Alcestis, Penelope & Griselidis

Sophie Rochefort-Guillouet

There is a long tradition of praising women for virtues they supposedly demonstrate with abnegation if not willingly… as if these qualities were natural to them and essentially feminine. The modern avatar of that encomium is the care attitude women are said to be made for, in many aspects of modern life. I am always amazed when reading myths and fairy tales at the ability women had then to sacrifice themselves and to abide by laws or customs enforced by men in societies shaped according to their views on feminine behaviour. selected three characters, just to provide you with food for thought Alcestis, Penelope, and Griselidis. They may not be feminist icons but they still have a lot to tell us. Alcestis is not such a well-known heroin but her fate is worth recalling. She is the leading character of a tragedy by Euripides, named after her. She was the daughter of King Pelias who decided that he would not make things easy for Alcestis’ suitors.

A challenge was set up: only a man who would yoke a lion and a boar to a chariot would marry the beautiful Alcestis. Admetus stood up to the impossible task and, with the help of God Apollo, won the hand of the young girl. The newlywed Admetus forgot to perform a sacrifice to Artemis according to the rites and the goddess, angry at being deprived of an offering, sent snakes to coil on the bridal bed. This was definitely a bad omen, a portent of premature death. Apollo again came to the rescue, tricked the powerful Fates and got from them the promise that when the time comes, someone could volunteer to die instead of his friend. Confronted with death, Admetus was scared and not ready at all to pass away. He thus asked everyone around him to die for him but no one would, not even his parents, so he turned to Alcestis who did not think twice and agreed to suffer an early death to keep her husband alive.

The myth has it that Herakles owned Admetus a favour and decided to go down in the limbo of the underworld to challenge Hades. Alcestis was saved and restored to life, becoming the model of marital love and courage. The Greeks would not value Admetus’ attitude highly as he was not manly in this desperate attempt at escaping his fate but great praise would be given to Herakles whom literary wrestled with death to save Alcestis. Above all, the young woman was celebrated because she showed such bravery in her choice, an attitude is taken for granted but that was also considered both as feminine (Love is the very definition of a bride) and almost masculine (Women are supposed to be less courageous when facing death). Alcestis would later inspire many writers and poets, painters, sculptors and opera composers, always depicting her as a sweet and devoted heroine, lacking the fierce will to self-celebrate her own sacrifice. I am not so sure Admetus was worthy of dying for as he is often portraited as selfish and pusillanimous but I do like the sisterhood version of the myth that makes Persephone, herself abducted by Hades, pity Alcestis’fate and send her safe and sound back to the livings.

Penelope is a paragon of feminine virtue. Her story is told in the Odyssey by Homer. She married Ulysses and gave birth to Telemachus. Her husband left her in Ithaca while joining the Achaean expedition to Troy, under the leadership of Agamemnon and Menelaus. Menelaus ‘wife Helena had been abducted by Paris and all the Greek princes had sworn to bring her back to Sparta. The Trojan War lasted ten years and Poseidon’s wrath against Ulysses kept him away from his kingdom for ten years more. During that long period, Penelope remained faithful to her husband and administrated rightfully his domain in spite of the suitor's claims for her hand. She would weave during the day a tapestry that she would undo at night as she had been forced to swear that she would marry one of the suitors gathered at the court when the tapestry would be completed. Melantho, a servant, betrayed her and told Antinous about the stratagem. Penelope had thus to agree to marry the prince who would shoot an arrow with Ulysses’ bow through twelves axes.

The hero who had secretly returned and stood in disguise in the hall would, at last, succeed in using the bow, reveal his identity and kill both the suitors and dishonest servants to the last. Penelope’s part is now played, she is to live happily with Ulysses. In art, she is easy to recognise: she is always depicted as a mature person, calmly seated, leaning her cheek on her hand and with crossed knees, reflecting on her long chastity. Roman authors such as Ovid, Propertius, Horatius Martial, also celebrated her as the model of fidelity. Saint Jerome, a Father of the Church, praised her among pagan feminine characters for her long and enduring patience. Things will be a little different when Margaret Atwood will rewrite the Odyssey in 2005. This time the narrative is told by Penelope herself in The Penelopiad. Ulusses’wife and the condemned disloyal servants will have their say and - in a rather feminist way - retell the history we know so well about from a patriarchal tradition. Life in Ithaca could be so boring while Ulysses enjoyed the excitement of so many perils. Double standards are also denounced: Ulysses had many adventures not to mention extramarital affairs, especially with Circe, while it was expected from his lawful wife to remain chaste and devoted to her absent husband… while weaving endlessly.

Griselidis is my last heroine. Her story was invented by French writer Charles Perrault, a classical author famous and celebrated for his books of fairy tales, who wrote in 1691 La Marquise de Salusses ou la Patience de Griselidis. He took his inspiration from Griselda, a character in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Griselidis is a fair young shepherdess whose beauty attracts to her a Prince reluctant to matrimony. He marries her. Happy ending ? not quite… This is only the beginning of the story. They would not live happily ever after because the prince is almost demented at the idea that his wife did not marry him for love but to secure a position in life and would betray him if she could. In the prologue, the maniac prince blamed the frivolity and unfaithfulness of all women and, once married, grew melancholy and started suspecting Griselidis of all kind of treasons.

The poor woman had to undergo moral torture and almost physical abuse as her husband tried to make her acknowledge how vile and treacherous she was. He shut her up in a room, took her daughter away from her, sent her in exile in a forest hermitage, abuse her verbally. Eventually, he would admit the truth and rehabilitate his blameless wife. Yet, don’t wait for excuses from him nor for praises for his wife’s long martyrdom. Griselidis forgives him for every ordeal she went through and will obviously be content to live as a happy wife with that neurotic prince for the rest of her life. She remains modest even in her triumph. The conclusion is “Good wives have patience and no grunge.”French composer Jules Massenet will reinterpret the popular tale for a libretto and stage with great success an opera named Griselidis in 1891. At that time already, the catalogue of Christian virtues displayed by the young woman will seem in excess and Massenet will create a third character to explain the Prince abnormal and quasi lunatic behaviour.

The Devil himself bets with the Prince that his wife will not suffer unfair persecution without taking revenge by being disloyal to him. Yet, in an admirable job-like resistance and with an unbreakable love for the Prince, Griselidis will survive all trials and inflicted sorrows till the Devil has to recognise his defeat. Perrault did not support the attitude of the Prince he described several times as cruel and inhuman. He also admitted that Griselidis has to suffer only for two reasons: the necessity to obey her husband and the obligation to suffer without complaining all evil that God has in store for her. Let’s keep in mind that PASSION and PATIENCE have the same etymology : the verb PATI in Latin meaning TO SUFFER. After the works by Boccaccio, Christine de Pisan, Petrarch, Chaucer, Griselidis can still hope for a modern reading of her sad story, as it is a vivid reminder of abusing situations so many women have to deal with. I leave you with a quote by Shakespeare to reflect on : “Frailty thy name is woman,” by another fatidic prince, not from mythological Greece nor from the Provencal south of France during medieval times but from Denmark and soon to trigger yet another tragedy.