struggle that literate societies continue to wage. Non-literate aboriginal societies have typically not vilified women (Schlain).

Pomeroy suggests the advent of the city-state (polis) advanced a culture ruled by laws and courts, instead of tribal law. This city-state evolved outside of the home. This new realm of men excluded women whose realm of influence remained inside the walls of the home. “Misogyny was born of fear of women. It spawned the ideology of male superiority” (Pomeroy 97). Since records are sparse, historical context might be missing, but misogynistic examples are numerous in ancient texts, including the above mentioned Hesiod, who wrote in his Theogony that “Zeus who thunders on high made women to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil” (590-93).

One wonders if Hesiod was working off his angst after being jilted in love when he wrote that, but the Judaic canon written roughly about the same time corroborates the stiff sentiment with “in sorrow dost thou bear children, and toward thy husband [is] thy desire, and he doth rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16). Even Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the angelic doctor, refers to women as “defective and misbegotten” (Kramer).

Euripides’ Jason in Medea (431 B.C.E.) laments, “Life would be better without women if men could get children any other way” (564), and that was before Jason’s ex-wife, Medea, killed Jason’s virginal bride, the bride’s father, and his two young sons with Medea. Earlier versions of the Medea myth implicated an apparent unintentional killing of the children by the sorceress Medea during a ceremony to immortalize her sons. Another story blamed the Corinthians for killing the boys after Medea fled. Robert Graves catalogued the story about Euripides being bribed by Corinthian businessmen “with fifteen talents of silver to absolve them of guilt” (Graves 617).

Euripides upped the stakes by having Medea commit infanticide, which more than muddles the crimes committed by Jason. A mother killing her children betrays the most basic human interaction and therein the foundation of civic society.

It seems a girl can’t get a break from certain ancient writers.

PART 2: Next Week. Women Write, Too!


Behn, Aphra. The Rover. com. by Bill Naismith. GB: Methuen Drama, 1993.

Brockett, Oscar G. and Franklin J. Hildy. History of the Theatre. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2003.

Campbell, Joseph with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Case, Sue-Ellen. “Re-Viewing Hrotsvit.” Theatre Journal, Vol.35:4. Dec. 1983 533-42. 8 Feb 2008

duBois, Page. Sappho Is Burning. Chicago: UCP, 1995.

Garton, Stephen. Histories of Sexuality: antiquity to sexual revolution. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths: Complete Edition. London: Penguin Group, 1960.

James, Vanessa. The Genealogy of Greek Mythology. New York: Penguin Group, 2003.

Jung, Carl G. The Portable Jung. Ed. Joseph Campbell. New York: Penguin Group, 1976.

Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity. 5th Ed. New York: Inst. General Semantics, 1994.

Kramer, Daniel & Moore, Michael. “Women are the root of All Evil: The Misogyny of Religions.” Secular Web Modern Library 17 pp. 2002. 30 March 2008

May, Rollo. The Courage To Create. New York: Norton, 1994.

Murphy, Brenda, ed. American Women Playwrights. UK: Cambridge UP, 1999.

McDermott, Emily. Euripides’ Medea: The Incarnation of Disorder. USA: Penn State U., 1989.

Partnow, Elaine T. with Lesley Anne Hyatt. The Female Dramatist. New York: Facts On File, 1998.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken, 1995.

Schlissel, Lillian. Three Plays by Mae West: Sex, The Drag and Pleasure Man. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Shlain, Leonard. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. New York: Viking Penguin, 1998.

Theatre Theory Theatre: The Major Critical Texts from Aristotle and Zeami to Soyinka and Havel. Ed. Daniel Gerould. New York: Applause, 2000.

Watts, Jill. Mae West: An icon in Black and White. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.

Women writing Latin: from Roman antiquity to early modern Europe
. Ed. Churchill, Laurie J.; Brown, Phyllis R.; Jeffrey, Jane E.. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 8 Feb 2008.

© 2008 Conrad Reeder All Rights Reserved


Bless everyone’s hearts on this day of infamy. Shame on any politician who uses this tragedy for a campaign slogan. Shame on the politicians and their backers who used it for financial gain and perceived power.

I repeat, like Keith and a host of others, THE REPUBLICANS WERE IN CHARGE ON THIS DAY IN 2001. Why are they in office? Not only does the King have no clothes, the King has no conscious, no moral ground to stand on, and no credibility with anyone that has eyes to see, ears to hear, a brain to think, and a heart to feel.


Segovia – I found my eye gravitating to an old woman sitting in front of a building that is probably representative of the type that was torn down for the monstrosity of a gothic Cathedral built next to the Plaza Major in the 16th century.

She is scouting for potential sales among the turistas looking at her shawls. I obliged and bought two colorful crocheted items, a direct contrast to her own dark attire. Perhaps her husband is dead. Our guide, Miguel, said women, both Catholic and Muslim, are consigned to black in widowhood.

An elegantly dressed elder walked passed me with a small bright gold cross on his lapel, minus the Christ figure.

It seems his wife is alive, but of course, who would know since men have never been constrained by this black garb tradition. The people of Segovia, and Spain in general are a mixture of the stately, peasant, and entrepreneurial middle-class type. Not so different in that regard from populations everywhere.

Madrid – Parque del Buen Retiro – my refuge in the UNO workshop storm. My years living in Manhattan taught me the value of Nature in an urban environment.

The landscaping in Retiro Park feels more sculptured than Central Park, and Retiro seems to have more older trees; certainly not from rainfall that averages 17 inches a year (Manhattan gets about 47 inches), but from the springs and aquifer under the Madrid basin…more research. I did notice extensive sprinkler/watering systems in Retiro that water at night.

I found oak trees in Retiro that look over 300 years old, and the Cedars of Lebanon are very old and majestically tall with a canopy over 60 feet – at least 300 years. The plaque says they were brought from Lebanon in the 17th century. (Keith standing at the base of a cedar)

Mérida: Roman Theatre – The Temple of Diana – Roman ruins galore – Established in the year 25 BC with the name of Emerita Augusta by order of Emperor Augustus to protect a pass and bridge over the Guidiana River. Two legions of Romans settled here and built a cultural outpost. The Amphitheatre was the stage for bloody entertainment.

But, Roman culture is in my blood – and gene pool.
I love all things Roman!.


Gust – the whipping wind
wraps lovingly around dieing limbs,


life from the bondage of
limbo, a pale place between
alive and not quite dead.

Others not ready
to die – die anyway
cracked in two.

The splintered shards stab
at the free air.
The radar rumblings kick

dogs in the rear, lift
spirits out of a deep slumber.
Taken sand swirls in a twister

of wished potential – a
howling black melody skips over
cracks. A door bangs

to remind me the experience is shared.
The banging owns no
rhythm or rhyme.

The sound defies prediction.
Upper air balloons
fail to warn the

very people who set their
sails, while they sail away
to parts unkown conditions

deteriorate quickly.
The people, at this moment
in time, forget to care.

Like me, the people are
hiding in their safe room,
that place of phantom noises.

Fear breaks down the door;
the belching engine blows.
The Western Train Wall wails

and rolls over me.
Twitching, the grey squirrel
pauses briefly

at the unboarded window
to scrunch his teeny nose
as he scurries by for shelter.

To know what he knows
in his parallel world,
that would be something to know.

The Anima is a-walking
on a walk about,
cleaning house as she goes.

My sister calls to check.
“You’re alright?”
I think no – and say yes.

I’m not alright – but
I’m not all wrong either.
Two worriers fix naught.

And so I pray –
Once upon a time the wind stops.
The banging ends.


© October 24, 2005


The Emperor forgot to wear his clothes.
Constituents fell into clouds of Fools
from steaming golden leeks cooked in the pot
burned black, when the water boiled off sticky
temple tangled sentences with empty
words, while all the interns kissed the Lizard

of crossly Knights. Monkey shouted, “Lizard
get some air, and our leader back in cloth!”
Monkey gave up yelling at the empty
headed lights, floating up the Yangtze. Fools
don’t sense danger when their brains are sticky
cells of grey glop. They smoke a lot of pot,

and anyway the garden’s gone to pot.
Rabbits chewed the carrots and Lizard
Back-o-gammoned while the imps drove sticky
wagons on a search for royal clothing.
In looking high and looking low, the Fools
forgot, and sure enough the gas was empty.

The naked monarch screamed, “Find me empty
space! I need to piss rum, my, where’s my pot?”
Rum Man blamed the Monkey, who blamed the Fools
who always blame Rabbits hounding Lizard
smokin’ Cajun “Ah – EEE”- wearing silk clothes
from Barneys on Madison. He bought stick

dolls on three inch stilettos, who foolishly
thought they deserved a Hampton House of sticks
and bones – legends from the mist all Lizards
believe. Until the telling time empties
all trash, all waste into the sacred pots,
the Monkey wants the Emperor in clothes

now, before the Fools run off and empty
all the golden pots of sticky treasure
into pockets of Lizard who wears clothes.


Conrad Reeder
Copyright 2006
© All Rights Reserved